Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 16

Wednesday, August 9

My morning was pretty standard.

I saw Marcus and Festus during my walk. They didn’t cross the street but just ducked behind some parked cars, using them as a barrier between us. I could still smell my nemesis, though. My human gave me all six feet of my leash. I typically calm down and refocus on my human, fixing her with a wary eye once I feel the slack, because I know if I try to lunge out I’ll get a good hard snap on my training collar. Today was challenging because Marcus and Festus were so close. I lost control of my feet and started hopping, and got two corrections before I pulled myself together.

At the dog park the two huskies were a lot of fun. They renewed acquaintance with me warmly, and were great wrestling partners. Their human kept grumbling soft disapproval sounds when one of them bared his teeth at me, but it was all in good fun. She also smelled apprehensive when I roared and butted up against one husky with my shoulder. He obviously didn’t take offense because he continued seeking me out to rough house.

We drove to an unfamiliar house, where I waited in the car in the shade while my human went inside. The windows were three quarters open, but my human had clipped on my seatbelt, so even if I’d felt sufficiently motivated to try I couldn’t have squeezed through the crack. I picked up the scent of a female dog from the yard, and after about an hour my human brought me out of the car, where I saw but didn’t get to meet the dog. We practiced “say hello” which is an exercise where we walked towards the other dog on a loose leash, until she fixated on me and started straining to get to me. Then our humans both called us by name, and we ran in opposite directions with our respective alphas fleeing before us. It’s like a strange dance, and I’ve become accustomed to it so that I no longer expect the dogs to whom we teach it to actually get the opportunity to sink their teeth into me. Sometimes we repeat “say hello” endlessly, until the other dog gives in and stops lunging, but today this female was extremely submissive. She averted her eyes and sat facing her whole body away from me, and even pretended to sniff the grass, so I knew she wasn’t a threat. My human reads body language almost as well as a dog, so she understood that she didn’t need to protect me from the new dog. We still didn’t get to sniff each other up-close and personal, though. we went on a short walk along the street, the humans keeping a few feet distance between us dogs. Everybody stood up straight and smelled very relieved and pleased with themselves afterwards, so even though it was an easy, monotonous kind of dog school, I knew I’d done good work.

I did “down, stay” at the lunch place, then at the house with the wood floors. This time my human’s father helped her and her mother load objects into cardboard boxes and drag them around. My human’s father talks a lot, maybe the most of anybody I know. Whenever my human passed by, I lifted my head from my paws and wagged my tail vigorously, my eyes brimming with a hopeful plea, asking if we could please go home now. She’d fix me with a stern glance, silently communicating “stay.”

FALL 2014

We moved for a fourth time, to a house that smelled very old but clean. Three dogs lived there, but one of them lived in the side yard and a miniature house beyond it, where my human and I never went. His name was Bandit, the miniature pinscher, and he barked almost continuously in a shrill, whining yelp. He also stared rudely with huge round bulging eyes, but if his size hadn’t been enough to reassure me that he wasn’t a threat, the constant tremor that vibrated along his limbs was.

Of the two dogs that lived in the main house, the male, King Harry, was one of only three truly confident alphas I’ve ever met. Harry faced the world with a supreme self-assurance that made his private universe into a serene and well-tended kingdom. He firmly established his property rights over all the toys and chewy bones in the house, he owned a nice warm fleecy bed to snuggle up in, and his human obeyed him promptly whenever he (loudly) barked orders at her, demanding attention in the form of food, treats, play, or ear scratches. Since the above constituted the only important issues in life as far as Harry was concerned, he plodded along his day on his shaky, arthritic limbs with unassailable confidence. The rest of us he genially left to our own devices.

The female dog, Heidi, was another story. For humans she rolled on her back, exposing her belly submissively. But around other dogs, deep insecurity ruled her. From the start I triggered fear in Heidi to the level of phobia just by existing anywhere within her sight. She was never made to be an alpha, but since nobody else had proved themselves equal to the task of policing my movements to her satisfaction, she had to try herself. So she policed me obsessively. If I passed by a corner where she’d posted herself and didn’t see her soon enough to give her a wide berth, she’d spring out at me for a blitz attack, baying in a beagle’s hideous, bloodcurdling rasp.

