Sometimes you can’t take the ghetto out the dog

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I really don’t know why Smitty killed Lucky. I really don’t. My wife and I did everything we could to keep him from going over there, but no matter what we did, Smitty would always find a way to get back into the neighbor’s yard. He knew instinctively that there was always an opening somewhere, it was just a matter of testing the weaknesses until one of them gave way.

Kind of like life, in a way. And definitely like life in Detroit. Detroit doesn’t take kindly to the weak, which can be a good thing sometimes, but it can also be cruel. Smitty embodied that Detroit trait in so many ways. He was extraordinarily strong and resilient, very loving, crazy loyal, but he would only take so much shit before he decided it was time to take it to the finish line. He was all about survival of the fittest, and if he decided you weren’t one of the fittest, then – loved ones excepted – you just might wind up on the wrong end of some very powerful jaws. That’s what happened to Lucky, and God knows Lucky did not deserve being torn apart like that. 

Smitty.

Before he grew up into the powerfully beautiful creature that he became, my wife gave him his name not long after he showed up in our backyard one summer afternoon and decided he was home. He was so skinny he was able to slip through a six-inch space between the fence pole and the porch.  His coat was dirty golden brown, sparse, and felt stiff and brittle to the touch like dry grass at high noon. His ribs poked through his lean, awkward puppy frame, but when he barked it sounded like a depth charge had gone off underwater. How in the hell a ghetto dog so skinny and malnourished could have such a deep voice and such freakishly large paws attached to the body of a drawn stick dog.. 

When he walked, back in those early days, he was so weak that he sometimes had trouble climbing the back steps to the porch to get to the food that we would leave for him. Luring him in. It was painful to watch. But what was more painful was listening to him cry and whine whenever we closed the door at night after bringing Jam inside. He’d only known Jam for several days, but couldn’t stand to be separated from him. He’d sleep on the porch all night waiting for Jam to come back out.

I got Jam as a birthday present from my wife from the Humane Society. My wife and I have this thing for displaced Detroit dogs. But getting back to Smitty..

Because Jam, after all, was the real reason Smitty showed up in the first place.  You know how we sometimes have play brothers and sisters? Well Smitty had decided that Jam was going to be his big brother, and Jam decided that the kid needed our help. We really didn’t have much say in the matter.

And so, over the next year, we watched as the gangly, scared puppy who still wasn’t quite aware of his own strength gradually matured into a near 100-pound beauty that, from what we could tell, was a mix of Akita and something else. Probably wolf would be my guess with that voice.

And as he got older he got more aggressive. He loved to play with Jam, but Jam  was a mere 70 pounds and a sweetheart at heart. Loved to race around – and he would chase Smitty around the yard for days – but he was (is) gentle. Smitty, as we soon found out, was loving. But not gentle. The arguments between Smitty and Lucky, the unidentifiable mutt next door, started out harmless enough. Then they got so I’d have to drag him inside. Then it got to where Jam started acting like he had to prove he was bad too. Then Smitty started going next door. So I put up cement blocks all around the fence. Smitty was so damned strong he could pull them away.

So day after day he would get out. If he went next door, I’d go get him. Lucky would yap, letting him know he’d better not show his ass over there again. But of course he would. Except when he got out the other side of the fence. Then he’d just sit by the back gate waiting for us to let him in. Just wanted to let us know he could get out when he felt the need.

Then one day my wife calls me at work frantic. I had to come home right away. Right away. Smitty was next door again, and he had Lucky’s head in his mouth and he was snapping him back and forth like a rag doll. By the time I got home Smitty was still next door, wagging his tail at me gratefully as if nothing had happened. Lucky’s riptorn body gave the lie to that. He was shaking like it was 40 below, but it was just late fall. That night he died. Amazingly, we were able to work things out with our neighbors, I think because they could see how hard we had worked to save Smitty from himself. And because they are incredibly understanding folks. And because they are dog people too.

“Are you going to keep him?” they asked, and I could see the fear.

