Another Baltimore Dog Story: The Trials of Lea

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My neighbor Pam has three wild boys, and all have begged for years to get a dog. Particularly Rocco, the middle one, a born animal lover. But who will take care of this dog? asked Pam, knowing perfectly well who it would be. Sorry boys, no dog. It’s already too much around here.

Pam attempted to pacify her sons with rented chickens and a dynasty of ill-fated hamsters. For herself, she bought a 30-year-old camper, and named it Aunt Millie. Aunt Millie’s stated purpose was family vacations, and she ably ferried all five of them to the beach and to circus camp in the mountains of Vermont. Occasionally she and Pam disappeared by themselves for a day or two. Pam’s husband Jeff, who is a great guy, didn’t mind.

But as she aged, Aunt Millie’s upkeep got pricey, and eventually she had to be sold. Pam found there was a hole in her life. What could fill a hole the size of an RV?

At this point, her oldest son Max was back home after a year at a residential school down south. His therapist had a Great Dane named Tonks and when they did their weekly family meetings over the internet, the dog was always standing with his head on Max’s lap. When they visited the school, they saw huge dogs all over the campus. They were part of the program. These boys who were so angry — the dogs seemed to melt it all away with their love and simple happiness. When the time came for her son to return to Baltimore, the therapist asked, What would it take for you to be successful living at home?

A dog, said Max. Of course.

At first Pam thought they would get a teacup breed, a teeny puffball whose poop could be picked up with a tissue. But then she saw the problem. This dog would suffer the fate of the hamsters in their house, smushed by love. No, she needed a dog the family couldn’t break. She started calling rescues and breeders looking for a Great Dane. Not a crazy puppy, God no, maybe a two-year-old.

It didn’t take long before a couple moving to an apartment had to regretfully return the black-and-brown brindle Dane they had named Kahlua to their breeder. This dog is a couch potato, said the breeder to Pam, perfect for you.

It was love at first sight for Pam and Lea, who was three feet tall, weighed well over 100 pounds and did not object to a slight name change. When she gets up in the morning, Pam told me, her face is full of delight and anticipation. And then she eats, she goes in the backyard, and she goes right back to bed! It’s nothing like having a kid, Pam said. I’m totally smitten.

What about the size of her poops, I asked.

Oh, that’s not even a thing.

And so the first months went by. Lea was so lovely and well-behaved but every once in a while she’d lose interest in playing and start jumping on people. And sometimes she’d growl at Rocco who had somehow gotten shuffled to the side — she was Max’s dog, she was Pam’s dog, she was everybody’s dog but Rocco’s — and he was sometimes a little too aggressive with her, grabbing her head.

Then Pam met a guy in the park who had two 160-pound Great Danes off-leash. As they chatted, she couldn’t help but be impressed by his dogs’ perfect obedience. The man gave her the name of his trainer. Let’s call him Rip.

Pam made an appointment to meet Rip, who worked out of an establishment in South Baltimore. The place was impressive. Spotless. There were flat-screen TVs showing Ravens football players hugging dogs and smiling. There were posters that said Don’t Be A Bully. Dogs lounged on beds and sofas – there was even a pool.

Rip, on the other hand, was a little scary. He was 6’4’’ and had about three teeth. He appraised Pam and Rocco from a chair across the rooms, legs spread wide apart, elbows resting on his knees.  Do you know anything about this breed? he barked. Are you in any way prepared to take charge of this animal? This dog is not in touch with her strength. She’s confused. She’s soft.

As Pam looked at Lea to see how she was taking this, Rip went on. Your dog is a reflection of who you are, he said.

Pam straightened, her eyes flashing. Dude, you don’t know me, she said.

You give me your dog for two weeks and I will train her for you, he said. The last three days, you come in and I’ll work with both of you together.

Pam hesitated.

Normally it’s $600 but I can give it to you for $400, he said.

In the car on the way home, Rocco and she agreed that boarding school had worked well for Max — why not for Lea. They decided to give it a try.

The two weeks passed slowly. Pam missed Lea like crazy. When the day finally came for the first joint training session, Rocco asked if he could come. Pam said sure.

This time, they were taken to a different part of the facility – some kind of training area. It seemed very different from what they had seen in the front of the place, where they’d met with Rip and later dropped Lea off. It was all concrete and chain link fencing, with what seemed like hundreds of dogs, howling in cages and cinderblock pens.

Rip came out and said he was sorry but Lea wasn’t ready to work with them yet, or even see them. They should come back in a week.

When Pam protested, he launched into a lecture. Let me get something straight for you, he began. Do you actually believe your dog loves you? Your dog is an animal, a pack animal, and you are its master.

The lengthy speech was delivered in such a menacing way that Pam actually started laughing. It’s like Scared Straight for dog owners, Rocco whispered. But when they left without seeing Lea, Pam began to feel uneasy.

That afternoon, Pam got word that her Aunt Sharon had died, and had to leave for Pennsylvania immediately. When Jeff went to complete the training, he found Lea in terrible shape. She was skinny as a rail, stinking of diarrhea, her fur and eyes dull.

Your dog is sick, Rip claimed. We won’t be able to do the training now. Take her home.

When Pam returned from Pennsylvania and saw her dog, she gasped. Lea looked like a Holocaust survivor, skin and bones. And she was, indeed, very sick. Almost as if she’d been poisoned.

Unable to reach Rip on his cellphone, she called the main number and got only vague excuses. He was not available. No, it would not be possible to refund her money.

Fuming, Pam took Lea to a pet store for a bath. When the groomer exclaimed over the dog’s condition, and Pam told her what happened, the woman eyes widened. Oh honey, she said. I used to work for that guy! He is the worst. He uses choke chains and electric collars, he’s involved in dog fights and gambling, the whole place is a front. Did you look at the Yelp reviews? You didn’t even see the worst of it. There are abuse charges against him. And forget about your money, he’s a drug addict. It’s long gone.

Pam had many plans for revenge. Calling Animal Rights. Calling the Better Business Bureau. Picketing. Vandalism. Let’s just go run him over, she said. Get in the car!

Jeff said they couldn’t cross this guy now that they knew how rotten he was. They would probably get shot.

That was all about a year ago. Lea recovered from her diarrhea, gradually gained back her weight, and returned to her former good spirits. Today I went over and visited Pam and Lea in their backyard after the boys left for school. Lea was excited to see me, which she indicated by jumping up on her hind legs. At her full height, she’s quite a bit taller than I am. But no taller than Pam, whom she clearly worships. She’s not trained, but she’s gentle, loyal and calm. Compared to three boys aged 11 to 16, no trouble at all.

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik


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