Taming the Bear
What I learned making a feral pit bull my pet
By Mike Wehner
People often say that they rescued their dog, like they reached down from a helicopter and pulled it out of the ocean after it escaped a capsizing boat. I didn’t save my dog, I saved my neighbor — the dog, I captured. A hungry red wisp who came though the forest to my secluded street to feed but didn’t want the flowers like the deer, Charlie came for meat.
I didn’t think he was a dog at first glance(part of me still doesn’t). My neighbor was tangled up in his own leash and Charlie was lunging halfheartedly at his Border Collie. He was barking and growling but not in a way that made you want a gun. He looked confused, ravaged by the incoming polar vortex and months spent alone in the woods eating sticks and snow to stay alive. Three days later the temperatures reached record lows, almost twenty degrees below zero, so if Charlie hadn’t stumbled into my life someone would have shot him before he froze to death, you know, because he’s a pit bull and they are dangerous. I didn’t rescue him, he didn’t rescue me, we were inflicted upon one another as family ought to be.
I was out in the freeze walking my own dog, Henry, when I saw them. I called over to the neighbor in a knot, who my wife and I refer to as Stanley, because he looks like Stanley Tucci and we don’t know his name. He yelled back for help. I pulled Henry close and paced down the street to get a better look. Charlie was emaciated but his chest was still broad and proud like a bodybuilder on stage at the Olympia doing that thing where they lean forward and puff their pecs. To paraphrase Steven Wright: with dogs I am not afraid of heights, I am afraid of widths. His imposing body made me apprehensive but as he turned to the side his thick front shrunk to nothingness towards his tail, the back ribs huddled together for warmth. He was missing fur in places his mouth couldn’t reach, like his face and shoulders. He was so dirty his solid red coat looked brindle. The fragility removed my fear.
I made mistakes with Charlie, any feral dog professional (if such a thing exists) would agree. If you see a stray dog chomping at the air around your neighbor or you take in an abandoned animal, don’t use this as a guide. I am an idiot and this story is proof I shouldn’t have children — but I meant well and that should count for something.
I took a deep breath and let Henry off his leash hoping he’d distract the angry bull. I wasn’t worried about my dog, his vaccines were probably up to date and trying to bite a Weimaraner is like trying to sink your teeth into a rubber kick ball. The instant you think you have a grip on it, off it goes, bouncing down the street.
As Henry rushed him, Charlie lurched at his face and then stood up on his hind legs and howled, front feet stuck out like a carnival seal. They fought each other round and round until they formed a comfortable butt-sniffing yin yang. Stanley and I chased Charlie a bit and after I got Henry’s collar on him it took twenty minutes to drag him home through the snow. He’d never been on a leash. Charlie snorted and gruffed at me but I didn’t take him seriously, he was so malnourished that his brittle teeth wouldn’t do much damage to my frozen skin if he decided to strike.
I had a fence and Stan didn’t so we put Charlie in my backyard and called animal control, which was closed. It was after six on a Saturday and the answering machine said to call the police if I had an “urgent animal related situation”. This was like code for if you need a firing squad. I went inside to ask my wife what we should do with the dangerous stranger I marooned on the back deck.
Ignoring my warnings she marched out the back door with bowls of food and water, through the glass I watched as she fell helplessly in love with an animal that was too busy eating to notice she was there.
Most people have a compulsory compassion towards dogs and though there are lots of reasons, I think the foundation is that we made them. People took the wolf and bred it for size and shape and color and temperament and most importantly, for purpose. We have a lingering gene that reminds us that nature isn’t responsible, that we created these beasts and it is our job to take care of them. That’s why I don’t trust people who don’t like dogs, the friendly ones at least.
I asked her what should we do with him and she exclaimed,“let him inside!”
My wife is the kind of person who yells at me when I have my shoes on in the house. There are lint rollers hidden on every floor just in case a couch or chair gets a little too fuzzy. She owns a label maker and uses it liberally. The chemicals of love are among the most amazing and terrifying things to exist. In a flash she abandoned not only her own personality but also rationality. She has the kind of optimism that can’t be deterred by a battle axe. It was plausible that we take a filthy, wild animal with a near history of violence and set it free in our home — it will be fine, what could go wrong? “He can’t stay outside, he will die,” she said.
