EXCERPT: 'Come Back, Como: Winning the Heart of a Reluctant Dog'

Come Back, Como: Winning the Heart of a Reluctant Dog by Steven Winn.Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers
Come Back, Como: Winning the Heart of a Reluctant Dog by Steven Winn.

Steven Winn and his wife, Sally, wanted to fulfil their daughter's dream of gettting a dog, so they adopted a scraggly terrier mutt named Como from a local animal shelter near San Francisco. But their daughter Pheobe's dream soon turned into a family nightmare.

"Come Back, Como" is the story of one man's quest to win the trust of an unruly dog. Through maddening adventures and terrifying events, Winn and his family discover the rewarding effects of learning to live with a rebellious pet in "Come Back, Como: Winning the Heart of a Relecutant Dog."

Author Steven Winn is a journalist and fiction writer based in San Francisco.

After reading the excerpt below, head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.

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Chapter One: How It Didn't Begin

I wanted Ecstasy.

That, it seemed clear to me, was the direct route to the other things I wanted, too. I wanted family harmony and companionship. I wanted laughs now and stories to tell later. I wanted rituals and something new to photograph on holidays. A reason to be outdoors and a potential bond with neighbors and strangers.

I wanted a twelve-year-old daughter made happy and fulfilled beyond all she had patiently imagined and a wife beaming back at me in the mutual glow of a marital mission accomplished. I wanted reunions and separations—and more joyful reunions. A counter to my own bouts of loneliness and isolation. An end to this endless search.

But most of all, and for all those reasons and more, I wanted Ecstasy—suddenly, unmistakably, irrefutably. And there it was, in matchless canine form, gazing up at me from a cement floor on the other side of a hurricane fence at an animal adoption shelter in Redwood City, California. Part beagle and part corgi, this was the dog, I instantly felt certain, that we had been looking for all along.

For a long, soulful moment we communed through the diamond-shaped openings between us. A little shiver, a tremor of cross-species connection, ran up my spine as our eyes locked through the fence. This was it. This animal would soon become part of our family.

She was, first of all, a delight to behold. Saucer-eyed and crowned with perfect isosceles triangle ears, she had a soft white coat touched here and there with irregular brown spots, like morsels of chocolate melting into a creamy dough. She was exactly the size and weight we were looking for—lap-sittable at something under twenty pounds.

She looked healthy and untraumatized, holding my avid, appraising stare without going into some needy spasm or fearful cringe or one of those teethbaring, cage-rattling fits that had startled and alarmed us on numerous occasions during our quest to adopt a pet.

This dog did none of it. To her great credit, in my estimation, she did nothing much at all. Seated about two-thirds of the way back in her narrow enclosure, she looked serenely untroubled by me, by the starkness of her environment (bare floor, dim overhead lighting, battered metal food and water dishes, ratty looking blanket, and stippled rubber barbell), or by the tumult of wild howls, frantic barking, and claws scrabbling on cement that lent this perfectly respectable shelter, like the many other respectable and some not-so ones we'd visited over the past three months, the air of an asylum for the four-footed criminally insane.

In the midst of it all, this dog—"our dog"—remained comfortably seated. Very comfortably, in fact, with a rounded haunch tucked under on one side and her two back paws casually lolling on the other. She looked as if she were sunbathing out on some warm California beach, half hypnotized by the waves rustling in the distance. As if dimly aware of an admirer, the object of my new affections blinked softly and stood up on her stubby little corgi legs.

She moves, I marveled, and remembered Phoebe's first wobbly steps on her aunt Judy's front lawn in Milwaukee ten years before. Like that sublime waddle, this was poetic locomotion—leisurely and stress-free, a casual stroll around her confines.

As those short legs scissored back and forth beneath her plumply rounded form, a slightly oversize head bobbing as she went, I was freshly enchanted. There were none of the distressing behaviors we'd seen so often—no fretful pacing or sudden lunges at potential adopters, no leaping up on the fence or sad-eyed sulking at the back of the cage. Here was a dog so calmly self-possessed that nothing would rattle her.

What could be better for a family that had never had a dog and a daughter whose shyness and quiet disposition had made Sally and me uneasy in the first place about the unpredictable havoc a pet can wreak?

Plus, this one was cute and sort of comically disproportionate, now that she was up and in motion—beagle bigger in some places, corgi smaller in others. I smiled and started calling out to her:

"Here, girl. Here, girl. Come on, girl." She declined my invitations, went back to where she'd been sitting when I found her, and sat back down.

