Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Moment You Realize Your New Shelter Dog Loves You

The Moment You Realize Your New Shelter Dog Loves You

Rex and the City

Part III: The Trial Period

It was the Fourth of July weekend of 1997, normally a time when my then-boyfriend and I would have been out barbecuing on the rooftop or having drinks with friends. Anything that involved being outside in the cool night air, basically; for Ted and I lived, back then, in a 300-square foot tenement apartment on the Lower East Side. With a new shelter dog. The fact that we now had a dog had us in shock. Still. So no fun rooftop parties for us.

Instead, Ted and I were sitting comatose in front of the television, watching a documentary on fireworks with the sound turned down. We were not habitual TV watchers per se, but there was something about having added a satanic shelter dog to our lives that made us want to prostrate ourselves in front of something that wouldn’t challenge us or make us think.

Meanwhile, on the television, a burst of green explosives lit up the TV sky, and then came a commercial for carving knives. Vegetables and fruits were chopped with alarming speed, curls of yellow peppers falling away from the knife in spirals, like fireworks, and then a fast-talking announcer promised guaranteed satisfaction over a 30-day trial period or your money back.

“You see that, Wallace?” Ted called to the dog hunkered under the computer table.

I forgot to mention that Ted and I weren’t speaking.

“You’re on a trial period,” Ted continued, still addressing the dog rather than me. “Thirty days. After that, we might have to take you back to the shelter.” He actually wasn’t joking.

“Don’t let him talk to you like that,” I said to the dog. “We’re on trial just as much as you are.” I reached over to pet my dog, to smooth back his ears, but he growled at me and ducked away.

So great. Ted wasn't speaking to me and neither was this dog.

Why were we so upset with the dog? And why were we not speaking? Well, earlier that day, Wallace had tried to escape again. (I am told that shelter dogs do this often--try to run away from their new owners). On this, this second escape attempt on Wallace's behalf, we’d had him in a fenced-in lot on Suffolk Street, and we were trying to get him interested in a tennis ball, which is what we thought all normal dogs would be interested in. But Wallace apparently had no time for games. And no interest in living in New York City. He seemed to consider himself a prisoner and thus, he had apparently scoped this abandoned lot for escape routes and had spotted on a hole in the fence in a far corner.

Meanwhile, Ted and I bounced the ball to each other at first, talking in loud, baby voices about how fun it was, and then we threw the ball for Wallace, saying “Look at the ball! Look at the bouncy wouncy tennis ball!” Ted even unsnapped the dog’s leash and encouraged him to chase it.

Wallace—intelligent, scheming creature that he was—took off after the ball and then, we swear, turned at a 90-degree angle and made his escape. He ran straight up Orchard Street and turned toward Houston.

I screamed his name in terror, but the thing was, Wallace didn’t even really know that his name was Wallace yet. He seemed to still think his name was AH1012 – the intake number he had been assigned at the shelter.

Anyway, Ted and I of course ran after the dog, shouting, crying. After a complicated, death-defying chase, which involved lots of shouting and O.J.-Simpsoning ourselves over hydrants and traffic cones, we caught him. Or rather, Ted caught him, tackling Wallace outside a bodega. By the time I reached them, Ted had alpha-rolled the dog onto the sidewalk and was clutching a hand to the dog’s throat. “Look at me!” Ted was shouting at Wallace. “You look at me when I’m talking to you!”

Poor Wallace was terrified. He had his tail tucked so high between his legs he looked as if he might swallow it.

“Leave him alone,” I said. “He’s upset.”

“You!” Ted turned to me with venom in his eyes. “You baby him too much.”

“Well, you bully him. Dogs don’t like to make eye contact. It’s not natural for them.”

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“What the fuck do you know?” Ted said. "And why did you let go of him anyway?"

"What do you mean why did I let him go. You unclipped his leash!"

"Well, you should have known there was a hole in the fence."

Inside, I was thinking: I should have known there was a hole in your heart.

Ted turned away from me in disgust and shook the dog again.

Thirty days, I was thinking. Maybe I’d go to a shelter myself. And take the dog with me.

For the past few weeks we had been doing everything we could to figure out how to handle this shelter dog. We loved him from the moment we set eyes on him, and we knew he was meant to be our dog. But still, we were slowly realizing that the dog's aggression was more than we could handle. We had never had a dog before, and we were clueless about them. Still, we tried out best.

That month, we had cancelled all social and job-related engagements, read every dog book and training manual we could get our hands on, and took Wallace to the park daily to apply what we had learned from our books the night before. The thing was, the books I favored suggested positive reinforcement, whereas Ted’s books encouraged aggressive dominance paired with punishment. My books said to reward desired behavior with treats and praise. Ed’s books said if the dog exhibited undesired behavior, you should clock the unruly dog under the jaw.

Not my style, really. I was more of a let's-talk-this-out-peacefully sort of girl. I imagined Wallace years later on a therapist’s couch, complaining about all the mixed messages his parents gave him. “I never learned how to be a good dog,” he would say. "Everything I did was wrong."

