Even a Dog’s Life

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We have a not so little white dog named Benny. He’s a min pin-beagle mix, and on Sunday he spent his third birthday at the pound. Benny has bitten a lot of people, my wife and I included. Last Friday night he bit my wife for the umpteenth time as she was adjusting her legs on the couch; she forgot he was sleeping there and accidentally shoved him with her foot — most of the bites have happened exactly like that. He nipped my hand the following afternoon as I was petting him while he curled up next to my wife, which is how he ended up at the pound on his birthday.

For years our friends and family have been telling us he needs to be put down, that he can’t be saved and will always be a danger to us and others, that a dog isn’t supposed to bite its owners, that he’s severely limiting the kind of life we could have with a different dog, a normal dog. The last time he bit me and my wife, on separate occasions back in January, both in the foot as we were adjusting ourselves on the couch, we nearly decided to put him down. Instead we forgave him. We gave him one last shot: we would keep working with him, but if he didn’t improve, then it was bye bye Benny.

Whenever he bites us on the hand or foot, we’re left hobbled and in pain for a few days, which at the very least is a major inconvenience. But it’s not only us we have to worry about: we also have a 14-year-old daughter to consider. He’s nipped her a few times, though thankfully not as bad as he’s bitten me, my wife and other people. It’s as if he knows biting our daughter would really be crossing the line, that if he forced us to choose between him and her, he would never see us again. Plus he usually sleeps in her bed under the covers at night, so it might be that he just doesn’t want to lose his sleeping spot by biting his bedmate.

Benny isn’t a mean dog, just feisty and chickenshit. He used to be afraid of everything — plastic bags, the wind, even his own shadow — but we’ve been working with him for a while, taking him to trainers, forking over more money than I ever thought I would spend on dog. When I was growing up, back in Chicago, dogs were hardly an expense: they never went to the vet, didn’t get more than a toy a year, and when their food ran out they ate scraps from the table, usually bistec con arroz or chicken legs with a bit of meat and cartilage still clinging to the bone.

Not Benny though. He gets dry and wet food, plus a bunch of different snacks and chew sticks, even doggy ice cream, Greek yogurt, dried chicken feet and duck feet, rabbit sticks, peanut butter stuffed into a hollowed-out bone, and string cheese. We’ve taken him to a dog restaurant to be served a five-dollar bowl of brown rice, chicken breast and veggies, and one time, for Christmas, we brought him a hunk of leftover wagyu. My wife is always buying him toys, either online or at some store (there’s a bougie boutique for dogs she loves visiting), and he happily rips up whatever she brings home. (He is surgical with his teeth.) She gets him toys to exercise his brain, stuff even a toddler couldn’t figure out, though his favorite is a simple one he has to push or pull with his paw so it’ll rock in all directions like a buoy, spilling out the treats inside. We got him a doggy LifeVest to teach him how to swim in the pool, and now he leaps into the water without it, paddling his paws like a muskrat. We even took him on a day trip to Cali where we walked through the crowds at Santa Monica Pier and he got to splash around in the waves at Malibu.

So, as far as dogs go — shit, as far as people go — Benny is living the good life. Even as I write this he’s out back lounging on a chair by the pool, watching the hummingbirds, and basking in the warm Vegas sunlight. Lucky dog.

But no matter how good we treat him, no matter how much love and attention we show him, Benny still bites. He bit a friend from out of town. We tell people to ignore him — and especially not to pet him — and we had left him in his crate while my wife and I went to run errands. But Benny apparently kept whimpering, begging to be let out. So when our friend let him out of the crate and he followed her into the kitchen, she thought it wouldn’t hurt to pet him, figuring he wanted to show her his gratitude for freeing him. That’s when he bit her on the hand. You could say it was partly her fault — we had left him his crate for that very reason — but most of the blame falls on Benny: what kind of dog bites the hand that frees him? That ungrateful little cur.

The most serious bite, the one that keeps us worrying the most, was when he bit my wife in the face. We were lazing away in bed one Saturday morning when I invited Benny onto the bed and he curled up against me, between me and my wife. As she leaned over to kiss him, he snapped, his tooth catching her cheek just under the eye, nearly blinding her. Maybe we should’ve gotten rid of him way back then, two summers ago, but we didn’t. We just called the first trainer… who eventually quit after Benny got him good on the hand during the fifth training session.

