Before a pit bull named Melisandre (“Meli” for short) came into our lives, I thought I knew what she, and dogs like her, represented.
I knew that the term “pit bull” was a loose one — defying definition, and in many cases, used to label dogs whose heritage was simply unknown. But I also knew that these blocky-headed dogs were the ones most likely to be found in shelters, and first, and most likely, to be euthanized.
Meli was no exception. At age 3, she was on the euthanasia list for a simple case of kennel cough. This was New York City, after all, so a sick pit bull in an overcrowded shelter had a slim chance of survival.
She’d barely survived long enough to make it onto the euthanasia list. Her short life included overbreeding, brutal beatings, burnings, and abandonment.
Luckily, her sweet face caught the eye of a family in Long Island, who pulled her to safety and nursed her back to health until she landed a place as a permanent member (or, cruise director?) of our family.
She had precious little time with us—only two years—but before her life ended, she taught us some critical things about what it means to love a pit bull.
1. Loving a pit bull means loosening boundaries — and that’s ok.
We thought we knew what Meli “needed” when she came to us. She “needed” to be trained to walk better on a leash, to reign in her strength and curiosity, and for God’s sake, to quit eating the (delicious, in her opinion) garbage that she found on the streets of Brooklyn.
She also “needed” to be gentle when she met other dogs, to want to meet other dogs on the street, and to stop using those big, beautiful eyes to beg for food when we were eating human dinner.
Yet, over the course of our time with her — and especially near the end, when she had an aggressive liver cancer — we learned that our rigid boundaries weren’t so necessary after all.
As it turns out, Meli had a lot of strong opinions that didn’t need to be trained “out” of her. Though she loved the company of other dogs, when she wasn’t in the mood to greet one, we learned to deflect over-eager dogs (and owners) from invading her space. Whether for her preference or for her safety, we learned that it was absolutely ok for her to say no.
We also learned that she was more in tune with her needs than we were. Tests showed that she was allergic to the main ingredients in the food we were giving her, and in fact, some of our human food was much better for her.
So, we quit worrying so much about “rules,” and instead cooked her fresh meats and veggies. The smells from the slow cooker when her human dad prepared her meals were tantalizing. And, she ate with an enthusiasm that we’d never seen before.
I wish we’d known sooner that rigid boundaries can simply be walls between you and a happy pup, and that “spoiling” might really be the same as “loving.”
2. Things will not go according to plan.
In our early days with Meli, we had visions of how to craft her image as a pit bull “ambassador.” (She should be a therapy dog! She should wear funny hats that make her look less threatening!)
Meli had some different ideas. She was more interested in us, and in making sure our family was all in the same room together, than in meeting and comforting strangers. And, she hated to wear anything on her head.
But these readjusted expectations weren’t negative. Instead, she helped us define a new plan: worry less about what she represents to other people, and instead worry about what brings her, and our family, the most happiness.
And when you stop focusing on what you think a pit bull “should” be doing, you might just realize that what they are doing is the best part.
For example: showing off utterly beautiful cheek flaps and crooked teeth.
3. It’s ok to focus on the really, really mundane stuff.
We often envied the big adventures that we saw other people and their dogs enjoy. Especially smaller dogs: they could fit in purses, in carriers, under the seat of an airplane. Meli couldn’t do any of these things, and we don’t even have a car.
Somehow, though, this lack of a Big Adventure didn’t end up feeling like a hole in our lives. How could it, when every day that we arrived home, Meli picked up her favorite toy, wiggled her butt, pranced all around the living room, and celebrated the fact that we were together again?
How could it be a “lack” of anything, when a simple trip to the park, at the same time every Saturday and Sunday morning, caused Meli to light up, come alive, and smile in recognition of her favorite place?
Meli’s approach to the mundane taught us that those moments are the ones to remember. They are also the moments that build relationships, by showing the ones that you love that a grand gesture isn’t required to bring out happiness and light.
4. Holding a pit bull close until her last breath is the best gift you can give.
Meli’s cancer diagnosis came as sudden, devastating news. We scrambled to provide her with the best possible treatment, exploring all medical options and monitoring her health by the hours, days, weeks. We could hardly bear the painful thought of her life ending.
For her comfort — and to give us something to hold on to — we made a detailed plan about when we would decide she’d had enough, how we would help her pass, and what we could do to ease her journey until the end.
In some moments, this meant pure joy for her, because the plan included a bucket list full of adventures, like eating ice cream: