I’m going to tell you a secret.
Everyone in my real life knows this secret about me; even all of my co-workers even are fully aware. But I still get nervous when I meet new people and trying to figure out how to tell them. And sometimes I get angry, like when I am on the bus and people are talking about “those kind of people” and I get a nudge from an old woman that tells me that she expects me to agree with her, maybe because I look so polite and so sweet and so, “not one of those kind of people.”
Except I am.
For the last two years, I have owned a Pitbull. Tucked away, next to my front door, beside my hand-woven snood from a little shop on Queen’s Street in Edinburgh and my green velvet coat with the hand-embroidered flowers all over the sleeves from Harvey Nicks, is a pincher collar and a leather, police issue, lead. It’s burgundy, not black, because I thought the color was nicer and as it ages, its starting to have a lovely soft patina.
I was not the sort of person who is a breed advocate, or particularly political with animal rights, but my little ginger Pit has started to turn me into that sort of person. I grew up in Upstate NY, as I am oft heard saying, and that meant that hunting and farming were the norm and, part and parcel of Upstate is that Pits are also normal. Blissfully so.
High school and college friends alike adopted dogs, many of them pit puppies. Others got Dobermen or Rotties. Big dogs that you took in the back of pick up trucks. My college boyfriend’s sister had two kids and an adopted Pitbull female. A homeless man had asked her to take his dog (she works as an advocate) and she obliged. A few years later she got a second. I remember sitting in her living room, petting that big goofy head, and watching her play nicely with the kids. No one, absolutely no one that I knew of had a problem with Pitbulls. We all read in horror what Michael Vicks had done and wrote that off as a twisted man, not as an issue with dogs. To us, saying it was the dog’s fault was a cop out that lazy people made. We wrote off Pitbull haters as an issue bred in cities where people had no idea how to hunt or fish or do a keg stand. In other words, what we called “assholes.” In the UK, at least in Scotland, people have pits left and right, and maybe they wore muzzles, and maybe they didn’t, but the familiar wide head and goofy smile was easily spotted all over Leith, which is where I made my home for most of my time there, although there was a man who walked his pits around The Links where I lived as well. The rest of Europe had wild packs of dogs that were shaggy and wolf like; those scared me, the way they would run loose through the streets at night, howling.
When I came “home” from Europe two years ago, I was breaking down. I had left what I had hoped would be my home for life, Scotland, to making my way through London, and surviving my way through Eastern Europe and Greece and then back again. It wasn’t a physical hardship as much as it was a complete shift for my mind. Being Upstate, I think, had made me crave a home, stability, to see familiar faces. And then the nomadic, military brat in me was pushing away those edges and making me restless. I didn’t know where I belonged or what I was going to do. I could write, yes, and I could make friends, and try out things, but I was also mostly stuck in my hometown with just a few suitcases, unpacked into my grandmother’s dresser in my parent’s spare room, my own childhood bedroom a quilting/computer room.
The whole time I lived overseas, and even before then, I had been day dreaming about a dog. I thought I wanted a little dog, when I lived in a tiny apartment, but as I walked across Europe, I saw big, fuzzy, fluffy dogs, especially in Oia, where everyone had a beautiful dog. We rescued puppies at the book store, and my Ukrainian friends took a set of golden puppies that had the same marking as my future dog would have. I dreamed of a Shepard or a Husky, or what my father had had when he was fresh out of the military, a Malamute. I dreamed of hiking and swimming and camping with a dog. I was tired of doing these things alone.
Nearly in tears every day, as girls who don’t know what the fuck they want to do with their lives once everything around them has been shuffled around irrevocably, my parents agreed to take me to the animal shelter. I think they were desperate to give me something to focus on. Like a five year old set free in a toy store, I only thought about the getting, not about the later. I was a nervous, wide eyed, whippet of a person when I got to the Humane Society.
I don’t know why they gave me the dog, I don’t know why the shelter let me walk out with her and her big floppy bunny ears. Maybe they trusted my parents; that my big, 350 pound, 6’7”, ex-AirForce father could handle whatever was given to us. Maybe they just didn’t know what else to do with her. Her tag read “Ruby” and the guy who lived around the corner from my parents, the guy who bred Red-Nosed Pits himself, told me I had saved her from certain death. He said that people will pay for puppies, but if they can’t control them, if they can’t train them the way they want and give them up, and no one will take an adolescent pit, especially not one built like a brick shit house, like “Ruby” was.
