26 April 2010

Screw the storms—We’re not afraid!

As so many dog people know, spring storms bring more than just flowers. For many canines (and subsequently the people who love them), they can also bring hours of stress and fear…and potentially time under a bed, in a closet or some other safe place. Not surprisingly, this has been the case from the start with Toni (also not surprisingly, Téa doesn’t even twitch an ear at thunder, lightening, gale force winds or any other act of nature).

Like many dogs, Toni will do her best to get as far away as possible from the sound of the rain and thunder, and hopefully block her line of sight to the lightening as well. Given that we have 12-foot windows and an open loft floor plan, this can be a bit of a challenge for her.  Not long after Toni moved in with us, I was on the phone with a friend when I realized that Toni had disappeared. It’s nearly impossible to hide birthday presents around here given the lack of doors on closets. I couldn’t imagine how I might have lost an entire 75 pound pit bull. I looked under the couch on which I was sitting—nothing; under the bed—just a dust bunny. I even looked on the balcony, just in case I had accidentally locked her out hours earlier. Empty. I didn’t have to look in the closets—I could see right into them from across the condo. I hung up with my friend and started calling out to her, but heard not a peep in reply. Finally I went into the bathroom—not to look for Toni, but because nature was calling. While I was there, I heard a little rustle-rustle-clink. This became identified as the rustle of a brindle butt, the rustle of a wet nose on our shower curtain and the clink of a nail on the tub. I admit, if I couldn’t find her in the shower, there was a good chance the scary storm wouldn’t have found her either. It’s become her first line of defense when things get rough outside, maybe because it’s the only room with a door and because it provides no visual to the storm. We’ve even gotten into a routine: when rain is predicted, a thick towel goes down in the tub, the light is always left on, even at night, and if there is thunder the fan goes on to provide white noise. We also used to leave a trail of biscuits from the tub back to the couch to reward her willingness to venture forth, but Téa tends to snatch those up as a reward for not being afraid of the storm, so we had to stop.

Before we got the storm routine down, though, I was out once when a massive storm hit. It was a fairly unexpected and when the first thunder clap made most of the people I meeting with jump at the sound, I literally interrupted the speaker while simultaneously jamming my papers into my bag and pulling my keys out of my purse. “Sorry! I absolutely have to go now. Please send me the meeting notes.” And I ran out. When I opened the condo door about 10 minutes later I called out. No answer. I checked the tub, but it was empty. What the…? It was a whimper I heard this time, and a little scrabbling of nails on something. I finally found her—jammed under the bed. It didn’t take long to realize that whatever act of sheer terror managed to get her under there, there was no way she was going to be able to get herself out. And if you hear sometime when I am old and feeble that I am also suffering from some sort of debilitating back problem, know that it is probably the result of the this incident, which was only resolved when I lifted our (massive) bed up about 10 inches from the ground with one hand and then pulled Toni out by the scruff of her neck with the other. Two nights later when I realized she was attempting to get herself back under the bed at 3 AM, I made a mental note to pull several heavy boxes out from storage and relocate them under the bed to ensure there was no space left for a large, terrified dog under there.

So, when I read about a product that worked wonders with a storm-traumatized shelter dog at Best Friends Animal Shelter, I figured we might as well give it a try.  (For those of you who don’t know Best Friends, you should. Among other amazing work, this is the group that lobbied to save the group now known as the Vicktory Dogs, survivors of Michael Vick’s Bad Newz house of terror. Best Friends has helped re-socialize, de-traumatize and otherwise ensure that they will never know a minute more of the nightmare that Vick funded and managed.) The product, called Drama-Trauma, is made by Black Wing Farms, and while it appears to be a homeopathic combination of flower extracts and the like, I am certain that it is some sort of canine martini—a really good, extra dry, nerve-calming canine martini.

I’m not even going to regale you with boring stories of how well this little bottle of calm works, I’m just going to direct you to the photo below (taken after three straight days of storms) and let you know that while there was indeed a towel in the tub all weekend, it remained dog hair free. 

(Of note, in addition to Drama-Trauma, Black Wing Farms makes other formulas to deal with issues ranging from focus to integration to lack of courage. There’s even a shelter blend formula specific to separation anxiety, which is an incredibly common issue for rescues. Black Wings Farms is my hero. Seriously.)

