Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 15

Tuesday, August 8

As we trotted along the pavement on our morning walk, barking erupted from behind a parked car. My breathe caught in my throat and I hopped high in the air. Startled, my human barked “hey!” sharply. I felt my leash loosen, the extra slack relieving a small amount of my anxiety. It wasn’t enough. As we rounded the car’s bumper, a big black dog tied to a fence came into view. He stood his ground in the middle of the driveway, in a predatory stance, head low and pelt bristling from nose to tail.

The dog strained at the end of his tether. He growled deeply and menacingly, warning us not to take another step on his property. His human abandoned the hole in the dirt she’d been crouched over and rushed to hide behind him, adding her yell to his snarled threats. My human curved us into the street, turning her body and face away from him, but my attention was riveted on the dog. She snapped the leash, hard, jerk and release, and I finally managed to flash a brief glance in her direction. My paws continued to rebel, dancing fitfully in starts and stops to the irregular rhythm of my breathing, until we’d left the hostile territory far behind.

All dogs feel trapped on the end of tethers. That kind of restraint is worse than fences at inspiring animosity between us. It’s part of why greeting each other on leash can be so tense. Having someone walk directly up to you in a straight line is unnatural and nerve wracking. On a leash, especially one held short and tight, there’s no freedom to meander off to the side and defuse tension by pretending to sniff the ground. Two dogs approaching each other head-on can’t resist the temptation to look at each other, just to make sure the other dog isn’t staring at them. And then when their eyes meet inevitably the conflict ignites.

We saw Jilly and her human up ahead of us, but they disappeared through a gate before we could “say hello.”

I jumped off the curb to avoid a man petting the grass with a loud stick. Its angry buzzing grated my ears.

At the dog park, a pack of three dogs mobbed me all at once. I made my way from tree to tree, lifting my leg while their noses explored my body. I held my tail mid height but crooked at a hard angle near the base, because all the attention made me nervous. My human set a bowl in front of me (“water!“) but I only lapped a few sips before the pack pressed in too close. I retreated, politely letting the other dogs drink first. I’m not a dog with big political ambitions. They pestered me so much that I felt too self-conscious to really put a good solid effort into pooping. I had to wait until the interest died down to finish my morning constitutional and slake my thirst.

As soon as she’d unclipped my leash at home, a fit of friskiness seized my human. She stood over me with one leg on either side of my back and rubbed under my chin and patted my chest playfully. I tolerate her when she’s in moods like this. When she started to scratch the itchy spot above the base of my tail, though, I got on board with things. I leaned into her, my tailing wagging so vigorously it rocked my hindquarters from side to side, and I licked her hands encouragingly.

We did dog school. I’m getting really good at finding my marks no matter where my human hides them. The trickiest exercise today was hand signals without voice commands. I recognized the usual sequence (left hand scooping upward for “sit,” right hand raised in a salute for “down”) and anticipated “stand” (right index finger pointing up) before my human actually gave the signal, so she told me “nope” and we started over several times.

My breakfast took an eternity because my human got distracted while she was cooking. She kept darting back and forth between the stove and the room at the back of the house that’s so full of dusty smelling stuff that I can hardly wedge myself inside. I heard curious rustling and scraping sounds, but I held my “down, stay” like a good boy.

Next, I laid on my towel in the shade while my human swam. The strong breezes carried a stinging chemical smell to my nose. Every time she burst out of the water my human rubbed her eyes and let out little distressed yips. I lifted my head lazily and blinked at her in my best soothing fashion.

I’d been napping peacefully for an hour or so when my human slid off the mattress and crossed to the front door. I trailed behind her, catching a glimpse of her father out on the steps, but he turned away and she shut the door again before I could get too worked up about wanting to greet him. My human’s father smelled of tightly controlled impatience. Then my human did something she almost never does: she opened the back door.

My human and her father pounded up and down the back steps. They hauled boxes and dragged pieces of furniture out of the cluttered room where my human was so distracted this morning. Part of the time I loped along behind my human, head and tail submissively low, but for the most part I just watched from the safety of the living room, my ears swiveling independently of one another as I listened simultaneously to the mysterious booming and shifting of objects both inside and outside the house.

