Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 11

Friday, August 4

We slept in late this morning. Every time I thought my human was awake I groaned and wiggled up against her with my belly up, stretching my forelegs in the air. She’d scratch my belly but then go right back to sleep. I am a good boy, so I went back to sleep too.

Finally, she started playing with her phone, so I knew she was really awake. “You gotta stop that” she said, moving my left forepaw away from where I’d been scratching it against the headboard. I yawned my non-comprehension, confused about why she was touching me if it wasn’t to rub my belly. I licked her face and then sneezed vigorously because I like cuddling, but it also makes me nervous sometimes. The sneezing seemed to do the trick, because my human finally swung herself off the bed.

My human was distracted by her phone a lot during our walk. I didn’t approve of this because I couldn’t tell if she’s looking out for me properly.

At the dog park we went into the big pen first and I did some marking, but there was nobody there to greet. My human called me, and I thought we were leaving before I’d even had a chance to poop, but then we went into a new gate. I’d never been in the small pen before. There was one dog inside, an intact male, but he was just a yorkie - too little to pose a real threat - and anyway I was more interested in the drinking fountain that poured out a stream of cool, clean water when I stuck my nose underneath. I dug myself a shallow trench in a patch of shade under a table and laid on my belly, panting heavily, until it was time to go home.

Wearing my red vest, I laid on a towel in the shade and snacked on frozen bananas while my human swam laps in the pool. I blinked at her lazily every time she emerged from the water, clinging to the pools rim and gasping for air. I used to worry about my human when she’d disappear under the waves at the beach, and I’d force myself to wade out much further than my comfort zone in order to lick her face and beg her not to swim anymore. It took me years to decide to like swimming myself, so in those early days by the time I’d reached my human, I felt in danger of drowning myself. I’d try to grapple onto her arms with my claws in hopes that she’d carry me safely to shore, just like she carried me out of the thorn bushes, but she always squawked angrily at me and forced me to dare the long trek back on my own cognizance. Now I supervise calmly from my nice dry towel. Swimming is another thing like the booming music at the play fighting place that’s just become routine. I trust that she’ll be alright even though her undignified thrashing about looks pretty disturbing.

My human and I were both tired. Laundry day takes a lot out of me; the drier had been on continuously since we got back from our walk. We skipped the lunch place and holed up in the bedroom with the door closed to muffle the creaking and moaning of the laundry. Burying my nose in a brand new soft, fleece blanket, I managed to nap in spite of the noise.

After our nap we visited Jade’s house. The yard with the lush green grass stood empty, which was unusual. I whimpered in anticipation as we approached the house, hearing distant echoes of Jade’s claws clicking on the floor inside. My human had to get stern with me in order for me to regain enough composure to sit politely at her side. There are always a few awkward moments of confusion over that threshold, because the first thing I see when the door opens is Jade, thrusting her head out and practically wiggling out of her velvety orange skin in her eagerness to invite me inside. At the same time, my human makes a point of overruling Jade’s authority by blocking my path with her body until she’s crossed the doorway and can give me permission to enter the house. Jade and my human never communicate at all, so they both make demands on me without giving any clear indication of having settled between themselves whose status is higher. It’s a close call, but of the two of them my human is more adamant in enforcing her rank.

Jade welcomed me with characteristic exuberance, prancing in a circle around me with her front paws in the air and whining. Then she promptly lost interest in me. Her human cracked open a can with a startling pop that drew both of our attention. I pricked forward my ears and Jade cocked her head to the side. Her human magically produced a tennis ball from the can and tossed it to Jade. I zeroed in on the can, mouth open expectantly, staring it down intensely while single-mindedly communicating “WANT.” Most people seem to catch on to this expression, even though it never works on my human. I knew that I had a better chance appealing to Jade’s human than trying to take the ball away from Jade because even though she is a soft alpha, she’s still dominant to me and I have to respect her property.

Jade did not understand that tennis balls are wonderful devices for massaging the back of your jaw and should be chewed lovingly at length until the rubber shell inside cracks and splits in half and then further pulverized into a homogenous mulch of rubber, saliva, and felt. She carried her prize around for a few moments, showing it off to everybody in the room, and then lost interest in this new source of amusement just as quickly as she’d done with me.

