Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 14

Monday, August 7

My human was so distracted this morning on our walk that I tried to steer us down the shortcut to dog park, hoping she wouldn’t notice. No such luck. Every time I attempted to turn, I ended up in front of her, and she gently nudged me out of the way with her thigh.

We saw Jilly and her human traveling together along the same sidewalk ahead of us. We were aimed at them head-on, so my human curved us away a little to try to communicate that our pack didn’t want a confrontation. Jilly and I called out to each other in piteous whimpers. When we reached touching distance, my human released me with “say hello,” and I cut diagonally across the pavement to mark a bush. Sweet endorphins flooded my system, flushing out my anxiety. I grinned and panted my relief while Jilly’s nose found my butt under my wagging tail. Her fluffy plume of a tail was fanning hard enough that I could smell her just fine without getting any more up-close and personal.

Normally her human and mine stop and chat while Jilly and I lick our chops and dream about nice cold bowls of water, but today there was a dog approaching steadily along the path behind us. Even though Jilly is physically a much larger dog than me, she’s insecure. She smelled the stranger dog and erupted into deep throated barking, warning the intruder that she’s a big dog and she’s prepared to defend what’s hers. For a moment I let myself be caught up in the rush of her aggression, but at the sharp intake of my breath my human shushed me. I stayed calm as we quickly sped away.

At the dog park an energetic young female slapped my chin with her nose. She play-bowed to me, then took off in a running jag, trying to entice me to chase. I was still hot and tired from walking. I glanced at my human for a cue, but she didn’t express any opinions about how I should handle the situation.

I liked the flat water in the bowls better than the flowing water from the pipe today.

The young female was still determined to play with me, so I pretended to be too busy sniffing around in the grass to pay attention to her.

My human was in a rush cooking my breakfast. I’ve noticed a disappointing correlation between the days when she smells frazzled and bangs things around a lot and breakfasts that don’t include fried eggs. There was still butter for me to keep me smacking my lips until she hurriedly swiped the toothbrush over my teeth a few times.

I did “down, stay,” at the house with the wood floors for ages while my human and her mother and sister packed dusty smelling papers into boxes. At least the smooth surface was nice and cool under my belly. I wear my red vest at this house even though it’s not a public building and we never practice “ready” there. Today the house was filled with noisy kids scampering around. I stay perfectly still around them, I tolerate their high-pitched yelping, and I’m patient when they step on me or run my feet over with wheels. They don’t give off a fear smell, but they never pet me like the children at the library do. I guess being my human’s family puts them in a different category than library kids.

My human’s family took a break and sat around a long table to eat lunch. I could smell that it’s the familiar food from the lunch place: my sensitive nose easily separated out individual odors of blueberries, banana, and other fruit I haven’t tasted before. My human perched on a chair beside her sister, but she only drank water with a slight acidic bite to its scent. My human used to eat at the lunch place with her mother and at least one sister every Saturday, but now she never eats anything when we’re out with other people, even though going without food for hours makes her hungry and grumpy. Right before the food arrives, I lift my head and prick forward my ears because panic spikes in her scent and I keep my eyes peeled for an impending threat. But then her family eats, and she sips water and relaxes. As soon as we’re alone she’ll hole up in our car or our bedroom and scarf her own lunch while I nap. It’s like she’s a shelter dog who only feels safe eating in her own kennel with nobody else around who might potentially challenge her for her meal.

When it was time to drive home, my human put more of those battered old papers into our car with us. In my opinion that was a mistake, because she already wastes too much time on the boring things.

There are many objects like these old papers that seem totally useless to me, but my human gazes at them with a warm, melty, not-quite-sad smell. It reminds me of the soft eyes she gives me when she sings in the car. She arranged the papers lovingly along the back wall of our bedroom, where my squeaky dumbbell will bounce off of them next time we play “get it”.

My human wanted to take a nap, but I didn’t get my eggs this morning, so I was too famished to sleep.

