Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 12

Saturday, August 5

My human cried a little while she cooked dinner last night. I think she was smart, keeping her embarrassing emotional display quiet, so I helped her by studiously pretending it wasn’t happening also.

This morning I woke up extremely frisky. The moment my human let me off the leash I zoomed around the dog park, grinning at everyone. The fur on my back stood up from exhilaration. I couldn’t help it; my happiness and my energy couldn’t be contained, but a cantankerous old cattle dog thought my hackles were raised aggressively so he body-slammed me. He was built solidly with a deep chest, so it actually hurt a little bit and I growled in surprise. I get cranky too sometimes, but only when my head aches. The cattle dog smelled like arthritis and waddled when he walked, so maybe that’s why he was such an utter killjoy.

After our walk we took a shower. My human scrubbed my skin more roughly than usual, which was irritating because it’s been itchy lately. Getting rubbed dry was the best part. To encourage my human, I wiggled and curved my butt into the towel playfully. The drier wasn’t on, so I rolled on the carpet, snorting and groaning, to dry myself further and help chase away the thick shampoo stink clinging to my pelt. Then I itched my spine along my favorite scratchy spot on the bedroom wall.

At the park, I shivered and sneezed because we were gathered in the shade and my fur was still damp. It was a new session so for the first hour we had six dogs I’d never met at obedience class. Three were rowdy young pups. I felt that my role in the pack should be to discipline them, but I had to stay like a soldier at my human’s side. The more skittish dogs took averting their eyes to a more extreme step and turned their whole bodies away, pretending we weren’t there because being so close to other dogs made them feel too vulnerable.

Sometimes even though we’re outside on the grass, my human forgets to release me “free” to relieve my bladder for ages. I am a good boy, so I never mark anything in the house even if I have to wait for hours.

For the second hour of training, I recognized all the dogs except two. One of them wore a muzzle but didn’t seem to mind. She was too preoccupied with lunging and barking at all of us and at the children running along the park’s cement path. The single, solitary time my human muzzled me, during our first year together, I practically clawed my own eyes out getting it off. I didn’t resist while she slipped the piece of cloth over my face, because I didn’t know what it was, but as soon as I felt the restriction binding my jaws together, I suddenly couldn’t breath. I was so hell-bent on freeing myself that I didn’t feel the wounds I’d raked in my jowls or smell the blood until much later, and by then I was so happy to have escaped that I would have gladly suffered much worse.

The trauma of the whole incident wasn’t over, though. My human left me in the car with the windows rolled down, while she crossed a dry yellow lawn and disappeared into a house WITHOUT ME. To make matters worse, this was a house I remembered, because I’d been inside before. It was a cat house, full of cats. The last time our pack came here, one of the feline residents challenged me by freezing directly in front of where I stood and staring with round, unblinking eyes. I did the only sensible thing, roaring and charging after it. The cat bolted, long, wickedly curved claws scrambling at the carpet. It fled under pieces of furniture, which I knocked over by barreling into them with my muscular pit bull chest. All of the humans (especially the big, dominant male) in the house barked and howled their excitement, no doubt wishing they could join in the chase. My human did run after me, but unfortunately, she’s slower than I am. Finally, when the cat bunched up its haunches and sailed through a window, I wound down, my chest heaving. I gave my absolutely best effort, but the alpha man scolded my human and shook with rage because, ultimately, I failed, and he still had to live in a house plagued by cats.

So, when I saw this house swallow my human, at first, I simply couldn’t believe that this was happening. Then I panted with anxiety, wondering if the cats would come after me while I was alone and defenseless in the car. Then it occurred to me that there were so many cats and they were such a strong pack that they might actually be able to overwhelm my human. And if that happened, my human might actually never come back.

The finality of this grim idea hit me with such force that I couldn’t not act on it. Not being with my human became completely unbearable. So I jumped out the window. It was a tight fit, and I scraped my ribs against the glass, almost getting stuck halfway with the front end of my body hanging limply down the side of the car and my hind end still wedged inside. But I kicked my forelegs and twisted from side to side until my haunches slipped up and out.

My next problem was the front door. I tried to batter it down by rearing up on my hind legs, claws digging into the wood, but it wouldn’t even budge. By this time, I was too worn out and distraught for any more big ideas. So I stood back and waited, my tongue lolling, and my eyes glued to the door. When it opened, and my human emerged at last, I was waiting for her, whimpering and wagging my tail with every meager scrap of energy I had left.

Returning to today, after obedience class we did “ready” at the grocery store and then took a nap.

