Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 5

Saturday, July 29

On Saturdays and Sundays we get up very early. This morning before the sun was even up my human’s phone bleated obnoxiously from on top of my crate beside the bed (I take naps in my crate but I sleep in the bed with my human. I have to wait for express permission to get on any furniture though, otherwise I get growled at and have to lie penitently on the floor until my human commands me “up”). Then my human pawed at it and went back to sleep. She repeated this process every ten minutes for a full hour, before finally stumbling blearily to the bathroom. I waited until I heard the jangle of the keys in her hand before joining her at the front door.

There was a chill in the air when we started walking, but it didn’t last, and before long the persistent heat stole the moisture from my tongue. I scouted the neighborhood for Marcus and Festus but detected no fresh traces of them, only faded scent markers from yesterday. When I first met Marcus he wasn’t immediately my arch nemesis, even though he’s a charcoal Cane Corso and easily twice my size. He’s never been overtly aggressive, and I’m grateful at least that he’s fixed. But Festus took an instinctive dislike to me and since the two of them joined forces, anyone can tell that pack is bad news.

At one point a dog about my size saw me through the open window of a passing car and let out a spectacularly unimpressive high-pitched yap. I stayed silent and politely turned my face away until he’d passed, and my human told me “good boy.” I didn’t really feel threatened by him, though, and even my human sounded slightly amused, like she couldn’t help feeling sorry for a big dog with such a little bark.

My human leads me on one of several different routes through our territory every morning. Our walk always adds up to five miles. When I was younger this wouldn’t have been enough to take the edge off my crazy morning energy, but I’m seven now so I’m satisfied with five miles. This morning we walked the Possum Route, so named because of the dead possum in the bushes near the half-way turn-around point. I dutifully checked it, but it’s been there so long it hardly smells interesting at all anymore. When it appeared a few months ago, my human made a big deal out of showing it to other humans and turning her whole face away and she stopped breathing until we were well away from it. But lately she seems resigned to its presence. She still sneaks a peak at it every time we pass, like she’s afraid it will be offended if it catches her staring, but she breathes normally so I suspect she’s too nose-deaf to smell it anymore.

On the way back, a pack of small dogs started yelling from behind a brick wall that they wanted to hurt me. I whimpered a little, but my human didn’t seem worried, so I let it go. Some small dogs just have really violent minds.

After our walk we did my dog school with chunks of frozen banana. I’m getting really good at clockwise and counterclockwise but finding my marks when my human hides them from me is still a challenge. Then I did a “down, stay” in my “spot” on the laundry room mat while my human fried eggs for me. The aromas from the pan always make me whine in anticipation, and by the time my human put my bowl down for me, there was a puddle of drool on the floor under my face. Before I eat I always have to do “head down” until the bowl is in its place, then I hold this position agonizingly for an eternity until my human says “free.” Then I scramble at breakneck speed for the bowl, just in case if I’m slow she might change her mind, and bolt down my eggs. Three whole tablespoons of butter coated my palate in rich fatty deliciousness, and I smacked my lips, savoring every last trace, until my human was ready to brush my teeth.

No time to relax. I snorted at my human, watching her race back and forth, collecting things she’d forgotten to bring to the front door.

Just like there are different kinds of walks and different jobs, there are different types of dog schools. The first one is the dog school my human and I do almost every morning, where I earn pieces of frozen banana by practicing my commands. The second type of dog school is obedience class and it happens on Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings. It’s school but it’s also work, because I’m always there and I know what to do, but the other dogs who attend are usually excitable and confused and anxious about each other, so I just act very calm and dignified to set a good example for the pack. Also, it’s all very routine to me and the commands are easy and boring. The other dogs always seem to think we’re going to get to play with each other, but I know we’re not. They’re not used to any kind of working, so learning even a little bit of discipline and restraint is hard for them. The only time it’s hard for me is when there’s a dog who smells like I should fight with him before he decides to hurt me.

That being said, my human comes alive at obedience class, and this is worth tolerating some stiff joints and numb haunches from sitting at her side for an hour straight. The same routine exercises seem to invigorate her, and her voice carries enthusiasm even though it’s mostly make word-sounds that don’t mean anything to me.

On Saturday mornings obedience class happens at a wide open grassy park. I wagged “hello” to my friend Copper. As usual he was bursting at the seams with eagerness to greet me (or anybody) but his human held him in check. I could tell she was exasperated by his antics, but he’s not even two years old, so he’s pretty oblivious to anything but fun. He sat beside her, both mile-long front legs trembling violently, and panted at me with his customary, irresistible dopey grin while our two humans chatted and waited for the boss to arrive. The boss is a small friendly human who greets me respectfully. Her pack typically includes two small dogs, neither of whom interest me particularly, even though the male would like to hump me to prove to himself that he’s really a big dog.