“BUT HE LIVES OUTSIDE. Honey, it’s a pit bull and that wouldn’t matter but look at him, he is abused and starving and LOOK AT HIS FUCKING JOWLS. What if we don’t give him the right food and instead he decides to eat us in the night? He seems calm now, but what happens when we wake up and he is thrashing around down stairs with the cat in his mouth? Can’t we put him in the garage??
“He is sweet, I can tell,” she said while taking his picture with her phone for Facebook to try and find his nonexistent owner. “Give him a bath, you worry too much.” I tried to push his butt down so we could get a picture of his face, he tried to bite my hand.
Hope is impossible to argue against. For every one word that my wife has spoken to me in our nine years together, I have spoken five-thousand in return, yet she has said more a lot more me.
Scowling, I took Charlie down to the basement to the “dirty” bathroom. It’s the tub we use for art projects and the toilet we use for my friends who come over to watch football and eat bratwurst. It has basic finishes and an easy to clean linoleum floor. I feed the garden hose through the window in the summer when I need to wash underneath Henry’s belly after he’s corkscrewed a dead animal into his fur to spite me.
Getting Charlie into the bathroom was easy, but getting him into the tub was not. I felt like Tom Hanks in that movie, Turner and Hooch, if the dog were slightly smaller and infinitely more pissed off. His tail went between his legs so I figured he didn’t want to bite me, but he would if I kept forcing him into the tub. I climbed in wearing only my boxers and enthusiastically invited him to join me— he turned around and ran out the bathroom door which I had left ajar, jumped up on the coffee table, and dug into the teak top with his never-been-clipped nails. He scraped across the top and barked a low, guttural warning at me with a more serious tone than the previous chirps and growls. Dogs are like singers, most of them only have one voice but the really talented ones can shift their tone and timbre to give context to what they are trying to say. Charlie is the Adele of feral garbage dogs — he has all sorts of voices. The marks are still on the tabletop and I smile when I see them, a reminder that you have to understand something before you can conquer it.
He roared, the light was low and all I saw was the silhouette of his big, flat head floating in the air. I stuck my hand out as a truce and he bit the air beside it. No matter how many times he jawed at me or growled or snapped —he didn’t scare me. Easy I told him as I lowered my voice and pushed the air back towards him with my hands, easy Bear, it’ll be alright. He looked like a bear and sounded like a bear, so he could be tamed like one too. Some salmon might have helped.
I got him into the tub and he tolerated a bit of tepid water and some soap on top, adamant that I not touch his down-unders. The vet told me his body was so ravaged by worms; heart worms, hookworms, roundworms and some others that it must have hurt to be prodded on.
Once he was nearly-clean we fed him again, then he wandered into the living room and struggled to hoist his frail forty pounds up into a cushy lime green chair in our living room where he slept for thirty six hours straight. Every few hours I’d walk into the room and he would open his eyes and waggle his double-wide tongue at the air like there was a bad taste in his mouth but then he would go back to sleep, his nose dug ever deeper beneath the pillow he was wrapped around.
Monday morning I loaded him into my car and dropped him off at the pound. They took my information at desk where I had to speak extra loud over the cacophony of howls from the other residents. A young girl wearing expensive rain boots looped a braided choke leash on Charlie and then whisked the bear through a door in the back that had a paper Keep Out sign taped to it. When I came home Henry was sleeping underneath the chair in which Charlie had briefly hibernated, softly whining.
“Charlie Bear had to go home dummy.” Little did I know, he’d just left.
I hadn’t thought about him much when the animal shelter called six weeks later to let us know that Charlie was healthy and ready for adoption. They asked if we were interested but Kate and I hadn’t considered the possibility because Charlie seemed too relaxed for a dog living in the wilderness to not have a home. Sure he snapped a few times, but he was barely alive. Once he got some food and rest he became a red piece of furniture that almost liked to be pet. It was this sleepy bear, skinny and intermittently sweet that I thought we were adopting when I pitched her the idea. I didn’t get half the words out of my mouth before Kate was meeping, “Meep! Meep! Meep!”
Meep is a word we use when we are excited. We have a lot of made up words in this house because I love words and when I can’t find the exact word I need, the one with with all the layers and colors and tastes of the cake I am trying to make: I create it. Meep is used repetitively and you can dial in your exact level of excitement via the frequency and pitch. The faster and higher you go, the more excited you are. It’s a great tool for manipulation, a word of pure childish wonder and if your mate won’t go somewhere you want to go, meep at them. Only a jerk says no to a meep.