The whole ordeal took a toll on me. Any time someone else visits our house is a big event, because it happens so rarely. Exhausted from the stress, I laid down on the carpet for a nap, but even after I’d heard the grumble of my human’s father’s car driving away, I kept having to raise my head at every little sound to check if he was coming back.

My human played “tug” with me before my obedience class job. When we play this game, we wrestle and yank a squeaky toy with two rope handles between us. My human used to play very awkwardly so that I sensed she wasn’t really into it, but lately she’s improving. I’m very easily intimidated because she’s my alpha, so I take a lot of breaks standing still with my tail low and my head turned away from her, very obviously not making eye contact. She praises me with “good tug” when I grab ahold of one of the handles with my mouth. We both jerk the toy back and forth, me shaking my head, and her swinging her wrist so that the motion sends ripples down through my neck. Even though my jaws are extremely strong I surrender the toy periodically without being asked because I don’t want my human to think I’m challenging her for resource control. It helps reassure me when she gets down low to the ground, as opposed to towering over me and reminding me how big she is during our game. When I back off, she pauses to avert her gaze and yawn, showing she isn’t offended by anything I’ve done. Then she bounds around me like a puppy trying to interest me in more romping, play-bowing and darting forward suddenly to shove me playfully off my paws. It’s hard to totally relax into a game with a human whose status I respect, because for dogs all rough housing is practicing ritual combat, with the potential that play could escalate into an earnest fight. I would never want to challenge my human for real.


I couldn’t know why we left our safe home. Why doesn’t matter to dogs. We left, moving for the third time, and I did what dogs do. I adjusted.

My human was not quite as adaptable.

Our new room was in a condo again. This one also had its own dog, an intact male chihuahua small enough to be beneath my notice even when he humped me. If he had a name I never paid him enough attention to learn it. He didn’t wear a collar and spent most of his day roaming the neighborhood freely, searching for bitches in heat and leaving sign posts to let everyone know that he was available to mate.

Before I’d even set paw in the new condo, I smelled the sour, rank pheromones of an alpha male. My nose found a bush by the front door that had been marked frequently, and I traced the scent trail to a suggestive stain on the concrete. I knew right away that this marker wasn’t made by the resident canine - or any dog at all.

We visited before actually spreading our scent in our new bedroom. As we walked through the house, obviously inspecting it, my nose tingled unpleasantly with pungent smoky odors I vaguely remembered from the first condo. I got a queasy feeling. I glanced up at my human, pleading with my eyes, “let’s not stay here. Let’s leave.” But my human didn’t look at me. She smelled like loss and emptiness, worse than I’d ever gotten from her since we joined our pack to Chloe’s, and she seemed too dazed by private grief to do more than nod her head up and down in response to the other people’s words.

Our room was on the upper level, but my human gave off such a strong smell of caution in the condo that I crept up the stairs at her side instead of bounding joyfully up. Much to my chagrin, my human now vacuumed on a regular basis. The only saving grace was that our tiny room only took a few minutes to vacuum, and nobody ever turned on the hated grumbling thing beyond our door. She also did laundry, but just like in Chloe’s house, the drier was in the garage, where it was too far away to whisper its insidious intentions to me. As far as I could tell, two of the adult humans lived on a big mattress in the garage. So the drier would have eaten them first, anyway.

There were four other adult humans and two children living in the condo, but I never had much interaction with them. From the start the dominant male was the one my human dealt with primarily. Just being around him raised her hackles and made me feel subdued. I knew that he didn’t like me, of course, and I also picked up on a pointed edge to his voice when he spoke to my human. He’d ambush us in the living room just as we were about to slip out the front door, and while he yapped my human would shift from foot to foot, anxious to get away. I’d sit quietly, glued to her side. I tucked my tail under my butt, my ears flat and my head drooping, and I’d pant heavily, gulping the air that couldn’t satisfy me because it was so tainted with noxious smoke. The bitter fumes followed me everywhere in the condo, pursuing me relentlessly even into our room. At night I curled myself on the couch we were using as a bed, on the furthest corner from the door, my tail over my nose, and still I slept fitfully. Even my kibble tasted of the dank, biting smell.

