Monday, July 4, 2011

Harley's World

On a misty morning, Harley and I ventured along trails in Palos Verdes, California. The routes wound behind homes with landscaped yards of rose bushes and ponds. Sometimes the trail’s vegetation grew so dense that the houses disappeared. Fences became walls of morning glories, disguising the moss-ridden wood. The sweet and sour smell of Eucalyptus trees rained down on us as we walked further up the path. Lizards rustled in the ivy beds but stayed hidden off the trail as did the crows and raccoons.
The environment turned Harley into a feral beast, sending him on a romp through newly shed tree bark and leaves. He rolled around, whiskers to the sky, until the dirt showed beneath the path. His coat of short, yellow hair would be slick with Eucalyptus oil by the time we returned home. On his feet again, Harley crisscrossed from one side of the path to the other without care for the dogs and people he nearly tangled or tripped with his leash. He paused on his wild quest for scents only when a horse appeared. Harley (fearless adventurer) froze and observed the equine’s passing as though it were a god emerging out of the mist.  

The further we walked, the more the trail became a forest. Here and there hints of civilization remained. Just below a long-forgotten tree house, I discovered a wooden swing hanging by rope from a lofty tree branch. I could not resist. I dropped Harley’s leash and hopped onto the swing. Soaring above the ground while Harley explored, I remembered my summers on a tire swing in my backyard. I had played on the tire swing every day until the rope broke, sending me flying (in a fit of giggles) into a bed of mint plants. The next time the rope gave out I bounced into the cold water of my wading pool. I remembered in high school, the stage crew guys hung a rope from the light bars in the auditorium ceiling. Like penguins diving into water, we had lined up to swing. I leapt from the stage and flew into the house barely clearing the seats.
As I swayed back and forth under the old tree house, I kept an eye on Harley who in turn, kept an eye on me. Although I didn’t know it, he had been plotting against me since I sat down on the swing. His thoughts were impossible to interpret; after all, his curled-up, mischievous grin was genetic and remained the same whether he was happy or otherwise.
When the moment was right, my loyal companion charged. No time to stop, I swung right into his out stretched paws. He anticipated the impact, paw punching me in the stomach and hopping away before the swing hit him. 

I fell flat on my back, my legs drooping over the wooden seat. As I remained with my head resting in soft trail mulch, I gazed up at the canopy of fog-drenched leaves. Harley licked my face with not so much as an apology. It was then that I realized my dog had an entirely different world going on his head. He lived a life where food was the proper reward for everything, horses were mythical creatures not of this earth, and humans were never meant to float above the ground…because obviously they could get hurt…

Friday, June 17, 2011

Stage Dog

After Harley completed dog training class, he sometimes attended college. I found myself bending rules for him more often after his days in the backyard did not work out so well. His first experience on campus was during one summer at the theater arts department. Along with taking classes, I often helped out at the campus stage.  My years of stage crew in high school had influenced me to study theater, which in turn led me to jobs that allowed me to bring Harley to work even before it became trendy.
Harley lived life unaware of the spotlight following him around. People gravitated towards his invisible aura, making him uncomfortable at times like a rising star. He preferred behind the scenes, a place away from crowds where they often served pizza on breaks.  We entered the stage through the shop, an empty room of sleeping tools. Everyone was working onstage that day. Harley sniffed at the recent saw dust on the ground scattering particles with his breath. His paw prints left a trail to the backstage area where wall flats blocked the view of the house.
The theater was calm before the show; the weeks of building sets and setting lights was a time of great concentration. The student helpers were thrilled to see a furry crew member among them. The lighting designer, found Harley to be a fine looking dog with fur that reminded him of a yellow gel color called straw. The shop foreman offered Harley a bowl of water, which Harley lapped up in the same messy manner as he did at home. The technical director walked in as Harley splattered water droplets all over the newly-painted floor.