Needless to say, both Ted and I were feeling that we really weren’t capable of handling a dog. One night, Ted and I looked up Wallace’s alleged breed on the Internet. We visited all Spaniel and Setter sites and were told, repeatedly: It is cruel to keep this type of exuberant hunting dog in a city apartment. The word cruel really struck us. Wallace no longer had hair around his neck because his choke collar had pinched it all off (think Epilady). He had to walk backward out of the bathroom because there wasn’t enough room for the poor dog to turn his body around. “It’s like making him parallel park,” Ted said. Outside, on walks, poor Wallace would cut his pads on the glass that littered the sidewalk, and not even sleep gave him solace, as he would spend the nights snarling and snapping and grinding his teeth.

“Maybe we should leave New York City,” I said. “Or give Wallace to someone in the country who wants a dog.”

“But he’s not a normal dog,” Ted reminded me. “He needs professional help.”

At this, I started to cry. We all need professional help, now and then, and I loved my needy, confused little dog. He needed me. How could I ever abandon him after all he had been through?

Ted seemed to be thinking the same thing. He suggested we go camping. “Maybe all Wallace needs is some country air.”

“That’s a great idea,” I said.

We smiled at one another for the first time in weeks. It was so nice to actually agree on something.

So, that weekend, we drove to the Catskills, with Wallace howling in protest the entire way. Who knows what he was thinking--that we were taking back to a shelter? That we would dump him off the side of some highway? He kept hurling himself against the back seat and clawed at the windows, calling out in desperation to the birds overhead and the passing cars: Save me! Can’t you see I’m being kidnapped? It was like traveling with your own personal mosh pit, and by the time we reached the mountains our ears were shot, our jaws were tight and my crisp linen skirt was as crumpled and dirty as that one-dollar bill you always see in a homeless person’s bucket--the one he put there himself.

OKay, so the dogs hates b eing in cars, I thought. Just as musch as he hates being in apartments. Or maybe he simply hates being with us. And who couldblame the dog? Frankly sometimes I hated being with us too.

Once we reached the campground, however, my thoughts changed and I was hopeful again. About Ted, about Wallace, about the concept of "us." Perhaps it was he fertile smell of Silver Lake that lifted my state of mind. And Ted's too. I could see it on his face as he rolled down all the windows.

It was as if each of us saw in that shimmering water the solution to everything: the need to be cool, the need to relax, the need to be cleansed.A vacation! It's what all New Yorkers need.

We headed to this lake as soon as we had set up the campsite--Ted and I in flip-flops, Wallace on his Epilady leash. Two fishermen in a rowboat were just coming in from a day’s outing, and when they saw us at the shoreline they touched their caps. “Good-looking dog you got there,” one of them said. I smiled and said thanks.

“Are you supposed to thank people who compliment your dog?” I asked Ted, who walked far ahead of me. “because it’s not as if we birthed him.”

“Does it matter?” Ted said. He was already busy trying to coax Wallace into the water. Wallace seemed nervous as we waded in. He’d lift one paw out of the water, then another, as if trying to figure out a way to lift all four at the same time. Ted tugged gently on his leash. “Come on, boy,” he said. “Come! Come!”

“Maybe he can’t swim,” I said.

“All dogs can swim.”

“Where did you read that?”

“It’s just a fact,” Ted said.

He started to say come in a more authoritative voice, the way his MOnks of New Skete said to do it. They were the ones who encouraged jaw-punching, and I secretly referred to them as the Monks of Steel.

So as Ted called to the dog in his commanding, slightly threatening Alpha voice, I joined in using a happy, lilting voice, in the manner of my books.

As we spoke, both Ted and I waded backwards, into deeper water, tugging the dog along. But Wallace had put his emergency brake on: feet planted, body leaning back, refusing to go any further. Just then a duck flew overhead and like that, Wallace changed. He became a bird dog, arching his neck and howling in an ancient, primal way, as if calling out to his ancestors. Then he plunged in the direction that the duck had flown. He hopped through the water—his body making lovely, acrobatic arcs—and stopped (in an almost comical way) when he found himself immersed.

Then he wasn’t a bird dog anymore—he was once again a confused city dog, newly released from prison, finding himself in another new and impossible situation. A situation which was cold and wet.

Looking confused, he moved his legs slowly, then more quickly as he realized paddling would propel him forth. He seemed surprised by his own abilities and kept moving his head around, a gesture that made him swim circles.

“Look! He’s swimming!” I said. “Isn’t that cute?” My heart seemed to leap with joy –this was one of my first experiences with the true elation one can feel when witnessing dog joy, and it was exhilarating.

It wasn’t cute or exhilarating, however, when Wallace, suddenly an expert, doggy-paddled to the shore and sprinted away.

“Not again!” Ted said. He used some of his favorite swear words and waded quickly to shore.

