Easter 2019- Present
Recently I was rote listening to NPR in the car when I heard an intelligent man discussing toxic masculinity. It didn’t take me long to realize it was Henry Rollins, and my interest peaked because for months I’ve been saying my new puppy reminds me of Henry Rollins. For those who aren’t familiar with Henry Rollins, let me make it clear that it wasn’t the current Mr. Rollins who reminds me of Harold, but the Black Flag front man. For those who prefer visuals, allow me to offer one:
When we had to return Norm the Gentle-except-to –tortoises giant, we were immediately gripped by dog fever. I spent a fair amount of time cruising adoption sites like some kind of pet Tinder, and we found ourselves oogling dogs at adoption events at the pet store. We knew well that we should adopt the dog, not the breed, but Robert really wanted a pit bull. After Buddy and Norm, it seemed like a reasonable choice, and I wanted Robert to have something to help him through the doldrums that followed our losses. And so we found ourselves driving to the high desert on the Saturday before Easter to meet an 8- week-old puppy named Pete.
It was a strange day, more of this odd weather, feathery fog on the ride out and mountain mists as we crossed towards Hesperia giving way to bright sun. We found ourselves in a housing track in the desert meeting a tiny puppy, black and white, with a ridiculously full belly, almost still blue eyes, and a sleepy demeanor. We chose this particular puppy based less on research and more on the fact that he was a rescue and he’s been supposedly raised with a desert tortoise, although we would later realize he’s only spent a short amount of time with the tortoise. “He seems like a really mellow puppy,” Robert said. I didn’t know anything about puppies, so I assumed they were basically small dogs with a tendency to wee on the floor, something I figured I was ready for after caring for the geriatric Jack Russell and Joey the Chihuahua who has peed on my world since I met him. As it turns out, there was a great deal I didn’t know, and if I had known then what I know now, I doubt we would have driven off with little Pete.
Oh, it all started sweetly enough, Easter and Strawberry pie and a cute little puppy, smaller than the Chihuahua, loving and gentle. “This is a good dog,” Robert said. I worried that I might not be maternal enough to raise a puppy, but it really did seem fairly simple, just cleaning up accidents and working on obedience training. We spent the first night trying to name Pete: Hank was considered, as was Angus, as was Percival, as was Arthur, as was Henry, but in the end I looked at Robert, looked at the puppy with his little slightly bulgy wall-eyes, and I said, “Don’t you think he kind of looks like Bud Cort in Harold and Maude?” And so Harold became Harold.
The first Monday of our life together, I took Harold to the vet. He was sleeping in my arms like a cherubic puppy baby, and the vet said, “Oh, he’s just perfect.” I basked in that glow all afternoon, my perfect puppy, my Harold. By Tuesday, I was ready to start gardening. The rain seemed to be stopping, and what would be more like spring than gardening with my new puppy? I found my gloves, gathered my tools, and headed out . Harold tripped along after me, occasionally attacking my sneaker, and I settled down to weed. Before I knew it, he attacked: razor sharp puppy teeth latched onto my glove. I told him “No, no, no, Harold,” and gently disengaged him. He came back, lunging this time. When I managed to remove him from one glove, he attacked my feet, my legs, snapping and growling and biting. I clearly remember looking up to the still gray sky and yelling “Help!” but there was no one to help me. I gave up on gardening and tried to read. Soon there was a small black form launching itself at me, teeth blazing, trying to abscond with my library book. “No, no, no, Harold,” I intoned. “Mommy’s trying to read.” Eventually I wound up holding a rope toy for him to chew and frantically calling Robert at work.
It was the first of many calls. “The puppy’s crazy,” I told him, “We should have named him Damien.” We read about everything puppy on the internet, and it suggested crying out in pain if the puppy bites, something his littermates would do. I cried out; he bit harder. I was a human squeaky toy with cuts all over my hands. “You don’t understand,” I told Robert. “He’s crazy!” But by the time Robert would get home, Harold would be tired, would snuggle and act cute. And then there was Joey. Joey is a grumpy old man Chihuahua at the best of times, and at first he was tolerant of the puppy, but that soon turned to open mouth displays and growling. The puppy replied by attacking Joey, trying to drag him around by his sweater, and the puppy was growing. Every night he seemed bigger in the morning, and I found myself imagining a 70 pound snarling, snapping, pit bull eating Joey, my furniture, and eventually me.
And then there was the whole thing I didn’t get about puppies, which is that they are essentially infants who need care, don’t sleep through the night, and rely on you for all of their needs. I’d straggle into work, exhausted from being up at midnight for peeing and playing, which was Harold’s preference, and someone would ask me how I was doing. “Oh, we got a puppy, “ I’d say. The other person would respond with enthusiasm, joyful at our new family member, and I would have to stop myself from grabbing their arm and explaining why no one in their right mind should ever, ever get a puppy. “Puppies are terrible things, “ I would say, holding out my hands to display the many cuts and bites I had.
