The morning after graduating from my master’s program, my boyfriend looked at me over a table covered in empty glasses of mimosas and bloody Marys and asked, “Wanna look at puppies today?” I gawked, ordered another bloody, and pulled out my phone to scroll through litters on Craigslist. In the hoopla of finishing school, I’d forgotten the promise I made to myself a year ago: I will adopt a puppy the day I receive my degree. I had long known I’d opt for canines in place of children, certain that I would be unable to tolerate public tears and temper tantrums, but I was foolish for thinking dogs would be any less of a handful.
We drove to a rescue in Simi Valley, where a kennel attendant placed a little gray-eyed pit mix in my lap. It sat up with its tiny back to me and looked over its shoulder. He exhaled deeply, met my gaze, and dropped his eyes back to the ground. Maybe he was exhausted from eager buyers passing him by, I thought, so I decided this would be his last day alone.
I WAS READY FOR A DOG WITH MILITANT OBEDIENCE COUPLED WITH A NOBLE STREAK OF INDEPENDENCE, THE KIND OF DOG A KNIGHT OR COWBOY WOULD KEEP BY HIS SIDE.
Instead, I ended up with a silly, clumsy puppy. While most adore a dopey little dog, this one disappointed me. I was eager to run through the park with him or send him to scout ahead while trekking through the hills, but he could barely scramble around the living room in circles. Many told me he was “just a puppy,” and I understood that, but I found the praise most pets received simply for being cute as unearned. I couldn’t open my heart to him until he measured up to the same standards against which I measured most humans.
In my search for the ideal training manual, I found a book called "The Art of Raising a Puppy" by the Monks of New Skete, a well-loved text from the 1970s full of pictures of cute bearded monks raising German shepherds. Relating to the romantic notion of a group of unmarried and childless men who chose to live in a secluded mountain monastery, I adopted their methods as law. They preached in favor of being your dog’s pack leader, and pack leaders were quiet yet firm. Their dogs remained by their sides through all meals, relieved themselves only on command, and made no movement without express permission from their masters.
Like a monk of Highland Park, I incorporated a lot of physicality into my training, pairing my words with directed movements that eventually became lunges when the dog ignored me. I dropped my voice to its lowest octave when I detected even the slightest resistance to my commands. I was determined to make him pee and poop in one particular corner of the garden. I spent hours standing in front a little enclosure I built for him out of stones after catching him mid-relief between our lounge chairs. As he grew, so did his love for strangers. Now 80 pounds, he nearly knocked over my 86-year-old grandmother kissing her face. His tail, longer and stronger than most, was a whip of destruction to anything at knee-height. Every aspect of him that I could not control endlessly frustrated me. My overt aggression—loud shouts, dragging him away by the scruff of his neck, or pushing his body to the floor to make him stay—was obvious to everyone. While my outbursts were few, my rage was so built into my body language that he soon learned to tiptoe around me when my back was turned.
OUR BEST MOMENTS WERE LONG MORNING SESSIONS IN THE PARK
after my boyfriend left for work, when the pup would race through the dewy grass bounding after tennis balls or wrestling with an Irish wolfhound. But the mood shifted when we returned home. Though he cuddled with me in the grass at the park, he would not do so on the couch. He never showed me his belly, the ultimate sign of trust, though he showed his belly often to my boyfriend, even falling asleep in the bend of his arm as he read. At first, I feared my dog simply didn’t love me. My insecurity turned quickly to guilt as I watched him choose to nap in whichever room was furthest from the one I occupied, my heart shattered that he didn’t feel the security of the pack that I led. But even after months of antagonizing him, I justified my rage, imagining myself as the strong alpha; that, even now, he’d come around—once I shaped him into the dog I wanted.