That was endearing, too, in a way. She seemed to know her own comfort zone and how to find it. Even as I was being charmed, that reflexively skeptical part of me did wonder for a moment:

If this dog is so great, why hasn't anyone adopted her? But I throttled that impulse and went on adding up all her positive attributes.

Maybe she'd just arrived at the shelter, I told myself, and we would be the lucky family that got her. She was beautiful. She was kind. She was loyal. All that shone through. I pictured her in our house, resting on the carpet in the living room, plodding into the kitchen to be fed, resting some more on the carpet. The dog's name, "Ecstasy," was hand-lettered on a sign wired to the door of her cage. Below that was another captivating line:

"House-trained. Gentle. Good with children."

"Phoebe. Over here. Quick!"

I called out to my daughter in an urgent, stagy whisper calculated to rise above the barking, braying, and choral whimpering of the other dogs and still not attract the attention of any other potentially competitive dog seekers. This was our third visit to this shelter, located twentyfive miles south of our home in San Francisco, and we knew the way things worked here.

You had to act briskly and furtively when a promising dog bobbed up in the sea of snarling pit bulls and broken-down setters that looked as if they'd been through the animal equivalent of the Crimean War and held out no hope for a happy conclusion. Good dogs went fast, as we always said.

One day we'd be here to catch one. Now here it was. Phoebe came around the corner from the next row of cages and stood next to me. She was silent for a long time, staring in at the dog of our dreams. Finally I couldn't contain myself. "So, what do you think?" I asked. "Isn't she adorable? See if she'll come to you."

Phoebe crouched down and waggled her slender fingers through the fence. Sure enough, Ecstasy arose and ambled over. Her tail, which I hadn't noticed before, switched back and forth a few times as she walked. After stretching forward to sniff my daughter's hand, Ecstasy came a few steps closer and allowed her short muzzle to be stroked. Sally should be here, I thought.

She should be seeing this. Just as I was about to go off in search of her, Phoebe stood up. A recent growth spurt had added several inches to her height. Taller than some of her friends' mothers already, with a face and body that seemed to be morphing into something lovelier and more limber every day, our daughter could give me the woozy, time-spanning sense that she was already fully grown. But she was actually only twelve, still very much our soft-spoken but single-minded child.

She locked her arms at her sides and stared at the ground.

"I don't like her, Daddy," she said of Ecstasy.

"Why not? You just met her. She likes you."

"I just don't. She feels funny."

"What do you mean, she feels funny? Kristof had that weird springy fur, and you liked him."

Mentioning Kristof was a mistake. I knew it as soon as the words left my mouth. I could see it in Phoebe's face, in her narrowed eyes and the combative set of her jaw. Kristof was a dog we'd found at the SPCA in San Francisco several months back, a poodle-mix puppy that Sally and I vetoed on the grounds of house-training issues and his likely size (thirty to forty pounds) as a full-grown dog. Phoebe had been furious at the time, accusing us of denying her the one and only thing she truly wanted and not ever meaning to get a dog in the first place. Her bleak, accusatory look hadn't been easy to forget.

That was early on in our search, and we'd told her—and really thought it—that there would be plenty of other dogs. We were right about that: there were plenty of other dogs, hundreds and hundreds of them.

The problem was that almost all of them were either too manic, too menacing, too unruly, too big, too old, or too hideous to consider. And the ones that weren't any of those things were snapped up so quickly that I became convinced insider trading was a bigger problem in the California dog market than it was on Wall Street.

After promising Phoebe on her twelfth birthday that she could finally have the dog she'd been campaigning for since the time she could talk (and she was an early talker), we'd entered into our search with a blithe, even slightly smug attitude.

Think of all the terrific unwanted shelter dogs out there that would be happy to have a home with us, we told ourselves.

Just think of what we offered—a decent-size house with a small fenced garden out back, proximity to Golden Gate Park and its acres of open space, a daughter who regarded dogs as semidivine beings, and two adults whose flexible work schedules as a community college teacher (Sally) and a journalist (me) would facilitate regular walks and plenty of daytime attention. What dog wouldn't want to sign on for all that? As a karmic bonus, we'd be saving some animal from a premature demise if he or she weren't adopted.

