When this 9-day-old puppy settled right into my arms, I knew I’d found my pup — or did my pup found me?
It was 4:00 a.m. on Sunday, January 9, 2021, and I was wide awake.
I wanted to jump into my truck and make the 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh to Punxsutawney, PA — home of the famous weather prognosticator Phil the Groundhog — to choose my new puppy, but it was way too early to get started.
Finally, at 5:30 a.m. I couldn’t take it anymore. I made a mug of coffee, jumped in my truck and hit the road.
It was cold and dark as I drove along abandoned suburban roads. I drove through downtown Pittsburgh to get onto the two-lane road that led to Punxy, as we refer to it, and the entire city was still asleep — everyone but me, a middle-aged fellow turned into a 10-year-old boy!
I kept looking at the mileage and location, eager to get to my destination and greet a litter of puppies.
The odometer moved like I as driving five miles and hour. The minutes on the clock went by like hours.
It was truly one of the longest drives of my life!
When I arrived in Punxsutawney it was only 7:00 a.m. I went into a McDonald’s a few blocks from where the puppies were, got a cup of coffee and tried pointlessly to get some writing work done on my computer as I killed time.
But all I could think about was the monumental change the massive disruption I was going to experience in my way-too-little-responsibility 58-year-old life.
Doubts of Middle-Aged Man
How I ended up at this age without children or a wife — I should have had a least one divorce under my belt by now, my friends like to joke — is a puzzle to me and people close to me.
Out of my group of high school friends — we are all still very close — I was the one who wanted to marry young and have a big brood.
My best friend growing up wanted neither — and here he is long married to his wonderful wife Mary, with three awesome, accomplished children and a granddaughter, whereas I had been, for the last few years, living high on a hill on the edge of the country isolated and alone.
None of us know how our lives will turn it. We have a good bit control over our choices, but in my life the clear desire to marry and start a family with some of the very lovely women I have been lucky to know was, funny as it may sound, never as clear to me as my decision to bring a puppy into my life.
And so I never was able to marry, but I was able to jump into my truck and go pick out my puppy.
Still, that morning, I did worry some: Am I doing the right thing? Do I want the responsibility of a puppy, whose entire life and well-being will depend solely on the care and love I provide?
Such are the wishy-washy thoughts of middle-aged man who has a long history of fleeing long-term commitments every chance he had to embrace one — a fool who ran so often and so hard, he never thought to look back and realize that nobody was much interested in chasing him anymore!
At 9:30 a.m., antsy and restless, I could wait no longer. I drove two blocks to the home of Mike and Maryanne.
When I pressed the doorbell button, canine hell erupted. Powerful, healthy Labrador barking shook the house, and the porch where I stood, to its rafters.
The door opened and Mike, a tall, kindly gentlemen in his late 60s, invited me to come in — though getting by Tank, the brown-haired Lab dad who was 100 pounds of muscle, and Sunny, the yellow-haired Lab mom, who had long legs and a lean frame of 80 pounds, would be no easy feat.
Both dogs greeted me with wagging tails, curiosity and lots of licking, but they eventually let me enter.
I petted them both and fell in love with them both immediately.
Tank was aptly named. He is masculine with a large angular head and the disposition of a dog who is head of the pack. Mike, an outdoorsman who loves to hunt with Tank, would later describe him as the smartest, most capable dog he ever had, and he’s had many.
Sunny was aptly named, too. She is sweet, joyful and feminine — but feisty, determined and, Maryanne would later tell me, way too smart and stubborn for her own good. Sunny doesn’t take crap from anyone — least of all Tank.
As we descended down to the puppy pen in the basement, I thought Sunny might be overly-protective of her pups, but she was incredibly gracious with me — as though she already determined she knew I was a good choice to give one of her pups a loving and happy home.
It’s true that that is exactly what I would do for Thurber.
It’s also true that, at that moment, I couldn’t have been more ill-prepared to go about the “science” of choosing the best pup.
I Had No Idea What I Was Doing
Mike had set up a pen in the middle of his large, unfinished basement with short plywood walls to keep the healthy nine-pup litter from roaming free.
He’d told me the day before that five pups had already been chosen by others, that the girl pups always were taken first, and that I had my choice of four boys.
That was fine with me.
My thinking was that a male dog would be a better watch dog, which would be a welcome addition to my rural home, where it gets awfully dark at night.
I did not yet know that both male and female dogs are equally skilled at watch-dog tasks.
I didn’t know that I should have been evaluating the pups in an objective, unemotional manner — I should be looking for potential health issues.
Nor did I know I should have been evaluating Tank and Sunny, the parents, carefully looking for temperament, intelligence, etc.
What I also didn’t know was that I should have been evaluating Mike and Maryanne. What kind of breeders were they? What did they feed the pups?
I didn’t do any due diligence in the puppy-picking process — no reading or research on how best to do it, no nothing! — but as dumb luck would have it, I would pick an amazing puppy.
I would become one of the luckiest dog dads in the world, blessed by one of the most loving, wonderful, intelligent and silly pups I ever could have dreamed of.
Did I Pick Thurber or Did He Pick Me?
Here’s how I went about picking Thurber. There were four pups left, all yellow males, and I didn’t even bother to consider the first one I saw.
“We call this one Yipper,” said Mike, pointing to little guy, his eyes still closed. “He barks all day long.”
“I’ll pass on him,” I said, thinking about how difficult it would be to sit in my home office trying to write all day with my puppy barking at every provocation.
“Mickey is still available,” said Mike, picking up a little guy with a light blue ribbon around his neck.
As Mike set him into my arms, the little guy squirmed and grunted. He was hungry and tired and his discomfort was loud and clear.
“Let’s try puppy three,” I said.
Mike picked up a little guy wearing a red lace ribbon, a pup they called Archie, and he squirmed and grunted even more.
I knew that these little guys were so new to life all they wanted or could thick about was food and cuddling with their siblings.
Still, rejection is rejection and both of them made me feel rejection loudly and clearly.
And Then I Met Willy
“Willy is the last one,” said Mike, as he bent down to put Archie back and pick the orange-collared Willy up and hand him to me.
Like the first two I’d held, Willy’s eyes were closed shut and he was cranky, hungry and tired — until Mike set him in my arms.
Unlike the first two, Willy settled in instantly contented — he stopped squirming and yipping immediately.
I could feel his little soul interact with mine — it was though he knew instantly and fully that I would love him and care for him with everything I had for the rest of his earthly life.
Did I pick him or did he pick me?
I truly believe we picked each other on that moment.
“This little guy is my pup!” I proclaimed, so happy to know that Willy — who I would rename Thurber — invited me into his life fully and forever, as I invited him into mine.
I could have held him in my arms all day that way, but Mike and I had paperwork to do upstairs.
Regrettably, it was time for me to drive back home — where I would experience the longest 6 ½ weeks of my life, waiting for my pup to become eight weeks old, so I could drive back to Punxy and bring him home!