At home, with Richard and me, Willie is sweet and docile, perfectly content in our routines, including walks and playtime at regular intervals. He hardly ever makes a sound – and for few months we weren’t sure he even could. Willie sleeps a lot, he likes to cuddle beside me when I read, and he greets every stranger as if he or she is a friend he hasn’t yet met.
Unless that stranger happens to be another dog.
I was flabbergasted the first time our sweet and docile pup went batshit crazy. Willie and I were walking down a Brooklyn street one afternoon – dum, dee dum – when our paths crossed with a man walking a gawky and oblivious Labrador pup. As they approached, Willie dropped low to the ground, straining at the end of his lead and crawling forward in the way of an Australian Shepherd ready to round up the flock – or a lioness about to take down a zebra. When the dogs came nose to nose, Willie transformed into a snarling, barking menace, a Tasmanian devil I had to restrain before the two leashes became tangled.
The bewildered pup lay on his back, tail wagging, as I apologized to its owner with Willie in my arms, my hand clamped around his muzzle. “Sorry; he’s a rescue” I said, as if that explained anything, then added, “This is our first city walk.”
I remembered then what his Louisiana foster mother, Keri, had told me when we adopted him. “He’s a funny little guy and he’s not afraid of anything,” she’d said. “He definitely has that little dog syndrome where he thinks he’s the biggest one — and one little bark is supposed to make that Rottweiler lay down be submissive.”
As we continued on toward Atlantic Avenue, Willie seemed to be walking taller – head up, shoulders back, very, well, alpha. I became wary of other possible dog encounters, crossing the street to avoid them. Was my sweet and docile pup also a fierce aggressor? Did he need a muzzle? Would this dog no bigger than a house cat look silly wearing a spiked collar?
Another day in New York City we encountered a dog walker holding six leads while walking the paved promenade beside the Hudson River. Willie tensed, prepared to spring, so I tensed and shortened his lead. The dog walker took this in. “No, let the lead go slack,” he said as the dogs closed to gap between us. I did so without question, and the dogs wagged and sniffed like old friends. “I think being restrained gets them more worked up,” the man said as we watched the dogs get acquainted. “It’s like when you’re in a bar or something and about to get into a fight; if your friends and the other guy’s friends are holding you both back, it ratchets up the tension and aggression as you pull against them, trying to break free. But when the dogs aren’t restrained – like in the dog park – they seem to just work it out.”
I continued south toward the Battery, unable to summon a memory of a single bar fight, but the dog walker’s rationale made sense: inside the dog park, Willie romped and chased the ball with the others, friendly and happy as he was at home. But back on his tether, he became the challenger, the underdog, ready to take on all comers.
I can’t know what goes on inside Willie’s head at those moments, but I’ve come to expect these Jekyll and Hyde expressions of his personality and still try to avoid encounters with other dogs on leads. Recently, however, while our friend Jody was Willie-sitting for us at her New York City apartment, they had an awkward encounter with some neighbors.
“Willie tried to pick a fight with William Wegman’s Weimaraners!” Jody said, astonished by his aggression toward a pair of animals six times his size — and embarrassed by the social breach with the photographer and his well-known canines. “All I could think to say was, “I’m so sorry – It’s not my dog!’”