I wasn’t doing anything with my heart at the time. And dogs are safe: Do the right thing by a dog and there will be a place for your heart.
When I first saw her, she was standing at the very back of a kennel at the animal shelter in Gold Beach, OR. I looked at her through the grille at the front of the kennel. She was a beautiful animal despite being considerably too thin, an American Pit Bull, a brindle. I had had a brindle pit many years before and am partial to them. So I went to the shelter office and tried to sign her out for a walk.
“Nope,” said Barbara, the shelter administrator. “That dog is dangerous.”
Barbara told me the dog had been brought into the shelter using a ketch-all-pole, one of those things with a loop at the end and a stick to move the animal around without letting it get near enough to hurt you. Even so, it’s hard to manhandle a 65-pound animal into a kennel, and Barbara said the dog had bitten one of the men twice.
I went back to the kennel. I looked through the grille. The dog averted her gaze, a submissive gesture, and growled softly, usually an aggressive gesture but sometimes just a statement of distrust and distress. I said something soft and easy, maybe “Hey there, sweetie pie. How you doin?” Hearing me, she crouched down, pressed herself hard into the wet, cold corner of her kennel as far away from me as possible.
“Hey there, you don’t have to be scared of me.” Her head went even further down. She whimpered, and she went on whimpering as I backed away.
It would be months before I found out what had happened to her. Someone I met recognized her. The man had been staying in a cabin in a rural area outside of town. Almost every evening since he’d arrived, he’d heard a noise that sounded like … screaming? He was busy, and it was such a faint sound. He didn’t investigate for weeks. When he finally did, he discovered that the sound was coming from a shed on a property adjoining his landlord’s property. As he got closer, he could hear a man’s voice, “Yeah, I’m gonna make you mean. Oh yeah. You’re going to be one fuckin’ mean dog when I get through with you.” And he heard a terrified puppy screaming. He would have intervened, he said, except that the property looked to be a methamphetamine lab. He got the hell out of there and reported what he’d found to the authorities. Then, he waited for another week or so until the lab was raided and the dog was let loose. She roamed about for several months, and he put food out, and finally she was caught by animal control.
Kona—so named because of her brindle color—and I began our relationship with me sitting on the cement floor outside her kennel singing nursery songs.
“Star light, star bright,” and Kona sat 10 feet away in her kennel and stared at the cookie in my hand.
“The first star I see tonight;” and on the second day Kona came forward a few feet, watching my hand carefully as I pushed the cookie through the grille.
“I wish I may,” and on the third day Kona took the cookie. And then took another. And then the next day another, chewing thoughtfully. And finally she was able to stand her ground as I slowly opened the kennel grille.
“I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.” and almost a week later Kona let me touch her.
After that progress was quick. A dog is built to trust a human, and I made sure that every move I made was slow and calm. Soon, I could go into Kona’s kennel with her, sit next to her, reach out casually and scratch her ear, and even put a leash on her. Soon after that, we were taking walks together.
I started taking her home with me at 5:00 in the afternoon when the shelter closed. I would take her back the next morning, putting her in her kennel. By 9:00 or so, Barbara would arrive and take her out to play with the other dogs in the big outside pen—this was a shelter where sociable dogs played together outside or hung out in the shelter office on a series of grungy couches and blankets. This was a shelter like shelters should be.
I had to be so careful at first not to frighten this Kona creature. She was afraid of a belt being removed from belt loops, a hand moving toward a belt, someone coming around a corner quickly, anyone holding a broom, grass moving suddenly in the wind, the vacuum cleaner wand, ball caps,… you name it, Kona was afraid of it. Early on, I established a corner of each room in the house that nobody came near, where she could hide. In the living room, it was under my desk, where she spent the majority of her time for the first four or five weeks that she was in my house.
She wasn’t used to living in a house. Dragging saliva-wet toys around only on the floor, not on the bed; waiting while the human goes through the door first; peeing only outside,… all the canine niceties were foreign to her. And training her was tricky because any admonishment whatsoever would cause her to run and hide in one of her safe corners. Sometimes, I could sweet talk her back to normalcy; other times she would be so frightened that she would be almost completely unresponsive.
