During obedience class, my human said, “Let’s talk about on leash-greeting behavior. First of all, it’s not necessarily a good idea - or necessary - to let your dog greet other dogs on-leash. They get tangled up in each other’s leashes and it’s a huge pain for you. And even dogs who are always extremely friendly off-leash can have trouble with aggression during on-leash interactions with other dogs. The reason is that this” (my human makes a sweeping gesture over my head) “is the weapons end of the dog, and this” (gestures to my hind quarters) “is the social end of the dog. When people ask me how to set up an on-leash greeting I always tell them to give their dog all six feet of the leash so it’s as if they are greeting off-leash. Our human instinct is to tighten up and have dogs greet on a short leash, so we can jerk them away from each other at the first sign of something that makes us uncomfortable, but that’s setting your dog up for failure because then all interaction happens at the head and eyes, where dogs see each other staring, feel intimidated, and then want to growl or bark. The next thing people do is give all six feet but stand so far away that their dog is still straining at the leash to get to the other dog, and their head and chest come up, unintentionally making a body signal that looks aggressive to the other dog. If you are doing an on-leash greeting, bottom line (no pun intended) is that your dogs have to have access to sniff each other’s butts. If you’re not confident enough to allow that, don’t do the greeting, or do it off-leash where your meddling human brain can’t micromanage the situation into a dog fight even if it wants to.
“The other thing is that we have a lot of rowdy pups and young dogs who just want to play SO BAD. So, what do they do? They lunge out at other dogs. We look at that and ‘Awww, think they just want to play,’ but to the other dog that behavior looks aggressive. Staring and lunging are extremely rude behaviors - I’d say allowing your dog to do that to other dogs is the equivalent of letting your toddler flip people off, even if your dog doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. Dogs are like kids who only know one game, and that’s karate. All play behaviors are rehearsals of ritual combat. Whether or not your dog and the dog he threatened end up being friends once they sniff butts doesn’t change the fact that your dog started the relationship with a rude gesture. Maybe he doesn’t know any better, but it’s your job as his leader to teach him. YOU know he doesn’t mean to be aggressive, but that’s only because you know your dog. The other dog doesn’t. Just because YOU know that he’s really a softy doesn’t mean you should let your dog terrify other dogs. Dogs are not mind readers; they misinterpret each others’ body language signals all the time, which is often the cause of fights at the dog park between dogs who were the best of friends, rough housing moments before. It’s not good for your dog psychologically to go around staring and lunging anyway, because what’s going to happen is that the other dog is probably going to reciprocate the aggression he’s unintentionally expressing, and over time your dog will learn, without ever considering why, that all other dogs are mean.
“What I suggest to people is that you don’t reward that behavior. If you are walking up to greet another dog, and your dog is straining at the leash, and pulling and lunging, don’t let him greet the other dog. You should also never ever punish that behavior by yelling or giving a leash correction or squirting your dog with a water bottle or anything like that, because then you’ve paired the stimulus of seeing another dog with an aversive, and what you may accidentally do is condition your dog to be aggressive because every time he sees other dogs he gets in trouble. Or your dog might actually think you’re yelling at the other dog to go away, because you as pack leader have decided that’s an enemy pack over there, and you want your pack to drive them away or attack instead of being friends. So, we don’t punish lunging. Instead, what we do is show the dog that it doesn’t work. As long as your dog lunges, he never gets what he wants. We do this by running away. You tell your dog ‘Say hello,’ walk him on a loose leash toward the other dog, then if he lunges, before he has the opportunity to actually touch the other dog you walk away. You don’t back up and drag your dog with you, because then he’ll resist, but you actually turn your face and body in the opposite direction, in the direction you’re fleeing, say your dog’s name, and walk away. This sends the message to your dog that the pack is fleeing together, and triggers your dog’s instinct to follow you. Then you repeat this exercise, over and over. ‘Say hello,’ walk towards the other dog on a loose leash, your dog lunges, and you walk away. It takes patience. If you have an energetic, really determined puppy you might be stuck doing this a dozen or more times. But eventually, I promise you, you will wear that puppy out and there will come a time when he’ll give up and figure there’s no point in lunging because he’s not getting to greet that other dog anyways. So when you walk up and he doesn’t lunge, you immediately reward him by letting him greet the other dog. And again, super important that the dogs have full body access to sniff each other’s butts. Loose leashes, give them three seconds. Whatever they get up to in three seconds just allow it, because that’s not much opportunity for a fight to start. After you count to three, walk away. Then you may have to start the exercise from the beginning because your dog might be so excited that he wants to lunge again, but eventually he’ll get the idea that he only gets to greet when he doesn’t lunge.
