When love gets dropped in your lap

After Tina Santi Flaherty’s beloved Labrador retriever Jackie passed away last October, her friends wasted no time encouraging her to adopt again ― to help mend her heart and so that her dog, Scarlett, could have a new canine companion.

One friend suggested she adopt a small dog so that Tina, an author and businesswoman who once led Fortune 500 companies, could travel easily with her dog in tow. Others suggested she adopt another Labrador in honor of Jackie, named after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the subject of Tina’s bestselling book, What Jackie Taught Us: Lessons from the Remarkable Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Tina took everyone’s advice to heart, but deep down she knew that when she met the right dog, she’d know. She just didn’t expect her new companion to land in her lap ― literally.

Finding canine love when you least expect it

Tina was attending a gala with her friend and longtime Best Friends supporter Marty O’Neill to celebrate the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center opening in New York, when she noticed a staff person introducing guests to a little dog. The senior shih tzu, named Cotton, had been through a lot before her debut at the gala event. She’d lost her home and ended up at Animal Care Centers of NYC, the city shelter that Best Friends works in partnership with to help homeless pets (just like Cotton) find homes.

Soon, the staff person made her way over and introduced Tina to Cotton, passing her to Tina to hold. Tina obliged, and as she cradled Cotton in her arms the first thing she noticed was that the little dog’s heart was beating fast. It was natural to be nervous. It was her first gala, after all. Tina also noticed something she hadn’t felt for a while: love for a new dog.

Tina also noticed something she hadn’t felt for a while: love for a new dog
Tina Flaherty holding little Cotton with staff member and fellow dog lover, Margaret Kuchar

Still, Tina wasn’t sure she was ready to bring another dog into her home just yet. And when the staff person came back to get Cotton, Tina was a little relieved. But then she spotted her coming back again with Cotton, and accompanying them this time was Elizabeth Jensen, executive director for Best Friends in New York.  

As Tina and Elizabeth chatted about Cotton, Tina explained (in the voice she usually reserves for the boardroom) that she would not be adopting Cotton that night, even though her heart felt otherwise.

“You don’t have to adopt,” said Elizabeth. “You can foster.”

Cotton was again returned to Tina, and this time she let the tiny dog settle in on her lap. Tina let Cotton stay there for a long time, falling more in love as the evening went on. And when she got home later that night, she found herself thinking a lot about what Elizabeth said. The next morning, she cleared her schedule and made her way to the opening of the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center.

The celebration was already underway when she arrived, but there were more cheers when Tina walked out of the center with Cotton, who was going to sleep that night in a place she deserved ― a loving foster home.

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There were cheers when Tina walked out of the center with Cotton

Finally a part of a family

When Cotton first arrived at Tina’s Fifth Avenue home, she was shy and a little scared. For the first few days, she stayed where she felt safest ― inside the little pink carrier with the soft blanket that accompanied Cotton home. But as the days went on, Cotton got braver and soon, she felt comfortable enough to explore her new surroundings.

One of the first residents she met was Tina’s dog Scarlett, who at first wasn’t sure about Cotton and so she ignored her new shih tzu friend and carried on with her favorite pastime ― napping. But by the second week at Tina’s, Cotton started to feel more confident and even barked at Scarlett ― her way of saying she was ready to get down to the business of having some fun.  

Soon, it became clear to Tina that she’d found the dog she’d been waiting for, so she adopted Cotton to make her an official part of the family.

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Soon, it became clear to Tina that she’d found the dog she’d been waiting for, so she adopted Cotton

A happy and healthy life for a shelter dog

“I am one hundred percent committed to Cotton and will do everything I can to make sure she lives a happy and healthy life. Thank goodness I have the wonderful doctors, all of whom are board-certified, at the Animal Medical Center where I am a longtime board member to make sure she gets the proper care,” says Tina. “The fact that she may have had a difficult life before only makes me want to give her the best life possible now.”

Today, Tina’s entire household embraces Cotton, usually with a lot of belly rubs. And Tina says that since Cotton has joined the family, life for everyone is a lot more fun. Cotton is a happy little dog, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

For Tina, she never could have known that what began as a night to celebrate the opening of the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center would turn out to be the night she’d open her heart again to a new dog. And Cotton couldn’t have known that life would take her from a shelter to a safe and loving home on Fifth Avenue. Sometimes the very best things happen when we least expect it.

“Helping people find their next great love is an incredibly rewarding part of our work,” says Elizabeth. “We are so grateful to have Tina’s support and are delighted to have played a small role in this incredible love affair.”

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Tina Santi Flaherty, Cotton and Scarlett

Photos by Stacey Axelrod