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Authors: Cat Warren

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BOOK: What the Dog Knows
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It was mid-May 2004 and already hitting the eighties in Ohio, a preview of ever hotter summers to come, when we drove the 450 miles from North Carolina to meet and pick up Solo. He was lying alone in an open cage on the front lawn when we arrived, a still life in red and black, one paw tucked under his chest, relaxed, surveying his domain. He was already past the brief cute phase that shepherd pups have when their ears are soft and floppy and their noses don't yet look like shark snouts. Solo greeted us briefly, sniffed us, ignored us. He ran around grabbing at toys, pushing them at various adult shepherds. He had nerves of steel. He was full of himself. He made me slightly nervous. Joan had arranged a lovely dog-and-people party to launch us back down the road to North Carolina. Solo ran, growled, and leaped during the entire event. He said farewell to his dignified father, Quando, by grabbing and holding on to his bright gold scruff. He finally had to drop off when Quando looked down his considerable Roman nose and backed up slightly.

We gathered up Solo and his precious toys and drove down the country road, back to North Carolina. In the rear seat, locked in a travel crate for his safety and ours, lay our furry future. I don't remember much about that long drive except that it was hot and Solo was a perfectly equitable traveler, happy to hop out of the car, wag, do his business, and clamber back into the crate like a miniature adult shepherd. I started feeling better about him.

“Oh, my,” said our friend Barb Smalley, who arrived that night to
witness the homecoming. She watched as nine-week-old Solo leaped on Megan, bit her ears, and tried to hump her. “He's quite something, isn't he?” David and I were exhausted. Solo wasn't. Megan was drooling and panting in distress. I already looked like a junkie from my efforts to intervene: My arms had black-and-blue puncture marks where Solo had swung back on me in a frenzy.

He spent his first night with us whining and growling, methodically chewing through an inadequate and expensive fabric show crate. Solo wanted to continue his evening. I cried in David's arms. I wanted our whimsical, gentle Zev back. His worst sin had been to take a bar of soap from the shower and place it carefully on the bathroom floor with one faint canine tooth mark.

“I don't like him,” I wailed above Solo's whines. I saw a grim future, a German shepherd roaring through our house and marriage, leaving shards of pottery and anger.

David firmly and kindly said exactly the wrong thing: “We'll just return him.” My sobs redoubled. He later claimed he said it only to kick-start me out of my depression.

In the morning, I woke up and armed myself, grimly strapping on a belly pack loaded with greasy liver treats. I picked up a plastic-and-metal clicker that would make a metallic “tock” to mark the exact behavior I wanted. The little bastard—I would shape and mold him with clicks and patience and treats until he was dog putty. Or at least until he stopped trying to hump Megan. I had already given up on the dog-who-would-sleep-in-my-study-while-I-wrote fantasy.

David and I both fell hard for him. I fell harder because I always yo-yo further than David. By midday, I was laughing and infatuated. Solo was a maniacal clown, a Harpo Marx. Funny and charming. At least around David and me. He thought we were the cat's pajamas. He told us all about it: mewling, growling, barking, yowling, whimpering. He was operatic in range and expression. I'd never heard that kind of variety except on
National Geographic
specials about the wild dogs of Africa. Solo would stare at us, make a wolflike “rooo” sound, then try a
gymnastic move to see our reaction. He found toys and leaped on them and brought them to us and dropped them and backed up. He started to learn their names. He played and played and played. With us. Not with Megan. He tried to bite us and then collapsed in our laps and fell asleep, twitching. When he woke, he fixed a gimlet eye on us. Game on. If he wasn't sleeping, he was watching us, waiting for the Next Big Thing.

On night two, I didn't sob. Partly because I was exhausted, partly because I was realizing that we had something peculiar and exceptional on our hands. Solo was diverting me from despair. David, who valued intelligence above almost everything, was smug but tried to suppress it. We had, he realized, the smartest dog he had ever known.