“Why do we do this? Why put yourself through that much aggravation? The point of this exercise is that no matter how friendly your puppy is, staring and lunging are rude behaviors and unfair to the other dog. The basic outlines of dog body language are innate to every dog: that’s why dogs all over the world understand it. But their language does have a learned component, and since most puppies aren’t growing up in a canine pack, they can actually have trouble communicating effectively with other dogs. They use the same hardwired behaviors, but they may fail to learn the appropriate context. Making excuses for it by saying, ‘My dog is friendly - but he likes to stare, or lunge, or bark,’ is the equivalent of saying, ‘My kid is really nice - but he likes to punch.’ You’re not doing your dog any favors by allowing rude behavior. You don’t control the other dog, so if you let your dog be rude, the other dog may take offense and attack your dog. Then guess whose fault that fight actually is? If you don’t teach your puppy not to do these behaviors, other dogs will step in and try to teach him, and they’ll teach him in a dog way, by beating him up. Monkey is a seven-year-old, mature, adult dog. If an unruly puppy gets out of hand around him at the dog park, his instinct is to put the puppy in its place. I never let people bring their staring, lunging dog straight up to Monkey - even though people try all the time. I don’t jerk or drag him, I turn around and walk away. Because what Monkey’s going to want to do, which is his sensible, responsible role in a pack structure, is flip your puppy over and pin him belly-up until he calms down. It’s super normal for puppies around six to eight months to start getting beat up by older dogs at the dog park, because they have too much energy, no boundaries and need to learn when to back off. That’s one way to teach your dog manners. It’s not necessarily the nicest or most effective way. So, if you practice not rewarding lunging, you can actually save your puppy from getting beat up by older dogs.”
My human and I worked on “limp” a little each day. I learned to keep my left forepaw raised for several seconds at a time, until my human reached out and grabbed it. Then I’d hobble along after her, following the hunk of banana that hovered tantalizingly in front of my nose but just out of reach. At first, I squirmed in my human’s grasp, because her fingers slid into the sensitive gaps between my pads, so that I couldn’t lean my weight on her properly. Then I learned to hop along with most of my weight on my other three legs, so that my raised forepaw was just lightly rested on my human’s hand. After a few awkward steps she’d repeat “limp,” as she slowly let go of my paw, and I understood to keep it raised until her “okay” release. Later my human put a sock on my paw. I submitted to this strangeness with a low wagging tail and some face licking (asking her to please make it stop), even though the cloth constricted my toes uncomfortably. Also, when I put my foot down to trail after her luring banana chunks, I stepped on something hard. I tried it again, but every time I gingerly lowered my paw, the something hard dug into the delicate tissue between my pads. My human repeated “limp” at me, and wiggled the treat in her hands in front of my snout, even though I tried to tell her with pitiful doggy eyes that there was a mean thing biting my foot and I felt indisposed to work right now. When I finally resorted to hopping after her on three legs, my human cheered “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and enthusiastically shoveled banana rewards into my mouth.
I’ve become an expert at clockwise (“twirl”) verses counterclockwise (“spin”) even when my human stands far away from me. I also get more “yes” and less “nope” when we practice hand signals without verbal cues. A new command she introduced recently is “light off.” I’m still pretty much mystified by that one.
We started doing my blue vest job in public buildings that are like college but for kids. Sometimes I performed tricks for them, and sometimes they sat and stared at papers, taking turns speaking while they petted me, but mostly they just swarmed me in happy mobs of puppy energy. Most dogs would be overwhelmed by so many grabbing hands coming at them from all sides, but I’m always patient with kids.
We also began hiking on the trail again, where I get to explore the brush off-leash after a period of structured pack walking. Sometimes we traveled just us two, and sometimes other dogs and humans accompanied us. Whenever Jade and her human walk with us, I am off-leash the whole way, because something about Jade’s human makes all discipline go out the window. I don’t quite jump on Jade’s human, but I’m conflicted about whether or not doing so would be appropriate, because Jade and my human haven’t really hashed their relative statuses out. Jade jumps on her human whenever she feels like it (“I know honey”) and at least readies herself to jump on mine (“OFF!“). Lately she’s bunched up her haunches for a spring then thought better of following through.
I used to like the trail better, before Marcus and Festus came on the scene last year. Every time we round a bend and encounter my neighborhood nemesis, there’s a moment of lethal tension as Marcus freezes, boldly staring at me with his tiny glittering eyes, and Festus drops into a predatory crouch, stalking me with his head low and rumbling growls ripping from his chest, before their humans manage to call them in (“With me, with me!”) and leash them up. But it’s okay, because when our pack walks the streets instead, even though I don’t get to sniff around off-leash, we cool down at dog park.
Normally when we encounter off-leash dogs on the trail, my human unclips my leash and releases me with “free!” My human establishes her dominance straight off by striding boldly forward, wading into the midst of the unfamiliar pack and greeting them with silent dignity. This alleviates my fear somewhat, because my human clearly isn’t worried about the dogs, and also by eliciting their respect, she claims them as pack. Then when the dogs approach me, whimpering, stiff body language telegraphing an anxious, tentative desire to be friends, I resolve the tension decisively by breezing past at a dead run, pretending not to see them.
