The Dog Who Kept Men Away
I heard the barking as soon as I pulled into the gravel driveway of the sprawling old farmhouse on a country road about five miles from my farm.
The noise was coming not from the house but from a barn behind it.
It was the deep-throated, door-rattling roar of the guard dog, and there was something undeniably frightening about it. A dog with a voice like that had to be huge and powerful. I had never heard a roar quite like it. None of my dogs ever barked in such a furious, almost panicked way. It was a bark to be taken seriously, very seriously, and I was reminded of the raptor in Jurassic Park busting out of its prison.
I was not looking for trouble from a dog. My life, at this point, was in upheaval. I was spectacularly disconnected from the world and attempting to stave off a crack-up. I tried to soothe my internal turmoil by focusing on fixing up my collapsing Civil War–era farm and barns, at least three of which were about to topple over into the road. Barns were collapsing and being torn down all over Washington County, New York, where I lived, but I was determined that my four would be saved. This project was horrifically expensive and complicated, but I couldn’t bear to see these beautiful old structures disintegrate.
I wanted some old windows to put in one side of my big dairy barn so that the grand old red silo housed inside the barn (an unusual feature) could be seen from outside. No real farmer would consider such an insane thing. But at the time, I was not sane. An HBO film crew had just finished making a movie of my trek upstate, and the very air was suffused with unreality.
So, I had come to this place because I’d been told that the couple restoring this farmhouse had some old windows. A thin, wiry woman with short brown hair, wearing tattered jeans, a paint-splattered shirt, and sandals, came out of the door and approached me. As we stood in the drive, she began urging the dog to calm down. “Ssssssh, Frieda, quiet,” she said. Her voice was so soft and tentative I knew she didn’t really mean it, and the dog surely knew she didn’t. She was concerned that I might be frightened, but I can tell when somebody means to change a dog’s behavior and when they don’t.
“We can’t have many people over.” She smiled, tilting her head back toward the frenzied roaring and charging coming from the small barn.
There was something melancholy about this woman. She was so quiet and reserved. She shyly explained that she and her husband were living in a small barn while they fixed up the farmhouse close by. “Who is that?” I asked, gesturing toward the barn, whose door was still rattling from the force of the dog inside throwing herself against it.
“That’s Frieda,” she said, surprising me with a radiant smile.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “I’m Jon.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m Maria. I have to confess,” she continued, “I haven’t read any of your books.” She was small, frail, almost elfin. But I knew I saw some humor in her eyes, attitude, pride. She was restoring houses with her husband, she said, adding almost under her breath that she was also an artist.
“That’s okay, most people haven’t. Anyway, I can give you one,” I said, reaching into the car. I had brought a paperback with me.
I don’t know why I’d brought a copy of that book—it was The Dogs of Bedlam Farm—for Maria. She looked at it and laughed, and would soon put it aside.
Maria invited me into the barn, into the small room she was living in while working on the farmhouse. I hesitated.
I’m not afraid of dogs generally, of course, but I know that in certain situations protective dogs will defend their people and territory. And Maria did not seem strong or clear with Frieda. I could see that Frieda had not been trained, as Maria had no commands to which the dog readily responded. She just got more excited when Maria spoke to her. When people really want their dogs to behave differently, they’re usually more forceful. I have always believed that people get the dogs they need.
Maria needed a guard dog, it seemed. I thought there must be some fear in her. She explained that Frieda did not like men. Okay, I thought, so she needed a guard dog who did not like men.
But I wasn’t sure I needed Frieda. She was giving me that unmistakable look of the territorial dog: eyes locked on me, ears back, tail down, body stiff. I had expected to pick up the old windows and leave. But that afternoon, I found myself wanting to talk to Maria. There was something very warm about her. I felt a connection I had not felt in so long I barely recognized it. I wanted to know more, to see what was behind those sad and sweet eyes. My farm is in a remote part of upstate New York, and I had not made many friends there. My wife at the time was living in New Jersey, and our visits to see each other were becoming less frequent. It was sometimes lonely. Actually, it was always lonely.