We did a lot of “ready” in class today, which was predicable because the class was full of dogs I’d been seeing for several weeks running, and this meant it was almost time to swap them out for a new batch. You’d think because it was “ready” that I’d be set, but I’ll admit I performed grudgingly. I don’t usually do “ready” outdoors. The sun kept getting in my eyes, and anyway I can tell the difference between real work and practicing “ready” with other dogs. I liked lying in the grass after class with Copper and our humans, getting belly rubs and listening to the peaceful drone of their voices. It was still early enough for there to be dew on the ground. Copper chomped on blades of grass that his human fed to him, but my stomach didn’t hurt so I just rolled around in the grass instead.

Between the end of class and getting back into the oven hot car, my human seemed a bit at a loss. Not like she does when I need to be in charge, but her steps dragged a little aimlessly. I took the opportunity to sniff around, of course, but I could smell the nagging emptiness growing in my human. She wasn’t thinking about dog school or about the damp grass or even about how silly Copper was being, prancing about trying to entice me to play when I was practically melting in the sun. She wasn’t really there at all. She was dwelling on something internal that had caught ahold of her like a bad case of fleas, and this worried me. It’s the way she gets, seeing other humans together, that “not mine” feeling.

We went to visit at the usual place, the house of wood floors surrounded by flat planes of dazzling white cement, but the usual humans were missing. The ones my human interacted with smelled like her blood, but they were much older than I’m used to. I’ve met grandma and grandpa a few times. Grandma likes me; she always makes a point of giving me a pat and saying nice things in a calm way, instead of being sloppy and overwhelming with her affection. I still spent most of the time doing a “down stay” on the cool wood floor, but my human didn’t put me in the corner as far out of the way as usual, maybe because the house was emptier or maybe because nobody got a really bad fear smell around me. I rested my head on my paws on heaved a few big sighs so that she wouldn’t forget about me. After a little while my human went swimming and I laid out on a towel by the pool and supervised. Sometimes I put my feet in, and sometimes she pesters me until I climb in up to my chest, then she carries me out to the deep water, so I have to swim back to the step. I was glad to be spared the effort today.

The alpha of that territory is a small dog named Juliet. She’s very insecure about her status so she constantly feels the need to remind me that I’m submissive to her and to force me to show submission. Nothing I do is ever good enough for her. I’m apprehensive the minute I step in the door because I’m bracing myself for her to come barreling towards me. She’s always affronted that I crossed a threshold without her permission, even though if she were paying attention she’d clearly be able to tell how much coaxing my human had to do to get me to violate her territory at all. My human is a good alpha and will step in - literally sometimes she has to stomp in front of Juliet and show how big she is and that she isn’t willing to back down - but still I have to stand without moving a muscle and submit to being sniffed all over. If my human gives me the slightest chance to stretch my legs from my “down, stay” in the backyard Juliet is immediately on me, policing my every move and nipping at my ankles like I’m some errant sheep. She makes these loud calls somewhere between howling and baying, and she always calls for reinforcements to drive out the invader (me) even though nobody ever comes to help her. The other dog of the house is a gentle submissive with poor eyesight, like me. Her name is Nikki, and she does like to climb on me and dominate me from time to time, but I don’t mind. For one thing, she’s too small to be a threat to anybody and doesn’t overly push her claims to status, and for another thing, she has to live in Juliet’s pack every day, so I figure she needs to feel dominant to somebody in order to retain a little self-confidence. I actually enjoy giving harmless little dogs a boost to their ego.

Being dominant doesn’t mean being the one with the right to hurt everybody else: it means being the one who’s responsible for making the pack feel safe. Otherwise why would we choose to follow? Strength is important, of course. I feel safe with somebody who’s cool and collected and confident enough to stand between me and Marcus and Festus and be a beacon of strength, somebody whose body language says “I got this.” Not somebody who goes soft at the sight of danger, who’s going to coo at me and tell me “it’s okay” when I know it’s not, meanwhile leaving me to face my fears alone. Of course, there are perks to being dominant, like control over resources. But nobody’s proper role in the pack is to constantly go belly-up to soothe a poor alpha’s megalomaniac insecurity.

Juliet is an example of an alpha nobody could really respect because she’s well aware of how small and weak she really is - not necessarily physically but her inner self. She knows anybody who wanted to could take the territory from her, and I think secretly she wishes a good strong leader would come along and lift the burden of her responsibility, but her genetics make her too dominant to allow a power gap to exist without doing her best to fill it. In the absence of any true guidance she’ll defend her status the only way she knows how: by tooth and claw, like a savage. That’s not the way dogs do things in a proper pack. A true leader doesn’t need to fight, he or she just walks in the room and we all know by smell that this is someone who knows what’s what and will protect us and show us the rules.


One time and one time only I’ve wanted to kill a human being.