The idea of finding a shelter dog, instead of laying down five hundred or a thousand dollars or more for one of the boutique breeds that had become so popular, added a self-anointed sheen of virtue.

None of that counted for much with Phoebe. All she knew, as the summer wore on, was that she still didn't have a dog to come home to. For a while, as part of her sustained lobbying effort, she'd made a point of reminding us which of her friends and classmates had or were about to get a dog.

She'd go spend the afternoon with Laurie after their Saturday soccer practice or game and come home with stories of romping through the house with Laurie's Airedale, Spencer. Emily had a frisky white terrier named Popcorn. Molly had Lola, an immense, affectionate hound of some kind. Lily, whose parents were divorced, had Bagel the dog at her mother's house and a cat at her father's apartment, with a promised dog on the way there as well.

And then there was the troublesome case of Tobias, whose chocolate Labrador, Mia, died when the kids were in fifth grade. Minutes later, it seemed, Mia was replaced by Oscar, a dachshund puppy who made an appearance at school one afternoon when I was there to pick up Phoebe.

As a swarm of kids crowded around the squirming, undeniably adorable Oscar on the playground, my daughter walked stoically by and headed for the car.

"Don't you want to ... ," I started to ask, and then realized that I was the intended audience for her performance.

We drove home in a well-orchestrated silence. From time to time Sally and I would enter into discussions with Phoebe—actually, they were more like inquisitions—about our dogless state. Did she really think she was ready to handle the responsibility?

Would she feed him and bathe him and walk him, even if it was raining or she had too much homework or she just didn't feel like it? Did she realize that a dog wasn't just something you could pay attention to when you wanted to and ignore the rest of the time? Did she know it was a lifelong commitment?

Yes, yes, a thousand impassioned, ardent, and ultimately weary yeses to all those questions. I can remember Phoebe rolling her eyes once about that lifelong commitment line. She knew perfectly well, by age five, that a dog didn't live forever.

You had it and loved it with all your heart for a while and then it died, and that was that. For all her romantic fixation on the subject—the dog posters on her walls and sheets on her bed, the dog calendars and sweaters, her ceramic collection, and stuffed dogs of all breeds and sizes—Phoebe may have been more grounded and realistic about having a pet in the house than we were.

Sally and I would sometimes lie in bed with the lights out and confide all our worries and worst-case scenarios to each other as Phoebe slept soundly, dreaming of dogs, no doubt, down the hall. I was especially keen on running actuarial studies in my head and sharing the results with Sally.

"Let's say we get a dog now," I'd figure out loud, "and he lives for fourteen years. Phoebe's going away to college in six.

That means we'd have the dog on our own for eight more years. And he could live twenty years. Dogs do that, you know. That would be fourteen more years for us. You'd be seventy, and I'd be seventy-two."

Sally, an English teacher for whom numbers are largely meaningless, didn't say anything for a while. I wondered if she was thinking about the two of us in our graying, slowing seventies.

"Dogs don't always live that long," she said at last. "He might die before she ever leaves for college."

"Oh, that'd be great," I said. "Why don't we just go in there and break her heart right now?" By then we were both staring at the ceiling and unlikely to fall asleep anytime soon.

My conversations with Phoebe took on a different, quasi-legal cast. When she was working the evidence of her canine-enriched peers especially hard, I would sometimes cross-examine her and introduce conflicting testimony. I'd name all the families we knew that didn't have dogs.

"What about Jeanne?" I said. "Or Camille? They don't have dogs."

"Jeanne's dad's allergic," Phoebe answered. "Camille's family lives in an apartment. They're not allowed to have dogs."

"And Sophie?" I continued. "They've got a big house."

"Sophie doesn't want a dog. She likes birds." There was a pointed pause. "And she's got a bird." She added the name for emphasis: "Fellini."

"Well," I said, "we're not like other families. We do things our own way, in our own time."

"I know," Phoebe said. "I know."

Ecstasy was almost certainly a lost cause once Phoebe had declared her aversion to the way the dog felt to her. But I wasn't ready to give up.

"Wait here," I told her. "I'm going to go find Mommy." I glanced over my shoulder at Ecstasy as I left. She had resumed her customary spot in the cage, lying down now on the bare floor. It seemed a little odd that she avoided her blanket.

Sally was outside, taking one of her frequent breaks from the animal-shelter chaos that tended to produce a headache and/or hay fever attack. She stood at the edge of the parking lot, looking through a hedge at the back of a 7-Eleven.

