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.