Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 20

Sunday, August 13

My human’s body language was mostly relaxed and confident as she bustled around the cafe today. There are certain words that I’ve noticed whenever anyone says them she stabs my nostrils with fear smell. One of them is “morals.”

On our break at the cafe, my human sat in the backseat of her mother’s car with me. This was the second unusual thing about today. The first strange thing was was Magda and her human were both missing. My human’s mother’s car suddenly jolted forward, so I almost went flying off the seat. I snuggled myself against my human’s legs, resting my chin in her lap. She stroked my ear gently.

We played “get it” on the flat planes of concrete, while my human and her brother chatted. It was hard to work up much energy, even for slimy banana rewards, because it was so hot out.

My human sang at church today. We sat in the same row with her family. My human’s father petted her mother a lot, and kept trying to attract her attention by staring intensely at her with velvety eyes. She didn’t give him a warning bite, but she didn’t look at him either, and her body language said, “please stop.”

There are two kinds of people in the world. There are people who say, “it’s okay,” in soft, pretty voices even though Marcus and Festus are coming around the corner and you’re telling them as hard as you can that it’s NOT OKAY. The other type of people don’t need words. My human’s family perfectly illustrates the difference. Her father smells like “it’s okay,” and her mother smells like “I got this.”

My human’s mother was the first person I sniffed who smelled strongly like her blood. I knew she had distant relatives because I met them at grandma and grandpa’s house the previous winter. But compared to my human, their scent bore only a diluted resemblance. Before her mother showed up, it never occurred to me that my human had a family like other people. I met her mother on our final morning at Heidi’s house. I whimpered piteously in my “down, stay,” on the living-room mat while my human and her mother both removed all of our scent items (including the glass box where Monty the mouse, stinking of sweet sickness, clung to life) from the room upstairs one by one. Then my human called me into a car I’d never smelled before, where I balanced precariously on her lap, filling the whole cabin. We three drove for many hours, longer than I’d ever spent in a car before - longer even than when we visited grandma.

I didn’t understand what was happening, but I sensed the beginning of a grand adventure. Our lives were about to take a whole new direction. So I panted heavily, while my stiff, hard-cased leg itched like fire and my human and her mother chatted softly. The awkwardness between them was palpable. My human smelled sick and timid and very afraid, but there were no scary dogs, or horses, or cats lurking behind the mountains of stuff piled over the back seats, so I couldn’t figure out why.

Today, while my human and her mother shuffled from one end of the cafe to another talking, my human’s emotions fluctuated wildly between giddy excitement, shame, utter dejection, and contentment. My poor nose got very confused.

After the cafe, my human invited me up onto the mattress where I settled in for a nap while she ate blueberries and bananas that she didn’t share and stared at dumb papers.

After so much inactivity, I woke up frisky, so I approached my human with a low head and tail, wagging at her. She sank down on the carpet beside me, and I licked her knee while she roughed up the short fur on my muzzle and scratched my favorite spot right above the base of my tail. I raised a forepaw up to the level of my chest, inviting her to play. We played “tug” and wrestled. I liked when the toy zigzagged along the carpet. I homed in on it, ears forward, and pounced just a split second too late, so my jaws closed on empty air. When I averted my eyes to show I was no longer interested in the toy, my human made me puppy-crazy with a wrestling maneuver that involved falling over on top of me.

Then I got a strong whiff of her pain scent. She breathed shallow, and fast, and fidgeted restlessly. Her body language read “bone deep, crushing weariness.” I ground my teeth anxiously, and she met my gaze for a few seconds, but her eyes looked hazy and gone away. I laid down on the carpet with a sigh because she’s not fun like this.

Every time she stood up, surging to her feet abruptly and purposefully, I stretched and grunted, readying myself to resume living as soon as she rallied.

I didn’t want to go through the gate at the house with the wood floors because Juliet blocked it. She pointed her nose in the air and let out a high-pitched howl of alert. Her called-for reinforcements never showed up to chase us. My human was a big enough alpha to drive her back. When she gestured for me to follow her, I first veered off, lifting a paw and pretending to sniff non-confrontationally, while peeking out of the corner of my eye to see if Juliet stayed gone. It would be precisely her style to zip across the yard and blitz attack me from behind. When I felt reasonably satisfied that the coast was clear, I followed warily, aiming furtive glances over my shoulder.

There was no towel for me, so I stood around at a loss, waiting for my human to notice and provide for my needs. When she avoided my mournful, entreating doggy eyes, I lay down with my elbows jabbing uncomfortably into the hard concrete and watched her while my human thrashed about in the pool.

She still smelled like sickness after the swimming.


Since my human and I first became pack, we’d always gone to a dog park. Initially it was an occasional, fun activity to enjoy once or twice a week. In our fifth home, while my human was still leaving me alone and returning smelling of other dogs, kibble, and panic, we went every day. Then, at the same time my human no longer drove away and brought the canine/kibble odor home, without the slightest warning, we didn’t go at all anymore. I couldn’t understand the change, but of course I accepted it unquestioningly. One day I was a dog-park dog, then the next day I wasn’t. For humans, everything happens for a reason. For dogs, everything happens.

