Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 21

Monday, August 14

My human took a long time falling asleep last night. I kept starting awake when my ear twitched from her tossing and turning. After only a few hours of light, interrupted sleep for both of us, she rolled out of bed blearily, and stumbled to the kitchen. I smelled her medicine - more than she usually takes. I stretched luxuriously then slipped off the mattress, stationing myself in my usual post on the living room carpet, where I could observe my human fumbling around the kitchen. I rolled around, groaning, loosening up all my kinks and stiffness from the restless night.

This morning on our walk four small dogs erupted into a violent chorus of barking. I lost control of my breathing, but my human spoke to me consistently and firmly, so my paws stayed on the ground, marching in a steady rhythm at her side. I’m glad she’s lively and attentive again. Sometimes she holds a sweet smell in her mouth that I hear swishing between her teeth, and then she grunts at me instead of delivering her commands clearly and distinctly, but I still obey because I respect her authoritative tone.

At the dog park I grappled the water bowl with my paw, pulling it towards me. Some of the water sloshed over the side, adding to a big muddy puddle around the base of the bowl. I splashed in the puddle, bathing my paws. It felt so good that I shared a broad grin with my human.

We did dog school before breakfast. For the past few days my bananas have been slimy instead of frozen. I like them this way too. We practiced a lot of “back up,” which is not my favorite trick. My human repeats “back, back, back,” while flicking her hands at me. I cooperated with mincing steps away from her, but I’d rather do anything except “back up.” So I tried a very impressive deep throated howl, since I’ve been learning to use my voice and she’s so delighted by my big, startling bark for “speak.” In this case she just said “nope,” and made me dance backwards a little further.

When I first started learning commands at trick class, my default was “roll over,” because it’s so fun. I love rolling in grass to scratch myself, even though once I wiggled about with wild abandon too vigorously and sprained my tail. I couldn’t wag at all for a few days, and kept it fused tight to my butt even when other dogs tried to shove their noses underneath.

I’ll “roll over” more than five times in a row if my human wants, even if she’s standing fifteen feet away from me. So if I didn’t know what to do for a new command, or I just got impatient waiting for her next cue, I’d drop to my belly and roll. I’ve gotten out of that habit because it didn’t prove very rewarding. All I’d receive for my clownish effort would be “nope.”

I’m so good at “spin” to the left and “twirl” to the right now that my human sometimes rewards me for “wait,” in between tricks, because otherwise I’ll just keep circling enthusiastically until she tells me to stop.

We also practiced “take it,” with my wooden dumbbell. It’s less exciting than my rubber squeaky dumbbell, especially since I pick it up off the ground cold where it’s just lying rather than flying away from me or bouncing around. My human grips the dumbbell on either side of my muzzle and commands “hold.” Then she yanks hard on it, jerking it back and forth so that my head rattles on my neck. It’s almost like a game of “tug.” I have to grip firmly with my jaws and not let go until I hear “give.” My eyes glaze with concentration.

After breakfast, which was blueberries and eggs fried in lavish golden butter (I got startled, flinching and sweeping my ears back, when the butter crackled and spat in the pan) I sprawled out with my head rested over one foreleg on the backseat of the car. My human’s sister took up my usual seat next to her, but this didn’t bother me because I automatically award all humans higher status than me, until they abdicate their rank by using goofy puppyishness to demonstrate their weakness and hand me an alpha job. Our temporary pack-mate was the one of my human’s sisters who visited our house and who doesn’t dislike me.

We went to fiesta island! There weren’t many other dogs there, but I still had fun.

I plunged my paws into some frisky waves that slapped up against the shore. Then I wrinkled my forehead and tilted my head in consternation, watching the water pummel the rocks then pull away hastily with a wet sucking sound.

My human chatted with her sister. Her body language unfolds in a breezy, uninhibited manner around this sibling. Her pain smell lingered like a pesky gnat buzzing around my nose, but at least she wasn’t gone away inside.

I did “ready” like a champion at the grocery store where my human gets her medicine.

