Wednesday, June 26, 2013


(Note: I said some of these posts might be about dogs. This one is. Not a lot of MD, but I'll make an effort to tie it in.)

These days, my brain doesn’t gently rise into wakefulness, it grinds.
I roll over into Day # I-no-longer-know and my brain turns over like an old car starting on a sub-zero morning, metal on metal, replaying the horrible events of the past few days, revisiting alternate scenarios, getting good ideas that might have made a difference, remembering good ideas I had but never acted upon…

The good things I did? They are waiting somewhere in back closet, covered up by old coats.

The house is so quiet. Al’s back on the road and I’m so glad he’s not here to experience my breath – the breath born of a diet of Ativan, Valium and few actual calories, but for those in Mad Housewife white zin.

Yes, the house is quiet. We’re down to one dog. Chloe is gone. I knew she was nervous and noisy – panting and pacing, shaking the house when she ran with Jakson to the window to register her displeasure with the UPS man. But damn, what a vacuum in her absence.

Empty things.

I’ll get right to it: last Friday, Chloe attacked a neighbor and his dog. They were injured but will heal in time. As soon as we could, we had a vet come to the house and put her down. She died with rabbit stew in her mouth, and her family’s hands touching her. She loved and was deeply loved. She was dangerous. How strange that those can go together.

When Dinah, our beloved Rott-mutt, died in August of 2009, Al and I obsessively trolled Rott rescues and Petfinder. We found Chloe in the Clarksville TN animal shelter. She was magnificent. A huge, healthy, pure-bred Rottie girl who, when we put our fingers through the cage, wagged her nub to a blur and licked our hands. She had been dumped at the shelter in the middle of the night with a note saying her name was Chloe and she was a year old. She was spayed. We put her in the play yard with another beautiful, but very sad Rottie girl. Chloe tried and tried to get her to play, but the sad Rottie just sat at the gate looking for her owners. So many times, I’ve wondered how it all would have played out if we’d taken the sad, loyal girl.  But we took the happy, goofy one.

There was a feeling of falling backwards off a cliff – of believing that it all would work out. Like when Al and I decided to get married. Like when we got Dinah. Like the first moments of all the most beautiful things in my life.

Then next day, which was Halloween, I had to teach and Al got the van and drove back out there, trying to beat a Rottie rescue group who was also on their way.

Chloe hopped right in the van. Al called me from the road. Guess who I have sitting right here beside me, he asked.

(Last night, I dreamed about a tiny, Rottie puppy, just so new, but with big, all-seeing eyes. I held it in my arms. In the dream, Al had brought this puppy home with him, but it wasn’t for me, it was for “Carl” (as in “Good Dog, Carl”?) but all that was incidental. What was powerful was looking deeply into this puppy’s eyes. I hope this means that Chloe has found her way back down to the planet. Or that she is now all-seeing. She was so beautiful.)

Not everyone finds the Rottie to be beautiful, but we do.

As soon as we got Chloe home, we fenced in our back yard, though the way our house was configured, we couldn’t just open a door and let out dogs. At the time, we were fostering an East Nashville street mutt named Jakson but didn’t plan to keep him. Chloe and Jakson got along great. Loud, but great. They ran and ran and ran. Big circles, crazy wrestling, then stillness, pounding play-bows, then off into the circles again. Jak yodeled like a soprano throughout. Buddies. We decided to keep the Jak-Man.
Holding hands.

Soon after the fence guys left, I watched as Chloe flattened her body to about 3 inches – think Rottweiler, post steamroller – and slithered underneath the chain link fence. And thus began a career of impulse and escapism that 1. Explained her surrender to the shelter and 2. Resulted in the terrible events that led in her death.

The fence guys came back and made it all slither-proof, but Chloe, though she sported a dumb-as-a-post affect, had a singular brilliance, a fine-tuned awareness of any opportunity to get loose.

When we got her, Chloe knew nothing. NOTHING. Besides being housebroken, she’d clearly had no training of any kind, except for how to lick people. The licking was … well, it was really something. The girl had a tongue. But in short order, I taught her sit, down, shake, catch food, basic recall – the foundations. She was waaay smarter than she looked and loved using her big fat brain.

Seriously. The tongue was like an alien being.

But she was nervous. She panted. She paced. It was as if she was plugged into a socket that gave her too much energy, or maybe the wrong kind of energy. She ran and ran in the back yard. We took her on long, long walks and, in those early days, to the dog park, where she mostly ignored the dogs and did NOT run, just sniffed and stood around aimlessly like Ferdinand the Bull. But given the slightest provocation – a loud noise, getting fed, someone at the door, a sudden movement – she panted, paced, spun.  Jakson taught her to bark and the two of them raised holy hell in harmony.

