The other day Dotty and her big sister ReeRee were playing tug of war with their leashes outside of my shop. Well, to be exact, Dotty, my 9 month old puppy, was tugging on ReeRee’s leash and dragging her around by it until her big sister grabbed onto it and began tugging on it to prevent getting choked. It quickly turned into a full out battle which is heaven for both of them.
Being the more experienced one, ReeRee knew to plant her feet wide and make her center of gravity so low that her muscly body became immovable. They were completely immersed, growling and tugging so much that I had to drag them over to the edge of the sidewalk to let a lady walk by. We exchanged smiles as she passed. The girls were still playing on her way back.
“The grey one is the more aggressive one huh?” she asked me.
“Um, she’s just older than her, Dotty’s just a puppy.” I told her as she walked away.
Aggressive? Aggressive is a very triggering word for a pitbull owner. The lady seemed nice enough but I think the bias has been ingrained in people so strongly about pitbull type dogs that she just subconsciously assumed that ReeRee, the more pitbull looking dog with her velvety short hair, brindle coat and stocky build was more aggressive than Dotty, a Rottweiler /Pitbull mix that consistently gets mistaken for a black lab.
After the six months that she’s had, having a stranger call ReeRee aggressive made me so sad.
Six months ago, when the vet called me to tell me that ReeRee’s big sister Jasmine had died of a sudden heart attack, the first thing I asked her was what about ReeRee?
“What about ReeRee? How is she going to survive?”
“She’s going to become a different dog.” Was her answer and she was right.
Jasmine was in love with ReeRee to the point of obsession. When our neighbor first deposited her on our doorstep, about 8 weeks old, starving and stressed and full of worms, Jasmine declared her to be her baby. Jasmine played with her, disciplined her, babied her, protected her kissed her and comforted her through all the months that our neighbor kept her next door.
Jasmine would sit wide eyed in bed listening to ReeRee’s howling and stress barking filtering through our wall as the neighbor’s customers came and went all night. In order to get some uninterrupted sleep, at dawn the neighbor would let ReeRee out her front door so she could run down her stairs along the sidewalk and up our stairs. When ReeRee reached our door she’d bang on it urgently with her nose until we let her in. Jasmine would run to greet her, give her a health check with her nose and then stand over her as ReeRee devoured all of Jasmine’s food. Exhausted from a night of unknown horrors, ReeRee would settle in next to Jasmine’s big body and fall into a deep, safe sleep.
In the time that the neighbor had her, ReeRee’s leg was broken, she was starved, she lived in a bathtub and later a shower and stayed out all day on a hot roof in her own urine tied up with a short leash. Based on how she cowered if we raised our hands to even scratch our heads, I assume she was beaten. She was kidnapped to Oakland by the neighbor’s ex- boyfriend and kept who knows where. Night after night she endured a stream of drug addicts and men paying for sex going in and out of the small studio apartment. She would be shoved in the shower stall and we would hear her wails all night.
“My customers are scared of her.” The neighbor complained to me one day. “I’m trying to keep her small by not feeding her but she’s still possessive.” She gave me a proud smile, revealing the chewed up Doritos stuck in her front teeth. “She loves her momma so much she doesn’t want anyone near me but it’s bad for business!” She complained.
I tried to keep the disgust off of my face. I had been trying to find a way to get ReeRee away from her for months. I had to keep her trusting me.
“I know, she loves you so much.” I lied. “But I know it might be so hard to keep her as she grows. You might need to start thinking about rehoming her.”
She nodded acceptingly but then her face went dark. “She’s my child, my baby, no one can take her from me! I’m going to wrap my butterfly wings around her and protect her forever!”
My neighbor could be very rational and straight forward at times but would then switch suddenly to cruelty, manipulation and selfishness. You could never know what was coming next and everything, every word out of her mouth, every story, every action, was a grift. I learned that over those months. Don’t believe anything she does or said, because it all came down to money. ReeRee was her grift for the time being.
That’s why she brought ReeRee to us in the first place. She knew we would be vulnerable to helping a little puppy that looked just like our beloved Jasmine. It worked. We got wrapped up in doing anything it took to keep ReeRee from slipping away from us to the dark side. The thought of the sweet puppy that Jasmine loved being forced into dog fighting, drug dealer protection or being forced to give birth until her body gave out was unbearable to us.