Smart didn't mean peaceable. Megan remained in shock. She stared at us without seeing, the whites showing at the edges of her large brown eyes. To handicap Solo a bit more, I soaked her fringed ears and tail in bitter-apple spray so he was less tempted to swing from them. That second night, she used her entire sticky body like a caterpillar's to hunch her foam bed as far as possible from Solo's crate in the bedroom, inch by inch. I. Do. Not. Like. That. Puppy.

Solo didn't care. Megan was just a dog. Dogs weren't his people. Solo had no litter to miss. We had no need to put a clock in the crate to mimic the sound of siblings' beating hearts. He slept through the night. He was at home alone.

Over the next two days, David and I tried to teach Solo the international language of ouch, something he'd missed out on with no other puppies for interaction. Joan had taught him, of course, but Solo found it convenient to forget, with new hands to bite. We screeched every time a sharp puppy tooth hit skin. Solo didn't relate, though he did cock his head when he heard our howls. Since he'd never experienced pain in exchange for his excesses, because of his kind and patient adult shepherds, he had no idea what it meant to cause it.

On day four, Megan stopped drooling and looking betrayed. She gave Solo a brief, queenly play bow. Permission to engage. She started to teach him a few basic commands to quell his most brutish tendencies.
No more mounting. No humping at all. No more standing over her when she was lying down. No more massive puppy paw placed on the shoulder. She would move sideways a fraction so that Solo's leaps ended with him splayed on the floor rather than on her gorgeous setter body. She glanced over at us and opened her mouth slightly to show her small white teeth, smiling. Within a couple of hours, her tail returned to its former high-flying flag position, though her long silky feathers had gaps torn in them. For the first time since we had brought her home from Oregon three years before, David and I were in awe of Megan. Our space cadet had disappeared. We watched her, trying to learn from her engagement and disengagement, her covert and canny manipulation of this emotionally stunted puppy. We wanted to know what Megan knew.

We also watched Solo. I began to understand what Joan had meant when she repeatedly mentioned “scent drive” in her e-mails. David went out to work in the garden, and I left the house with Solo five minutes after that, wanting to avoid accidents in the house. He wasn't interested in peeing; instead, he put his nose just above the warm stones of our courtyard and started moving fast. Then he was on our crabgrass, skimming the ground, his pointed ears making his head look like a shark snout. He didn't lift his head until it butted hard against the legs of a startled David working behind the greenhouse. Solo had tracked him a hundred feet from the house, around two bends, on three different surfaces. Solo's whole body wiggled in pleasure, and he bit David's jeans happily until David “ouched” him. Solo had done his first short track. I had a new command that he loved: “Go find David.”

We'd had Solo just a few weeks when my father and stepmother, Angie, came to visit from Oregon. Dad, his skin increasingly loose across the big bones of his hands, sat blissfully stroking Megan. He looked tired, but then he had looked tired most of his life. I tried to keep Solo—the inverse of what Dad liked in a dog personality—exhausted
and as far away from the three of them as possible. We plied Dad with David's home-baked bread, black tea at three
., a Scotch on the rocks at five
., and long political conversations. Dad was proud that I had settled down with my own Ph.D. and a fine, loving husband. It had taken me longer than it should have, over forty years. But—and I know that Dad thought this with the noblest of intentions, because we talked about it—he had great hopes that I could get down to the business of deep academic thinking. Now that smart, funny, dependable David was in my life, Dad no longer had to worry about what the vampires of loneliness might do to me. Now that I was an academic, my father no longer had to worry about my taking risks, as I had when I was a newspaper reporter, covering chemical leaks, natural disasters, and criminal trials. Dad had raised us in Corvallis, Oregon, recently judged the safest city in the United States: no earthquakes, no hurricanes, no twisters, no extreme weather. Nothing. He was pleased that my life was almost as predictable as when we had lived there, except for a hurricane every now and again.

