Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 17

Thursday, August 10

Last night we went to visit Jade at her house. I zoomed around the backyard a little, but then I couldn’t have fun because there was a tennis ball inside the house and the shiny glass door was shut so I couldn’t get it. I stood in front of the door with my shoulders slumped, staring at the ball pitifully while my human and Jade’s human chatted. After a while my human went inside and gave me permission to follow (“okay”). Then I stood on the tile floor, head bowed, tail drooping, staring at the ball because my human still didn’t tell me I could have it. Finally, she got the message, and played “get it” with me. I bounded after the ball joyfully until I noticed that I wasn’t getting any rewards for retrieving it. So then I laid down at my human’s feet and had a nice chew and gum massage.

Jade used to have a pack-mate named Blue, who was second of the three true alpha dogs I’ve met in my life. The third was a German shepherd/corgi mix I only saw once at the dog park. Blue was a beagle, like my old persecutor, Heidi, but he was bold and absolutely fearless. He also had a strong independent streak, and never ever listened when his human spoke to him (“come, Blue, come, Blue, good boy Blue, come, come, Blue, Blue, BLUE!”). I didn’t think anything about it when he disappeared one day, because there were plenty of times my human and I ran into Jade and her human while hiking on the trail by our house, and Blue would be missing, and Jade’s human would smell frazzled. When Blue trotted back into view, pleased with himself after a long, bracing hunt down a rabbit trail, his human gave off a scent I’d describe as grudging relief. Jade and I weren’t worried, and neither was Blue. He was a balanced, self-contained universe that was primarily concerned with nose-work and rabbits, and the rest of us only touched his consciousness in a vague, periphery way. Maybe he’ll be back some day. To be honest, Jade’s pack smells less stressed without him. In his absence, Jade’s elevated her status to a slightly higher dominance level, because her human obviously needs looking after.

I was offended by the first dog we passed on our walk this morning, a demonic beast of a chihuahua, straining on his leash and bellowing in an abrasive, high-pitched yap. The second dog (rich, harsh, guttural barking) my human told me to “leave it” in no uncertain terms. I grumbled a little but looked away and she rewarded me with “good boy” in a firm, approving tone.

I just need her to pay attention to me and do her job competently, that’s all.

I kept having to break my stride to swipe awkwardly at a nagging itch on my muzzle. My human knelt down in front of me and picked at my fur. “Yes! I got it!” she said triumphantly. I grinned at her even though I wasn’t sure what command I’d done right.

Even though it was Thursday, we didn’t go to the library. Instead, after dog school my human clipped my nails, vacuumed, and did laundry. It was all very disconcerting. By the time she cooked my breakfast, all the horrible noises had stopped, and I was able to drool over the crackle of frying eggs in peace.

Still, I felt a prickle of unease while I lapped up the gravy in my bowl, and glanced back over my shoulder apprehensively, to see my human loading the soggy sheets from our bed into the drier.

Through the whole process I hovered around my human, dogging her footsteps and trying to communicate my urgent need to get out of the house. My human smelled irritated, and she made a point of asserting her status by walking through me instead of around, forcing me to have to scramble out of her way. We ended up holed up in the bedroom, where I reluctantly laid down at my human’s insistence. I tucked my tail between my legs. I couldn’t nap, but my eyelids dropped heavily, and I blinked slowly, dozing off then starting awake at the sound of sloshing from the washing machine or the drier’s next rumbling groan.

We did “ready” at the grocery store. I caught a whiff of a child who usually pets me at the library, but I stayed so focused on my human that I didn’t even turn my head to peak. My human gives me fewer rewards during my work lately, but the rewards I do get are bigger so it’s a fair trade. She encourages me less often, too, but her “good boys” sound genuinely pleased. Every time my human stopped moving I sat, and then shuffled forward, keeping my butt on the floor, for “up sit” so that my shoulders stayed directly in line with her feet. I popped up on my haunches and snagged strips of meat that my human dangled above me (“free”) during the part where she picks up the food in our cart but doesn’t eat it, and then there’s all the beeping. I used to have to swivel my head to check each beep out, but now my eyes stay glued intently to my human’s face and I barely flicked back my ears.

I used to sniff around at all the interesting odors in grocery stores. If I pressed my moist nose to the cardboard boxes, a mind-numbing burst of wonderful aromas shot straight to my brain. Back then my human’s mother smelled nervous and embarrassed, and then my human got a gut-churning shame smell. Now I don’t pay any attention to the people or the food at grocery stores, because I’m working. Doing “ready” is not fun exactly, because it’s discipline. But dogs are working animals, and we know it’s always preferable to have our humans stand up straight and smell proud of us.

