Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 13

Sunday, August 6

I scrape the ground mightily with all four paws and then take off into a crazy, uninhibited running jag around the dog park. I skid to a halt inches from the gate, my paws sliding in a patch of mud. There’s mud caked between my toes. I freeze and play-bow to nobody. I find my human’s gaze and meet her eyes briefly, then I’m off again, zooming like a rocket. Since it’s Sunday I’m alone in the middle pen, separated from the large pack in the big pen, but it’s okay. I’m a dog. Nobody knows how to celebrate a good, early morning poop in the fresh wet grass like a dog.

My human and I skirt the big pen on our way home. A brindle pit bull homes in on a jogging woman and begins fence running, barking at her and raising clouds of dust as he weaves back and forth along the fence line, trying to head the woman off. My ears snap forward and I draw a sharp breath. For a moment I’m a shelter dog, back in my gravel run, and the big silver fighting dog Tess has just escaped from her kennel again. She’s racing down the row of pens, snapping at dogs through the chain link fence. Flesh is torn, and teeth break off on the wires. The humans are darting everywhere, with their desperate shouts and their airhorns and their hoses. The water funneling into the gutters runs red in rivers of blood.

Then my human shushes me and it’s over. I remember myself and I don’t react to either of the dogs I pass by on leash, even though the sidewalk is narrow by the bridge and one of them lunges at me. It’s the same white poodle on the long leash who always startles both our humans with his piercing, high-pitched alert.

On the break between periods of activity at the cafe, my human releases me from my “down, stay” on my towel. We walk to her mother’s car.

I whimper and sink to my belly in the back of my human’s mother’s car. This is the only car in which I ride in the trunk. Magda answers my whine, but her eyes are all for her human as she wiggles and weaves around the woman’s legs. Magda rarely wears a leash or collar and today like usual she’s crossing the parking lot bare, oblivious to the cars shifting around her. Her tail wags so vigorously that it propels her whole body side to side in a rocking motion, hips swaying alluringly. Typically, Magda needs her human to lift her into the trunk, but today she makes the jump in a single bound with only a slight hesitation. We wrestle on the carpet, slamming into the walls, while the humans chat. The only time Magda doesn’t pant heavily, letting out little involuntary sounds of anxiety, is when she’s licking out the inside of my mouth. I open my mouth wider and try to turn it into a game of jaw wrestling, but she doesn’t get the concept. Magda’s so submissive that she fawns on everybody, no matter how low their rank.

Magda’s stayed at our house a few times, but it’s hard for her to be fun because she’s so worried about her human. All she wants to do is pace and pant and lie down on the mat by the door. I managed to interest her in rolling belly-up and wrestling with me, but I had to work at it very persistently. Once we went on a real eight-mile pack walk together. Afterwards we got stuck because she didn’t know how to “sit” politely in front of the door until my human gave her permission to enter, so my human had to do emergency dog school with her.

The minute my human opens the car door Magda and I explode out. We’re at the house with the wood floors, in the front yard with its flat plains of concrete and plastic grass that’s so good for rolling on. I zoom in wide loops. In one of my circuits I accidentally meet Magda head-on. It’s intimidating, so I tuck my tail and zoom faster, passing her. When I crash through the hedge my human calls me to “come” before I have a chance to really explore the dirt trail beyond. I barrel toward her at full speed, mindless of the way my shoulder clips Magda’s human’s legs. I plunk my butt down on the concrete and look up at my human expectantly, tongue lolling, until she gives me my reward. Today it’s a chunk of soft squishy banana. She tells me “free” and just like that I’m off again.

It’s too hot to keep at it for long. The sun’s glare reflects off the cement. I hover by my human, who’s sitting in the car’s open trunk. Magda paces listlessly while her human yaps. Her human is as feisty as a Boston terrier around other people but towards me she always acts like an excited puppy so that’s how I treat her. Now and again Magda returns to me to lick my mouth, just so I won’t forget that she respects my rank.

My human has a pain smell today that gets stronger gradually. She touches her head and mumbles “I don’t know” a lot.

Once all the hustle and bustle has settled down and most of the people have gone away smelling happy and sugary, my human and her mother have serious conversations at the cafe. (“So have you forgiven yourself?” Long, heavy pause. My human’s body language reads “tension, insecure.” She’s struggling inside herself, avoiding eye contact. “It would be easy to forgive myself if I knew for certain it was never going to happen again. But there’s a part of me that wants to do it again, and that’s the part I’m not sure deserves forgiveness.” “Yeah but we’re all like that about our sins.”) I don’t understand what they’re about, but the tones of voice they use tell me it’s important. My human comes away smelling refreshed. Her pain scent diminishes, and she walks straighter. It’s the same way that I’m less anxious because I know I have a dominant to keep me safe. The conversations for humans help them form pack bonds, and knowing your role in the pack, especially if it’s not the top role, is always a relief.

