Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 3

Thursday, July 27

Today my human seems better than yesterday. Her eyes are sharper and clearer. She still took more medicine than usual: I can always tell by the smell. Some of the medicines she takes are the same ones she sprinkles on my food, so even though they smell musty and have an unpleasant taste, I take notice carefully when they start appearing because this might signal breakfast or dinner.

We slept in later than we usually do. I credit this to the fact that my human is very bad at sleeping. I take light naps all throughout the day, whenever nothing interesting is happening, but I’m always ready to be alert at a moments notice if my human gives a command. When I sleep I curl up or stretch out comfortably and then I’m set for as many hours as necessary. My human, however, moves around constantly when she sleeps. She’s always getting up and shifting position and sometimes makes me move in the bed. She always sweats no matter how cold the house is. Yesterday she got up and took more medicine than usual. She’s been very tan this summer, but her face was waxy pale and she shook all over, and when we walked her steps tottered uncertainly like her feet were too far away from her brain to receive messages. After our walk she gave me frozen bananas, but we skipped my dog school which is another strange and alarming sign, and then she drank a lot of water and went back to bed in the day time to do more sweating and tossing and turning.

After a few hours she got up and fed me properly, then took a shower. Then we went for a ride. I always like car rides, with two exceptions, but especially when some other person is driving. When my human drives we mainly go work places, but when other people drive we go to the beach! I rode in the back with little Sadie, the Boston terrier, but I didn’t mind because the windows were cracked (my human always keeps them rolled up) and let in wonderful smells so that I knew when we were approaching fiesta island. Sadie and I romped around and wrestled until we were pleasantly fatigued and beautifully filthy. My human spent a lot of time rooting around in the sand. She collects shells, which I can’t understand because they smell like empty houses or like fast food wrappers with nothing interesting left to lick. Some impudent dogs tried to grab them out of her hands, because they’ve been taught to assume all humans are push overs and can be made to surrender anything they’ve got to any passing dog, but she told them “no.” A particularly rude dog wanted to take the meat she carries for me when I “come” from her pocket, but she stood her ground even when he growled his intention to bite her. The meat is only for me and only when I obey a command.

Today it was very hot when we walked, but we took two breaks for me to drink water, one at home where my human played with her phone for a while, and the other at the dog park. My human talks to other people at the dog park in the normal-person way where words don’t mean anything, but her smell fluctuates wildly between hope and despair in a way that makes my nose tingle.

To clarify a point: I do know about names, but they are a human convention. For example, I know that the word associated with me is “monkey” and that sometimes when my human says it, it means that I should pay attention. But often like most human speech it means nothing, and I can safely ignore it just as I’ve learned to tune everything out that anybody other than my human says. I think of everyone as their unique personal scent whether I’m directly sniffing it in its rich, tantalizingly pure form by burying my nose beneath a tail, or more distantly from the odors fanned into the air by wagging tails.

I used to feel that I had to preemptively defend myself a lot at the dog park, but now I’m hardly scrappy at all. My human knows when we’re approaching if there’s a dog I will need to be afraid of; then our pack doesn’t go in the gate. And if someone’s posturing really loudly at me she calls me away, so I’ve learned to mostly give these dogs a wide berth or stick near my human when they’re waddling forward with where chests puffed out and carrying their tails high like plumes and stiffening their necks into awkward angles to look down over me - making their heavy-handed assertions of social status - because I know sooner or later she’ll notice and call me anyways and then I’ll be rewarded. My human reads body language almost like a dog, even though she seems like all humans to be completely nose-deaf.

My human doesn’t always smell like sickness or medicine. When we’re in the car we listen to music. She changes the sounds constantly the same way she shifts around restlessly in her sleep. It’s loud and repetitive and I don’t like it much, but I like the way it makes her smell warm and relaxed and she looks at me with soft melty eyes just like when she seems me smiling with joyful freedom on the beach. After a second or so, eye contact makes me nervous, so I yawn and look away carefully and she does the same thing because we respect each other’s status. Sometimes my human gets a bittersweet sad smell when she looks at other humans in groups - males and females in pairs performing mating foreplay and mothers and fathers with little humans. I like children too, but they don’t make me sad. The closest thing I can come up with to express what she smells like in those moments is “not mine.” My human used to smell angry and hollow and twisted, like something was gnawing at her guts from the inside out, all the time. I’m really glad she doesn’t smell like that anymore.

Other good strategies to avoid conflict are to pretend to sniff at things and then veer off quickly when curious dogs get too close, or to be very busy peeing. Peeing always make me less anxious and is my main coping mechanism at this stage in my life. I get lots of nice endorphins to mellow me out that way.

After the dog park, my human and I did dog school. This is where I get pieces of frozen banana for practicing my commands. We practice easy things like “sit,” and “down” and “stand” verbally but also with hand signals only from a distance, and also more challenging things like “beg,” (I had to build up my core muscles for months but now I can hold that one for two minutes straight) and “bow” and “pray.” I turn on light switches, ride my skateboard (that one’s a lot of fun), press buttons, and jump through hoops. My human tells me “nope” if I give an incorrect response, “good” to encourage me if I’m on the right track but not quite there, and “yes!” once I’ve nailed it. Lately we’ve been working a lot on the difference between clockwise “twirl” and counterclockwise “spin.” I have to stand on my marks and circle right or left depending on which she asks for, and I also have to move between marks whenever she directs me. This has gotten more challenging because lately I really do have to find my marks - she moves them around on me and sometimes hides one on the opposite side of the couch, so I can’t even see it when I’m standing on the other mark. Both of us get frustrated sometimes. When I’m frustrated I let it out by sneezing and groaning. My human tries to hold it in and act professional, but she clearly finds this funny and has been inspired to teach me a new command: “speak.” I’m not a barking dog; usually I only bark in my dreams. But I’m learning! I started with growls and then I figured out how to make this long howling sound, and now if my human keeps repeating “speak,” I eventually reach down deep in myself to let out this great powerful bark that surprises even me - but also gives me a proud feeling.

