Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 22

Tuesday, August 15

Today our routine went totally differently. For one thing, my human took a shower before we even traveled together. I slumped on the bedroom carpet and went back to sleep until she called me to the front door. Then I swept my tail furiously from side to side, heedless of pounding it against the drier, while she clipped on my training collar and leash. Then we were off!

I got another surprise when she pulled up short by the car, opening the door and prompting “in!” instead of heading us down the driveway.

We drove to the house with the smooth wood floors. I yawned at little Nikki while she sniffed my nose on my way across the threshold. I was prepared to do my “down, stay” in the usual spot, but my human let me trail her to the pantry for some bottles that smelled of plastic and the same musty powders she sprinkles in my food. Then Juliet dragged my human’s brother outside with us, and we all piled into the car. I got to curl up on my customary front seat, while Juliet sat on her human’s lap in the back. He cradles her in his arms and pets her on the top of her head a lot, and she narrows her eyes and flattens her ears resentfully, or licks his face to ask him to stop impinging on her fragile sense of dignity.

While we rode in the car and the people chatted, I got a queasy feeling from my human’s heavy loneliness smell, so I gazed up at her from where I’d rested my head over the center console. She smiled at me then looked away, so I think our pack is okay. Then the car pulled to a sharp stop. I rocked forward, and my paws slipped out from under me. I sat up, staring out the window at a man holding a stick. His head was angled away from me, oblivious to my scrutiny, but I sent him plenty of long, sluggish blinks just to be safe.

Finally, we arrived - at the sparkly lake! We walked along an asphalt path with dry brush on either side. We passed really close on a narrow section of road to two fuzzy white dogs who stared at me, wagging so hard that their plumy white tails blurred. It’s always hardest for me not to react to dogs when Juliet’s there because she’s an alpha and I instinctively feel driven to follow her lead. I could taste Juliet’s insecurity. But I listened to my human’s “leave it” instead and stayed quiet.

I got caught up in the cries of birds, so that my forehead furrowed in concentration. My human tapped my butt lightly with her foot, and I turned toward her dutifully, jaws cracking an extravagant yawn to negate any perceived challenge in the eye contact.

Juliet stayed in line and didn’t drag my human’s brother for once, up until she spotted another miniature husky around the bend. Since she’s small her vision is much keener than mine. Then she surged forward, straining to catch up with the dog ahead because its dominant body language (upright ears, tail curled over its back, fluffed up fur) threatened her status. She fixated so intensely on herding the husky into submission, zigzagging frantically from side to side as her paws ate up the ground, that when we finally passed on the other side of the street, she began lagging on her leash, staring over her shoulder so that my human’s brother almost tripped over her. She stopped to mark a bush that smelled of the other husky’s personal scent. Juliet does not have a command for relieving herself, so she marks wherever she wants to right in the middle of traveling. She swivels her ears to the side and narrows her eyes while she pees so that she looks like a rabbit. While she’s thus occupied my human’s brother always stares at her, so when she’s finished she has to respond to his challenge by bounding out in front of him, proving she’s alpha.

My human praised me warmly whenever we passed dogs because I looked at her instead of them. I also ignored all the bicycles because I’m a good boy and they aren’t a trigger for me anymore.

An off-leash, dominant chihuahua froze when she saw Juliet, then charged directly toward her, tail high like a flag pole. My human’s brother picked her up off the ground, so then the little dog ran straight for me, but my human commanded “free,” and I angled for a bush, lifting my leg to alleviate my social anxiety. (Hurray!)

After our walk I got to sniff around and take my morning constitutional. While my nostrils roved the brush, looking for an ideal place to deposit my stool at nose height for others dog to find, our two humans chatted with two unfamiliar people sitting on a bench. My human’s brother wanted to take his pack to greet theirs, but Juliet was having none of it. She flinched back from the strangers, cowering at the end of the leash with her ears plastered to her skull and normally proud tail clenched between her legs. In the end her human held her in his arms so that she had no choice but to tolerate the strangers’ petting. She licked her lips and leaned as far away from the unwanted touch as she could.

