There's a spot on my dog's stomach that, when you pet it just right, causes her to jump up and scream. It's a high-pitched yelp that even seems to surprise her as it leaps from her mouth.
I never do this on purpose. It happens sometimes when we're playing, and it always startles me. Nutty—short for Nutmeg, in honor of the hue of her brindle coat—is a pit bull rescue dog, saved seven years ago by some heroic Long Island man I'll likely never meet.
The Story of Nutty
The story goes that this guy discovered that his neighbors were breeding pit bull puppies to turn into fight dogs, and torturing their adult dogs to turn them into fighters. (Despite the general assumption that pit bulls are naturally aggressive, the science simply doesn't back it up—more on that later.)
So what did Nutty's rescuer do? He waited for the neighbors to leave the house one day, then proceeded to break in and load as many pups as he could into the flatbed of his pickup truck, and tried to deliver them to a local shelter. Nutty and the rest of her litter actually landed in a foster program in Manhattan, because no shelter would take them in, out of a pervasive fear of pit bulls. That's where my girlfriend Genevieve found her, brought her home to take care of "for a couple weeks," and immediately decided to keep her. Were it not for this mystery man, Nutty—who was a runt—would've lived out her days as a bait dog.
Her first association with humans wasn't with loving owners; it was with people who starved her.
Life as a bait dog is brutal. They're the dogs cruel owners let fighting dogs bite in order to get them riled up. In other words: Nutty would've died years ago. Lucky for us, she didn't—but the experience still haunts her. Her first association with humans wasn't with loving owners; it was with people who starved her, then cut her in the stomach and added the blood to the puppies' meals so they'd develop a taste for it.
And that is why touching that spot still makes her jump.
Dog Day Afternoon
My earliest memory of a dog is watching one chase me over my left shoulder as I sprinted through a parking lot in Queens when I was 5 years old. A German shepherd. It was barking; I was screaming. I remember diving onto the hot, sticky safety of the tan interior of my family's Peugeot just before it could clamp its mouth around my reedy little legs. My sister, also a child at the time, was there, and so was my mother, and I clearly remember them both being terrified.
I didn't realize just how much I could love a dog until I fell for a girl with a 4-year-old pit bull rescue.
But the truth is that my mother has always been the deeply cautious kind, and she easily could have misconstrued this dog's playfulness for bloodlust. She probably saw this big dog from afar, got scared, told us to run to the car, and off we went—causing it to give chase. Either way, I had baggage of my own by the time I finally met Nutty. As I grew older, I did begin to come around to dogs, but I didn't realize just how much I could love a dog until I fell for a girl with a 4-year-old pit bull rescue.
When Stefan Met Nutty
The name Nutty was actually a bid by Genevieve to convince her mom—whose childhood dog had been named Café au Lait—that getting a dog was a good idea. But it's hard to imagine a more fitting moniker for her.
For as much benefit of the doubt as Nutty gives people, she's not always shown it in return.
She's a rascally pup who's skeptical of other dogs, never-say-die with a tennis ball, and always eager to make new human friends. Yes, despite her awful treatment at the hands of our species, she still loves us. She even played a serious role in helping me get Genevieve's phone number: Genevieve and Nutty were standing in front of me in line at the store and, before I could even say anything, Nutty turned around, jumped up, and started to lick me. I had officially been vouched for.
But for as much benefit of the doubt as Nutty gives people, she's not always shown it in return. People assume pit bulls are naturally aggressive, but the truth is they're one of the least aggressive breeds. In fact, a 2011 study by the American Temperament Test Society showed that pit bulls had the second-best temperament of all dogs, behind only Labrador retrievers.
And, as The Atlantic pointed out in a piece published last fall, "not only does the evidence suggest that pit bulls are not more aggressive toward people than other breeds, but few people even know what pit bulls are." This is a big problem for Nutty and her ilk, because it leads to shelter workers often incorrectly identifying dogs after reported attacks, and dogs getting falsely blamed for wrongdoing.
I have to see society's misguided impression of pit bulls one to three times a day, when Nutty and I go strolling through the neighborhood. People are often preternaturally ready to cringe when they see Nutty because, though we can all agree she's the cutest dog we've ever laid eyes on, she has some classic pit bull features. Some people don't mind when she runs up to lick them, but others shrink in fear. Nutty never seems to understand why they won't just let her give them some love.
Life With a Pit Bull
Walking an excited and excitable dog teaches you a lot about yourself. One thing I learned quickly: I judge myself through the eyes of other dog owners. I'm not proud of it, but at first I seemed to care less about how Nutty was feeling, and more about how good an owner I was being perceived as. If a dog gave Nutty a funny look and she decided to bark, I would be mortified. Visible displays of discipline would be enacted; head-shaking and repeated statements of "no, bad girl" were made for all in the local park to see.
I would return home from walks distraught, feeling like I'd failed Nutty, my neighbors, and myself. Genevieve decided we needed to take a serious step: it was time to see a trainer. We booked a session with a trainer named Rex Hughes, whose organization Rex K9 Rescue takes in pit bulls and other bully breed dogs who've been turned away from shelters, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready for adoption. Rex holds that it's never the dogs who need help, but the owners. He told me that whatever energy I sent down the leash would come right back to me. In other words, I was creating a nervous, self-conscious dog who was anxious for approval.
Walk in Progress
I took Rex's words to heart, and things immediately improved. I kept calm, and so did Nutty. We'd see a dog in the park, and we'd both act like it was no big deal. She'd sit when I asked her to, lie down when I asked her—we were pros.
Then one day I I rounded the corner with Nutty to find my neighbor Kevin, who has a huge pit bull of his own named Chester. Whenever we see each other in the elevator, we typically talk about the Knicks, or the sad state of the U.S. government, or maybe a good show we just started watching. But there was no room for conversation this time: the two dogs took one look at each other and starting barking and lunging and making a scene.
I, of course, began to apologize profusely. Kevin didn't bat an eye.
"They're dogs," he told me. "They're going to bark sometimes."
And he's right. Nutty's still got some stuff she's trying to get over—but shit, so do I. And maybe we never will. But at least I know we're going to work on it together.
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