Saturday, January 15, 2011

Rex and the City, Part 4 - The Country Dog Acclimates to City Life

Here is the (very belated) fourth installment of my little series about my beloved dog Wallace. In the previous installment, my boyfriend Ted and I were on the verge of taking this dog back to the shelter, because he had turned out to be more than we could handle (wild, aggressive, untrained, hostile to all dogs and humans, and slightly dangerous). But then we took the dog camping and finally saw his (Wallace’s) potential as a normal happy dog. We decided to keep him no matter what. We decided we were willing to face the hardships because we knew that beyond the hardships we would find a beautiful, rehabilitated dog, ready to accept our love.

So here is a continuation of that story:

Rex and the City, Part 4

It had been two months since we adopted our shelter dog Wallace, and in that time he had shown us affection exactly once. But when it comes to love, isn’t once sometimes enough? Last night, Wallace had pressed his body against mine while we slept at a campsite. And those few hours of closeness was enough to give Ted and me hope.

On the way home from the Catskills that fateful weekend, Ted and I stopped at a small-town diner for a late lunch and left Wallace in the car. He howled, of course, and the three customers in the restaurant turned around to stare.

“That a bird dog you got there?” one of the men at the counter asked.

“Yes,” we said sheepishly. And then we went into our now-familiar spiel about how we had just rescued him and that we suspected he had been abused because he was so hard to deal with, but we loved him nevertheless, etc., etc., etc. The waitress, one of those gruff, big-bosomed, grandmotherly types, smiled at us and said, “Yep. Dogs is harder than kids. But you gotta love ’em. Look at that face!” She walked over to the window and tapped on it and began to coo. “Aw, what a sweetheart!” she said. “Look at that brown and white puppy wuppy face!”

This sent Wallace into a froth of snarls and barking and scratching maniacally at the windows.

“Looks like you got a live one there,” the man said.

“That we do,” we said, but when Ted and I exchanged a look, I saw that something had changed in our attitude. Yes, we had a live one, but he was our live one and we knew from that moment on we would be fully committed to him.

Once we got back to New York City, Ted and I began to work doubly hard on turning Wallace into the Dog He Was Meant to Be. First we hired a private trainer—an eager young woman from neutral Switzerland who managed to strike a workable balance between my coddle-and-nurture training methods and Ted’s sock-it-to-'em New Skete.

Now, before we go any further, let me remind you—gentle readers—that I am currently an avid (Ted would say “rabid”) supporter of clicker-training, which is a brilliant, effective, and impeccable easy system of training that uses positive reinforcement. I have now been working with and writing about dogs for eleven years, and I see no reason why anyone should have to resort to shouting, alpha rolling, and/or choke-chaining their dogs to get their dogs to behave in certain ways. We don’t need to choke our dogs every time they try to walk in a certain direction. I’ve seen men yank harshly on their dogs’ leashes if the dog so much as looks in a certain direction. This damages our dogs’ throats, necks, and vocal cords, my friends. We do not need this Cesar Milan negative-reinforcement bullocks. Clicker training is easy, safe, fool-proof and pleasurable for your dog. This sort of positive reinforcement training is crucial when working with shelter dogs, who may have experienced abuse, neglect, or heedless cruelty at the hands of humans. So enough of the soapbox (before I get flamed!)

I am ashamed to say that, back in 1997 when we first got Wallace, I knew nothing of clicker training. Therefore I brought needless, heedless suffering upon my already traumatized dog. I am so sorry, Wallace, wherever you are. Now, back to the story:

So we had hired a trainer. And each morning Ted and I would meet her at East River Park and work with Wallace on a forty-foot lead. We worked on sit, heel, come, stay, and if Wallace’s attention strayed she encouraged us to yank violently on his choke collar and then offer praise. None of us paused to consider the incongruity of these mixed messages, and how that would affect an already confused do. No one took into consideration how hard it would be for us non-prey animals to keep the attention of a hunting dog: or, for that matter, how hard it would be for me, at that hour, to stay focused myself.

I’d always said I wanted to be a morning person--out there at dawn with the joggers, the go-getters, the high-metabolism Wall Street freaks who made gobs of money. But now that I was required to get up before seven and stand inside an abandoned soccer field, I wished I was still in bed. While the trainer talked to Ted about, say, the importance of always heeling the dog on his right side vs. left, I’d find my attention drifting off toward the other dog people, who passed beyond the fence with their well-trained dogs.

