In 1988, I pounced on the idea of mending my human-induced broken heart with the unconditional love of a dog. Thinking that another species can cure a broken heart puts an enormous responsibility on an animal that can’t even converse with us about the role we often prescribe for him. That year, I was a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, taking a heavy load of classes and trying to graduate while working three jobs. Getting a high-energy, intense puppy during such a busy and chaotic time in my life was just dumb—something I can say now, with close to three decades of hindsight. The pain of my parents’ divorce after an awful twenty-five-year marriage, however, coupled with my discovery that my first true love (my college boyfriend) was cheating on me with my girlfriends, pushed me into doing something big. But instead of doing something big, I got something big. Big and black and tan with long teeth.
I had always been attracted to large dog breeds, not out of a desire to “dominate” them but as a plea to have someone or something protect me from the battering that life kept giving me. Therefore, after reading one thin book on the breed, I declared myself an expert on all things Rottweiler, and I began my search to obtain one.
I contacted a breeder, who said that he had only one puppy left, which—miracle of miracles—was the pick of the litter. What luck! I originally wanted a female dog, but the breeder said such glowing things about the pick of the litter that I couldn’t get that puppy out of my mind. I saved up the $500—a huge amount of money for a college student on a tight budget.
A week before spring break, my high school friend Michelle May and I, feeling that we were oh-so-grown-up, excitedly talked over our plans to drive to get my puppy. I called the breeder to inform him that I had the money and that I had only one question for him (not about the health or temperament of the puppy’s parents because, it didn’t occur to me): where in Texas was he?
Annie when she first met Wylie in Arkansas. He was already a big boy at three months old.
“Texas? I ain’t in Texas. I’m in northwest Arkansas,” he said. In all of the phone conversations about the puppy, I’d never asked the breeder where he lived. I’d assumed that he was in Texas because the advertisement had been in a local newspaper (Google had not been invented way back then!). My dreams of the ultimate puppy started to diminish. I needed that dog—that particular bold dog—to protect me from all of the humans who had wounded me. I finally had a brilliant protection plan, and now it was ending before it started. I’d to have pass on this fantastic pick-of-the-litter puppy. I called Michelle to report the bad news, and her response lifted my spirits: “That is gonna be an extra long—and extra fun—road trip!”
Twelve hours of driving later, we made our way to the small farm where Wylie the Rottweiler, the pick of the litter, was waiting for me. The breeder and his family resided in a converted school bus. They were coming out of the bus when we were walking up, and Wylie’s sire came up to greet us. He was humongous and easily the largest dog I had ever seen. They told us that his name was Winston. I tried to quell a bit of the anxiety I felt from just looking at the size of him. Winston came right to me, jumped up, put his paws on either shoulder, and looked right into my eyes. Many other large-breed dogs do that to me—jump up and place their giant paws on my shoulders and look deep into my soul. They probably just want to get close enough to smell what I ate for lunch, but I once attributed a more romantic notion to their actions.
I told myself that Winston was checking me out to make sure that I was good enough for his son. After passing his sire’s test, the already-named Wylie sat himself at my feet. I reached down to pick him and quickly realized that it required both hands to lift him. He was three months old and weighed 30 pounds. He seemed to be a love bug, and I was smitten right away. I was actually pre-smitten with the idea of him before ever meeting him. He and Winston stayed close by me, as dogs do. We entered our own world for a brief time. The animal world has always been a safe place for me to be me.
I paid the family and loaded Wylie into the car, waving good-bye to the nice people and to Winston. I was already hoping that Wylie would grow to be as huge as his father. Michelle noticed something peculiar about Wylie at our pit stops. He had a habit of growling at other people when we had him out to do his business. The first time we heard it, the sound was so deep that we thought it was a plane passing far overheard. The second time, we both realized that the menacing sound was coming from this pick-of-the-litter puppy. I was thrilled, but I should not have been. At long last, I had myself a protector. He did defend me, many times, but he also caused a lot of collateral damage. He was the first dog that was mine from start to finish. How he survived me and how my friends survived him is anyone’s guess.
Wylie and Water
Wylie had water issues—really more of a water obsession. He didn’t just like to swim; if there was water in his vicinity, he got wet as quickly as possible, splashing around like a fool, and nothing or no one could stop him, not even a fire department. He’d splash and then bite at the splashes, and God help you if you were in the path of the splashes because he would bite you, too. He had big teeth, and they hurt. He never bit me, though, confirming to myself that I was a natural with dogs.
Once, when my Aunt Shannon was taking care of Wylie for me, she had a friend staying with her. It was a typical, unbearably hot Texas summer, so they took Wylie for a swim down in the Frio River. My aunt was telling her friend all about Wylie’s water fetish when he spied the river. He lunged, broke the collar, and took off. They ran after him and found him in the middle of the river, splashing and paddling in circles.