I zig zag across the parking lot because the asphalt scalds my pads. I try to steer us into patches of shadow cast by other peoples’ cars, cutting from one shady spot to the next until we reach our car.

My human sings to me during the drive. I’m expecting us to end up at trick class, but we wind up at home instead.

Later I follow my human around, trying to interest her in doing anything but rustling boring papers for hours. I lift one forepaw diffidently and break eye contact or let out an exaggerated yawn whenever I feel like I’m might be coming on too strong. My subtle tactics work, obviously, because we do dog school with fresh, juicy meat straight from the pan.

My human stays professional for most of our training, but her calm cracks when I raise both my paws for “beg.” Lately she’s always most excited about this command, even though for months and months she said “good” to my responses with the same grudging voice and frustrated smell that’s now associated with “limp.”

I have the most fun practicing “skateboard.” Today I paddle the skateboard across the kitchen, but sometimes “skateboard” is an outside command on the driveway or parking lots where children gather to oooh and ahhh at me. I hear “good” in an encouraging tone when I put my two front paws on the skateboard and push with my hind legs. But when I managed to maneuver one of my hind legs onto the board, my human really lights up. She barks “Yes, yes, yes!” and rushes to feed me turkey scraps. We should do “skateboard” every day.

There’s still meat left over, so we play “get it” until the wonderful smell from the treat pouch sadly fades away. Then I sigh and flatten myself on the carpet glumly, head between paws, because my human’s staring at papers again.

In the evening, after dinner, my human lets me outside to pee before bed. I sit while she opens the door, then follow her down the steps to the driveway. The yard is tiny and has no fence. I’m reluctant to walk on the sharp-edged gravel, but my human repeats “free,” and makes a sweeping hand gesture. Obediently, I pick my way to the palm tree, placing each paw gingerly. The only tree in the yard is barely taller than I am, and if I’m not careful its fronds poke into my belly when I try to ease close enough to lift my leg. After I’ve emptied my bladder, my human mounts the stairs, in a hurry to be back inside. I pause at the base of the ramp, listening to neighbor dogs yapping. They don’t get structured exercise and only go on walks to relieve themselves, so they’re stir-crazy from being cooped up all day. I close my eyes and my nostrils flare. It’s dusk, the best time of day for hunting, because the earth’s releasing the day’s heat and smells leap off the pavement at me like magic. I’m off-leash, so there’s nothing physically stopping me from taking off and exploring the sounds and the scents of the neighborhood. But I’m a good boy, so I just linger a minute, my body angled out at the wide world, to soak up some food for my dreams, and then I climb the staircase and sit at my human’s side while she opens the door again.

WINTER 2013

The condo was the first place I lived that was not a backyard or a kennel, but it was never a home. My human never felt safe there, and as a result I never fully relaxed either. Our first real home came later, and it was where I met my girlfriend Chloe and where her human treated our pack with such warmth and acceptance that I caught a glimpse of what it takes to fill the holes inside of human beings.

After we moved away, we returned to the condo only once, to find that Munchie had annexed the upper level to his territory in our absence. He’d made his point loudly and clearly by pooping right in the middle of the mattress where we used to sleep.

My human spent a lot of time carefully packing up the car with boxes of things that mostly weren’t good to chew but smelled like our life together. We drove to a house, which we’d briefly visited once before. Like the condo, this new place already had a dog.

It was not love at first sight.

She was an alpha. That was crystal clear at our first meeting, even though she advanced on me in a predator’s crouch with her head angled low on her neck below the hump of her shoulders and her tail medium height, not wagging at all. I froze instinctively, turning my face away as slowly and unobtrusively as possible.

Chloe bristled with tension while she inspected me, the line of dark fur along her spine standing up raggedly. Her tension crackled in the air. I held myself so still that I only knew my lungs were still moving shallowly because even the lightest sip of her scent nearly choked me. That’s how I knew I was in real danger. She smelled prickly, like a mouthful of needles; I’d never met a porcupine before, or I’d have cringed when I recognized her. Chloe was dominant, no doubt about it, but she gave off the most terrible pain smell I’d ever tasted.

When Chloe finally took a step back from me, I still didn’t dare move a muscle. She fixed me with a sharp-eyed glare that said, “I’ve decided not to kill you just yet. But don’t get comfortable.”