We stopped at the house with the wood floors. Juliet was inside the house instead of hunting in the backyard, for once, but didn’t hassle me. Instead she yawned with a high-pitched whine, and bowed to my human, maintaining a careful distance and keeping a wary eye trained on her until we left. When we returned to the car, my human opened the front door and commanded “in” and I vaulted onto my normal seat.

At home I got stuck on the wooden steps up to the tall bed. The highest step is too low, so that I’m still only hitting the top of the mattress at chest level, which makes hooking a paw over awkward. My human thumped the mattress insistently several times before I overcame this hurdle. I usually just leap up to the bed in a single bound, but my legs were tired from so much running on the beach. We took a long nap, all the way past dusk till shadow filled the room, and my human’s pain scent ebbed and flowed like a pulsing tide. I sensed right when she woke up, even though her eyes stayed shut, so I planted one set of paws on either side of her and shook myself expressively. She didn’t get up, so then I laid down submissively with my back to her because if I wait long enough, this is a fool proof strategy.

I was so excited when she finally oozed herself out of bed (presumably catching the hint that now was a good time to cook dinner) that I got itchy all over. I launched myself from the mattress and spent the next several minutes raking at my pelt with a hind paw and rubbing my body along the rough stucco of my scratchy spot on the wall.


A host of changes ushered in our second year in our new home. First off, I now wore my blue vest. My human and I drove in the car to public buildings where I’d trot by her side, nose sifting the air earnestly. We’d pass through carpeted rooms that smelled of countless humans and potent chemicals and food, and sometimes sickness. My human would position me by a bed (“sit”) then an old person would stretch out a shaky hand to scratch my ears. We never lingered long in any particular room, and that in itself made the experience a challenge, because I wanted time to get my olfactory bearings. But no sooner had I established where I was and who was with me, then my human would urge me on to a totally new place. I felt confused and disoriented, and I shied away from the unfamiliar touch, twisting myself around to sit with my back to the stranger. After a few visits, however, I became accustomed to the idea that the person lying in the bed - and not the room itself - was somehow my job. My human also prompted me with a command called “paws up,” to balance on my hind legs and brace myself against the bed frames, digging my elbows into the mattresses. This position put my face imprudently close to the strange humans, and made my forelimbs sore, so I never held it very long. In some cases, I simply tolerated the petting, but in others, those I found less intimidating, I inched myself closer to sniff (but not lick) their faces and became well acquainted with the syrupy smell of old people that I’d previously only encountered clinging to Weasley’s fur.

At this point, the cat was still my pack-mate. My human occasionally packed him into his crate and left me at home, but as time progressed and I became more at ease with strangers’ attention, Weasley was increasingly the one left behind. Gazing down over us from his perch on the refrigerator, he seemed perfectly content with this arrangement.

A second, positive change was that I met the boss. She always greeted me politely with a light touch of her hand to my lips, and called me, “Hi Monkey.” On my butt in a circle with the boss and her dogs and many other unfamiliar people and canines, my human and I practiced exercises that involved hovering treats in front of my nose that I couldn’t snatch right up. The treats would tease me in odd ways, I’d react to their seductive movements, and when I hit upon a correct response - a breakthrough! The treat leapt into my mouth.

My human never used the face grabbing move anymore; instead, she introduced a command called “watch me,” and a lot more treats into our training. At first my megalomaniac eagerness to earn rewards was a distraction in and of itself, because I’d be so anxious about the alluring meaty tidbit being stolen away by a dog with higher status that I couldn’t listen to commands or remember what I’d done before that had earned me the prize. But I soon learned that if I performed consistently I didn’t need to worry; there would always be another treat. At obedience class, I very quickly absorbed the routines that would later become one of my jobs. When the boss spoke, my human soaked everything she said in with a burning earnestness, faltering uncertainly at the start, but gaining surety and strength. We did dog school for the first time, practicing basic commands like “sit,” “down,” “stay,” and “come” on the driveway until I could run through the exercises in my sleep. I’d never understood verbal speech before, but now there were a dozen or so cues that I associated with particular actions, and I began to listen with keener attention to my human’s words when she spoke in her firm, authoritative voice, because it dawned on me that some speech meant more than humans coping with boredom.