My human and I have walked many different trails together since we became pack. The longest trail we ever traveled (while living in Heidi’s house) followed a cool stream up and down the hills until it reached a miniature lake where my human swam. She always tried to coax me into the water, but I politely declined. It worried me when I lost sight of her for too long, because I didn’t want her to disappear to somewhere I couldn’t follow and leave me alone and leaderless in the wild. So I’d course back and forth along the shoreline, dipping an exploratory paw in when I’d reached the limits of my desperation, then withdrawing it hastily when the water proved as miserably wet as I’d anticipated (this was before I became the best swimming dog in the world). The only time I actually followed her in was by accident, when I climbed up a steep boulder above the lake, to get a better vantage point on my human, and my pads slipped. All of a sudden, I found myself completely submerged in a dark, wet world where I couldn’t breath. I never panicked at all, though. I just waited until my head broke the surface, then I methodically paddled to the shore and dragged myself out by my claws, coughing and sputtering in disgust. After my human swam we would retrace our path through the brush, weaving under, around, and between scratchy branches, scrambling up the side of large rocks and leaping from one stone to another in mighty bounds. The entire journey took approximately seven hours. One time we were about an hour from returning to our car when I followed a scent trail and found the most marvelous greasy bone under a bush. I wanted to lie down and chomp it then and there; dogs are big on immediate gratification, and after all, I was pretty tired, and felt this would be a good time for an hour or two of rest. But my human commanded “give” so I surrendered my prize obediently. She carried it the whole way back. For some reason, near the end of the trail we met an unfamiliar human, and even though my human didn’t exchange words with him, she smelled like spiky embarrassment. I snuck longing peaks at the bone in her hand, but figured that she was asserting her rights as alpha and claiming it for her own. To my surprise, no sooner had we climbed back in the car then my human presented me with the bone! There were still wonderful bits of fat and gristle clinging to it. After all that exercise, I felt too exhausted to give it the real thorough gnawing it deserved. I was barely able to hold up my own head, so I just sprawled on the leather seat, eyes narrowed to lazy slits, with the bone between my forepaws and caressed it with long, slow, loving strokes of my tongue. I could always count on finding it again every time we rode in the car, until we moved and drove the next car that had windows that shut and no leather seats. And, more importantly, no bone.
One night, during the third week Sydney attended obedience class, our pack visited him and my human’s best friend at their house. My cousin had grown bigger even than last week. I still felt shy about his persistent attempts to play with me, (either as a playmate or a jungle gym or a chew toy) but overcame my natural reserve sufficiently to zoom laps with him in the backyard. Sydney chased me, his little legs pumping frantically, driven inexorably by his herding instincts. He couldn’t keep up, of course, but he shouldn’t feel too bad because I’m pretty sure I broke the all-time canine speed record.
Sydney’s male human was absent, and the house felt curiously bare without him, not only because he’s usually cooking mind bogglingly fragrant food (which he never offers to share with me) during our visits.
Sydney’s male human is quiet, but he’s a natural leader with an unshakeable calm energy, and radiates “I got this,” in the face of all terrors - including insecure dogs who roar “GO AWAY ” and rude young golden retrievers with too much energy and no boundaries. Sydney is lucky to have a true alpha who can make him feel safe just by virtue of the fact that nothing worries him. As a dog I always identify the people in the room to whom I should sit up and pay attention if they talk to me, because it’s a command and not just words. Usually they’re the people who don’t talk very much. In general, all tall humans with deep voices seem like they’d automatically be good leaders, but this isn’t always true. Sometimes they’re too caught up in slopping their repressed, gooey emotions all over dogs. These big humans have no alpha to make them safe, so they hide their weakness all the time except around dogs, where they express it in utterly bewildering explosions of vulnerability. It’s one of those cases where people expect dogs to fill raggedy holes inside them, but dogs don’t understand because we don’t have any empty spaces in us. All their poor dogs can do is lick their faces endlessly, begging them to please get a grip and stop this disturbing behavior, but these humans are just alpha enough to not listen. To make matters worse, frequently they’re insecure under an aggressive veneer, like most dominant dogs. Instead of practicing the sensible doctrine of swift and appropriate violence, their reactions are meaningless tantrums - delayed, drawn out, disproportionately extreme, and messy. Most dogs are not constantly engaging in a struggle for dominance with their humans, so it’s totally unnecessary for humans to seek external validation of their status by physically subduing or playing psychological dominance games with their dogs. Staring a dog down or rolling him on his belly doesn’t make somebody (whether human or canine) a leader; it makes them a bully. True pack leaders among humans, as with dogs, are few and far between. They aren’t the biggest and toughest and meanest. They don’t need to be loud or repeat themselves or growl an “or else.” When you’re in their presence you know they’re in charge, and instead of threatened you feel like a great burden has been lifted. That’s because dogs know dominance isn’t really about power, but responsibility.
The next morning, we woke up super early and drove to the play-fighting place while it was still dark and cold out. We walked AFTER the play-fighting, which I shouldn’t even need to tell you is extremely unusual, and on top of that we took only a three-mile route. I was extra energetic at the dog park, on account of the shorter distance and the cooler temperatures of late. Then we practiced “ready” at the biggest grocery store I’d ever been to, then my human did some furious bustling around the house. She slipped my red vest over my shoulders and we were off.