It was when my human and I were fairly new to each other and I was still used to acting like a shelter dog. We went to a place we’d visited many times before, with a smooth shiny floor, where I usually laid down quietly at my human’s feet while she and other people sat in a big circle of squeaky metal chairs. They’d take turns speaking and I would sleep. Sometimes there would be tears that would sting my nose with sharp saltiness, but afterwards the humans smelled better in a pack way and would laugh and touch each other for group solidarity. Everybody there liked me; I got a warm sense of acceptance I’ve felt from few other groups of humans. But this time, the room was dark and there was loud booming music. I couldn’t recognize anybody by sight, since they wore strange clothes - one man was covered from head to foot by short brown fur that looked like mine but smelled like a cross between mold and sweat and plastic chew toys. I ignored the music and the costumes and stuck close to my human, hoping I’d be allowed to take a nap soon. But then I saw the whip. I saw a woman in dark clothes raise it up and lash out with it against someone else sitting harmlessly in a chair. I saw the whip and I knew exactly what it was.

These days I don’t remember much of where I came from before the shelter. Dogs mainly live in the present. But right there I remembered blood and fear and being perpetually hungry - and I remembered pain.

I was born in a backyard. My littermate and I were bred for stamina, to have deep barrels of chests and long athletic limbs. I don’t remember spending much time with them or with my mother (only in deep dreams do I still revert back to being a puppy, suckling her warm milk). We were separated so that we could see but not touch each other right when it was most important for us to learn to recognize members of our own species as friends and to use play to establish our place within a social pecking order. We wore thick leather collars and heavy chains. The people kept us intact, so that as we grew we all smelled like sex and were constantly plagued by insatiable urges, which kept us from ever forming the bonds of a pack. This made the females wary of being set upon at every moment, so that they had sharp spiky tempers ready to flare up the instant we approached. We males knew we were rivals and this further spurred us to fight, in the desperate hope that somebody would win and get to mate.

All my brothers and sisters grew up to be fighting dogs, but the humans knew I was a bad dog right away. They could get down close to my brothers and sisters so that their leering faces, as ugly with pleasure as the dogs’ rictus snarls, were practically glued to their flanks and egg them on without being bitten. But from the start my fear was too big and it would blind me so that I turned on my handler. He tried to bind my jaws shut with pieces of tape, but I worked at this with such savage determination that I ripped bloody rents in the sides of my own face getting it off. I am a dog, and even then, I had a healthy pack-instinct inside of me that couldn’t help being outraged at the depth of this man’s betrayal. I was a bad dog, a biting dog, but he’d made me so by failing his alpha job so spectacularly, and I was forlorn and deeply troubled by the loss of something I’d never known. I screamed at him to save me, to take me away. Instead he cursed and chained me to a pole, and from then on when my brothers and sisters and even bigger dogs would roar and lunge at me, I turned away and tore into the pole. I ripped at it until I felt something tear in my mouth, and left a tooth behind in the blood and saliva scored into the wood. It was an eternity of panting with fear and of hunger gnawing at my belly and of battling the pole, until at last it gave way.

When I escaped I feared that the people would chase me. My brothers and sisters sent up an outraged chorus, by this time unsure if they wanted to follow me to freedom or just to sink their teeth into my flesh. Probably the truth is that I wasn’t worth the trouble; the humans didn’t want a dog who bit for fighting or for bait. Not enough to chase me down and risk teeth I’d already proved I was willing to use.

I wandered the streets alone and starving, scavenging for discarded bits of garbage that served as my food. I couldn’t hunt; compared to anything that smelled like prey, I was big and lumbering and slow, and still an unfinished puppy in that I had only raw instincts and no training towards stealth. The only strategy I knew was blitz attack. I never caught anything, but managed to subsist on trash, bolting down just enough to survive but never enough to truly feel healthy and strong.

I’d never known any other way than to live with humans, so when a man spoke to me coaxingly, I threw the last scrap of trust in my weary soul into him, and limped along in his wake. He took me to his backyard, free of blood and whips and also other dogs, and later other people came and took me away to the shelter. My life there was endless sameness, a mixture of unremitting boredom and dull pangs of emptiness and fear, and mostly I lived like a Siberian tiger in a cage that everybody was too afraid to approach. I don’t blame my initial rescuer for giving me away, or the shelter people for treating me like the wild thing I’d become. I wasn’t ready for love yet.

All of this was contained within the single instantaneous impression of seeing the woman direct her whip - a hated tool of evil and misery - at the human male who wasn’t even challenging her. I exploded forward, ready to tear out her throat.

My human stopped me. She made me lie down. The whip disappeared, but for the rest of the night and every time in the future that I ever saw that woman, I remembered that she was part of the bad world into which I was born. I would lie down obediently, but I couldn’t peel my eyes away from her for even a second. I’d stare at her and deep growls would ripple out of my chest, and my whole body would shake. My every hair bristled individually with hatred. The woman never hurt anyone with a whip again in my presence, but she began to shout at me and my human every time she saw us. Eventually my human figured out to only take us to the rooms with the circle of metal chairs if the woman wasn’t there, the same way we don’t go in the gate at the dark park if a really scary dog is inside now.

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