22 April 2010

At least she knows the rules

When we’re trying to get a message across that there is unwanted behavior happening, we take away the item of interest, stop the activity or otherwise shut down the catalyst that is causing the problem. Whatever it is, access to it is given back to T2 when they’ve stopped the naughty behavior. The catalyst may be a toy that’s prompted a quarrel. It could be access to the couch (which is not a jungle gym, though sometimes it is mistaken for one by T2.) Lately the catalyst list also includes the balcony, which is the site of excessive barking at neighboring dogs, people parking their cars in the lot three floors below, leaves that blow past and, one day, the cats from two doors over who were making their way to our balcony via the exposed structural beams between units.

Pit bulls are smart dogs, bred to please their people. T2 are good girls and we know that they genuinely want to do the right thing, even if they sometimes get sidetracked. So lately, though Téa cannot resist the need to bark at things outside, she has added a new twist to her routine. She will patiently wait and wait for something (hopefully the new dog right next door) that deserves her attention and is worth the repercussion. She will bark, once, twice, maybe three times—a little aggravated ridge of fur standing on end along her neck, tail straight out (at least as straight as it goes) making tiny, agitated helicopter circles. Then she will whirl around and bound back inside, waiting for us to close the door behind her. She’ll stand with her nose pressed against the glass in the door as if she’s been brought in against her will and wait to be let out again. When we open the door after a minute or two, the whole process starts all over again from the beginning.

But at least we’re clear that she knows the rules: no barking on the balcony or you’ll have to come in.

19 April 2010

Adventures in dog walking

I scheduled a minor surgical procedure recently and was told to refrain from exercise for two weeks afterwards. Of course I had to ask if dog walking really counts as exercise (especially when it involves Toni, who prefers to move forward as slowly as possible to avoid missing any tiny smelly bits of scent from a dog who walked the same path six weeks ago). “Well,” said my doctor, mostly likely with visions of puggles dancing in his head, “it’s not like you have two Dobermans, right?” Ummm, no. Two pit bulls. “Absolutely not.”

Because I work from home, our use of dog services is based on choice rather than necessity. We do like our dogs to socialize in safe, supervised environments. Because dog parks do not count as safe or supervised in our opinions, T2 go to a pit-friendly dog daycare on Mondays. We occasionally go out of town for short or long periods of time, during which our daycare becomes sleepover camp. This is a better option for us than dogsitters given that our dogs are excessively pampered in terms of the amount of time they are used to having a human at home with them (usually me) and given their unique personality quirks. We have also never had a dog walker—we go the old fashioned route and walk them ourselves (easy to manage even during the week with the home office situation).

It turns out dog walking services are a bit tough to come by if you a) have two pit bulls, and b) only want to use up a high value timeslot in the middle of the day for just two weeks. I was lamenting our situation to our friend Sara one day. I was really just sharing a “gosh, what are we going to do now; I hope we figure it out” kind of story. Really; no subliminal messages involved. But Sara is the kind of person who is really there for her people, no matter how inconvenient to her own life it may be. So “of course,” Sara offered to run over to our place on her lunch hour every day to help walk the dogs. (My doctor only said I couldn’t walk two pit bulls; I’m sure if I had asked about walking just one, he would have said it was a fabulous idea.) Let me give you a little background on Sara: Sara is generally uncomfortable around most dogs, regardless of shape, size or temperament. T2 may be the only exceptions. Sara once nearly had a heart attack right in front of me when a Great Dane came out of a door we were standing next to, whereas I wanted to fling myself onto its back and give it a giant bear hug…and then maybe go for a ride. Sara also once woke up on a friend’s couch in the middle of the night with a pit bull, we’ll call him Cujo for the sake of this anecdote, approximately three inches from her face. Cujo was staring intently at her and growling that low, slow warning noise that dogs will give you when they are about to turn you into prey. Though Sara is not fluent in Dog, she is high on self-preservation instincts. She spent the rest of that night in a locked bedroom with moving boxes stacked against the door for added protection. So really, for Sara to make an offer to help walk T2 for a week or so was beyond thoughtful. And when I realized I had no other options and would have to accept, it made me appreciate her even more than usual (which is saying a lot). It also prompted me to promise to send her back to her office with lunch every day, courtesy of the kitchen at Chez Julie (that’d be me).

