Opening the Heart’s Floodgates, With a Paw

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Modern Love

The quiet young man had come to me looking for love, ideally at first sight. I asked my usual questions about his work, where he lived, how he spent his free time. I asked about his great loves of the past, what had worked, or not worked, in those relationships. Then I asked how he felt about being jumped on, slobbered on or getting mud all over his couch.

“I’m O.K. with that,” he said. “Can I meet Chance?”

Ah, Chance. The young lab-mix, with a puppy’s zeal for life, who loved to chew on the shelter volunteers’ hands as we leashed him.

“Behave yourself for once,” I urged Chance as I opened the kennel.

He was quiet as I slipped on a harness, but when we turned to leave he began to buck wildly. My heart sank. Then I saw the face of the young man waiting by the door. He’d gone all moony. He only had eyes for Chance.

Much to my surprise, I have become a matchmaker. On Saturday afternoons I pull on my gray T-shirt and head to the Animal Rescue League of Boston, where I help people find their canine soul mates amid the barky din. Doing this work, I’ve not only learned how to pair up people and canines, I have received a master class in the expansiveness of the human heart, a lesson that I very much needed.

Being a matchmaker was never my plan. I began volunteering at the shelter to help dogs. Just dogs. And the more time I spent with the dogs, the more my love for my fellow man withered.

At the shelter, I walked dogs that had been abandoned for trivial reasons or for no reason at all. I cared for pups that had been tied to utility poles on the street in wintertime, others so thin they had to wear coats in balmy spring weather, lacking the body mass to stay warm at 60 degrees. The more I walked these dogs, the more I became an animal person.

To be called an animal person is not necessarily a compliment, not when it implies that you love animals with a passion matched only by how much you loathe your own species. Animal people can be judgmental, self-righteous and cranky, all of which I was becoming.

As I spent more time at the shelter, I found that I became less patient with human beings, even my sweet husband. Walking the dogs would cheer me up, but my mood would darken as I fixated on the stupidity and carelessness of my fellow Homo sapiens. On the subway ride home I often caught myself frowning at strangers on the train.

Then I realized that if I truly wanted to help the dogs, I needed to do more than exercise or comfort them. I had to help them get out of the shelter faster, before kennel life turned them into whirling dervishes that no one would adopt. So I asked to be trained to introduce dogs to their potential adopters.

In the early going, helping with adoptions made my dismal opinion of people worse: I had to answer too many silly questions (“What are those droopy things on her belly?”) and field nonsensical requests (“I want a dog I can crate 12 hours a day, but who will run with me on weekends.”)

Then one Saturday afternoon I noticed a young, outdoorsy couple walking down the row of kennels, stopping to say hello to each dog. I asked if they wanted to meet one.

“Can we meet Ciera?” the man asked.

“Ciera?” I squeaked. “Really? I mean yes, of course you can.”

No one ever asked to see Ciera, a young mutt with skinny legs that went this way and that. Shiny and black, like a seal, she was cute but regularly pooped right in her kennel, then ran back and forth in it. She thought it was fun to grab your arm with her small mouth, hard, or if you dared sit on the floor, pounce on your head. She zoomed around her kennel as if on amphetamines.

This was her big chance. I didn’t want to mislead this couple about what a nut she was, but I did want her to find a home. I asked them to follow me to a bare-bones room with a stained rug and couch.

“Why don’t we stand?” I suggested.

As I began reading the notes on Ciera out loud, I dropped her leash and hoped for the best. She began ricocheting around the room, bouncing off the couch, the bookcases and the man’s legs as her leash snapped behind her. She was an air-bound blur of black, her mouth wide open, joy in her eyes. On one pass, she ripped my clipboard out of my hand and kept running.

As I muffled a sigh, the couple laughed. Hard. I looked up. Their faces glowed.

“I love her,” the man said.

“Me too,” said the woman. “We want her.”

Everyone knows that dogs can be firehose-like gushers of unqualified love. Humans, in contrast, have always struck me more as takers than givers, fickle lovers who are cagey with their affections and hearts. But in watching people tumble for goofballs like Ciera, I saw that my own species longs, maybe even needs, to gush unqualified love too, something we rarely do with other humans, even with a mate.

A dog may eat our Italian loafers but will never ghost us, or say, “We need to have a talk.” With them, we can let it all hang out. At the shelter, that’s what people did with our one-eyed pugs, our ancient hounds with bald patches and juveniles who hopped like kangaroos.

Watching people fall in love so completely with dogs, I began to see how humans long to give their hearts away.

Of course, there are outliers: cool customers set on French bulldogs of a certain shade, or people who turn up their noses at pit bulls, even the smoosh-mouthed little “pittie puppies.” And the difficulties of human relationships can keep the love from flowing.

I spent one afternoon introducing one small dog after another to a doughy man and his wife. As the man sighed happily at each pooch, his wife ran her hand over the dog’s coat, then sniffed her manicured fingers to check on her allergies.

“Not him. He’s making me sniffle.”

By the end of the afternoon, the man was sitting in the lobby with his head in his hands while his wife dug her fingers into a tangle of white fur named William.

“You’re breaking my heart,” he moaned.

I wanted to tell him to take William and leave the wife behind.

But most of us are like the middle-aged couple who came in looking for a mellow, pint-size dog to fit in their one-bedroom, beachside apartment. We had no miniatures that day, but on a long shot I pointed the men to a good-natured shepherd mix with a coat like a shag rug, about the size of a motorcycle.

“He might take up half the couch,” I told them, “but he’ll happily lounge all day.”

“He’s gigantic!” one exclaimed, smiling.

“We should go,” the other said.

For the next hour, each time I walked in and out of the kennels, there stood the couple, beaming at the behemoth. Watching them fall for the fuzzy giant — a dog completely at odds with what they claimed to want — I felt the remaining coldness in my heart for my species begin to thaw.

I wanted to help them. I wanted to help people do what they so obviously needed to do: love wholeheartedly, with reckless abandon. I had always thought of love as a response, but this couple and others showed me that it’s an innate feeling, something we are born with, and need to express.

Many of us have more love inside than we know what to do with, but are too bottled up. Which is where dogs can come in. With them, we can let our love flow freely without fear of being judged or rejected. They are like safety valves.

They certainly had become that for me. But as I saw the couple making kissy noises to the shepherd through his kennel door, I realized I had relied on dogs for this to a fault. With human, I had bottled myself up. And love doesn’t like to be bottled up. That’s how you end up frowning at strangers on the train.

Watching people fall in love is contagious. I began to swoon at the whole scene. I loved the dog. I loved the couple.

“O.K., time you all met,” I announced, grabbing a leash.

Soon after, the three of them went home together, to try to squeeze into their cozy apartment. I returned to the kennels to help more people toss their hearts away.