A third change that succeeded the others was that my human and I went to another grassy park ruffled by lovely cool breezes even on the hottest days. Here we attended trick class. A different boss named me “Monkers” and spoke to me in a goofy, sing-song voice, asking “can you sit,” with an up-turned, questioning lilt that I normally would have ignored, except that she smelled like calm authority and endless patience. I came to understand that her bright, peppy tone promised fun not because she wanted to establish herself as a puppy needing my protection in the pack, but because for her work and fun were the same thing. I respected her because no matter how many words flooded out of her mouth, she always had a way to help me understand what she wanted, and never gave up until I’d earned my treat. In contrast, my human always introduced new commands with a stiff, uneasy posture, prickling my nose with her frustration scent, but at any tiny success she blossomed joyfully. My vocabulary increased rapidly, as I set myself to the task of unlocking the puzzle of the corresponding expected behavior behind every new command with alacrity.

Just as I was settling in to all these new, exciting routines, my headaches got worse.

Dogs know that when we are sick or injured, we’re vulnerable to attack. We disguise pain and weakness as best we can, but as soon as we’re up-close and personal with other dogs, hiding becomes an issue. In a world where smell is your primary sense and anybody you interact with socially has access to all your personal information via your scent, there can be no secrets. The only way to guard ourselves is to refuse to let others sniff, and that in and of itself can be construed as a challenge or a psychological abnormality dangerous to the pack. So we refuse to limp even though our joints ache, not because we think we can fool other dogs, but because we’re proving to them, “look, I’m injured, but I’m compensating for it. I’m strong. I won’t bring down the pack. You don’t need to kill me yet.” But living a life in which you know you’re marked for elimination by any dog who feels he’s sufficiently high ranking to make that call has consequences. It’s a heavy burden for anybody to bear. We feel hunted, persecuted, never safe. And often the best and only way we know to cope with that paranoia is to start our relationships right off the bat with an aggressive show of force. All of a sudden, even if we’re genetically predisposed to be submissive, we need status in order to have the right to establish boundaries to protect ourselves. So we find the biggest, meanest dogs available, and we purposefully provoke fights. It may seem senseless or totally counterintuitive, but for dogs it’s the simple, brutal math of self-preservation.

This is how I handled my headaches. On leash I lunged out and roared “GO AWAY!” at dogs both at obedience class and trick class. If given the opportunity for physical contact, I’d go right for the scruff, not biting but growling and arching my head over their back so they’d know not to mess with me. My tolerance level ended at a zone of about five feet around me; any closer than that, and dogs whom I found the slightest reason to perceive as a threat earned my terror and wrath. My human’s scent took on a pointy edge, and the boss of obedience class watched me with a mixture of consideration and disapproval. I’m a dog, and what I was going through made me incredibly self-conscious, so I understood that I was being weighed in the balance, and that the results were not coming out in my favor. She and my human exchanged quiet, serious words. I knew they were discussing me.

I never growled or snapped at a human, but when the pain throbbed nauseatingly I’d flinch, and my muscles would ripple with aversion under their caressing fingers. When the headaches were really bad, I’d see loud things outlined by bright halos or by jagged, squiggling lines.

What happened next is difficult to describe because in certain places my memory gets foggy. Usually there would be a sound - some awful, terrible sound - like a beep or a clang at the old people buildings. At trick class it was clicking or ringing or clapping hands or the snap of a treat container opening to release a puff of savory fragrance. I’d travel with my human, then I’d chow down on my kibble and lap the special gravy with its faint, vaguely troubling under-taste. Then we’d set about our activities and I’d get scrumptious chewy rewards, and I’d hear a noise that struck a wrong chord in my brain. Then, approximately once a day, it happened.

To be honest I don’t remember much, beyond the rush of heat behind my eyes. I’d open my mouth to pant, curving the corners down in a fear smile, but found no relief. A strong drive to bolt overwhelmed me. I began pacing. Every muscle in my body jumped convulsively, with tremors running upward through the meat of my thighs.

