Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 8

Tuesday, August 1

My human did the bad thing again last night.

I kept licking my lips and yawning at her saying “bad idea bad idea bad idea!” But she didn’t listen. I got exhausted waiting for her to stop and finally come back to bed. Even after she turned the lights off and curled up under the blanket she was shaking really hard and had a terrible fear smell. My human smelled confused. I’m just a dog. If she can’t understand, how am I supposed to?

Even after I ultimately fell asleep I had a nightmare and started awake as if somebody had stepped on my tail.

This morning my human sat on the bed and played with her phone for ages. I heard it ring several times but I heard no voices. I smelled her frustration filling the room like a cloud of smog. Her breathing came really fast and shallow. Then she stared at the wall and talked. She fluctuated wildly from being blank and stiff to flushed and frantic and terrified. “...I made a mistake and I did something stupid and I don’t know how to fix it because it’s already done. I’m also terrified of anybody finding out but I don’t want it to happen again, so I figure the best way to make sure it doesn’t is be honest about it... I’ve been trying to handle my emotions quietly and alone without involving anybody else because I don’t want to be selfish and make anyone else deal with thoughts that are confusing and senseless and way too focused on myself. I can’t give this stuff to anybody else: nobody wants it. In meetings they tell you to call somebody and talk about it so you don’t use your addiction to cope but I’m scared that if I vent this stuff to people then I’m burning the bridges in my relationships anyway. I don’t want to be needy or a burden. I’m supposed to be there for other people, be a part of the solution not another source of problems. Everybody else has so much going on already and their problems are all way more valid, and mine are stupid and shameful and my own fault. It’s like needing to talk to people makes me feel ugly and dirty and like I’m a parasite in their eyes instead of us being equals, and the more I give people space and wait for them to text or call me and try to listen to their problems instead the more I can convince myself I’m not a user. Obviously the best thing is just to not have overwhelming conflicting emotions and panicky thoughts, which is what my basic life strategy has been lately. I’m keeping it inside and pretending it’s not there and hoping it will go away or I can run fast enough that it won’t catch me. But then that sort of led up to this.” She cried, and snot dripped from her nose. I’m torn between licking it clean and politely ignoring this embarrassing emotional display. I breathed like I was asleep but kept my eyes open and hoped that we’d go on a walk soon.

On our walk my human was mostly gone away to the dark place inside her. Walking is important but the first time we passed the path that leads to the dog park I stared at it intently, hoping that just this once we might go to the dog park first before completing our exercise quota. But my human was still alpha enough to steer us down the Possum Route.

I got a queasy, tingly feeling last night when my human got me out of bed. It was way later than we ever leave the house and she already smelled sick and ashamed, moving furtively and trembling like a leaf, so I followed her very reluctantly with a lot of prompting. We drove to the grocery store, but we didn’t practice “ready.” Two dogs tried to attack me from the ends of their leashes. I jumped and roared at the first one because he startled me, and then growled at the second one who was protesting my existence very loudly to his human. I had no choice but to handle the situation to the best of my ability because my human was clearly in no fit state to warn them to leave us alone.

This morning my human was stern with me when I caught the energy of the cars whizzing past and hopped into the air. I’m honestly relieved because if she was so far gone that she let this behavior slide then I’d be way more worried.

I was all ready to have fun at the dog park but then once we actually got inside I felt intimidated, so I ran away from the other dogs when they made advances and tried to sniff me. I couldn’t drink any water even though I was panting a lot. A small dog growled at me, so I hid behind my human’s legs. Then a woman held out her palm for me to sniff so I hid again. She told her dog, “come here,” and “sit, you have to sit, can you sit,” over and over. They sounded like commands but from the way the dog just stood there wagging his tail contentedly he must have known better. When he felt hot and tired he laid down and she gave him a treat.

Humans seem to think if they just keep talking at us, or talk slow, or in high-pitched gooey voices, that dogs will magically figure out how to understand. It’s not that we don’t want to: we spend tons of energy trying to communicate. But we just can’t learn human language, beyond a few words, if the human is consistent and clear about using them. When language comes at us in a constant flood it’s just frustrating and we learn to tune it out because we’ve really got no other option. It’s not about desire or effort: our brains just aren’t made the same way. For canines, just about the only vocalizations we ever have to worry about interpreting from other dogs are barks or growls. Growling is an obvious warning, or threat, and barking almost exclusively means “go away,” or “help me.” Occasionally an extremely rude dog or one who’s learned he just won’t be heard any other way throws a tantrum and barks “WANT” at a person. That’s the equivalent of knowing about two and a half words in human language. The structure of our brain just wasn’t set up to process much more verbal information than that. Of course, we are masters at tone of voice, but humans confuse us by pairing words we’ve started to associate with anger, like “no,” with soft, friendly voices that sound like “yes, of course you can have all my food. Good boy.”

