Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 10

Thursday, August 3

It’s the end of the world. The smoke detector is going off. Every earsplitting chirp sends a white-hot jolt of fear shooting through my body. I am trembling so violently that the entire mattress vibrates. My human raises herself slowly, so I nearly crash into her in my haste to jump ship. The house is a total loss, I’m certain. Forget the bed and my toys and even the food; we need to move out, now, tonight, before it gets us. My human looks at me and I meet her gaze so that I can’t show her the whites all the way around my eyes. My pupils are dilated with terror. I give an exaggerated yawn, jaws cracking, to demonstrate the depth of my unhappiness.

My human smells slightly annoyed but not nearly as concerned as I know is warranted for this disaster. When she climbs on top of a tall chair I consider pressing myself against its base, but that’s not nearly as comforting as leaning against my human’s legs. Standing precariously on the chair, at last her fear smell intensifies. I hear a few clicking and snapping sounds. A last sharp spike of fear scent from my human, dropping heavily to the ground, and somehow, I know it’s all over. We go back to bed.

To add insult to injury, laundry happens in the morning even though it’s not laundry day.

We’ve barely begun our walk when I step on something pokey. I set my paw down gingerly and refuse to budge until my human checks it. My pads are leathery-tough from so much walking, but punctures still hurt. Sometimes when my human clears my pad I feel a sharp tug, but this time I don’t feel anything. She lets go of my foreleg and I test it for pain. Then we resume our walk.

We pass a small white puffball of a dog who is the most vicious brute I’ve ever met. His anger and his terror explode out of him so loudly that they cut my ears. He shrieks obscenities while his human adds her yelling to the din. Finally, she picks him up, but he keeps barking. My human breaks into a run and we speed past before he can kill us. Invigorated by the dash, I gaze up at her with my tongue lolling and she tells me “good boy.” I can still hear the demon-thing yelling murder at me from miles away.

And then Marcus and Festus are straight in front of us and we’re moving toward them. My human does not always stay calm when we see them, but today she acts decisively. She gives me all six feet of my leash so that I don’t feel trapped (I am reminded by the sudden slack that I can still get a hard snap on my collar this way, and the more leash I have the more I feel it, so I’m reluctant to strain or lunge). Then my human sprints as far to the side of them as possible, so that we’re off the sidewalk and onto the grass in front of the houses. Sometimes we weave and duck behind cars, but we always keep moving. “Let’s go,” she tells me, which isn’t really a command, but it keeps me engaged. I glance at her and she says, “good boy,” and it helps keep my attention from getting riveted on my nemesis. Marcus and Festus are on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, but any time I can see them or smell them they are too close for comfort. They don’t growl at me, but that’s only because they are a strong pack and they know they can deal with me any time they need to, so there’s no rush. Sometimes the only thing that stops me from dragging my human into the road to chase them away in a full-frontal assault is her foot jabbing into my flank. But today we are a good team, and I trust her confidence.

After dog school I do “head down, stay,” while my human cooks my breakfast. I’m whining piteously. Drool pools under my chin. I sneeze at the musty scent of the powders my human stirs into my food. They don’t smell very appetizing, but I’ve come to associate the earthy scent with breakfast soon, and rich butter masks their taste.

It’s a blue vest day. My human turns on the drier just before we leave the house.

At the house with the wood floors my human and her mother move all the furniture around, raising clouds of dust, and stuff endless piles of things into black plastic bags. Juliet spends most of her days patrolling the backyard, monitoring prey trails for fresh signs of activity, so she is nowhere in evidence. My human’s mother says “okay” which is my release word as she walks past me. I don’t usually listen to commands from anyone but my human, but her voice carries authority, so I surge to my feet. My human laughs and puts me back in my “down, stay”

We go to the lunch place and the library, but it’s swelteringly hot and just getting in and out of the car is torturous. I try to shy away when my human tells me “in,” but as usual she won’t take no for an answer and prods at my backside with her knee until I jump up onto the seat. Then, inevitably, right when the air conditioning has reached the point where the atmosphere inside of the car is breathable, it’s time to get out and continue on to our next activity.

It’s so hot that even though I guzzle water down greedily at every opportunity, I don’t mark anything all day, because my body has no liquid to spare.

I nap while my human play-fights. I heel with attention (“ready”) both in and out of the building. I “stand” and “wait” and then “sit” patiently while my human scrapes my hide raw with the brush. Only my back muscles ripple away from the unwelcome pressure; other than that I’m perfectly still, but still my human doesn’t seem pleased with what she sees. She spends extra time on the itchy spot above my tail. There’s a strange repeating sound from outside of the house, and I think I might have to work myself up to the level of full terror, but luckily it stops. At her “Okay,” I shake myself off thoroughly. Having my nails trimmed is fine, except for my tender right shoulder. My human shifts her position many times while holding up my right foreleg, but I’m still uncomfortable. I’m at her heels as she walks to the refrigerator, and I sit without being asked, snapping up the hunk of meat (my reward) as soon as it leaves her hand.