We played “get it” while the ground turkey for my dinner browned in the pan. My prediction about the papers along the bedroom wall proved accurate. I was extra hungry during our game, so I sneezed emphatically at my human after she took the dumbbell from my mouth (“give”), because I felt that today I should get a treat for EVERY retrieval instead of random rewards. I also tried doing “beg” when she asked for “place,” but somehow, she wasn’t impressed. “Get it” is easy when when my human throws the dumbbell in a straight line, but sometimes it hits the bedroom doorframe and comes ricocheting back at me, and then I cringe away from it. Other times it bounces off the walls and flies around a corner, where it hides from me. This isn’t really fair because big dogs like me have extremely poor eyesight, and also orange isn’t a good color for dogs. When I finally spot my dumbbell between the pillows propped up against one wall or alongside my crate I grin wolfishly with excitement and pounce on it before it can slink away.


Living in Chloe’s house, my human and I found peace, but she was still very sick.

Before we stopped going to the shelter, I picked up on some interesting patterns. In the morning, I would be drowning in my own saliva watching my human eat delicious ice cream with cookies in it. And then her emotions would plummet into a deep dark blackness where my nose was afraid to follow. At lunch, my human would eat smelly fish sandwiches, and then her scent carried heat and pain and her body language showed confusion and lethargy. She’d shake and stumble and drop things. I’d sense the massive effort as she held herself strong and pushed past the hurt, so nobody would see her weakness. It worked until she broke down crying. Sometimes it was silent salty tears that she kept to herself, but sometimes it was racking sobs that unleashed a torrent of anger from the bottomless well inside her to choke her all at once. Her body flooded with adrenaline and her heart pounded, racing so fast it tripped over itself unsteadily like a clumsy puppy unused to its long limbs.

When we no longer drove to the shelter, my human would eat different scrumptious ice cream with banana and peanut butter. Sometimes she shared bites with me if I “sat” nicely. The alarming part of this was that at night after this food she’d be seized with fits of liquidy, gurgling coughs that lasted for hours. She coughed so hard that she breathed sporadically in torturous wheezing gasps. One night I heard something tear inside her chest and her pain scent spike in a terrible explosion of agony.

My human constantly drank something with a bitter acidic smell from paper cups. Especially she drank this stuff when we went to college.

Going to college, I became a working dog for the first time. Up until this point I didn’t know any real tricks, but my human had taught me a game to play in the car. This game was called “paw” and it was very easy.

My human always brought pieces of paper with her in the car. She’d pick them up and glance back and forth between them and the front window. The more frequently she did this, the thicker the panic smell poured off of her until it clogged the cabin even with the open windows. She’d sweat and shake and hyperventilate and cry and talk to herself. Her eyes started to lose focus. And then we played “paw.” She gave the command and I pawed at her leg like a puppy begging for treats. Low and behold, she popped open a little tin and gave me one! It was amazingly simple. I was more than happy to play this game over and over and over again until the car stopped moving.

That was my introduction to having a job.

On an average day, my work at college consisted of quietly posting myself in front of or beside my human while she sat in a chair. I laid my chin in her lap. Back then, we had no command word for this behavior; it was just part of the pattern that comprised college in both our minds. Similarly, driving to college and walking up and down streets in a giant rectangle around the buildings was part of our routine. But there were two other options for how events could play out.

A few times at college I witnessed a very alarming scenario. My human would be glancing back and forth from the person standing at the front of the room, whose droning voice I’d long since tuned out, to a paper on her desk, which she scratched furiously with a stick. Then, abruptly, her hand would move very slowly and shakily, and her head would freeze facing forward. Gazing up at her, I’d see her eyes flicker rapidly in every direction without seeming to see anything. Her shoulders twitched spasmodically, and her skin burned white hot against my fur. The sickness in her scent intensified to a level I’d never experienced before. Then she collapsed forward onto her desk.

A few minutes later she’d have raised her head again, but she never resumed her stick scratching, and her eyes looked glazed and out of focus. The heavy odors of confusion and shame hung stiflingly around her.

Dogs do not feel guilt. Humans think we cower because we “know we did wrong,” but really all we know is that you’re angry with us, and “why” never crosses our minds. Our world does not include right or wrong or “should’s” and “should nots”. Things are good or bad based purely on how they feel or smell or taste. But we understand shame. Shame is wearing a plastic cone around your neck, or having a long blade of grass that you can’t push all the way out dangling from your butt. Shame makes you want to tuck your tail and hide in a corner.

