Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 27

September

One week our pack went to the beach with Copper and his human. Even though Copper’s got these awkward, gangly legs, he’s not really a puppy anymore, but he doesn’t know it. Copper isn’t pathologically submissive like Magda, but he acts like missing the chance to play with every single dog IMMEDIATELY might actually kill him. He’s as much fun as a brand-new tennis ball that surprises you by squeaking when you munch it. The next week my human and I played with little Sadie and her human at the beach. I did an epic amount of zooming on the beach with Copper and with little Sadie. Copper mostly drops down low on his belly then springs up at me like a burst of confetti. Little Sadie alternates between rearing up on her hind legs and putting her front paws on my shoulders and play-bowing. Little Sadie wears a harness that’s attached to a long, long, leash. Her human holds on for dear life and scrambles to keep up with her, while I zoom magnificent loops and little Sadie frantically zigzags after me. We wrestle and crash around in the waves together like champions. But with other dogs little Sadie often gets caught up in dominance games, pressing her cheek against theirs, nose to nose, with stiff body language, to indicate her willingness to prove who’s boss. Even when she was probably just playing with the other dogs, it worried me, so I’d wedge myself between them to split them up. Then Sadie and I would rough house, and she’d present her belly to me periodically, so I felt reassured. My role as peace keeper is very important where little Sadie is concerned so after breaking up a potential scuffle I always stand tall and beam with pride. My body language says, “you’re welcome.”

On Sundays we attended the new church. My human and I sat in the same row as her family, and she’d pause to chat with them in the parking lot, but her happy, purposeful scent from being useful at the cafe was missing. She smelled like “not mine” - like loss and mourning - even when one Sunday two off-leash dogs suddenly charged across the asphalt, rapping out sharp alarm barks, and instead of driving me off, temporarily accepted me into their pack. I stayed calm and collected: I didn’t make a sound or hop once in spite of the fact that one of the dogs pelting straight at me was bigger and fluffier than me. My human dropped my leash, so I didn’t feel trapped and defensive. We were all males, so we had a grand time lifting our legs in tandem on all the bushes. After the initial mind-numbing thrill of terror, it was really a nice welcome.

At trick class I learned that hornets may look tiny, but they are really very big alphas. My human gave them turkey just because they demanded it without even asking them for any tricks even though she never ever lets dogs push her around like that. Also, a hornet stung me on the butt at obedience class. After that I felt very drowsy and tucked my tail and drooped my head until I was able to curl up for a nap at home. The worst thing about hornets is that when they’re around my human yelps and flails her arms ridiculously without any warning so that I’m never quite sure it isn’t on account of me being in trouble. It’s more than my nerves can take, so I usually pin my ears against my skull and lay down submissively, so she’ll know to quit causing me stress. If that doesn’t work I turn my back on her to pretend all the drama isn’t happening.

For three consecutive weeks we randomly went to obedience class on Wednesday night and practiced a bunch of “ready” off-leash in the middle pen at the dog park. My human has been adding in more “free” where I’m not actually released, but while I trot at her side with my eyes riveted on her face I’m allowed to pop up and snag the long sliver of turkey trailing from her hand. Then even while I’m smacking my lips I have to keep pace with her and never lower my head. Other times we did obedience class on the normal days, but the boss was mysteriously missing, and my human spoke continuously, while the other people gazed at her attentively, just like they were practicing “ready.”

“We don’t let the past limit us,” she answered someone’s question in an authoritative tone that had me puffing up my chest, proud that my alpha smelled so strong. “A lot of clients want to focus on the idea that their dog was abused, and they let their sadness over the story in their head be an excuse for their dog’s out of control behavior forever. In that case I really try to take the emphasis off the past because dogs live in the moment. And because, as long as you’re making excuses, you’ll never get anywhere in dog training. It isn’t really being kind to a dog to feel sorry for him. Monkey had every behavioral problem in the book when I got him. Most people would have taken that and his story into account and would have stuck him in their backyard and never dared walk him in public, much less try any of the other things I’ve done with him. And they would have totally felt justified that just being a backyard dog was good enough because he was abused. But obviously Monkey had so much more potential than that to overcome his background. When I met him, I looked at him and said, ‘Okay, bad things happened. That was yesterday. Today you are going to be the best-trained, gentlest, mellowest dog in the world.’ And whatever we have to do to achieve that goal every day is what I’m determined to do.”