A little while later my human woke up and dumped turkey in a pan. As the savory aroma began to circulate through the house, I followed her around, waiting for anything I could interpret as a cue to perform and earn myself a treat. When no commands were forthcoming, I put myself in “spot,” lying down on my mat in the laundry room, because this is what my human always expects before she feeds me a meal. I could hardly stand what a good boy I was being and felt sure my human couldn’t fail to notice. I even did “head down” without being asked, though I couldn’t hold it for more than a few seconds. My front paws wanted to inch forward but I resettled myself on my haunches, laid back my ears, and tried my best heart-wrenching, abused-doggy plea with my eyes.

No such luck. All that piping hot turkey went into my human’s treat pouch and even the gravy from the pan vanished into the refrigerator. I couldn’t believe it and was about to try running through my repertoire of tricks to find some way to wheedle a reward when my human distracted me by picking up her keys and my red vest.

We drove to another store, but this one was enormous, and people rushed past us in unstoppable tides. A few of the people didn’t respect that I was working, pausing to coo and bat their eyelashes at me, but I kept my focus solidly off of them. Still, by the time we’d waded into the thick of the throng I was over stimulated and panting, my pupils dilated with stress. I became exhausted both mentally and physically from doing so much work today. My neck felt sore from holding my head up at attention. My human scurried through the store in such at such a frantic pace that my stomach twisted queasily and I got a funny feeling in my bowels. It was a huge relief to find a bush in the parking lot in which to relieve the pressure.

To top it all off, my human ended the day by going into a house WITHOUT ME. I could smell her family in there, and sugary food. How could they not want me to come inside and be pack with them?

FALL 2013

Anyway, by no means was I happy with this new arrangement (solitary confinement in my cement run), but I adjusted because I’m a dog and that’s what we do.

And then, without warning, my life changed.

A short round woman who smelled like so many other dogs and so much fun that I forgot all my manners and wanted to jump up on her loaded me into a crate and drove me away from the shelter. We got out at a wide-open field fragrant with juicy strawberries. I didn’t get to eat any strawberries, but - even better - my human was there, and she was brimming with beaming smiles and laughter. She kept her excitement just under the surface while she and the other human chatted seriously and played with papers. And then she opened her car for me to jump onto the leather seat. I snuggled up next to her, laying my chin on her lap while she drove, and just like that, I was no longer a shelter dog.

We drove to a building called “the condo.” There were two other humans and a black dog named Munchie already in residence, but Munchie stayed on the lower level. He owned the living room and kitchen and the tiny patio and yard while my human and I had a room upstairs.

This new place bore the lingering traces of many other people, but none of my human at all. I understood instinctively that this was a new territory for both of us and that we were claiming it for our pack. To begin with there was nothing in the room we were to occupy but a mattress, so my human moved little objects out of boxes from the car and used them to spread her scent.

The condo carried a much stronger dose of the same rank smoky smell I recognized faintly from my human’s car when we first drove to the beach. In our car the smell faded and never came back, but here it had seeped into the walls and was also concentrated in plastic containers on the table. I avoided getting too close to these.

The black dog who lived at the condo never went on walks. His major obsession and the goal of his life was to retrieve balls. He’d whimper and whine beseechingly, pressing the ball in his mouth against a human’s leg until his forlorn pleas and the saliva stains he left behind finally convinced the human to wrestle it from his mouth and toss it for him. Then he’d tense all over and be off like a shot. Once I tried to interest him in turning this boring repetitive game into chase with two dogs, but he froze in his tracks, every muscle going rigid, and raised his hackles. He snarled deep in his throat that if I so much as touched his ball he’d chew my face off. One time I forgot in the excitement of watching him run and I surged after him, not really interested in the ball at all but longing to run together like a pack. Before I even knew what was happening he left bloody rents in my jowls and neck.

Curiously, Munchie’s human only visited the condo a few days a week. His territory was the couch. Whenever he came he played “fetch” with his dog until his arm was too stiff to raise and throw the ball (never long enough to satisfy Munchie). Then he and the other humans would fill the house with more pungent smoke. My human and I fled the house at the first musky plume.

Because Munchie’s human was largely absent, my fellow canine was left to amuse himself. Munchie had mange, so biting and scratching clumps of fur from his backside above his tail took up a lot of his time. His other major hobby was knocking over the garbage can and spreading its contents over the kitchen floor so that he could scavenge for hidden treasures. All of the humans in the house traded off pouring kibble with a bad, plastic smell into his bowl just like he was a shelter dog with no real pack. Nobody ever cleaned up his stools, so the backyard and patio were covered in layers upon layers of his poops, ranging from fresh to petrified. I had to take my morning constitutional on my walks with my human.