I was terrified of her disappearing into that world. When I’m stressed I can’t catch a full breath and for like six months my lungs never filled up completely. I stayed up with Jasmine all night listening for ReeRee’s wails. It was a strange form of torture.
When the neighbor needed money because ReeRee scared away her customers she was there, tapping on our front door, her 6 foot frame allowing her to peer into the glass on the top of our door. When she needed a drink before a customer she was there with a glass waiting to be filled with wine. When she was broke, she’d blame the dog and beg us for 20 bucks. Her existence was like a stifling blanket that I could not escape.
We gave and gave trying to find a way out of the nightmare. How do we save ReeRee and unwind ourselves from this person? How do we all get out safely? As long as she had the dog, she could get things from us. We gave in order to keep ReeRee from being given away in a rage, to punish us for our betrayal or lack of support.
“I once had a kitten named Gracie.” She told me one evening. “A friend let me use their convertible and I took her with me and we drove over the Oakland Bridge.” She looked me in the eyes, with a closed mouth, coquettish smile. “The kitten jumped out of the car on the bridge.”
I gasped and my mouth dropped open. “What???”
Her eyes twinkled at my horror. “But you don’t think she died do you?” Her smile stayed on her face as she blinked innocently at me.
It was a threat. She was letting me know that she could easily destroy ReeRee too. I told Britt that night that our time was running out, we had to figure out a way to not just free ReeRee from our neighbor, but to also free ourselves.
We ultimately did find a way and it was terrifying. It’s a whole other long story that involved us hiding ReeRee from the neighbor and never speaking of her to anyone for four years. We ushered her straight into our truck from our back gate. She followed our training perfectly and never stepped near the front door and never barked in the house. ReeRee was so happy to be folded into our family with her big sister that she became a perfect dog, never wanting to make a misstep for fear she’d be sent back over next door. We were only set free years later when the neighbor died of an overdose.
Since the day we kept her, ReeRee has been the easiest, sweetest dog. She wasn’t bothered if dogs took her ball at the beach, she would just wait for us to retrieve it for her. She let Jasmine have her way about everything. She watched over her big sister, building Jasmine’s confidence so they could explore the world together. They were truly two halves that completed each other.
When Jasmine died I truly wasn’t sure how ReeRee would survive her grief. Jasmine was everything to her. Her tail that normally resembled a metronome at high speed, stopped wagging and just hung flat between her legs. She immediately began limping on her front leg, barely able to walk on it. (“There’s nothing really wrong with it.” The vet told me. “She might just be expressing her grief.”) She developed a heart murmur, like her heart literally broke. She would not leave my side when we went to the beach or hiking. At home she would just lay in her bed, her back to us, accepting special treats of butter or sweet cookies joylessly.
I knew she needed another dog to help her through but how would she react? Would she be possessive of her house? Would she resent the new dog? Could she open her heart to another dog sharing her home?
Three weeks after Jasmine left us, I picked up Dotty from the pound. She was a tiny black dog with spotted white socks. She was ecstatic to be with us, ecstatic to see her new world and ecstatic to have a big sister. I had them meet at the beach where ReeRee played with her patiently and let Dotty jump all over her. When Dotty got in the car with us, ReeRee was confused but unbothered. At home I protected ReeRee from Dotty’s incessant desire to jump on, bite and kiss her but within a couple of days ReeRee was reaching out to Dotty. Laying close to her, leaning on her in the car and was offering her toys to gently play tug of war with.
Everything ReeRee learned about being a big sister she learned from Jasmine. Jasmine accepted her into her home so ReeRee accepted Dotty. Jasmine was ReeRee’s comfort and now ReeRee is Dotty’s. Jasmine was devoted to ReeRee so now ReeRee is devoted to Dotty.
If Dotty wants her sister’s bone, she gets it. If Dotty wants to play tug of war with her sister’s leash and drag her around the sidewalk in a hyperactive spazz attack then ReeRee allows it and when she’s had enough she grabs her part of the leash and plays an intense game of tug of war because it’s Dotty’s favorite game.
So I guess I’ve answered that lady’s question. Is ReeRee aggressive? No. Does she astonish me with her love and resilience? Yes. Will she always have people make assumptions about her because of how she looks? Yes. Is she a shining example of a pitbull’s ability to be generous and loving no matter the cruelty heaped upon them? Yes. Does Jasmine’s spirit still live because of her? Yes.
Thank you Jasmine, we miss you so much.