Usually when people ask me what breed Argos is, I feel a frisson of pride as I tell them, “He’s a Belgian Malinois.” It’s hard to escape that feeling that if I have something exceptional in my life (and Maligators truly are exceptional) then I must be exceptional too, right? Yeah, I know it’s not logical – but go ask any guy with a Ferrari about his Ferrari, ask any kid about their new shoes with sparkles, and you’ll see they feel exactly the same way. We display the things we love in part to tell the world who we are.
Sometimes – but less and less often, thanks mainly to that damn movie – I have to explain what a Malinois is. That they’re completely amazing, but not really pets. That the dog who jumped out of a helicopter to help take down Bin Laden was a Malinois. That the only reason I have him, because this is not an ideal breed for a slow-moving fat girl, is that he was a rescue and I meant to rehome him, but we fell in love.
More often, these days, the response goes, “Ooh, I so want one! And look – people say they’re dangerous, but he’s such a sweetheart!” Because he is. Argos is a total schmooze. When we’re out and about – and he goes everywhere with me – his reward for good behavior is to get to “say hello” to whatever random stranger asks, “May I pet your dog?” He walks up close to them and stretches his neck so that his nose is pointing up against their body, and he leans in for loving as though he never gets any at home. And I have to explain that this is not typical behavior for a Mal; they can be unpredictable, even dangerous. That they tend to be too hyper-focused on whatever stimulating smell-sound-spook captures their attention to be much interested in casually benevolent strangers. That they’re not family dogs, and you’d better not try to live with one unless you have a lot of time and energy, and are willing to spend almost all of it on training and just keeping them occupied.
Somehow all this makes me look like something special, as opposed to merely a slave to my dog.
Only not today.
Today, when the emergency room tech asked, “What kind of dog was it?” I flinched away from the question. “Malinois,” I muttered, adding defensively, “But he’s not typical of the breed! He’s never done anything like this! And he adores her!”
These statements can be rated True As Far As It Goes, Somewhat True, and Totally True.
He is typical in some ways. I mean, his real name isn’t Argos. I named him for Ulysses’ faithful hound, because that’s what I wanted him to be. I gave him that name because, when he came into my life, I was in burnout after about six years of 24/7 dog rescue. And in fact he and Destra did faithfully haul me through the flames – one driving away the Black Dog that wanted to see me burn, while the other dragged me out into the fresh air. Nonetheless, his real name is GODDAMMIT YOU ASSHOLE (always written in full caps), because he’s a Malinois, and – full disclosure – with rescue I’ve been too busy dealing with other people’s canine catastrophes to give my own dogs all the attention and training they need.
What’s not typical is how much he loves making friends with new humans. Just one example of many: one hot evening last summer the Hubbit and I were sitting at a table outside an ice cream shop, slurping coolness and feeding a small vanilla ice cream cone to Argos. This enchanted a not-well-socialized, possibly “challenged” small boy. I describe him this way because he squealed a lot and moved in a jerky, uncoordinated manner, which is relevant only because most dogs would have found it disturbing. Argos allowed the child to tickle his ears and tug on his tail, and planted a vanilla smooch on his cheek … and ever since then I’ve been playing with the idea of training him as a therapy dog and taking him to cheer up kids in hospitals.
That idea pretty much blew up today. From here on out he’ll be wearing a muzzle when he’s around other people, and he won’t be hearing me tell him to “Say hello”, and when people ask if they can pet him I’ll say, “Yeah … better not. I’m sorry.”
Actually, I’m more than sorry. I’m heartbroken. I have so loved watching him loving to schmooze, and it’s just going to hurt to not let him do that anymore.
He’s never even hinted that he might bite a human – apart from a few occasions when he’s suggested via a lifted lip that I should back off and let him do what he wants, and I’ve explained that things don’t work that way around here, and then he’s put his lip back in place and that’s been the end of it. He’s always been a tad unpredictable with the other dogs – not that he damages them; after eight years of constantly biting down on bones and tractor tires, and carrying large pieces of lumber from one area of our property to another, his teeth are worn down to nubs. But he snarls and grabs hold and scares them, and when I yell and banish him he sulks and refuses to be sorry.