Fast forward to our first day of tag team dog walking. Sara arrived as planned…sick as a…um, forgive the pun, sick as a dog and sore from some serious heavy lifting over the weekend. This did not bode well. Téa realized we were about to go out of the condo for some reason and began her little hop-skip-jump dance. Toni realized we were about to go out of the condo for some reason, but that the routine was off-kilter because we had a spare person going with us and promptly sat herself down to indicate that there was absolutely no way she was participating in this shady adventure, which was sure to end in disaster. Off we went anyway, Sara with Téa in hand and me with Toni reluctantly in tow. We arrived at the stairway/elevator lobby of our floor. Shall we take the stairs? No, we can’t—Toni doesn’t like those stairs. We think it’s because of the red paint. We took the elevator to the lobby, where Sara and Téa turned expectantly and reasonably toward the front door. Oh wait, we have to use the weird side entrance near the garage because Toni won’t go out the front door at lunch time. A minor delay ensued as Toni sat down again just before we exited the building, reiterating her concerns regarding our outing (which she expresses daily, though no one has ever once decided she’s right and that we should just go back to the condo). I employed my shepherding techniques and we were off.

Téa quickly realized she had a mere amateur at the other end of her leash and took the opportunity to practice her zigzagging technique, sling-shoting  from curb to building and back again at the expense of Sara’s equilibrium, Toni’s comfort zone and my patience. She also decided that if the walker was an amateur, she shouldn’t show off what a good dog she’s become on a leash, she should instead revert back to the days when she was an amateur on a leash herself. She demonstrated this by pulling forward as quickly as possible, as hard as possible, accenting it all with a combination of choking and squeaky squeals. Sudden lunges were also part of the routine, and while Sara is athletic and can normally hold her own, I’d say she was yanked up and over two feet or so at least a dozen times each walk. Sara is also aware that Téa is leash aggressive, which may have been the part of this set-up that had us both worried the most. Luckily, we have a routine down that allows us to randomly cross the street about 30 feet before we cross paths with other dogs, so though there was a lot of unexpected street crossing, there were no incidents to report involving Téa maiming any small animals.

There was one man and his pit mix, though, who seemed to be crossing the street toward us in order to take advantage of the trash bin we were about to pass (we assumed this because he looked to be holding a full bag of dog poop). So the four of us stepped to the curb to cross in the opposite direction; but the man and his dog froze. So we waited, during which time Téa began to launch her unworldly howls while Sara and I simultaneously muttered, “Come on, cross the damned street already.” But he didn’t. So finally I asked what his plan was. Turns out he likes to introduce his little brindle to other pit bulls he happens on. She has a habit, only with other pits, of doing a little play bow and then locking arms with them in a way that looks like a cross between a bear fight and a waltz. You can image the horrible images that went through our heads as we envisioned what would happen if we let Téa get involved in that sort of scenario, but I was more than happy to run across with Toni, who appreciated the play bow but appeared to think the waltz part was a bit too much on a hot day. After Toni and I parted ways with the man and his little brindle, we looked around for Sara and Téa. Nothing. Weird. What in heaven’s name could Téa have done to Sara in such a short time? We only had out backs turned for a minute! Her dad is going to kill me when he finds out we lost Sara. Funnily enough, as soon as Toni and I crossed the street, we found them. Though I hadn’t told her, Sara knew enough to take Téa out of the line of vision of us engaging with, horror of horrors, another dog. They were crouched down in the shade, neatly blocked by a sedan parked in front of them. It led me to suspect that Sara might actually be a little bit of a dog person after all…or maybe it was just those self-preservation instincts kicking in again.

14 April 2010

A park is not a dog park

Toni, Téa and I just got back from the park—not a dog park, just a regular park. The gates are not secured. In fact there aren’t gates—just fences with openings that allow people to come and go. There is a basketball court, tennis courts. There is a popular children’s playground and lots of grass. There is not a specific area enclosed for, dedicated to or safe for dogs.

So I cannot for the life of me figure out why people who seem to care about their dogs take their dogs to this particular not-a-dog park and let them off of the leash. Certainly some of these dogs are well-trained dogs who stay with or return to their people when called. Others are old dogs who are simply happy for another opportunity to walk through the grass or snow in their bare paws, with a little tree sniffing thrown in for good measure. But many of the dogs, most of the dogs that I encounter when we are at this not-a-dog park are not well trained. They do not obey their people when called. This isn’t particularly surprising when their people don’t sound much like they mean it: “And then I said…. Hang on. Ziggy. Ziggy, no… He never listens. Anyway, so I said…. Ziggy, I said no. Honestly, he’s terrible.” So I am not surprised, nor should they be (though they always seem to be), when their dogs also do not come when it actually matters.