My human was clearly on edge. If she’d been a dog her hair would have stood on end. I watched her like a hawk while we drove, licking my lips uneasily because of the stingy, electrical tension that crackled off of her. Every time the car jolted to a stop I quickly hid my head over the back of my seat, bracing myself in case the car decided to throw me. At one point I stood up and eyed her lap meaningfully, because as a big fellow I know that when someone makes you nervous sitting on them is usually a good solution (they can’t move, and I don’t have to see them) but my pesky seatbelt prevented me from climbing into her lap. So, I settled for licking her elbow imploringly and yawning at her.
When the car stopped, we walked another two whole miles, which I didn’t particularly enjoy because I hadn’t had breakfast and was famished, and my human smelled confused and stressed and grumpy. She kept changing directions suddenly and muttering to herself in a way that reminded me of a dog making meaningless anxiety vocalizations, like Copper used to do at obedience class when I first met him. Finally, we ended up in a hot, stuffy, airless room with a lot of sweaty people, one of whom talked in a crisp tone that read “leader” even though none of the jumble of assembled humans smelled or acted like pack at all. And I understood that I was working at my college job again.
I didn’t recognize any of the sights or scents at this college, of course. Every time I get my bearings at one college, we suddenly switch to a new one instead, and I have to start the process of familiarizing myself all over again. I don’t mean that in the sense of a college becoming our territory. Obviously, when I’m working I don’t get to sniff around or leave sign posts for other dogs, and moreover colleges aren’t places for eating or sleeping or playing or socializing. They’re for working, and then running away from as quickly as possible. What was nice about this latest place, however, was that I could smell the clean, salty aroma of the beach wafting on the breezes whenever we weren’t weaving in and out of crowds.
There’s always an adjustment period for college, on account of the fact that part of my job is to decide when my human’s sickness smell gets so strong that we need to get out of there. The problem is that for the first few days of college my human’s sickness is so scary powerful that I think we need to leave even BEFORE she settles me in “front” of her chair. I rested my head on her lap “chin” and felt overwhelmed between the scents of the new building, and the people (a few of whom stared at me with drooling intensity, until my human said softly: “Just so you know, in dog language staring at someone is like flipping them off.”), and the corrosive thing eating at my human’s brain. And then when she released me with “okay” and I made a break for the exit, we walked ANOTHER whole two miles back to the car. My breakfast was very late. Naturally, once it was in my bowl and I was inhaling it I didn’t care.
My food had changed a little in the past two weeks; my blueberries now came in a liquidy form that I lapped with my tongue off the top of my eggs in their golden moat of butter. They smelled the same, but I tasted their tartness more than when they slid whole down my throat. I’m a dog, so my food preferences can basically be summed up as, “in my mouth.” For some reason for the last two weeks I also haven’t had any tummy aches, like I used to after breakfast. I say, “for some reason,” but I don’t speculate about why, because I’m a dog and “why” is a strictly human concern.
One Sunday morning, my human and I rode in the car, then traveled along a strange trail. The hot, dry air was laden with the fascinating earthy scents of animal dung. I snuffled eagerly, my nose working continuously in overdrive to catalogue the bounty of new odors it encountered as we carved a path at my human’s habitual brisk pace across the dusty hills. After our walk, we loitered for several hours in a huge yard surrounded by pens. Beyond the metal fences I smelled horses, sheep, ducks, and chickens, and caught flashes of movement wherever I looked.
If that hadn’t been overwhelming enough, there were other dogs on leash with their humans in tow EVERYWHERE. Most of the dogs gave off that musky pheromone scent that always stirs a deep, atavistic craving for sex and violence in me. Luckily my human kept me by her side, standing tall and confident, her body language proclaiming “I got this,” so no preemptive self-defense became necessary. When a boxer strained toward me at the end of his leash, posturing for all he was worth with the bulging muscles on the back of his neck standing out rigidly, my human lead me away quickly, signaling that as alpha she’d decided our pack should fleeing this confrontation. I followed placidly, trusting her implicitly, and also too lazy from the standing around in the scouring heat to really care about that poser’s inferiority complex.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, except that we practiced “in” with my crate twice, and I was grateful to duck inside for a brief shady nap, even though my human changed her mind in her usual pesky way and woke me up on both occasions after about two minutes. She also walked me around the perimeter of the pens on a loose leash, clipped to my flat collar, so I got to sniff everything in a leisurely fashion. Meanwhile, she encouraged me onwards by verbal coaxing in a bright, peppy voice that tried to convince me that following her would be way more fun than investigating every inch of the fence line and every spot an intact male had lifted his leg throughout the course of the day. At her prompting I jumped “up” on a bale of hay and did a “down, stay,” while she threw grass at sheep. I got to sniff very close to a chain link pen full of ducks, but I already knew from the sparkly lake that, even as far as birds go, ducks aren’t very interesting. Chickens at least strut around purposefully, and geese charge aggressively, hissing like cats, but ducks waddle slowly past. These lay still, politely pretending not to see me, so I returned the favor.