Heidi was also extremely territorial, so there were parts of the house I didn’t dare enter even with my human’s protection. For example, a room at the front of the house had a couch she guarded so fiercely that she’d attack King Harry if he glanced at it the wrong way, because she thought he showed too much interest in her property. And Harry was blind.

Heidi didn’t particularly care about the youngest person who lived in the house, or Bandit’s human in the small structure out back, but her jealousy over her human knew no bounds. If Heidi’s human sat on the couch, Heidi perched on a chair, so she’d have the high ground to fall upon me if I encroached on her human’s personal space. If Heidi’s human walked to the kitchen, Heidi marched at her heels, the pure white tip of her tail waving straight in the air like the flag on a secret service agent’s car. When Heidi’s human left through the front door, she stared rigidly out the window in self-imposed sentry duty, waiting for her human’s return so that she could resume prowling the halls.

Mostly when Heidi lunged I just danced away from her quickly, dodging out of reach of her vicious, flashing teeth, and she’d let it go for the time being. But one night, Heidi actually decided to kill me. She never managed to break my skin, because the humans charged in too fast, but I heard her intentions in her voice. When Heidi’s human dragged her into the kitchen, I collapsed onto my side on the living room floor, curling in a fetal position, and sobbed and screamed until the poison of Heidi’s fear leached out of me.

It was bad enough that I was perpetually looking over my shoulder for Heidi, but after a while Heidi’s need to police my movements infected the humans in the house.

Initially, I had great hopes that this was going to be a fun place to live. I tried out all the toys, picking them up in my mouth and zooming in a loop from the living room to the kitchen to the dining room and back. Since doorways connected all of these different areas, it made a perfect track for me to zip along at light speed. I was overjoyed to smell no rancid smoke here, and it seemed only natural to me that wherever home was, it should be a place for me to cut loose, relax, and just be a dog at the end of a hard day’s work. I had lived places where it wasn’t safe to leave my human’s side for an instant, but I had never experienced people who simply couldn’t accept and celebrate my dog-ness. I twitched in their direction, and peals of fear smell rang like alarm bells.

It stole up on me, the attitude building by degrees, until everything I did was wrong. It wasn’t that the humans didn’t like me, but I didn’t belong in their pack, and seeing me even though I studiously refused to look at them, made them unhappy. I began to feel persecuted.

Again, in comparison, my human’s car began to feel like a safe haven.

Every morning, my human and I would run six miles along the streets. We pounded the sidewalk in a punishing rhythm through the damp, grey, pre-twilight fog. Jealous dogs slammed against the chain link fences that imprisoned them, threatening to tear out our throats. Often, we’d pass off-leash dogs wandering between buildings, and once a pack of three burly silver pit bulls followed us most of the way home. Our run terminated at the top of a steep hill that wound upward sharply for a quarter mile. We bounded up a staircase, then draped ourselves bonelessly over the steps, chests heaving and eyes bright with exertion. With loose limbs we walked to a tiny grassy area where I relieved myself before heading home for breakfast. Except for the mornings (about once a week) when we met Chloe and her human for a play date at the same wide open grassy park we used to frequent, it was, by far, the best part of our day.

Running free with Chloe was like drawing a last breath of fresh air between periods of drowning. Those reunions were so sweet, but they never lasted long enough. No matter how short the separation, we greeted one another like long lost soul mates, soaking up each other’s company and synchronizing our heartbeats for the time we’d have to be apart. Some people will always be pack, even if you know you probably won’t sniff them again outside of doggy heaven.

We spent afternoons at a building that I never got a good whiff of, because I stayed in the car in the parking lot. Heat waves swirled off the asphalt, and the air boiled in my lungs, but my human poured a gallon of water into a large black pot in the footwell, and she trained two small, buzzing fans set on the dashboard to blow on my face. Then she left me for four hours at a time, returning briefly to allow me to stretch my limbs and empty my bladder before disappearing again. All day long I lay on the leather seat, with the blistering sun beating down on me through the windshield, listening to the humming of the fans and watching through the open window as humans and dogs walked in and out of the shiny glass doors together.