The reason dog parks were created are very good ones. Dogs need space to run and play. People who own dogs do not always have access to a private, spacious area for that to happen. Dogs do not always come when called, so a safe, enclosed environment is a good way to ensure that dogs don’t disappear into the city streets or under the wheels of passing vehicles. General parks, those not specific to dogs, were designed with people in mind. General parks, not-dog parks, belong to an entirely different category of park. Most people who go to not-dog parks do so because they don’t want to be in dog parks. This is true even of some people who have dogs.

So you can imagine the frustration of being at a perfectly nice, perfectly not-a-dog park and having to deal with dozens of dogs every week who come barreling up to us as their people stand around. Their people are half way across the park from us (and their dogs), nursing their Starbucks and watching the kids in the playground more than they are watching their dogs. We choose to go to the park at off times to avoid this as much as possible. But they are always there in some large or small number, these people who choose to put their dogs in charge of their own playtime and safety; and they all react the same way. They begin a slow amble in our direction. “Sasha. Come on, Sasha…. Sorry. She’s friendly. Come on. Saaaaasha.” Sasha never comes—they always have to come all of the way over to get Sasha/Molly/Benji/Duke. There was even the one woman who let her Chow mix make his way over to us while she continued on her own walk, making no effort to fetch her dog. This didn’t seem to be much of a problem until the Chow thing flattened his ears, lowered his head and started growling at Toni. I looked toward the woman, who just waved and said, “Don’t mind him. He loves dogs.” My response was, had to be, “I don’t think so and if you don’t come get your dog I’m going to call the police.” What else could I do? Wait to see if I was wrong?
So today it was a fluffy one. In the entire not-a-dog park there was just Toni, Téa and me, off-leash fluffy Frank (we learned), his lady and one other woman walking two Sharpeis. It’s a big park, plenty of room for all of us. We had gone to the opposite end of the park to express our disinterest in playing off-leash. No matter to fluffy Frank. He was in high spirits and looking for playmates. And as he came closer and closer, I realized his lady hadn’t even noticed he had taken off. So I used my best booming, projecting voice (and I’ve been trained to boom and project, so it’s got some serious power behind it) to yell, “HEY! Stop your dog. NOW! My dogs are NOT both friendly.”

By now fluffy Frank had zoomed around us in two circles. Téa was doing her very best not to get into trouble, but I could hear the bizarre squeaking noise she makes when she’s overly excited starting in her throat. And Toni, who forgot she was on a leash, made a move to chase fluffy Frank, yanking all three of us about 10 feet to the side. All the while, this woman, this person responsible for fluffy Frank’s well-being, never even picked up her pace from a casual walk. Fluffy Frank had now made about six circles around us and I repeated, “My dogs are not both friendly.” And she started in with the, “Frank. Come. Come on, Frank. Oh, you’re such a jerk. Frank. Back on the leash for you after this.” Except it wasn’t because fluffy Frank continued to prance and dance and bounce around just out of her reach, which made it clear that this was a regular game for them. She got a hand on Frank eventually, at which point I felt safe to turn my back on her and move away, only to have Frank make another pass around us. All the while she was like a broken record, “Frank. Bad. Come on, Frank.” I kid you not, this happened two more times.

Finally, I pointedly reminded her, “This is not a dog park, you know.” And because I know people are most motivated by the things that affect them, I added, “You could get fined $500.” She just stared at me blankly, which allowed me to realize that somehow she thought I was the one who was out of line. (I’m still trying to figure out how that could be the case.)

After she left, the woman with the Sharpeis came up—at a respectful distance. “That was despicable,” she said. I liked her already because she used the word despicable. “People do that at this park all the time. And then you’re the one who gets pulled around by your dogs, and your dogs are the ones who get in trouble because you’re trying to control them in a situation that they shouldn’t be in anyway. It happens all the time. I’m going home to call the police. You should, too.”

