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Animal shelters, no matter how wholesome their inception, no matter how considerate the staff, no matter how well-funded the facility, are always sad places: barren warehouses of pets that are unwanted, lost, or abandoned.  Domestic cats and dogs have been bred to desire human companionship: these animals form strong bonds with people and homes.  A dog without a family is always edgy, always searching, always hoping.

Last September, a tall, blond dog was brought to the Contented Critters Animal Shelter on the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota.  The dog had been roaming the woods around Biwabik for several days, and the man who corralled the stray was worried that a deer hunter might view the rangy yellow dog as competition in his quest for "da big buck."  Contented Critters is a no-kill shelters and, because of its rural location, is particularly well suited to larger dogs.

Because the dog was a stray, his presence at the shelter was advertised in the local media, and for six weeks the staff waited for an owner to claim him.  During this time, the dog acquired a name -- Gunnar -- and a reputation as the most easy going animal in the facility.  The dogs are paired in runs and workers soon realized that Gunnar could be coupled with any dog in the facility, no matter how aggressive or traumatized.   But despite his sweet temperament (or perhaps because of it) Gunnar internalized his anxiety and unhappiness, unable to eat regularly and developing open sores on his legs from constant chewing and licking.

Fall segued into winter and no one appeared to claim Gunnar.  On the first day of December, the tall blond stray became available for adoption.  And on that Saturday morning, I drove up to Makinen and the shelter, hoping to find a dog to fill the void in my heart left by the death from cancer of my last dog Trooper.

I can't say that it was love at first sight: the running, open sores on Gunnar’s legs and the ribs washboarding through his thin coat seemed unhealthy, and his companion dog in the run, a Rotweiler with a huge knot on its head from a past beating, barked and charged the fence aggressively as I scurried past.

But something in the blond dog's eyes, a spark of recognition and hope, drew me back to that run.

"This one, he's a real gentleman," the staff member who accompanied me glowed.  Those nasty looking sores still repelled me, but removed from his mean kennel mate and leashed, the long-legged dog trotted so willingly and elegantly beside me that I knew I had to give him a chance.

Tom and the puppy Rainy met us in the parking lot.  "Gunnar, sit!" the handler commanded.  The dog plunked down instantly, his posture as straight and upright as an Egyptian cat.  Rainy fawned and feigned at him but elicited no response.  "Those two will get along fine, they will," the handler insisted.

"If the dog doesn't work out for us, how many days do we have to return him?" Tom responded.

But I was certain that we wouldn't return him.  In the hour it took to drive home from Makinen, the dog had learned his new name -- Ole -- and completely won my allegiance.  Released from the truck at our home, Ole raced at full speed for at least a quarter of an hour, spiraling outward to encompass our house, our lawn, and our lives.  When he bolted into the house, leaped onto the couch, and gently settled his head onto Tom's lap, the second heart -- the hardest one -- had been conquered.  Actually, Tom's heart was the third: Rainy the puppy had fallen firmly in love the moment he'd caught sight of the big yellow dog.

That was six months ago.  The sores on Ole's legs left no visible scars, his blond coat is now thick and shiny, his ribs padded with fat.  He's a happy soul whose tail wags almost continually.  But no matter how many years he lives with us in the future, those two or three years prior to joining our family will always remain a mystery.  Even in this era where virtually any information can be obtained via some electronic scorekeeping, what little we know of Ole's former life is no better than a guess.  The most basic information -- his age, his lineage (maybe a mixture of Labrador retriever and hound?), even his original name -- we can never know for certain.  He was a house pet, we assume, loved and trained -- but why didn't the people who so carefully taught him to "shake hand" claim his during those six weeks at the shelter?

One thing that I know for sure: Ole has first hand knowledge of the dark part of human nature.  Yesterday I was working outside, on the far side of the house, when Tom drove in.  Ole charged the intruder -- hackles bristling, back legs planted and braced, barking ferociously -- defending me with every ounce of his being.  He was sheepish but not apologetic when he recognized Tom.  With a wag of his tail, my dog trotted elegantly back to me.  I fell to my knees, threw my arms around his spindly neck, and buried my face in the welcoming shelter of coarse, blond fur.