Over a short amount of time we realized that there really was something wrong with Harold. We had been told that he was separated from his littermates, but we didn’t know enough about puppies to ask why. We soon realized that he had been separated from his mother, too, and bottle fed (he tried to nurse on every bottle). As it turns out, this has extremely negative affects on puppies (and one imagines on humans, too, something I kept returning to as I contemplated the bleak news about children in cages). Here’s just a partial list of behaviors one might expect from a puppy like Harold:
Typical problems in singletons are lack of bite inhibition, being unable to get out of trouble calmly and graciously, an inability to diffuse social tension, inability to handle frustration, lack of social skills, lack of impulse control, and touch sensitivity (https://thebark.com/content/singleton-puppies)
Harold had and has all of these issues and more, including tantrums.
Once we realized that Harold was a problem child, we did what anyone would do: we devoted our entire lives to making him a better dog, so that meant puppy preschool, expensive interactive feeders, toys and bones, puppy obedience, and eventually a private trainer. Our lives became about Harold, essentially. We also installed a variety of baby gates and fences and blockades to keep him separated from Joey, and then we got Joey certified as an emotional support animal so he could go to work with Robert and thus give me some peace, as separating Joey and Harold meant keeping Joey from me, which made him scream as Joey has his own issues with separation anxiety and abuse. Honestly, the idea of Joey as a “support animal” was laughable as I have long considered myself Joey’s “Emotional Support Human.” But yes, we did all of these things, and more, but only some of it worked. So, where are we now?
First Day of Puppy Preschool
After Harold got kicked out of his third try at puppy socialization, we realized the problem was worse than we thought. In those days I was living in sweat pants, watching hours of home improvement on the TV, trying to get Harold to focus on a bone and stop biting me. These were the tantrum weeks, when anything could set Harold off, and I quickly learned to put him in the large exercise pen I had set up in my living room when the demon puppy, Terrold, arrived. Robert remained optimistic, while I continued begging for help. Why didn’t we just return him? Well, at first it seemed like maybe I was over reacting just a wee bit, and Robert wanted to keep him. By the time it became clear that Terrold was really a thing, it was too late to simply return him, and the prospects for a puppy like Harold, a pit bull with behavioral issues, were bleak. Even a pit bull who is aggressively nice will likely struggle to find a good home, as I knew from trying to place Buddy. As miserable as I was, and I was miserable, trapped at home with Demon Puppy, unable to garden, unable to read for the first months, I wasn’t ready to consign Harold to a life I knew from volunteering at the animal shelter. And about the pit bull breed, please understand: this is a singleton puppy problem that afflicts Golden Retrievers, Labradoodles, and any other breed. They think they are the center of the world, and they are terribly afraid.
So, how did we get through this, and are we even through it yet? We get by with a little help from our friends. Our friend and Buddy’s dog trainer Marsha came right away, and helped us find good puppy schools. The folks at Pasadena Humane helped us with preschool and socialization. The excellent trainers at J-9’s K-9s in Canoga Park (http://www.j9sk9s.com/) helped us practice obedience, and our awesome personal trainer Jocelyn http://www.muttineer.com/ is helping us with reactivity, handling, and chilling out. But that’s only the professional help, and the private help has actually mattered more.
Thanks to Jocelyn for this photo!
First, my dear friend loaned us her puppy stroller and then went on outings with us, putting up with Harold incessantly biting her person and her feet, being patient at cafes and dog stores. Then our other friend who is like family helped Harold socialize with his dogs, finally offering us what feels like a partial solution: Big Mama Diamond. Diamond is a 90 pound Pit Bull/Boxer mix who is the best dog ever. Our friends were kind enough to let Diamond come to stay, and for the first time, it feels like we are getting somewhere with Harold. Watching Diamond play with him and correct him and take his toys then return them is watching dog training, but it is a dog training a dog. She is the only mother Harold will ever really know, even though he had his birth mother, his bottle mother, his bone mother (me) , and now Big Mama D is helping him learn about frustration, overcoming fear, and being a dog.
At least, I hope so. We are set to go on a trip with Diamond, Harold, Joey, Roxanne, Lila, maybe Lily, and that’s just to mention the dogs. We plan on leaving this week, one year after our big Bus trip, and wouldn’t you know it, just like last year, the Bus is dying in idle again. Hopefully a new carburetor will make a difference, and we will head up the Pacific Coast Highway to show Harold the ocean, then camp in the oak forests above Santa Barbara. After that we plan to take our honeymoon trip albeit truncated to San Simeon, with Harold, of course, so I will keep everyone posted on our progress. I keep thinking I know what I am doing, and then life sends me reeling again, whether from the loss of those I love like Buddy and Jim, or from the advent of a new adventure like the Bus, or from simply getting a puppy. Listen now, though: puppies are terrible things. They pee everywhere, they bite, and they eat your furniture. Here’s my advice: get a nice tortoise, or an adult dog, or a cat.
With the Bus and Robert