New Year's Eve, 2013. My second of three holiday seasons at a small scale kennel. I was maybe 12 hours into a 14 hour shift. My two-woman team & I had just walked between 70-80 dogs. I could still smell shampoo on my shirt from the morning pickup rush.
I strolled into the office to grab “the list.” This was an alphabetized breakdown of all the animals under my supervision- names, breeds, ages &, most importantly at this time of day, dietary instructions. The sun was already down & the receptionist was gathering her belongings in anticipation of closing time.
Cathi, co-owner of the kennel, was at the desk waiting for someone. I was focused on the list- checking for updates, memorizing kibble measurements.
The front door burst open & with it a familiar type of commotion. I caught a flash of a slick, athletic body & tail. That figure couldn't have been in view for more than a second, but it was long enough for me to notice the exquisite brindle pattern of its coat.
I shifted my weight to get a better look, finding next the massive square head of a young male pitbull. Between wide, golden brown eyes was a thin strip of white leading to a pink, freckled patch above the nose. A broad chest & clunky feet were white as well, balancing the appearance of his physique. Aside from a cigarette burn on the crest of his skull & some shallow lacerations near his elbows, he was the picture of health- the best looking specimen of his kind I had ever seen.
My efforts to greet didn't succeed. He blew right past me, anxiously looking & moving around. Nose raised & occupied, sniffing for information. He couldn't focus for more than a second or two. Everyone & everything in that room was just an unrecognizable blur for this bewildered pup.
The woman holding his leash, whose name & face I don't recall, said she had just snatched him from his yard. She explained that his former owner had fled an abusive marriage. Unable to bring her beloved dog to the women's crisis shelter, she feared for his safety in her absence. She made a desperate plea to a bully breed rescue & instructed them to quickly grab him before her husband returned home from work.
This dog had known trauma, but he had also known love. He wasn't unwanted.
Even in this moment, which I'm sure was the most confusing of his life, this pit displayed behavior that put him in an elevated category I hadn't realized existed in my brain. He didn't bark. He didn't jump. And he displayed zero distrust with people he hadn't previously been acquainted with.
But good manners were the furthest thing from my attention at that time. I couldn't get over that brindle coat. Within the stripes were shades of blue & silver & gold & gray. Vibrant. Perfect distribution. Impossible to ignore.
As a favor to a friend, Cathi would occasionally board dogs that were waiting for foster placement. “Chico” was acquired on such short notice- during a holiday no less- & needed a safe place to hide out. Having scarcely any space to choose from on a busy night & no definite idea of this dog's true persona just yet, he was placed in the kennel furthest from foot traffic.
New Year's Day. My morning began like it had the previous dozen since Christmas insanity began. Lights on at 6am. 150 dogs simultaneously demanding their morning walk via bark, woof, howl or whine. Me & my devoted co-workers barely awake, methodically popping open kennel doors one at a time, slipping on leash & collar & strolling out to meet the dawn.
You could easily tell the time of day by opening the soundproof door at the rear of the building. That initial uproar of early morning chaos would last until about 7:30. A slightly less anguished, but equally anticipatory cry would erupt around 9 as the food cart rolled down the aisle. After being shuffled around for cleaning, the dogs would settle down around 11. Having granted their wishes, most were content to nap during the day. You'd hear the occasional outburst here & there as a rival passerby would strut down the path to fresh air & sunshine, but on the whole it was a drastic difference in volume until late afternoon. Around 5, the distant but unmistakable jingle of kibbles hitting the bottom of a metal bowl would get the gluttons stirring.
This afternoon however, there was a new sound- the incessant, mournful wail of that brindle pitbull. He cried & cried & cried & cried. Adorably pathetic at first. Then impressive. An astonishing commitment to grief. It went on & on. By the end of the day, I was annoyed. We were all too flustered & overwhelmed to pay a visit that may have soothed the loneliness he was unable to come to terms with.
The next few days saw almost as much lament from that inconsolable pup. I would pass by his kennel on my way to the grooming room. When he saw me & whatever prospective four-legged “bath victim” that accompanied, he would pause his cries- quietly approaching the bars, leaning in to sniff. I couldn't help but notice how passive his temperament was. That kennel typically housed the most irritable of boarders. I was used to enduring tantrums on this route. Hot breath & saliva would strike my skin as I came around the corner. But “Chico” was each time polite & inquisitive, seeming to find temporary relief in the site of anything besides that cinderblock wall surrounding him. As the door swung closed behind me, an explosion of frustrated displeasure would follow, eventually dwindling into what became an increasingly hoarse plea for companionship.
Most of the kennel was empty by the weekend- a welcomed end to the relentless hustle. We could return to regular shifts & a more laid back approach to the day. My muscles ached from wielding giant squeegees & heavy rubber mats. My hands were chapped from washing dishes & folding towels. My back was tweaked from lifting dog after dog into the tub. A much-needed day off was had.
I returned to the kennel, immediately noticing that “Chico” had been moved to the front row- a significant upgrade. He was now among the few mild-mannered boarders of January's drought. A faux velveteen bed that someone had neglected to claim was generously dedicated to his comfort. Though remaining melancholy in spirit, he was shockingly quiet. Curled up on the paisley-print cushion, he watched with muted interest as we went about our day.