A little later my human and I wedged ourselves into a cramped patch of shade under a tarp with all of the dogs from the yard and their humans. All day the peoples’ emotions had oscillated between nervous anticipation and boredom, but now they smelled relieved and excited, and their body language conveyed that same loose, relaxed quality my human gets after play-fighting. I kept hearing the words “farm dog,” repeated over and over in the elated tone that means “good boy,” but as far as I could tell nobody had performed any commands. It’s always confusing to feel like somebody’s offering a reward and I can’t figure out what I did to earn it. At this point, the only reward I wanted anyways was a good long nap.
I often dream about being a tiny puppy, before my eyes were even open, when the world consisted of nothing but warmth and softness. Awake I never bark (except for “speak”), but in my sleep, I “wuff wuff wuff wuff” softly in protest against my brothers and sisters, squirming around me, the more dominant ones fighting to elbow me out of the way as I suckle my mother’s milk. In this case I was so tuckered out from the hard day’s work that I napped peacefully and dreamlessly, first in the car, and then, after trick class, on the bed with my human.
One of my important roles in the pack at dog park is to discipline puppies. When they’re really young I give them license to behave however they want, chewing on me and even posturing and making dominance signals in play. But when they get to about six to eight months old, their antics begin to grate on my nerves. For example, one morning before college I was having a grand old time romping with my friend BD, the rottie mix, when a happy-go-lucky six-month-old lab puppy bounded over and expected to be pack with us. BD accepted him immediately and started wrestling with him, because she’s only a year and a half old and still has a puppy’s inexhaustible energy. But I wasn’t too pleased about this intrusion. I felt it was my duty to interrupt their rough housing by body-slamming them until they became untangled, then planting myself between them and roaring in the lab’s startled face: “You’re not cute anymore. The big dogs are playing. Sit down and shut up!” His human laughed at me uproariously, which I took as encouragement to teach the lab manners. My human, on the other hand, barked at me sharply to back off. I wanted to interpret her as being angry at the puppy, too, but she stood between me and him and glared at me while barking her disapproval, so I suppose that would have been wishful thinking. From a human perspective, this whole episode may seem rather uncharitable on my part. What can I say? I’m a dog, not a saint.
Practically every time we get out of the car recently, my human forgets to unclip my seatbelt. So, I end up standing over the center console, at the end of my tether, wagging pitifully for her to rescue me.
On a Sunday morning during our walk, we were about to cross the bridge to the dog park when we ran into a hostile pack. The alpha, a ferocious beagle with his white tipped tail straight in the air like a flag, took up an offensive position right in the middle of the path. He stared at me, with his ears pricked and his lips curled back to expose wicked yellow fangs. His human hid behind him, peeking out at us fearfully. Obviously, she was scared of us, but at the same time she felt perfectly content to let the beagle face all the danger we represented alone. I hoped that my human would decide to lead us away, but no such luck because our pack crept forward cautiously. My human’s body language read “apprehensive” and she shielded me with her legs as much as possible, but she clearly intended to take our pack right past the beagle regardless. When we were only a few feet away, the beagle unleashed a heart-stopping volley of baying. I inched along behind my human reluctantly, tail between my legs, because the hideous sound triggered a distant, horrible memory of flashing teeth and never being safe. Suddenly I just couldn’t take it anymore. I halted in my tracks and vomited sour yellow froth all over the concrete. Meanwhile my human exchanged words with the cowering lady, but she stayed crouched behind her alpha, who never relented. Ultimately our pack sprinted past them, with me heaving up more acid mid-step. I can’t really explain the visceral response the incident brought up (literally) except to say that if you’ve had somebody honestly try to murder you, you’ll understand: some scars you can’t smell.
That afternoon we went to trick class and practiced “skateboard” and “over” and “front” and “take it” with my wooden dumbbell. For a few days I got scared of my wooden dumbbell and shied away from it whenever my human brought it near my face. But then she started bribing me to “take it” with scrumptious cubes of butter, so I like my dumbbell again. I practiced grabbing it in my jaws quickly, the second my human gave the command, despite the temptation of savory meaty treats the boss held out beside it. Lately both the bosses of trick class and obedience class smell very proud of me. After that we went to the beach and I zoomed and zoomed because we hadn’t been to the beach in SO LONG - not since before college - and I hadn’t realized I’d been feeling deprived. The pungent reek of pheromones assaulted my nostrils from every direction. I’ve learned that my human always calls me “come” away from intact males, so now I anticipate her by sniffing them just long enough to identify that yes, this is somebody I should properly fight with. Then I ignore their posturing and make a beeline for my human at top speed. My paws thunder over the dunes then carve deep skid marks as I slam to a stop against her knees, and grin up at her expectantly until she presents me with my reward. Also, periodically I check in with her even if there’s no musky scents in evidence, just in case, to see if now might be a good time for a reward. “I’ll earn it,” I cajole her with my big, soulful doggy eyes, “ask me to do anything.” Sometimes I lift a paw up, in case she wants “limp,” and she laughs but I don’t get any turkey. At one point a group of large, dominant dogs mobbed me all at once. If only there had been something to pee on, I could have diverted their attention by having them smell that instead of me. One of them dogged my steps, putting both paws on my hips in a persistent attempt to hump me. I got my fur up, but through the throng of hopping, barking canines I met my human’s gaze, and fought my way toward her determinedly. The dogs gave chase, encircling and harassing me on all sides, and I repeatedly lost sight of my human as the writhing sea of fur crashed over me, but I kept my gaze trained on the place I’d last seen her and eventually managed to reach my human’s side. We fled together, the dogs jumping at our heals, and in the end, I got a fat hunk of turkey, so I can’t complain.
