Introducing Strut!

As you may or may not know, I’m on the board of directors for Project Rescue Chicago (PRC). Among my friends, this role lends a little clout to my role as The Dog Pusher. For me, it means that I have a unique and rewarding opportunity to meet some amazing people and to help some very special dogs who might otherwise not make it out of the city-run shelter system. The first sentence of PRC’s mission statement resonated with me: “We believe all dogs, no matter their breed or background, deserve the chance to live as pets.” Yes, they do! Sign me up!

In my short (so far) tenure with PRC, I’ve had the chance to meet some amazing dogs (including currently available Noomi, Hunk, Trevor and Mouse); I’ve been part of a unique broken dog rescue; and I’ve seen a few heartbreaking cases, including a trio of Dogo Aregentinos who touched every volunteer who met them, which you can read about here. But maybe my motivation hasn’t been entirely altruistic. Maybe part of it has been to feed my canine fixation. We tried fostering, but found that Toni has a low tolerance for house guests—dashing my hopes for following in the footsteps of Love and a Six-foot Leash. So instead I educate sixth graders, inspire teenagers and otherwise do my best to satiate my canine needs. But maybe what I was really doing was waiting to receive a photo like this:

"Whoo hoo! Goodbye shelter life, hello world!"

Maybe I’ve been hoping to find a meathead just like this and discover a sweet, well-mannered pit bull who is a gentle as he is playful; who has a naughty streak but is so mortified when he’s scolded that scolding him is as fun as playing with him; who can tumble around the yard for hours with Téa but still respect Toni’s smack-down ways with good humor. Maybe I ‘ve been secretly hoping to find a dog who can rock accessories:

"What? Too big for my face?"

Maybe I’ve been hoping to find a dog who would use the baby pool (since Toni doesn’t seem to care about it and Téa seems to think it’s a bathtub in disguise):

Maybe I’ve just been waiting to fall in love again. I think you’ll understand why!

>Why we can’t say no


My brother, who also has a pit bull, has a theory about why those of us who love them, love them. He thinks it’s because their faces are so expressive, and I can’t disagree with that. I mean, let’s face it: basically, Bulldogs always look a little pissed off. Even when they’re happy. And labs—apologies to any Labrador owners out there—labs always look insanely happy and a little dense. But with our girls, we do get a wide variety of expressions: happy, concerned, curious, naughty, perplexed, hungry, frightened, surprised, sheepish. I could go on and on about all of the things I think our dogs are expressing to us, so I guess my brother might be on to something.

But for us, when we adopted our first pit bull, I don’t think we had any idea that we were really bringing home more than just a dog. Because when you have a pit bull, you are suddenly part of this huge secret society that you didn’t know existed. You see other people with pit bulls on the street and you can’t help but feel like you already like them. Just because they have a pit bull. I never felt like that when I had Golden Retrievers. And it’s not just me—people stop me all the time to tell me about their pit bulls and admire ours. I’m starting to think we should come up with a secret handshake and a password, just to make it official. And thankfully, in just the three years we’ve had pit bulls, our secret society is getting bigger and bigger, which means more and more pits are making it into happy homes where they will be loved and treated like part of the family.

The other thing that is unavoidable when you have a pit is dealing with the overwhelming information that comes from everywhere about what happens when pits live in the wrong environment. I can’t even really call it a home—it’s just the wrong environment. We all know the stories about the fighting, the vicious training techniques, the starvation and so on. That is not what pit bulls are about. It’s not what they were bred to do, not matter what you read in the papers. They are so good at fighting because they were bred to be people pleasersto put the needs of their owners above their own. So if a pit’s owner wants him to fight to the death, that’s what he’s going to do. Even in nature, dogs will show mercy and stop a fight as soon one dog backs down. The whole idea of fighting to the death is purely man-made.

As a result of these types of stories, and of picturing our own sweet dogs in the wrong hands (which they both were at some point), I’ve gotten involved in all sorts of volunteer activities I never imagined I would participate in. I’ve gone to adoption fairs to show off available pits. I’ve gone into the public schools to talk to seventh graders about why fighting dogs is wrong. We’ve sent our own dogs to stay at their daycare for nearly a week while we took in an abandoned pit who needed somewhere to go. She was literally given to our friend on the street because some guys felt sorry for her after her owners kicked her out of their apartment. She was left to live in the hallway of the building or be let out to fend for herself. You don’t often hear about Dachshunds being kicked out into the world to fend for themselves, but you hear it all of the time when it comes to pit bulls.

And don’t even get me started on the addiction to pit bull paraphernalia. We have the books, the posters, the t-shirts, the pet portraits, the coffee mugs and more. We even have stamps featuring T2—used for special occasions only, of course. Seriously, if they were Poodles or cats instead of pit bulls I think we’d get a lot more grief from what would be left of our friends. But something about it being a pit bull obsession seems to make it okay.