I stood staring at the tennis ball, which Jade had abandoned and allowed to roll under a Table, hoping my human would have mercy on my poor downtrodden doggy soul and retrieve it for me. Then I laid down with my nose pointed to the ball because I’ve learned that I’m more likely to get what I want if I wait patiently in a submissive posture.

On to my library job.

Yesterday at the library there were only four kids, all of whom gathered in a cluster around another, smaller working dog, who rolled onto his back and exposed his belly for rubs. Today the library was a hive of activity, so even though there were three other dogs on duty with me, there was more than enough attention to go around.

I like children because they are small and are not threatening and most of them get down low on my level to approach me instead of towering over me and putting their hands on the top of my head like adults often do. Adults go straight into dominance games, but kids are like puppies and all they want to do is please and be friends. Some of the children were hesitant to approach me, and one even smelled sharply of terror. She kept easing towards me and reaching out a hand tentatively, then melting backwards as if afraid of seeming too forward. I stayed perfectly still, doing my best to put her at ease, and after a while she was able to creep closer and stroke my fur gently.

I pick up on words I hear a lot, even if I don’t understand them. “Is he tired?” The people at the library ask my human. “Is this his nap time?” These words always accompany retreating body language, as the humans start to draw away from me.

“Nope.” My human’s voice sounds upbeat but firm; she’s being friendly with the other humans but she’s also giving them a warning. “He’s always like this. He’s super mellow. It’s just his personality.”

An obnoxious fly buzzed around my face persistently. It came in for a landing on my nose and I snapped at it, dislodging my sunglasses as an added bonus. “Oops! Let me put those back on.” My human swooped in and slid them back onto my muzzle, “He has to wear his glasses, otherwise how will he see the pictures?” All of the other humans swarming around me chorused “awwwww.” After that they made a point of pushing papers so bland they might as well have been odorless right up against my nose.

At my human’s “okay,” I stretched deeply, bowing and then sinking my hind end down to the ground to work the stiffness out of my joints. My hips cracked.

My human had trouble being here today. She didn’t smell sad, but when I snuck a peak at her eyes they looked unfocused. She shifted restlessly and moved in short sharp bursts of energy, flitting from one activity to the next and then faltering in a daze. She was struggling with the sickness inside her, struggling not to let it steal her away. When we got home from the library she opened the car door and I stood up, ready to collapse on the carpet inside after a hard hour’s work, but instead of getting out and leading me up the front steps, she sank into her seat and dropped her head back and closed her eyes, slowly, like they hurt.

It’s days like this when “free” outside of buildings becomes a job, because my human doesn’t see through the clouds gathered around her. I have to be the one to steer us away from cars, and to find our car, because I know by routine where we’re headed even when my human has obviously lost the scent of her own feet.

We did some dog school, and while she was digging in her treat pouch for my reward I prodded the pouch with my snout to hurry the process along.

When we practice “back up” I always sneeze in complaint because it feels unnatural to move away from her when I’m so focused on my next cue. And on the bag at her hip that’s oozing the tantalizing aroma of meat.

After dinner I felt so full and so good that I rolled all over the carpet, giving myself a nice back scratch.

The world is such a great place to be a part of, if only my human could stop forgetting that.

SUMMER 2013

The very last time I bit a person was also the day my human said goodbye.

Even though I was still living at the shelter, my human and I had become a pack. We traveled for miles together every day, we drove in her car to the beach and to the park, she fed me most of my meals (I had to “sit” before getting my food now) and she was usually the one to move me between kennels. This was a good thing, because, though I was a bit calmer and more in control of my emotions overall, none of the other shelter people had learned to “read” me. On this particular day, a different human tightened a slip lead over my head and stepped out into the bull pen with me. She didn’t react when I started to hyperventilate, and only paid attention when I was already dancing up off of me feet. Then she began to shout and cinched the lead taut, fighting to slam me backwards. It was already too late. The panic overwhelmed me, and I sank my teeth into her leg.

