I spied him in the window of a New York City shelter, as I walked home from Chinatown with my small son. The dog was furry and black, the size and shape of a meat loaf, with the type of crooked underbite you see only in cartoons -- a creature so homely that he was cute. His name was Lil Sweet, which may as well have been tattooed on my heart. It was love at first sight.
When we went inside, the shelter employee eyeballed my younger son, who was 3 years old at the time. She shook her head. "Not a family dog, this one. You're better off with one of those," she said. She pointed to two sturdy puppies in the other window that were playfully attacking their bed.
Reluctantly, I held one -- a female with a brindle coat, a white stripe on her nose, and a spot of white on her chest. Her name was Jitterbug. She had recently survived several surgeries after someone found her gravely ill in a box on the street. She had been at the shelter just a few days, but she was already everyone's favorite, thanks to her extraordinarily gentle disposition. She nuzzled my neck the way a human baby would.
I asked what breed she was. There was a pause. "A pit mix," the shelter employee said. And that was that. I couldn't imagine a pit bull as our family dog.
We weren't even looking for a dog. Two years before, we had lost the dog I had "married into," a Jack Russell that was two parts crocodile, one part wildebeest -- and who, in his old age, had given my older son a dog phobia.
Yet I found myself returning to the shelter several times that week with my family just to visit Jitterbug. To my great concern, we were falling for her. As my older son shyly pet her, I saw his fear melt away. At dinner that night, we took a family vote, and the next morning, we brought Jitterbug home.
I could not sleep for two weeks. I had impulsively walked into a shelter for one dog and ended up with another; a pit bull, no less. If you search online for "pit bull," you will, of course, find some unpleasant information. What I wasn't expecting, however, was link after link of info to the contrary, as well. Veterinarians, trainers, dog walkers, and other experts -- the majority come to the same conclusion: The breed gets a bad rap.
We introduced Jitterbug to my parents through Skype. I told them she was a mutt. Leaning in toward his screen, my dad sputtered, "Lisa, that's a pit bull!" They both pleaded with me to take the dog back.
Though it may not have been love at first sight, it is a love that has lasted. Two years after the adoption, Jitterbug is a dream dog -- a goofy, affectionate, well-behaved mush. She licks babies. She lets our ancient skin-and-bones Persian cat boss her around. She cuddles with my boys and tolerates her fair share of ear tugging, wrestling, and being dressed in superhero capes and soccer jerseys. She stole the show at show-and-tell, with 20 pairs of first-graders' hands on her all at once.
Now and then, Lil Sweet pops into my mind the way an old boyfriend might. I hope he's happy and that he found his own family after leading Jitterbug to ours.
How to Find a Match
October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. Before you bring home a canine companion, consider these helpful tips to find the right dog for your family.
"Shelter animals are not damaged goods; most are given up for reasons that have nothing to do with the pet, such as a family's finances," says Tiffany Lacey, executive director of the Animal Haven shelter in New York City.
Take a Test-Drive
"Most shelters will let potential adopters spend time with a dog or take it on a walk," says Katrina Krings, a dog trainer and animal-behavior specialist. "Don't be afraid to ask the staff questions about the dog. These people know the dog best."
Get an Evaluation
Inquire about the dog's behavior evaluation, something every shelter should do. Although evaluations aren't 100 percent accurate, they help eliminate biases based on breed and instead focus on behavior so a pet can be placed appropriately.
"People come in thinking they know exactly what they want -- it can only be a Pomeranian, or it must be a specific color or sex," says Lacey. Instead, she suggests you match the energy level of the dog to your lifestyle.