I was glad that our pack never spent time at the condo during the day. We ate dinner in our room and slept and then escaped quickly into the fresh air first thing in the morning. We never did my work at college, despite the fact that I was just getting good at it. We went to the shampoo and misery smelling buildings (in one of them I got to sit behind an indoor wood fence with another dog instead of a kennel). We also frequented the circles of metal chairs, sometimes in the morning as well as the evening. Mostly, though, we walked. We walked up and down streets everywhere, covering so much territory that the places marked by local dogs changed many times. We traveled for hours and my human collected things, just like she does on the beach. Back then it was cans, which she carried around in plastic bags that ended up in our car. Even with the open windows, the car smelled sticky sweet from so many cans. They’d fill every available inch of space, bulging up at me from the footwell, and then we drove to a place absolutely brimming with the intoxicating aroma of garbage, and my human pulled out the bags all at once and left them there. She repeated this ritual endlessly.

Occasionally we rested our sore feet inside the movie theater, which had wonderful air conditioning. The music boomed at me, jabbing into my ears and echoing in my skull, but I got used to it and took naps on the greasy carpet.

The one time I remember sensing a pure spark of happiness from my human was after we visited a public building infested with birds. Most of the birds were kenneled, but a loose chicken with its chest puffed up challengingly strutted between cages. The birds chirped and squawked raucously, and the ones nearest to me fluttered wildly in circles, their feathers dashing against the bars in a hopeless bid for freedom. I knew instinctively that I was outnumbered so I averted my eyes and pressed my body up against my human’s leg. She led me back to the car, where I waited patiently while she disappeared back inside. I didn’t mind waiting outside alone in this case, because, compared to the condo, the car had become a den where I felt safe. My human fulfilled her alpha job by removing me from a threatening situation, even if the danger came from too many prey animals packed in together.

A little later she returned clutching a cardboard box with a fascinating smell to her chest. She carried the box on her lap while she drove, and I sidled up on my belly as close as I could get, pressing my nose to a small hole, the better to drink in the irresistible aroma inside. The heady perfume shot straight to my brain. I pricked my ears, homing in on the faint sound of claws clicking and scrabbling against paper.

Back in our bedroom, my human reached into the cardboard box and drew out a tiny, squirming bundle of white fluff, presenting it to me on the palms of her hand. The mouse and I greeted each other nose to nose. Her whiskers tickled my nostrils. I knew by her shrill pips and squeaks that she was prey, but she gave off a curiosity smell rather than fear. I opened my mouth to take her head delicately between my front teeth, but my human growled “no!” Instantly I backed off, because I heard “mine” loud and clear and understood that even though a mouse obviously can’t be pack, this one belonged to my alpha and was therefore off the menu.

The mouse was named Kitten. She lived in a glass box on the backseat of the car, where she made squeaking noises every time we drove. Kitten was a bloody-minded, murderous creature who bit and screamed dire promises of vengeance whenever my human touched her. The sanctity of her domain was violated once a week, when my human lifted her into a small plastic container so that she could spray harsh chemicals into the glass box to eliminate the appetizing, musky prey odors it accumulated. I curled up on the front seat with my ears laid back and refused to look while this was happening. The fact that Kitten stayed off the menu the whole six months of her miserable existence is proof that humans are by nature irrational beings.

My human’s sickness followed us to the condo.

The night it caught up with us, we were bunkered down in our room on the couch. My human ate dinner while I curled up in my usual corner, harassed into flimsy, disturbed dreams by the smoke. When the food smells dissipated, I thought my human was napping too, but then I flicked back my ears, listening to her soft sounds of discomfort. Abruptly she rolled off the couch, and I raised my head, noticing as she stood that her belly looked strangely distended.

We drove to one of the rooms with the metal chairs, but this time we never made it inside. My human hobbled along at an agonized slow pace, collapsing on the steps outside the door with a groan. She tried to curl up, but by now her stomach was so grotesquely swollen that her arms couldn’t reach her knees around the huge mound that it had become. She ended up sprawled on the ground, fighting for each labored gasp. Her scent pulsed and throbbed with pain. I lay down on the cement beside her, feeling helpless and depressed. The shiver that ran through my shoulders was only partially due to the chilly night air.