Last year we sent Benny away to this training camp that seemed pretty professional (three thousand dollars worth of professionalism). Usually they take in dogs for two weeks, teaching them obedience and all that, but they told us they would have to keep Benny for three weeks since his issues were more behavioral-psychological. (Say what you will about Benny, but the son of a bitch is sharp as a tack. He knows plenty, only not enough to not bite people. I really don’t think he means to bite people — I’ve had and known plenty of dogs, but never one so playful and affectionate and cuddly, more cat than dog — but he gets nervous and lashes out. Whenever he bites someone he immediately regrets it. He runs aways and cowers someplace safe, and his eyes tell you he didn’t mean to bite, that he actually would like to be pet and played with, but he’s just too insecure and can’t bring himself to relax. The fucker knows — he knows he has a problem. It’s pathetic.)

Anyway, this place we sent him to ended up keeping him for two whole months, which worked out pretty well for us since we had my brother, my niece and my father visiting for Labor Day weekend. Benny would’ve loved all the fun and good times around the pool, but we can’t trust him at all around kids, for their sake and ours. There’s the safety issue, of course, but I also wouldn’t want Benny leaving some poor boy or girl with a fear of dogs, which is a terrible thing to carry into adulthood, and hard to shake. The training camp would’ve kept him longer, but my wife thought they had kept him long enough and started to worry something was up. So once our guests had gone back to Chicago, we went to pick up our little Benny.

When we got there he was sitting at attention (he has perfect, feline posture) with a shock collar around his neck. It took him a second to recognize us, but as soon as he did his brown eyes got big and his crooked little tail went ballistic. The trainers, a husband-and-wife operation, showed us the progress they had made with him, all of it obedience stuff like staying in place at various spots and door etiquette — none of which was what we sent him there to learn in the first place. Benny needs to be socialized. He needs to learn how to play with dogs and strangers, something he’s dying to do but is too scared to attempt on his own. He needs to be shown how to be a normal dog, not how to do tricks and follow commands, which I’ve already taught him to do (he even rolls over, knows “Paw,” and “Other paw”). In fact, I’m pretty confident I could teach Benny to do anything — except not to bite. (Sad: he could’ve been a star, but he would quickly be labeled as “difficult.”)

These trainers (who never managed to pet Benny) showed us how to use the shock collar — even shocking our hands with it to show how it isn’t nearly as painful as, say, a taser — and though we weren’t comfortable using a shock collar on our dog, we did it anyway, desperate to cure him, and willing to accept the advice of purported dog experts if it would eventually lead to Benny having a fuller, happier life. We used the collar for a couple weeks, but all it did was help us with the obedience side of things; it did nothing to help Benny relax around other dogs and strangers. How could he relax and learn to enjoy the company of strangers, when he had this tight collar around his neck, shocking him with teeth-like metal prongs?

A guy brought his rescue to the dog park, and when he asked about the shock collar and I told him about our problems with Benny, he told me the only thing we could do, the only shot at helping Benny become the dog he’s meant to be, is to love him, to show him tons of love. So that’s what we decided to do. We took off the collar and decided to just love him as much as we could — giving him discipline and exercise too, but also plenty of love — which is harder to do with a dog that’s bitten you and other people numerous times. Dogs may be able to forget and move on, but people, not so much.

Things went good for a while, till the bites in January, after which my wife was limping for a week. Being his favorite person in his entire dog world, and seeing how he injured her and how she wasn’t at ease with him like she had been, Benny seemed to understand he couldn’t keep biting the only people who trust him and play with him, the only people he has a relationship with. He needed to change.

From January to last Friday, Benny was the almost perfect dog. He was fighting less and less with other dogs and started playing more and more with them; he would even get excited when he saw a dog he wanted to get to know (usually girl dogs, even though he’s neutered). And he became more and more comfortable around other types of dogs, not just dogs his size (though big dogs still make him nervous). Eventually he started letting strangers pet him at the dog park; he even licked a few hands. This wasn’t my idea, of course, but Benny looks so cute — most people think he’s a puppy — and he’s so curious and seems friendly that people start petting him before I can warn them. (Plus, and this is an Anglo thing: I don’t know why strangers just start petting other people’s dogs without asking.) Once they’re petting him, or sticking their fingers through the fence, I try to relax and not say anything so as not to cause any tension that might make either Benny or the stranger tense up, leading to a bite. But Benny, miracle of miracles, has never bitten anyone outside our home — not counting the two trainers he bit and a lady at the doggy daycare who let him sleep in her lap (like I said, he’s afraid of strangers, but loves human contact — most of the time).