When we were at the condo we spent most of our time sleeping or playing tug in our room. Since it was on the top level, I learned the joy of bounding up stairs, two or three in one leap, for the first time. We played a lot of tug, pulling soft toys between us until the seams ripped and burst, showering white stuffing all over the carpet. This helped a lot to make the territory smell like ours. We resumed our daily walks, traveling along paved sidewalks where I breathed the odors of many different kinds of food through my open mouth with rapt attention. My human never played with a phone at this time, but when it was dark she did crouch by a lantern on a long cord that ran all the way down the stairs and outside the house, looking at papers like the ones kids use at the library.

A major upside to the condo that I failed to appreciate at the time was that it had no laundry. There was a refrigerator, but my human only opened it once, balked dramatically, and then shut it. It was not cold inside, but I picked up a wealth of fascinatingly complex, earthy odors that I would have loved to investigate if my human wasn’t so eager to lock them away. From then on she kept her food in a foam box by our mattress. She was always filling it with ice which she didn’t eat, and delicious fish and rice which she did. I ate kibble. At first my human gave me the same kibble that I’d smelled in Munchie’s bowl, which filled me up but tasted strangely of plastic, more like chew toys than like real food. In a totally unrelated event, the day after I tried this new kibble, I woke up to discover, shamefully, that I’d lost control of my bowels while I slept. My fur was plastered with mess. The sheets were a total loss, and after that we slept on the mattress on top of a scratchy blanket that I used to smell on the couch downstairs. I plowed through my breakfast as willingly as ever, but then for some reason I couldn’t stop throwing up. The piles of vomit still looked like kibble but didn’t interest me at all, and when a dog is too sick to clean up after himself you know he’s really sick. Later that day I tried a new food that tasted a lot better.

We still went back to the shelter during the day. At first, I was a little apprehensive when my human shut a gate on me and walked away, but she wasn’t sad or scared, so I knew it wasn’t a goodbye. I stayed in an area of the shelter I’d never been before, a row of kennels covered by a tarp. Underneath was dark and damp and moldy. The pen was smaller than either my night run or my gravel run had been. I couldn’t see any other dogs, but I heard them, and I smelled them, a hair raising, cloying scent of sickness that had me spinning in circles, desperate to escape. I didn’t belong here with all these sick dogs. I yelled for hours for my human to come rescue me. It took longer than I wanted, but it always worked eventually and at the end of the day she’d always save me. I can only imagine how awful it would have been if I stayed quiet and she forgot me in that place.

I discovered a hole in the tarp at the back of my kennel, which looked out on the yard by the gravel exercise runs. To my horror I saw my human walking other dogs. I roared and screamed at them, hopping up and down. It was torture, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible, since I wasn’t a bad dog who bit them anymore, but if anything, the people at the shelter treated me more resentfully than they had while I lived there. None of them were ever happy to see me, and they looked at me askance, like they wanted to make a challenge but didn’t quite dare.

I want to clarify something. People who work in shelters are not mean people. They are good people who love dogs. Sometimes they become hard, because they see dogs suffer and things break inside them and leave wounds, and scar tissue isn’t pretty. The humans at the shelter where I lived did not love me, but (let’s be honest here) I was not very lovable. They did their best for me and I’m grateful that they kept me alive and in a holding pattern until my human and I were ready to be a pack. Faced with the same situation, many people would not have given a dog like me a chance.

One day I waited outside in the car with the windows down (the windows on this car were always down) while my human went inside an unfamiliar building. I knew it was a shelter because of the mixture of animal and acrid chemical scents wafting through the windows and the thunderous barking echoing in my ears. I poked my head out of the window and strained anxiously for a glimpse of my human, worried that while she was gone the dogs inside might come out and ambush me while I had no alpha to protect me. My human returned with a fluffy white bundle in her arms - a little dog. She placed him on the seat next to me, and I sniffed him all over, understanding that he was to be part of our pack now.

For a small dog, the white terrier wasn’t so bad. He never yapped, and he didn’t show any of the vicious tendencies, so many small dogs pick up. He wanted to dominate me, but he wasn’t too much of a bully about it so I tolerated him climbing on me while I laid down and hopping on his hind legs to put his forepaws on my back when I stood. My human took us on walks together, and we wrestled and romped on the mattress, which was something I couldn’t do with Munchie because he was too touchy about his personal space. Whenever my human had to leave the condo, I accompanied her in the car, but my little pack-mate stayed in our bedroom.