My human always gets saturated with sweat when she play-fights. As usual I had a difficult time keeping track of her, because she bounced around the room so much, but at one point I lifted my nose to sniff the air because I smelled a flare of happiness from her. She was chatting with another human, and her body language read “relaxed.” It was a welcome change from before class, when she lingered purposelessly around the other people, looking wistful and practically radiating her puppyish longing to talk to them without having to make the first move.

My human gives off a “don’t touch me” smell that even utterly nose-deaf humans are able to detect. She’s like a dog who sniffs other dogs’ butts, but is too insecure to let them come in close afterwards. With dogs like that, if you ignore their scent and start inspecting their fur, they’ll curl their lips and snarl, then give you a sharp warning bite if you still refuse to back off. Only in special circumstances, like after play-fighting, when her shoulders loosen up and she stands tall and strong and in tune with her body, does my human let down her guard. Then she laughs casually with other humans and shifts from foot to foot in a swaying rhythm that’s all about the joy of young muscles. At the public building where she play-fights, my human touches other people’s hands. Other places, when her “don’t touch me” smell fades, she and other humans sometimes press their chests together and wrap their arms around one another. It looks like a dominance game, but both people involved usually smell warm and melty. On the day that we walked for countless hours and went to the beach with the young human male, my human practiced this game with him twice. I averted my eyes politely and hoped nobody would want to play it with me.

We took a shower, and my human’s sickness smell suddenly spiked. She slumped into the wall, and groped for the shiny silver handle with one trembling hand. The water raining down on us went cold. My human panted, and I heard her heart thud against her ribcage, racing crazily. Her arms, holding up the buckets of water to dump on me, shook. When she’d satisfied herself that I was thoroughly soaked, my human toweled us both down in a cursory manner instead of really savoring the process. The drier was on, so I would have liked to hide in the nice, secure den of the shower, but my human didn’t give me the opportunity. She hustled us both out and then while I shook myself off she played with her phone.

“Hey. Can you check if there’s any of the red pills that don’t say chewable on them in the pantry? I tried the chewable ones, and I think they have some kind of flavoring in them because I’m having a reaction. Ok, great. I can’t get in a car like this. Is there any chance you’d bring them to me, please?” Her voice sounded breathless, and she leaned over the sink, grabbing the rim to prop herself up. After a minute she huddled on the carpet up against the couch, and I sat down in front of her, facing my body away unobtrusively.

And then the most incredible thing happened. My ears pricked to the sound of footsteps pounding up the staircase. I followed my human, prancing and weaving around her legs anxiously, then whimpered from her side while she took WAY TOO LONG opening the front door. As far-fetched as it sounds, there was an actual real alive person out there. As soon as I found an opening, I seized the opportunity to slip outside, snaking up behind the person on the doorstep.

My human’s sister visited for about a half hour. In honor of this exciting event, we did dog school with hunks of ground turkey. I practiced “tunnel,” and “light on,” and “hup ” where I jumped through the circle of my human’s arms instead of my plastic hoop. Laundry days in general make me downcast, but I perked up and performed brilliantly for my audience.

My human has lots of brothers and sisters. This particular sister never pets me, but at least she doesn’t give off a disgusted or frightened smell when I’m around. At first, I celebrated the double victory of new human in the house and no drier thundering hungrily by rubbing my wet fur all over the carpet. I rolled around, exposing my belly and throat, snorting and groaning mightily. Then my human sent me to “spot” on the doormat while she cooked my food. After my dinner, I smelled that she was still cooking eggs. Since eggs are a food I eat, I hoped they were for me, so I casually loitered in her vicinity, inching subtly closer as the tantalizing aromas intensified. My human was preoccupied, talking with her sister, but she paused to fix me with a flat stare. “Not gonna happen, dude.” I understood by her tone that more eggs were not in the forecast, so I snorted in resignation and curled up on my pillow in the living room. Evidently my human’s sister shared my sentiments because she monitored the progress on the stove closely and heaved a lot of sighs.

My human put flea medication on me even though I knew it was not anywhere near the right day of the month. I licked my lips and raised a forepaw diffidently when I smelled the burning scent of chemicals, then I held myself rigid while my human crouched over me and swiped something smooth and hard and wet in a line down my spine. When she stepped back I looked at her imploringly, hoping for a cue that just this once she’d let me rub the stinging, caustic stink off myself and onto the carpet. No such luck. I licked my lips to soothe myself and hung my head glumly.


It would happen this way: our pack would be strolling along through the gathering shadows. At dusk, my visual acuity is sharpest, and scents jump off the pavement, so my nerves would be alive with tension. I’d see a cat, with its feral eyes staring a challenge at me, and something would snap inside me. I’d surge forward, hell bent on grabbing the impertinent creature by the scruff and shaking it into submission. The cat would freeze, flattening itself to the ground, ears back and tail lashing - the picture of unrepentant aggression. And the thing that always stopped me from driving the cat away was my leash.