Dog park was a different experience back then. I’d arrive and be so keyed up that I rejected all other dogs’ advances and devoted my time to surveying the pen. I marked a lot while I got my bearings. Then I’d greet other dogs and maybe play for a little while, but I felt nervous and touchy. I didn’t really want them coming in close or burying their noses under my tail for more than a few seconds. Ultimately, I ended up digging holes by myself, snuffling in the dirt and ripping up great hunks of turf with my mouth. Or I’d appoint myself guard dog, and monitor the fence line. I raced back and forth, so focused on anybody passing outside the chain link barrier that I never even noticed dogs coming up behind me from within. My human put a stop to this behavior by inserting herself between me and the fence, using her body as a shield to block me no matter how hard I tried to get around her. She growled deep in her throat, smelling like “mine.”

When I did interact with other dogs in the pen, sometimes we fought. I couldn’t tolerate very big dogs, or very fluffy dogs (they looked like their hackles were always raised), dogs with upright ears (they always said “alert, angry”) or light-colored eyes that seemed to stare at me. Huskies were bad, and Rottweilers. I roared and body-slammed a spinning collie who barked neurotically by the fence, telling him to shut up because I just couldn’t take anymore. Intact males were - and still are - the worst. Inevitably, an insecure young buck out to prove himself would fixate on me, following me every time I ran away and posturing relentlessly. So I did what any sensible, scared dog would do. I preemptively defended myself.

Or if I saw two powerful dogs harassing a weaker dog, I’d hurry to help them roll him so they’d know I belonged to the winning pack and they didn’t need to beat me up next.

The last time we went to dog park before our long break, I got into it with a cantankerous old dog who took an instinctive dislike to me. A giant human male had to lay his whole body over mine, pressing me hard into the ground, in order to break us apart. My human smelled terrified and spoke into her phone in a hollow, devastated tone that night. I’ve seen the old dog a few times since then, and he still drops into a fighting stance and snarls through the fence when he sees me go by, but my alpha never takes us through the gate when he’s inside.

For a long time afterwards, we stuck to trail walking. We traveled up and down dusty hills, across a foaming creek that reeked fantastically, and through thickets where up to six coyotes at a time congregated with their pups. They’d spot us and take off running as one, a few of them skip-hopping awkwardly because they’d been caught unawares right in the middle of copping a squat.

Even on the trail, I made an enemy. This was before infamous rivals Marcus and Festus came on the scene. A female pit bull named Georgia confused me by approaching in a friendly, relaxed, submissive pose, then suddenly attacking. I encountered her four times, and she never tried to communicate anything but peaceful intentions to me, until her teeth were ratcheted in my scruff. The only time I didn’t come away from an encounter with Georgia streaming blood was the day my human roared at her. Undeterred, Georgia streaked straight for me, but my human held her ground, planting herself firmly between us. I stayed quiet and still, because even if it didn’t impress the female dog, my human’s shout had chilled me to the core. But Georgia didn’t know my human, so she didn’t really believe she meant business until my human’s foot smacked her jaw sharply. At our final meeting, she clamped my neck in a viselike grip that left a perfect, bloody impression of all her teeth. Her human, who followed her from a great distance, moving very slowly and leaning on a tall stick, had to punch her in the face repeatedly before she released her death grip.

Sometimes instead of the trail, we walked around a sparkly blue lake. This was where I learned about the horrors of porta-potties. My human couldn’t leave me alone outside, where other dogs might ambush me, so she’d squish me in front of her legs into the tight, sweltering space that smelled of hot plastic and nightmares.

At the lake, we’d walk on one side of the street, while other dogs passed by on the opposite side, often staring and barking at me. I wore a lot of different collars, some of cloth, some of metal, and even one that looped around my snout, but it was still a matter of great difficulty for my human to redirect my attention when I really wanted to lunge and shout “GO AWAY!” She frequently resorted to her muzzle grabbing trick, where she’d hold my face so that I didn’t have to see the scary dogs. Without anything frightening actually visible, I trusted my human to watch my back, and relaxed into her hands.

I’d always had headaches and diarrhea, but I didn’t think anything of them because for me these were normal conditions. Also, three or four times I got so violently ill after breakfast, that even the smell of my usual food became tangled up inextricably with sickness in my mind. I’d do my “down, stay,” drooling in anticipation, wait for “free,” then burst to my bowl. Then, my belly roiling, I’d recoil, and lay back down on the mat again. So then my human would bring me a brand new kibble without unpleasant memories for me to gorge eagerly. But right around the time my joints started to ache, and my human began feeding me chalky liver treats with a slightly suspicious medicinal taste, my headaches became unbearable.

At the shelter, I’d mastered the skill of wolfing down my dinner without swallowing any of the hard, bitter, round black things that seared my questing tongue. When I’d licked the last trace of oil clean, the medicine would all be present and accounted for, lying undisturbed at the bottom of the bowl. But now I chomped the chalky liver enthusiastically, at first, because the meaty flavor masked the acrid sting. Only, as time went on, I felt a visceral aversion to the tablets my human pressed on me. I’d “sit” obediently, and take my reward gingerly between my front teeth, then I’d spit it on the floor and shake my head in disgust. Just the faintest taste on the tip of my tongue was enough to send my stomach into waves of churning nausea. My human presented the treat to me insistently, again and again, releasing dense clouds of frustration scent. The next day I was relieved not to be offered any chalk, and also delighted to discover a new, delicious gravy that my human poured over my meal. Beneath the savory goodness, something about the taste seemed vaguely familiar, but I shrugged off my unease and lapped it up.

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