Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 23

Wednesday, August 16

This morning we walked a route we haven’t traveled in a long time. It involved lots of “sit” and “wait” on the dazzling white concrete at street corners, and lots of cars whizzing past, and the air catching at the hairs of my pelt like claws trying to pull me along with them. A black dog about my size with a fluffy tail pointed straight up stared at me as he passed within two feet of me on the sidewalk, while dogs trapped behind fences barked warnings to trespassers in the background. My human smelled like “I got this” so I wasn’t worried.

At the dog park I felt shy around a pit bull puppy, so I pretended to sniff at the trees and grass and garbage cans and tables. Then we were friends because she pretended to sniff at the same spots with me. Her human petted my chest and scratched my butt, so I sniffed her face. Then I got intimidated so I glanced at my human for reassurance. She smiled at me and I broke into a sloppy doggy grin.

On the way home, my forehead wrinkled, and I whimpered because I heard coyotes howling their celebration of a successful hunt. Their calls stirred a distant part of me to race across the street and join their pack roaming the wild hills. But my human didn’t lead our pack up the hiking trails to accept the invitation and become one with theirs.

We did dog school, then I ate breakfast and rolled around on the carpet, belching and smacking my lips appreciatively. My human brushed my teeth with my toothbrush that buzzes and sends a hum reverberating through my jaw bones. Then she puttered around making unattractive chemically and shampooy smells in the kitchen that battled with the more appetizing fragrance of crusty grease. I watched dejectedly, supervising the proceedings with sad, sad, doggy eyes because I knew what came next.

Sure enough, my human scraped my hide raw with the brush, until I hardly had any skin cells left. I expressed my opinion by hanging my head meekly, standing on three paws, eyeing her chin with intent to lick if she came close enough, and heaving woeful sighs. I also tried shaking myself off a few times when she paused, trying to signal that we should be done with grooming now, but she just adjusted the brush in her hand and started again.

I always rush to the refrigerator and “sit” for my chunk of turkey after my human clips my nails, but I don’t need a reward after brushing because not being brushed anymore IS a reward.

Speaking of nail trimming, we did that too. Then, horror of horrors, my human broke out the hated vacuum, even though it wasn’t even Thursday. It could have been worse. At least the drier wasn’t on.

Later we ran into Magda and her human outside the house with the wood floors. I wanted to jump on Magda’s human, so I put my paws up against the open window. Magda’s human cooed at me in a gushy voice, but my human told me “off” (both verbally and via body language) in no uncertain terms, even though Magda’s human whimpered like a puppy who just wanted to play rough housing with me. Then Magda burst out of the car and we capered and zoomed together, whining and moaning about our long, long, separation. I got so worked up that I needed to pee immediately on everything, so we toured the bushes and plastic grass along the edges of the flat planes of concrete, marking all our habitual spots.

I’d downgraded my expectations out of life, so when we arrived inside the pool gate I laid down unprotestingly on the hard cement. But it turned out there was a towel for me this time. My human indicated “spot” and I repositioned myself, splitting my attention between slow blinks at the strange, splashing creature my human had morphed into and Juliet, prowling the yard.

Tonight, I played with my baby cousin Sydney for the first time.

My cousin is my human’s best friend’s new puppy. I understand best friends because I’ve had Chloe and Sadie. Sydney is a sheltie, which is a great thing to be in my opinion. Back when my human and I started attending trick class, we used to go on Mondays instead of Sundays, and most of the dogs there were shelties. And also, four different shelties work with me at my library job on a regular basis. So, I practically qualify as an honorary sheltie myself.

I met my human’s best friend while I was still a shelter dog. We three went for an evening walk along the dirt roads, the most memorable part of which was that I almost dragged my human off her feet charging a posse of huge-eyed kittens behind a chain link fence. Since then my human’s best friend has popped up in our lives at scattered times throughout all the various places we’ve lived. After our fifth move, we’ve visited her house and she ours several times, and the three of us have traveled together along hiking trails in both territories. We may not see my human’s best friend all that often, but like Chloe and Sadie, we are a special kind of pack with her where time and distance don’t matter because we carry each other in our hearts always.

When the front door swung open, I sat dutifully by my human’s side and waited for her to cross the threshold. Then I followed and immediately had to sniff at Sydney because his human held him up high in the air in her arms. This triggered my instinct to jump and grab, but I restrained myself because I’m a good boy. Soon Sydney was tottering about on the ground on his wobbly puppy legs, and we were able to investigate each other properly. I whimpered my anxiety and glanced around everywhere, desperate for something appropriate to mark, but of course we were inside the house, which foiled my attempts.