In the past few months, before the last two incidents this past weekend, I’ve seen Benny be the kind of dog we’ve always dreamed he would be. We’ve taken him on hikes at Red Rock Canyon and gone on long morning walks around Sunset Park, where they have a huge pond filled with ducks and geese of different kinds, alongside all sorts of sights and sounds and smells. And Benny has met and played with more dogs than ever before, though he still won’t let them sniff is behind, which is very important in canine communication. Sniffing butts is the ice breaker for dogs, and Benny has never broken the ice with anyone, which is sad, and no way for anyone to live life.

Once recently he even jumped into a car when he heard a familiar voice. It was our neighbor whom Benny has known since puppyhood but hadn’t seen in months. She came down the street while Benny was off-leash (sometimes I’ll let Benny follow me to the mailbox, since he isn’t the kind of dog to go up to someone and bite them — he’s never gone up to someone and bitten them; his bites are always, in his mind, an act of self-defense), and when our neighbor called out Benny’s name, he ran up to her car, she braked and opened her door (for some reason), and Benny jumped right in and onto her lap, wagging his tail and licking her face as she pet him wildly all over with both hands. He then jumped into the lady’s lap who was riding shotgun, whom I nor Benny had ever seen before, and licked her too as she pet him. Then he jumped right out and came back inside the house. It all happened so fast, but in that fleeting moment was a vision. My wife was shocked when I told her what Benny had done. We both smiled a smile of hope.

With Benny having renewed some of our confidence in him, we decided to board him at the vet’s while we visited friends and family back in Chicago for Memorial Day weekend. Benny fought to break free of the handler’s leash when we dropped him off, and we got a call from the vet that Saturday letting us know they had been unable to get Benny out of his cage for walks, as he was growling and snapping at people. We flew back home at the end of the trip anxious to see Benny but realizing we weren’t out of the woods yet. When he bit us this past weekend, it came as a crushing disappointment, heartbreaking really. We figured we would never be able to trust him the way we need to, that he would always be a biter. (Miniature pinscher means “little biter,” so I guess you get what you pay for.) What if he bit our daughter’s face, or otherwise did serious damage to her, scarring her for life? Not wanting to pass him on to some new owner whom he would bite and terrorize, and in a fit of rage and vexation, we decided right then and there to take him to the vet and have him put down that same day.

The vet told us we needed a good, medical reason to have him put down, and that even then there was a waiting period. They said, if we were really serious about giving him up, that we should just surrender him at the pound (“just say you found him”). But the people at the pound told us, since he’d just bitten someone — two people actually, his owners — that he would have to be in quarantine for 10 days to make sure he wasn’t rabid. They warned us that if we didn’t reclaim him after those 10 days, they would euthanize him. With tears in my eyes, I signed his death warrant. This time Benny went with the handler without so much as looking back at us — he seemed to know he had drove us to this — and we figured that was that.

My wife and I were gutted. We spent the rest of Saturday crying and wondering if we had done the right thing, reassuring each other that we had. We tried to eat a frozen pizza but barely swallowed a few bites. Our mind swirled with images of Benny, memories of him cuddling with us on the couch or cantering toward us with a ball. (Min pins move like show ponies.) We kept pleading aloud in soft, trembling voices, “I’m sorry, Benny… I’m so sorry.” We tried to sleep but kept tossing and turning, taking frantic puffs from a joint to numb ourselves to sleep.

We woke up early the next day, Sunday, Benny’s birthday, still devastated. Our house, our life together, felt so empty. We decided to do housework to get our minds off Benny — me doing yard work out back, my wife cleaning inside — but all we could think about was our little biter, locked up and afraid. To be put to sleep is one thing, but to spend your last days on earth in a cage with strangers… We sat drinking coffee and sniffling and talking about Benny. Now we weren’t so sure we had done the right thing by giving him up and agreeing to let him be killed.

They say that when a dog is put down without its owner present, the dog is brought into the room, its eyes darting around, looking for its family. Its last moments are spent scared and alone.

I get the argument though: if a dog bites you, his owner, and if he bites other people, then he’s a menace to society and needs to be taken out. It’s just a dog. But dogs aren’t like other animals, are they? They are sentient souls that are oftentimes closer to you than the people in your actual human family.

Benny has caused us a lot of pain, anxiety and headache, but he’s also given us a lot more happy moments, and tons of companionship. He genuinely loves us, he’s our dog, and despite is serious issues, there’s a strong bond there, one that makes us as much obligated to him as he is to us. He is our responsibility: his problems are our problems.

