Though I have sworn off them in times of loss, I have always been a dog person. Cats are fine, I guess, but it says a lot that the one time I was fully responsible for naming a household cat, I called her Vermin.
Dogs are something else. They almost never cheat at cards. They are usually straightforward about what they want from you. Some have been known to bark at appropriate times. If they could be taught to rub our heads the way we rub theirs, they would be the perfect companions.
I’ve been around a lot of dogs. I had a job once as a kennel cleaner for a humane society back in the hometown of Visalia, a place where too many folks think it’s cool not to neuter their dogs. One summer, one of my main tasks involved euthanasia. It was not an easy job.
Later, I actually lived on the property of another humane society, this one in Chico. My first wife ran the place and we lived about 100 feet from the kennel. We did not need a watchdog of our own.
In order, the important dogs in my life were:
My grandfather’s pack of beagles, hunting dogs deep in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York. He called them all Mitzi.
The family dog when I was a kid, a neurotic cocker spaniel. We called her Mitzi, too. When we would come home, she would run around the yard in crazy circles until she collapsed, forgetting why she had started running in the first place.
Babe, a hound/shepherd mix with the world’s saddest eyes. A friend’s girlfriend said that if I didn’t take her, she’d go to the pound.
Spanky Garcia. He came from the Butte County pound. He was a lab/boxer mix with some funny biases. We thought the name might help.
Roger, a shepherd mix smarter than many people I see on TV. He was also a particularly strong swimmer. Butterfly as well as freestyle.
Ruby, the lab/blue lacy mix. One of nine from a litter delivered to the SPCA along with her mother. I wanted one of the chubbier boys but my daughter insisted that she was the one. She was the almost perfect dog. The only trouble was that she liked to explore the neighborhood, even when that meant climbing a seven-foot fence. And that she got old.
Zorro, the Queensland healer. He’s my neighbors’ dog, actually, but we fostered him for a couple years while the neighbors were living on a boat. His best quality is his contagious calmness.
Charley, the American bulldog/pitbull mix, the point of this essay, which is less breezy from here on.
I’m not entirely sure why I wanted an American bulldog. It’s probably the junkyard dog look combined with an air of general goofiness. Kind of reminds me of me, I guess. After Ruby had chased her last ground squirrel, I started looking for another dog, maybe an American bulldog, and a friend told me that a friend of hers was in possession of a pit bull that had been impregnated by a hulking American bulldog.
Like most people, I have never been a fan of pit bulls because, like most of you, I don’t like being bitten and I wouldn’t want my dog to bite someone else. However, because of my time in the world of unwanted dogs, I have paid attention to the debate over nature v. nurture in the realm of pits. Yes, quite a few pits have proved to be too aggressive, some fatally so, but the message from all those Save the Pit Bulls websites is that it is the fault of bad owners, not bad dogs. A large herd of people out there insist that if they are raised with a gentle hand instead of a spiked collar, they can be lovely companions.
So I went with Charley. I think he was 9 weeks old when we got him, large for his age but a cute as any pup, black with a white blaze. Charley had spent his earliest days with a couple of brothers and his mother, while the father was penned separately because he could get rough. Almost 140 pounds of rough. I understood that when I took Charley home. At least I thought I did.
Charley grew quickly. It was obvious he would need training, which I provided, and gentle care lest the tough side of his personality overwhelm the clownish side. He got the full soft-touch treatment, except for some corrective yelling when he was caught chewing things other than a bone. I can’t remember now if he chewed up two or three remote controls until he had finally trained us.
For most of his short life, Charley showed few signs of aggressiveness. In all, there were three episodes, the third truly horrible. Some of you will want to stop reading now.
No. 1. Charley had gone out on a walk with a neighbor and her decidedly gentle dog. They came across the carcass of a ground squirrel and Charley wanted it to himself. I wasn’t there, but I understand the scuffle included Charley biting the neighbor dog on the neck. An alarm of sorts went off in the neighborhood.
No. 2. It was months later when another neighbor asked if she could bring her medium-sized, exotic breed, solid white pup over to play with Charley. Her dog had two smaller playmates and she wanted it to get to know bigger dogs as well. Charley was definitely a bigger dog by then. Just over 100 pounds of bigger.
They sniffed each other once and the smaller dog suddenly lashed out. It was like alligator wrestling, or a washing machine filled with black and white towels. It seemed like it took five minutes for me to pull them apart but it probably was about 30 seconds. I think each dog mainly got a mouthful of fur and, remarkably, no damage was done.
After that, Charley was clearly on probation, but there were no new offenses for weeks and weeks and the neighborhood alarm went off.
No. 3. I was off somewhere when I saw the text message from a third neighbor. She liked taking Charley when she walked her own dogs because he was lively and could get the others running. The three dogs all got along great. Until this day. The text message said something, “Royal, come home. I think Charley just killed Harper.”
I raced home but too late to be of use. The remains of Harper, the 50-pound husky, were being hauled away. Charley was oblivious. I learned later that all had been going just fine on the walk until the neighbor stopped to give the dogs a treat. Charley decided it was his and his alone. I never asked for a full account. I really don’t need that image in my head. I consulted our vet and it was agreed that Charley really could no longer be trusted with other animals. Or people.
Harper was a sweet dog who did not deserve his fate. I still don’t know how I can ever make it up to his owners.
Though we are still grieving over Charley, an otherwise wonderful dog, and though I still sometimes look for him on the couch, we have brought a new dog into the house. She is a shy, little Dalmatian mix, a rescue. Her name is Daphne and I’ll let you know how it works out. No problems so far but it’s only been a week.
In the headline, I promised a message and here it is. I am not going to turn into an anti-pit activist or an anti-American bulldog activist, but I will not just go along with the “it’s not bad dogs, it’s bad owners” mantra that surrounds the bully breeds.
Animal shelters everywhere have a surplus of pit bulls and pit mixes. I don’t know if it’s because they are hard to place or if it is because too many pit owners are irresponsible about spaying and neutering their creatures. Some of both, I imagine. But I do know that I no am no longer resting comfortably on the nurture side of the divide, and that if anyone asks me if they should adopt a pit or an American bulldog or a pit-American bulldog mix, I’ll tell them there are lots of other dogs out there that need homes. And I’ll also tell them about Charley.