"Come back inside," I said. "I think we may have found one." At some level I must have thought that if I just didn't mention that Phoebe had already spurned her, Ecstasy still might have a chance. After Sally said something back to me that I didn't hear, we walked in past the front desk, where a family with three small children was rejoicing over the big grungy Akita mix they'd just adopted, and headed for Ecstasy's aisle. Phoebe was nowhere in sight.

Sally did pretty much exactly what Phoebe had. She peered into the cage, leaned down, and got the dog to come over and inspect her hand. I leaned down, too, and made my first physical contact with Ecstasy. I noticed that her nose was a little warm, but her fur felt smooth, not "funny" at all.

"She's nice," I murmured, trying not to disturb the intimacy the three of us had achieved down there by the base of the cage.

The shelter was strangely quiet at that moment. "Her sign says she's gentle and good with children," I said. "You can tell that.

She's not skittish all."

Sally went on petting Ecstasy's head and neck and even got a finger behind one of her large pointy ears to scratch. The dog looked blissfully contented, as if she'd been drugged. Her eyes lolled upward. Even as she kept scratching, my wife threw a skeptical look in my direction.

Sally had come into this dog search as reluctantly, probably more so than I had. She knew going in, as she does about most things in our life together, just about what would happen. I'd talk up the limitless glories of something (a vacation, a remodeling project, now a dog), and she'd end up handling the bulk of phone calls and e-mails (to hotels, plumbers, the vet), not to mention the worrying and fretting that followed. No matter how much Phoebe and I insisted otherwise, a dog was going to be one more huge responsibility of which Sally would shoulder more than her share. It wasn't fair and it wasn't right, but there it was.

It was also only part of the pattern. For all her pragmatic, work-saving reservations about adopting a dog, Sally and I both knew what else was coming with a pet. No matter what kind of dog we found, she would fall hopelessly, heedlessly in love with it. Despite her practical toiling efficiency, my wife is far more swooningly romantic than I, with all my swashbuckling pronouncements, will ever be.

Movies (both sad and funny), Springsteen power ballads, a family photo album, Olympic athletes looking solemn on the podium—they can all bring on Sally's readily flowing tears. Fifteen years into our marriage, long after I was accustomed to this trait of hers, even I was startled to witness Sally's giddy laughter turn to tears when her father, on his eightieth birthday, spontaneously sang a Pepsi- Cola jingle from his youth. She was crying for his childhood, for hers, for her mother who had died suddenly in her fifties, for the bittersweet rush of it all. A dog was going to conquer her completely.

"Has Phoebe seen her?" Sally asked, withdrawing her hand from Ecstasy's cage.

There was no point in lying outright about that, although I was tempted. "Just for a minute," I said. "She didn't really spend any time with her."

"What did she say?"

"Not much. Something about her fur being a little weird. But that's just something to get used to. Real dogs don't feel like Dakta," I said, referring to the stuffed Alaskan husky puppy Phoebe had been sleeping with every night for years.

"I know what she means," Sally said. "Her coat feels dry. You wonder how well they really take care of these animals." She looked down the row of prisonlike cages and mouthed something else I didn't catch.

"What did you say?" I asked her. As often as I genuinely don't hear what my soft-spoken, at-times-inaudible wife says, my incomprehension is sometimes a delaying tactic to gather my thoughts.

"Of course they take care of them," I said to Sally's prior remark. "They'd get shut down if they didn't."

"How do you know that?" Sally challenged, her voice ratcheting up now.

"Nobody shuts down those awful puppy mills that turn out sick dogs."

"What are you talking about? This isn't some puppy mill. We wouldn't have come back here if that's what we thought."

Just then, as if he'd been set off by the rising pitch and tension in my voice, a bulldog unleashed a fusillade of barking in one of the cages behind us. I turned around and gave him a tough look, which only increased his fury.

Soon enough some of the other dogs joined in. It got so noisy that Sally and I, mercifully, had to stop arguing. A staff member from the shelter showed up and asked us if everything was okay.

"Great," I shouted. "Everything's fine. You've got a lot of great dogs here."

He didn't respond to that and went over to calm down the bulldog.

"Where's Phoebe?" Sally asked. "I thought she was with you." Now her voice had an edge. We took off in opposite directions.

