Loving a Dog with Issues

Preview Edward Grinnan's moving memoir and discover how prayer, training and a house in the woods helped his dog Marty's behavior problems in this excerpt from Always By My Side.

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- Posted on Mar 3, 2017

Edward Grinnan with his beloved canine companion, Millie

Shortly after these events, we moved back to the West Side to our old apartment on Thirtieth Street, where Sally had spent the first months of her life with us before our temporary relocation to the East Side.

Marty did not take the move in stride. In fact, it seemed to unnerve him, leaving the only home he had ever really known for some strange new space in a larger building full of strangers with strange dogs like Freddy, a rescued terrier mix who lived with our neighbor down the hall, Cynthia. Maybe Freddy’s terrier genes, reminiscent of the bully boy Angus, caused Marty to go into a rage at the mere scent of him. Or maybe it came from the fact that Freddy was inplicably unfixed, something I never under- stood in a rescued dog. If Marty saw him, he would launch an attack, jerking you off your feet if you didn’t plant your weight, take the leash in two hands, and counteract his lunge. Whatever the case, it was a problem.

It became a bigger problem as Marty grew to a muscular one hundred pounds by his third birthday, almost the size of Julee, whose safety I was beginning to worry about. Not that Marty would ever intentionally hurt her. He was utterly devoted to her. But when he went into a rage, there was no telling the collateral damage. Even I had trouble holding on to him. And it wasn’t just the unfortunate Freddy who set him off. Most terriers did. Marty was unpredictable, which was the greatest mystery of all.

Except for these meltdowns, he was the sweetest animal. So many people loved him. Julee understood his vulnerabilities and grew to be tremendously protective. She was vigilant for situations that would trigger him. She would take him down to Saint Francis, light candles for him, and ask for the friar’s blessings. I looked into a condition called hyperadrenalism, where the adrenal gland is triggered but lacks the hormonal mechanism to shut itself down. Marty certainly fit the bill. But we couldn’t find a vet who knew how to treat it.

One beautiful evening in early September, we decided to take the dogs out for dinner. Or rather take them with us while we ate at an outdoor café on Columbus Avenue. Sally and Marty loved this since invariably they would score some table scraps, if not from us then from fellow diners. New Yorkers are like that. We secured Sally’s leash to one of the chairs and Marty’s to the table itself, which had a wooden top and a heavy metal base. The waitress took our order and brought a bowl of water for the dogs.

We were halfway through the meal when a woman passed by walking a dog who may have been part Scottie. That was enough for Marty. He went berserk. He leaped up, roaring like a rhinoceros. I tried to grab his leash. Too late. He pulled the table over, food flying and glassware shattering. And then he was off in pursuit of the enemy dog, dragging the table behind him, moving in a kind of slow-motion gallop up Columbus Avenue. The woman with the dog looked back in horror and ran. People scattered. The table banged up against a parked car, setting off the alarm. I finally caught up to Marty and wrestled him to the ground and tried to calm him. He was having a fit.

A busboy came to retrieve the table. I’m not sure what country he was from, but I was pretty certain he had never seen anything like this. Because of the nervous looks on our fellow diners’ faces, I was reluctant to walk Marty back to the outdoor dining area, so I kept him at a distance while Julee tried to assuage the owner and pay for the damages. He would hear nothing of it, insisting insurance would cover it and, by the way, the meal was on the house and—unspoken—please take away your dogs and never bring that crazy one back again.

Marty was as sweet as an angel on the walk back to the apartment. He strode more like a lion than a dog. He made friends with folks who stopped to admire his magnificence, said a friendly hello to several dogs he found absolutely no objection to. Still, once back at the apartment, Julee buried her head in her hands and said, “We have to do something.”

So again we turned to Polly. She had never failed us. This time would be the first. “I’m not really an expert in this kind of aggression,” she said, sitting on our couch the day after the incident and giving Marty a hug. (He adored Polly ever since he spent that weekend with her when he finally lost the great battle of wills; he respected his conqueror.) “And, frankly, Marty now weighs almost what I do, which makes it hard for me to work with him from a physical standpoint.”

But she did have an idea, Dr. B, out in New Jersey. “He’s not your ordinary dog trainer,” she said. “I’ll give him a call.”

In fact, Dr. B was a noted professor of clinical psychology at a state university. During his grad-student years, when he did the grunt work in the laboratory, evaluating behavioral experiments carried out with a variety of animals, he grew more interested in animal psychology than in what makes humans tick.

 “The animals trained me!” he told us on our first meeting, at his house in a woodsy suburb on a crisp fall day that smelled of apples and burning leaves. “They’re more interesting than humans.” Which was how Dr. B became an animal behaviorist working in a university psychology department. “You can’t understand an experiment unless you understand the psychology of the animals being used in that experiment.” He sighed. “Sometimes my colleagues can’t grasp that concept.”

He poured us coffee and read his notes from his conversation with Polly.

 “I think Marty’s aggression is almost certainly fear-based rather than an overzealous desire for dominance or antisocial behavior. I can tell he is a very bright, friendly dog,” he said. “I strongly suspect his inappropriate behavior is triggered by fear, like many people’s. It’s not so different.”