I was still standing stock still, trying not to breathe offensively, when the cat sauntered into the kitchen. It saw me, flattened its ears to its skull, and hissed through its teeth.

I was already using every trick of body language In my arsenal to reassure Chloe that I meant her no harm. I could not alleviate her pain. But here was a problem I could help her with: her territory had an infestation that appeared to have been ongoing for some time. I craned my neck forward to stare as hard as I could at my target without giving away my intentions, and then I sprang.

Chloe trailed only a hair’s breadth behind me. As one, we chased the cat through two sets of doors and into the backyard. The cat shot straight up the wood slats of the fence and into a tall tree. It leapt from branch to branch, finally settling far above our heads. It peered down at us menacingly. Chloe and I danced along the fence at the base of the tree, taking turns battering against the wood with our paws. The boards creaked and wobbled but held.

I would have liked to wait at the base of the tree until the cat came down, but my human dragged me away. And anyways, as it turned out the cat didn’t come down for six days. I would have gotten pretty hungry waiting that long. About a week later when I put my nose to the wind near the fence line I couldn’t smell the cat anymore. I never saw it again and eventually the traces of its scent faded from the rafters in the garage. Even though neither Chloe nor I actually caught the cat, I still call that a job well done.

My human and I spread our scent in one of the bedrooms soon after that. The house was all one level, so there were no fun stairs to bound up and down, but it had smooth wood floors that slid under our paws and gave us a great boost in momentum when Chloe and I chased after one another. There was a dog door, which I quickly learned how to use from following Chloe. The house was perfectly designed so that Chloe and I could race in a loop from the living room to the kitchen, through the dog door into the garage, out a second door, across the backyard, and then back into the living room through a third set of doors without ever breaking stride.

I have had many friends, and will have many more friends in the future. But Chloe was one of only two dogs I’ve ever met who spoke the same play language as me. We were perfectly matched to one another as if our bodies had been designed to work in harmony. Chloe was dominant to me, and being in constant pain made her insecure about her status. She wouldn’t accept any dogs besides me at all into her pack even on a temporary basis, no matter how submissive they were, because her survival instinct told her she needed to drive them off before they took advantage of her weakness. But from our first day together Chloe and I were inseparable and always in sync and I understood that she had been waiting her whole life for me to come play with her.

Chloe was permanently bow-legged from severe hip dysplasia, but she never let that slow her down. We wrestled for hours, leaping and twirling around each other and vocalizing loudly. We went with our humans to a wide open grassy field and we ran in circles, playing chase but also just running together as a unit. I was always slightly ahead so that Chloe nipped at my shoulders and scolded me, but it was part of the game because I’m the fastest dog in the world and I could have evaded her easily if I wanted to. One of the best things was when all four of us drove in her human’s car. Chloe and I sat together in the backseat sharing space and even resting our bodies intimately against or on top of each other in the warm familiar totally comfortable way I’ve only ever found with Chloe and with Sadie.

A lot of people interrupt rough play even when it’s healthy and everybody’s having a blast. They give off an annoyed smell and then yell at their dogs or drag them off of each other and then make them sit while the humans chat and the dogs just look at each other wondering where the fun went. Chloe’s human never did this. She appreciated us for exactly what we were. When we slip-slided across the wood floor, banging into the furniture, she caught our enjoyment and laughed with us. Even my human (who’s relatively tolerant overall) gets irritated when I slam into her knees or use her legs as a defensive barrier in a game of chase, but Chloe’s human never did.

Chloe’s human was one of the most alive people I’d ever met. She glowed with vibrancy in the way that made the world seem black and white whenever she wasn’t around (As a side note, we dogs are not totally color blind. We have diachromatic vision, so we just don’t see shades of a human-visible color called red).

