The Mesmerizing Hellhound

hellhoundThe first time I saw Reddog—a lean, Pit Bull mix—I peered through the haze of anxiety and heroin hangover that I then lived in, and thought: now that is a sexy dog.

His beauty is mesmerizing, with a fluidity that simply agrees with motion, as if his molecules are more tightly bound together than other creatures’—like liquid, he slipped off the couch and crawled onto my lap, throwing his crushed velvet snout over my shoulder with a throaty sigh.

Beauty like his, the kind we call sexy, it pleases some aesthetic instinct, softens something in us, makes us want to look longer, to memorize its implicit promise that there is ease in the world, that some things accord. That’s what qualifies things as sexy, isn’t it? The way they exemplify natural motion, entice you with their power to simultaneously lull and wake you, like good sex does.

And that is only his beauty. He is a profoundly sensitive beast, in many ways, an empath. When my ex (the last in a long line of temporary co-parents Red has mourned the loss of) and I used to fight, not even a real fight, just the pre-fight tautness in the air, terse requests to please let the recyclables dry before putting them in the recycling bin, Red would lay back his ears and retreat to the bathroom to curl up on the bathmat, his body an auburn donut of worry. That dog needs a meeting, I’d laugh wryly. But I’m glad that when I cry, he knows to stay close, as most dogs do.

He has only one flaw.

Here we are: the little prince (though he is not little by any stretch of the imagination, at nearly 70lbs of pure muscle) doing his fey little dance, exhaling into downward facing dog, as I collect his leash, my keys, and bags for poop.

We rumble down the stairs in a cascade of paws and feet and metallic jangling. At the bottom, I jostle him aside with my hip to crack open the front door. I poke my head out, blocking the doorway with my body. Look left. Look right. All clear. And we are off, down the stoop steps, onto the dappled sidewalk of our new leafy block, on a street recently honored as the greenest in Brooklyn. Reddog prances coltishly, his glossy form splashed with sunshine. Only a creature this unselfconscious could be this lovely. We pass our new deli, and the cashier, whom I’ve charmed with my four words of Arabic, waves from inside. Hi, hi, hi, Reddog notes each passerby, ears pitched forward at the sweet tone of one woman on her cell phone. At the crosswalk where Nevins meets Atlantic Avenue, he sits. I hold my outstretched hand over his head, just hovering, and he lifts his chin, nudging my palm with his brow, as if in confirmation—yes, yes, we are here, here we are, walking, waiting, ALIVE. We cross Atlantic, squinting in the sunshine, and just around the next corner, he catches a compelling scent and after some furious sniffing, crouches down to take a shit.

Reddog always runs away from his shit; I don’t know why. As soon as it hits the sidewalk he dodges in a little circle, winding around me, stopping just short of the offending pile, as if to say, my, who left this here. Sometimes he’ll even sniff nearby, as if he hasn’t just been there.

So he does his little shimmy, and just as I am reaching down, bag around hand, a terrier turns the corner. I will know this only in retrospect, because I don’t actually see the terrier turn the corner; Red does. That’s where the trouble starts. The leash is wrapped around my legs, and so when Reddog lunges, it is by sheer luck that I don’t faceplant in the pile of poo that I’m reaching for. Not luck, actually. Even in this compromised position, my reflexes are keen. We’ve been here before. My heart twists—there’s nothing I can do about that, but I deftly regain my balance enough to wrench the leash back. My sweetheart has instantly transformed, Incredible Hulk style, from a glorious specimen of sexy doggishness into a snarling black hole of bloodlust. At least, he appears that way. The man at the other end of the terrier’s leash is frozen, his mouth a gaping maw of horror. Reddog strains forward, mere feet away from the terrier’s face, impervious to the metal teeth of his collar—which already looks like something I could have made speedy use of when I was a professional dominatrix. The constriction of his throat has turned what would otherwise be a normal, perfectly threatening bark into a chillingly high-pitched gurgling snarl.

“Sorry!” I manage to say to the terrier’s owner, though I really want to urge him to please move the fuck along. He does, but only after dressing me in a look of pure judgment. Sure, my dog is the picture of canine lunacy, a menace that should clearly be euthanized—but what sort a person could nurture such atrocity? Only the most sordid of abuses could produce such a monster. Just look at how calm she is, I imagine him thinking. She’s practically enjoying this. I see him recapping the scene to his wife at home. And looking so normal! I mean, tattoos and whatnot, but you never know honey—not every dog has it as good as Parker here. And then they would fondle the terrier’s scruffy coat tenderly, as if feeling for psychic wounds, cooing lucky dog, you lucky dog you.