Julee wiped away a tear, and I gave Marty a pat on his massive neck.

“I would like you to leave Marty with me for a while.”

“How long?” Julee asked. “Like a day?”

“No, this will probably take weeks. I want him to live with me, so I can get to know him. At night, he will sleep in my garage. Don’t worry. It’s heated and carpeted. It’s very nice, very comfortable.”

“But he’ll get so lonely!” Julee cried.

“After the work we will do, Marty will need some time to himself. Dogs need their privacy too.”

 “When can we see him?”

“You will have weekend visitations.”

I detected Julee’s hand twitching and curling like she wanted to snatch Marty’s leash and escape with him. She’d once threatened to run off with Marty to the most remote spot in North America she could find. “I’ll wait tables in a diner in Idaho. I’ll live in a trailer. I’ll do anything to protect this dog.” I believed her too.

“This isn’t something we can correct overnight, Julee,” Dr. B said. “It’s going to take work. Please trust me.”

Dr. B was a big guy and Marty had taken a clear liking to him already, which finally helped Julee relax. A few minutes later, after agreeing on a price for his services, we stiffened our upper lips and handed over our beautiful and beloved white Lab to Dr. B.

“I’m going to have to sell some recording equipment to pay for this,” Julee said on the way back to Manhattan. I told her that wasn’t necessary; we’d figure something out. “No, I think I should,” she insisted. As if it were some kind of penance.

“It wasn’t anything you did, Jules,” I said. “Don’t beat yourself up.”

“Maybe it was. Maybe Marty feeds off my own fear. Maybe I did this to him.”

“Don’t be ridicu—,” I started to say before it was too late.

“Don’t say I’m ridiculous! I know that dog better than you do, Edward. I know Marty better than anyone. Remember that.”

We rode the rest of the way home in silence.

For the next four Saturdays, Julee and I rented a car and drove to New Jersey to work with Marty and Dr. B. It was not lost on me the similarities between this and family weekends at drug and alcohol rehabs I’d been a patient in. I hoped Marty didn’t think he had done anything wrong, the way I did in those situations. No matter how many times they tell you in rehab that it’s no use feeling guilty, you always do.

How happy Marty always was to see us! Yet clearly he was enjoying himself in the New Jersey woodlands. “He’s collected just about every stick on the hillside,” Dr. B said. “This dog loves the outdoors, and he wants tons of exercise.”

“We walk him four times a day in the city, at least,” Julee said a bit defensively. “I take him everywhere.”

Dr. B made no response to this.

On those Saturdays, we worked with Dr. B and Marty on anticipating trigger events and how to avoid them, or once they occurred, how to short-circuit Marty’s response by redirecting his behavior and lavishing him with praise and reassurance. We worked on giving him confidence and a sense of security. In two of the sessions Dr. B required Sally’s attendance, so he could evaluate her effect on Marty. For her part, Sally seemed eager to demonstrate that she could learn things quicker than Marty could. She loved showing off and she was a crafty little dog to say the least. And I had the strangest sense that she knew exactly what was going on with Marty and Dr. B. She sometimes had a contentious relationship with her brother, but she also had great empathy for him. You could tell by the way she barked and worried and paced the shoreline every time he dove wildly into some lake. You could tell now, when she watched him work with Dr. B, there was something in her eyes and attentive posture that said she wanted Marty to be okay for the sake of our little pack. There was sibling rivalry, of course, but there was sibling love too. I wondered what one would ever do without the other.

After a month, we got Marty back. Sally barked and nipped at him for being away. We threw him a little party with his favorite delicacies: filet mignon, shrimp, and ice cream, in small portions of course. Julee and I ate the leftovers, with a few bites for Sally.

All that winter Marty was on his best behavior. We had a couple of close calls to be sure, but we were ever vigilant for situations that might set him off and were ready with Dr. B’s countermeasures. Julee did some touring overseas that spring, and we hired a big strong dog walker to handle Marty while I was at work. Our main requirement was brute strength, and the guy we hired, Blake, moonlighted as a bouncer, which was just about a perfect answer to prayer.

Everything came crashing down on July Fourth. We were walking the dogs early, before the fireworks started. The streets were crowded. People were setting off firecrackers. The air crackled with energy. Maybe all the commotion made Marty nervous. We took him around a corner, hoping to get away from the crowds. He practically collided with another dog who was extended well out on a flexi leash, a small terrier with a big star-spangled cape, all dressed up for the festivities. Marty snapped. Instantly, he had the dog in his mouth. It was like something out of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins from Sunday nights on TV when I was a kid. I didn’t know what else to do but slam him with my fist between his shoulder blades until he dropped the dog.

Julee and I were horrified. The terrier’s owners were in shock, their dog bleeding on the sidewalk. I could not say a prayer fast enough. Please don’t let this dog die.

Julee and I put the owners and their dog in a cab and sent them up to the Animal Medical Center, then took Marty and Sally home before heading to the medical center ourselves. We found them in the waiting room. Their dog was in surgery, having a scalp wound stitched up and other injuries attended to but he was expected to be all right after a night in the hospital for observation. The dog’s name was Mookie. “He’s very traumatized,” one of the owners said. We didn’t know how to begin to apologize. Mortified wasn’t a strong enough word.