Now we go to the house with the wood floors less and less frequently. When we visit, even if we see my human’s father or her mother there briefly, the house smells like nobody lives there. The territory feels empty, like the shells on the beach, waiting to be filled by a new pack. I don’t know where little Nikki has gone. None of the humans carry her scent at all.
I still see the muzzled dog who was so insecure that she wanted to bite the whole world at obedience class on Saturday’s. She has become much calmer, even though she and her human no longer stand far, far away from the main group of dogs. Her human has grown into a strong, confident alpha, and she and I are even able to “heel ” past one another at close range, both trusting our leaders so there’s no need to growl or snap in warning while we “sit” quietly across from each other on the narrow path and our humans shake hands.
The last time we stopped at dog park to cool down from our walk, as soon as I entered the pen a young husky zeroed in on me like a heat-seeking missile. He clasped my hips between his forepaws hard, and started humping me. I growled my intention to bite him if he didn’t stop, but he refused to take the hint. My human barked at him sharply, but he ignored her because long experience had taught him that there’s no reason to take anything humans say seriously. I averted my eyes and tried desperately to run away, my sense of panic growing as his claws dug into my skin. I managed to wriggle free, and went about my business as inconspicuously as possible, pausing only to lift my leg on a tree before darting away again. The husky pursued me relentlessly, his tongue lolling and his eyes bright with a mixture of raging hormones and anticipation. I couldn’t get more than a few drops out before he’d be galloping toward me once more. Apparently, he wasn’t interested in stopping to examine my scent-markers, anyways. He finally cornered me against the fence, cutting off my retreat, and clamped ahold of my waist again.
My hackles rose as I twisted frantically in his viselike grip. Another snarl ripped from deep in my chest. He matched every step I took as I struggled forward, maintaining his firm grasp. I recognized with a queasy feeling that I was out of conflict-avoiding options. I turned my head around to meet my attacker’s panting, hormone-glazed face, just about to resort to violence to free myself, when my human inserted herself between us and the fence and shoved the rutting husky off of me. The young upstart backed off a step, a little surprised but otherwise unfazed. He hesitated, then charged towards us again. My human waved her foot in the air and barked “Back off!” inching for the safety of the gate. I peeked out at the husky from where I’d hidden behind her, treating him to a jaw creaking yawn.
We would have made our escape peacefully and it would have been fine, but as soon as my human shoved the husky off of me, all of the humans inside and outside the pen started shouting.
“…animal abuse...going to call the police...”
“I did not hurt that husky. I just pushed him off. We’re trying to leave. If I had wanted to hurt that dog all I would have had to do is nothing. My dog had already ‘used his words’ to tell him to stop. If I didn’t step in and protect him then he would have had no choice but to fight to defend himself. As his leader I have not only the right but the RESPONSIBILITY to protect him.”
“...he’s been humping my dog all morning. It’s just dominance…”
“Humping is not okay. It’s using sex as violence to assert power over somebody else who is an unwilling participant. That’s the definition of sexual assault. If you can really feel good about yourself sitting there watching your dog get assaulted over and over again while growling and trying to run away that’s on you. You have a border collie. I have a pit bull. He’s a good boy but there’s only so far the husky can push him until he rips that dog a new one. I cannot let that happen. If you are all so oversensitive that I can’t defend my dog because touching a dog even though I did not hurt him at all is animal abuse I want nothing to do with this place. Just let us go, please.”
They shouted a lot, and the rising fear and anger smells seemed to dampen even the husky’s ardor. I slipped away silently, taking advantage of the distraction to go find a quiet corner to poop in. The most vocal of the crowd was a lady whose pack was inside the middle pen. The only thing I could conclude was that this woman, who wasn’t even inside the big pen, considered herself alpha of the whole entire pack that included all the pens and people and dogs, and felt that my human usurped her status by disciplining the husky. Though where this woman was when I needed defending from the husky because I was trying so hard to be a good boy and not fight him I don’t know. She seemed to be one of those dominants who shirks her alpha job, but then yaps aggressively and nips anybody else who tries to step up to the plate and do it for her.
I haven’t given up yet: I still gaze longingly in that direction every time we pass the street that leads to the dog park. Maybe this time we’ll turn instead of continuing straight past.
We settled into a routine at college. I kept my head in my human’s lap and waited patiently so long as I could feel that her body language read calm and focused. Sometimes people I’d only previously smelled at college, where I was working and couldn’t greet them, would show up other places like the beach or public buildings and be pack with us for a little while.