My cousin Sydney stayed at our house and was pack with us for three days. We went on short pack walks together, and despite my good example of proper on-leash manners, Sydney was a one-puppy disaster zone. Sydney snaked between my legs so that we got tangled up together. He bobbed up and down, flinging himself wildly into the air, twirling and leaping with reckless abandon, to nip at my nose. Whenever a car hurtled past, he shrank back, struggling like mad on the end of the leash as his flight reflex overwhelmed him. By the second night he’d improved considerably, so that our bodies made parallel lines by my human’s left side, but we never achieved the perfect synchronization of me and my girlfriend Sadie walking together. This visit, Sydney was a little bit larger and bolder, so he was more fun to play with, but I mainly got frisky and wrestled with him while his human was around. Once she left, Sydney mostly focused on my human. He trailed her everywhere, tramping clumsily about on wobbly puppy legs, colliding with her ankles and falling in a fluffy heap whenever she stopped short. My human tossed balls and waved around ropes for “tug” but I felt shy about playing with toys with them because as soon as Sydney entered the house, all the toys belonged to him by reason of his dominance over me. His favorite game involved my green rubber bone, which squeaks extremely loudly. He’d dart in and jab the bone hard with his nose, letting out an earsplitting squeak. Every single time he sprang into the air, just as startled as if he’d never heard the piercing squeal before. He danced backwards, mouth open and panting with delicious anticipation. Then he play-bowed to the bone, and raced back in, pouncing gleefully and punching the thing with his muzzle again. I supervised Sydney’s manic fits, stationing myself with my head over my human’s shoulder while she squatted down on our level. I breathed heavily in her face, so she’d know how I felt about suddenly being a big brother, and also so she wouldn’t forget about me.

Sydney had Weasley’s talent of keeping himself busy with crazy mischief every single second he was awake, then crashing abruptly into deep slumber. The first day Sydney made a mess on the carpet twice, which caused a great consternation from my human, who scooped him up in her arms and immediately ran outside. I just laid down at a safe distance and whale-eyed them anxiously. I found the whole experience moderately stressful, in part because it was blazing hot out. Just breathing the dry air sapped every drop of moisture and every ounce of energy from my body, so all I wanted to do was melt into a boneless doggy puddle beneath the air conditioning. I even voluntarily put myself in my crate for some much-needed peace and personal space; by this time, I’d grown very comfortable in my cozy fleece-lined den, where my human shut me for an hour at a time while she showered and puttered around the house doing dumb, boring human things. Best of all my crate keeps me safe from the evil vacuum.

Nevertheless, we had some fun romping together on the second night, when I discovered Sydney’s squeaky tennis ball. I tore around the house in thunderous loops, from the living room to the bedroom and back again, triumphantly holding my prize aloft while Sydney hopped up and down at my flank. His little paws skidded on the slippery kitchen floor as he chased after me. On the third morning, my human’s mother and her smallest sister visited, and the novelty of having actual OTHER PEOPLE in the house filled me with so much excitement that I burst into crazy running jags. I hunted down toys to carry around, showing them off to the humans until Sydney, bounding at my side, made me too nervous. Then I’d drop whatever I had deferentially and seek out something new. When Sydney’s humans returned for him, he was so overjoyed that I was afraid I couldn’t compete with him for attention, so I pinned him to the ground by laying my whole foreleg across his body. By flattening him against the carpet, I managed to force him to chill out for a few seconds.

I went on a date to the beach with my girlfriend Sadie. As soon as we saw each other at her house we were out of our minds with excitement. We body-slammed and chest-bumped as if the angels had choreographed it. We drove in her human’s car and tussled together the whole way in the back seat. We jaw wrestled with our mouths gaping open. Sadie and I are both vocal when we play: she lets out high-pitched ruffs and I do rumbling growls deep in my chest like a crocodile. She’s part boxer (and pit bull and husky) so she throws her forepaws up in the air and capers on her hind legs. I like to nibble on the velvety fur on back of her ears. As we flopped around our limbs and tails smacked against the walls, but we didn’t care. Our humans squawked at us when we used their bodies as launch pads and defensive shields to peek out and snap at each other around, but when I’m with Sadie she’s my first priority, and humans are never high on Sadie’s list of priorities. On the beach we galloped across the sand and crashed through the waves together. Sadie is gregarious and makes friends wherever she goes, unlike my first girlfriend, Chloe, who unilaterally hated and mistrusted all dogs except for me. Sadie immediately assumes she’s part of every pack, so she can play with everyone. When she chased other dogs, I wanted to join in but I felt intimidated by the dogs I didn’t know, so when I threw myself into the fray I studiously ignored them. I homed in on Sadie, jumping on her and chewing on the back of her neck. I had eyes only for Sadie, except for once when I swam far out into the ocean to retrieve a rubber squeaky ball because the German shepherd who’d been jealously guarding it was distracted.