I tried to throw some reason at her between the squeals. The shelter had given Charlie extensive medical treatment that could cause issues in the future. There was the possibility he was feral dog, born into the wild. He showed signs he was abused and didn’t respond to basic commands. The upshot is that he wasn’t fearful or aggressive towards people (I guess they didn’t try and bathe him). I did some research on abused dogs and even with the best care they didn’t always assimilate well into homes, especially homes with other dogs. Also he tried to bite me several times, well not bite me, bite me, but he put more effort into it than any other dog I ever met over twenty pounds. Little dogs bite at everyone all the time, but if everything was that much taller me I’d be grouchy too. I never mentioned the biting to the shelter, it seemed unfair to create a paper trail over a minor disagreement on hygiene.
Kate wasn’t hearing any of it. “It’s just a dog, you love him and he will love you,” she said and then qualified, “eventually.”
So we drove over to the shelter to get him. Our other dog is a monster in the car, we have a grate in the trunk area of my SUV that forms a cage thing. Henry is half-retarded and fully co-dependent, he needs to be in my lap all the time . If we stick him in the back seat and build a wall on the console he will suck up his organs like rat crawling up a toilet and shimmy into my lap by squeezing between the driver’s side door and the front seat. Henry weighs about a hundred pounds. When a dog does something so physics-defying, even if it has the potential to get you killed, it’s hard not to laugh while you swerve into oncoming traffic.
It wasn’t right to take our new dog from one cage only to put him in another so I let him climb into the back seat. He immediately sat down, like a bronze lion at the end of a driveway and rode the whole way home without moving or making a sound. Kate and I kept exchanging glances, affirming our brilliance in finding a perfect stoic companion for Henry.
Charlie wasn’t lazy, he was conserving energy.
The instant I unclipped his leash he bolted to the Christmas tree and unleashed a torrent of mud yellow pee into a low hanging glass snowflake that flung the half-set banana pudding all over the wall and floor as it spun. The new silver and white tree skirt looked like it had been sitting in a heavy smoker’s attic for years once the tree stopped dripping on it. It wasn’t the action that disturbed me, it was the smell. WHAT had they been feeding him, curried asparagus?
Next, bound back and forth on the furniture. Into the left chair, onto the coffee table, into the right chair, over and back again. A red and white seizure of energy awkwardly exploding from his legs. One of the many reason that I call him Bear is that his legs don’t move in unison like a normal dog. The opposite legs are supposed move forward and back together in a rhythmic way that give a dog’s gait a graceful bounce. Charlie doesn’t move like that. When he runs all of his feet have different time signatures and it causes his butt to move faster than his face, like a Camaro on an icy road. He has a angular tilt when he runs just like a bear, his body isn’t straight so not only does he look stupid but he moves incredibly slow given how much his limbs are flailing. He settled on the table after a few dozen leaps and threw a pitch shifting moan at us.
Imagine the sound of a chainsaw buried so deep in a coastal redwood that the chain no longer moves when you pull the trigger. Now pull the trigger and hold it until the motor burns out, that’s the sound he made.
Henry just stood there, shocked.
Kate and I had created some back stories for Charles during his first stay with us but we never consider Occem’s Razor. Charlie’s student owner didn’t let him out at the end of the semester because his parents forbid him from bringing home a dog, he hadn’t dug out from under his outdoor pen with a bunch of other violent and mistreated dogs that had marred his face, he didn’t run away from an abusive home. We both realized, right then, that this wasn’t anybody’s dog and he never had been. This dog hadn’t come through the woods, he came FROM the woods. He had never been on a leash or in a house. Now, he was no longer a thin and ratty terrier in need of food and shelter, we had just unleashed an eighty pound menace on our home. It wasn’t that he was being disobedient — HE NEVER HAD ANY OBEDIANTS TO DIS.
Oh my god, what have we done?