Chloe’s human called me “Monkey Boy” and rubbed under my chin with her hands. She talked to me a lot, often in high squeaky voices, but it was different from the way many people talk to dogs that gushes slobbery emotions or imitates prey. When my human speaks to me she’s usually firm and clear because I’m meant to understand and act on her commands. I can read her feelings and intentions from her tone the same way I get them in her smell. Most of her approval is delivered in a firm voice that lets me know my work is serious and important. Occasionally, though, she’ll speak to me in a way that means fun and I can taste the happiness melting on my tongue like warm butter. It’s not meaningless or confusing because of the context: I earn every reward I get from my human, so she even saves her soft voice for moments of honest celebration. In contrast, the type of affection that most people show to dogs in their voices comes totally unearned and dogs know it has nothing to do with us: the human involved isn’t really even seeing us, and isn’t trying to communicate anything. They just see a dog - not an individual with feelings or thoughts or a reachable soul holding its own unique, private universe into which every invitation is an immeasurable gift. Just a dog, with the assumption that there’s no need to look deeper than surface details because any dog will do and the differences don’t matter. And for some reason these humans allow whatever fragile inner walls of strength they have to collapse, releasing a torrent of sloppy emotions - bitterness and pain and loneliness and vulnerability - to crash all over us. It’s extremely disconcerting to have someone you’ve never met before walk up to you and dump an alpha job on you without asking your opinion on the matter, especially when the monster they’re expecting you to protect them from lives inside their own mind.

The dog is the god of frolic. We are not unconditionally loving or unjudgmental. In the dog world there is no such thing as equality; we are hierarchical, so it stands to reason that we have standards. We are not sponges for sopping up people’s dirty secrets. We do not want to take the worst things you carry around inside of you. We want you to drop your burdens and dance freely with us.

Chloe’s human didn’t use kindness to try to take anything away from me. She offered security just by virtue of being an alpha who walked in a room and needed nobody else to save her. She carried a celebration around inside her, and she always wanted to share it. That’s what spilled out in her funny voices. I never once thought about jumping up on her. When she looked at me I felt communication and I wagged my tail and lapped at the air in case she’d put her chin down for me to lick.

Best of all, around Chloe and her human, my human smelled happy and unclouded, so that I knew our pack was young and strong.

Eventually we stopped going back to the shelter. I sensed that my human was sad about the change, but it meant that we spent long hours at the house with Chloe during the day. Chloe’s human was gone a lot, so it would be just us three. My human would sprawl out on the floor or on a sheet on the couch and use a stick to put thick oily smelling stuff on pieces of cloth. I never could figure out the point of this, but I welcomed the opportunity to play with Chloe and to take naps. Chloe owned everything in the house. She took property rights very seriously, so inevitably whichever bed or spot on the couch I decided on sleep on, as soon as I’d curled up she’d stalk over to me growling low in her throat until I moved. Chloe was also obsessed with toys, and like Jade she carried them around in her mouth to show everyone proudly that YES, she owned this, and NO, you couldn’t have it. Sometimes she took the extra precaution of burying her toys in the moist black dirt in the yard so that even when she was done holding one of her possessions nobody else could use it.

Occasionally my human and Chloe’s human snuck away together in her car and left us dogs in the backyard. It would happen that I got a funny feeling while we were on the patio, so I’d check the smooth shiny doors that led into living room, and they’d be closed. Then I’d race around to the back gate where it opened on the driveway and wait there, my snout shoved as far as it would fit into the crack underneath. I huffed great gulps of air, sifting the wind for my human’s scent.

Mostly I still went everywhere with my human. We took even longer walks than ever, around the path that circled the park, and along trails in the hills. I experienced off-leash walking for the first time. My human and I also sometimes ran together. I enjoyed the exhilarating pace, but my human panted so hard afterwards that she couldn’t stop dry wrenching and she vomited up any water she drank. We traveled early in the morning, while there was still a biting chill in the air and dew on the grass. After our exercise, I’d eat my breakfast. Then sometimes we’d go to a huge dog park without a fence where more than fifty dogs at a time would congregate.

When Chloe and I went to the park with our humans, we’d spread out and hunt ground squirrels. I raced from one burrow to the next, irresistibly drawn by the chirping alerts the squirrels sent out. If I found a burrow with a really strong, fresh scent I’d thrust my muzzle into it and snort, listening for echoes of prey moving around deep underground. Then I’d open my jaws as wide as they’d go and grab great mouthfuls of earth, ripping up turf and rocks and clods of dirt and spitting them out away from the hole I’d made. Mud coated my tongue and ended up caked between my teeth. I once dug for two full hours, trading off with my human when she’d take a turn scooping out dirt in a paper cup so that I could lie down and catch my breath. I haven’t caught anything yet.

This was the first time in my life that I ate food that wasn’t kibble on a semi regular basis. Our two humans would cook for us in a big pot on the stove, ladling thin broth studded with generous hunks of succulent chicken and vegetables into our bowls. Chloe and I could eat in the same room if we needed to, because Chloe’s status was so firmly established that I would have laid down and given her my food without a fight if she’d demanded it. Curiously, even though as an alpha she could have easily taken our dinner away from either of us dogs, my human mostly ate metallic smelling fish out of cans for every meal.

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