Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 29

Spring 2018

My human and I spent a lot more time at college. We walked everywhere along cement pavements, ducking and weaving amongst the crowds of unfamiliar humans swarming around us. Every day people made squeaky prey sounds or clicking noises like my human makes to get my attention, only I never got rewarded with turkey for looking at them, and the more openly they focused their rude stares on us, the more my human’s scent spiked into anger and panic. At college my human hunched her shoulders defensively and absolutely reeked of “don’t touch me.” In spite of that, strange people petted me even though I was doing my red vest job and not allowed to sniff anybody. Everywhere we went greedy eyes tracked us, oozing NEED in a way that tugged at the corners of my perception. I tried really hard not to look at them. Sometimes it was easier than others because there are people I really don’t care about greeting at all. They act so gushy with superficial friendliness that I immediately identify them as weak links that I wouldn’t want in my pack. My human must have agreed about the general worthlessness of these undesirables because she smelled desperately unhappy in their presence. One time a tall man kept putting his hand in my face, and my human smelled upset and growled at him, but instead of giving us space he yapped at her obstinately in response. He kept thrusting his knuckles under my nose like he wanted me to “take it,” only there wasn’t any dumbbell to take. Then all of a sudden water went crashing everywhere and my human smelled terrible and we had to flee. Also, three people stepped on my tail that day. They did that a lot at college.

My human limped badly for a few weeks, and acrid pain scent stung my nostrils. There were salty tears on her face, but I knew she understood the need to pull herself together and be a good alpha, so I politely ignored them instead of licking them away. When the people touched me or crooned at me or crouched down and shoved their faces in mine she barked at them, and I could tell that she wanted to bite them. Her whole body trembled with it, but she never did. We met Charlie’s human (but not Charlie) in the afternoon at college and my human would tell her, “they act like he’s an unattended slice of chocolate cake. They’re so focused on getting their endorphin rush that they don’t care that he’s working and covered in patches that say “do not distract” or that I’m in a hurry or in pain or even if I’m actually crying. They never introduce themselves or ask my name or if I’m okay. They just demand their fifteen seconds of attention like he’s here for their personal enjoyment and take pictures and stare at me like a circus freak.”

I learned an awesome new game called “go, find it!” As we walked together I’d hear a jangling sound of my human dropping her car keys in some random place. We’d keep on traveling together for a while, then she’d suddenly stop and face me. She’d tell me “sit,” in her authoritative tone, and then “go, find it.” I needed encouragement because I wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea of straying far from her side, but I quickly discerned what she wanted, and soon this exercise became normal and fun. I used my nose to home in on the target odor, coursing back and forth in a wide arch as I swept the air for the highest concentration of metallic key scent. I always found the keys no matter how tricky the hiding place. After about two weeks playing like this, there was a moment when my human dropped the keys, and I looked her, then at them, then back at her, and it all just clicked. I didn’t wait for her to walk away and send me back for them. I scooped them right up in my mouth, trotted to her, and sat, ready for my reward. I outsmarted the game.

Then for twelve days my human took no medicine at all. We woke up one Saturday morning and traveled together and went to obedience class, and I almost didn’t notice that she’d skipped swallowing her pills. In a matter of hours, it was like her soul went away to a dark place where I couldn’t reach her at all, like she was trapped in a nightmare and I didn’t know if she’d ever wake up again. Her eyes got glassy and far away, and her whole body shook, and she performed every action in an agonizingly slow, weak, confused way. She spent a lot of time curled up in a ball on the living room floor with me. I felt very alone. I didn’t understand why, but I knew that I had to be the responsible adult in our pack, so I stepped up and fulfilled the leadership role to the best of my ability. When she stumbled unsteadily along the sidewalk I made the executive decision that she couldn’t drive today, so I climbed on the bus even though I’d never done this at college before.

After a week and a half, she resumed taking her medicine every morning, like normal. It took time, and for a few weeks she was slower than usual and tired more easily, but gradually she came alive again. We never went back to college after that. I can’t say I miss it.

Mouse joined our pack a few weeks before what will be my eighth birthday. I know my human worried at first that a new dog would take away from the special bond that we share, but I’m glad she didn’t allow a human emotion like jealousy to keep her from letting me have a friend. I love my human with my whole being, to the depths of my doggy soul, but she can’t wrestle with me with full abandon, nipping and crashing into one another, the way canines are supposed to. And truthfully since I can’t be working or training all day there were plenty of times when I was kind of bored before meeting Mouse. I’d always accepted it as the way of things, and I certainly wasn’t unhappy, but retrospectively being an only dog seems a bit lonely. Mouse filled in those holes.