“No,” I said, almost in a whisper. “We know he’s got to go.”

It’s been over a year since I had to take Smitty to be put down. It’s been awhile since anything hurt me that bad. I admit it. I cried. Not until I got back to my car, but once I closed the door I was no good for about five minutes. To this day I still have the picture of Jam and Smitty sitting side-by-side by the back dor in the kitchen, as they were meant to be, smiling back at the camera. And to this day I may have looked at that photo once. I can’t escape the feeling I let Smitty down.

I haven’t done all that I could to make Detroit a better place, but I do try each and every day. Smitty wasn’t just a dog, to me. He was symptomatic of so many of Detroit’s ills, and I guess I hoped to prove (to who?) what love could do to remedy those ills. And I already know about those who will call me nuts about caring so much for a dog and not for the children (my own kind?) who need love too.

Except that this was not a love of Smitty instead of – or in  place of – anybody or anything else. It wasn’t about that. I don’t have time to explain and I really don’t feel like it. You’ll understand if you want to and you won’t if you don’t.

But I will say this; loving Detroit back to good health will require not just enough love for folks. These stray dogs and cats running around out here didn’t immigrate from another country. Many of them were tossed, kicked, beaten out of a home simply because. No other reason. Someone got tired, didn’t want to be bothered, and so fuck you goodbye you’re on your own. Make it however you can.

Some among us may find that tale all too familiar. And love is a wide open field. 

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~ by Keith A. Owens on March 29, 2007.

5 Responses to “Sometimes you can’t take the ghetto out the dog”

  1. Dayum bro’, u can paint a picture with words. And your words remind us that we must each do our part … each hour, each day, each week, each month, each year … to make a difference. What you and your wife did for that Smitty is a strong example. Our challenge is to show that compassion on a regular basis … even when the recipient of our compassion isn’t barking at our door. It is too easy to live our lives without making compassionate connections with neighbors, colleagues or even the person in the aisle of our grocery store.

    Anyhow, your post reminds me of the need for us to strive each day to ‘make a difference’.

    Stay strong. Villager

  2. “It’s been over a year since I had to take Smitty to be put down. It’s been awhile since anything hurt me that bad. I admit it. I cried. Not until I got back to my car, but once I closed the door I was no good for about five minutes. To this day I still have the picture of Jam and Smitty sitting side-by-side by the back dor in the kitchen, as they were meant to be, smiling back at the camera. And to this day I may have looked at that photo once. I can’t escape the feeling I let Smitty down.”

    Wow, Keith, you’ve shown us your soul, your heart and your head. So sad. So heartfelt. So revealing.

    It’s horrible when we can’t stop someone we love from doing we know will hurt them — even cost them their life. Your story reminds us how powerless we are to help guide anyone else along the right path.

    I hope you post that picture of Smitty and Jam. Let Smitty’s memory survive through sharing that moment.

    And keep your writing this personal. Whether it is a good or bad, when you bring me this close to what’s happening in your life, I feel like we’re sitting in the same room, with you as the storyteller and me as your audience.

    Well done.

  3. Hey Villager and Larry. Thanks so much guys for your comments and compliments. As you can tell it was a pretty rough experience, but as with all rough experiences there was much to be learned. Just tried to share and impart that in this piece. You make me feel like just maybe I succeeded.

  4. […] More here… […]

  5. […] I know this is an old story that’s been around for awhile, and I started to leave it alone just for that reason, but this story pisses me off far too much to walk away without at least putting in my two cents. I’ll admit up front that I’m a dog lover from way back who along with my wife has adopted two Detroit dogs from both the Detroit Pound and the Humane Society. Two years ago I had to put down my dog Smitty, a stray Akita who had adopted us a year earlier when he wandered into our yard as a sickly, scrawny and abused puppy. He grew up into a beautiful dog who was also, unfortunately, very aggressive.  After forcing his way under the fence and fatally attacking the neighbor’s dog, we had to get rid of him.  If you want to read the full account, check out an earlier post here.   […]

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