My rage was a red film before my eyes, blocking out everything else so that even its original target was forgotten. Through the haze, I seized my leash between my teeth, tasting rough nylon, and fought to wrench it out of my human’s grasp. My human planted her feet and held on for dear life. When my frantic yanking nearly succeeded in overbalancing her, she sat down on the pavement. Indignant screams wracked my body. Each time I paused to catch my breath, my human made as if to rise, but then a fresh spurt of adrenaline propelled me forward. I flung myself from side to side, determined to tear myself free from my anchor.

Finally, exhausted, my limps about as sturdy as a rag doll and trembling uncontrollably, I would allow myself to be towed away. Holding my leash mechanically, my human would smell utterly crestfallen. When I snuck a peak at her eyes, they stared forward vacantly. Her body moved with unnatural stiffness, on autopilot. I would whimper disconsolately the whole way back to the house. I didn’t “know what I’d done wrong,” but I felt powerless and small, like a bad dog.

That winter, everything scared me. I was afraid of the big orange balls that smelled almost like the canned pumpkin Harry’s human mixed into his kibble. I froze and cowered when I saw them, suddenly and inexplicably appearing by front doors I’d passed countless times before. I was afraid of bright, flickering lights, and pieces of cloth flapping on the end of tall poles, and water bottles, and yellow hats, and long, pokey blades of grass growing up from cracks in the sidewalk. I was haunted by the pop and fizz of firecrackers that echoed through the house from outside the big window in the living room. I lived in dread of the air hissing from around the tires of busses when they pulled to a stop alongside the pavement where I walked. I growled at black plastic bags tumbling in the wind, throwing out my chest and roaring “go away” at them from across the street.

On one occasion my fear got the best of me while we were walking down the steep hill from the climax of our morning run. I stopped short, mesmerized by a figure standing in the front yard of a house that abutted the street. The brown, four-legged thing in the middle of the lawn looked vaguely like a dog. And it was staring at me, unblinking, just like a cat. I craned my neck towards it, forehead bunching into deep wrinkles.

It was only after I’d ripped the leash from my human’s hands and tackled the thing that my nose kicked in and I realized it was plastic.

Cats were the bane of my existence. During our evening walk I stayed fused to my human’s thigh, strung out on anxiety, my nerves twitching like a live wire. My head whipped back and forth in an effort to watch every direction at once, haunted by the ghosts of cats that might be lurking behind every bush, waiting until I relaxed my guard to leap out at me. The only time I met a cat that I felt no desire to chase, my human and I were walking home from one of the circle of metal chairs meetings. We rounded a corner, and suddenly found ourselves in a shadowed alleyway. I sat abruptly, without being asked, and turned my head in the direction from which we’d come. It was fully dark out, but I didn’t need my eyes to know I wasn’t setting another paw further into that alley. Because the smell that surrounded me, musty with dander and stifling, was of dozens of cats. My human and I were outnumbered beyond all proportion. I felt her body freeze beside me, her grip on the leash tightening perceptibly. Then, by mutual consensus, we slunk away, retracing our steps.

Another time we escaped Heidi’s house to a grassy park, where I roared at a small dog on a leash who was yapping like a maniac at me. His human was very old, and his scent rankled in my nostrils in a way that reminded me of men I’d known long, long ago. He jumped and nearly fell, then spoke to my human in a calm voice. “If I ever see you here again I will shoot you and I will shoot your dog.” Our pack ran away very fast, and my human cried in our car while she drove.

At the same time my demons began to gnaw at me mercilessly, my human’s behavior at the house changed. Before, she’d spent her time pushing the same oily smelling glop around on canvases. Now, she devoted hours to listening to voices on her computer. Sometimes I even heard barking, but when I trained my senses on the source of the barking, it always came from the same place, which smelled of warm metal but never dogs.

My human began doing a type of dog school with me. Whenever I wanted something, she made me lie down first. I had to lie down before I could climb onto our bed at night, and “down, stay,” for my food. She’d leave me in a “down, stay,” with my bowl of kibble so close to my nose that I could practically taste the crunchy goodness through my nostrils. Then she’d turn and walk out of the room, shutting the door behind her. I’d hear her open and close the bathroom door, pound down the staircase to the living room, squeak the low gate that prevented Heidi from invading upstairs and murdering me in my sleep, and climb back up. I held my position unfailingly, even after she opened the door again. She’d crouch down in front of me and feed me my kibbles handful by handful, so that I learned to take them gently from her palms instead of scarfing them down in choking gulps from my bowl.

