Arguments around the dinner table are not this family's modus operandi. We're not even arguers; we're more akin to intense debaters who pore over details and minutiae, then realize we're preaching to the choir and have a good laugh. Arguing is mostly a scholarly endeavor. We leave the messy emotional disagreements for discussions. So when an argument takes place at all, it's a remarkable occasion. Tempers do not usually flare in so stereotypical an arena, either: the dinner table argument, the ridiculous conceit utilized by movies and novels about the failure of the suburban dream. Anyway, this is not us. Not unless you add one dose of Stanley.
Stanley. My love.
My first encounter with Stanley was in the classifieds on Craigslist, which seems an unlikely location to meet anyone you fall in love with. Looking for a "Friend with Benefits," maybe, an afternoon assignation while you're in town on business. But this was love.
He was not, as they say, classically handsome. Face like a rugby player, wide-set eyes, underbite. Muscles for days, but small. Bow-legged. Looked like he got hit with the ugly stick over and over again.
Except for his smile. That was pure gold. And the sad, thoughtful look in his eyes that spoke of great love and the desire to share his personal joys and sorrows with someone. Someone who would love him despite the ugly stick, despite the rugby-player build and his oafish manner.
I agreed to meet him. I had to drive several miles out of town to the cell where he was being held. Everyone else was cat-calling and howling when I walked in looking for Stanley. I was nervous, didn't know quite where to go. After all, I was new at this. I had never gone out of my way to meet anyone so unlike myself, from such a different background. Would he like me? Would he see my charms the way I saw his? Was I crazy? One photo does not indicate love, merely the potential for love. But like anything with potential, there is its opposite: the reality that it won't work, that there is not really any common ground.
But Stanley stood up silently to greet me when I walked in, a perfect gentleman. No howls and hoots, no rude brash hollers. His eyes met mine and betrayed a little of his nervousness, but also his calm acceptance of me. I met the potential, and he did too.
Our meeting was brief, but it was clear that we had something. Stanley and I had that spark of recognition that only happens once in a while, sometimes never.
But Stanley and I were not meant to be.
• • •
Stanley is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
He is one meaty dog. He's tan with a white blaze on his chest, golden eyes, little perked ears. He's a hamburger on legs. And when I walked into the kennels he stood up silently, placing his paws on the gate and waited for me. He didn't bark, didn't whine, didn't holler. All the dogs rose in their chorus of cacophony around him, but Stanley was like a brick wall, so still and calm was he. He's one solid muscle on squat legs, but he stood there delicately, posing for me like a dancer.
When I approached the pen, he wiggled and writhed in expectation. But for all that meatiness, he was pure gentle affection. There was a bucket of kibble up on the gate so that people like me could have a little meet-and-greet, a breaking of the proverbial bread. I grabbed a couple of nuggets and said, "Sit," and he sat. I held the kibble down toward the floor, and he hunched down, gazing at me with his funny, squinty golden eyes checking to make sure he doing what I was asking him to do. I gave him the kibble and he took it gently from me, barely using his teeth at all. Almost a kiss. He tried to squeeze his muzzle through the chain link to meet me more officially, though it was clear to both of us that we were each other's, and that he wanted to go home now, and what took me so long anyway?
I asked if I could meet Stanley more personally, and the woman at the counter looked up his paperwork. She asked me a couple basic questions about whether we owned or rented our house, did we have pets, did we have children. Stanley was a young boy, with no obedience lessons to speak of; classes were a requirement for taking Stanley home. Which was fine with me; any dog I wanted was going to a good dog, and we would learn how to be each other's allies in cooperation.
"How old is your child?" she asked.
"Six," I said.
"We can't let you adopt Stanley," she said. "We'll only let Stanley go home with someone ten or older."
I asked if this was ironclad, if there was any room for negotiation, but she was adamant. Rules were rules.
I went back through the dog kennels, and looked at all the dogs. There were around forty in their pens, more than half of them Pit Bulls. All of them looked sweet, if you could get past the image of bloodthirsty killing machines. I picked out a couple of other dogs to meet, one fat little miniature pinscher named Big Mac and a Pomeranian named Truman. Reasonable, small dogs, the kind that I told my husband I was looking for in the first place.
Truman the Pom was a hot mess. All fur and bad training, whining and crawling all over the place, desperate to be babied as soon as he was out of the kennel. Sweet, affectionate, and totally annoying. Big Mac had no interest in me at all, and truthfully I had no interest in him; I was just doing my best to keep an open mind after the disappointment of finding true love and having lost it before it had a chance to blossom.
I met the other dogs and went back to say goodbye to Stanley. I sat on the floor in front of his kennel feeding him kibble bits, him gently taking them from me, trying to impress me with his worthiness. He didn't need to try; I knew how amazing he was.
It took all my personal mastery to walk out of there without pitching a tantrum. I was sad, heartbroken, a love denied. I sat in the parking lot for a long time before I drove off without Stanley.
• • •
I had met another dog earlier in the day, a little beagle/dachshund mix named Kate, and I decided that maybe she would be a good dog for us. Affectionate, energetic. She was neither timid or overwhelming, just a nice dog. I had met her by myself, and then met Stanley at a different shelter. Now that Stanley had been removed from the list of possibilities, I told our son we should go meet Kate.
Kate was nice, perky, friendly. But she was completely non-selective about us in particular. She was as interested in the walls as she was in me. Our son liked her, I liked her, she was nice. A nice dog.
The last person that had to meet Kate was my husband, who couldn't come with us until the following day.
That's okay, I thought, since we have to go to dinner tonight at my mother's anyway.
• • •
Mom had pulled out all the stops for dinner. She had made a multi-course Chinese meal, soup, salads, two main dishes. It was, as it often is when she makes Chinese, difficult to maintain any discipline in not eating too much of one dish, because all the rest promised to be just as delicious. It was punctuated by our usual jocular conversation, bad puns peppering salty stories.