With a few exceptions, most dogs genuinely want to please the people in our packs, but humans also need to pay attention to when their expectations are literally physically impossible. It comes from a place of kindness, wanting to treat us dogs as much like humans as possible, because people assume that being human is the best way to be. But it comes at a terrible cost for us, which is that all of our attempts at communicating in our natural way - body language - get totally ignored, and we’re never able to establish mutual comprehension between the members of our interspecies packs. No matter how hard we work at communication, no one’s “listening” to us, and nobody actually cares whether or not we listen in turn. The truth, is only humans want dogs to be human. If you insist on misunderstanding us in order to cling to an idea of us as people with fur, because it makes you feel that your love is more justified and replaces whatever human relationships you’re missing, is that really loving us?

Both of the dogs initially in the pen left with their people. A gangly Great Dane puppy as tall as I am came in and distracted me enough that I was able to poop and drink some water. The puppy’s human pack kept saying, “we don’t jump. All paws on the ground,” but the puppy didn’t seem troubled by all this mysterious information; I’m guessing he was already smart enough to have learned to ignore it. Then an extremely dominant husky with a fluffy tail like a plume waving high in the air arrived and inspected us both thoroughly. The puppy sat down with his tail between his legs while the husky’s nose groomed his body. I let the husky put his head over my back but wasn’t feeling secure enough to offer full submission like he wanted. I did a circuit of the dog park, peeing on every tree until I had nothing left to mark with. The husky kept seeking me out, wanting to play but also wanting to posture. The puppy was willing to play, but it was too easy for the husky to roll him and make him show his belly, so he wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t in the mood to engage with him and mainly clung to my human’s shadow.

We did dog school and my human made me breakfast, but then she sat on the floor by the couch and played with her phone again and smelled very sad. I licked her face asking her to please be okay, (I could smell the burned flesh inside her mouth) but when that didn’t work I curled up on top of her foot and took a nap while she cried. From the painful anticipation she radiated, she was waiting for something important to happen, and since that’s something I’m good at I did my best to help her wait.

My human sang while she drove but still looked sad. She looked at me while she sang “I want to live with you, even when we’re ghosts, cuz you were always there for me, when I needed you most.” I recognized the words because she sings them to me a lot. They usually mean that we are a good pack, but today they had a “not mine” emptiness flavor, and I whale-eyed my human nervously because I think maybe they meant our pack is too small.

My human’s mother pulled up outside the lunch place as we were about to go in and spoke to her. It was a hot and humid day and asphalt burned under my feet. I danced from paw to paw, angling my body demonstrably towards the nearest patch of shade. My human cried but her mother had a soft nice smell like when an alpha play bows or licks you chin in friendship. She said, “you need to forgive yourself,” which isn’t a command, but I could still tell it was important. Today my human’s mother was a big enough alpha to chase away her dark place.

My human smelled better after that.

After the lunch place my human and I sat in the car for a rest. I normally keep to my own seat but today I stretched myself as far as I could over the center console, so I could be as much in her lap as possible.

I thought we were going to the library even though it was Tuesday and not Thursday or Friday, but it turned out we were going to work outside at a fair instead. At first it was just me and my human, and I got to sit up on my very own chair. The metal was warm from the sun and not very supportive for my hips, but I appreciated having the high ground and got a very good vantage point of the dog park across the street. I know my work is very important, but I thought it might be a good idea to go to the dog park instead. But then the other five working dogs showed up and I ended up on the ground with them. One of them was a big male yellow lab that I’d never met before, but we were chill. I let him lick my nose.

Kids came and petted us. I practiced a lot of “shake.” My human made me wear my sunglasses which is something I don’t really understand but tolerate, just like I’ve never understood why the children insist on waving stiff pieces of paper that my human passes out to them under my nose and chanting “It’s you! It’s you!” The papers don’t smell like anything, and I can’t even see them when they’re so close to my face, but I feel them tickle my whiskers. At one point my human led my away from the tables and distracted me with a hunk of turkey. Even with my back turned and saliva flooding my tongue from the scent of the proffered meat, I still caught a strong whiff of Great Dane and musky male pheromones passing through the crowd.

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