I found Phoebe by the bulletin board in the lobby. She was studying, as she had on our previous visits, the snapshots of families with the pets they had adopted. Everyone in the photographs—even the dogs and cats and an occasional rabbit this shelter doled out—seemed to be smiling.

"That'll be us someday, sweetie. I promise."

She looked up at me. Her hazel eyes were wet and ready to spill over. "Why were you and Mommy yelling?" she asked me.

"We weren't yelling. Did you hear us?"

She went back to looking at the bulletin board. Sally slipped in beside her and put a hand on our daughter's head and stroked her fine-filament blond hair. It was one of those moments when I realize how much my wife and daughter resemble each other— their fair hair and sea green eyes, slim shoulders, soft voices, upright posture, and an uncanny way of expressing defiance, uncertainty, or tenderness with the slightest shift of their chins.

"What kind of dog is that one?" Sally asked Phoebe, who had made a study of breeds from the books she'd gotten for Christmas and birthdays over the years.

"I'm not sure," she said. "It might be part Portuguese cattle dog. Or maybe a laika." And then, still looking at the bulletin board, she said in a softer voice, "I don't want that dog, Daddy.

Estasy." She pronounced it without the hard c, so it came out "Ess-tuh-see." It was like the sound of air slowly hissing out of a party balloon.

I knew how hard it must have been for Phoebe to tell me that. She was passing, once again, on a chance to have a dog.

She didn't really know what she didn't like about this one. She didn't know when, if ever, the right dog would come along.

And she felt bad about disappointing me. She was trying very hard not to cry. I was both terribly proud of her and miserable about what she and all of us were going through. Sally and I exchanged a short, helpless look over our daughter's head.

"Let's get out of here," I said. "Who wants ice cream on the way home?"

"I do, I do," Sally said. We often did this when our daughter, an only child, turned somber. We acted like children ourselves in an attempt to jolly her out of moods that frightened us a little with their black totality.

Phoebe walked behind us to the car and then positioned herself in the backseat right where I couldn't catch her face in the rearview mirror.

We stood outside the ice cream store with our cones and dishes and watched the airplanes slant down over the bay to the San Francisco International Airport. "That was us a few weeks back," I said, recalling our flight home from a visit to my relatives in Missouri. No response. "This is pretty good," I tried again, motioning at my Caramel Pecan Swirl with a plastic spoon. "But it's no Winstead's malt."

"Why do we always have to go there?" Phoebe asked, of Kansas City's famous "steakburger" joint.

"Like you mind," I said. "I never hear you complain about the French fries." "The onion rings are really where it's at," Sally put in.

"That's so wrong," Phoebe answered.

They went at each other cheerfully for a little while on that inexhaustible topic. Then they started in on me for the time I almost made us miss our flight by insisting on a last-minute Winstead's run. This was good. We were done with dogs for the day and putting this latest failed attempt behind us. On the ride home Sally and Phoebe hatched a plan to go swimming at the YMCA later on.

I was glad the gloomy, defeated mood had lifted, glad to be headed home with my wife and daughter chattering away.

There were some decent leftovers in the refrigerator for dinner, which meant we wouldn't have to hurry up and cook something before they changed into their suits and took off for the Y. But as I drove north past the airport and headed across 380 toward the white hood of fog that often looms over San Francisco in the summer months, my thoughts sailed back to that docile, slightly vacant-eyed dog we'd just left behind.

I suppose I knew Ecstasy wasn't right for us. Maybe she wasn't right for anyone. "Gentle with children," I realized, could just as easily mean "Catatonic with everyone." "Nearly brain dead." "Requires regular resuscitation." And still, somehow, it did seem that something had slipped away.

Maybe we were the one family that could have coaxed Ecstasy out of her shell, found the core of love and loyalty that lies inside even the most unlikely dog. Maybe her peculiarly ill-suited name was a kind of clue, inviting us to find the buoyancy and joy buried in this decidedly unecstatic animal. We reentered the fog at the Stonestown shopping center and started the climb up Nineteenth Avenue.

None of us would have guessed it that afternoon, as the clammy wet air swirled around us and the parti-colored row houses streamed by, but we would soon be headed to Redwood City again. Back we would go, just a few weeks later, to the same shelter, hopeful but far from certain that anything would come of it. There was no way to have known it, but the Ecstasy that didn't happen that day was a prelude to the madness that did.