Bad Little Dog - (A Buster Book) Volume 2

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I could not help seeing Cinimon, her delicious, oddly spelled name, and her own blooming California good health, as a promise of what Buster could hope for. The vet was probably right, but Buster would be the exception.

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Cinimon, a Valkyrie from the Valley, a girl with a household full of docile monsters, would make it so. Her training program was a reasonable behavior-modification approach. It made sense. To Cinimon. To us. Just not to Buster. Buster was becoming a full-time job or, more precisely, a whole life. We went to bed at night worrying about him. Had he got enough exercise? Did exercise tire him out and calm him down, as it was supposed to, or did it hurt his damaged foot and stress his awkward anatomy?

Would he sleep through the night, or would he wake and chase his demons and slash my calf in his confused fury? If we put him in his bed on the floor, would he fall asleep this time, or would he spin and spin and spin, tearing wildly at himself? We had an obligation to him.

We had an obligation to innocent bystanders. Had we pursued every possible road to recovery? Did our umbrella insurance cover liability for dog bites? Should we put him to sleep? In the morning, he would snuggle up and lay his head across my neck, snoring gently, his breath soft and sweet.

The Science behind my dog training system

He played in the morning, too, chasing toys and shaking them like dying rats. During the day, he snoozed, threw himself angrily against the glass doors to the front garden when the mailman walked by, threw himself angrily at his own back legs, at his long tail, at his deformed foot, at his good feet, at our feet. He sat when we told him to, looking up innocently.

He was innocent: that was the most painful part. He was a vicious dog; even we would have to agree. He was destructive and dangerous, and if he had been a larger dog we would have had no choice but to put him down. But he was as innocent as a babe, baffled by his own behavior, terrified of everything that moved.

He had been a lost dog. He was still a lost dog. Then Cinimon suggested Prozac. In the months that followed, we consulted three vets, two psychopharmacologists, and a psychiatrist.

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We slapped peanut butter around Prozac, Buspar, Elavil, Effexor, Xanax, and Clomicalm, feeding the pills to Buster in a variety of doses and combinations. Even when they seemed to have some positive effect, it would last only a little while. Eventually, the violent behavior would return, worse than ever. In September, we returned to New York. On the plane, the man in front of me tapped his headphones. Up and down the aisle, people jiggled their headphones, wondering where the strange, ominous rumble came from. It came from under my seat, where a five-hour unilateral dogfight was taking place.

Someone screamed. I looked back. The case was whirling across the floor, unguided, an eerie missile of snarling desperation. There are a million or so dogs in New York City. About thirty of them live on our block on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We have a laundromat, two dry cleaners, two churches, two dentists, a senior center, a Malaysian restaurant, a Korean market, a bakery, and a store that sells cheap leather jackets. A homeless man of regular habits lives in the doorway of the Lutheran church. He does not have a dog. But the gay men who live in the brownstone next door with their five children have two beagles.

There is a man who is in thrall to his young golden retriever; a three-legged yellow lab; two handsome young men with a Brussels griffon puppy; a man who lives with his mother and three tiny scruffy mutts; and a heavily tattooed window-washer with a racing bike whose shepherd mix just died. One woman who leans carefully on a cane and smiles beatifically from beneath pure-white hair gives gentle advice in a soft Irish brogue while Waldo, her Boston terrier, waits patiently, staring with his round bug eyes.

And there is a woman with a warm and generous smile and a rich, cultured German accent who walks her aging Pekinese, Lord Byron, four times a day no matter how terrible the weather, a Holocaust survivor whose view of life is so beneficent I sometimes wait outside her building hoping she will materialize and provide wise counsel. I do not go out to dinner or to the movies with the neighbors, as I do with my friends. I know I will see one or two or more of them every day. The dogs on the block gambol happily toward a puddle of urine to sniff and amplify, then sniff and be sniffed, twisting until their leashes are laced like ribbons on a Maypole.

And it was Buster who introduced me to its citizens, lunging at saintly old ladies, storming wheelchairs and strollers, his hair bristling and his teeth bared.

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Everyone knew him. Everyone had advice. But, mostly, everyone had sympathy. When I saw Waldo or Lord Byron coming down the street, my heart beat faster and I felt tears of gratitude forming, for their owners, women who have seen hardship and evil, would reassure me that there was hope. With patience, they said softly, there was hope. But Buster was not getting better. We contacted an animal behaviorist recommended to us by the New York Animal Hospital.

He arrived with a Snoot Loop, a contraption he was marketing that was very similar to the better known Gentle Leader, a kind of bridle with a strap that tightens around the muzzle of a dog when he pulls. My girlfriend, Janet, and I, outcasts everywhere but our one little block, began to argue about what to do, how to train Buster, what to feed him, when to feed him. Exhausted, discouraged, we resorted to the wisdom of our forebears, smacking the dog with a rolled-up newspaper when he attacked himself, or us.

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It was not effective. We could let him loose there only when no other dogs were around. On this particular fall day, when the sky was a solemn gray and the leaves were dead on the ground around us, as brown as the dirt, I sat on a bench in the section reserved for small dogs and threw a hard red rubber ball for Buster. Buster had come with us. Whom could we have left him with? We were assigned a bedroom, and a large sign was taped to our door warning anyone who dared to enter not to let the dog exit.

Dog Trouble

The day we left, we walked out of the room, loaded down with our bags and with Buster on his leash. We had been vigilant and tense for three days and had been rewarded with a Thanksgiving free of bloodshed. There was a great flurry of relieved family hugs and kisses, my two-year-old nephew waddled bumpily toward us, squealing, Buster lunged for him, leaped back with a mouthful of soggy diaper, whimpered while my nephew wailed, and we skulked off in disgrace. Now I sat on the park bench and watched Buster.

My sister-in-law and brother were barely speaking to me. My mother thought I was disturbed. My nephew was terrified of dogs. Janet and I were squabbling. My children were disgusted. Buster chased the ball happily, brought it back, waited until I threw it again, and again, just like a normal healthy dog. With his grinning face, one ear up and one flopped jauntily over his eye, his wriggling body and wagging tail, you would never know.

That was one of the problems. People saw him and rushed over, cooing and crowing, hands stretched out to pet the adorable little dog. He would stiffen, growl, bare his teeth and lunge, all in a sickening second. When someone came within five feet, I would say something. At first, I struggled with the right wording. Then I got up to leash Buster and take him away.

But she put the bichon on her lap and told me not to worry about it. She was benevolent, awash with the joy of a merry new puppy. I thanked her.

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And then I felt it coming. I tried to stop myself, but I knew I was helpless. And, as I had done so many times before to so many unsuspecting strangers, I began to tell her the tale of Buster. I could hear the high note of panic, the rhythm of hysteria and desperation in my voice.

I had heard something like it at playgrounds and bus stops from parents whose children threw sand or tantrums or took drugs or shoplifted or were flunking out of school. But the pitch, the speed of the chatter, the insistence on detail—I recognized that from somewhere else, from strangers approaching me on the street to tell me their life stories: from crazy people. I listened to myself and I heard a crazy woman. Once again, a vet, this time our New York vet, told us to put the dog to sleep.

I blurted out that the dog was miserable, we were miserable, there was no hope.