“We’ll pray for him,” I said.

“We’ll pray for you and your dog too,” they answered.

We stopped by the cashier on the way out and had them run our credit card to cover the dog’s expenses. I prayed we had enough room on our credit line.

The streets were crazy. Cabs were impossible to get, and buses were packed. It was a beautiful night, so Julee and I decided to walk back to our apartment. I stopped by a deli to buy a cold bottle of water, not because I was thirsty but because my hand hurt from punching Marty, though I was sure he was just fine. I could have hit him with a tire iron, and it wouldn’t have fazed him.

As it happened, we walked by the little courtyard where Marty played as a puppy, where Angus used to lord it over him. “You know, Marty would actually roll over and pee he was so scared of that dog,” Julee said. We sat on the low wall of the fountain where young Marty had first experienced the joy of swimming. Julee broke down in sobs.

 “Edward, I’m afraid we’re going to have to put him down. I can’t stand the thought of him hurting another dog.”

“We’re getting way ahead of ourselves, Jules,” I said.

“No. What if they report him? They have our names. What if the city takes him away? I’d rather we do it ourselves with our own vet. And if we give him away, who’s to say he isn’t going to hurt another animal? Or get killed in a fight on some farm somewhere? You don’t know how much I pray for that dog. I pray for Marty every day, begging God to keep him safe, pleading. I hardly pray for anything else anymore.”

I put my arms around her. “You always said that Marty deep down inside was a good dog, a misunderstood dog, a dog who wanted to do right, that he was more your dog than any other dog had ever been. I just don’t believe you’re ready to give up on him. I’m not. God’s not.”

 “Those owners bear some of the blame,” Julee said, standing up. “Flexi leashes are totally irresponsible in the city. They put that dog at risk. I’m going to tell them!”

“I agree about the flexi,” I said, resuming our walk, “but let’s just focus on helping Marty.”

The dogs were waiting for us. I sensed a pall over the apartment. Marty was down. He barely greeted us. Sally, who was a witness to the mayhem, stayed curled up on the couch, though eventually she brought me a toy. When it was time for bed, we all crowded into the bedroom and turned out the lights. There were rumbles in the night, but I couldn’t tell if it was fi reworks or thunder. I wandered into the kitchen at about 3:00 a.m. to find Julee drinking coffee. She seemed pretty wired.

 “I know what we’re going to do about Marty.”

“What?” I said, half dumb with sleep.

“We’re going to buy him a house.”

“We are? What, a doghouse?”

“No, a real house. It’s the only solution.”

Julee and I had always dreamed of moving up from our one-bedroom rental to a larger apartment of our own. There were some good deals coming on the market in our Chelsea neighborhood, which was on the way up, according to the New York Times. And I’d recently been promoted to editor- in-chief of Guideposts. Still, a little vacation place in the country seemed far in our future.

We occasionally borrowed a house in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts from a friend, Amanda, who was the Juilliard-trained keyboardist for 10,000 Maniacs and frequently on tour with the band. If she couldn’t rent her place out, we got to use it. And it was true: Marty loved the country. He was a different dog there. He loved the hills and the streams and the lakes, and he taught me to love them too, reconnecting me with my formative years in Michigan.

In the weeks that followed, Julee and the dogs, using Amanda’s cabin as a base of operations, roamed the Berkshires for the perfect place. I joined them on the weekends. One day Julee called me at the office. “Marty found his house.”

“He did?”

“He loves it. It’s a little funky, a hand-hewn post-and-beam built into a hillside. All peg construction, not a nail in sight. Not the usual layout, so I’m not surprised they’re having a little trouble moving it. We’ll have to paint and put in a heating system . . . ”

“We’ll what?”

“Marty just ran around in circles when we got here. He practically knocked down the real estate broker. It comes with thirteen wooded acres, not developable, so they’re more or less throwing it in. But it’s a kingdom for him. There’s some kid poet squatting here now, a dropout from Simon’s Rock College who’s into Gary Snyder—there’s pictures of him everywhere—but he’s happy to move on. He says he’s been waiting for us to come. He’s already communed with the dogs and is writing a poem about them and their new house. Edward, this is perfect.”

“What does Sally think?”

“She wants what Marty wants at this point, I think.” Which is how the Berkshires house came to be ours—or the dogs’ rather. My mother had recently died and left us enough money for a down payment. Julee said, “This is exactly what Estelle would have wanted us to do with the money. I know this is her doing.” At the closing, Julee asked if Marty’s and Sally’s names could be added to the deed. She was only half-kidding.

ORDER ALWAYS BY MY SIDE BY EDWARD GRINNAN

 

 

Always By My Side

In this moving memoir, Guideposts Editor-in-Chief Edward Grinnan takes you on a wondrous journey with Millie, a golden retriever, whose compassion, intelligence and empathy teach him what really matters in life. Their unique relationship changed his life, shaped his decisions, and gave him blessings that he never expected. Order Now

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