On Thursdays and Fridays my human and I go to our other work, at the library.

Before the library, we always go to the lunch place, where I practice “ready,” and hold my attention like a soldier. Today, we rested in the shade in the safety of our car, with the windows rolled down and the breezes circulating through. I could smell the blueberries in my human’s lunch, but she didn’t share with me even though blueberries are one of my foods too, and I ignored her very respectfully like the good boy I am.

The library is work, but it’s different from my other jobs. It’s the only time I’m in a public building where I don’t have to do “ready.” I wear my blue vest instead of the red, and everyone is allowed to pet me and coo over me. I mainly just nap and let kids climb all over me, using me as a jungle gym and a pillow and a teddy bear and sometimes even a tug toy. There weren’t too many kids at the library, so my human had me show off my tricks. Everyone got very excited when I did “pray” and I felt very important. Some of the time my human talked about my commands without actually giving the command, and I had to hear the difference in her voice to know whether it was appropriate to perform or not. Several kids asked me to “shake.” This is the only command my human has taught me to obey from other people, but these kids didn’t mean it when they said “shake” because as soon as I raised my paw they squealed and jerked their hands away. This was very confusing. My human rewarded me anyways, because I did my part correctly, so I can conclude that there is justice in the world after all.

I looked like I was fast asleep on one of the lovely comfy pillows they set out especially for good dogs, but really, I was listening intently and ready to surge to my feet and shake myself off at a moment’s notice when my human said “Okay,” signaling my library job is done for the day.

After the library we went to the place where my human practices ritual combat. Since this is something dogs do too, I approve at least in theory. In reality, it was a little alarming the first few times. Especially since my human didn’t stick close to me, but darted around the room with all the others. I’m a big dog, so my eyes don’t see very well, and I found myself whipping my head back and forth in my “down, stay” trying to differentiate the scent of one human amidst so many pungently sweating bodies. The music boomed loud in my ears too, almost as loud as the movie theater. But we’ve gone enough now that this too has become routine and now I mostly nap while she play fights.

“Is he a pit?” The woman who asked my human this stood over me, but I was wearing my red vest so she politely averted her gaze.

“Yeah.”

“All pit?”

“I haven’t DNA tested him. Looking at him, he’s probably a mix but if he’s got anything in him besides pit he doesn’t know it. He acts 100 percent pit bull.”

“So he’s very protective?”

“No!” I couldn’t follow the conversation and knew this wasn’t directed at me, but the scorn in my human’s voice still made me flick my ears back uneasily. “Protective is just a way to make possessive sound like a positive thing when it isn’t,” the words taste bad in my human’s mouth. “I wouldn’t want my dog to see me as an object he owns, to guard against any perceived threat, like the mail man or my two-year-old nephew. I don’t put up with nonsense like that. If he thought it was his job to evaluate everyone who got close to me and get jealous and aggressive we would be in serious trouble. That’s usually more of a problem in dogs like German shepherds, because they were bred to guard but people don’t put their instincts to any good use, not pits. He’s very gentle and he’s loyal, but not protective.”

When we got home, all I wanted to do was flop down on the carpet and rest until dinner. But nothing would do except for my human to brush out my undercoat with the flat metal brush that feels like my hide is being scraped clean. She had just plopped a slab of ground turkey into a pan, and the mouth-watering aroma of sizzling fat wafting over from the stove certainly didn’t make it easier to stand still for the grueling process, but I am a good boy and I managed to confine myself to only a minimum of twitches and rolling shoulder shrugs to show my discomfort. At least afterwards I’m always cooler and less itchy, until the undercoat grows back, anyway. Then I had to stand up against the wall while she lifted my paws one by one and trimmed my nails. I kept my head low and wagged my tail, trying to look harmless, and hoped she’d let me slink away, but no such luck. The nail trimming isn’t so bad, except that my one shoulder always feels like it’s being pulled out of alignment when she does my right forepaw, so even though I’m as still as a statue for the others I squirm a bit during that one.

Afterwards I got a piece of turkey hot from the pan. Then, horror of horrors, my human brought out the vacuum. The only thing worse than the vacuum is the drier. And the only thing that could be worse than the drier would be hearing the drier while stuck in a porta-potty. And the only thing worse than that would be the drier on, stuck in a porta-potty, with Marcus and Festus outside. Only don’t get me started about the evils of smoke detectors...

When the cursed vacuuming was done, we played “Get it”. This used to be an exercise that was part of dog school for me, until I got really good at it, and now it’s something we do for fun a few nights a week. I’m no retriever, like those dogs at the dog park that focus obsessively on chasing balls, to the exclusion of everything else, and snap at you if you get close enough to potentially interrupt their precious game. It’s taken me seven years to learn this game, and I still like to be rewarded with a chunk of meat now and again, but the running is good. My human lines me up by her left side with the command “place” (I’ve learned this step is important because if I bounce excitedly in front of her as she throws, I risk being hit in the face). Then she tosses my orange squeaky dumbbell and tells me “get it.” I give chase, hunting it down if it’s bounced around the corner behind the bed, grab it and “bring,” then drop to my butt in front of her with dumbbell in mouth and “give.” Then we start all over again until I’m panting, and my tongue is lolling, and all the meat is gone. I don’t drink much water during the day because my diet isn’t dehydrated kibbles anymore, but I have to take water breaks during “get it.”

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