I didn’t call the police, at least not this time. It was over, and fluffy Frank and his careless lady had already gone home. All we had wanted to do was go to the park; not the dog park, because that’s not the kind of park we like, and yet somehow that’s where we ended up.

13 April 2010

Why we can't say no

My brother, who also has a pit bull, has a theory about why those of us who love them, love them. He thinks it’s because their faces are so expressive, and I can’t disagree with that. I mean, let’s face it: basically, Bulldogs always look a little pissed off. Even when they’re happy. And labs—apologies to any Labrador owners out there—labs always look insanely happy and a little dense. But with our girls, we do get a wide variety of expressions: happy, concerned, curious, naughty, perplexed, hungry, frightened, surprised, sheepish. I could go on and on about all of the things I think our dogs are expressing to us, so I guess my brother might be on to something.

But for us, when we adopted our first pit bull, I don’t think we had any idea that we were really bringing home more than just a dog. Because when you have a pit bull, you are suddenly part of this huge secret society that you didn’t know existed. You see other people with pit bulls on the street and you can’t help but feel like you already like them. Just because they have a pit bull. I never felt like that when I had Golden Retrievers. And it’s not just me—people stop me all the time to tell me about their pit bulls and admire ours. I’m starting to think we should come up with a secret handshake and a password, just to make it official. And thankfully, in just the three years we’ve had pit bulls, our secret society is getting bigger and bigger, which means more and more pits are making it into happy homes where they will be loved and treated like part of the family.

The other thing that is unavoidable when you have a pit is dealing with the overwhelming information that comes from everywhere about what happens when pits live in the wrong environment. I can’t even really call it a home—it’s just the wrong environment. We all know the stories about the fighting, the vicious training techniques, the starvation and so on. That is not what pit bulls are about. It’s not what they were bred to do, not matter what you read in the papers. They are so good at fighting because they were bred to be people pleasers
to put the needs of their owners above their own. So if a pit’s owner wants him to fight to the death, that’s what he’s going to do. Even in nature, dogs will show mercy and stop a fight as soon one dog backs down. The whole idea of fighting to the death is purely man-made.

As a result of these types of stories, and of picturing our own sweet dogs in the wrong hands (which they both were at some point), I’ve gotten involved in all sorts of volunteer activities I never imagined I would participate in. I’ve gone to adoption fairs to show off available pits. I’ve gone into the public schools to talk to seventh graders about why fighting dogs is wrong. We’ve sent our own dogs to stay at their daycare for nearly a week while we took in an abandoned pit who needed somewhere to go. She was literally given to our friend on the street because some guys felt sorry for her after her owners kicked her out of their apartment. She was left to live in the hallway of the building or be let out to fend for herself. You don’t often hear about Dachshunds being kicked out into the world to fend for themselves, but you hear it all of the time when it comes to pit bulls.

And don’t even get me started on the addiction to pit bull paraphernalia. We have the books, the posters, the t-shirts, the pet portraits, the coffee mugs and more. We even have stamps featuring T2—used for special occasions only, of course. Seriously, if they were Poodles or cats instead of pit bulls I think we’d get a lot more grief from what would be left of our friends. But something about it being a pit bull obsession seems to make it okay.

Which is why this blog was written, and why I hope it was interesting enough to you that you’re still reading it. My husband and I seem incapable anymore of saying no to anything that might help pit bulls regain their reputation as loving and admirable family pets. We will bore our friends and acquaintances with stories; we will talk to strangers we would normally prefer to avoid; we will attend events and spend money that would do better in our savings account. And we will continue to do so until pit bulls are no longer tortured, reviled and ostracized for simply existing.

12 April 2010

And Téa

In the movie The Sound of Music, there is a scene in which nuns musically lament the character of their fellow nun Maria, played by Julie Andrews. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” they ask. They call her a flibbertigibbet, a darling, a demon and a lamb, among other things. It’s not my favorite song in the movie, but having said that, there are many times when I look down at Téa’s sassy little face after she’s done something that ranges from mildly annoying to downright blood pressure raising…and I realize that the Maria song is what is going through my head. 

Téa was meant to be a temporary addition to our family, an opportunity to help a dog who needed help and a means of distracting Toni from her neuroses for a while. We specifically discussed a small dog (with just 1,000 square feet of city living for two humans and one human-sized dog—we really meant it when we said no more big dogs). We swore up and down that we were absolutely. not. under any circumstances. considering this newcomer as anything other than temporary. We were certain that we would not become smitten with a small dog anyway, so we weren’t very concerned.  