Ground squirrels moved into the bushes bordering our tiny gravel yard. My ears twitched to their chirping outside the bedroom window all day long. At night the fascinating rainbow of aromas wafting from their burrows distracted me while I tried to relieve myself. I wanted to plunge my nose into the bushes and drink deeply the ripe musk of prey trails. It took much longer than usual for me to finally concentrate enough to get a satisfying stream going, with that maddening siren’s song enthralling my nostrils. For some reason my human smelled impatient while she supervised, watching my back so nobody snuck up on me in a compromising position and surprise attacked.

One night I had to wait in the house while my human drove off with her mother in her car, but all the way from inside the door I smelled her, and I smelled Juliet.

Juliet is a bad alpha, but she is not a bad dog. We could never be pack because no matter how hard I try to convince her I’m happy in my submissive status, she’s too insecure to accept this and leave me be. But all that aside, Juliet looks to my human’s mother for leadership with almost the same sort of worshipful attentiveness with which I watch my human. At these times her scent takes on a burning eagerness to please. Her only problem is that she’s had to carry an alpha job that’s too big for her. But underneath all that she’s a dog, so like me, she’s exactly what she was created to be.

The last few times I saw her, she skulked about the house with the wood floors silently. My human’s mother was not there, and she had nobody to turn to for direction. When I caught a whiff of her in my human’s mother’s car, she smelled pitiful - confused and nervous. A few days earlier I’d seen her through the open window of my human’s car, where I’d waited while my human, her mother, two of her sisters and Juliet all went into an unfamiliar house. Her body language (slinking along the ground with her tail low, ears flat against her skull, one paw raised and curled protectively against her chest), read “subdued, deflated.” She’d been without consistent leadership for a while, and something skittish and almost feral peered out at me from behind her wide, round eyes.

This may surprise you, but way back when Juliet and I first met, we started out friends. We used to rough house together, chasing and rolling and pinning each other all across the kitchen floors. Juliet was also vocal when she played, throwing back her head for high-pitched howls while I rumbled along in my deep voice. This was before I had to do my “down, stay” in my corner every time we visited the smooth-floors house. But then something happened. It was just like Heidi’s reign of terror. Around me, all of the humans took on this sharp, toxic scent of disgust and resentment. My human smelled wrong too - edgy and fearful with a hint of frustration. Her hunched, defensive body language said that she was waiting for them to snarl and pounce on her. My human’s father shouted at us (“quiet, Juliet”) and before long we weren’t allowed to play anymore. If we approached each other at all, the humans’ mad smell flared bright and searing, poisoning the air with hostility that instantly killed all the fun. My human would interrupt my play-bows to my friend by commanding me to lay down. Then when Juliet took advantage of my submissive posture to climb on my back to tug on my scruff and I craned my neck to jaw wrestle with her, the yelling took on a feverish urgency. Gradually we transitioned from me lying at my human’s feet wherever she sat to me always being assigned to the same corner, where I could “stay” as unobtrusively as possible. I didn’t mind the boredom; the cool wood against my belly made the house a great place to escape the heat and nap. But Juliet and I forgot how to be pack.

I can’t pin point the exact moment when Juliet’s advances stopped being friendly and became earnest attacks, because the change happened so subtly, stealing up on us with a predator’s stealth. Rehearsing ritual combat versus actual aggression is all a matter of interpretation in any case. We trust that the other dog doesn’t actually intend to hurt us - that teeth sinking into the loose folds around our throats won’t clamp down, rip and tear - until we don’t. Juliet and I were allowed to play when we saw each other in the yard, but the punishing heat usually prevented this from being an attractive option, and all I wanted to do outside was flop down on the plasticy smelling grass. Even on the rare occasions when it was nice out, so my brains weren’t melting out of my ears, Magda visited the yard a lot. I gravitated towards her since she was more my size. It wasn’t that Juliet became jealous, exactly, but watching the two of us tussle without intervening was more than she could stand. The instinct to police our erratic movements had been bred into her; miniature huskies are actually herding dogs, genetically programmed to seek order in their subjects. Anyways, dogs who play well in pairs often have difficulty in larger social groups even if they normally get along with each of the other dogs involved individually: I’d know because I’m like this. What’s more, I’d always been excruciatingly carefully not to hurt Juliet, no matter how savage our play-fights looked and sounded, because she was so little, but with Magda I didn’t need to hold myself in check quite so much. It was hard to be gentle to Juliet and let loose on Magda at the same time.