I’m a dog. We’re creatures of routine. I know what comes next and, so I lie down flat on the carpet, head between my paws, and shut my eyes with a long-suffering sigh. My human detours from the bedroom to the kitchen counter, where she plays with her computer. I almost think I’m going to get a reprieve. Maybe we’re skipping to dinner tonight. When she stands up I prance back and forth between her and the kitchen, wagging hopefully and indicating my wishes with sad, starving eyes full of longing.

I follow her to the closet and whale-eye her, ears flat against my skull, as, sure enough, she breaks out the vacuum.

Left to my own devices, I haunt my human’s footsteps while she vacuums, trying to find safety by pressing myself against her legs, and narrowly dodging out of the way with death-defying leaps whenever the hated vacuum itself comes too close. My human smells annoyed when I do this. Now she just shuts the door on whatever room she’s working in. This way, I can’t follow her, but I do have a buffer between myself and the horrid noise. Overall, it’s a good trade.

Still, when she opens the bedroom door and the vacuum emerges, I lick my lips nervously, ears back and eyes wide. I leave my big comfy pillow and try to slink away, tail between my legs, but she leads me by the collar into the bedroom and shuts me in.

2012

I had been at the shelter for a year, and had pretty much adapted to the new pattern of my life, when I met my human. The first time I saw her, she was just another if unfamiliar person bringing me my dinner. Between the cacophony of barking all around me and my own frenzied hunger, I didn’t even take the time to properly smell her. She opened the gate, food bowl in hand, and I sprang. My forehead slammed into her nose. My human cried out, then set my bowl down hastily and left. I was too busy gulping kibble to take any notice of her departure.

I began to pay attention to her when she walked me from my concrete kennel to my gravel day run. Initially, she handled things pretty much as the other people did - shaking a noisy metal can that smelled of old copper inside, spraying me in the face with a water bottle - with only a slight variation. When I lost it and went wild, she didn’t jerk me tightly into her side and use her body to restrain me. Instead, she gave me the full length of my leash. I was caught off guard, but pretty soon I was trying to use my advantage to get at the dogs on the other side of the gates and lock jaws with them through the bars. I didn’t get the chance because she sat down, and somehow dragging her dead weight was a lot harder than pulling her off of her feet would have been. Foiled, I resorted to my habitual maneuver and turned on the leash. Since she was so far away, I didn’t bite my human; instead, I seized the leash itself in my mouth and tugged hard, determined to rip it out of her grasp. Just this slight change, however, just the fact that I bit down and found nylon instead of cold metal between my teeth was enough to remind me that I was attached to a leash, not a chain. There was no chain. There was no pole. I wasn’t a bait-dog anymore, and nobody here had tried to tape my muzzle shut so that I couldn’t defend myself. Gradually, I calmed down, and we walked to my gravel run in subdued silence. I didn’t realize it then, but it was a break through, and it set the tone for the rest of our relationship.

From then on, whenever she walked me, I felt a level of grave attention from my human. It was like she was studying me, learning me. I no longer got to the stage of mindless panic and rage when I was with her. She interrupted me at the first hitch in my breathing, shushing me or calling my name or even barking “hey!” in a shockingly loud tone that I would never have expected from such a small human. As a result, I looked at her and lost focus on my intended target. This whole exchange was something brand new to me, coming from a human: communication. I learned that even though she was short and scrawny for a person, she was a very big dog. As the months past, more and more frequently she was the one who came to walk me. Before long I barely interacted with the other people at the shelter, the humans I’d bitten, at all.

I never put my teeth on her, even once. In the past, it would have been impossible for me to follow a human through the narrow walkway in the bull pen while anything dog and human also passed through without preemptively defending myself. When this exact scenario happened with my human holding my leash, I got no such opportunity. Quick as a flash, before I could even begin to process my reaction, my human grabbed my face with her hands right behind my ears and angled my head away from the other dog so that I didn’t have to see him and be scared.

Sometimes in the evening after I’d had dinner, my human would come sit against the brick wall in my pen. She was still new to me, and the idea of trusting humans at all was new, so I erred on the side of caution and ignored her politely. She just sat there quietly, and we watched each other out of the corner of our eyes.

For the past year I’d gotten exercise about once a week in the form of walks around the perimeter of the shelter. People called “volunteers,” who didn’t work at the shelter and were mostly older than any humans I had experience with up to this point, fitted a harness to me and then allowed me to drag them along dirt paths, marking at will where I smelled that my fellow shelter dogs had been, and snapping up anything I found that I thought might be edible. After my human and I started spending more time with each other, she came early in the morning every day to walk me for a full hour. She never used the harness, and she made her expectation that we would walk at her pace clear. But she walked briskly, and it was more structured exercise than I’d ever gotten, so I didn’t mind.

When the other humans, whom I’d grown accustomed to seeing at the shelter long before my human appeared, talked about me they used meaningless terms like “leash aggressive,” and “red zone” and referred to me by my first name, “Simba #2.” My human interrupted fiercely, “His name is Monkey. Nobody should be named #2 anything.” I pricked up my ears, understanding only the growl and the “mine” in her voice. It was enough; I was happy.