In all fairness, even as Téa (then called Nilla) was brought out to meet me, at 45 pounds she did actually seem small compared to Toni. But I probably didn’t even notice because she has one of those mush muzzles that just makes you want to grab it and squeeze it so she knows how adorable she is. And her little butt couldn’t stay still because her tail was going so hard. And her tail didn’t go back and forth the way you expect, it went in circles (probably due to the kink that we suspect is a poorly healed break) in a way that truly made it look like a helicopter. Did I mention those droopy eyes? It was all I could do not to toss her in the car before someone said I couldn’t have her. Between us, here’s the truth: Before I even called Chris to ask him to meet her after work, before we knew if she and Toni got along, before we knew what she was really even like…I stopped and bought her a (very cute) new collar. It was all over as soon as I swiped my credit card.

Téa has been an adventure of an entirely different sort than Toni. Nothing frightens Téa, not even the things that should. She is 100 percent excited about the things that excite her. This includes the realization that we are about to go out into the hall of our condo building. Whether we are actually leaving the building or just going to the trash chute, Téa does a little hop, skip and a jump the whole way, looking over her shoulder to be sure we are as excited as she is. It includes catching up to Toni if Toni has been allowed to walk more than half a pace in front of her. It includes visitors of all sorts—she has not yet met a guest who did not make her almost excited enough to vomit on him (and sometimes exactly that excited). She is delighted to be invited to sit in someone’s lap. She won’t just set herself daintily or crawl up with restraint. She flops, often followed by a little butt wiggle dance to be sure she has your attention. Her favorite toys are the ones that Toni won’t even acknowledge anymore—fluffy toy carcasses that she shakes and tosses as if they might try actually try to make a run for it.

Téa is also 100 percent excited about the things she does not like. Obviously this is not as endearing a quality as some of her others. It turns out there are many things she does not like. She does not like to wait for anyone who walks slower than the speed of light and used to do her best to bring us up to speed when we first brought her home. She does not like squirrels. She expresses this via a strange, primal, unworldly noise that can be heard for blocks. A friend heard it once and later told us she had thought that a cat had caught a rabbit and was torturing it to death. Téa is absolutely disapproving of small dogs—make that small dogs and fluffy dogs. If you are unfortunate enough to be a small, fluffy dog, she cannot even recognize you as a fellow canine. We think she might just consider you a squirrel whose hairline hasn’t receded to its tail yet.  She also doesn’t like dogs who stare at her, who bark at her, who bark at anything around her, who seem to be having more fun in the park than she is, who are interested in whatever kind of fun she is having…you get the idea. For a while, when she could not rid the world of these supposed vermin (also known as other people’s cherished family pets), she would do what any unruly, immature child would do—she lashed out at the closest thing she could reach. And like a three-year-old who hits her sister because she can’t have an ice cream, she would turn her fury on Toni, who was really just trying to have another sniff at the bush we were passing. Toni did her best to be tolerant, but one can really only take so much unjustified abuse before one decides to defend oneself. I’ll just remind you that Toni is about 25 pounds heavier than Téa and a good several inches taller; you can figure out how things were finally sorted out and Téa learned to control her temper. This is part of why Toni and
Téa work so well together as a pack—Toni's maternal instincts outweigh her neuroses and meet Téa's need for some good old fashioned mothering.

At this moment, Toni lies sleeping with her face jammed up against the back of the couch—if she can’t see the scary world, maybe it can’t see her either. Téa has her face jammed up against Toni’s (substantial) rear end, alternately snoring and making the little satisfied sighs of contentment that we’ve come to love.

And this is how it is at our house now, with our two big, scary pit bulls.

Meet Toni

I know some people believe in love at first sight and some do not. I can fall into either category depending on my mood—I’m a little fickle that way. But I can’t deny that for us, if it wasn’t love at first sight when we first saw Toni, it was certainly as close as you can get to it otherwise. 

Toni was only the second pit bull we met when we began the search for our first canine family member together. Chris, my fiancé, had become smitten with American Pit Bull Terriers (APBT) and the rest of the pit bull family (including Staffordshire Terriers and Bull Terriers and others) when he met my brother’s little brindle, Pearl. This, of course, led to the classic puppy-as-a-birthday-present surprise. Except that she wasn’t a puppy; she was more like a massive, full grown, sweet beast of a dog surprise. 