Dog cookies, though, would almost always coax a positive response from her. Dog cookies are wonderful things. For various reasons, a dog may not trust a person, but a cookie is irresistible. Put the mop on the floor in the middle of the room. Put a cookie next to it. Kona enters the room, startles, backs up against the wall. Then she sees the cookie. She looks from cookie to mop, back to cookie. She’d really like that cookie, but there’s that scary mop. So, just tell her it’s OK and then let her be. Let her figure it out.
You could almost hear her think: “I’m scared. But Mom says it’s OK. So, it’s OK. I’m scared, but it’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK, Wow! I got the cookie! It was OK!”
Or sometimes I could just arrange things so they worked out well. House training, for example, had to be arranged because I had made a mistake the second day I had Kona at the house. When she started to pee in the house, without thinking I yelled, “No, no!” She bolted for her safe corner in the bedroom, I thought probably not understanding one thing about what she might have done wrong. I cleaned up the mess and then forgot about the incident. Several days later, however, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen her pee since then either inside or outside the house on walks. Instead, she was waiting until I returned her to the shelter, when she would run into the back of her kennel and pee, and pee, and pee.
I realized that what I had taught her with one misguided yell was that peeing itself was bad. What to do? I went to the store and bought a jar of chicken gravy, and the next evening mixed it with a huge bowl of water and set it before her. She drank every bit. Then, when I thought she might be getting uncomfortable, I took her out on a leash and wandered about. She was uncomfortable at first, and then she was in agony, mincing along with her back rounded and her tail between her legs. Finally, she got as far away from me as the leash would let her, averted her gaze, and squatted. I said, “Good girl, Kona,” and kept it up: “What a good girl. My sweetie pie. My good baby puppy.” How did I know she was grateful that she was not being yelled at or beaten? I don’t know. I don’t know what grateful looks like in a dog. But I knew that’s what she was feeling: grateful, and then proud of herself for having figured out that peeing outside is good. She never peed in anyone’s house ever again.
Kona is the first and only dog I’ve ever heard of who had the intelligence to think through a problem and resolve it. I loved her intelligence. I loved that she trusted me. I loved her big-pit strength, her willingness to please, the blissful expression on her face when I rubbed that groove that separates a dog’s head into two side-by-side halves. I loved that she was finally, a year after I took her into my home, a healthy, happy dog ready to be adopted.
By then, she had mastered “sit,” “wait,” stay,” “come,” “down,” “leash on” and all the elementary puppy stuff. And no matter how hungry—and this was a dog who was always hungry—she had learned not to charge the food dish but to wait politely until being invited to eat. Even more important, she also understood that the human at the other end of the leash is a fragile thing who shouldn’t be dragged about even when she’s kinda slow, and that sometimes it’s best to “heel” so you can make sure your human is OK.
As you can imagine, I wanted to adopt Kona myself. But she would always be primarily frightened of new experiences, and I was headed toward some new experiences myself that would not be good for her. So I had to let her go.
There were difficulties in finding her a home. A stranger should not march up to a large formerly abused dog, leash in hand, and grab her collar. A dog as capable as Kona will back off, and if that doesn’t work she may even apply teeth to that hand. A number of prospective owners failed at this first stage of getting to know Kona.
Two more prospective owners understood little more about dogs. One tried to keep her in a studio apartment all day while he went to work—oh dear, she ate a couch cushion again—and the other had her at a crowded dance party, where she was accidentally kicked in the head and bit back.
Finally, a year after she was up for adoption, a contractor doing some repairs at the shelter noticed that she seemed to be everybody’s favorite dog. In the morning, she accompanied Barbara on dog rounds. In the afternoon, she went off leash with dog walkers, keeping leashed dogs calm and being an example of model dog behavior. After school, she let children push and pull on her. But nobody seemed to want her. “Oh, no, too big,” they said. Or, “Pit bull, aren’t they dangerous?”
No, said the contractor, this dog is not dangerous. She’s just a dog that’s been hurt and needs to be someplace where she feels safe. And he took her home.
Almost every day for a year, I thought about Kona. I hoped she was OK. Finally, I was able to visit her. I arrived by car, got out and was greeted by the contractor in his front yard. Kona stood by his side. I called to her, “Hi, Kona! How’s my sweetie?” She looked pleased but stayed where she was. She glanced over at her human, got a nod of approval, and only then came forward to greet me.
That glance for approval, not from me but from her new human, told me everything I needed to know: This dog whom I had loved, whom I still love, was now in her forever home.