I looked at the senior dog I had just picked up from a shelter. She looked at me. We sat there for a moment, sizing each other up.
"What's your name?" I wondered aloud. She tilted her head quizzically from the canine booster seat behind me in the transport van. She'd been a pet, probably purchased from a breeder as a very small puppy. Now at 11 years of age, they dumped her in a shelter where she likely would have died had no rescue come forward to take her. No one had bothered to leave her name with the staff, and I guess they hadn't asked.
My rescue does not accept many pets. The ones we do take or old or disabled - otherwise, they're easily adopted from the shelters, no need to call us. I always feel much worse for the pets than I do the puppymill survivors, for whom abandonment by their owners is a step UP.
What kind of person has a dog for nine, 10, 12 years and simply drops them at their local shelter? I ask myself that almost daily. I've yet to arrive at a simple answer. I picture this dog being lifted into the car by her owner, completely trusting. What did she think when they walked through the shelter door and she heard the barking, the wails from the kennels? How did she feel when she smelled the multitude of animals, the fear, the confusion? Or watching her owner walk away from a decade of unconditional love without so much as a glance back?
The fact that these senior dogs even survive that kind of experience is a testament to their incredible strength. Might it have been a tiny bit less awful if someone had said, "Hello, Gracie (or Chloe or Muffin)". Would she have thought, "She knows me", and felt some connection in a world of chaos? How little effort would it have taken to ensure that someone there knew her name?
To some rescued dogs, names are not an issue. My heart is with puppymill survivors, the victims of human avarice. If they have names, they don't know them. My house is almost always the first place they learn to recognize a name as their own and respond to it.
When I do take in a former pet like this one - sitting in my van, glad to be out of the kennel, but still wondering what will happen next - I know she already has a name. But it's locked inside her speechless head where I cannot reach it.
Some adopters change a dog's name - I guess they feel differently about the import of that act. My rule is this: If he or she knows the name, I do not change it. There are rare exceptions (puppymillers seem fond of naming black pugs "Sambo"). But if the name is acceptable and the dog knows it, I figure they've been through enough, why rattle them any further? Changing a dog's name-that-it-knows is an exercise in human ego. Some people argue that the dog is starting a new life and needs a new name, which can sound like it has some merit. But again, that's the human perspective - I say, try looking at it from the dog's point of view. It's the one familiar thing they have, and you're taking it away?
I have another rule about names: I always use human names for my rescues. Somewhere deep in my soul, I hope that having a human name will make it harder for anyone to ever again treat them as objects. Does it work? I honestly don't know, but it's my theory and I'm sticking to it.
Looking at the dog sitting behind me, I play a guessing game. "Betty? Maggie? Tinkerbelle?" She's as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa.
"Ginny," I state. She seems to like it. In a few days she will recognize it as her own. It's not the best situation, but the best I can do for her today. "It's okay, you're safe. We'll be home soon". I put the van in gear and we set out on a long journey. It will end with a new home where a new family will open their ranks for her as one of them. We've taken the very first step.
She has a name.