Like most kids, we wanted a dog. My parents tried once, but I had an asthma attack and almost died.
The dog’s name was Muffy, a little mutt with odd tufts of red hair, like a fox. My mother had adopted Muffy while she was in college, but the doctor told her the dog had to go or I would probably die next time. Had I been in that position, I would have gotten rid of the child, but my mother is a better parent than I will ever be, so she called my grandfather and he took the dog. It was a sad day, sometime in the late 1980s.
It took almost a decade for us to get our next dog. We had a neighbor named Frankie who was always drunk. After 9/11 he painted an American flag across his roof. He lived on unemployment but always complained about the work ethic of my generation.
He was a great neighbor, though. He singlehandedly ran a neighborhood watch. If your guitar amp stopped working he could cross wires and solder pieces together until it came back to life.
Frankie must have done something else aside from worry about the future of the American Dream, because his backyard was a halfway house for stray dogs. I’m not sure where they came from. We lived in the suburbs, so every dog was accounted for. But he came home with dogs constantly. Usually Pit Bulls. All kinds. Blue Pit Bulls. Pit Bulls that looked like linebackers for professional football teams. Pit Bulls with no tails. Pit Bulls with cropped ears. He had two permanent dogs: an older Golden Retriever named Rusty and a younger Golden Retriever named Rusty II.
I was outside one day. I was in eighth grade and I didn’t have any friends. I had an iguana that was so mean you had to open the cage and throw lettuce in from a safe distance. I spent a lot of time outside because I didn’t have any friends.
Frankie parked his car and a black puppy hopped out. I ran up to his house to pet the dog.
“I found her chained up in a construction yard,” Frankie said.
“What kind of dog is it?”
“Pit Bull. A kid tied her up and said he’d be back but he never came back.”
The dog bit my shoelaces and tried to run away with them. When the lace went taut the dog rolled with inertia, then tried again.
“Do you want her?” Frankie asked.
Of course I did.
My father was still at work. I had a few hours to figure this all out. My little sister came out first — and my father liked her the best — so I gave her the dog and found my mother to tell her we had a dog now. She said the usual “We’ll see what your father says.” We spent the rest of the day chasing the dog around the backyard.
By the time my father got home the entire family was in the driveway hugging the dog. He’d just worked 24 straight hours putting out fires in New York City.
“No,” he said.
We looked at my mother. I was young, but I understood early that fathers might think they’re in charge (only because women allow this illusion), but mothers usually get what they want.
That night my father sat on the back porch and watched football. Our puppy was smart. She was on trial and she knew it. She lay under his chair, looking needy as hell, through the whole game. She was instantly his dog.
“We can keep the dog for a week,” he said. “But it’s staying in the garage.”
My sisters and I stood with our noses pressed against the glass of the garage door. The dog was on the other side. She had been set up with a crate and a blanket. She stood on the crate and howled. I’d guess she was probably two months old, but she could howl like a weathered coyote. My parents were concerned about our asthma, but the dog had a maddening cry. Finally, she was allowed inside.
From excitement or junkyard food, she threw up right away on the floor. Everyone volunteered to clean it. The dog slept next to my father’s side of the bed. The next morning there was no more discussion — she was my father’s dog, and she was staying.
My youngest sister was the one who got to name her. And, like every kid who gets to pick a dog’s name, she named our dog Lady. I was mad. I’d found the dog and she’d picked my father, and now, her name was Lady — the most typical dog name in America. But at least our family had a dog — a black Pit Bull named Lady.
Lady never had an accident. My father house-trained her in one day. If she had to go to the bathroom, she would just walk to a door and bark. When her water bowl was dry she would kick it around until somebody filled it. Our house was right at the bottom of a hill. If a car was really moving, the road in front of our house was practically a blind spot. My father brought her to the street, pointed at it, and said, “NO.” That was it. The dog never went in the street again.
My mother has five sisters and they all have a herd of kids. Everyone was nervous putting children near Lady. The newspaper has a very clear agenda against the breed. Every few days there is a story making Pit Bull attacks sound like an epidemic. But I’ve watched our dog at birthday parties and family reunions. I’ve watched her get her ears pulled. Kids have tried to ride her. And she took it, sometimes with her tail wagging, but always with patience.
We went to college. We came home. After a few years we realized we spoke full sentences to Lady, and she understood. Not just sentences with key words, like, “Do you want to go out?” but questions with choices, like, “We’re going to go to the beach. Do you want to bring your ball?” If she felt like it, the dog would get her ball and then walk to the car.
Toward her last year, she began to eat Harry Potter books. She had never destroyed anything before, so we knew the end was coming soon. We would come home and there was usually shredded paper. Lady would spend much of her time panting or sleeping. She turned gray almost overnight. We took her to the vet. I don’t remember what was wrong with her, but the vet said to take her home. There was nothing he could do. It would be short, he said.
My father started cooking eggs for Lady on Sunday mornings. Then we started putting flavored steak sauce on the eggs. We fattened her up. And, even right to the end, she was always thinking. She would put her paw on the plate to keep it from sliding away as she licked up the sauce. If we went out, we left Harry Potter books on the floor for her to shred. If I saw a book sale I would stop and load up. A hardcover copy was a good score.
One night I got the call that it was going to be Lady’s last night. I asked if I should come home. My mother said, “It’s OK — she’s with dad.” And so Lady went out just like she came in — on the floor next to my father. I might’ve found her, but she had always been his dog. And my father is a man, and one thing a man deserves is to see his dog off.
We’ve had dogs since then. All kinds. Boxers. Black Labradors. And they are all great. They come when they are called. They go to the bathroom outside.
But the Pit Bull was really one of a kind. She was smart. She was tough. And even though all the media about them is spun negative, it has served a decent favor. It has made everyone take notice of the breed. And it makes the bond between people and their dogs that much stronger. People speak with a higher pride about their Pit Bulls because there is something that they get. It’s a certain kind of pride that only the select few will ever know.
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