In recapping our lives over dinner, I mentioned our recent bizarre and unexpected quest for a dog. Mom was surprised, because she, like everyone else in my life, had no idea that I've been cruising dog websites for years now. But she agreed that dogs are great, especially for kids, and wondered what kinds we had been looking at.
I told her I had been looking for a ton of different dogs, almost all of them small. I told her I had met a great dog that afternoon, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but it hadn't worked out. Plus he was too big, and Lars would only tolerate a small one.
She leaned towards me and told me that under no circumstances would I get a Staffordshire. "I won't come to your house anymore, I promise you, not unless you chain him up and keep it far from me." No pit bulls! she admonished me, with a patronizing superiority that instantly enraged me.
"Why?" I asked. He isn't a pit bull, I told her, though he is a bull terrier. She didn't care what I said about the breed; she was convinced of my utter stupidity, and her wisdom. That I was willfully throwing my son and family into the jaws of a rabid and merciless weapon.
"Do you know how many people those dogs kill?" she asked. "Those dogs are a menace, and you should know better!" she snarled.
I was getting pretty hot under the collar as well. "These are not killing machines!" I insisted. "Any dog can be trained into violence; that's the fault of the shitty owners!" I retorted. "People who abuse their dogs, train them to be fighters, or starve them because they suck and don't deserve to have dogs themselves!"
"My father got me a vicious dog when I was a kid!" she insisted.
"You father was a complete psycho who reveled in cruelty!" I spat. It's true; everything he did was tainted by bitterness, sadism, cruel humor or just plain meanness. He was a real bastard.
The menfolk around the table were completely stunned. We had gone zero to sixty in a hair's breath over a dog I didn't have, and wasn't going to have.
"You have no idea what you're talking about," said my mother.
"You haven't had a dog in fifty years! What are you basing your knowledge on? Your shitty experience with a dog your insane father got you and archaic thinking about dog training?"
My husband was an interested party, and perhaps knew better than anyone that I was in no condition to be having this conversation. I had met my dream dog and had to leave him in the kennel, walk away from Stanley. I was pretty frayed. "I can promise you that Quenby would never put any of us in danger. She would never do that," he told everyone. Mom was staring at me with a grumpy half smile, and I was staring with fury at my plate. "And if she did, I would turn around and take that dog right back," he insisted.
Silence fell after a while. "It's irrelevant, since I can't have Stanley anyway," I said. "We're meeting a beagle named Kate."
"That's for the best," my mother said.
I was probably more dangerous than Stanley could ever be at that moment, so livid was I.
• • •
Bulldogs and Mastiffs are strong, tightly muscled dogs originally bred to bait bulls or bears, so it's no surprise that they're built like tanks. But that was hundreds of years ago, and several breeds have evolved out of the original bulldogs. Crossbreeding bulldogs with terriers produced a smaller fighting dog called the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and from them, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the notorious American Pit Bull were developed.
But Staffordshires (Staffie's or Staffs, or simply "the Nanny Dog") had long since left their fighting days behind after dogfighting as sport was banned in England, and Staffies became one of the most reliable family dogs, known for extreme loyalty, courage and love of children. The English don't call Staffy's "the Nanny Dog" for nothing.
In the meantime, Staff's were being bred to become the American Staffordshire and the American Pit Bull, where as usual bigger is better. And then the pit bulls became singularly famous for vicious attacks on children, strangers, owners, other dogs. Bad press was the only press that pit bulls managed to procure for themselves, and sadly the poor Staffie has been pulled down in the campaign.
But pit bulls are also just like any other dog: bred in conditions which train for killing, they will become a successful killer. Smaller dogs left in horrible conditions or trained to violence will become violent, or terrified, dysfunctional and broken. That they don't have the sheer force of the bull terriers doesn't make then any less susceptible to horrible treatment.
People forget that dogs are creatures created and honed by man. A vicious dog attack does not incriminate the breed, it incriminates the people who have trained it, abused it or raised it. Poor old Stanley looks like a thug, but he's just a big galoot. He just wants to go home. And I hope that if he can't come home with me that he goes home with someone who can see the heart of sheer warmth under the massive mug.
• • •
When we got home after the argument, my husband and I discussed my simmering anger. I was seething, and as I explained the reasons, all my sadness about Stanley welled up. He was this sweet ox, and people were going to assume, based on his face and sheer muscle mass that he was a weapon with fur, a ticking time bomb in a dog's body who was going to snap at any given time.
I hated people in general for creating a scenario in which this galumph, who was so delicate taking food from my fingers that I only felt his lips, was going to inspire fear. I hated it that even my mother assumed, based on name alone, that I was going to put my family at risk, that I was completely irresponsible in picking a pet who looks more like a mook that a little fluffy toy. That she didn't know the difference between Staffies and pit bulls only emphasized the injustice of the thing; she wasn't even hanging her accusations on the right breed.
Mostly I hated it that Stanley wasn't going to come home with me, because it was a fairy tale love at first sight, and I was brokenhearted that I had to leave him to the fates to find another good home.
• • •
I kept track of Stanley on the website by going back over and over again, to see if he'd been adopted yet. I planned subterfuges, manipulations of how to wiggle out of the shelter's requirements, clandestine operations which roped my hapless friends into getting Stanley from the shelter and then passing him off to me once he was out of their clutches. I thought of him waiting there for the right family and I cried because he found it and then I walked out on him.
In the end, I acquiesced to the greater wisdom of the shelter, who clearly has Stanley's best interests at heart and won't let Stanley go home with someone who wants him for his meaty muscles and his potential for fighting; they will find Stanley a home that loves him for his silly grin and tender, stout heart.