In the past when I did this, the human handling me would yell or curse, but this time the woman I bit screamed and screamed, a shrill, endless keening. I tasted warm metallic blood gushing between my teeth.

Later my human came to me, and she seemed very subdued and sad. Her hunched-over body language said submission, but she couldn’t be submitting to me, because she made me “sit” and “wait” while she passed through the gate first. I knew by now that my human was unbalanced inside of her; like me, she sometimes couldn’t contain her emotions and they’d swell up and explode out of her like the water from the high-pressure hose. As long as she still fulfilled her obligations to me as my alpha, I didn’t mind. But today there was something different; something had broken inside of her. We walked for a very long time, even though it was afternoon and very hot. Then even after we were too tired to go any further, we didn’t return to the shelter right away, but sat and rested on an old, dirty mattress by the side of the road.

I didn’t have experience with abandonment. I’d escaped from my first handlers, and my first rescuer held me in his yard for less than twenty-four hours, so when the shelter people put me in a crate and drove me away from him, it was no significant loss. But dogs know when someone is saying goodbye. I smelled it all over my human, saw it in her watery eyes, and felt it in her trembling fingers that stroked my fur extra gently. When she closed my gate, and turned her back on my run, I experienced a new and terrible pain. My heart squeezed tight in my chest. A part of me shriveled out of existence. I didn’t know why, but my pack was gone.

I watched her, my head and tail dropping, as she walked from the bull pen to the back door of the shelter building that smelled strongly of kibble and bleach. A group of people met her outside, and my human instantly became ferocious. They exchanged words, nipping at each other with their voices.

“...told me that the police were coming to take him away.”

“Nobody’s taking him away,” an older female, obviously playing the mediator role, soothed. “He’s on quarantine.”

After that, my life took on a new, extremely boring shape. There were no more walks, or car rides. I never left my night kennel at all anymore. I tried to work out my angst by fence running, but with brick walls between myself and my neighbors on both sides, there was nobody to jab and feint at, and anyway my concrete pen was smaller than my gravel run had been, so I was always having to pull up short to avoid crashing into the bars at either end. I was like a teething puppy with my gums on fire but no toys to chew. All I had to look forward to, to break the monotony of my day was breakfast and dinner. Actually, the most interesting thing that happened to me was that now shelter people would come into my run in the morning while I was still inside and first spray the cement floor with harsh chemicals that stung my nostrils and then blast it with the hose. I tried to dodge out of the way and sometimes hid in my plastic igloo, but by the time the person left I was always soaking wet.

My human visited me in my kennel every day, but it wasn’t the same. We didn’t travel together. I was out of my mind from being so cooped up and I put a lot of energy into loudly protesting my confinement, but she never saved me. It was confusing. Were we a pack again or not?

I did not connect any of these events in my mind, of course. Punishment and consequences are uniquely human concepts, just like names. They mean nothing to dogs. When someone annoys or offends us, a healthy dog first attempts to diffuse the situation with non-confrontational body language. If that fails, he follows the example his mother set for him, and barks or growls or even snaps at the offending party to demonstrate his opinion clearly and decisively. It only escalates into a fight when the other dog involved doesn’t take a hint (typically if it’s an intact male or an insecure, very dominant dog like Juliet, bent on posturing even though the other dog isn’t interested, or a puppy determined to play who hasn’t yet learned to respect elders’ boundaries). Once the other dog backs off, everybody immediately forgets about the situation and becomes great friends as if nothing ever happened. It’s only humans who hold grudges and dwell on anger for minutes or hours or days. For dogs, conflicts are over and done as soon as they’re dealt with. Instead of punishment, we deal in swift and appropriate violence. Retaliation is in the moment or not at all.

And dogs also know that the best time to “punish” someone is when you read their body language and suspect they are thinking about doing something you don’t approve of. For example, if I’m on the beach and I see two dogs rough housing so intensely that I think they might get in a fight, even though nobody’s actually done anything inappropriate yet, I feel perfectly justified in swooping in and body slamming whoever is on top off of the dog he or she has pinned. True, if they don’t see me coming they usually end up looking a little stunned, but I’ve saved the day before anybody could get hurt. What could be better than that?

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