It didn't take long for me to marvel at this, yes striking in beauty, but also uncharacteristically calm & mellow-tempered pit. So much so that I was starting to relay as much to my coworkers, my boss & even my boyfriend. I was thinking about him a lot- that good boy with the sad face. I thought about him when I went home. I looked for him as soon as I got to work & met his gaze throughout the day.
I began to pop in for a quick hello when I had time. That graduated to sitting in his kennel on my breaks. I brought him treats in exchange for gentle pets. I wouldn't say he was ever “happy” to see me, but he would always get right up & come to me. After I had hung out for a few minutes, he would retreat back to his bed & sigh. Poor kiddo was so depressed. My co-worker Jessie teased me, saying I was getting “attached” to “Chico.”
I wasn't in the market for a dog of my own. And if I was, I wanted a German Shepherd. I was sure. I had my eye on a big guy named Rex if ever the urge came over me.
I didn't buy into the stigma. I had never feared pitbulls or any particular dog for that matter. Working with animals is a lesson in patience, trust & respect. Some accept you willingly, but the rest need time to size you up. It's a lot to expect for a complete stranger to guess correctly what you are & aren't okay with. I had learned to allow the dog its own council in estimation of me & whether I posed any threat.
Despite all reports & warnings to the contrary, my personal experience with pitbulls had always been harmonious. Nearly all of the ones I knew were extremely friendly, rambunctious & brimming with excitable energy. There was no awkwardness about physical touch or invading space- in fact closeness was encouraged (if not insisted upon) by these gregarious beings.
A lot of pits were what I would classify as “overreactive” & “obsessively interested” (as opposed to “aggressive”) with other dogs in a kennel setting. I didn't doubt their ability to adapt however, as several came to stay as a pair or even trio of family dogs. Brute strength, determination & agility could make pitties challenging to handle, but that was usually paired with a genuine & admirable eagerness to be alive.
Still, if you were to ask me then, I would have said “I like pitbulls, but-”
The most unattractive quality I attributed to this breed was the tendency for destruction. During a routine check, the overnight caretaker once discovered a pit named Sarge had chewed his way through three kennel walls. There was blood & shards of splintered plywood everywhere. After the vet fixed him up, he plowed right through the hard plastic of a crate. I had seen pictures of massacred couches, armchairs, etc. Aside from the obvious advantage of powerful jaws, there was a considerable & disturbing impulse to demolish.
“Chico” was an exception to all of these preconceived notions. And that is what held my attention.
One day when it was super slow, I heard some laughter in the back. Deciding to investigate, I saw the the corridors were blocked off. “Chico” was in the aisle, lumbering gracelessly after a tennis ball. He was so animated & charismatic- I almost didn't recognize him. The tile floor was hard to navigate. He was slipping & sliding in pursuit of that ball, albeit with glee. I could see that his muscles were atrophied, struggling to support a big, heavy frame. In addition, the response time from bounce to chomp was comically off. “Chico” could be outwitted by a little sphere of rubber & fuzz. How dear.
I started to stay after hours so I could take him for walks. He pulled on the leash a bit, but made adjustments with my asking. “Sit” was taught with minimal effort. There was no sign of animosity toward the volunteers walking dogs from the rescue two doors down.
Cathi, who was onto my infatuation, kept me informed. He was already neutered & vaccinated. He passed his temperament test with flying colors. My reputation vouched for an adoptive home with structure & responsibility, clearing any obstacle presented on an application. If I wanted him, I should take the leap before someone else did.
Pretty soon I was bringing my roommate's dog, a senior Boxer-hound mix, to join in our evening walks. After enthusiastic sniffs upon meeting, “Chico” would relax & amble along casually with Dingo.
My boyfriend wasn't all that impressed. Distracted by a plush flamingo, which "Chico" promptly butchered, there wasn't much acknowledgement made of this mustachioed guy on the floor at first meeting. But at this point I didn't care if Seth was smitten or not- I knew this special boy was coming home with us.
We picked him up the morning of February 9th, having agreed to do a “trial foster week” (which was code for “as long as he doesn't eat my cabinets, he stays”).
Believing “Chico” was not only incorrect (translation “small boy” & small he was anything but), but also the moniker of a former life, I elected to change his name. Inspired of late by the talents of a young defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins (Seth's first love), we decided with pride to call him Olli Määttä.
For the first several days, Olli was apprehensive. Though practicing caution by crating him at times we couldn't supervise him closely, the general freedom given to move around the house was not sparking much curiosity. He would follow me everywhere, but resisted further intrusion. When we sat down to veg in the living room, he would lay on the floor at a distance. If invited to come closer, he would, but with an air of surprise at having been asked.
On February 16th, exactly one week into that bullsh*t “trial,” Olli suddenly rose from the rug where he had laid for hours. I was seated on the couch, watching something on TV. Without a degree of hesitation, Olli climbed up & wrapped himself around me in what can only be described as an actual hug. He placed that burdensome melon head on my chest & took a deep breath. That is the moment he stopped existing as “Chico” & became mine. Just as he had won me over, so to for him had the home he now found himself as a permanent member of.
This was an education against my own stubborn belief that I could predict what dog I would fall in love with. The truth is I had no clue & still don't.