Toni was part of a new program started by one of the large, popular animal shelters in Chicago. The first pit they brought down to meet us was nine months old. He sniffed distractedly in our direction, obviously smelled no treats on our persons and then took off in a gallop to circle the storage room we were in (which he circled continuously until he was escorted out 20 minutes later). He was handsome, to be sure, in his gangly, coltish way. But as I pictured my glass coffee table, antique side tables and the three flights of stairs we would be (specifically, I would be) running each night until he was fully house-trained, I admit I was a little hesitant.

They brought Toni in next. Chris had seen her photo online and glimpsed her in the exercise yard when he stopped to make our meet-and-greet appointment. He was smitten before he’d even been properly introduced. She is a big girl, all brawny chest and sleek muscles underneath a gleaming brindle coat. Her poor ears are cropped, adding to her tough appearance. But those eyes—soft as warm caramel sauce. She was so gently regal when they introduced us. She swung her torso around and leaned a little against our legs, then gave us each a respectful hand sniff before sitting down with her chest puffed out, surveying the room and the people in it like a queen surveying her court. We were in love.

Toni is as dignified a dog as I’ll probably ever know. She is always reliably well mannered, treating animals and people with equal respect.

She is also nearly always on the verge of being petrified. Our thinking is that she was kept in some level of solitary confinement, possibly in a basement where the noise level was also at a minimum. As a result, in addition to coming to us with no idea of how to use a toy or what it’s purpose might be (other than to act as a teeny tiny pillow for her chin, in the case of stuffed squeaky toys), she also had a high level of anxiety in response to…well, nearly everything. She doesn’t like trucks at all, or buses, motorcycles, trash trucks, loud cars. Hell, she often doesn’t even like quiet cars. She is easily startled by plastic Walgreen’s bags that tumble silently down the sidewalk. She doesn’t like sudden movements. Chris came home one night while I was out and found her with the trash tipped over. He was having a chat with her—really it was probably more like soliloquy—about all of the amazing toys we had bought for her that were probably a better use of her time and energy than a trash bin that didn’t even have any food in it. As he was talking, he slipped off a shoe. Toni skittered backwards and away in a flash until she was cowered in a corner as far away as possible. He put his shoe back on, slipped off of his chair and slid across the floor to sit with her until she calmed down again, but I cried that night when he told me. It breaks my heart to think of someone beating that automatic fear into her. She is similarly disturbed by belts being taken off, boxes being ripped apart for recycling, mobile phones dropping on hardwood floors, paper shredders and any other noise that seems unexpected to her. We try to warn her, but…well, she doesn’t speak English.

On the other hand, Toni is as sweet a soul as you’ll ever meet. She loves children and will put up with all sorts of annoying behavior from them. (I think she’s better than I am with children, to be honest.) She has even been known to settle herself down as a maternal barrier between a baby on the floor and two rambunctious dogs who were more intent on playing than on watching who or what they were ramming into.

She enjoys most dogs she meets, really only becoming uncomfortable around loud or aggressive dogs (which are often the same dogs). She especially loves puppies. When she has been boarded for a while, if she gets a little tired of all of the activity she will sometimes get to spend some time with the puppies. She can snuggle and nuzzle and gently correct their puppy manners and is happy as can be.

She met her first cat after she came to live with us. She would have been great with cats. Unfortunately the first cat she met was Edgar. Edgar is a large, cranky old cat—larger than many small dogs I know and crankier than most old people I know. Toni was absolutely certain that they would be great friends, though I can see how Edgar might not have been of the same opinion. So though he tried to warn her, apparently she also doesn’t speak Cat. When he sunk his claws into her thigh, she did what she was supposed to do—she ran. Unfortunately, Edgar hadn’t had time to remove his claws yet and they went sailing across the floor together, which did nothing to help the negative and lasting impression he made on her regarding cats. (Since then, the only cat she has truly relaxed around was a wonderful, wisp of an old feline named Socrates. Of course, Socrates was so old by then that she might not have even fully recognized him as a cat anymore.)

In fact, the only times we’ve seen Toni behave in any sort of impatient or domineering way is with her adopted sister—as older sisters do. But more on that later.