            The tech director knew a troublemaker when he saw one. He gave Harley a few sitting directions. Never one to obey an unfamiliar voice, Harley just stared at him for awhile. Eventually, Harley sat out of boredom. This pleased the tech director, thinking he had taught Harley some semblance of stage direction. 
Harley in turn, decided to also give his own orders whenever he was in a theater...
            As Harley became familiar with an area, he then set about guarding it. As long as he recognized you, you were welcome. This included cars, other people’s homes and of course where I worked.
Harley joined me for a Sunday dance rehearsal at a black box theater on campus. He settled in for a long day underneath the table where I worked on lights. For awhile, he rested peaceful in the coolness of the shadows where I programmed the light board until the outside doors opened. Unwanted sunlight crept its way into the theater, but it was the male voice that awoke Harley.
The student at the door insisted he needed to enter the stage. No one is allowed in the building without permission, but he would not leave. The director of the small dance company clearly needed help to remove the student. Harley’s growls were still too low for the guy to hear. When the student tried to walk past the director into the theater, Harley scrambled from under the table and unleashed his barking. Surprised that such a creature dwelled within the theater, the student exited the without further ado.

      Some would argue a dog has no place in a theater, but Harley proved quite useful as a stage security, loyal companion to keep one company in big, dark theaters (and small ones too), and of course technical director in training (dedicated to keeping order and  keeping unauthorized personnel from sanctity of the stage).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Magician

Harley, now officially an adult dog, continued to wreck havoc on the backyard landscape, never burying anything just making holes—like in that book.  When he bored of rearranging the earth, he occupied his day with tree climbing. Despite the inconvenience of pitfalls, it was the scaling of the backyard foliage that landed him in trouble.
A V-shaped tree grew in such a way that Harley could seat himself in-between the forked trunk. His new seat gave him a good view over the top of the fence; he could see the sunset, occasional squirrels and the entire expanse of one neighbor’s backyard. That backyard held a nicely trimmed lawn instead of the dirt of floor of Harley’s enclosed space. It was also equipped with a basketball court, instead of the spider web-ridden swing set that rested in Harley’s territory. The neighbors’ had two sons who practiced basketball every day, making Harley believe their noise-making ball was a direct threat to his boundaries.
A barking dog behind a fence can be threatening enough, but to have one poking its head over the fence growling with fangs bared, staring like a crazed demon and snarling with drool might be scary if you didn’t know the demon in question very well. The neighbors went to Ben’s parents because we were often not home when Harley was terrorizing their two sons. Long days at college left Ben and I little choice about what to do with Harley.
Ben started tying Harley up in the backyard so he couldn’t reach the tree. Harley would accept his long leash as we attached it to his collar every day. He sat on his haunches, leaning to one side, licking our wrists, thumping his tail as if to say he would be good all day if we just gave him another chance. When we left, he watched us, nose pushed through the chain–link fence until we were gone. After that, I can’t say how the events of the days played out, but I know the results.
Ben’s two family dogs, Rex and Beatrice, were always sitting in the shade when we got home—the uninterested audience of Harley’s antics. It did not matter what Harley’s tether was made out of, rope, chain or coated cable, because he could escape out of anything. Harley was clever but not nimble; I had a feeling he used brute strength or luck. After a basketball landed in the yard one afternoon, and Harley broke his leash to puncture it repeatedly, Ben got creative with the restraints. He created a cable run for Harley’s tether.  The lead would move as Harley moved, giving the illusion of freedom, but not let him near the tree.
            Harley won permanent freedom when one of his magic tricks failed. Eventually, Harley ripped down the cable that ran above him and sneaked his leash off the other end. In victory, he scaled his favorite tree to threaten the neighbors’ kids. He managed to wrap the cable around the tree several times as though he had climbed up, jumped down, came around, climbed, jumped down and/or slipped down in the thralls of barking.
When Ben and I came home, we found our thick-necked dog trapped against the tree trunk. Regrettably, I snapped a photo just as Ben moved in to release Harley, but Harley lunged in excitement. I captured him forgetting he was tied to a tree. The picture serves as a reminder why no one should ever tether their dog.
Sorry, Harley, for the awful day. I took you almost everywhere with me from that day forward, even when I was accused of babying you and even when you growled at people and made them uncomfortable.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Digger Under the Swings