When I was walking down the aisle in the “Big Dog Room” (no terrier for this girl, I wanted a monster sized dog to keep me safe and warm) I was drawn to a pit/great Dan mix named King, that at 8 months, already weighed 80 pounds. I was sure, and still am, that he was a gentle giant. But from the end, my mother was squealing, “This one has bunny ears!”
And so she did. While most Pitbulls are short, stocky, and even, dare I say, on the small side, “Ruby” was tall, with a greyhound body, and the most gloriously tall rabbit ears that cocked this way and that way. She was underfed and looked sorrowful, her spirit was super still when we met, but she tilted her golden eyes at me. She is not pure Pit: she is Red-Nosed Pit and Pharaoh Hound, which may be the most fucked up mix to ever exist. I instantly fell in love. She was a creature drawn straight from the dark crevices of the mind of Hunter S Thompson: “Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” I felt instantly connected with her and I wanted us to start again. I named her Ava, for Ava Gardener, an idol of mine, and a woman I think who was also, a rare bird, revered for her beauty, but with a toughness that could pack a wallop (there are tales about a frying pan and her then husband, Frank Sinatra’s head).
When I take Ava out these days, well fed, and bright eyed, people stop and tell me that she is built like a race horse, with long running legs, defined by muscle on top of muscle, but slender with the curving chest of a Pharaoh Hound. And she can run; she gallops like a horse, stomping across the ground at a speed that is terrifying if you do not know that she means no harm once she reaches you. My father and I would take her to the abandoned air field by our house and let her run the length of the tarmac. She was in-fatiguable. We go on hikes that last for hours, up hills and through the woods and at the end she is ready to run more.
Who bred her and why, we’ll never know. Maybe as a hunting dog? She is fast, she is focused, and yes, she is prey driven. Where we live now, she can not run free, it’s not the same here. In Syracuse, people have their dogs in yards and they run with them on trails, safely leashed. There are wide open spaces where there is no one and no other dogs. People have farms and yes, abandoned airbases where dogs can roam and run and be dogs. I think she was very happy there.
But life changes and there is not any work in Syracuse, not for someone like me, and so, after more journeys and more hunting of my own, I found work and a home in Portland. I am also prey driven, and when I set something in my sights, I can’t be still until I have it. A home for us, a job I loved, I wanted this for us, no matter where it was. When I found my little cottage near the woods, I felt satisfied that I could stop running. My parents drove across country to bring me Ava. But she was not instantly happy here. She had left a big house and a good sized yard and daily runs on the base to come live in a studio apartment in the NW of Portland. I lucked out with where we live, because it is ground floor and we have a little yard, but nothing like she had. She was sad, crying, whining, barking incessantly. When we walked, she tried to drag me along. She was uncontrollable, inconsolable. I felt like we had never been friends and that, like a child of divorce, she blamed me for everything terrible that was happening to her. We had to start all over again.
And so I have to work with her. While my parents let her run free, hardly ever using a leash, here she had to learn manners and to not pull my arms out. She did not like that one bit; I am too slow for her and she dreams of racing. I sneak out of the house early to take her to the tennis courts by our house, which have a locking gate, so she can run and run and run, but it’s only in circles and I don’t think it’s enough for her. 5:30 in the morning we leave the house and walk and run and circle the woods we live near for at least an hour. Then we have breakfast together: I have eggs and she has raw turkey and veggies. And then I have to leave her while I go to work, from which I hurry home every day, never going to happy hour with my co-workers or having dinner with friends.
On weekends we have lessons with an amazing team who knows how to handle my hell-hound, and Ava is now working on agility lessons, like jumping over picnic tables. We practice with other dogs, so she can learn to be calm and obey me no matter what else may come: she is learning to trust me above even her own instinct to bolt, to freak out, or to attack to protect herself from strange creatures that run up to her. I think she had a bad experience as a puppy, but we’ll never know, so all we can do is train her and work with what she is now. She has dog friends, and if you are slow and introduce your dog to her sweetly and with patience, she will be extremely friendly. But I am the first to admit: she shocks easily and a dog running up to her, off leash and yapping, looks like something she wants to tear into. I have to be ever vigilante.