Getting him under control wasn’t easy. He needed a name before I could teach him anything. I held on to the delusion that Charlie wasn’t feral so I could sleep at night and because of that I spent hours in the basement with him going through websites on my laptop of lists of popular dog names and I would pitch them to him and watch for some sort of a reaction, a perking of the ears or eye contact. When that failed I went through sites of dog commands in other languages, he didn’t know how to SIT but maybe he knew how to Assis. I tried German and French and the other usual suspects. I even dusted off some of my high school latin out of sheer desparation, “sede”, I said. No reaction.
I went back to the names and his ears perked at me with Boomer but it turned out there was a squirrel running along the fence railing and the flash of recognition I saw quickly turned to fervent warning as he pressed his peanut butter cup nose to the sliding glass door and let me hear his third and most prevalent voice: the pathetic whine.
Never in your life have you heard a dog so thick and powerful whine like Charlie. It sounds like an out of tune violin that you want to break, but if you break it, it might explode and kill you so you just have to listen to it. All night, every night he would whine because his life was so terrible and he wanted so desperately to be loosed back into the wilderness and suffer in the cold. I resent him for the sleep I lost but that sound may have saved him, it humanized him, made him seem less tough, less dangerous. Humans are programmed to wake up when they hear high pitched squeals so that their babies don’t die. I woke up a dozen times a night, every night, for months. I don’t recall Kate waking once. This is another reason we shouldn’t have children.
When I’d finally get out of bed he would be curled up, crying at the front door and I would think about “accidentally” proping the door open for him so he could do whatever it was he was longing for into the night. I fantasized about how sad I could pretend to be when Kate got home from work.
Once I was out of names to guess I had to apply one, so I called him Charlie. Then I called him Bear. Then Charlie Bear, Charles the Bear, and it went on and on from there. My constant variation on the theme didn’t help him learn his name any faster, but that seemed pretty unimportant considering he was frequently using our tables as a podium for his howls and trying to take little bites from the back legs of the cat. Henry spent most of those first weeks following me around looking up at me, confused.
This dog hadn’t come through the woods to our neighborhood, he came FROM the woods.
I never let him out, but he escaped a few times. He would climb the six foot fence out back or dig underneath it. He would open the front door or bomb out behind me when I went to get the mail. When he got loose I’d just recapture him and afterwards I didn’t yell or hit or grouch. I did suplex him once, not exactly the best way to build trust with a jaded dog, but he isn’t a dog, not all of him. Also, he really really deserved it.
This was the heart of the worst winter of my lifetime and he demanded so much exercise, way more than Henry ever needed as a puppy and he is goddamn bird dog. It wasn’t safe to have the dogs out for any length of time and it was so cold they wouldn’t go for walks. Charlie didn’t know how a leash worked anyways and the honeymoon was over for Henry, he had started to resent the companion I forced upon him. Against my better judgement I started taking them to the dog park. Charlie wasn’t aggressive towards Henry, in fact they got along perfectly provided Charlie stayed the hell our of my bedroom. I had no reason to think he would try and kill another dog, but I was wrong.
The first times we went there were only a handful of other dogs because it was so cold and the sprinting around made me much more manageable. As the temperature rose so did the dog park’s population and I learned about another one of Charlie’s entertaining peccadilloes: occasionally he will violently and forcefully dominate other dogs.
A young girl came through the double gate with her beautiful, fawn boxer pup who, like Charlie, was about a year old. I watch Charlie dash towards from from a hundred yards away. A red surface missle he flew, chest first into the boxer and knocked it down on top of the girl. She had half fallen into the fence and Charlie wrapped his front legs around the dog in the full mount. He was snarling and snapping and making that lovely pit bull sound, it sent the owner into shivering fits of screams and cries for help. I ran over as fast as I could and pleaded with this girl to calm down and I tried to pry Charlie out of the tangle. I don’t go for much magical thinking, but the way the emotions of dogs are tethered to the humans around them is remarkable. She was freaking out and although Charlie was on top of her, pinning her against the fence with her own dog, he wasn’t trying to hurt her. He wasn’t even trying to hurt the dog, he was just dominating it, wanting nothing more than hold it to the ground.
When she wouldn’t calm down I grabbed Charlie by his harness with one hand and picked him up off the ground, a feat of strength I could probably never repeat. His harness twisted and choked him so as I stared him down, still holding him up he wiggled and lunged at my face to get free — this made him seem all the more dangerous to the crowd of other dog owners that were gathering around. I was apologizing to everyone profusely and now they yelling and chastising both Charlie and me. If you see an altercation with dogs, keep your mouth shut until the situation is resolved. Remember what I said about dogs and their emotions? It’s just as stupid as screaming and clapping at fighting dogs.
