Shelter Dogs 

An adventure with an orange-dot pit bull at the Berkeley Animal Shelter.

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Dan explains how to hook the leash to the cage from the outside before I enter so that I can quickly reach for it and hook it when I'm ready. He explains how to maneuver my body into the cage so that the dog doesn't escape. He suggests filling my pockets with treats beforehand to throw into the back of the cage to distract the dog while I open the gate and sneak in. He shows me how to adjust the metal prong collar so that it's not too tight, but tight enough to control the dog when it pulls — which it will.

And then he explains that I mustn't forget the flat collar and the carabiner, the metal loop used to hook everything together in case one collar fails. And then Dan walks off, leaving Jupiter to gaze up at me with his melancholy brown eyes, imploring me not to walk away, too. His desperate stare tells me that when I stand in front of his cage, it means that I must — must — commit to taking him for a walk.

So, I go to the room where the leashes and collars are stored. There's a hundred in every size shape and color. I estimate the width of this dog's neck and grab a flat collar and a prong collar that looks like something out of a Halloween slasher film. I put a handful of dog treats into my pocket. I avoid the eyes of the other dogs as I walk toward Jupiter's cage. They know they have not been chosen. As I place my key into the padlock to unlock the dog's cage, he jumps up and puts his large paws against the gate. Standing up, he's taller than I am. As I open the gate slowly, he frantically spins in his cage and pushes hard against the door, trying to squeeze out. I slip in and spin quickly to shut the cage door behind me, locking myself inside with this very large dog. As I do this, I think to myself that I should have stuck with the green-dot dogs. I'm not ready for this orange-dot dog.

Jupiter jumps on me from behind. He's elated that he's going for a walk. Maybe he has just been on a walk — all dogs get out once a day, at the very least — but that makes no difference. His thick claws dig into my arms and hook around my waist. Part of me knows that he's just a happy dog, excited to be leaving this noisy, concrete kennel. Another part of me knows that I'm locked inside a cage with a heavy pit bull.

Then I remember the treats and reach into my pocket and toss a couple to the far end of his cage. He bounds after them and I quickly grab the prong collar and arrange the links so that I can quickly wrap it around its neck when he returns. He runs back toward me and pins me against the cage door, his paws on my shoulder. His snout, rubbery and pink, is close to my face. I quickly loop the collar around his neck and try to hook it. But it's like I'm riding a bull. I can feel my heart racing and I sense that soon he'll smell fear seeping out of every pore. Under ordinary circumstances a prong collar is tough to get on; you have to squeeze and push at the same time. I kick myself for not paying better attention during volunteer training when Amelia, the volunteer coordinator, demonstrated how to hook a prong collar. It's more difficult than it looks.

I want terribly to take this excited dog for a walk. I feel that I have made a commitment and cannot break it at this late stage in the agreement. Since I have entered his cage with a collar and leash, that means one thing only — a walk outside in the sunshine, with grass and dirt to roll in. But I simply can't do it. I can't get the collar around his neck. I turn quickly to unlatch the gate, but he's pushed his head between my legs. With all the strength and coordination left in me, I push the latch open and squeeze his square head back inside the kennel.

I feel terrible. He reaches through the opening in the cage and puts his paw out toward me. I grab hold of it and feel his thick scratchy pads. "I'm so sorry guy," I tell him. I truly am. He's not the best looking pit. He has a skin rash that is causing his fur to fall out. Standing on the other side of his cage door, I don't find him the least bit scary. I reach in to pet his head. I am tempted to give it another try but I know I don't have enough time. I have to get back to work. I turn and walk away. I promise myself to be braver, to give it another try next time. And I hope that there will be time enough for him.

And then I head toward the Chihuahua cages. I find a harness that is no bigger than three rubber bands looped together. Last week a large group of Chihuahuas were rescued and now there are several cages filled with the quivering, rheumy-eyed little pups. I have about twenty minutes left on my lunch break. Zelda is snuggled in her dog bed and looks up timidly. When I open her cage, she curls up more tightly. Her thin, black tail flaps slowly up and down. I try to imagine what I would do if a creature so much larger than I am towered above me like this. So I crouch down and run my hand over her little body. With every bark from a nearby cages she trembles. "Come on little girl," I say, and easily loop the harness over her head and hook the leash. For good measure, I clamp on a carabiner. It's practically half as long as she is.

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