My human and I greeted the unfamiliar people, too. I’m never overly excited about strangers, but I’m also not actively afraid of them like Juliet. I have a strategy for meeting new people in which I stand at a polite distance, giving them space and making no sudden movements that could be interpreted as threatening. In this case, the new people didn’t seem to get the message, or else were also too submissive to make the first move. So we both just stood back expectantly, me respectfully turning my head away and averting my gaze, them staring so intently at me that I had to fight the instinct to back up. Since all humans (with a very few notable exceptions) are automatically alpha to me, I give them the opportunity to take the initiative, and set the terms of our relationship. They usually react by putting their hands on the top of my head, domineeringly, as if they didn’t understand that I’d already submitted to them, and there’s no need to rub their dominant status in. (Human children are a different story of course. Puppies vie with one another for the richest teat before we even open our eyes, but it seems humans take time to learn to play dominance games).

Humans are used to dogs barreling towards them full steam, nudging their fingers with demanding muzzles and shoving impudent noses into their crotch. It’s like they don’t know what to do when a dog actually treats them respectfully for once. My human is different, of course. She never rewards rude behavior by giving the offending dog attention - petting or talking to it. She makes it clear that she expects to be the treated like an alpha. This surprises most dogs because they’ve grown to expect all humans to melt into puppyish puddles of quivering jelly the instant a canine breaches their personal space. So basically, our pack confuses everybody because I give respect to humans who don’t know how to recognize or accept it, and my human demands it from dogs who’ve forgotten - or possibly never learned - how to bestow it.

I award the same respect to small dogs, freezing in place for them to approach me, because small dogs are often so bursting with fear of everybody that they put up a huge front of aggression, barking their readiness to inflict grievous bodily harm at the slightest provocation. What they don’t realize is that I can afford to act this way because they’re so little that they’re like flies on the windshield of my life. Small dogs, like human adults, usually take full advantage of all the power I give them. Their chests swell with boosted confidence as they circle me, inspecting my body with their flaring noses. For this reason, even the most vindictive small dogs usually like me - the notable exception being Juliet.

After greeting the strangers, we loaded into the lovely air-conditioned car, drove for a while, and then my human’s brother and Juliet climbed out.

We practiced “ready” at the grocery store before breakfast. I grinned in anticipation when we pulled up in front of the store and my human slipped my red vest over my shoulders, because by this time all the exercise had left me famished, so I was eager to work for a snack. Inside my attention wavered only once, when a lady talked to me, but my human clicked her tongue to bring me back.

After the store, long awaited breakfast.

My diet has evolved through many stages before reaching its current iteration. When my meals first became interesting, I ate white rice with egg scrambled into it, carrots, broccoli, chicken breast, blueberries, peeled golden delicious apples, and salmon oil. Later my human baked buttery, crumbly bread out of banana and blueberries and cottage cheese for me in the hot box behind the door under the stove.

Originally, I got ground chicken as my rewards for dog school. My human would swipe at her eyes and nose all day long between feeding me succulent bites. Then we switched to turkey.

Over time, I’d become jittery or grumpy on certain days, and then my human would eliminate ingredients from my diet, slowly weaning it down to a simpler form. Afterwards, my headaches magically decreased, so that I didn’t feel as vulnerable and touchy about other dogs violating my personal space. Also, for some reason, I no longer got hot and muzzy and quivery even when people clapped right near my ears at trick class.

My human also started incorporating the powders into my meals, but I don’t mind because they don’t have a suspicious bitter medicine taste, and anyway they’re mostly disguised by butter and by meat drippings as unctuous gravy.

The process hasn’t been totally smooth. Carrots were a burst of bright freshness in my mouth. I’d crunch them for my rewards during an evening dog class that we used to drive to at a far-away park. I loved the carrots, but as I snapped them up, my headache would build and build until I realized that all the dogs around me were way too close for comfort. Especially the males I wanted to roar at to “GO AWAY.” The last time we went to this class I charged at a big fluffy male, so he’d know my pain scent didn’t mean I was a target, but my human held my leash, so I didn’t manage to drive him off. For some reason carrots aren’t one of my foods anymore.