Ted and I scrambled to pursue the dog, but given that we were both wearing flip-flops, we couldn’t run very quickly. Plus, I was not about to bounce through the woods in a bikini. O.J. Simpson, yes. Pamela Anderson, no.

Ted ran off ahead of me while I threw on my clothes. Why had we gotten a dog? I asked myself as I heard Ted’s angry voice fading farther and farther away. The answer seemed as elusive as Wallace himself. Instead of bringing us together, it seemed, the dog was wrenching us apart.

For a moment I stood there, seized with worry. The dog would fall off a cliff and get killed. The dog would get shot by an off-season hunter. The dog would get caught in a bear trap. The dog would get hit by a car. And it would be all my fault! Ted would totally blame me! I had to find him now!

I decided to go dog-hunting in the opposite direction of Ted. My instinct told me that Wallace had run east, not west. Plus, I didn’t Ted to yell at me. So I bush-whacked through the woods for about twenty minutes, listening for the dog, and after twenty minutes of searching I spotted a flash of white in some far-off woods. It was our Wallace, galloping down a hill toward a creek, and the look on his face was one I had not seen before. It was a smile. A doggy smile. He disappeared jubilantly from my sight and remained missing for another hour. Maybe he would be happier out here, living in the wilds, hunting birds.

Then Ted’s words came back to me: What the hell do you know?

Feeling worried, abandoned, and defeated, I decided to return to the car. Then, up in the distance, I saw Ted walking toward me with our dog in his arms. Ted was limping from having reactivated an old ski injury. I was limping from weeks of trying to walk Wallace on a leash.

Ted carried Wallace the way a farmer carries a lamb, and Wallace looked distinctively embarrassed by his capture. He’d been emasculated (e-dogulated?), and he knew enough not to protest when Ted put him down on top of a large, flat rock. “Get the camera out,” Ted said. “I want to take some pictures to remember him by, because on Monday we’re taking him back.”

I nodded and once again started to cry. Ted, back in those days, made all the decisions; and I was the wimp who let him.

And so, sadly, we took pictures—one with Wallace and Ted, one with Wallace and me, and then a family shot, automatically timed. You can see in hindsight how exhausted and unhappy we all were. In the group shot the three of us—young couple, messed-up dog—look like Angry White Men on an album cover. Our hard stares were aimed away from one another, as if we were each so locked into our private disappointments we could no longer reach out to people and were ready to turn to drugs.Ah, relationships.

On the way back to the campsite, I held Ted’s hand and Ted held Wallace’s leash. Neither of us spoke until Wallace stopped to poop on the pavement. This made me incredibly sad. “He’s been holding that in for hours!” I said. “Do you think he doesn’t know enough that he can go on grass?”

“Maybe he has never seen grass,” Ted said.

We both considered this. It seemed so tragic to be a dog and not know grass. To not know human love.

That night, in our tent, Ted and I both slept fitfully. I presonally felt like a horrible person--returning an abused dog to a shelter! But I had no words to express this. I worried that Ted would simply criticize me for having such feelings. For having been "stupid" enough to adopt a dog in the first place without thinking it through. I worried he would blame , even though Ted is the one who chose Wallace out of all those dogs at the pound.

Meanwhile, Wallace was outside the tent, tied up to the picnic bench (having declined our invitation to join us), and he paced around like, well, like a wild animal. “Who ever heard of a dog insomniac?” I said. Back and forth the dog paced, uttering grunts of frustration. It was like a tangible represenation of my own thoughts; my own decision.

Ted too kept shifting his position.“Maybe I was too hard on him,” Ted said finallly said after about an hour. There was a tenderness to his voice that made me remember why I had fallen in love with him.

I crawled into his sleeping bag. “Maybe I was too soft,” I said, hugging him. “Maybe we can find a way to meet in the middle.”
Finally, it felt safe to sleep.

As we dozed off, Wallace continued his nervous pacing (a sign of anxiety in dogs). It was though he also had some serious thinking to do—about his life, his career, his future. Or perhaps he had simply felt the weight of our thoughts. And wanted to get away from us—this angry, dysfunctional couple—as quickly as he could.

I could only hope that Wallace, in some moment of clarity, would recognize that we kept chasing him down because we loved him, not because we wanted to hold him back.

In the morning, as the sunlight sieved through the tent screens and the swallows chirped, I felt a strange weight on the right side of my body. I thought for a moment that I had slept in an awkward position that had put half my body to sleep, but then I realized that the pressure came from outside the tent—and that it was something large and warm. Wallace, at some point in the evening, had gotten cold or lonely and had spread himself against me. This was the first time our dog had ever really touched us. There we were, separated by only a thin wall of nylon,

“Ted,” I whispered. “Give me your hand.”

Sleepily he complied, and as I took his hand and pressed it against the warm flank of Wallace’s body, he opened his eyes.

“What’s this?” he said with a smile. And I answered: “I think it’s a normal dog, looking for some snuggling.”

And that was all it took for us to become a family.