Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Harley and Me

Laurie Michaud-Kay



The New York Times Bestseller Marley and Me has inspired many stories about loving, yet hair-pulling relationships between dogs and humans. This is one of those stories. And the fact that our five-year-old female boxer’s name is Harley signaled to me that this story should be told.

The name Harley seemed inappropriate when we first rescued her from an outdoor pen in which she had been confined the first twelve months of her life. With her pretty fawn and white coloring, delicate build, and innocent, liquid brown eyes, she appeared to deserve a more feminine name. Then she settled in and became our very own Hells Angel with four-paw drive.

You need to understand that this is not our first dog. My husband and I have shared our home over the course of our thirty-year marriage with five strays. All mutts of ignoble breeding, we have dealt with a terrier, two setters, a Labrador retriever, and a German Shepherd. So we are not inexperienced with training and handling large and energetic dogs.
But when Harley arrived … when she jumped into our lives with all four feet … we were quickly bowled over by her playfulness, energy, intelligence and determination. And I became the fall guy … literally.

My first challenge was controlling a strong, rambunctious fifty-pound dog when on a walk. And as a relatively fit, five-foot three inch woman, I took pride in walking beside our other dog, a seventy-five-pound German Shepherd. Harley, however, seemed to feel that the fun started when I said the magic word “outside.” Paws scrambling, she happily bolted for the door, knocking me into the nearest wall or piece of furniture. Then, with leash secured, she trembled and whined with excitement as the door opened. And she was off, snapping the leash (and my arm) against the door frame as she streaked out the door and around the corner. Then came the real fun for Harley. We played a splendid game of tug of war, consisting mostly of her dragging me and the leash across the grass. I quickly accumulated more bruises from this angular mass of sinewy legs and bone than with all our previous pets combined.

Time to turn to the experts. I checked the internet. I perused several books. My favorite was Boxers For Dummies. Despite my experience, I felt like a novice at controlling Harley, and I had certainly been banged around enough to qualify as a tackling dummy. Then I turned on the television, and my prayers seemed to be answered.

According to a popular TV show, I was not establishing my role as the Alpha Dog, or in Marlin Brando speak, “The Leader of the Pack.” I was supposed to be the bad ass that set the norms for behavior and kept the rest of the pack in line. Instead, according to the TV host, our canine Hells Angel was claiming that position. So besides being in a physical tug of war, I was also in a psychological war of wills with a highly intelligent and stubborn opponent. I needed to win.

To accomplish this objective, training was recommended. So off we went to Dog Obedience School. On the first night … in a class of two dogs … Harley promptly landed in “doggie jail.” While she stewed inside the cage (I could almost hear the cup dragging across the bars and the woeful singing of “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”), I learned about commands, rewards, and control. After eight weeks of work, and, I am embarrassed to say, a few more trips to doggie jail, we graduated with the ability to walk, come, sit, and stay. The Alpha Dog was in charge, although we still had alternating opinions about who that was, especially when her nose picked up a scent.

However, I felt confident enough to take her to the community dog park so she could run without the leash. We were doing fine. Harley was checking out the scents, and I started talking to another dog owner with a mixed breed about Harley’s size. The dogs decided to run together. Being our first time at the park, I wanted to be sure that Harley was behaving. The dogs looped around behind us.

I turned to see Harley tearing up the gravel path toward me. We had played this game of chicken before. I stepped over to give her room. She adjusted as well … to the same side. My legs were swept out from under me and I hit the gravel, luckily in one of my more padded areas covered in denim. My right elbow, however, was bare and was the second part of me to hit the ground. The other dog owner looked horrified. Harley thought it was a splendid victory. She sat there smiling, as dogs seem to do when their tongues are hanging out of their panting mouths. And, according to the rules of obedience training, it was too late to correct her behavior, although I did give her my best scathing Alpha Dog look. So instead, I picked up my bruised body, put on her leash, and tried not to bleed on the SUV’s upholstery as I drove home. I had earned a Purple Heart in our war. I wore it on my back side for days.

As the months rolled on, I felt as if I was trapped in a Keystone Cops movie. I fell flat on my face chasing her through the neighbor’s field when her leash broke, vainly calling, “Harley, come!” My ankle was tattooed with a spectacular bruise after she whipped around behind me in pursuit of a squirrel, her lead digging into the exposed skin as I called, “Harley, stay!” I hopped around in pain after she stomped on my toes while marching along under the “Harley, walk!” command. I went ice skating in sneakers, arms flailing, when she took off down the frozen grass of our front yard. This time, I didn’t blame her. I had told her “Harley, sit,” and we all know what it’s like plopping down on a cold chair with bare skin.

Was I winning the war? I never knew from day to day. But what I did know was that while her four-paw antics had gotten us into a lot of trouble, our love for each other always got us through the worst catastrophe. Or so I thought until a Friday morning in October.

By now, Harley had been a part of our family for four years. She had definitely settled in, though not settled down. Puppyhood for boxers seems to last until just prior to old age.
We really don’t know what triggered the argument. One minute our German Shepherd was nosing around the empty food bowls; the next minute Harley was letting her clearly know that her nose did not belong there. Teeth were bared and the barking was ferocious. Being the Alpha Dog, I stepped in to make sure that there would be no escalation to physical contact.

But there was physical contact. Still barking furiously, Harley caught my hand in a quick chomp. “She got me,” I told my husband, who was then successful in separating the two dogs. Washing my hand, I discovered that I had ripped open a one-half-inch gash on the back of my hand when I had jerked it away. My hand throbbing with pain, I sentenced Harley to “doggie jail” for an indeterminate time while both she and I cooled off.

I wrestled with my emotions. I was mad, but more at myself than Harley. How could I be so stupid? Then things took a turn for the worst. The gash became infected and I had four days in the hospital (an IV dripping antibiotics into my veins) to really think about Harley and me. Did I want to continue living with this animal? I was no longer just the comical fall guy in her antics. The bangs and bumps had culminated in a serious threat to my health, despite all my efforts. Friends and relatives were asking the obvious, “Are you going to keep her?”

The mental debate continued after I was discharged. We made changes in the feeding arrangements and were stricter with both the dogs. Harley was her usual energetic self, but also snuggling with me more as if to say, “I missed you.” But I was now nervous at feeding time or when Harley started barking near our Shepherd. I struggled with this negative intrusion into our relationship. Could I again feel comfortable around this dog … trust her to behave? I just didn’t know.

I still don’t. But as in relationships of reciprocal love, you forgive and move forward. Harley remains a part of our family. She still crams as much of her fifty-pound body on my lap as possible as she nestles in for a nap. I give her a quick scratch behind the ears, then quietly stroke her fur. Ahh, peace. Later, she pops up, enthusiastic and again in accelerated four-paw drive. The war of wills resumes. The Alpha Dog howls in frustration. So it is with Harley and me.

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Laurie Michaud-Kay began a career in writing because she was curious. She found writing provided an excuse for digging deeper into subjects, both human and academic. She turned this personality quirk into a 30-year career in corporate communications. Now retired, she lives in Tennessee … still exploring where curiosity leads.

© Laurie Michaud-Kay

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012