Rarely does anyone ever get hurt in these situations. Well, about twice a year Reddog gets in an actual fight, usually started by him, but facilitated by people who don’t feel the need to use leashes. In New York City. “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” They shout moronically as their friendly, untrained dog barrels down the sidewalk toward us. I should be more forgiving; I’m sure I would sport just such a naïve outlook, were my dog “friendly.” I am, after all, a friendly person, and even after a lifetime of evidence that not everyone else is friendly, I am still shocked each time I encounter unprovoked nastiness. Ultimately, I’m grateful for people whose default disposition is to assume the world is a friendly place. But not in this case. Still, despite the horror of dogfights—the gnashing cacophony of muscle and tooth (nothing is more disturbing than dog screams)—the only animal ever really injured is me. Without fail, I do exactly what any expert will tell you not to do in a dogfight: fling yourself into the middle of it, and attempt to pry the nearest jaw open with your hands. But Reddog’s bark is indeed worse than his bite. I have seen him scoop teacup sized dogs up in his mouth numerous times, and never has he injured them, not physically at least. He just has a need to pin things down; to wrest physical control over any situation involving another member of his species.

I understand this instinct. I also have an urge to pin things down, to wrest control over people and situations. Heeding it has also backfired on me, resulting in near-death experiences, public humiliations, brushes with the law, and plenty of human casualties. In the past, I’ve smoked crack, exchanged sexual favors for money, stolen, lied, cheated, and betrayed my own true nature in order to feel in control. Maybe a better way to say it is that I’ve found my own fear and lack of control intolerable, just as Reddog does. His aggressive tantrums are usually preceded by a pitiful whimpering—something in him hurts at the sight of other dogs. His fury is a reaction to that suffering. He is in bondage to it.

Except when he isn’t. His best friend is a Shih-Tzu named Sammy, whom he has never tried to disembowel. In fact, so long he is allowed to stand and freak the fuck out for couple minutes, Reddog gets along fine with most other dogs. He just has to get it out of his system—a kind of psychic seizure that needs to run its course before he can, you know, be himself.

When he first became my dog, I lived in a near constant state of anxiety. That he would kill another dog, or get killed. That I would be responsible for some stranger’s broken heart. I am deathly afraid of accidentally ruining other people’s lives. When I used to baby-sit, as an adolescent, I would only feed the children mushy food, because I figured it wasn’t worth the outside chance that they might choke on a cracker while under my care and die. In that first year with Reddog, I even began the process of looking for a new home to place him in, somewhere outside of the city, in the country, where any killing he might do would be safely in the realm of nature, within the comforting logic of the food chain. But I couldn’t stomach that either. Potential owners called me back a few minutes later than they had agreed to, promising hidden depths of irresponsibility. Knowing I could be responsible for his unhappiness was too much to gamble. Also, I loved him.

I have spent thousands on trainers, ran hundreds of miles to exhaust him, and crossed the street lots and lots of times to avoid a scene. His responsiveness to these techniques varies. The trainers had no problem, and perhaps, if Red and I had met under different circumstances, if I had known then what I do now about exerting my alpha energy, things could be different.

One trainer told me that it’s a genetic disposition. I’ve been told the same thing about my own failings. But see, I’ve found a way to circumvent my own intolerance for fear. But Reddog cannot meditate. He cannot read and reread books by little Buddhist nuns who have it figured out, or write morning pages. He doesn’t have a creative process with which to sublimate. And he’s not welcome in most church basements. He only has me.

I wish I could say that I could love the demon out of him, but there are meetings for that kind of thinking, too. Plus, it’d be a lie. Because I love the hell outta him, but I can’t love the hell OUT of him.

Learning to have faith in something bigger than my own capacity to manage the world worked pretty well in my case. I rarely find myself foaming at the proverbial mouth these days. But here’s the thing: he’s a DOG. I am his higher power.

So here’s what I can do: accept that I can’t remove his fear, or anyone else’s. That I can’t prevent the incidental breaking of other people’s hearts. I can get over giving a damn what we look like—hey, that terrier’s dad gets to feel like a better person today, right? I can try to keep my cool, because when I do, it helps. Nothing will make a soul freak out like thinking that God is freaking out about you. I can’t promise that no animals will get harmed crossing either of our paths, but I’ve got a strong leash, and a big heart, and nothing feels better than loving something beautiful and flawed.

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