Every time I couldn’t help but meet his gaze, Sydney play-bowed to me, sinking his front-end low to the ground then springing up at my nose. The humans led us through a shiny glass door to the yard, where Sydney trailed along at my heels. He suddenly broke into random running jags, making figure eights around my legs, and trying to herd me. He wanted me to play so hard, but instead I got mesmerized by a spinning wheel up by the fence line and stood at attention, head cocked, eyes glued to this weird phenomenon for ages. Sydney and my human’s best friend played “get it” with a squeaky tennis ball, then he couldn’t retrieve anymore because he was too busy hovering by the peoples’ ankles. When they squatted down, he pressed himself against them and panted with a fear smile because of the noises his other human (the male) made playing with sticks in the dirt.

Then, when we went back inside, Sydney plopped down on his butt on the carpet in front of me and stared “WANT” at me with his mouth open, tongue lolling. He batted at my tail with his claws like Weasley used to do, and nipped at it with needle sharp baby teeth, and then stood tall on his hind legs and put his paws on my back. At one point he paraded out a toy from his crate to entice me with, and I allowed myself to show brief, detached interest. Throughout the whole process, I licked my lips liberally and turned my head from side to side non-confrontationally, with the goal to diffuse tension (mostly mine). I was very patient with all his antics and remained reserved and respectful of his status (automatically higher than mine) even though he was too young to realize that as dogs we are supposed to establish ourselves in the dominance hierarchy by means of solemn rituals instead of just being an explosion of tussling fur ball. I’m glad that somebody kept a level head, because even my human squealed like a prey animal once or twice around this puppy. Eventually we dogs were both so worn out by the emotional exhaustion of meeting somebody new that by mutual consensus we laid down to rest on the soft plushy carpet.

Overall it was a good time. Sydney got treats, most of which he held delicately between his teeth, then spat out disdainfully and completely ignored. I didn’t get any treats even though I stared my “WANT” at them, and I also wasn’t offered any of the broccoli or savory meatiness Sydney’s man was cooking. But my human’s body language melted into a form that was very loose and relaxed and very happy. Her shoulders slid back, and the stiffness leached out of her spine. She and her best friend chatted in animated voices, until it was way past reasonable dinner time and my belly gnawed a hole in itself and the bright lights beyond the glass door shone starkly against the blackness of the sky. And they practiced the ritual where they wrap their arms around each other and press their chests together - which looks like a dominance game but isn’t. My human even made this signal with Sydney’s male person, and she never once gave off a “don’t touch me” smell.

I know that there are things humans get sad about that dogs don’t understand. There’s a lot that’s happened to my human lately, a lot that’s happening with her family, and she’s living on the periphery of great transition, and through her I’m brushing the edges of this change. The cardboard boxes have appeared, and scent objects are vanishing or being moved around, and half the time none of the right humans are to be found where they’re supposed to be. My vision may be poor, but I’m not nose-deaf to the signs. Maybe we’ll be living in a sixth house soon.

Dogs sense change on the wind even if we don’t understand what exactly is occurring. That’s why sometimes all of a sudden, we need to relearn where it’s appropriate to relieve ourselves, even if we’ve never ever lifted a leg in the house before. We smell loneliness and heartache in our humans - the ragged edged, gaping holes they carve in their own souls and in each other - and we worry that our pack isn’t okay. Humans make the rules in the world, but somehow, they’re the ones who wind up the most often hurt and lost. Dogs are never lost, even curling up in corners in stinky condos instead of homes, so long as our packs have leadership that smells young and healthy and free inside. There are people who wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, much less walk their dog five miles, if they felt unwell, but my human never lets her sickness interrupt the important business of our life. That, more than anything - even doing the bad thing - would be admitting defeat. And as a dog that’s something I understand intuitively because even an old, arthritic, dog hobbles to the door with pitiful eagerness if his human picks up his leash, because until it’s time to lay down and die he knows that a dog has just got to walk. I worry about my human, but tonight she was happy with her best friend, and in the morning, she’ll wake up and we’ll travel together, and even if my nose tells me that she’s forcing herself to stagger each next step and smile through the pain or that she took more medicine than usual, she’ll smell like “I got this.” And I’ll know that I’m safe.

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