There was the tall, sleek Icelandic woman gliding by on Rollerblades with her ice-blue Weimaraner. There was the hipster East Village dude racing his Ridgeback on his bike. And then there was the perfect blond yuppie couple with their perfect blond baby and a matching yellow Lab. Every day they would appear through the morning mist like aliens from Planet Future with their high-tech stroller and their crisp, seize-the-day clothes. The Lab trotted along side them happily with a ball in his mouth, his leash slack, his focus on them. They would park the stroller under a willow tree and throw the ball for the dog exactly 30 times. The baby never cried; the dog never pooped. Then they were off again, off to their bright, promising days. I would stare after them in wonder. How did she manage to push the stroller, drink a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato and hold the dog’s leash all at the same time? How did she find the time to have a dog and a baby? Or even just a dog?

Ted would yank on my sleeve and tell me to “Pay attention!” All in all, Wallace caught on quickly to the training. He learned that for one hour every day we would take him to a certain spot on a certain leash in the presence of a certain woman and require him to be obedient. The rest of the time he still pulled on his leash as much as ever. I honestly was not enjoying this. Walking a dog, at that point in my selfish city life, felt like work. And I wanted so much for everything in life to be easy and breezy and light. And I wanted to look good doing it.

But that was not to be. Five times a day I was getting yanked through the city streets by a dog who didn’t even seem to really like me.

“Faster than a speeding bullet,” our super, Sander, would say as I got yanked down the stairs of our apartment building in the morning. “More powerful than a locomotive,” Sander would add in his deliciously ironic tone. “Able to leap out of car windows in a single bound.”

“You heard about the car window incident?” I asked, surprised. In New York, one cannot keep secrets. Especially if one lives in an old tenement building on an un-gentrified street in the not-yet-hip portion of the Lower East Side. We were a building full of young white artists, dreamers, and public school teachers in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. We did not quite fit in, and that made us all band together in familial ways.

“Oh, I heard all about that dog, all right,” Sander said with a wink.

I should point out that our super was not your ordinary gray-haired Mr. Fixit with 800 keys on his belt and stained workman’s pants. No, our Sander was a hot young poet/playwright/Marxist with a Mohawk and his own printing press. He had a piano in his kitchen and held poetry readings in his bedroom and was so über-cool that in his presence even Lou Reed might shake in his combat boots. At night we could hear him singing show tunes through the air shaft, his warm voice curling into our windows like an appetizing scent. Ah, Sander.

Secretly I had a crush on him, so in his presence I got tongue-tied and turned red. In his presence Wallace always took gigantic poops on the sidewalk, which I then I had to stoop down and pick up using a plastic bag. (This made Ted laugh for hours on end, for he knew of my crush and loved to tease me about it).

Once, just as I was carrying a bag of poop to the outside trash can, Sander appeared, wearing a pair of workman’s gloves, a white tanktop, and a pair of overalls, with one of the straps sexily undone. I felt bad that I was placing shit into a barrel that he would be required to empty.

“Things seem much better,” Sander said to me that day.

“What seems better?” I asked, a bit alarmed. You see, in New York City, all your neighbors can hear your arguments, and for the past few weeks Ted and I had been having huge ones about how best to handle the new dog. But we hadn’t argued for at least two days which seemed magnanimous.

“Your new dog,” Sander said. He seems like he’s chilling out.”

I smiled, relieved. It was true. As the weeks passed, Wallace was becoming more and more dog-like. He stopped to sniff more often on our walks through the neighborhood and began to mark. Up until then he would squat to pee, and let it all out in one sitting, as if this were the one and only chance he’d get. Now he lifted his leg like a boy-dog and took his time. I can’t tell you how joyful that made me feel. Just that one tiny change meant to me that whatever we were doing was working.

And even though it still wasn’t easy to walk him, he at least began to acknowledge that we were there at the other end of his leash. That in itself—just the fact that he would turn his head toward me sometimes while I walked him, began to make dog-walking more fun.

I wouldn’t say Wallace had taken a total liking to us yet, but his seething, misguided hatred of us had definitely toned down. Sometimes, in the apartment, he would allow us to pet him and praise his patrician good looks; but he still wouldn’t look at us, nor offer any affection in return. But at least he wasn’t cowering so much. Slowly, we seemed to be earning his fractured trust.

And sometimes, when I paused from writing at the computer, I’d feel him watching me, as if trying to figure out exactly what my role was in his life. “I think you’re starting to like me,” I’d say, my eyes still on the screen. “Yes, I think you are.” But when I turned to smile at him he’d quickly look away and pretend to be consumed with licking his paws.