I didn’t realize I hadn’t been smelling or seeing or hearing anything until my senses gradually returned. I’d become aware of my surroundings in a dim, hazy way. It was so confusing. Afterwards my head took about an hour to clear, then I’d fall into a deep slumber before waking as myself again. I felt ashamed of my utter loss of control.

By the time I woke up, my human smelled of resignation and forced cheerfulness. But distantly, threading in and out of my dreams, my human’s words wove an alarming tale of choked back tears and impotence and heartache. “...people keep saying maybe it’s something psychological, like from his past. But we dealt with all that right out of the shelter. It’s been years, why would these triggers be surfacing all of a sudden? I feel so helpless. I hate watching him have these horrible episodes and not being able to do anything. And I keep worrying that maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I did this to him somehow. Maybe somebody else could have given him a less stressful life. I just wish there was some way I could tell him I’ve loved him the best way I know how.”

My human and I drove to a building that smelled halfway between the old people places where I wore my blue vest and the vaguely remembered shampoo/dog/nightmare buildings. I’d been to such places before, and the experience was memorable, because typically at some point I felt a sharp stick while humans held me in their sturdy arms and cooed at me. Also, I was sometimes separated from my human, and then I put on my best show of puppyish appeal, wagging low and licking faces and begging to be taken back to my pack.

Back when I had my itchy cast on my pack visited such buildings with depressing frequency. Also, one time I was gnawing at a juicy, seductive bone, moistening it between chews with loving strokes of my tongue, when suddenly my big tooth at the back of the upper right side of my mouth hurt SO BAD. The pain was so enormous that I didn’t even want to eat, and I balked when my human put my toothbrush in my mouth, even though my toothpaste sings symphonies about chicken on my taste buds. Later I got a shot at one of those places and then woke up whimpering and groggy with tearing eyes and a taste of metal in my mouth that I’ve since grown accustomed to. For some reason my human hasn’t given me any chewy bones since then.

This time, my human and I waited alone in a small, clean-smelling room for a while, and we practiced my commands with kibbles as rewards until new people entered. I wasn’t feeling particularly social, so I sat at my human’s side at her beckoning and turned my face away when one vet held out a palm for me to sniff. I could smell him all I wanted to perfectly well from across the room. I did get stabbed (my nose tingled with the coppery scent of my own blood) and prodded all over by gentle but firm hands, but nobody took my leash and tried to drag me away. I panted anxiously, my head drooping and my eyes downcast in my most convincing non-threatening display. My effort paid off because mostly the people ignored me and talked with my human.

“How often is he experiencing these episodes?”

“At least once a day, sometimes twice.”

“For a dog his age with seizures there are a few different options. We’ve already checked his liver enzymes, and that all looks normal. One option is late onset epilepsy. We don’t really know why these dogs start having seizures in that case, but we can control them pretty successfully with medication. There’s a very small possibility it could be a tumor. If you want, we can do an MRI and ultrasound to try to rule that out. But typically in that case we’d see grand mal seizures, where he’d be falling over and losing control of his bladder. If he gets to that point, it can be life threatening, so you’ll want to bring him back in immediately. A third option is autoimmune idiopathic epilepsy. For that we’d proscribe steroids, like prednisone -”

“That’s what I’m on for my autoimmune disease.”

“ - Well we don’t like to use that long term because of the side effects. Dogs usually have the same side effects as humans, but more severe. They lose bone density and muscle mass, and gain weight around their abdomen so they get a little pot-bellied. My suggestion would be to start him on a short-term course of phenobarbital and see how he responds.”

“As I said, I have an autoimmune disease, and I’ve had seizures before. I keep mine under control mostly with diet. There’s only about five foods I can eat that don’t set off an allergic reaction, and I take a lot of digestive enzymes and histamine blockers and stuff. I guess I’d like to try treating this as if it’s autoimmune because I kind of know what to do for that, and see if he responds to a super clean diet, with no chemicals or anything like that.”

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