Some months later, after breaking up with my boyfriend, I received a guest to see my new place. The dog was acting like a tornado, blocking walkways, slapping his tail into glasses on the coffee table, and bounding through the house whenever we moved. When the guest finally left, I turned to correct him, a dam breaking inside of me. I backed him into the dark bathroom while stomping and shouting for him to sit. He snapped his jaws and growled, hunched to the floor. Shaking, a puddle of urine bloomed beneath him, his pupils dilated to make the gold of his eyes thin as wedding bands. For a moment, I was hypnotized at the power I had over him. My head felt like someone had swung a baseball bat through it, my throat was shot with shouting, and my ears rang. I couldn’t see straight as I backed out of the bathroom, registering what I had done. The red mist of rage cleared to a white noise of horror. Now I was shaking. I opened my arms to him for an apologetic hug but he snapped his jaws once more with a low growl. I left him alone for an hour after that, reeling on the couch, unable to do anything but stare at the wall. I flipped through the monks’ training book, but I knew we’d long passed any help from them. When I found the pup, he was curled up in his bed, sleeping and panting as if he’d just come home from a long steep hike.
When I was eight years old, my father drove us outside of the city to a farm where chocolate labs were bred. As the only boy among three sisters, I naturally sought out the company of the girls at the jump rope rack and played with Barbie dolls. My conservative midwestern parents saw me as lonely at best and gay at worst.
“HE NEEDS A DOG,”I HEARD MY MOTHER SAY OFTEN.
“He’s a boy, you’re his father,” she’d remind my dad in what I always imagined was a veiled way of telling him it was his job to make me more masculine and his fault if I turned out “limp-wristed,” as she often referred to feminine men. Though he often said he “loved dogs, but only other people’s dogs,” he finally agreed.
He came home one night with a police dog training video for us to watch together. We saw giant dogs lunge and latch themselves onto a man’s padded arm to take him down like a perp. The implied violence confused me and, feeling bad for not sharing my father’s enthusiasm, I put on my biggest smile and nodded wildly at his comments.
The next morning at the farm, kids and parents scooped up bundles of brown fur on all sides of me. I wandered alone until I heard something whimpering. Behind a big plastic igloo, I found a puppy sprawled out and alone. I was horrified that it had been rejected by its siblings. On the way home, he sat in my lap as my father and sisters shouted names for him.
We quickly learned that there might have been a reason the other dogs avoided him. He was, among other things, a humper, which made my parents laugh at first until he became a terror to my sisters and their friends. Because the dog had been a solution to my queer solitude and not a creature anyone had actually wanted, the dog remained untrained and unmanageable, increasing in size. Finally, my mother became pregnant with her fifth child. When she found out it was a boy, she told us the dog would be a nuisance to the new baby. He was given to a family from school who owned two other labs. When I asked about the dog years later, one of their sons explained, “Oh, we gave him to a farm. Must have had something wrong with him, with all that humpin’ and all.”
As I traveled through puberty and my feminine mannerisms increased, my mother mocked me openly when I’d emit a queeny laugh. I was not allowed to close my bedroom door when I had male friends over. If a teacher or parent mentioned I’d been hanging out with girls at recess, I got in trouble. She monitored me closely long before I understood what being gay was, and though I did not know exactly what she was watching for, the very sound of her voice put me on edge. Being a good Catholic, any sexualized imagery was forbidden in the house. While she tore out the pages from Anne Frank’s diary that described Anne’s budding same-sex attraction, she and my sisters would also pluck any new surf magazines out of my hands to tear out the ads that featured girls in thongs, laughing.
After my little brother arrived, the lab was replaced by a string of Yorkshire terriers and, eventually, a little bichon frise with whom I fell in love. My mother could not resist these little toy dogs when she passed them in the mall. These were for her and the girls. But that little bichon became my favorite (and I became hers) because no one trained her and she was, in a word, crazy: she ran around us in circles, jumped over furniture and up people’s legs. I dropped to all fours and let her run through my arms and legs to pop through and kiss my face. If no one was going to train this little dog, I would praise her for her natural disposition.
