Shelter Me: A Pit Bull Love Story

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Chapter 9

Wednesday, August 2

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night to hear my human seized by fits of liquidy coughing. She smelled sour and her breathing sounded very wrong. She kept having to run to the sink to vomit, then she’d lie back down for a little while, but she still wheezed and labored for air. I kept an eye on her while she paced the bedroom and she even tried curling up on the floor (I could have told her the bed is more comfortable). I smelled the medicine she usually takes in the morning. Pressed against her back, I felt the heat rising from her skin, while cold sweat soaked the sheets like a moat around her. It was a long time before either of us really managed to fall asleep.

For the past few days it’s been hot and sticky out but not bright. This morning was hot and bright and there were birds everywhere. Part of the time I tracked them with my ears pricked forward and my forehead wrinkled in concentration. Part of the time I averted my gaze carefully, so they wouldn’t be offended.

A velvety puppy froze at the end of his leash and stared at me, but he narrowed his eyes to slits which is at least less confrontational than wide-eyed staring.

It’s harder not to get startled by loud car sounds when I’m not feeling confident in my human’s state of health. She told me “good boy” when I turned my face away from them.

I whimpered invitingly at an off-leash dog with no collar and no human, but he tucked a paw up to his chest protectively then trotted off down the street.

We walked a route today that involved making loop around the dog park but not actually going in, then walking down a hill and up again. Then we stopped at home where the dreadful alarm was barking frantically from the bedroom before we continued on to the dog park again, this time going in the pen. Today I got to interact with the huskies I’d previously only met through the fence face to face. They both crouched on their bellies in the grass to look non-threatening but then the anticipation was too much to stand and they bounded toward me.

While we were there my friend Kate whom I haven’t seen in a long long time came in. Her human walks very slowly leaning on a stick.

A brilliant idea occurred to me and I put my paws in the water bowl to cool down.

We spent most of the day at the house with the wood floors. I did a “down, stay” inside while my human and her mother moved everything out of the garage, liberating lots of interesting smells that I didn’t get to explore until just before we were leaving. I was thinking seriously about lifting my leg on a tall white shelf sitting out on the drive way when my human called me “in” to the car. Mostly this was a boring experience made slightly distressing because I didn’t have a good vantage point to keep an eye on my human and because I was stationed by the laundry room, and the drier was on. Luckily that drier is not quite as evil and hungry as the one at home.

At home my human ate blueberries that she didn’t share. Then we both took a hard-earned nap. When the obnoxious phone buzzed at us to wake up I felt frisky and laid my paws on my human’s belly, licking her face and wiggling my butt in my most appealing puppy fashion. We played an invigorating game of “get it.” I had so much energy that I accidentally ran back to my human and skidded to a “sit” in front of her - forgetting in my eagerness to return to her to actually pick up my squeaky dumbbell - twice. We played until I was exhausted, and my tongue lolled out of my mouth.

Later I was surprised when we went to dog school at the dog park. Ordinarily we do obedience class on Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings, and it’s all very routine. Last night was the first class with a whole group of unfamiliar dogs. One of them was a poodle who hated everybody and even snapped at any people who approached too close to her human. Another was a rowdy young golden retriever male whom I hated instantly. He was big and dominant and clearly communicated his ill intentions towards me, so I found my eyes pulled irresistibly towards him. The muscles in my neck tensed, but every time I was on the edge of springing towards him to roar “go away” my human moved us in the opposite direction or distracted me with meat. I think we all would have been better for it if I’d gotten the chance to run him off.

Obedience class at the dog park is different. It happens sporadically enough that I can’t predict when we’re going. Also, it’s off-leash, and we dogs get to socialize more than in the Tuesday and Saturday classes.

Jade the vizsla recognized me through the chain link fence of the middle pen, and jumped and barked and play-bowed at me ecstatically. However, once my human removed my leash (“free”) inside the pen, Jade quickly lost interest in me, like usual. She left with her human before class. Her human rode off on a bicycle, which is a thing that used to trigger my instincts to chase and to grab because bicycles always run away from me and they are at the perfect height to make me pop up at them. My human used the command “Leave it,” so many times that now I ignore bicycles out of habit. Jade’s human gives her commands like “good girl, good girl, come, Jade, come. Jade come, good girl,” which is so much information to sort through that nobody could possibly be expected to pick out what’s important. But Jade seems to have figured out that her mission in life is to stick close to her human, and when he looks at her he puffs up his chest and smells proud.

Once I thought that “Jade,” was going to become a new command for me, because me, my human, my girlfriend Sadie, and her human all formed a pack that spent an entire day traveling together and yelling “Jade!” My human used a very serious tone, so I understood that in this context “Jade!” meant something very important, but she never rewarded me for anything I did while she yelled “Jade!” so I couldn’t figure out what trick I was supposed to be learning. We walked in the blazing heat until my paws were raw from the hot pavement, and my legs could barely hold me up. Then we rode in Sadie’s human’s car, and even with the glorious air conditioning blowing on my hot face, I almost melted into a puddle on the back seat. The humans kept yelling “Jade!” through the open windows until their voices came out hoarse. Sadie’s human smelled like fear and fury and barely restrained tears and her body language screamed tension. When we finally saw Jade later that night, she smelled of dirt and sweat and tire grease and bruises. We didn’t pay much attention to each other, because she was busy prancing about and preening under the attention of all the humans gathered around her radiating relief and joy (nobody gave out any treats, though). I was focused on all the dogs in the crowd, whom I hadn’t met, who might take advantage of me because my fatigue made me stiff and weak.