I made a new friend named Charlie the golden retriever, whose human is a female from college who often walked with us to our car in the evening. Charlie and I got acquainted at my human’s house; then the four of us went hiking on the trail. I could tell from how he shied away from me if I made any sudden movements that Charlie was nervous, so I performed a lot of submissive body language to reassure him. But then I also noticed that whenever he thought I wasn’t looking he’d stand with his chest puffed up and his plumy tail high and his head over my back, grinning proudly at our humans as he proclaimed himself the biggest dog in our pack (he’s actually a little smaller than me). One time, out of the corner of my eye, I even caught him making pelvic thrusts in the air behind me. Then as soon as I turned my head towards him he’d immediately back down and start up his own self-effacing litany of appeasement gestures.
After our hike, our humans played a strange game with us that involved putting sticky bits of paper or smelly stuff on our faces and then leading us one by one into a room where there was another dog but no dog smell.
“Ok, I’ll lead him in front of the mirror while the fan blows his scent towards him. Since dogs are an olfactory rather than visually-oriented species, they use scent information for self-recognition. Hopefully smelling himself will make Monkey connect that the dog in the mirror is HIM. I’d be satisfied if he just acts dramatically differently than when he saw the mirror with no scent, but best-case scenario is if he starts messing with the yellow dot on his forehead.”
The second time I went in the room I got really confused because now there was a noisy fan and MY dog smell. It didn’t make any sense because somehow the other dog didn’t give off any personal scent at all, like he was so afraid of me that he’d clamped his tail down tight over his anal glands, only more so. I made lots of elaborate submissive gestures and wagged clouds of my personal odor into the air. He copied all of my movements exactly, but failed to offer me his information in return, so finally I just turned around and refused to look at him.
“Do you think he recognizes himself?”
My human sounded disappointed. “No, his body language signals that he thinks it’s another dog. I still think dogs have self-awareness, but we just haven’t proven it. Maybe we need more to collect more scent and get a more high-powered fan...”
Whenever I see Charlie’s human at college now (she usually sits behind us) I do my job and stay put, but my nostrils flare really hard, as I sift the air vigorously for traces of Charlie’s scent.
We play really weird games whenever Charlie visits. Before an afternoon hike we played a game where my human made me lie down using only my hand signal over and over. She rewarded me with hunks of turkey and praised me effusively even though this is a command I know really well and usually I hardly ever get a treat for “down.” Meanwhile Charlie’s human held him back a few feet away. He watched me do my command with bated breath, too captivated even to pant. His eyes remained glued to each fragrant tidbit as it migrated from my human’s treat pouch to my mouth. Then all of a sudden, my human took out a treat and held it in front of Charlie instead of me! Charlie squirmed towards her on his butt, staring his “WANT.” My human raised her hand in a salute for “down,” but Charlie just prodded her fist with the turkey inside with his snout, letting out a piteous, imploring little whimper. I knew what to do, obviously, and would have raced over there to claim the coveted morsel, but my human had already left me in a “down, stay,” so I didn’t dare move. After a few seconds my human brought the treat back over to me, and I was only too happy to earn it. She repeated my hand signal with me four more times, then tried again with Charlie. Then when he just panted at her frantically she returned to me and we practiced my hand signal until my elbows were sore from sliding down to my belly on the kitchen floor. Each time before giving me the salute, my human held the hunk of turkey tantalizingly above Charlie’s head so that he strained towards us, absolutely transfixed, his whimpers taking on an increasingly desperate tone.
Finally, on his fourth opportunity, when my human gave him the hand signal, Charlie showed his observational learning skills and lay down. Both of our humans lost all their restraint and celebrated like labradors at dinner time. I noted significantly that this time the treat disappeared into Charlie’s mouth instead of making its way back to me. We repeated the entire process yet again, and for the next three times we were offered the hand signal and a bit of turkey, Charlie immediately lay down, snapping up his reward.
After that we played another game, where my human endlessly practiced “shake” with me, while Charlie watched. The third time my human asked him to “shake,” he lifted his paw hesitantly, and from then on he “shook,” on command. I don’t see what the big deal was because I’ve known that one for years. Dog school is better when I get treats than when I have to watch somebody else eat them. Charlie is pretty timid, so his human has to do lots of coaxing to get him to walk across the threshold into our house. He’d inch forward tentatively, then balk, and dart back out onto the steps. She squatted down and fed him savory meaty crumbles that my human told me to “leave it”. I bathed her whole face with my tongue afterwards, until it glistened with slimy saliva, but she still didn’t get the message and feed me too.
One night my human and I visited her aunt and uncle and their teeny little dog pack. On the front step I was so excited, squirming on my haunches and whimpering, and then no sooner had the door opened when I came nose to nose with little Nikki! We inspected each other’s scents with great interest, since it had been so long since we last met. Little Nikki smells like my foods - turkey and blueberries and banana and eggs - instead of kibble, now. Once we were thoroughly reacquainted we bounded up a really steep, fun set of stairs together and joined the rest of the pack. Nikki panted with effort, her little legs pumping frantically and her claws clicking on the slippery wood as she scrambled to keep up with me.
