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Today I saw Randy, the homeless guy. It was Easter Sunday, and I was walking my dog Faith. Randy's dog Foxy died a few weeks ago, run over by a white van, twice, right by a lovely park with a dog run, a jungle gym, a very old rock, and a view of the Empire State Building. Earlier this week, somebody dumped Randy’s cart, which he usually kept tucked in an alley behind a church. Randy lost a lot of things, including the snow boots my husband and I gave Foxy. “God bless you!” Randy said, as my dog barked.
My father hated dogs. I feared them, and, being a daddy’s girl, I came to hate them, too. My father, who told me there was no such thing as a dirty word, and could spew beautiful, rage-filled invective for ten minutes straight, cowered when the dachshund down the block barked at him. Twenty-six years passed. My father got brain cancer. As my father lay dying, my sisters broached the subject with my mother: did she want a dog? She did. We said nothing, did nothing, until my we buried my father in his bespoke suit and fedora. Mom adopted Odie.
I hate this guy down the street, the one who lives in the $600, 000 condo called Tribeca and walks a blank-faced boxer. The Tribeca used to have two Cs in the name before the development company fixed it. : Most buildings have a gated area in the front where the garbage cans live. Not the Tribeca. The garbage cans are lined up neatly inside the drive-in garage—the thing that most buildings on our street don’t have. And the guy? He dumps his dog’s poop bag in our garbage can, or somebody else’s on the block. No guilt. Ever.
I met Lucy in 1991, when I was hired by her owner, a true crime TV movie producer who lived and worked in a gigantic loft just south of Washington Square. The producer’s children had named their dog for the crabby, duplicitous character in Charles Schulz’ comic strip Peanuts, and they were off by more than a mile. Lucy was a stereotypically sweet golden retriever who only leapt on you for the joy of it. Her only quirk was gnawing on used tampons. In the dog run, her beta shuffle drew bullies. Her greatest happiness was sleeping at someone’s feet.
Odie functioned a little like my mother’s id. He chewed up the Persian rugs my mother had grudgingly inherited from her mother-in-law. He leapt on windowsills and bayed at..whatever. In the ivy-covered backyard, he hunted and killed mice and presented them to my mother. At first, he terrified me, but then, all dogs terrified me, even this low-to-the-ground black and white beagle with a tendency towards belly fat. At first, I just put up with him. Odie wouldn’t be denied. Eventually, he began jumping on the couch when I was lying there and nestling on my stomach like a cat.
Thanks to Faith, I will always prefer larger dogs to smaller dogs. I have to work much harder to locate a small dog’s genuine personality, to see beyond the tiny wide-eyed cuteness that reminds me of children’s dolls and porn actresses. Faith is big and broad and squat and muscular, and I will never, unless I become wealthy, or befriend someone with a Gulfstream, be able to fly with her beside me. There is no cutesy poo Burberry-style carrier to tuck her in, and if there were, I would prefer that it look like a tank, not a fake purse.
Faith was fat when we got her, and we made her fatter. Not intentionally. First time dog owners, we were ignorant, grass green. We fed her bacon and wet food, bad for her stomach, but she looked so hungry. She scarfed pizza and chicken bones and the Italian bread from the two bakeries that were each a minute’s walk from our house. She snapped at pigeons. A couple of times, she locked her jaws around ancient, rancid pork bones and would not let them go until she choked on them. People asked when she was expecting, called her “Mr. Chubby.”
“What kind of a dog is that?” Our answer always depended on the way the person had asked the question. In the beginning, we recited her entire (guessed) lineage: “beagle, Labrador, pit bull,” until Jeff and I began to realize that mostly people only heard the word pit, and shut right down from there. Before we got Faith, I never noticed how often news stories made sure you knew the dog who had attacked the child or the old lady was a pit bull. How often it became a shorthand for mean and vicious: “Pitbull in a skirt,” “Legal pitbull.”
Every dog is a story. Yesterday, a lanky man in a floppy sun hat walking a wolfish aloof dog passes me. The dog’s thick black and white coat trembled in the spring wind. She scans the street, but does not meet my eyes. I stop her owner. Her name is Pipska. She is a bear dog, native to the Finnish border. The Fins and the “She’s a rescue,” the man, Charles, tells me. “She warms up slowly.” Pipska approaches my hands, but does not sniff or lick them. She looks around for prey, finds none, gets ready to move on.
My father-in-law says there were three dogs in his childhood home, a mill in Poland, near the Russian border: Spitz, Ant, and Outside Dog. Spitz for the breed, Ant for the shape and color, and Outside Dog for his place in the world, protecting the livestock. His wife, my mother-in-law, also Polish, grew up in a city where the Jews didn’t have dogs. That was a Gentile habit. My mother-in-law never got anywhere near a dog until the Nazis captured her and put her in a concentration camp. She would not pet a dog until she was in her 80s.