The exception to this rule was when we all drove to the shelter. The little dog, named Peek-a-boo, had to share a cramped kennel beneath the tarp with me. For the most part he just curled up and napped during the hours that my human disappeared, and I didn’t mind the close quarters. However, in the afternoon my human would bring us our meal. At the condo, Peek-a-boo and I ate out of the same dog bowl, taking turns sitting on command and receiving mouthfuls of kibble from my human’s hand as a reward. In the run at the shelter, seeing my human approach I started to panic even though she carried two dog bowls. All around me dogs were barking furiously and throwing themselves against the bars of their pens. I turned my head wildly from side to side, anticipating an attack from every direction at once. Peek-a-boo stirred from his nap, his nostrils flaring in interest, and he trotted toward the kennel’s gate with an eager bounce in his step. Just the presence of another dog so close to me at that moment was too much. When my human finally stepped inside the run, I leapt for the food, desperate to grab it before my pack-mate could hoard it all away for himself. I missed my mark, and instead of seizing the bowl in my jaw, my mouth closed around my human’s hand. My large canine teeth punctured the soft web of flesh between her thumb and index finger. It was an accident, but I knew by her yelp that I’d hurt my human.

Peek-a-boo was part of our pack for about a week, before my human placed him in the arms of another person, who took him away in a car and I didn’t see him again. While he lived with us, my human and the other people in the condo argued a lot, exchanging brief, heated volleys of words whenever our pack ran into them in the kitchen or on the stairs. It was also during this period that my human and I started going to the rooms with the smooth shiny floors and the circle of metal chairs. We would wake up in the morning and cuddle for a few minutes on the scratchy blanket on the mattress, then we would travel together for at least an hour, then I would have my breakfast. Later we would drive to the shelter, where I waited out an excruciating eternity in my tiny kennel, and then I’d nap on the cool, shiny floor while my human sat in a squeaky metal chair and listened and occasionally spoke.

About a month after we’d moved into the condo, we arrived home from a long day. My human and I were both hanging our heads and dragging our feet with weariness. I sat at my human’s side while she put her hand out to open the door. In all the other places we would live later, my human would need keys to open front doors, but this one did not have a key. So it should have taken less than a second for us to get inside, yet after several minutes I found myself still on my butt, in the cold, with a closed door before me.

Frustration stole into my human’s scent. She took a step back and brought out her phone, holding it to her ear while it beeped at her. For long minutes she listened to the ringing, but no sounds came from the phone like they usually did. Finally, my human spoke into the phone in a tone of anger, exhaustion, and raw desperation. Then she sat down on the step and I lay beside her, happy to be resting but privately thinking that it was pretty chilly and dark out and our pack would have been much more comfortable on the mattress upstairs.

I drifted into a shallow nap. After a while bright lights nipped at my eyelids, so I yawned and opened them. Someone else’s car had pulled up behind ours, and two human males got out to chat with my human. I was excited by the new people, and shook off my weariness, ready to lick their hands and give them a good thorough sniff. Strangely, though, my human seemed scared and did her best to create distance between me and the men, using her body as a shield to block all my friendly advances. Initially as she talked to them she smelled painfully hopeful, but then she began to wave her arms about in a way that I found threatening, and her voice rang hollow with defeat.

“I’m locked out because on the day that I give him my two weeks notice my landlord finally puts a lock on the door, after I’ve been asking him for a month to do it, and he doesn’t give me a key or even tell me it’s happening today, and he won’t answer his phone, and you’re tell me there’s nothing you can do to help me?”

“I’m sorry. If you can get in through a window or something, as long as you’ve got mail inside with your name and this address to prove you live here, we won’t arrest you for breaking in.”

My human commanded me “in” to our car, then shut the door and turned away. Baffled, I watched as she trudged through the bushes around the condo and climbed the six-foot wooden fence that enclosed Munchie’s yard. She reached the top, balancing precariously, then dropped down to where I couldn’t see her. I heard faint rustling sounds, and I loud squeak, and then the front door opened, and my human appeared, framed by bright light in the doorway. She retrieved me from the car, and showed the two men some papers. Then they left and we both limped up the stairs to bed. Since this course of action had been my idea in the first place, I was overall satisfied with the way things turned out.

The next day I felt a cold enmity brewing between my human and the other people in the condo that was much worse than if they’d come right out and snapped at each other openly like dogs.

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