It was noon. Fat beads of sweat rolled off my tongue to splash on the sun-baked leather. I budgeted some of my precious saliva to moisten my nose. Suddenly, a woman’s face appeared framed by the window. She cooed at me in a voice as soft and gently caressing as her smell. But it wasn’t her scent alone that pricked my attention; in one of her hands she had an open tin of mushy, greasy, delicious food that released a tantalizing meaty aroma. I whimpered appealingly and raised myself slowly to my paws, inching closer to the window so I could stick my head out. I wagged my tail to help her smell my butt easier. Responding to my offer of friendship, the woman pushed the open can in through the window. I’d already had breakfast that morning, but I’m a dog, so I fell on the food as enthusiastically as if I’d been fasting for a month. No sooner had I sat back to lick the gravy from my chops, then the woman produced another tin.

I was just tucking into my third meal of the day when my human rushed up. My nose was so full of scrumptious meaty odors that I hadn’t even smelled her approach, but now my nostrils tingled with a mixture of white hot anger, fear, and shame.

“You’re lucky I didn’t break your window. You can’t leave a dog trapped in a hot car like this.” The woman’s voice didn’t sound quite so silky anymore.

“I don’t have a choice,” my human smelled like pain, and her shoulders hunched in a beaten down posture. “My landlord’s afraid of him so I can’t leave him at home. I have to work. They say it’s against the rules for me to keep him inside even in a kennel. I begged them but it’s company policy, so they won’t budge. I don’t have any other options.”

“Well maybe you shouldn’t have a dog. I called animal control. They’re on their way.”

“Oh great, just what I need. I’m going to lose my job now. What did you feed him? I don’t know why you’d assume he’s starving when I left him a bucket of water. He’s going to have diarrhea for days now.”

I didn’t understand any of this, except that my human was desperately unhappy. My tummy roiled queasily. If not for my human’s fear, I would have been very satisfied with the incident, because I got to lap up tasty mush, and instead of going back into the building for another four hours, my human got into the car quickly and we drove away.

In the evenings, we rarely went to the rooms with the metal chairs anymore. Instead, my human and I would walk three miles with Harry and Heidi and their humans. Then I would lay at her feet while my human sat on a chair in the living room. The other people sat on a couch and they listened to buzzing noise from a bright box. They also chatted.

When we lived in Chloe’s house, I was used to my human talking with her human as a type of pack bonding. Sometimes emotions like sadness would flare up, but they always resolved into a sense of peace and solidarity afterwards. It was the same in the rooms with the shiny floors and circles of chairs. But here, the talking lit a fuse inside my human, so that her scent clogged the house with black clouds of terrible simmering anger. The more the people chattered, the worse it got. Spikes of loneliness and hurt punctuated the underlying flavor of rage and betrayal. My human’s scent took on the “not mine” quality, every time we interacted with the people of the house, and this category broadened to include all people we met. I came to understand that these other humans were not our pack, that whoever our pack was, they were missing.

“Your family is your family. At the end of the day they love you. Lots of people get estranged from their families when they’re teenagers. Whatever happened between you and them, when you get older you’ll get past this in your relationship with your mom. And in the meantime, you always have a safe place here.”

My human bridled. “Why do you have to say things like that? You don’t know anything about me. My family doesn’t love me. They kicked me out because I was too screwed up for them to deal with. I’m still screwed up and I always will be, so they’ll never want me back.”

If the stinky condo with its alpha male hurt our pack, at least it left us three legs on which to limp along and a tongue to lick our wounds. This fourth place we lived broke us.

I had thought that I left the bad dog I was at the shelter behind. I was past my major insecurity and aggression. My human and I had a strong, unshakable bond. But here, all of my old demons clamored back to life, rearing their ugly heads, thirsty for blood after lying dormant for so long. I wasn’t happy, but I couldn’t tell my human what was wrong, and her frustrated smell told me she didn’t know how to help me. It was exquisite torture for both of us.

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