Rev was little and cute and evil, a Frasier dog. Liz toted him around on her shoulder like an infant. Rev was named after the founder of the breed, the Reverend Jack Russell, but there was nothing sacred about him. When people kissed, Rev snarled and snapped. He bit: a child, his owner, my best friend, all for no reason, though Liz kept trying to find one. When he lunged at my best friend and pierced her coat and her leg with his teeth, I sprung into action and lifted him off her, and flung him halfway across the room.
How different would our lives have been if Faith were a normal dog? The kind of dog you could have someone else walk, or leave at doggie day car, or at the kennel. The kind of dog you didn’t need to apologize for on the street? We definitely would have traveled more. Gone to Europe. We would have stayed out later, no longer locked into the three walk-a-day schedule. We would never have grown so close to her. We would never have had to work together, so hard, so long, training her, believing there was a good dog inside there.
Jeff is never more attractive than when he is in the middle of dog bliss, petting a dog he’s just met. Tonight he calls me from the train station to tell me that he’s met two rat terriers, nearly identical. So cute, he says. Jeff’s trips to the dry cleaners take twice as long now that the two proprietors, a mother and a daughter, own Oreo and Cookie. A few weeks ago, we went to our first pit bull meetup in Washington Square Park, and I thought Jeff was going to fall down, he was so stoned on doggy love.
Faith feels like a big dog to me, until I meet a truly big dog, like Shumbai, one of Faith’s crushes. Shumbai is a solemn tan and black Rhodesian ridgeback with a boulder-sized head, owned by an Israeli couple. Ridgebacks stalked deer on the old African plain, sight hounds, and sometimes, when I watch Shumbai watch another dog, I doubt that he is thinking, “Play.” Yet he will stand, mute, unmoving, as my relatively little dog, drunk on his smell, sticks her snout all the way into his ear canal to get at his scent. He never responds in kind.
For years Mookie and Nina, an elegant Indian couple, had two sweet dogs, but I only really got to know Burt, a Texas barn dog, in his waning years. Mookie took a shine to Faith, who loathed Burt for no good reason. So Mookie would sometimes leave Burt in the dog run to hang out and pet Faith, who was still suspicious and unpredictable. Mookie was one of Faith’s first friends. She never grew to like Burt, who, in his last years, suffered terribly from a series of illnesses and conditions that had Mookie and Nina racing to the hospital.
The Gentle Leader saved our lives. The Gentle Leader sounds like a benevolent Southeast Asian dictator, but in fact it is a loop of nylon that encircles a wayward dog’s nose, much like a horse’s halter. When we got one for Faith—beige, lighter than her tan and brindled fur, completely unchic—I must have told people “It’s not a muzzle,” about 17 million times. The idea is simple: the Gentle Leader hooks up to your leash, which you pull on only when your dog seems headed for trouble, and you lead her head away from that trouble. Good dog!
In the middle of our worst fights, Jeff would say, “I wanted a cat,” and it was true. When we first met, he had a litter box, but no cat. Yet. He’d say it when our marriage was going badly, or when Faith’s rotten behavior had worn us down, menaced a docile Golden Retriever, leapt at an innocent jogger, pooped on the rug. I was allergic to cats, and while I nearly bought a hairless cat, I learned from a similarly allergic friend that it was the combo of dander and saliva that made me itch: fur, lack thereof: irrelevant.
Tyril was our best trainer: huge, brown, lumbering, sometimes incomprehensible, but he gave us hope. Sometimes his lilting island English made no sense to anyone except Faith, who obeyed him on sight. Tyril schooled us in the Rattle of Justice, a designer water bottle we were supposed to shake at, or even throw towards our bad dog as she began to misbehave. I think Tony Robbins called such a tool a “pattern interrupt.” Tyril trained guard dogs, and admired Faith, in all her misbehavior. “She has a high prey drive,” he said. “She would make a very good drug dog.”
The process of training Faith is lifelong. I understand that now. She is a smart, restless dog who likes most people and will never like many dogs. She is not a malleable character from a Disney cartoon, she is a middle-aged dog who was probably hardwired to be alpha, somewhat trained by her first owner (I never taught her to curb herself, and yet she will, given the unusual opportunity of an empty parking space in Hoboken), clearly beat up by another dog or dogs before we got her. She wags her tail at strangers smoking. Stubborn. Mysterious. Alive. Ours.
If you like dogs, I like you better, even if you are a Republican. In fact, when Faith first began to trust people, Jeff and I had to label her new friends “Bread David” and “Republican David.” I think it cheered us up that Faith was liking enough people that we had to give them funny distinguishing names. Bread David drove the delivery truck for Marie’s Bakery, one of Hoboken’s three coal-fired bakery. He gave Faith bread. And Republican David was a finance guy who worked on his car when he wasn’t job searching. His wife was allergic to dogs.
The word for dog in Spanish is “perro.” Roll the R because otherwise you are saying the word but—“pero.” Sometimes people ask for kisses from Faith in Spanish, besitos, and she obliges them. I don’t know if she understands Spanish, or just a sweet tone, an upturned face, and murmuring, “Amor.” One of the guys on the street calls Faith “coqueta,” flirt. Last night, I watched a special on dogs where a woman in the south of Mexico breeds a nearly lost line of hairless dogs who were once considered sacred. She uses them to warm her arthritic bones.
