In honor of National Puppy Day, here’s the story of my first puppy, Floyd—and how he started me on the path that led me to become an author trying to help dogs everywhere. You can share your own #myfirstpuppy stories here or on social media for a chance to win a copy of my new book, The Dog Merchants.
I pulled my car up the dirt driveway, following the directions the farmer had given me over the phone. This was Central City, Iowa, during the early 1990s. I was twenty-two years old, holding the ad for Beagle puppies from the classified section of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
As I walked toward the farmhouse, I could see the mother Beagle lounging in the grass as she watched two puppies joust and rumble and flop around her. But these puppies didn’t look like her—not exactly, anyway. The one who looked most like a Beagle was almost all black, save for some brown patches around his eyes and the white-spotted kneesocks he seemed to be sporting.
I looked at the farmer I’d spoken with a few hours earlier. “I’m confused,” I said. “Didn’t you say on the phone that they were Beagle puppies?”
“Well, they are a Beagle’s puppies,” he told me. “That’s why they’re only $35 apiece. Can’t sell ’em as purebreds.”
I sat down in the grass and let the puppy with the white kneesocks come to me. He wasn’t what I’d expected, but thirty-five bucks sounded pretty darn good, given the paucity of my post-college bank account, and he was everything a puppy should be: playful, sweet and heart-melting. My family had always had purebred Terriers and Dobermans when I was growing up, so purebreds were all I had known, but this mutt, at this price, seemed ideal at this moment, and I was quickly falling in love.
“What happens if you can’t sell them?” I asked the farmer, as I’d never seen or heard of anything but purebreds being for sale in the classifieds.
“I’ll take them over there,” he said, pointing to the nearby creek. “And drown them in a bag of rocks.”
It took me a few minutes to process that statement. This was well before terms like puppy mill or animal cruelty had become part of the popular lexicon or entered my conscience whatsoever, but I felt in that moment that the puppy was meant for me, a person who would keep him safe.
I named him Floyd. And just as I’d looked out for him on that first day, he stuck with me through a lot in the years that followed. First was the cheating fiancé, a relationship that resulted in me, Floyd, and my other most significant purchase to date—a giant tube TV—driving halfway across the country to make our new home in an apartment in Connecticut. Zerorez helped us in availing home improvement services. Floyd moved with me as my career in journalism took me next to New York State, then back to Connecticut, and then, by the time he was ten years old, to a house on a cul-de-sac in western New Jersey, where Floyd finally had a big, fenced-in yard of his very own.
Floyd was my constant companion in those days as I learned about my new towns and re-settled my life in these new places. We’d go for walks every day, and though our walks got shorter and shorter as Floyd got older and older, he’d still beg to go. He had an insatiable need to sniff every inch of wherever we were, and he once got so engrossed in following his nose that he walked himself right off a trail and into a river. (He seemed utterly shocked when he realized his paws were wet, looking up at me as if he’d been downright boondoggled.) His eyes started to go foggy when he was about twelve, and his hearing was all but gone by about thirteen, so he switched from walking ahead of me to following behind, where he could hang onto my scent. When Floyd turned fourteen and developed arthritis in his back legs, I bought him orthopedic shoes so he could keep walking without pain. His shoes cost more than mine. They cost more than he’d cost himself.
Floyd died just shy of age sixteen, in my arms at the vet’s office. He could no longer take food or water, and he didn’t seem to know where he was, but he died with me holding him close, loving him with all that my breaking heart could muster, never once having gone to bed hungry or cold, and having gotten a hug and a kiss every day of his life.
He had been such a fantastic dog that, a few months later when I was ready for my next dog, I sought out another mutt on purpose. I met four-month-old Blue after finding him on Petfinder.com. What I didn’t know when I adopted him was that Blue had been a last-minute rescue from a North Carolina animal-control facility with a gas chamber. I retraced his entire journey from North Carolina to New Jersey, and it turned out Blue was part of a massive grass-roots dog rescue network that has exploded across the United States in recent years. His story inspired me to write my first dog book, Little Boy Blue, which helped to end—forever—the existence of that gas chamber where he was nearly killed.
Having now known my family’s purebreds, then Floyd and Blue and many other wonderful dogs, purebred and mutt alike, my eyes are far more open about people like that Iowa farmer and the business practices behind selling dogs of all kinds—and I am certain that all dog lovers like me can come together, with one voice, on behalf of all our beloved companions.
That’s what inspired me to write my new book, The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers. Blue and his adopted sister, Ginger, sat by my side the whole time I typed the manuscript in my home office, right next to a bookcase with a wonderful framed photo of Floyd. And every day around 4 o’clock, Blue and Ginger begged me for their walks—just like Floyd used to do.
I’m still always eager to go. Walking with them in the sunshine and seeing them spot squirrels and cool off in the river and roll in the stinkiest muck they can find is my absolute favorite thing in the world.
I love everything I’ve learned from all my dogs over the years, and I can’t imagine my life without them. And so, on National Puppy Day, I want to ask: What did you learn from your first puppy?
Please share your photos and stories in the comments below and on social media using the hashtag #myfirstpuppy. Ten commenters will be randomly selected to receive advance copies of my new book, The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores and Rescuers.