I enrolled her in obedience at Nashville Dog Training Club. As I recall, she did two levels of obedience and seemed totally happy and unconcerned around other dogs. She did one level of agility. It was during the second level – an absolutely huge class of dogs – that she began to fixate on a Weimaraner for reasons I could never understand. It made people nervous. We were banished to a corner of the room and eventually stopped going. No one likes the staring Rottie. I guess I can understand but I was hurt that the instructors did not reach out to me.

Then, in a move so “first-world” it makes me cringe, I enrolled her in a class for nervous dogs. I’ll say it here: if you want to make your nervous dog more nervous, put her in a small room full of nervous dogs and make her do “exercises.” What a crock.

She had her relaxed moments.

 On our daily walks, Chloe began lunging at passing dogs. I remembered that bratty behavior from Dinah’s teenage years and made it clear that it was not to be tolerated. She had some tantrums. We won.

A year or two in, I spotted a litter of puppies in a yard near our house. The mama dog was tied up on a short line. As the puppies grew older, they ventured closer and closer to the street. I called EastCAN, a local rescue, and worked with them to get the owners to relinquish the pups and we eventually placed them all.  A girlfriend from NYC took one. Another went to my neighbors, David and Cassie, across the street. I remember the day Cassie brought Gittel over to our house to meet my crew. Chloe got very excited and Gittel kept jumping up into Cassie’s arms. I could certainly understand. Ninety pounds vs. twenty pounds.

Cassie with Gittel. Note G's eyeliner, freshly applied.

I wish we’d kept up those visits. Instead, without talking about it, we just kept them apart. Over the years, Chloe became more and more agitated seeing Gittel in the street.

Trainers? We hired trainers and followed all kinds of advice. We sat at the entrance to Shelby Bottoms with a handful of hotdogs and let Chloe watch dogs as they walked past. We went with other dogs and owners on walks through parks and urban areas. We took her to Florida where she swam in the ocean at the dog park, we had people over and made her practice sitting while they came in. We had dinner parties where she lay in the middle of the floor and farted. 99% of the time, she was pretty good.

The issue was with dogs on OUR street. And containment, for whenever we let down our guard for a second – or we had a party, or I went out the basement doors to water the plants and forgot to close the basement stairs – she and her sidekick were GONE, flying down the street shouting so long suckahhhhs….

Two years ago, we went up north and left the dogs in the care of a substitute dog sitter. I could not have been more emphatic about the importance of containment, shutting the gate fully, etc. But in a moment of supreme f-up, the girl left the gate slightly ajar and Chloe jumped at the chance to run. Out in the street, she saw Cassie and Gittel coming out for a walk. She ran over, jumped up on Cassie’s shoulders, scaring her, then went after Gittel, growling and dominating her. Thankfully, there were no bites but both were terrified. She had upped the ante in a big way.
Seriously? Why would you do that. You idiot. (Yes,
sometimes I found myself wanting to have words with her.
At the same time, I knew it was up to us.)
We immediately rebuilt the back wall of our house to create a door that would go directly into the back yard. That helped.

Chloe also exhibited something called “redirected aggression” which is sort of like when you have a bad day at work and take it out on your husband but in Chloe’s world meant you get excited about some stimulus (other dog) then jump on Jakson and beat him up a little. Jakson was surprisingly forgiving about these brief but noisy exchanges, but it didn’t seem fair.

For me at least, this meant we needed to walk the dogs separately. With Al on the road many weeks of the year, that was double the walking for me. Our lives were now revolving more and more around Chloe’s increasing issues but we remained committed to helping her be the best dog she could be.

And yet so much was beyond our control. There are so many dogs that just run free in our neighborhood. One day, a loose Jack Russell Terrier ran up to us. Al had Jak. I had Chloe. It all happened so fast. The JRT ran up to me and Chloe. I opted to keep the leash loose and let them sniff, as that often worked in these situations. But Chloe picked up the dog and shook it. She dropped the dog, which ran off. We located the owners and the dog was ultimately ok, but it was alarming and instructive.

After a brief and expensive foray with yet another trainer, we hired Nikki, a behaviorist who specialized in anxious dogs and in understanding their language. She impressed us in the first five minutes. “Let her lick me,” she said, when we described Chloe’s obsessive licking. Chloe slobbered happily all over her arms and neck. Suddenly, Nikki let out a short, piercing “EEEK” and pulled her arms in toward her body. Chloe did the classic double take, took a few steps back and stared at her. She circled around and stared again. From that point on, her licking was dramatically reduced. We taught the technique to every new person who came in the house.

Nikki taught us that we had to let Chloe think for herself. She taught us fun “thinking” games to play with the dogs and I played with them for hours. It was fascinating. Did it improve Chloe’s self-esteem? More important: WAS THIS A CONFIDENCE ISSUE OR WERE POWERFUL GENETIC IMPULSES AT PLAY, RIPENING IN HER BRAIN AS SHE GREW INTO ADULTHOOD? I was never sure about that.

Broken thing.