Faith is strong, built like a tank. In Texas, I read, they have pit bulls compete not by fighting each other but by putting them in harnesses, and making them pull very heavy loads. All dogs pull, but pit bulls are artists at it. Last fall, Jeff took Faith down to the river park where she likes to bark at the waves. She lunged at the river and pulled him straight down. Jeff stayed down, stunned by the impact. Faith retreated from the waves and licked his head. Jeff had broken his ankle, but we wouldn’t learn that until later.
Faith is passionate about apples, vocal about yogurt, obliging of baby carrots. Steamed broccoli gets her going. But let’s face it: what she craves is meat. Raw, cooked, organic, McDonald’s, fresh, rotting on the dusty ground. Faith would walk through fire for a piece of meat. I love it that Faith rockets toward what she wants, regardless, even as her desire pulls my arm out of my shoulder socket. But how I love how she loves the same food every day, the same way she loves Jeff and me. Or maybe she just loves how we smell, faintly, of meat.
I don’t believe that dogs live only in the moment, or that they have no memory. Faith has a sense of history, and she holds grudges. A month will pass since we’ve walked down a particular street, and her hackles will rise as we pass a certain second story window that long ago held two crazed Boston terriers who would fling themselves against the glass in Faith hatred. And yet: Faith’s dragged me down the street in pursuit of Frank, the large black guy who served as her shelter’s assistant manager, and lovingly roughhoused with her. But it’s never Frank.
Once, Rich was an engineer for General Motors, but they laid him off. He took up dog walking. Rich is lanky and loving and he can stop a dog scuffle with a slightly raised voice. Today, I heard him call “Lex” to a barky fox-sized mutt who was getting in the face of several larger dogs, and the dog wouldn’t just stop at the command, but turn his head and make sure that Rich was noticing him, and approving. Rich drives the dogs around in a big white minivan with a paw print appliquéd on the back. Foxy loved him.
Dogs chose us, the Nova documentary on Sunday said. We didn’t choose them. Back when dogs were wolves, they lurked at the edges of primitive villages, the beginning of agrarian civilization. They raided our garbage dumps, picked at the bones of the animals we ate. Omnivores. And then sometimes a man or woman would try to shoo the wolves away. The wolves that didn’t run, the wolves that broke their conditioning to stay, perhaps to be touched, perhaps to be killed: these were the first proto-dogs. And then the first bold proto-dog mated with the second brash proto-dog. Farewell, wolves.
Faith sighs with contentment when we stroke her belly: a deep gut breath, like a master yogi. When she gets wet in the rain, she bangs her head again my knees, half head butt, half rubdown. When we first got her, she refused to walk in the rain, and we would drag her, all 68 pounds, into the inclement weather. She is still not a rain dog, but now, thanks to her rain capes, one olive, one sky blue, she tolerates the damp, looking a little like an English nanny as she trots through the storm: Mary Pit Bull Poppins.
I find Randy sitting on the step of an Indian clothes store, recently closed, tight against another homeless guy, Charlie, who never smells very good, but always gives Faith a big smile. Randy’s got a blue rectangular pendant on a thong around his neck. He pulls it out of his shirt. Foxy’s ashes, caught in some kind of artificial amber. Randy’s clearly nervous about losing it. “She was a good dog,” I say. Charlie pipes up, “She saved my life.” Foxy liked Charlie. Once, Charlie passed out, Randy reports. And it was Foxy who licked him until he woke up.
Dogs’ names I know: Maximus, Moses, On the Lam, Caffeine, Rally, Jack, Sopris, Maddy (deceased), Burt (deceased), Odie (deceased), Rev (gone, but never forgotten), Clarence, Brendan, Lily, Lulu, Lulu, Lulu, Joe Strummer, Vegas, Sadie, Clancy, Princess, Lucy, Kenzo, Guguma (means sweet potato in Korean), Daddy, Cleo, Cody, Guinness, Guinness, Kobe, Martini, Twist, Brandy, Two Tone, Raven, Gia, Spike, Chance, Tre, Outside Dog, Spitz, Ant, Whatchamacallit, David Bowie, Lupa, Orson, Reka, Oliver, Shumbai, Blue, Gulliver, Rufus, Taylor, Joe Namath, Cosette, Valentine, Lily, Doggy, Baci, Picasso, Remy, Tucker, Stella, Cash (whose cropped ears told a story), Ginger, Kuma, Wasabi. Mac. Faith. Foxy.
Faith’s bottom is a little red today, and Jeff and I both noticed it. To have a dog with another person is to agree to a certain kind of intimacy: you have to discuss your pet’s body functions. Is she peeing enough? Too much? Where is she peeing, if you are training her not to dominate the world? What did her poop look like? Could you pick it up? How much of it could you pick up? When we first got her, Faith used to throw up regularly. Eventually, the absence of vomit from our lives became a sign of progress.
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