Like most of the important changes in my life, acquiring a new pack-mate wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. First my human deserted me, driving away with humans who had the many-dog smell of shelter people. Then when she returned, she ignored all my grumbling and leashed me right up, and expected me to behaved civilly in the dark with a strange dog on our territory.

My chest swelled with hot outrage. Here I’d been left unceremoniously locked up in the house all alone, and now, while I was still all riled up, my human lead me out into the dark where bright lights and shadows jumped out at me in their spookiest fashion, to the little communal patch of grass that reeked of stale urine where the demonic neighbor dogs usually screamed dire threats at me. And now this lanky, nine-month-old pit bull Great Dane mix had the audacity to keep being there when I just wanted him to GO AWAY. I tried hopping up and down and roaring, but my human just shushed me calmly and lead me away in a circle. Over and over again we came back to that same guy, cowering submissively on the end of his leash. He held his head low and wagged his tail in a feeble, ingratiating way.

That was my introduction to Mouse. I did my best to scare him witless just in case he decided to stop appeasing me and get all full of himself like us older dogs are always afraid nine-month-old puppies will. Inside the house together, that first night, I whimpered my anxiety and confusion to my human. Mouse and I studied each other at a cautious distance, peeking around the corner at one another with the kitchen island between us as a safety measure, while the shelter people contributed to the tension by producing loud, alarming banging noises. I hoped it would be over soon and all these introducers would go back to wherever they came from and leave our pack in peace and quiet. Two hours later Mouse was my new best friend and little brother and he was never leaving.

Mouse smells of tender hearted, velvety softness with no brittle edges of apprehension or fear. Like me he’s not politically ambitious, automatically assuming low status in every interaction. It simply isn’t in him to lunge or bark or tug on the leash. In his quiet, unassuming way, he’s an utterly shameless mama’s boy who wants an alpha’s approval more than he wants to explore or chase prey or determine whether every dog he sees is friend or foe. My human never has to be harsh with him, because he’s very responsive to gentle commands and corrections, but in some ways he’s not as sensitive as me. I don’t know where he came from, but that first night he smelled lost and directionless, like a dog without an alpha. Nobody raised him: he came to us as ignorant as a newborn pup, without even a basic understanding that there are places it’s inappropriate to relieve himself. It can’t have been easy not having a pack, but nothing haunts Mouse. He’s grateful to belong to us, and he doesn’t have scars.

As playmates, we are wonderfully matched. We leap and twirl and zoom together, chasing each other around the couch until we’re frothy with exhaustion, and perfume the house with joy. He’s just as enthusiastic a wrestler as I am and doesn’t get intimidated by my slamming into him full speed. The only time he’s vocal is when we play. In some ways he’s an old soul. He has a good amount of puppy energy and is always up for a romp with me, but he doesn’t pester me too much when I really need a nap, and he’s perfectly satisfied with five miles of daily on-leash exercise. He’ll never need ten miles a day in order to calm down and function sanely in polite society like I did at his age.

I still get the front seat of the car while Mouse sits in the back, and I sleep in the bed while Mouse sleeps in our crate, because I have seniority and because he hasn’t fully absorbed the fact that some bodily functions belong exclusively outside yet. We also do a lot of dog school together and are learning to synchronize our movements and work as a team. Mouse only performs easy tricks like “paws on the mark” so far. He doesn’t know the really cool stuff like “hup” through my human’s arms, or “skateboard” or ”limp,” but he’s a bright kid, very earnest and eager to please, and he’ll pick up on things much quicker with me as a role model. He’s already parroting my perfect recall. I’m older and more confident so when we go to fiesta island I wander further from my human, snuffling up prey scents in the brush and leaving my personal information on all the most frequently visited marking spots, while Mouse clings close to my human’s ankles. Even when he bounds over to tussle with me for a moment he checks back in with my human periodically, his big ears flapping in the wind as he lopes towards her on gangly puppy limbs. I’m taking my new responsibility seriously, showing Mouse the ropes, but he’s very sweet and gentle and calm and submissive, so he’ll be a full-fledged pack member in no time.

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