The person with the droning voice would reach a conclusion, and all of the humans in the room would shuffle their belongings and then exit en masse. My human would rise slowly to her feet and shamble outside, radiating a searing pain smell. She’d half lead half follow me to a concrete bench or to our car if we were parked close to the buildings that day, then she’d curl up into a ball and sleep for hours. Even her sleep smelled bad, tender and raw like an open wound, and whatever surface she lay upon was always drenched in sweat by the time she woke up. I didn’t like that kind of day, but fortunately it happened less and less often as I learned my new job.

My work at college concerned the third scenario for how a day might unfold. My human’s hand scratching at her paper would slow, and her skin took on a feverish flush. Then she’d put her hand on the leash and tell me, “okay.” Immediately I’d make a beeline for the exit, towing her along behind me. It’s the only time I am allowed to pull my human on leash. We’d burst through the door and either my human would collapse against a wall outside - in which case I watched helplessly as she rode out the full episode to its sleepy conclusion - or we’d take off running. When we ran, we’d sprint for a short stretch, then return to the building. The running burned away all the extra sick smell, so my human was able to sit down and scratch at her desk again.

There was one time when my human smelled so sick, but she didn’t respond to my increasingly urgent entreaties (staring “want” at her in hopes that she’d give me my cue, and nudging her hands with my snout) for us to leave. Finally, I seized her sleeve in my mouth and yanked on it with all my might, shuffling backwards and dragging her with me. Half way to the exit her sleeve tore away cleanly between my teeth, but we managed to get away safely.

A nice woman who spoke in the circle of metal chairs with my human brought me a red vest, and from then on, I wore it to college. We had lots of friends from the rooms with the shiny floors and squeaky chairs. Most of them were adult humans but one was a kid whose head barely came up to my shoulder and whose house we visited. Another was a serious working dog who also wore a vest. She did a job called “high or low,” and we got along well even though she was actually a coyote.

Jae the working dog and I also used to hunt ground squirrels at the park like I did with Chloe. Her grey and brown ticked coyote pelt disappeared in the arid yellow weeds. But my favorite memory with Jae was when our humans left us alone in the car and I wedged my snout into a hole in a bag that Jae’s human left in the footwell. I inhaled the most intriguing, heady perfume, wiggling my nose deeper and deeper. The hole yawned wide for me with a zippy sound. The sour milky stuff in the little plastic bowel was alright, but it was the juicy chicken breast that was the real prize. By the time our humans returned, I was smacking my lips, trying to work the last traces of a savory, chunky sauce with an unfamiliar fruit flavor out of the loose folds of my jowls where the best food always gets stuck.

College was a morning activity, and the rooms with the circle of chairs happened in the evenings. When we weren’t at home relaxing with Chloe, for a few months at a time we’d spend our afternoons at different public buildings. They all stank of damp and dogs and nose-tingly shampoo and sometimes mold. I could tell that lots of terrified dogs had released their anal glands in these places, which made me uneasy in and of itself. To make matters worse, I had to stay locked up in a kennel where I watched my human scurrying about touching other dogs while I was trapped behind bars.

The smells were roughly the same as the buildings where our humans sometimes took Chloe and I for baths. Except that our pack always stayed together. Even though the water still reminded me unpleasantly of the hoses at the shelter (and one time it suddenly spurted out so hot it scalded my leg), I wasn’t too scared because my pack was with me. Our humans always scrubbed us slowly and gently. Chloe’s human brought such a wealth of cheer to everything she did that she managed to trick us into thinking baths were fun. Throughout the process I held myself so still I was practically invisible, and even Chloe saved her protests till the end. Then she’d whirl around, and surprise whichever human happened to be closest to her with a short sharp warning bite, saying “don’t ever do that again!” But these other dogs fought at every step and wailed miserably for their humans, not knowing whether they’d been kidnapped or just abandoned forever. People rushed about at a frantic, lightning pace. They grabbed dogs and held them roughly, shouting and cursing so that their captives quivered with fear. The dogs wanted desperately to leave, and the humans wanted the dogs to leave, too, and the dogs knew it.

My human worked on these poor dogs at the same frenzied pace as everyone else, but she never yelled. After a while, though, she’d give off a fuzzy, uncertain smell that stung my nose. She threw every ounce of energy she had into her work, but the effort was lost in translation and the movements came out feeble. The darkness inside her would bubble to the surface. The other people’s eyes followed her sharply, with disapproval, as they read “hurt, broken” in her hunched body language.

I began to understand that, when my human lost control of her emotions more and more often at any particular place, pretty soon we wouldn’t be going there anymore.

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