Top: Wylie in Arkansas at three months old. Bottom: Wylie as an adult.
“That nut!” Shannon said. “Just let him do that for awhile, and maybe we will get lucky and he’ll drown.”
“We can’t let that dog drown!” her friend exclaimed.
“Yes, we can,” my aunt answered, for she knew the depth of his water obsession, and she was weary of his ways.
Shannon’s friend didn’t know any better, and she felt sorry for Wylie. She paddled out on her inner tube to rescue him. Wylie saw her coming and made a beeline for her like a big, black-and-tan shark, circling his prey. He bit her tube and popped it. She started splashing water at him to make him go away. This was the wrong move, of course, but she had no way of knowing that.
Shannon yelled from the side of the river to quit splashing at Wylie, but her friend couldn’t hear her. Wylie bit her, naturally. “Don’t worry! He’s the pick of the litter!” my aunt yelled to her struggling friend. When her friend finally got away from the Rottweiler-turned-shark, she looked at her hands and realized that her diamond wedding ring had come off, and I had the first debt to repay, thanks to this maniac of a dog.
Sneaking Wylie into the huge horse fountain near the football stadium at UT didn’t help his water fetish. He’d push himself off its floor so hard and so many times that he ended up breaking a toenail or two. Toenails really bleed out. I usually had to pull him out with all of my might. We left a trail of toenail blood that led all the way back to the house.
My roommate, Renee, liked to take Wylie jogging with her around Town Lake (now named Lady Bird Lake), which ran through the middle of downtown Austin. We both knew that he had a water problem, but we were physically strong women and thought that we had him under control with our ingenious two-collar-and-two-leash system.
Wylie was a loyal and protective companion to Annie in spite of his issues.
One morning, Renee took Wylie to the lake for a run, and I stayed at home to catch up on schoolwork. I thought she had been gone for a long time when the phone rang.
“Your dog is a menace!” Renee shouted into the phone.
“What did he do?” I asked, not sure if I really wanted to find out.
“He broke through the two leashes and two collars, and he is swimming in the middle of Town Lake. I called the fire department to come get him, but you need to get your butt down here before he drowns, or before I drown him when we finally get him!”
Renee was an even-keeled person, and for her to be that mad, Wylie must have snapped her last nerve. By this time, he was a teenager and 90 pounds of muscle. I jumped into my little red car and got to the lake in a matter of minutes.
Sure enough, there was the Austin Fire Department. And Renee. And my nutty dog, paddling and splashing at the waves he was making in the middle of Town Lake. The firefighters were all standing around, wondering who was going to go in after that dog. I was a good swimmer, but the lake was said to have an awful undertow, and it was cold. Plus, it stank. There were signs all around, warning: “Do Not Eat the Fish.” I was in the process of taking off my shoes and was going to risk the undertow to get Wylie when Renee asked, “Is that the University of Texas rowing team?”
It was the UT rowing team. One of the firefighters whistled loudly at the rowers. They looked over at us, and we all started running down the shoreline, pointing at Wylie. They kept rowing on by, so we all started screaming at them. Luckily enough, one of the rowers saw Wylie splashing around in the middle of the lake.
They stopped rowing and stared, as one unit, open-mouthed at my dog. They had a quick powwow and rowed slowly over to him. I was praying like a madwoman that he would not bite one of his potential rescuers. He must have been somewhat tired by then, so he allowed one of the rowers to remove his shirt, tie it around Wylie’s neck, and pull him to shore.
At this point, Renee broke the tension and started laughing at Wylie and probably at me, too, because I had to wade into the lake to get him from the rowers. He had to get the Austin Fire Department and the UT rowing team to work together on his behalf to save his black-and-tan rump. We all laughed then, and I was thankful that Wylie had lived through the lake adventure.
The Training Class
After that near-drowning episode, I decided belatedly to take my dog to a dog-training class. I had neglected to do that when he was a puppy because I was too busy with college and working three jobs. By this time, Wylie was two years old, weighed 95 pounds, and could pull a Mack truck. He naturally never learned to like other dogs (because I had never introduced him to any when he was a puppy), so when he saw one, he would lurch, bark, growl, and bite if he could.
I didn’t know any better, so I bought him a prong collar that was designed to pinch him in the neck if he pulled against the leash. It seemed to have no effect on him, even on that first night of class when the trainer put the most submissive dog in the middle of the rest of us to “see how our dogs would react.” I wrapped my leash around my hand and stood in a warrior stance with my weight evenly distributed because I knew what Wylie would do—and he did it. He lunged at the dog so hard that he nearly knocked me over. My stubborn streak would not allow that to happen, so I yanked and popped his leash as the thin book on how to train a Rottweiler had directed me to do. Wylie lunged again. I heard another loud “pop” (that I didn’t deliver), and I also heard the instructor screaming at me to leave the class immediately. I walked away in shame. That evening, I ended up in the ER with a swollen and badly broken pinkie finger.