Which is why this blog was written, and why I hope it was interesting enough to you that you’re still reading it. My husband and I seem incapable anymore of saying no to anything that might help pit bulls regain their reputation as loving and admirable family pets. We will bore our friends and acquaintances with stories; we will talk to strangers we would normally prefer to avoid; we will attend events and spend money that would do better in our savings account. And we will continue to do so until pit bulls are no longer tortured, reviled and ostracized for simply existing.

>And Téa


In the movie The Sound of Music, there is a scene in which nuns musically lament the character of their fellow nun Maria, played by Julie Andrews. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” they ask. They call her a flibbertigibbet, a darling, a demon and a lamb, among other things. It’s not my favorite song in the movie, but having said that, there are many times when I look down at Téa’s sassy little face after she’s done something that ranges from mildly annoying to downright blood pressure raising…and I realize that the Maria song is what is going through my head. 

Téa was meant to be a temporary addition to our family, an opportunity to help a dog who needed help and a means of distracting Toni from her neuroses for a while. We specifically discussed a small dog (with just 1,000 square feet of city living for two humans and one human-sized dog—we really meant it when we said no more big dogs). We swore up and down that we were absolutely. not. under any circumstances. considering this newcomer as anything other than temporary. We were certain that we would not become smitten with a small dog anyway, so we weren’t very concerned.  

In all fairness, even as Téa (then called Nilla) was brought out to meet me, at 45 pounds she did actually seem small compared to Toni. But I probably didn’t even notice because she has one of those mush muzzles that just makes you want to grab it and squeeze it so she knows how adorable she is. And her little butt couldn’t stay still because her tail was going so hard. And her tail didn’t go back and forth the way you expect, it went in circles (probably due to the kink that we suspect is a poorly healed break) in a way that truly made it look like a helicopter. Did I mention those droopy eyes? It was all I could do not to toss her in the car before someone said I couldn’t have her. Between us, here’s the truth: Before I even called Chris to ask him to meet her after work, before we knew if she and Toni got along, before we knew what she was really even like…I stopped and bought her a (very cute) new collar. It was all over as soon as I swiped my credit card.

Téa has been an adventure of an entirely different sort than Toni. Nothing frightens Téa, not even the things that should. She is 100 percent excited about the things that excite her. This includes the realization that we are about to go out into the hall of our condo building. Whether we are actually leaving the building or just going to the trash chute, Téa does a little hop, skip and a jump the whole way, looking over her shoulder to be sure we are as excited as she is. It includes catching up to Toni if Toni has been allowed to walk more than half a pace in front of her. It includes visitors of all sorts—she has not yet met a guest who did not make her almost excited enough to vomit on him (and sometimes exactly that excited). She is delighted to be invited to sit in someone’s lap. She won’t just set herself daintily or crawl up with restraint. She flops, often followed by a little butt wiggle dance to be sure she has your attention. Her favorite toys are the ones that Toni won’t even acknowledge anymore—fluffy toy carcasses that she shakes and tosses as if they might try actually try to make a run for it.

Téa is also 100 percent excited about the things she does not like. Obviously this is not as endearing a quality as some of her others. It turns out there are many things she does not like. She does not like to wait for anyone who walks slower than the speed of light and used to do her best to bring us up to speed when we first brought her home. She does not like squirrels. She expresses this via a strange, primal, unworldly noise that can be heard for blocks. A friend heard it once and later told us she had thought that a cat had caught a rabbit and was torturing it to death. Téa is absolutely disapproving of small dogs—make that small dogs and fluffy dogs. If you are unfortunate enough to be a small, fluffy dog, she cannot even recognize you as a fellow canine. We think she might just consider you a squirrel whose hairline hasn’t receded to its tail yet.  She also doesn’t like dogs who stare at her, who bark at her, who bark at anything around her, who seem to be having more fun in the park than she is, who are interested in whatever kind of fun she is having…you get the idea. For a while, when she could not rid the world of these supposed vermin (also known as other people’s cherished family pets), she would do what any unruly, immature child would do—she lashed out at the closest thing she could reach. And like a three-year-old who hits her sister because she can’t have an ice cream, she would turn her fury on Toni, who was really just trying to have another sniff at the bush we were passing. Toni did her best to be tolerant, but one can really only take so much unjustified abuse before one decides to defend oneself. I’ll just remind you that Toni is about 25 pounds heavier than Téa and a good several inches taller; you can figure out how things were finally sorted out and Téa learned to control her temper. This is part of why Toni and
Téa work so well together as a pack—Toni’s maternal instincts outweigh her neuroses and meet Téa’s need for some good old fashioned mothering.

At this moment, Toni lies sleeping with her face jammed up against the back of the couch—if she can’t see the scary world, maybe it can’t see her either. Téa has her face jammed up against Toni’s (substantial) rear end, alternately snoring and making the little satisfied sighs of contentment that we’ve come to love.