That I had co-opted her precious little dog mattered little to my mother. Her desire for the dog was momentary, her attention span short. Sometime after I went to college, the bichon was given away. I would have been angry with my mother but we had, by this point, reached a truce. I saw her as a victim to her own conservative upbringing.
NO ONE HAD TAUGHT HER THAT BOYS COULD BE FEMME
but when she realized what fun we had when I helped her select outfits for the day, we mutually realized that we made better friends than mother and son. Likewise, no one had taught her dogs needed to be trained. I knew we had failed both the bichon and the labs by not teaching them correctly, and that we tore their hearts in half by giving them away.
Finishing college, I applied to work at a doggie day care. I got along fine with all but one of their dogs: a German shepherd who lived in terror of men. I did my best to make him comfortable, but the dog circled the walls of the pen, skirting in terror any time I moved. I minimized my movements on days he was in the pen, but nothing I did broke his beam of fear-induced focus. Then I snapped. I stomped toward him with red rage in my eyes as he cowered in a corner, shrieking and defecating.
I freaked myself out, fearing that this creature’s weakness inspired in me the same kind of fear my mother’s rage at my weakness inspired in her. I was hired for my patience and my long history with dogs, but I was not exercising either of these traits. I realized that, in these moments, I was not myself.
I went on to work as a groomer, a dog walker, and a sitter, and everyone asked me why I didn’t have a dog of my own. I had a ready-made answer—it would be “irresponsible” of me to get one before I was financially stable; I’d get one if I ever went to graduate school. But a secret truth nagged at me. Throughout these jobs, my moments of rage were spotty, but they happened. I never hurt these dogs, but I found within me a well of fury: at their inability to understand our expectations of them, and, underneath that, their innocence.
My head swam as I wiped up the puddle my pit had left. Was he better off in someone else’s hands? Was I permanently incapable of raising him? Still lightheaded, I sat down and searched the internet for answers. I scrolled through message boards: one person, angered when their little westie wouldn’t stop barking during crate training, shook the crate and shouted.
They described the same blindness—the same out-of-body experience—as mine, and the same guilt. They wanted to know if this single event made them a bad owner. Zero-negativity-training proponents replied, each with more extreme measures: Take the dog to a shelter immediately. Probably avoid other people’s dogs. Get yourself to a therapist and never have children. There was no forgiveness, no solution.
I couldn’t and wouldn’t stomach this. As terrible as I felt for my own behavior, I needed this person to know that their single outburst didn’t make them an unfit parent—it made them human. At least they had recognized the abuse and could now put a stop to it. Their rage at their dog’s behavior had nothing to do with the dog and everything to do with them. They needed to train themselves out of their expectations, ones the dogs couldn’t possibly understand without intensive instruction that often lasts a lifetime. They needed to understand the true nature of their relationship, not as master and subject, but as friends. But the post was four years old. I couldn’t help that person or their Westie, but I knew then that I couldn’t give up on my little guy. Adoption is for life.
The first few times I had to swallow my rage was literally painful, resulting in immediate headaches and disorientation. With time, it became easier. Staying silent when I wanted to shout reminded me that anything he didn’t know stemmed from my lack of guidance. If he made the slightest progress, we bounded together in joy. Little by little, he learned, and little by little he grew to trust me. He still loses his mind whenever I have guests, but, like the bichon frise, it is a joyful insanity.
IT’S BEEN NEARLY A YEAR SINCETHE DAY I RAGED.
When he jumps up unexpectedly, or when he pisses all over his feet, my face goes hot. But I clench my teeth and smile. I may snap the leash a bit too hard, or block him with my leg when he breaks from “stay,” but these are the gentlest reminders I can muster, and he understands. There are days when I fear I’ve ruined him, but then there are nights, after I’ve put him into his bed, when I hear his nails clicking along the floor and feel his wet snout nose at my foot hanging off the bed. “You wanna come up?” I ask. It’s then I pull aside the covers for him to climb up beside me, and he rolls over to show me his belly for some rubs as he drifts off to sleep.