We also played a game called “find it,” in which my human would hide kibbles all throughout the house, and I’d have to sniff them out. At first she had to lead me to even the easiest spots, such as under the bed, but eventually I gained skill and confidence and I’d even find kibble hidden beneath the wood pile in the backyard. My human tried to interest me in “fetch,” but after the ball smacked into me solidly a few times I shied away from it whenever she lifted her arm.

In the weeks following the morning I ate three breakfasts, my human and I stopped going to that particular building. Instead, we drove a long way through lovely manure smelling fields and clumps of tall shady trees, until we discovered somewhere new.

Someday I will go to doggy heaven. I have already been to the seventh circle of doggy hell. It’s on earth, and humans made it.

The place smelled of death. It was obviously a shelter, but it had no chemical scents at all. Dogs wandered about the grounds smelling like rancid meat that just hadn’t decided to lie down and quit moving yet. Even the young ones were too wasted to chase the rats that scurried over the tarps shading the kennels, burrowing into bags of kibble and crawling under plastic igloos. Some of these dogs bore devastating injuries or open sores oozing thick green pus.

Some of them were so thin that every one of their bones stood out prominently. They stood in the center of their pens, while humans hosed down the concrete floors, creating muddy brown rivers of blood and feces that rose up to the dogs’ ankles.

Our first day, I explored the shelter grounds freely, sniffing up and down the rows of kennels while a hundred outraged dogs shouted at me and hurled themselves against the bars. As many as four large dogs crowded each small run. Bored, rowdy dogs howled all day long about the torment of suppressed energy, often venting their anxiety savagely on each other’s flesh. The cabin fever was contagious. When fights erupted between loose dogs, battling like wildcats over damp, maggoty smelling buckets of food, I instinctively threw myself into the fray. After that, my human tried locking me up while she worked, but the roaming dogs mobbed me, lifting their legs on my crate, so that by the end of the day I stood shivering, ankle deep in a pool of urine. My paws itched maddeningly and my fur was plastered to my skin. From then on, I ended up staying in the car with the windows down, my attention divided between prey rustling in the woods and the gate, where I anticipated by human emerging.

The shelter dogs played ferocious tug-of-war with damp, ratty, poop-smeared blankets. The kennels never completely dried out, and fetid, brackish water puddled in eroded pits in the concrete. Hard smelling humans made a peremptory effort to scrape down and hose off the kennels, but poop always remained caked to the cement, where it mashed between the dogs’ pads and matted into their fur.

More than once I saw the people at that shelter hauling a crate away into the woods behind the chain link fence. I knew by the smell that what they carried wasn’t a dog anymore.

People walked past an old, arthritic dog who lay on a pillow, steeped in his own urine, all day long. He was totally incontinent, and unable to bear the slightest touch, so that he snapped at anyone, human or canine, who came too near. He was just there, day after day, not eating, hardly moving, until he died in that spot. Then humans carried his body away, but nobody bothered with the bloody, pee-soaked pillow. As far as I know it’s still there.

The idea of death may not be terrible to dogs, but pain and suffering are. The misery I smelled there, the hopelessness, and the abject terror, raised my hackles even before I felt my human’s reaction. Her state of health deteriorated quickly; I knew by her scent that her bowels turned to water, and I watched her stumble feebly, fighting against a body that felt no inclination to obey her commands. Even in our room, later, her eyes remained unfocused and I experienced for the first time what it’s like when she’s physically present but not there. Her will shattered and the sickness took over, swooping down on her gleefully in full force.

At the end of the day, my human would get in the car and she would bury her face in my fur. My human cried her heart out on my shoulder every single day that we visited that awful place. I responded like any sensible dog would; I gave a jaw cracking yawn and licked my lips, telling her to please get ahold of herself. Alphas aren’t supposed to act like that. However, she was with anybody else, my human had always kept her cool and been the responsible adult in our pack around me. It took longer than I wanted, but my polite, dignified pose always paid off. She calmed down enough to drive us back to Heidi’s house.

One morning my human slid out of bed very early, after tossing and turning fitfully all night. We set off on our daily run, even though it was still dark out, picking our way gingerly between pools of light cast by street lamps. We’d just reached the end of a long street that terminated in a bridge and were about to turn the corner, when an off-leash chihuahua streaked into the road. My ears pricked forward. Before I could decide how to react, one of the cars roaring by struck the small dog head-on. Its feather light body flew several feet into the air, landing splayed out on the asphalt. One remaining eye stared blindly up at me out of a grotesquely caved in skull. There was no blood. The car sped onward, uninterrupted, and the little dog never stirred.

We continued on our journey, but my human seemed stricken. I watched as an old man came along and used a tall stick to push the broken body into the gutter.

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