Finally, a female human whom I recognized as a friend came along. She stopped short when she saw us.

“Oh my god, are you alright?”

“I don’t think so. My stomach started to hurt about two hours ago, and now I look eight months pregnant.”

“Do you want me to take you to the hospital?”

Our friend drove the car, while my human rode beside her in the seat usually occupied by me. I was banished to the backseat. The humans chatted a little in subdued tones, but my human continued to moan, shifting awkwardly on the leather as though vying for a less painful position. I panted fearfully the whole way. If I’d had room, and solid footing, I would have worked out my anxiety by pacing.

When the car pulled to a stop, my human lurched out. I hastened to follow her, but she turned and commanded me “stay,” firmly, signaling with her palms held flat toward me. I whimpered my protest but obeyed. Confused and forlorn, I tracked her as she staggered across a parking lot and into a building with a chemical smell.

The car shifted beneath my paws and a wave of panic hit me. I panted raggedly, but kept by eyes glued to the last place I’d seen my human, telling myself that nothing else mattered except seeing her the instant she reappeared. But the brightly lit doorway that had swallowed her up shrank smaller and smaller, until it became nothing but a dim white speck in the rapidly changing view outside the window. Then I lost track of it all together.

The car continued to rumble along smoothly for some time. When it stopped I heard the front door open, and my human’s friend climbed out and spoke with someone else for a while. Finally, a female person I didn’t know pulled open the door to the backseat and confronted me.

At first, I shied away from the unfamiliar human who tugged at my leash, speaking in a soft, cooing voice that told me she obviously wasn’t an alpha. But then I thought she must be here to take me to my human, so I jumped out of the car and hurried after her. This female kept my lead loose, and gave me no feedback about leash manners, so I surged ahead of her. I scanned the shadows, eyes peeled for my human, but all I could make out were the shapes of strange buildings and trees, looming over me in the dark.

If it were up to me, I would have kept searching until I’d located my human or at least picked up a trace of her scent. But the new human on the end of my leash asserted just enough control to steer us into a house.

I didn’t want to believe it, but a dog’s sense of smell doesn’t lie. My nose told me that my human wasn’t here. This was an unacceptable situation. Resolutely, I lay down by the front door. I told myself that I wouldn’t move a muscle until my human either my appeared, or this new person drove me back to her in her car. Presently the woman placed a bowl of kibble in front of me, but my stomach felt all twisted into knots, and even if I hadn’t made my decision not to budge from the doormat, I couldn’t have choked down a bite.

The hours passed in a haze for me. I maintained my vigil by the door all night. In the morning, the woman leashed up both me and a small dog I’d already scented but filed away under the category of things not pertaining to reuniting me with my human and therefore unimportant. We walked to a small grassy area, and my single-minded purpose relaxed just far enough to allow me to sniff around and relieve myself. The moment we’d returned to the house and my leash was off, I resumed my silent post.

A pounding sound on the outside of the door cut through my misery. The woman rushed to open the door, but I’d caught a whiff of who was on the other side, and I butted my way past her the second daylight shown through the crack. I didn’t jump up on my human, but that was the absolute limit of my self-control. I was delirious with joy, capering into a circle about her, threading myself through her legs. I came the closest I could to sobbing my abused doggy heart out in relief, unleashing keening pit bull screams in between puppyish whines of complaint about the horrors of the past twelve hours. My human just laughed with me, taking advantage of a moment when I’d held still in order to lick her face all over to wrap her arms around me. I snuffled at her ears and hair, snorting at faint odors of blood and medicine. At least her belly was no longer bloated up out of proportion.

When she offered me kibble a few minutes later, I bolted it down, suddenly finding myself ravenously hungry. We were together again, and everything was going to be alright.

Except that it wasn’t, because when we loaded ourselves into the car, it took us back to the suffocating miasma of the condo.

Day by day I watched in concern as my human withered in this new place. I knew before she did that, if our pack was going to survive, we needed out, fast.

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