Labitudes: Conversations with Zena

by Lee Gant


She was a thief.

Not an accidental thief — like when you're at the supermarket next to the display of doughnuts and the aroma of fried bread is so intoxicating that you pluck a blue tissue, and then you eat the sugary treat and forget to pay for it kind of thief…. she stole things with a purpose. And then she had the gall to bring them to you, all proud, to show you what she'd accomplished and wait for your reaction. Sometimes, she would hide her stolen goods so well that I wouldn't have known, except for the fact that she would stand in front of me with her tail circling her behind like the propeller on a P-51. 


I hate to admit this, but she was a replacement dog. Her predecessor had been put down three months prior, and in her absence, the neighborhood cats began tormenting the finches in my backyard feeder. In the mornings, I would stand with my back to the bed, my folded arms resting on the windowsill and my forehead stuck to the glass, hoping to catch a glimpse of the caramel lab that I knew wasn’t coming back. On this day, all I saw was a fat grey cat perched on the fence among the twisted grapevines, leaning forward towards the feeder. Ginger would have had a great game of chase if she was here, and my cat problem would have been solved. And so I complained again …about the poor birds.
    “I’m not ready for another dog,” my husband said.
From his chair in the corner, Bill pulled on a brown Dockers sock. I turned when he spoke — both angered and saddened by his admission, and then turned back to the empty November yard. 
    “Well…,” I said, “while you’re at work and the kids are at school, I’m home all alone all day and I don’t have anybody to talk to.” I ran my finger in circles through the fog from my breath on the window and then wiped at the corner of my eye.
    “Fine,” he said softly. Three months of complaining had worn him down. “Go ahead and get a dog.” 
I waited for a second to see if he really meant what I thought I heard. “But we can’t get another dog from Bob because both of his dogs have cancer.” The breeder is a friend of ours, who had given us the pick of the litter. We brought her home at five weeks old and lost her just before her seventh birthday.

I knew there would never be another Ginger, but I held onto hope, because I wanted one. I wanted a yellow lab who would walk next to me with no leash attached and come back with a whistle when called. I wanted one who would bring home enough sticks and bits of trees from the swollen creek waters behind the house to start a bonfire, and then at night, one who would lay next to me on the bed and make it impossible to pull the covers all the way up over my back. I wanted a yellow lab who would fetch a tennis ball and drop it on command, so the fun never ended. I wanted soft ears to pet when I needed them, and someone to automatically understand my deepest thoughts. Purebred puppies were expensive. 
“…so we’ll have to find one from somewhere else.” Bill kissed me as he tucked in his shirt. He was always reading my mind.

I didn’t want to get a dog from someone I didn’t know. My parents raised boxers when I was a kid and I’d heard my share of horror stories about puppy mills, so searching the newspaper was out. I was afraid to consider rescuing from the pound, as I had enough trouble taking care of my own mental problems and didn’t think I had it in me to know how to fix a dog who might have been mistreated. Besides, I wanted to be the sole master…the alpha, for once in my life. And then I remembered Tawny.

I met her at a knitting retreat, a yellow lab wearing a blue coat sleeping on a braided rug. 
Her owner was hearing impaired and Tawny helped her with balance issues. Elaine explained about the ‘breeder caretaker’ program; how Canine Companions would give a dog for free and in exchange, you would give them a few litters of puppies. 


    “Canine Companions, this is Cindy, how may I help you?” 
    “I just lost…my lab…she just died and I’m…” I can’t finish my sentence, stymied by the choke of tears. 
Cindy waits for a second and bails me out. “I’m so sorry,” she says, and lets me sob through explaining how I lost my Ginger and how I’m looking for another lab and I heard that Canine Companions gives a mother dog to people in need. “We have dogs,” she said. “In fact, we have one right now that we need to place. She’s been here a few months and needs a home.” I don’t remember to pay attention to what she says next, only the time of the appointment for someone to come and check out my house…to see if I’m a good candidate for raising a dog.
A lady brings her dog, Nala to my house and I pass the test.

