WHEELING - It's been said that big things come in small packages - and they can arrive unexpectedly, too.
It was in that manner that Queenie, our new sheltie-mix, came into my family's home a few weeks ago.
We had been casually bouncing around the idea of adopting a new dog after the death of Pepper, a beloved pet of 14 years. Caring for an elderly, 80-pound dog was more difficult than we had imagined, but after she died the lack of "dog chores" made the house seem eerily quiet even with two other pets keeping us company.
Even though we've always been a two-dog household, something was still holding us back from wanting to adopt a new one. The stress of caring for Pepper was fresh on my mind. Our other dog, Keesha, was getting older too - I questioned whether she could handle the addition of a new family member. Also with just one dog in the house, it was nice to lavish 100 percent of our affection on her.
While I was still questioning the wisdom of a new family member, my parents made an unannounced and impromptu visit to the Ohio County Animal Shelter while I was at work. A few hours later, they adopted a dog. That day I had left a one-dog household but returned home to find two. Thanks to an earlier message from my father, I already knew the new dog was waiting at home.
On the drive home, I realized that I was actually nervous to meet the new pooch. Would she like me? Would I like her? What is this going to mean for our family?
The first thing I noticed about Queenie was that she was tiny. After a decade of big dogs with booming barks thundering around the house, her size was disarming and, to this day, she still has not barked. She was obviously nervous being in a new environment and shyly walked over to me to introduce herself.
"Don't worry, little one. I'm nice," I tried to assure her.
I knew that moment was the beginning of something - ready or not, we had opened our home and our hearts to something new.
According to the staff at the Ohio County Animal Shelter, my nervousness to adopt was not unusual. Just like people, getting to know a new pet is a gradual process where the two parties must adapt to each other.
"Take your time with the adoption process. There are so many animals out there," Juanita Ramsey, shelter coordinator, said. She recommends researching a certain breed, "then come to the shelter and spend time with them. Once you do adopt, give it time for both of you to get used to each other."
Over the next few days we got to know little Queenie. We first learned she was a mess health-wise. After being stray for a unknown amount of time, she was dirty and smelly and a trip to the vet confirmed she had a case of fleas. We also learned of her habit of staring up at us expectantly with her tiny, watery eyes as if asking for directions on what to do next.
I explained to her that if she was looking to be trained, she had chosen the wrong family.
"Many of the animals at the shelter are former pets," Ramsey said. "A lot of them you can tell, even if they're considered a stray, that they had a family because they know tricks already, they seem like they're housebroken, they have a great personality and are lovable. They just want to be loved and petted, but somehow down the road they got lost or something happened."
Our family chose to adopt at the shelter for several reasons. The idea of saving a pet that might not otherwise have a chance has always appealed to us. Shelter animals have stories and adventures already under their belts. Many have been owned before or have been lost or given up. For almost all shelter animals, their adoption is a second chance.
It has also become a tradition for us - since we moved to West Virginia, all our animals have come from the shelter. Shelter animals are usually good-tempered and are already used to people and other animals, making the adoption of a shelter pet a comfortable transition for families.
"Most of the animals we get in here are people's previous pets, so they're used to being inside," Douglas McCroskey Jr., Ohio County dog warden, said. "With the dogs, as well as the cats, they've been with (staff) and they've been exposed to kids in the shelter. We've got a couple (of animals) that weren't socialized and we socialized them, and they've since found good homes."
McCroskey recommended preparing for the adoption by buying pet supplies and searching for a veterinarian before visiting.
McCroskey said that visitors can even bring in their current pet to see if the two animals get along before adopting, which my parents had done to make sure Keesha and Queenie would get along.
"There are so many homeless animals out there that adoption helps save a life," Ramsey said. "A lot of them that we get are strays or people find animals that are running loose and we end up with a lot of pets that are lost. It's really rewarding when they do get adopted, it makes you feel good that you're helping that animal and you're helping that family to find a new member of their family.
"A lot of people think it's sad and it can be sad to see people who really love their pets but have to give them up, so that makes you want to try even more find that animal a home. It pushes you even more to want to help."
For both the shelter animal and the family, adoption is a chance taken and only the first chapter of a new relationship. It is only the beginning of the story of our new life with Queenie. We know she is sweet and gentle, but new aspects of her personality are bound to come out as we continue to get to know her. As we go along, we will learn her favorite treats, she'll establish new routines and pick favorite spots to nap. Before we know it, our relationship with her will be second nature and eventually we will stop counting the weeks and months she's been with us and start counting the years until she is no longer "our new pet Queenie" but "our beloved longtime dog Queenie."
The Ohio County Animal Shelter is open seven days a week from 12:30- 5 p.m. and houses approximately 35 dogs and 30 cats at any time. The adoption fee is $80, which includes treatment for internal parasites as needed for all animals. The adoption fee also includes a $51 voucher redeemable at most veterinarian's offices to help offset the cost of spaying or neutering your pet.