I must have turned my back. That was when Solo leaped. Blood welled on the back of Dad's hand from one of his huge blue veins. He dismissed it with a shrug. Even if he was a German shepherd, Solo was just a puppy. I put Solo in his crate with a goat knuckle bone to gnaw. The weeklong visit was ending. Dad and I walked slowly one final time around the yard before he and Angie left to fly back across the country. The two of us looked at the new blueberry bushes, strains developed for North Carolina temperatures and humidity. We admired the male cardinals that dropped like red explosions from the willow oaks to the ground with their distinct cries of “Chew! Chew! Chew!” We talked about how good the future looked for both of us. Dad's undiagnosed cancer was probably well on its way to metastasis that June.

•  •  •

My simple commands to sit or heel or “settle” didn't interest Solo. His crazy energy reigned. For him, it wasn't enough to walk into the mudroom, lie down, and wait for dinner. He had to launch himself, twist in midair, plié, and crouch like a gargoyle, lips pulled back in a grin. By braking hard a few feet before the door, he attempted to slide and somersault. He had a great sense of humor.

Solo adored David and me—and even Megan. He was an unpredictable sociopath with other dogs. Solo thought they were hostile aliens. Especially shepherds or other dogs with pointy ears. He developed a reputation early: The moment he smelled an unfamiliar dog, he bristled and growled. That made veterinarians' offices a challenge. One vet put in her notes that I was on the way to having a mean dog. Solo was ten weeks old. I quit her. Another recommended expensive acupuncture and homeopathy. I quit her. Puppy classes weren't a good fit. He would walk into a training center already barking and growling, hackles raised. The same obedience handlers who used to smile when they saw Zev arrive for training snatched up their shelties and schnauzers at the sight of Solo. AKC obedience trainers with decades of companion-dog and utility-dog titles to their credit strategized with me. Perhaps Solo needed a new kind of halter, maybe a Gentle Leader, to guide his wayward muzzle through the Sturm und Drang of his life. One trainer with whom Zev and I had worked for years suggested that I needed to discipline Solo severely for his behavior. I quit her. I was getting good at quitting.

I'd never had a dog-aggressive dog. It was like a scarlet A, confirming what many people already knew: German shepherds were dangerous. I dove into research. I ordered expensive videos and books on canine aggression. My fearful anticipation of Solo's reactions would travel down his leash and right into his limbic system, making the overall effect exponential, confirming what he already knew: Dogs meant trouble. That made Solo even more trouble. My relationships with other dog owners began to suffer.

A trainer accustomed to cheerful Labrador retrievers looked at me
with dismay and shrugged after Solo roared and leaped on a shorthaired pointer who had bounced over to greet him when Solo was on a down-stay in an obedience class. “For God's sake,” I snarled, mostly to myself, “keep your dog on a leash and under control.” I was at the end of my own leash. I was starting to get people-aggressive. I left the class early and e-mailed Joan, who sent back reams of wise advice. I cried again that night in David's arms—angry at Solo, at the stupid pointer owner, at myself.

Now it was much worse. I wasn't simply invested in the idea of this pup: I loved him. He was my dog and my responsibility, lying quietly in the backseat on the long drives home from failed puppy classes. I was failing him miserably, seesawing between training systems, avoiding places I knew other dogs might be.

None of Joan's many shepherds had exhibited Solo's behavior around other dogs. Later, she told me that when Solo was born, she had worried. Knowing what we might be facing, she had tried early on to find a litter to put “HRH” with, to no avail. No one in the immediate vicinity had a litter close to his age.

“Quite honestly,” Joan e-mailed, “I am now convinced from years of training, and now Solo, that the majority of puppies missing a complete litter experience just don't learn how to handle the nuances of a variety of dog interaction. They don't learn the give and take.”

People kept asking me, after watching Solo growl and leap: “You named him after Han Solo, right?” No. Absolutely not. I had never liked
Star Wars
much, and I didn't like the character, even if Harrison Ford had played him. Yet the description fit Solo to a T. Charismatic. Selfish. Brash. A talented, reckless misfit.

A loner.

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