Twice, Nikki brought other dogs with her and we were able to practice on our street. These were by far the most helpful and effective sessions we ever had with any trainer. I wish we could have done it every day but at $175/hour, that wasn’t possible. Chloe caught on quickly that her tantrums and rage toward the other dogs would get her nowhere and soon we were walking up and down the street – our street – past these strange dogs. It gave us great hope. David and Gittel volunteered to participate in the next session but Nikki cancelled. She had to cancel several more times after that and somehow life and travel and schedules and not being rich intruded and we didn’t work with her again, though we used her techniques.

As she’d recommended, we went several times to a spot near the dog park so Chloe could practice being around other dogs. It was hard work, for both of us. She did it, but she seemed so miserable.

Broken thing. (I think she was a little broken.)

Al stepped up. He loved walking Chloe on her new “shortie” – a 12-inch lead recommended by Nikki that gave him total control, even when she was being an ass for no reason. They developed a new bond.

So. Stage, set.

Last Friday, Al had Chloe tied up in the front yard while he mowed the yard. David and Gittel came down their driveway. Chloe went from relaxed grass-lounging to running at full-speed. The line snapped. There was a fierce melee, a scramble of men and dogs. David and Gittel, both bitten and bloody, were driven off to their respective hospitals and Al made one miserable call to me, up in Michigan where I was at an outdoor concert under a beautiful evening sky.

Al flew up to Michigan Saturday morning, leaving the dogs with our housemate, Pru. I played the most surreal gig of my career, hugging dozens of friends, pretending to be normal, happy and excited. Sunday morning, we drove back to Tennessee and were met at the door by the usual spinning, gleeful puppy antics.

Monday was spent trying to find a vet to come the house to put Chloe down, dealing with Animal Control (an utterly bizarre and confounding exchange) and reaching out to our neighbors. Monday night was very sad. Below, Al gets some face time.

Tuesday, we kept things as normal as possible. Our neighbor, Steve, came over to say goodbye. Chloe absolutely adored him and I love this video (below). For some reason, it gives me great comfort.

We played in the backyard.

At 4, a vet came by, a friendly woman named Jennifer. She gave Chloe a sedative and went outside for some final photos. The Big C began to get woozy and we led her back inside where she lay down on a blue blanket that has been very popular at our house.

I fed her some rabbit stew. She was happy about that and seemed completely unconcerned with the deft work the vet was doing. Jak watched and seemed equally unconcerned. Soon, she slipped away.

I'm sorry if this is morbid. Mostly, though,
I'm just sorry.

The vet left. A little while later, the cremation folks showed up. And that was that. That night, I made a little candle shrine for Chloe out next to our mailbox and sat in the street staring at it. Brought Jak out hoping he’d effect a reverential attitude, but no. 

Cassie and I hugged and spoke in the glow of the streetlight. It was both a good and painful conversation.

Sadly, Al had to leave early the next morning for a tour with Bettye. That has been a struggle. The grief – but mostly the thought that my dog had hurt someone – brought me to my knees.

A day or two after Chloe died, I ventured across the street to visit with David and Gittel and was so relieved to find them healing and in good and forgiving moods. I sat on the floor in their living room and hand-fed Gittel sliced turkey and sobbed on and off. David and I had the kind of open conversation that felt blessed. What everyone seems to agree on is that it could have been so much worse. For instance, it could have been a child.

I emailed a letter to the people I know on my street, acknowledging what happened, filling in the details. I got some nice responses. I posted about Chloe’s death on Facebook, but this will be the full account, for those who want to know it.

I suspect there are people who think I shouldn’t post or blog in a loving way about a dog that bit a neighbor. Or that because we fucked up – which we did, by not containing her properly – that we don’t deserve the luxury of public regret and explanation. I suspect that there were people who were afraid of her, and who thought we were irresponsible owners. I know there were plenty who loved her and knew how hard we worked with her, that she wasn’t a monster, that it wasn’t her fault.

Speaking of fault, I want to talk about blame.

Yes, I want to blame someone. Someone besides us. Just for a little while. Bear with me.

I want to blame the backyard breeder who brought her into the world. The selfish, uneducated idiot who put two good-looking Rottweilers together to make some money. In fact, I want to blame backyard breeders everywhere, and the people who buy dogs from them, perpetuating a cycle of overpopulation, neglect and disaster that dog rescuers just can’t keep up with. For when those cute puppies are sold – often weeks before the critical eight-week threshold – they are often brought home by equally selfish, uneducated idiots who stick them in the back yard and don’t train them. Then, they end up in shelters where hopeful, educated idiots like me take a chance that good care, discipline, training and consistency might overpower the giant roulette game that is their genetic destiny.

And it ends up like this.

It’s been several days since I started this too-long account and my brain is starting to calm down. Jakson seems somewhat stunned. He sleeps a lot. In July, we’ll be spending a week on Lake Michigan where he can clamber across the rocks and swim in the water. Chloe, I hope, will be nearby, a bird, a fish, a sudden shadow on the sand.