Eventually, Juliet and I forgot about wrestling and only remembered that for some reason, whenever we got close to one another, all the humans smelled angry. Clearly, we weren’t supposed to be companions, but rival packs. That’s when Juliet decided that her mission in life was to drive me away from her territory, and since she always found herself in the unenviable position of facing down my human, protecting me, she only ever succeeded in making herself deeply unhappy. So you see, she wasn’t really like Heidi at all. I’ll never know why the world decided not to let us be friends.

On Saturday, the week after the incident in which I was left home alone, after obedience class my human and I took a last long walk with Juliet and my human’s brother. We four traveled along the baking hot asphalt streets of Juliet’s neighborhood, like we used to do several times a week. The humans chatted while Juliet whipped back and forth, trying to scout out prey everywhere at once, surging out in front initially then falling into step with us as her energy flagged.

Later my human’s brother cuddled her in his arms and she licked her lips and laid back her ears to remind him that she was a canine, not a primate, and express her opinion of this unnatural, undignified position. Then he smelled of heat and salty sadness, and she licked his face to ask him to please pull himself together because his gushy emotions were slopping all over her. My human and her mother and father also smelled of sadness, so that the bittersweet, tangy odor clogged my nostrils, but I had to hold my “down, stay,” and wasn’t permitted to lick any faces. Juliet left the house with a woman who didn’t smell like my human’s blood at all. This was very strange, because Juliet normally reacts to unfamiliar humans in the same way Sydney reacts to cars, by tucking her tail and fleeing, struggling for all she’s worth to bolt on the end of the leash. I’d never seen Juliet leave except with my human’s brother or her mother. I am a dog, and we understand that pack is a fluid concept, to be formed and dissolved at a moment’s notice when change becomes necessary for survival. The fragile emotional state of the humans made me a little queasy, but Juliet and I both accepted that this was goodbye.

After that, when we visited the house with the wood floors, I didn’t see Juliet anymore. The traces of her scent took longer to fade from the yard which had been her hunting ground and her kingdom. But over time the sense of her diminished until I stopped looking over my shoulder warily for her. Someday I’ll meet her again in doggy heaven. We’ll sing together, her high voice and my bass notes blending as pack, like when we were young, and no one will get annoyed.

Two Sundays in a row we didn’t go to church at all. Instead, my human’s body language was extremely agitated all morning, then after our walk she closed the door in my face and rode off with her family in her mother’s car. When my ears pricked to the sound of the front door opening at her return, I sprang up from my pillow in the living room and wound myself around her ankles, whimpering my long list of grievances - the pleasant nap I’d been enjoying completely forgotten. But it was hard to work up a real storm of indignation when I’d barely woken up, and anyway, I knew from experience that my human would ignore all my pleas for her to promise to never leave EVER EVER again.

The next Sunday we didn’t go to church, and my human didn’t leave me alone, but somehow this felt like a hollow victory. My human carried around a lonely ache that made the atmosphere heavy and dreary. I sighed morosely and dropped my head onto my paws, my mournful gaze tracking her listless fidgeting about the house until it was time to leave for trick class.

From time to time we traveled around the sparkly lake with my human’s mother and one or two of her sisters. Or we passed a few hours at the house with the wooden floors, where my human helped her mother put scent items in cardboard boxes. These were good days, though my human never quite relaxed despite the muted word that passed between them. Dogs know when someone doesn’t want us in their pack. For a while it seems like things are getting better. Then suddenly they’re worse. My human’s family was painstakingly polite about it, turning their faces to never look at me directly, but they still always smelled embarrassed and uncomfortable and repulsed in my presence, like before I learned “ready.” It was confusing, because we weren’t even inside public buildings. A human in my situation might have started to worry that people were disgusted by me because I was disgusting. But luckily, I’m a dog, so it never crossed my mind that their emotions reflected on me. I just knew that it meant we weren’t a good pack together.

