I walked slowly toward the shelter, delaying the moment when I would look into the sad eyes of dogs that are unlikely to be in a real home for the holidays. I was going to visit four "long-term" residents, and that's not the kind of "happy" column I like to write just before Christmas.
But as soon as I walked into the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society on Sunday, I knew I was in a good place. The mood was festive, with lots of volunteers walking dogs and many visitors looking at adoptable dogs, cats and rabbits.
The stars of the day -- Tasha, Simba, Miss B and Kisser -- had wagging tails and eyes that weren't sad at all. From 10 a.m. last Saturday through 2 p.m. Sunday, when I arrived, each of the four dogs had been living one-on-one with volunteers who even slept with them in the kennel runs. For two days and one night, the dogs lived like pets, with nonstop attention and cuddling from people who genuinely care for them.
Kim Lenz of Brighton Heights said she brought a comfortable chair to the kennel of Tasha, 3, a gray-and-white pit bull mix. "At night I ended up on the floor with her. By 6 a.m. Tasha was sleeping on my pillow with me."
The sleepover was the brainchild of longtime volunteers who can't understand why their favorite dogs have been passed over for so long. The volunteers in this story all work at jobs and then volunteer at the shelter 10 hours or more each week. Last weekend, they also collected $6,000 in donations.
Tasha, in the shelter since July 5, "is one of the smartest dogs I've ever met and is a loving, playful and loyal girl," Ms. Lenz said.
Simba, 3, a tan-and-white pit bull mix that has been at the shelter since August, "was a perfect gentleman all weekend," said Lisa Stefanowicz of Penn Hills. "He is the dog who, when he leaves the shelter, I will cry."
Tammy Merjanian has three cats at her Observatory Hill home, "so it's been quite a while since I slept with a dog," she said as she rubbed the belly of Miss B, 4, a cinnamon-colored pit bull-Labrador retriever mix. "She started out sleeping in her own bed but ended up in the sleeping bag with me."
As we chatted, a kennel worker came into the run to remove an empty food bowl. Miss B, in the shelter since June, gave her a big kiss. All four dogs were friendly and affectionate with visitors, even those they had never met before.
The North Side shelter has 147 animals that have been there for 75 days or longer, said Humane Society executive director David Janusek. He went above and beyond his job description to spend the weekend with Kisser, 4, a high-spirited black Labrador retriever mix who has been in the shelter for 100 days.
"He's a really nice dog," said Mr. Janusek, who sometimes invites Kisser to hang out in his office. "I don't know why he hasn't been adopted."
Well, Kisser is big (74 pounds), black and somewhat boisterous, and that's not everyone's cup of tea. Black animals tend to linger longer in the shelter, many workers and volunteers say. Kisser's boisterous behavior is fairly typical of young Labs, and he's improving with attention and training.
He lives up to his name, kissing everyone who gets close to him and campaigning to be your new best friend.
Mr. Janusek moved a twin bed into Kisser's kennel. Yes, the kennels are that big. Kisser acted like he had never seen a real bed before.
"I had to coax him into the bed with me," Mr. Janusek said. "He only slept in my bed for two hours and then he went back to his own bed."
Cindy Dengler of Stowe was a last-minute addition to the sleepover roster, camping out in the cat colony room with Baby Abby, Bebe and Gerry. I can't say much about them, because they were sound asleep when I saw them. They were exhausted, Ms. Dengler said, after many hours of laser tag and other games she played with them.
I left the shelter when the volunteers did, at 5 p.m. Sunday. I looked back and saw Tasha sitting at the front of her kennel. The dog that had been "smiling" and wagging for the past three hours now looked very sad. After 31 hours of constant attention, Tasha was alone again. I hoped that Ms. Lenz did not see the look on the dog's face.
I wasn't going to mention that sad face because I like to end the Pet Tales year with a happy ending. So how's this for a Merry Christmas column:
Three days later, Tasha left the shelter with a man and woman who had adopted her. You can see a photograph of them leaving the shelter on the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society Facebook page.
There are two more happy endings. Simba was adopted this week. So was Piglet, 7, an adorable 36-pound black pit bull mix picked up as a stray and brought to the shelter Nov. 11. Assigned to a kennel directly across from Kisser, Piglet campaigned very hard -- and with great success -- to attract attention from the many visitors who stopped to see Kisser.
Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Contact Linda Wilson on her Facebook page, email@example.com or 412-263-3064.