One month my breakfast had a stronger than normal smell of earthy powders. I also had terrible diarrhea and felt progressively more cranky.

Another time, my meat started carrying a slight chemical taint. After about a week of eating this turkey, I had an incident where I roared at a Bernese mountain dog while we were all loitering idly after obedience class. She wasn’t staring at me rudely, or even paying me the slightest attention, but she was just so big and hairy. My human was chatting with Copper’s human at the time, so when I rushed the dog, I jerked her off of her feet. We careened down a grassy slope, and I almost got my head over the dog’s shoulders, but my human kept running at top speed so that we sprinted right on past her. The next day my ground turkey smelled and tasted clean, like just turkey.

Today my foods are turkey breast, bananas, blueberries, eggs, and butter. I’ve had only one single trembly episode since I stopped eating kibble, which happened in the middle of the night during the week my meat smelled of chemicals, and which shook the mattress so hard it woke my human up. I’m calmer than I’ve ever been before, even though we walk five miles a day now, instead of eight to ten miles like used to be necessary to shave the barest edge off my boundless, nervous energy. We’ve been able to resume our daily dog park trips, and my human collects shells because she no longer has to watch me like a hawk at the beach to make sure I’m not getting into it with every intact male. I wear a red vest again as a proud working dog who helped my human at college last spring. I don’t wear my blue vest to buildings that smell of syrupy old people anymore, but I do my library job because I love kids and it’s much less stressful for me. And the boss at obedience class says things about me like “look how perfect Monkey is,” and “Monkey is a really well-trained dog,” that I don’t understand but make my human stand straighter and her smell sings in my nostrils. Sitting like a soldier in my proper place at her left side, my heart soars because I know I’m a good dog.

I’m not even really afraid of horses anymore. My human and I visited a place with lots of horses recently, and I stayed perfectly serene while I sniffed the pens, even though one horse trotted very close to me, huge nostrils flaring curiously in return. I learned that horses are pretty dull, and can’t really stare a challenge because they can only look at you from the side, one dark eye at a time. It would have been a fine experience, except that I stuck my snout into a hole in the dirt where fat red ants were swarming. They didn’t smell like much, but when they marched up my leg I felt blasts of agony explode wherever their tiny jaws pinched into my skin. My human scraped them off with a stick, then rushed us to the car, urging me to hobble faster despite the fact that some of my toes felt puffy so that my leg hind paw struck the ground at an odd angle. I sat bolt upright on my seat, panting heavily, the muscles of my rear leg jumping and twitching spasmodically. We drove to one of the buildings where I usually got shots, and I screamed when the vet prodded at my leg.

This afternoon, after I greedily scarfed my breakfast and my human ate lunch, we took a nap. I snuggled up against her, sneezing and stretching my legs in the air, and she rubbed my belly a bit. I smelled hot sickness throbbing behind my human’s eyes, and she kept throwing off the covers and lurching upright to play with her phone. Then her phone bleated vindictively, and it was time for Tuesday night obedience class.

Class was boring and uneventful for me, but it relaxed my human. When we got home I rolled and rubbed myself all over the carpet, and then shook off. I flicked my ears back and thought about zooming, but my human was in the mood for a game of “get it,” and she had turkey in her treat pouch, so I obliged.

I got confused at one point because instead of the normal soft thunk of hitting carpet, the squeaky dumbbell made a splat noise that sounded like it rebounded against a hard surface, so I check for it on the smooth floor behind the kitchen counter. It turned out the sneaky dumbbell bounced into the bathroom. When I discovered its hiding place, I dived onto it even more joyfully than usual. For my last retrieval, my human knelt down and held the treat bag for me to shove my whole face inside and gobble the last morsel. I licked grease from my lips and glanced up at her, wagging my request that now be a good time for dinner.

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