Wylie and the fence he would later bulldoze down to attack a truck tire.
Wylie versus the Mailman
Wylie would give me a concussion a month later. By then, I owned a red pickup truck, and I believed myself such a diligent dog owner that I chained him into the back of the truck so that he would not fall out (today, I would never put a dog in the back of a truck, chained or not!). On this particular day, as I unhooked the chain, Wylie saw his nemesis—the mailman—across the street, and he leaped out of the truck, slamming me to the ground. I hit my head on the cement curb, and the damage was done. My long-suffering but ever-patient roommate rounded up the dog and got me inside. Her surgeon father came over (the first of many times because Wylie kept biting Renee’s family members when they dared to venture into our backyard) to check up on me.
A few months later, I finished my last college exam, and I was looking forward to going home and collapsing on the couch in exhaustion after drinking wine (I was now twenty-one) and celebrating my upcoming graduation. When I rounded the corner to our street, it took me a minute to realize that half of our 6-foot wooden fence was on the ground, and there was no Wylie in the backyard. I forgot how tired I was and ran into the house to check for him there, but he wasn’t inside.
The red light was blinking on the answering machine. A neighbor had used up all of our answering machine tape describing how Wylie had done his usual act of throwing himself on the fence as the hapless mailman walked by, but this time the fence had collapsed. The neighbor detailed the entire story: Wylie went after the mailman, who somehow made it back to the safety of his mail truck. At that moment, a loud, obnoxious small truck zoomed by, and how Wylie hated that truck. He chased it. He caught it. And then he sunk his teeth into the back tire and popped it!
The driver was understandably too concerned about the menacing Rottweiler to get out of his car, so the neighbor braved it. The driver had inadvertently rolled back onto Wylie’s foot, so he was stuck there, still attacking the dying tire on top of his enormous paw. The neighbor managed to take my dog to the vet, and I paid the big bill for his messed-up back foot, the broken fence, and the truck driver’s new tire. God knows why we kept getting mail at the house and why that mailman never turned my dog in for being vicious (rather, he was viciously untrained).
I slowly learned over the next decade to be a better dog owner, but it was purely through trial and error (many errors). I managed to keep Wylie from hurting anyone else for the rest of his years. I literally owed this dog my life because he had saved me from two certain assaults. One nearly happened on a hike west of Austin, where I would go far into the woods so I could let him run safely off leash. He rounded a corner, and, when I got to him, he was stock still and growling like I had never heard before. I snapped his leash on him, and, as I did, a strange man jogged by us. As he was passing me and my snarling dog, he said under his breath, “You are lucky you have that dog today.”
The second time, I was living alone in South Austin, and every condo but mine was robbed during a mild spring night when we all had our balcony doors open. I was the only single woman living there. The thief even went into my next-door neighbor’s bedroom as he and his wife were asleep and took his wallet and keys—and then his car. Wylie alerted me to the threat at 2 a.m. when he went bonkers at my balcony screen door. I reprimanded him, slammed and locked the door, and shoved him out of my bedroom. You can be sure that I thanked him in the morning when we woke up to police in the front of the complex—after I got him calmed down from wanting to eat the police, of course.
In those two life-saving moments, he did exactly what I had brought him into my life to do, and that was to protect me. All of his antics, trials, and tribulations seemed tiny in comparison to what he gave me, which is my very life.
Annie learned later in life that some dogs, including Wylie, don’t particularly like being hugged—as evidenced by his expression in this photo.
Wylie lived until he was 12½ years old, surviving three forms of cancer. As a recent college graduate with an English degree, I had no money for his treatment, so I repeatedly handed the veterinarian my brand-new credit card. It quickly went up to $10,000 dollars and took me years to pay off. Then and now, I consider it money well spent.
I grieved hard when Wylie died. I missed him for years because I loved that rascally beast of a dog. I also vowed that never again would I have an untrained dog. I recognized the risk that such a dog is to others and to himself. Luckily for me and for all future dogs I owned, trainer Karen Pryor had written a popular book called Don’t Shoot the Dog! She set me on the path of positive-reinforcement training for animals. I have apologized to my Rottweiler in my heart and mind countless times over the years. I have tried to make up for my ignorance and poor handling of him by training thousands of dogs the right way in his memory. Some days, it feels as if I have paid out that penance for my mistakes with him; on other days, I still feel like I have a lifetime of “I’m sorrys” to go.
I am now a crusader, reaching out to underinformed dog owners—as I once was—to show them that there is a kinder, more effective way. Because owners are getting the message that we can often help troubled dogs, my training schedule is frequently booked three months in advance, as are the schedules of most of the behavior experts I know around the country. Why are we seeing so many reactive and aggressive dogs? The next chapter seeks to answer that very question.