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Priceless Pets

Edmund Marsh

MY FIRST PET WAS a timid pup called Precious, a moniker inspired by the cartoon character of the same name. My four-year-old self felt an affinity for the runt of the litter, so I quickly picked him out. That sweet, little dog had a nature true to his name. I don’t remember his fate but, in those days, pets ranged free in our little town, and I fear he may have met with some mishap.

My second pooch arrived when I was age six, while sitting in my barber’s chair submitting to a haircut. A family friend home from college popped her head through the doorway and asked if I wanted a free puppy. Of course, I did. My mother acquiesced, and we brought him home that day. I christened him Butch, because I thought it sounded tough. Maybe I should have tried something gentler. A few months later, Butch nipped a little girl’s heel and was promptly returned to the original owner.

In the years since, other dogs have wobbled or walked into my life, dogs whose only price was the promise of a good home. A few were big dogs with big hearts. A couple were little dogs with even bigger hearts. Each asked for scant more than a kind word and occasional scratch behind the ears, but returned all the love they could lavish.

None of these dogs claimed any particular ancestry, and none was especially good looking. Even our present family pet, a Labrador retriever named Lottie, would never win “best of show.” All shared one attractive quality, however: They were free.

Apparently, free puppies aren’t as popular as they once were, at least not in some circles. One breeder here in Georgia advertises registered Rhodesian ridgeback puppies for $2,500. Another offers Shetland sheepdogs for the same price. American Staffordshire terriers fetch “just” $2,000, though the money that’s saved may be lost to higher home-insurance premiums.

To be sure, those puppies sport top pedigrees. Yet even the mixed bloods seem expensive to me. A mini sheepadoodle runs about $900, while $1,000 buys the choice of a bichapoo or a teddy bear. To come home with a cute, cuddly cavapoo, you’ll leave behind $1,795.

Are expensive pets truly better than their cut-rate cousins? Does a homely little mongrel offer any less love than a high society hound? A dog knows nothing of pedigrees, and cares even less. She just wants a pack to run with, and any family will fill that bill. She’s not fussy, so what makes the owners so choosy?

Now, I know sometimes breeding matters. Personality alone won’t win the Iditarod, and it’s pointless to hunt quail without a dog bred for the task. A loyal companion can come from humble beginnings, though, and blossom into your best friend. I don’t claim an expensive dog can’t have an expansive heart, but I also don’t think I have to scrape up a big stash of scratch to bring a new furry friend into my life.

Take Lottie. She was a rescue dog of sorts. My daughter picked her from a large litter living in a flea-infested kennel. Lottie escaped to a good home, but her litter mates weren’t so lucky. All died of parvovirus a short while later.

Lottie’s eager personality made it easy to overlook her early faults, like incessant chewing when no one was looking. As a youngster, she was a constant companion when something interesting was afoot, like swimming in the pond or checking on the beaver dam down at the creek. Today, she’s older and slower, but her quick tongue remains difficult to dodge when I sit on the steps to lace up my work boots.

I’m cognizant HumbleDollar is populated by dog lovers, and even a professional dog trainer, so I’m treading lightly. I wouldn’t accuse anyone here of strutting around with a status symbol on a leash, and I also wouldn’t criticize folks for doing so. If a flashy dog brings a thrill, by all means indulge. Money should be enjoyed. Even if someone signals a more subtle message through dog ownership, I won’t howl about it.

As for me, however, I’m not out to put on the dog. Nor do I feel called to save all the world’s at-risk pets. It’s not my campaign. I do like to save money, though, so a free puppy appeals to my frugality. The family pet is one item that I shop for on price every time.

I’m aware I’m striking a self-righteous stance, and I won’t blame anyone for taking me to task for my finger-wagging. But before giving vent to rising indignation, let me tell you of one exception to my tight-fisted tendencies.

That exception was Hanna, named after the tropical storm that drove her to seek shelter on our front porch. My wife and I arrived home from work to find her greeting us with a shy wag of her tail and a hesitant step forward. After getting acquainted, we fed her well and got her bedded down for the night, while we wondered what to do with this mystery dog.

What we did was go all in, with the purchase of a collar, dog shampoo and food before we arrived home from work the next evening. Hanna came to us fully grown, and also fully clipped, though we didn’t realize it at the time. Later, her long coat revealed what was probably one of the designer dogs I poked fun at earlier in this article. We kept scouting for “lost dog” postings, but they never appeared.

We didn’t think we had time in our schedules for either a pet or a pupil. My wife and I are not skilled dog trainers, but discovered we didn’t need to be. As a student, Hanna made up for our deficits with a quick mind that anticipated our wants and quickly secured a spot in our lives.

Hanna’s been gone for a dozen years, but we still miss her. Despite my lifelong policy of bargain-basement pets, I’d gladly pay a premium price to have her back in our family.

Ed Marsh is a physical therapist who lives and works in a small community near Atlanta. He likes to spend time with his church, with his family and in his garden thinking about retirement. His favorite question to ask a young person is, “Are you saving for retirement?” Check out Ed’s earlier articles.

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