This is not my dog.
He wasn’t always this way. For most of his life, my dog walked by people of any color. He didn’t care. Anyone could walk right up to him, pat him on the head, and he’d show total indifference.
His attitude changed a few years ago. His hips came out of joint, he had surgery, and then he just sat around on the couch for a while. Maybe it was all the TV I let him watch, I don’t know.
His legs unstiffened, but he stayed grumpy, and even growled at me when I tried to pick him up. People who used to be friendly with him couldn’t come near him anymore. He’d get up and walk away before he’d let himself be pet. Anyone he didn’t recognize was a threat, and if you didn’t look like me, say you had an unfamiliar, shape, color, or smell, he turned aggressive. At first, he’d huff, pull back his top lip, and percolate a low, throaty growl. It was easy to hold him back, at first, but as the year went on, his attitude worsened. His growl gave way to a bark, and he’d jump forward when certain people passed.
I’d like to say that I trained him to stop, but I didn’t. I’ve never been good at discipline. The repetition necessary to train an animal is tiresome, and I start to feel depressed before the lesson has sunk in. But I tried for a while with my dog (one afternoon, really), then gave up and decided it would be easier to practice prevention. Whenever I saw a person of a different type approaching, I would pull back on the dog’s leash and say “No,” but it was much easier to start walking in a different direction than it was for me to shout at the dog in public.
One night, as I walked him down the other end of the neighborhood, a guy came out of his house. My dog stopped stiff and shouted an obscene word. The word was shouted at the man, and the word was so obscene that all three of us stood suddenly still, like we wanted to be safe in that moment of time when none of us was really sure what was going on. My dog broke the shock by standing up on his hind legs and pointing at the man, then looking back at me, as if he was finally showing me the right side of an argument.
The man had been taking out his trash, but as the dog looked back at me, the man dropped his bags and rushed towards us. I jerked the dog up by his harness, cradled him in my arms, and took off in a blind panic in the opposite direction. I was running in the wrong direction from my house, but I didn’t care. I could hear the man’s footsteps getting closer for a second, then receding.
“That’s right,” he shouted, “keep running!”
I ducked around several trees and zig zagged across the block in case he followed us. It seemed like it would help to confuse the man. I haven’t walked in that direction since.
The next day, I drove the dog to a park and stopped at the grocery store on the way back. I left him inside the car for a few minutes while I went shopping, and when I came back out, a small crowd was gathered around the car. A woman glared at me. “Is that your dog?” She asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you know what he said to me?”
“No, I’m sorry…” I said.
“He called me a very offensive name,” the woman said.
“And me!” Shouted another man. “I was just walking by.
“Why would you teach your dog such horrible things?” The woman asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t teach him anything. He was a rescue dog. I don’t know where he picked it up.
“It’s disgusting,” she said. “You’re disgusting.”
I pulled my keys out and wedged myself between a few people in front of me and the car door. The dog pressed his fore paws against the inside of the window and barked out a string of invective at the crowd, who reacted with a roar.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Someone shouted. “Take your racist dog and crawl back into your hole!”
“I’m trying to,” I said. I fumbled with the keys. People were pushing me now. It made the dog more defensive and vocal. I struggled to keep hold of the bag of groceries in one hand, while juggling the keys in the other. I jammed a key into the lock and cracked the door open, tossing the bag of groceries toward the passenger seat. The dog was momentarily distracted by a tumbling summer sausage, and lept out of the way, allowing me to drop onto the driver’s seat and slam the door. As I got the engine started, the dog jumped onto my lap, howling defiantly at the crowd. They shook fists, spat, and banged on the hood as I drove away
I was afraid to take the dog out after that. I was afraid to go out myself after that, unless I had to. The neighborhood was full of ethnic people who were mad at me. I started throwing the dog in the back yard when he had to go, and I taped black fabric across the chain link fence so he couldn’t see people walking by.
We spent a lot of time on the couch. Sometimes we would watch TV, but I had to block some foreign language channels. There were days of just doing nothing, avoiding the outside. I started to feel bitter towards the people who had been in the parking lot. I was angry at them for being offended. I didn’t see why they should blame me for my dog’s prejudices. There was no point in getting angry at the dog. I wanted to be mad at him myself, but I was more amazed. He couldn’t understand the subtleties between love and fear. There were people he loved, and people he hated. I couldn’t explain to him that the world wasn’t black and white.
After a half-assed internet search on dog training, I decided I needed a code word, a word that I could use as a distraction to prevent my dog’s racist behavior. Drawing inspiration from my Web search, I chose the word ‘Boolean.’ It sounded like a word that could be a slur, but actually made no sense out of context. My dog would buy it, and more important, so would other people. I started with the TV. Every time we’d see someone of a different color, I’d put myself between the screen and the dog, shout the code word, and give my dog a treat. Eventually, I stopped blocking the screen and relied only on the word and the treat. For a week, I stayed inside with the dog, watching television, shouting, and giving out cheese cubes. Soon, I stopped blocking the TV, and was able to sit on the couch with the dog. We were ready to go out for a trial run.
We were fine for a few blocks, but then we saw a man rounding the block, coming towards us. I knew my dog would not like him, and as I knew this, I also knew that I didn’t like the man. I resented his appearance and his presence in my neighborhood.
I breathed in, calmly. The dog’s growling began, but I stopped him. “Boolean,” I said. The dog turned away from the man, and looked at me. I gave the dog a cube of cheese. The man was getting closer. When the dog turned away from me, he saw the man again and started to bark. “Boolean,” I said once, firmly pulling back the leash. The dog stopped and looked up at me. The man smiled at us, but began to hug the other side of the sidewalk. I held up another cube of cheese, but the man was beside us now and my dog turned abruptly, about to snap. “Boolean!” I shouted, but instead of sitting, the dog shouted back. “Boolean, Boolean!” We were both shouting it now, I at the dog, and the dog to the neighborhood, warning us all of the strange man who had now jumped out of our way and was walking briskly across the street, glancing nervously back over his shoulder with every other step. I crouched down and held the dog, turned him away from the man and got him to sit. He was still growling, but I fed him more cheese cubes. It could have been worse – there was no violence. It was a reaction I could work with.
And it’s worked out really well, actually. When people see us around the neighborhood now, they know to stay out of our way. We’re the unpredictable neighbors – the crazy man and his asshole dog. We frighten people, but we’re left alone. The real advantage though, is that for now, we’re not easily tagged. We’re eccentric aggressives, the people other people shake their heads at. Our behavior might not seem rational, but at least it doesn’t seem racist.