“Your faults as a son, is my failure as a father,” Marcus Aurelius tells Commodus in Gladiator. Benny is anti-social and often bites the people closest to him; but, then again, I used to be the same way. And so I can’t give up on Benny, because my wife didn’t give up on me — even after so many people told her to put me down, that I couldn’t or wouldn’t change, that I was no good, that something was wrong with me, that I was a menace, that I would always bite, that my wife was missing out on the life she could have with a different man, a normal man. But I’ve changed, and mine and my wife’s life together is more than we ever dreamed. If I can change, then so can Benny.

My wife and I also decided that we couldn’t let Benny die just because we were unwilling to do everything we can to help him become a normal dog. Benny’s life matters. Benny has a soul, insofar as people have souls: as with humans, there is something that makes Benny Benny and not Benji or Spot or Comet, not quite like any other dog or thing on this earth, either now, before, or ever. There will never be another Benny, just as there will never be another me, or you. So to throw that all away, to get rid of Benny’s goodness because of his badness, seems like a huge waste in the universal ledger, a sin against life itself. Who are we, as humans, as just another form of life, to say this dog, Benny, should die at the tender age of three? Who are we to say he’s seen his last sunset, that he doesn’t deserve one more day rolling around in the grass and racing under the sun, that he’s had all the life he’s going to get? At the end of the day, my wife and I realized we don’t believe in the death penalty, not even for dogs. Life is too precious — even a dog’s life — and worth fighting for.

The pound is closed on Sundays, so Benny had to spend his birthday in that cage. Meanwhile we watched Life in the Doghouse on Netflix. The documentary follows the life and work of Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta, the owners and operators of Danny and Ron’s Rescue in South Carolina, where they live with a house packed with dogs they’ve rescued from kill shelters and are putting up for adoption. About 3.3 million dogs are sent to the pound every year, according to the ASPCA, and of those, about 1.5 million are put to sleep. One scene in Life in the Doghouse shows workers at a kill shelter loading little black bags onto the bed of a pickup truck, after which they’re driven to an open pit to be dumped like trash. I imagined Benny being in one of those bags, all stiff, the spark gone from his eyes. He doesn’t deserve to go out like that, as though he didn’t have a family and people who loved him. He has given us plenty of pain and anguish, but he’s also given us even more joy and happy times, and so he deserves our love and commitment. That’s what love is: sacrifice. If we’re willing to sacrifice Benny for being a fearful biter, then we never really loved him, and love is the only thing that can save any of us.

So, you see, we are stuck loving this dog. The other option is not only inhumane, but inhuman.

Funny thing is that my wife never even wanted Benny, or any dog. She never had one growing up, and she didn’t see why we should have one now. But we had just moved from Chicago to Vegas back in August of 2016, and my dumb ass thought it would be good for the three of us — me, my wife and our daughter — if we had a dog to keep us company in this strange new world. (I know now that we should’ve waited till we were more settled and more familiar with our new surroundings, because not knowing anyone or where to go made it all the harder to socialize Benny when he was a puppy — which is another reason we would feel guilty now if we gave up on him.) It took a while for my wife to warm up to Benny; she wasn’t animal person in the slightest to begin with. But eventually, we’re not sure when it happened, she fell in love with the little guy — “my little Bennys” — and the change I saw in her, the change she experienced in herself, was beautiful. Where once she had been a bit of a hardass and not very playful, now she is softer and sillier, getting down on her hands and knees to goof around with Benny on the floor. She has become friendlier to other dogs, other animals even. Benny has opened her eyes and her heart to nature and the connection between humans and the animal world. And with her stressful job as an executive at a small company, and her stressful life as a once undocumented mother with four sisters and parents in constant need, Benny is her balm at the end of every day. It’s Benny that keeps her company on the couch after dinner while I’m at my desk. He is her little white shadow, her other soulmate.

I’ve reached out to Cesar Millan on Twitter, and we’re going to post a video to Instagram using the hashtag #CesarSOS, in hopes that the famed “Dog Whisperer” will either invite Benny to his dog psychology center in L.A., feature us on a special Vegas episode, or at least refer us to someone who can help us help Benny. Should that fail, there’s still the endless stream of dog trainers and behaviorists. And should they fail, then we’re going to have to find a place that’ll take Benny in and work with him. He loves to play, so we need to get him around dogs and people, in a safe environment, where he can learn to let go of his anxiety and fear and just relax and play and be his happy self. That’s the dream, that’s the goal.

We’re not giving up until Benny achieves that. A dog deserves no less, and Benny is our dog.


Featured image: The author’s little biter, Benny

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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