And while Wallace was becoming a dog, we were becoming dog people. The city was full of them—I had just never really noticed before. And now they all gravitated toward us and stopped us on the sidewalk to say hello. They’d address Wallace first, and after he recoiled from their outstretched hands or barked at them or their dogs and/or lunged at their throats, we would go into the “he’s a rescue dog” spiel and nine times out of ten it would turn out their dog was a rescue too. Or liberated from a junkyard. Or abandoned on the streets.

We found, in our neighborhood, an entire support group of young and old people who had gone through what we were going through. And most of them were visibly insane. One such neighbor—a weathered man in his fifties—wore marching-band jackets and painted his fingernails pink. He rejoiced every time Wallace barked at him. “What a wonderful dog!” he would shout from across the street. His three dogs—whom he called his children—would bark back at us, and everyone would have to shout to continue the conversation. “My children bark at everybody and Mother of Mary I prefer it that way,” our neighbor would say. “I got mugged back in the Seventies when this place was a festering drug pit, and then I went straight to the ASPCA and adopted my children and that, thank the Blessed Mother, was the end of that. Your dog was definitely abused.”

“How can you tell?” I said.

“Look at him! He has no hair around his neck. It’s all worn away.”

Ted and I looked at each other guiltily. “We did that,” I said. “It’s from his choke collar.” I waited for this dear man to curse me for being cruel.

But instead he said: “Ah, you’re good people, I can tell.” He paused to wheeze. “It took one of my children three years to figure out this leash-walking ordeal. Patience is all it takes. Patience and a no-pull harness.”

Ted and I smiled as we walked away. A stranger had called us good. Could it be true?

I thought about how rapidly our lives had been changing since we got Wallace. Up until then both Ted and I had been devotedly, almost rabidly pursuing our careers and following our bliss. Now we were following some mad dog’s rump.

I was so encouraged by the Marching Band Man’s compliment I decided to take our relationship to a new level.

“Let’s take Wallace to a café,” I said to Ted.

I had always wanted a café dog—a dog who would sit placidly under the table while my lover and I nibbled each other’s earlobes and sipped white wine. You know, like in Paris.

“I don’t think he’s quite ready for that yet,” Ted said. He was always the voice of reason. Blast him.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “Please? We’re good people.”


I finally convinced Ted to take us to Benny’s Burritos—a Mexican restaurant with sidewalk tables that faced a relatively quiet street. Our waitress had the innocent, pouty-lipped look of Liv Tyler, and when she saw Wallace she gasped in sweet, childlike wonder and sunk down to her knees. “What a beautiful dog!” she said. I started to tell her that Wallace had been abused as a pup, that he was afraid of people, that he might bite, but hers was the sort of beauty that healed wounds and opened doors, and Wallace melted beneath her touch. He spread himself beneath the table, head on paws. I was so proud of our beautiful dog. And proud of us for having chosen him.

“He likes you!” Ted said giddily to the waitress.

When I saw Ted sneaking a peek down the waitress’s shirt, I said, rather testily, “Could we order some drinks?”

, Ted felt we should order our food right away as well. “Just in case. Wallace is being good now, but I don’t want to push our luck.” So we put in our orders for giant stuffed burritos.

Our drinks came first—big, salty Margaritas on ice—along with a bowl of tortilla chips with salsa, and as I took a sip of my drink I had one of those moments when you realize you are exactly where you want to be at that particular time. I was at a sidewalk café on a beautiful summer evening with my handsome boyfriend and our handsome dog in the most magnificent city in the world.

“I’m happy,” I said, meaning it. How glorious it was to finally have a cafe dog after all these years! But then a homeless man came up to our table asking for change. Ted said we didn’t have any. All we had was a fifty-dollar bill with which we planned to dine. The man continued to beg of us however. And thus. Wallace’s fur began to rise. Ted noticed and shouted, “Hold on to him, Lee!” but before I could, Wallace had already sprung into action, tipping the table over as he lunged. Immediately Ted caught Wallace by the collar, and the homeless man shuffled away, but still. Our complimentary bowl of tortilla chips had crashed onto the pavement, our drinks had spilled, and a bottle of hot sauce had rolled off the curb, making its way up First Avenue as if fleeing the scene.

“Oh dear,” our waitress said, arriving with our order. “Should I wrap this up to go?”


Ted and I didn’t speak on the long walk home, but I know we were both thinking the same thing: “He’s your dog.” Once again I was unhappy with my choice and with my life. And yet, when we turned the corner that was our block, there was the marching-band man out walking his children. He looked so content, so deliriously happy. Like a true New Yorker. “Have a fabulous evening!” he shouted from across the street. “And God bless you for saving that beauuuuutiful dog!”

Ted and laughed and joined hands. Sometimes, in New York, you need someone else to tell you who you really are. And we were ready to listen.

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