Two weeks feel like an eternity. After dropping my twelve-year-old twins at school I vacuum old dog hair and clean nose prints off windows. I buy dog toys and bones and biscuits and a fleece bed from Costco fit for a queen. Tennis balls…a dog needs tennis balls. I'm adopting. What if we're not a good fit? What if she doesn’t like me? What if I don't like the way she looks? I worry that she might not be the right one. She’s almost two years old. What then? Do you say no-thank-you and wait for a different dog? Extra anxiety consumes me and after I finish shopping and cleaning, I sit and knit more than my usual daily dosage. 

The day has come. I arrive at the Northern California Canine Companion campus, ten minutes from my house and sit in my van, as I am thirty-three minutes early. I pat-pat my chest in a circular motion to get my heart to slow down; I can feel my pulse beating in the back of my head. I am here to get a dog… a lab, a yellow lab. I sit and wait and try to imagine the outcome of it all. Nothing could have prepared me for what happens next.


Chapter One

Cindy greets me from behind the front desk. Pictures of handsome dogs hang on walls everywhere, beautiful black and yellow labs and golden retrievers, some with fluff-ball puppies, others dressed in blue coats— a calendar to the left of the door fills the space with dogs at the sides of companions in wheelchairs. I walk slowly past them to the office of Esther Molina, the volunteer coordinator for Canine Companions Breeder Caretaker program. Her door is ajar and the first thing I see is a wide head with brown eyes connected to a large black dog on a fleece pad under her desk…the whole space under the desk is occupied by Bauman. Esther directs me to sit down and allows Bauman to ‘release’, and then I gingerly pat his big head. Not that I don't like black labs, I just prefer yellow…and the only reason I can think of is that they're easier to photograph and yellow fur matches the décor in my living room. I don't remember much of our conversation, as my mind is whirring with the idea that my new dog will be appearing soon. Esther hands me a paper with directions and commands and the rules of caretaker protocol. I hadn't thought of directions and I forgot that this dog would come with rules. Puppies are part of the rules. Five litters of puppies will be the most fun I've ever had, and my kids will get to know the joy that I had growing up in a puppy pen. Esther’s walkie-talkie crackles and she speaks to someone from the kennel out back. 

    “She’s getting blow dried now? We’re ready, send her out when she’s done.” I feel floaty, like I might be in a cloud or something. Esther stands and opens the door. I stand and ready myself to follow, and then a flash of white catches my eye and chaos charges at me from an opened door down the hall. “Zena, wait…wait!” A leash flails behind what I assumed would be my new yellow lab. Esther grabs the leash and brings her into the office and I might be in a state of shock because I’m not expecting such a white dog, (is she albino?) with a pink eraser nose, nor a name as odd as Zena. I sit down and she sits in front of me and Ester says “Zena, up” and she plows onto my lap and then I look into her eyes. They close slightly as I cup both hands around the tops of her ears, and while her cheek muscles pull her mouth into a grin, I stroke her ears a few times, gently, softly, and I am dripping with content. I push my face close to hers and she smells fresh, like wet dog and shampoo. We are nose to nose, and then her sandpaper tongue scrapes a path from my chin to my eyebrows. We’ve just had our first conversation and I can’t remember a word I said.

With a blue leash snapped around her neck, Zena heels properly at my side during the thirty-second walk to the van. We pass another lab and his owner and neither dog acknowledges the other. My chest swells a little at the mere thought of a well-trained dog…this is going to be a piece of cake. I unlock the passenger door and she leaps up into the captain’s seat and then steps across to the driver’s side where she parks herself behind the steering wheel. She looks at me and waits. I am trying not to laugh.

    “No, you need to sit over here…right here on this side.” I pat the passenger seat and she does as she’s told, hopping over the console looking gloriously happy, and when she sits, the tip of her tail wriggles like a little worm. I tuck the bit of fur under her rear end and close the door. “We're going home,” I say out loud, and start the car.

Click here to learn more about master knitter Lee, her book, Love in Every Stitch: Stories of Knitting and Healing, and Lee Gant Knits at