Like me, she has a short attention span, easily amused and totally enraptured by everything and anything,distracted by the wind blowing an interesting scent across her nose, or a leaf dancing fantastically to her right. We have walks together where she and I become lost in looking at the leaves and birds. She is anxious when left alone, terrified I won’t come back for her. Her favorite thing to eat is vanilla ice cream and bananas, same as me, but she won’t turn down strawberries either. When I am sad or scared or lonely, or in pain, she lays with me in my bed, protective and calming. She stays awake most of the night, keeping her ear cocked to the door and windows, murmuring her growls at the people who walk by at 3 am. We are both nervous creatures who often do the wrong thing based on our fears and mis-perceptions. Cesar Milan once said that you “get the dog you need, not the dog you want.” And some days, when I sink down onto my couch, crying and freaking out that I cannot take one more day of Ava and her behavior, I have to repeat that as a mantra to myself. My trainers tell me that if I choose to not keep Ava, the kind thing to do would be to euthanize her because she could not be re-homed again with her separation anxiety and who else would take the time I take with her? They are good trainers, who have themselves adopted and trained dog-aggressive dogs, Pits and other breeds, but they know how different life is for a Pitbull in Portland than it is in NY.
I know I am doing something right, that what was once a high energy wind up hell-hound psycho dog, can now walk down a busy street, go into dress shops with me, and be told, by elderly couples, by men playing softball, by construction workers, and by little girls who love her ears, that I have a “beautiful dog.” That when she automatically sits when I stop walking or lays down when I say, “Plotz!”, people marvel out loud at how well mannered she is. She smiles, her goofy, lolling smile, and waits, not patiently, to be petted, loved, and fed treats (which the shop keepers kindly do).
But I am still told, at times, that my dog is the devil, that her jaw locks and that she will someday devour me in my sleep. Mostly I read these thing online, where people don’t have to show me their faces when they say these words. Worse than people who might come up to me and be cruel are the cowards that hide behind websites and forums and comment boxes. In real life, no one would come up to me and say anything nasty, partially I am sure because Ava’s exact breed confounds them and most people, people who do not know and love Red Nosed Pits, do not know what she is. But also, I think an owner dressed in a floral dress and a cardigan go a long way in making a dog look friendly. But still, I brace myself, ready myself to pull out the angry NY Italian that resides in my heart, ready to fight, to defend my dog’s honor.
My friends tell me that no dog should take up so much time. People on the street do walk away from me. Sometimes she does get into dog fights, because unleashed dogs run up to her, their owners shouting from 500 feet away, “Don’t worry, she’s friendly!”…well, mine isn’t and you should have asked…although luckily she is a shaker, not a biter, so she’s only ever been the one injured. Sometimes, it’s just enough that she sneaks into the grocery bags and eats all the turkey I bought for the week in one sitting. Sometimes I am tired from running 4 miles a day with her, rain or shine, and I just break down. She is not the dog for the weak of heart.
And so, I repeat the mantra, you get the dog you need. Because maybe I was too weak-hearted before I met Ava. I didn’t know where I belonged. I fell for men who were unkind. I had the sort of friends who slept with those unkind men. I allowed emotional and physical abuse into my life. I took advice from people to heart, as though they always knew best, not always thinking for myself. And now, I am purposeful, even if my only purpose is to take care of this ginger furred, golden eyed, rabbit eared, horse dog. I write on this blog, this rabbit-hearted, self imposed title of weak willed woman-hood, and yet I know that this isn’t entirely true anymore.
I am now the sort of person who takes great, purposeful strides across the pavement as I handle a 65 pound dog who is pure muscle and teeth, and I know she will obey me. She is not perfect, but I have the inner strength, matched by the physical strength, to correct her, to be loud, and un-apologetic about who is in charge here. I do these things with a smile on my face and a dress on my body, but I do these things forcefully and with great strength. I am re-habbing a wounded, emotionally scarred throw-away who laid homeless on hard floors while people said she was not worth rescuing and I am doing this with the help of an incredibly beautiful and graceful dog who happens to be a Pitbull.