Today, when I screamed at him, “For fucksake what have you done?” he seemed as shocked and upset as I was. When I left him alone in the car to rush Nikkola into the ER he was scared. After I left her with a nurse and went back out to park my car properly, he was worried and tentative, needing reassurance.
Nikkola is one of his favorite people in the whole world. She doesn’t drive and she’s currently needing to visit a lot of doctors, so Argos and I pick her up often. He starts his happy dance as we turn into the parking lot at her apartment complex, and when she gets into the car it’s all I can do to keep him in the backseat and out of her lap. He shoves his big old head over her shoulder, and she pets him and he kisses her neck and cheek, and they carry on like a couple of teenagers for the first few blocks of our drive.
That’s basically what they were doing this afternoon. Argos and I had swung by a coffee shop drive-thru after dropping her off at the doctor, to pick up my usual 16-ounce single-shot hot soy latte and his usual puppy whip. Then we’d returned to the doctor’s rooms and hung out in the parking lot, Argos chewing on something in the backseat while I sipped my latte and listened to a This American Life podcast about how covid has killed school as we used to know it. Then Nikkola texted that she was done and we picked her up, and Argos tried to climb into her lap but I stuck out my arm and blocked him. I found a shady spot and opened the calendar on my phone to enter the dates of her next appointments, while she giggled and petted him and he smooched up and down her neck.
And then he snarled and BIT and she screamed and clutched her face, and humans have thin skin, unprotected by fur, that even blunt teeth can pierce.
Blood was running through her fingers, drenching the crocheted shawl she was wearing and the blouse beneath it. I thought he’d taken out her eye.
“What have you done?” I screamed at him, and he leapt away, cowering against the backseat.
We were just two blocks from the ER. I slammed up to the curb, rushed around the car to open her door. The blood continued to pour, dripping onto the sidewalk. I remembered the hoard of tissues and napkins the Hubbit keeps in the console, grabbed a handful, and told her to hold them against the wound. She staggered as I helped her to the entrance, and I yanked a wheelchair out of the array set out there and pushed her into it.
They didn’t make us wait – not even to test for covid.
I filled out a form and left her with a nurse and hurried out to park the car across the road. I sat for a few minutes with Argos, just crying into the thick, soft fur on his neck. Then I stuck my finger into his ears, first one and then the other, and he flinched and whined.
Could he have earache? Maybe a broken tooth, way back? There has to be a reason for this! He hasn’t acted as though he was hurting … but I’ve been distracted lately. Did he tell me and I didn’t get it? Or has he just been too busy being a Malinois, and he didn’t bother to notice something hurt until Nikkola tweaked it in mid-snuggle?
I went back into the ER. They’d moved Nikkola to a room and cleaned her up. Her eyes were swollen from crying, but whole. She had one puncture wound and some abrasions up above her hairline, and a bruised graze on her cheek. She had to get one staple, a hefty dose of Tylenol, and precautionary antibiotics. I had to fill out a Health & Human Services form about the Bite Incident.
I called the vet and made an appointment to have Argos checked out tomorrow. He’ll be muzzled until he’s sedated.
I called a friend who is an animal control officer, to ask how I can protect him from a most horrible possible consequence. She reassured me, but I’m still afraid.
Back in the car he kept trying to love on Nikkola. He sniffed her hair, wanting to clean away the blood. I made him lie down. We stopped at a pizzeria to pick up dinner for her, and there we hit a snag. Legally, based on the paper I’d signed at the hospital, he wasn’t supposed to be out without both a leash and a muzzle, but he couldn’t come into the pizzeria, and Nikkola is afraid of him now so he couldn’t wait in the car with her, and she was too sick and shaky to fetch the pizza herself. I put him in a sit-stay and made him wait outside the door, and he was just so good, so calm and polite. All the people passing him to come inside smiled at him and at me, and many complimented me on what a good dog he was.
He is a good dog. I mean, sure, he’s an asshole. But he really is a good boy.