One of the owners followed me to my car, threatening to get his gun and execute Charlie on the spot, so I am yelling back and getting all worked up. There was an older lady calling 911. Charlie didn’t know how to walk on a leash and all these people were yelling so I picked him up and carried him across the gravel parking lot to the back of my car. He was unwilling to jump up into the back. I should have just put him in the back seat but I set him down, opening the hatch and when I went to lift him up he lost it. He was so overwhelmed, he jumped up like a marlin that had been hooked at sea and curved his body in the air as he tried to bite me, sincerely, for the first time. He meant it. I caught him mid snap and reflexively flung him over my shoulder as I collapsed backwards. He hit the metal grating hard, we were both out of breath.
It was all my fault. I put him in a situation I shouldn’t have. A feral dog has no business at the dog park when you have no experience with him, when he doesn’t know how to come or how to sit or even his own goddamn name. I don’t believe in negative reinforcement, much less a body slam and I don’t mean what I am about to say to be misinterpreted as an avocation of violence of any kind towards animals. I don’t know how or why, but that toss over my shoulder changed that dog. He never snapped at me again. Later that day was the first time he sat with me on the couch, the first time he put his head in my lap. Every day since then has been a little bit better than the day before. Sometimes the wrong decision isn’t the wrong decision and you just have to accept it. That even though if you had a second chance you’d do it differently, it doesn’t mean you’d do it better.
I am not saying I threw him and he was all better. It’s been two years and he still acts like a jerk to Kate sometimes. We play this game when he sits between us on the couch. He likes to ball himself up nearby but if Kate touches him he snorts and runs away to a chair or his bed. I rub his belly and his head and even stick my fingers in his mouth while Kate scowls at me because he like it. Charlie is the dog I wanted when I was ten, the dog who loves his boy more than everyone else. To mess with him I set my hand on top of his back and then Kate puts her arm over mine and we slowly swap. Most of the time he notices immediately and jumps down off the couch barking and telling us to knock it off with the funny business. We laugh and he climbs back up hoping we will leave him alone.
His bad habits have withered with time. He no longer wails at the door, but he still cries on command. I just have to pick up my guitar and play some high pitched flourish of a Metallica solo I learned in high school that I can barely remember and he will howl right along. The last report card I got from the doggie day care he occasionally visits characterized him as “the life of the party” and “the perfect pampered pet” for his bath after boarding. He’s sitting right next to me as I write this, patiently waiting to be walked. I can’t believe how far he’s come, or how far I have for that matter.
He likes other people now, usually men. My best friend Denny is his favorite, a stout Greek homunculus who could put me on his back and squat me forty times. He looks like a centaur below his waist down and his arms are full of tattoos. Charlie adores him because he thinks Denny is a pit bull too, one of the tribe. He stayed over on an air mattress in our office one night, about six months after we got Charlie. When I woke up, I came downstairs and Charlie was at his feet, snoring. It was the first and only time he has slept with someone else, I knew then he’d come around, eventually.
We have had a lot of adventures these past two years and there were times I didn’t know why I was putting myself through all this trouble for a stupid dog. A dog that I didn’t like and who constantly reminded me that he longed to be free of my wretched household. Then I walk by our guest bedroom, Charlie’s room, where he has pulled all four pillows to the middle of the bed and knotted the comforter into a nest. Charlie is on his back, wiggling and moaning for me to come and rub his belly. So I do and he likes it for a second and then growls and runs away.
I am not trying not to persuade you to trap a badger, fight it into the bathtub, and take a selfie with it to feel like you accomplished something. This isn’t about loving a stray dog. It’s about loving something with teeth and grit.
We spend so much time loving what’s easy that difficult love often goes unaccomplished. Charlie taught me how to persevere, that big red clap trap of his lurching up at my face made me rethink what obstacle meant. It made writing those first 80,000 words of that novel I always told myself I could write easy. Maybe for you it isn’t a book, maybe it’s heaving your body weight over your head or seeing the Santorini sunset from the tip of Oia. It doesn’t matter what it is so long as it can kill you if you aren’t careful.
Loving is good. Loving what tries to bite your face is better.