Milling around waiting for obedience class to start, I split up a group of dogs who were playing too vigorously, before their unruly behavior could escalate into a fight. I felt very proud of myself for this magnanimous act, grinning expansively at the whole pack. Then a dominant Australian shepherd fixated on me and started harassing me, but he left before class too. Unfortunately, we didn’t stay very long. We practiced some “ready” in a big ring with the other students, but then my human must have noticed something I was too distracted to pick up on because when one of the big German shepherds started making playful advances toward me we beat a hasty retreat for the gate.

2011

I didn’t set out to bite all the people at the shelter. It just sort of happened that way.

I had a playmate for a short time, a female dog named Tillie. We were thick as thieves until one day she slipped past the human opening her gate to deliver her food. She charged out into the bull pen. The dogs behind the doors on either side were already stir-crazy from spending their days cooped up and wild with anxiety to wolf down their meals before the rivals watching all around could steal their food. Seeing the female dog outside the safety of her own kennel, streaking past the bars that held them prisoner, every inmate in the shelter went ballistic. Of course, we were never supposed to have the opportunity to steal from one another, being locked in our runs at all times. But when Tillie made a break for it, savoring her first taste of freedom, she ran straight for her pack-mate, me.

Tillie burst into my run just as a human was setting my bowl before me. I was already quivering with a desperate mixture of pent-up tension and fear, adding my high-pitched pit bull scream to the anguished cries of animals as hungry for excitement as they were for their jealously guarded rations. When a furry body suddenly hurtled toward me, violating the sanctity of my kennel, all I could think was that the dogs around me were about to make good on their threats and tear me apart for my food. So I roared and attacked her.

The humans raised the alarm and separated us by directing a stinging high-pressure hose that abraded our skin at our jaws, twisted into each other’s pelts. Though I still heard her bored, neurotic bark from the other end of the bullpen, Tillie didn’t come to play with me anymore, and I didn’t get another chance at a pack-mate in the shelter after that.

At the shelter, every day passed exactly the same. First, before sunrise, lights would snap on and clamorous barking rang out on all sides. Swept along on a ride of frustrated emotion, I added my voice to the multitude. A human with metal tools in hand appeared and scraped away my poop, then I was left alone until breakfast time. I inhaled my food with a furious, paranoid desperation, and watched as my empty bowl was taken away. A little while later a human would put a lead around my neck, and holding it gripped taut and short so I instinctively strained against the restraint, walked me to my gravel day run. In the cement-floor kennel where I slept, I could always hear dogs on all sides, but could only see my neighbor across from me through the double barrier created by the bars of our gates. The walls between myself and the dogs in the adjoining runs on the left and right were solid brick. But in the pen where I spent a few hours each day, I was surrounded by chain link fencing and therefore had limited access to an elderly terrier named Snoop in the adjacent run. So I spent all day running along the fence, back and forth, mindlessly driven to prove to Snoop that I was ready and willing to defend myself before he and the other dogs could attack me, totally insensible to the fetid stink of my own diarrhea mashed into the fur between my pads. I screamed again and again, until my lungs ached in my chest. Foam dripped from my muzzle. I never managed to relieve my anxiety this way; if anything, the running wound me tighter and tighter, so that I lived in a perpetual frenzy. Finally, a human would cautiously enter my run and lead me back to the kennel where I’d be fed dinner and then sleep. The concrete was always slightly damp when I reentered, and I had a fresh clean blanket in a plastic igloo dog house that I usually dragged out, tore up, and/or soiled. The chorus of barking never totally abated. At some point in the evening the lights in the bull pen clicked off, and I gave in to exhaustion.

It was during the walks between runs that I bit people.

Many of the dogs at the shelter endeared themselves to the people and were treated with honest affection. I read the apprehension in the humans’ body language when they approached me, and smelled their resentment. When they conversed with each other about me (dogs know when we’re the object of attention even if the words are just meaningless yapping) some of them made a point of showing off lumpy spots on the skin of their calves. Mostly these marks lacked any interest in my opinion, but occasionally I caught a whiff of myself and blood.

You see, to get from my regular kennel to my gravel day run, I had to pass through the bull pen. This meant walking with a human for several yards down a narrow lane with dogs behind gates on both sides. The dogs howled their bloodlust and threw themselves madly against the bars, slamming into the metal with jarring impact and snapping their jaws at me. In some cases, they chewed at the bars, worrying them furiously with their teeth, or pushed groping paws underneath their gates into the narrow cement walkway.

After only a few seconds the atmosphere became unbearable. First, I’d whine, then pant, my breathing fast and shallow, then I hopped up and down and roared. The rope around my neck pulled tighter, and the human holding my leash used the meat of their thigh to wrench me away from whichever dog I’d been about to lunge towards, and slam me into the metal bars on the opposite side. But it was already too late. As my mind-numbing terror built, I found myself back in my puppyhood, and I did what I’d done as a bait-dog struggling to free myself. There was only my sure method of escape: I turned my teeth on the pole - thing I was chained to - the human. I closed my jaw on the tender flesh of the human’s upper calf.

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