The other people at the shelter didn’t like my human much. At first this puzzled me, but I soon realized that my human carried a sickness inside. The other humans clearly smelled it, as I did, and didn’t want her for their pack. For one thing, she was dominant (though there was already a female of higher status at the shelter to whom my human submitted) and a sick alpha brings the whole pack down.

To me, for whom nobody had ever tried to be a leader, she was a good alpha. She commanded me to “sit” every time we reached a threshold, then gave me a paper-dry fish skin treat, and crossed over first, calling me after her. My world broadened and took on whole new dimensions as we explored first the unpaved streets around the shelter, then trails through dense tangles of bushes and trees. Whenever something poked into my pad, my human would lift my paw and pull out the sharp stickers that were always digging into my flesh. Once I ended up stranded in the middle of a patch of low growing thorn bushes, with wicked stickers hedging me in on all sides, and nowhere safe to place a paw. I halted in my tracks, head submissively low, wagging a forlorn plea for help. My human put one hand on my chest and the other under my belly, bent her knees and lifted me into the air, carrying me in her arms until we were clear of the thorns.

Sometimes we’d travel unfamiliar roads for longer than an hour, and my human would hunch her shoulders and give off an oppressive fear smell. She’d only relax when we came within sight of the shelter again, which confused me, because on the whole both of us were happier outside the gates and away from the other people and dogs than within. One time we walked in the blinding heat for so long that my legs ached, and I sweated all the moisture out of my body through my tongue. My human’s scent took on a frayed edge of panic. She led me to the side of the road and had me “sit,” and then we waited a long time. Finally, a car drove towards us, and my human waved her arms and shouted. The car stopped, and after she’d exchanged words with its driver, she climbed inside, boosting me up onto her lap. The car was cramped and since I’m almost as big as she is, physically, it wasn’t exactly a comfortable drive. But the relief in my human’s scent was almost dizzying. I grinned all the way back to the shelter.

I grew comfortable enough with my human that we would play with toys she brought me when she visited my run at night. Once she brought another human with her and kept saying, “take a picture!” while I romped around her and used all of my best wrestling maneuvers to try to interest her in a game.

These days, I was doing less and less fence running while in my gravel pen. Regular, structured exercise took the edge off my energy, so that I found myself napping in the shade instead of harassing my neighbor, Snoop.

My human still walked other dogs than me between the night and day runs. I did not appreciate this because by now I knew her strength and I did not want her joining another pack against me. When I saw her enter Snoop’s gravel pen next to mine to put a plastic cone around his neck, I went wild, screaming and dancing right and left, trying to strike at him through the chain link fence.

I learned about cats and about horses. Both are frightening, but in different ways: cats stare and raise their tails high in a challenge, then melt away into the shadows before I can set them straight about our relative status, and horses are just too enormous to be allowed to live. Once we came across a horse that didn’t scare me, because the only visible parts of it were its ankles and hooves, sticking straight up out of the ground. I smelled the dead horse long before it was in site, and assumed that it was nothing to worry about, but my human froze when she saw it, and then quickly turned us around in the opposite direction.

Needless to say, my human introduced vast improvements into my life. But the best was yet to come. For as long as I’d known her, she’d always smelled of sweat and dust and a more concentrated form of harsh chemicals that lingered in traces on my cement floor when I returned to find it damp in the afternoon, and loneliness and anger, and crowds of other people. Later, when I rode on one myself, I learned that this last scent clung to her because she’d just gotten off the bus. But one day she showed up without this last smell, replacing it instead with the mingled odors of worn-out leather and triumph.

I dropped to my butt and eagerly held up my head for my human to slip a martingale collar around my neck, then shadowed her on leash out of my gravel pen and through the big outer gate that edged the shelter people’s territory. I was so keyed up just being outside of the shelter that my paws hardly touched the ground, and this put me in the right frame of mind to be open to any adventure. Instead of continuing our walk past the row of cars, my human stopped me beside a car I’d never smelled before. It smelled of ancient leather, like my human, and of sun and very old dust, and faintly of an acrid, unpleasant smoke. When my human patted the seat and told me “in,” even though I’d never heard the command before, I sat back on my haunches and vaulted bravely inside. I caught her excitement of course, which only fed into mine, but I missed the nervous tension in the way her hands shook when she slid inside and shut the door behind her. My alpha was insecure about something, and I should have taken the hint.

Driving in the car with my human was not smooth and peaceful, like it had been on the few occasions I’d previously ridden in a crate in the back of other peoples’ cars. I did not drift into a pleasant nap. After the first few hair-raising minutes, I slithered off my seat and spent the remainder of the drive cowering in the footwell (figuring with impeccable dog-logic that I stood the best chance of survival in a small, enclosed, den-like space), but the unsettling bumps and jolts were worth it. Because, for the first time in my life, my human took me to the beach.

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