Harley loved to feel the earth between his toes, and the grains as they smoothed his nails. The backyard laid riddled in holes and canyons. The aftermath of any day left outside without human supervision. Although Harley was always in the company of two other family dogs, neither Rex (the floppy-eared Doberman) nor Beatrice (the raven-haired sheepherding dog) had clots of dirt between their paw pads.
Guilty as always, Mr. Harley.
When I took Harley out into the world, he did not leave his digging habits behind…or any of his other habits for that matter…
                I ventured to Venice Beach with Harley, his first trip to the ocean. Sometimes it was just nice to spend the entire day outside with him, but our outdoor adventures almost—actually, never—went as planned. 
The Venice Beach shops and walkway were crowded. How could I forget the masses? I’d spent much of my senior year in high school at the beach, and had never successfully strolled the Venice Beach Boardwalk without bumping elbows. A man biked towards us in a threatening manner—at least by Harley’s standards. Immediate evasive action: Harley charged to the end of his leash and reared up on hind legs. His hair rose up along his back, and his growling and barking was more than most people expected out of the muzzle of such a cute puppy. The biker nearly fell sideways off his two-wheeled contraption.
I tried to disappear back into the crowd, promising myself to keep a better hold on my dog. Unfortunately, a flock of innocent pigeons caught Harley’s eye. In a few joyous bounds, he had forced me to let the slack on his leash go. The pigeons took to the air in a cloud of feathers and angry coos. I swear he did it just to watch them flee.
A police officer, standing off to the side of the boardwalk, noticed Harley pulling me through the maze of people. The officer asked me if I was walking the dog or the dog was walking me. Harley resented humans in uniforms so even though I was insulted, I was also relieved he had ignored the cop. Sufficed to say our Saturday morning training classes were not paying off yet.
A tarot card reader beckoned me to sit down and have my cards read. I did not agree at first but the young man insisted. Just as Harley knew, this guy knew I was a pushover. I took a seat in front of a square of tasseled fabric and a deck of cards. I should have said no. Not only did I not need my cards read because I was familiar with the art of fortune telling, I did not have much cash with me. Also, third and most obvious reason not to sit down, Harley.  
The sidewalk mystic asked me if I was a water sign. I said yes, admitting I was a wishy-washy Pisces. The tarot reader should have been more concerned with the furry, impetuous Aires I had attached to me. A soon as the young man laid out some cards, Harley plopped his butt down right on top of them. I paid two dollars, which was all I had, and we left.
                I ran with Harley to the only safe place I knew, an empty swing set in the sand. Harley was a strange sort of half Lab who hated water but loved the seashell aroma of the ocean. He sat next to me as I swung; but it was not long before he decided to test the sand, one paw sifting around in the grains then his other one. He was right in my path so I had to stop swinging. Soon he was scooping sand and kicking it between his two back legs. After he dug a nice pit, he rested with his body half in and half out.
I went back to swinging careful to lift my feet as I soared above his head. Harley noticed my maneuvers and reversed out of his hole. I dragged my feet to stop, not quite in time. Harley did not intend to move out of my way. He leapt up and paw punched me in the stomach. Silly me, I had disobeyed some rule that humans shouldn’t fly or maybe just not above a digger relaxing in his hole.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Training Days

Standing in a lineup at dog training class (human, diaper dog, me, Harley, human, etc.), I thought about what had brought us to this juncture. Ben was there as well, but since Harley seemed to respect my boyfriend more than me, I was participating in most of the training activities. Training took place in an empty corporate parking lot with a few grassy islands and trees for shade. Diaper dog and her owner were always nearby. Judging Harley’s intense stare and drooling, the training instructor assumed that Harley wanted to eat the Chihuahua in the diaper. I, however, knew the truth; Harley was more likely to eat the instructor and was just awestruck by diaper dog as we all were.

Leash in my hand, held a certain way (folded into two loops in one hand, a curve of slackness in the other), I worried if Harley could ever settle out of his wild animal phase. On the first afternoon Harley had spent with me, the newly-freed-from-certain-doom puppy had misunderstood my staring into his eyes in loving admiration as a challenge.  That was the one and only time he had growled at me because soon after his grr grr moment, he acknowledged me as his food-giver.  