The leader of Nikki’s new pack is Mocha, the miniature pinscher mix. Her other pack-mates, Sophie and Ginger, are white puffballs. For little dogs they are all very psychologically well balanced and none of them has ever threatened me with grievous bodily injury just for being big around them.
I found a lot of Mocha’s personal information under the table in the kitchen, but my human barked a sharp warning at me, so I knew I didn’t have license to mark there too. Instead I squeezed through a teeny little dog door and lifted my leg on the wall outside for some social anxiety relief. After that I felt calm enough to lie quietly at my human’s feet while she chatted with her aunt and uncle and Nikki climbed in her lap. Best of all, when we left Nikki trailed along behind us off-leash. Nikki has never been an outside dog for as long as I’ve known her, but she seemed totally comfortable and confident trotting down the sidewalk at my heels. We sniffed around and peed together before she went back inside and my human and I rode in her uncle’s car.
I had a breakthrough! My human and I had been alternating between doing “limp” first with me raising my forepaw and waiting for her to grasp it, then hobbling after her while she lured me with my paw rested lightly on her fingers, and second with the weird pokey sock. Then one morning I lifted my paw on command and before my human could stick her fingers between my pads I took a tentative hop towards her. My human went in such ecstasies that I knew I must have done something positively marvelous. So I did it again, and again. At first, I’d “limp” one step at a time in her direction, then two, then three, then four. Eventually my human began leaving me in a “stand, wait,” moving a few feet away from me, then calling me to “limp” to her. “Limp” is one of those commands that makes my human so delighted that my tail whips back and forth vigorously, anticipating her praise, announcing to the world’s nose via my personal smell that I am SO proud of myself. I am a good dog.
As the temperature in the morning dropped we took a break from college. I did my blue vest job more than ever before, showing off my commands for admiring children at libraries and kid-colleges nearly every day. It was fun except that my pesky human made me wear a hat with an annoying elastic band that pinched my ears. When, in a stroke of genius, I figured out that shaking my head dislodged the thing, she smelled frustrated and adjust it right back into place. My human and I went on short hikes with Jade and her human, and long hikes with Charlie and his human. I frolicked on the beach with Copper, and tussled with my girlfriend Sadie in her little condo until we were both covered in frothy sweat and limp with exhaustion. Sydney and I romped together in his backyard, but we were also pack for an entire week while he stayed at our house without his humans. He practiced his herding skills on me a lot. He’s become a real sheltie this winter instead of a tiny spastic fur-ball, so that I feel confident answering his entreaties to play by lying under him and gently gnawing on his ankles and batting at his face with my paw.
The strangest thing was that during this period my human started doing something I hadn’t seen her do in many years: eating food with other people. She’d been particularly bad at sleeping lately, a sure sign that her sickness is winning. Then one morning on our walk I smelled strong, clean determination rising from her in waves, and after that she drank a bitter smelling liquid that reminded me of the rooms with the circles of metal chairs and being pack with Chloe and her human. We began spending a lot of time with other people, including her brother and one sister who’s not disturbed by me, sharing meals. Charlie and his human even slept at our house in one of the mysterious rooms that’s always been closed off as long as we’ve lived here. Our humans cooked up delicious odors, which we poor canines drank in with our noses, telegraphing “WANT” with mournful doggy eyes. Then Charlie and I sprawled out on my big pillow (he sneakily held his head just a fraction over mine whenever he thought I wasn’t looking, and grinned deviously) while our humans massaged us and listened to the droning of the flickering bright box in the living room.
I noticed that my human took less medicine in the mornings, as well as eating lots of different things that aren’t the same as my foods. Sometimes I tasted sharp fear in her scent, but she didn’t smell lonely anymore. I’ve been watching closely, (ever hopeful that she’ll offer me a savory morsel in reward for my long-suffering patience) and none of the other people have tried to steal her food from her yet.
Our routines have all gone haywire, and each day when I wake up I don’t know quite what to expect, but I don’t mind, because it’s been an adventure. So far it seems like my human’s sickness is finally under control again, like it was for about a year before all this started. Most of the time she smells calm and doesn’t shake. She plays with her phone less. Her body language says that her center of gravity is planted firmly on the ground, where sensible alphas belong, not drifting far away. She hasn’t done the bad thing again, so I hope we’re really done with that for good this time.
My human and I have gotten much better at cuddling. We’ve worked hard to get past her “don’t touch me” smell and my natural reserve and fears about accidentally coming across as challenging, and we are more comfortable invading each other’s space. It takes a great deal of trust for us both. When my human instigates play with me, I don’t worry as much about offending her, and instead just relax and have fun. Sometimes when I do something fantastic in dog school and she heaps praise on me, rubbing vigorously under my chin and above the base of my tail, I even hop around and dance with excitement. (My latest trick is called “bang,” where my human points at me in a funny way, then I lie down on my side until she releases me).
We still see my human’s family from time to time, but never at the house with the smooth wood floors. In doggy heaven, all of us will belong together and love will never hurt. For now we just do our best. We don’t have the cafe or dog park, but we have Sydney and Copper and Jade and Charlie and Sadie and the three kinds of dog school and the beach. And my human and I are pack, so we never walk alone.