And this is how it is at our house now, with our two big, scary pit bulls.

>Meet Toni


I know some people believe in love at first sight and some do not. I can fall into either category depending on my mood—I’m a little fickle that way. But I can’t deny that for us, if it wasn’t love at first sight when we first saw Toni, it was certainly as close as you can get to it otherwise. 
Toni was only the second pit bull we met when we began the search for our first canine family member together. Chris, my fiancé, had become smitten with American Pit Bull Terriers (APBT) and the rest of the pit bull family (including Staffordshire Terriers and Bull Terriers and others) when he met my brother’s little brindle, Pearl. This, of course, led to the classic puppy-as-a-birthday-present surprise. Except that she wasn’t a puppy; she was more like a massive, full grown, sweet beast of a dog surprise. 

Toni was part of a new program started by one of the large, popular animal shelters in Chicago. The first pit they brought down to meet us was nine months old. He sniffed distractedly in our direction, obviously smelled no treats on our persons and then took off in a gallop to circle the storage room we were in (which he circled continuously until he was escorted out 20 minutes later). He was handsome, to be sure, in his gangly, coltish way. But as I pictured my glass coffee table, antique side tables and the three flights of stairs we would be (specifically, I would be) running each night until he was fully house-trained, I admit I was a little hesitant.

They brought Toni in next. Chris had seen her photo online and glimpsed her in the exercise yard when he stopped to make our meet-and-greet appointment. He was smitten before he’d even been properly introduced. She is a big girl, all brawny chest and sleek muscles underneath a gleaming brindle coat. Her poor ears are cropped, adding to her tough appearance. But those eyes—soft as warm caramel sauce. She was so gently regal when they introduced us. She swung her torso around and leaned a little against our legs, then gave us each a respectful hand sniff before sitting down with her chest puffed out, surveying the room and the people in it like a queen surveying her court. We were in love.

Toni is as dignified a dog as I’ll probably ever know. She is always reliably well mannered, treating animals and people with equal respect.

She is also nearly always on the verge of being petrified. Our thinking is that she was kept in some level of solitary confinement, possibly in a basement where the noise level was also at a minimum. As a result, in addition to coming to us with no idea of how to use a toy or what it’s purpose might be (other than to act as a teeny tiny pillow for her chin, in the case of stuffed squeaky toys), she also had a high level of anxiety in response to…well, nearly everything. She doesn’t like trucks at all, or buses, motorcycles, trash trucks, loud cars. Hell, she often doesn’t even like quiet cars. She is easily startled by plastic Walgreen’s bags that tumble silently down the sidewalk. She doesn’t like sudden movements. Chris came home one night while I was out and found her with the trash tipped over. He was having a chat with her—really it was probably more like soliloquy—about all of the amazing toys we had bought for her that were probably a better use of her time and energy than a trash bin that didn’t even have any food in it. As he was talking, he slipped off a shoe. Toni skittered backwards and away in a flash until she was cowered in a corner as far away as possible. He put his shoe back on, slipped off of his chair and slid across the floor to sit with her until she calmed down again, but I cried that night when he told me. It breaks my heart to think of someone beating that automatic fear into her. She is similarly disturbed by belts being taken off, boxes being ripped apart for recycling, mobile phones dropping on hardwood floors, paper shredders and any other noise that seems unexpected to her. We try to warn her, but…well, she doesn’t speak English.

On the other hand, Toni is as sweet a soul as you’ll ever meet. She loves children and will put up with all sorts of annoying behavior from them. (I think she’s better than I am with children, to be honest.) She has even been known to settle herself down as a maternal barrier between a baby on the floor and two rambunctious dogs who were more intent on playing than on watching who or what they were ramming into.

She enjoys most dogs she meets, really only becoming uncomfortable around loud or aggressive dogs (which are often the same dogs). She especially loves puppies. When she has been boarded for a while, if she gets a little tired of all of the activity she will sometimes get to spend some time with the puppies. She can snuggle and nuzzle and gently correct their puppy manners and is happy as can be.

She met her first cat after she came to live with us. She would have been great with cats. Unfortunately the first cat she met was Edgar. Edgar is a large, cranky old cat—larger than many small dogs I know and crankier than most old people I know. Toni was absolutely certain that they would be great friends, though I can see how Edgar might not have been of the same opinion. So though he tried to warn her, apparently she also doesn’t speak Cat. When he sunk his claws into her thigh, she did what she was supposed to do—she ran. Unfortunately, Edgar hadn’t had time to remove his claws yet and they went sailing across the floor together, which did nothing to help the negative and lasting impression he made on her regarding cats. (Since then, the only cat she has truly relaxed around was a wonderful, wisp of an old feline named Socrates. Of course, Socrates was so old by then that she might not have even fully recognized him as a cat anymore.)

In fact, the only times we’ve seen Toni behave in any sort of impatient or domineering way is with her adopted sister—as older sisters do. But more on that later.