Once he accepted Ben and me as part of his pack, Harley began lashing out at everyone else. Harley had escaped the backyard to attack garbage men who used trash bins as shields; growled at everyone we knew at least once; and when he went on walks, he was walking us. Harley had recovered from his kennel cough and had been neutered, which did nothing to change his personality (the latter not the former). Curing him of kennel cough returned his natural energy and unveiled more parts of his personality that we had failed to see at the shelter.  

                Most people would have tried to return such a creature as Harley because he was bold, stubborn, obviously had a bad start in life, and was 60 pounds and still growing. That choice was not an option for me. I had taken classes at the East Valley Animal Shelter in high school. I had seen the overcrowding at the shelter, new dogs every day. I witnessed one afternoon the euthanasia of a dog and cat, and saw the freezer where they kept the bodies. I had made friends with a big, auburn Malamute with one green eye and one blue. His name was Bear. He wasn’t up for adoption because his owner had been put in jail so Bear was in lock up to. One day he was gone.  I only made casual acquaintances at the shelter after that.               

In my eyes, and Ben’s as well, the solution for Harley was change, not a return trip to San Pedro. Harley needed to change, and I needed to change. His unpredictable nature and aggression did not mix well with someone who was shy and not used to asserting authority. Training was really for all of us, Harley how to understand commands, and for us (the humans) to learn how to communicate through commands and not let this yellow beast walk all over us. 
And so, our Saturday mornings, at least for a while, were spent in a quiet parking lot surrounded by people with normal dogs (diaper dog was of course not to blame for her diaper predicament) and us with Harley, pretending to be normal.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lab X

Harley was once just a Lab X (Labrador Mix), a yellow creature with short ears and an overall sea lion appearance. When he had no name other than his breed type, he was a ward of the Harbor Animal Care Center (under a different name at the time) in San Pedro, California. I found him there on a warm November day, resting on his side, blinking his chestnut eyes at me, muzzle flapping open in an unintentional grin. He panted and snorted, perhaps wishing the kennel cement were a slab of ice that would eventually tilt and let him slide into the cold sea. I didn’t know he hated water then.

I read his I.D. card (Lab X, seven-month-old, unaltered, male, born on April 1), but found nothing to keep me from moving on to see the other dogs. I was at the shelter with my college boyfriend, Ben, to adopt a dog (years away from where we stayed together too long, never married, and I realized we should break up). Our black puppy, who had originally been saved by Ben from the heartless traffic of Los Angeles, had passed away. After a few months with us, the innocent pup with long black tendrils of hair and a terrier snout walked back into traffic as though fate had only given him a slight reprieve. He was gone, but his absence in our lives remained.       

Some people who lose a dog seek out the same dog; sometimes even give that doppelganger the same name, but not me. When I agreed with Ben that we should go to the animal shelter and adopt another dog, I wanted one different in every way from our rainbow bridge pup. Having lost many animals in my life, I knew there was only one of each one I ever knew.

 Ben and I made the rounds of the animal care center and returned to Lab X. Just for a final glance at him because none of the dogs seemed to be the right one, at least not to me. A shelter employee offered us more information on the yellow puppy. Lab X was mixed with American Staffordshire terrier. He was described as a digger by the kennel workers, which didn’t sound too bad. Who knew the extent of what a digger could do? Ben explained we were considering him, even though I had not quite considered Lab X at all. The dog had kennel cough, which was treatable but might cause him to be put down soon because he was sick in a crowded shelter.

Nearing sunset left the shelter empty of visitors; we were the only souls remaining who might save Lab X. How terrible would we feel later if we left him there to his certain demise?  Still unsure how this dog would fit into my life, Ben and I signed the paperwork and picked Lab X up the next morning.

Lab X was ready to go on our return. He had a scheduled neutering appointment, and would need to see the vet for his kennel cough. Ben and I adorned him with a collar and leash. Lab X sensed freedom as soon as his paws hit the dirt outside the shelter. He grabbed his leash in his jaws and shook it back and forth like a great white, ripping apart his prey. That was the first, albeit not the last, time I ever shouted his name. Since he did not recognize “Harley”, he kept right on with his reckless display, bounding along on either side of me, bucking like a horse who was trying to dismount an invisible rider.

Harley was no longer Lab X; he was a completely different creature altogether…