A healthy pack is the most important thing in any dog’s world. I’m naturally submissive, and I’d never willingly volunteer for the responsibility of an alpha job, but even I understand that being a dominant in your own pack is better than being the weakest link in somebody else’s. Even if your pack is really, really small. For wolves, it’s called being the Lonewolf.

For a while after that my human walked around bleeding from that invisible part of herself, but she held onto her anger like a shield over the hurt, like a chihuahua that puts up an aggressive front so that no one will forget that small dogs have sharp teeth. She kept her guard up a little with her family instead of constantly asking them with wistful, puppyish body language to be our pack. I’d like to say humans have a monopoly on insanity, but truthfully dogs will try the same thing over and over again, even though it never works, because it’s the only way we know, until somebody steps in and teaches us a new way to be. We’re creatures of habit because usually patterns keep us safe, except when they imprison us in the same wretched, helpless place. The only way to be free is to break the cycle of old behaviors. So, I approve of this change in my human, not only because any invitation to belong to them from her family pointedly excludes the part of our pack that’s me. The idea’s too silly for my sensible doggy brain to even process: how could WE join anything without ME?

One difference between humans and dogs is that, once we make them, we accept changes and are content within the new parameters of our lives, while humans waste a lot of time and energy grieving for the world they wish existed where their discarded habits actually worked. This is really stupid because, obviously, it’s more fun to be happy than sad. For an entire week my human smelled sad and spent a lot of time scratching at papers with a stick. I sprawled across the bed, heaving demonstrative sighs and watching her morosely for signs of movement. My human carried around a lonely ache that made the atmosphere heavy and dreary, and sometimes her sickness flared, so that she whimpered at night, her heart hammering in her chest. At least my human doesn’t make us sit around at home while she’s moping. We continued working at the library and doing awesome things like going to the beach, so I enjoyed myself with full faith that fun is contagious and once my human learned from my example, we’d be fine.

We would go to obedience class, and the weight would lift from my human’s shoulders and her spine would straighten and the pain would ease, at least for a little while. In that same intangible way, my human walks around hungry most of her life, but the different types of dog schools feed her soul. I got a surprise when, during one session, my cousin Sydney showed up among the rowdy new dogs, with my human’s best friend and Sydney’s male human in tow. It was weird in the same way that seeing Copper at obedience class is weird, because every time we come together we know we are pack. Our eyes meet and there’s a moment of breathless anticipation as involuntary whimpers steal out of us and our tails thump fast against the ground, because we know that we’re supposed to be performing elaborate greeting rituals and rolling around playing - except the humans for some reason don’t get with the program. They make us sit still, stiff and upright, hiding our butts in a very antisocial fashion. It’s something Copper and I have had to get used to, but it was still a new experience in my relationship with Sydney. Sometimes after class we’re able to sniff - at which point I angle directly for the nearest tree and pee away my accumulated anxiety. I’m accustomed to it, so I surrender to the inevitable with an adult dog’s weary grace, but puppies are not good at delayed gratification. There were ten other new, unruly canines in class, and even I get worn out mentally by (not) interacting with that many dogs. By the end of the hour, Sydney quit fighting his leash and flopped on the grass in exhaustion.

Lately it’s been dark by the end of class. There’s a jarring contrast between the street lights and the unrelenting black sky. I’m not used to seeing much, so the spooky shapes that haunt the corners of my vision make me jumpy in the dim light.

One morning on our walk a chihuahua screamed shrill obscenities at me through the open window of a passing car. I did my best to ignore him, flattening my ears to my skull, but then he lunged at me, teeth bared in a rictus of hatred. His tiny scrabbling claws lost their purchase and he pitched forward out the window, hitting the asphalt in front of me with a soft thud and a high-pitched squeak. A moment later the car squealed to a stop. I was far too astonished to be scared, and anyway his human, barking angrily, launched himself from the car and scooped him up before the small dog could make good on his threats to come over here and rip me limb from limb.

The next Sunday hardly felt like Sunday at all, because, first thing after waking up, we walked around the lake just us two. My human’s dark mood had finally abated, and the set of her shoulders read “determined,” in a way that reminded me of after Weasley peed on her. We went to yet ANOTHER new church, but curiously I didn’t smell any trace of my human’s family at all. Then afterwards we drove straight to trick class.

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