We walked to the barn, and the roaring got even louder. Maria opened the door ahead of me, and I could see her lean over a large brown-and-black mixed-breed dog and pull her back into the corner. The roaring subsided for a bit, and then resumed from the corner. Frieda wasn’t trying to charge me; she just clearly wanted me to go away. She was more anxious than aggressive.
I could see right away that Frieda—a rottweiler-shepherd rescue—was like others I had met: loving and devoted to their humans, but ferociously protective of them. Because I write about dogs, people are sometimes embarrassed when I meet theirs. They suspect I am judging them, and they apologize. The dog was abused, the dog was abandoned, the dog is sweet and good, just overprotective in some situations.
Maria apologized for Frieda’s barking. She had never really trained her, she said, but it didn’t seem to me that Maria was too bothered by Frieda’s loud vigilance.
Still, I have studied attachment theory for years, written books about it, lived it in my own life. It is a prescient window into the lives of some people, how they are with their dogs, how their dogs are with them. Something powerful connected these two.
I looked around the barn. I could see that Maria and her husband were living an ascetic life. No computer. Few possessions. Nothing new or fancy. A spartan place, almost monastic. Lots of books and magazines. No junk or clutter. Different from my life, filled as it was with rolling chaos.
Maria repeated that she couldn’t really have many visitors. And she didn’t trust Frieda outside, either, around people or other dogs. “I take her for long walks in the woods,” she said, “but it’s just us.” Maria didn’t think Frieda was trainable because of the dog’s history, and because she was so wild.
She had adopted Frieda from a local animal shelter, where she had been kept for nearly a year. All the shelter workers knew about Frieda was that she was a healthy female (the shelter had spayed her) who had been captured in the southern Adirondacks after a year-long pursuit by one of their animal control officers.
I have kept away from dogs like Frieda all of my life, and would never have considered adopting one or taking one home. For me, dogs are about people, mixing with them, living among them. I would not want a dog that people were afraid of, that you had to watch every second. And looking at Frieda, whose barking had now morphed into a low, menacing growl, I was definitely wary of her.
But I had seen this type of situation before. Sensitive people (often, but not always, women) empathized with dogs who would be put to sleep if they were not adopted, who desperately needed homes. And I knew there was often something else going on. Perhaps a wish to be protected? A complicated childhood? A desire to withdraw from the world? A need to nurture? All of the above? None of the above?
“What made you adopt her?” I asked. The answer would tell me a lot about this woman, and I almost always ask it of people I meet with big, scary dogs.
“Oh, I just thought she was so cute,” she said. I smiled.
I moved a couple of feet inside the barn, and when Frieda roared and growled, I moved back again.
So there it was, the beginning of my fairy tale, the kind of story men my age are not supposed to dream of anymore.
This is the story of an aging and troubled man yearning for love and knowing it will never come, a troubled artist who had given up her art and lost her voice, and a courageous, fiercely loyal wild dog abandoned by a bad man and left to fend for herself in the Adirondack wilderness.
There was me, sixty-one, broke and bewildered, beginning to see that his thirty-five-year marriage was falling apart, living alone on a farm in a poor and remote corner of upstate New York with a bunch of animals.
And there was Maria, a sad, brooding fiber artist in her forties, nearing the end of a twenty-year marriage, seeking to find her lost creative soul.
And finally there was Frieda, a.k.a. “the Helldog,” a rottweiler-shepherd mix who had been cruelly abandoned and spent years living in the wild.
And what in the world could possibly bind these three completely disparate and seemingly so utterly different beings? The thing that makes any good fairy tale work: we were looking for love. We were looking to be saved from an empty life. We were seeking that rarest of miracles, a second chance.
Maria and I have talked many times about our first meeting. We both remember how easy it was to talk to each other. We felt comfortable with each other. I had many people in my life and was comfortable with few of them. Maria had few people in her life and was not often at ease with any of them.
I know that many people are uncomfortable around me; I have learned this. I make people nervous because I’m restless, because I often focus in on people like the reporter I was for so long, because, without knowing it, I’m almost viscerally compelled to talk about things most people don’t really want to talk about. I don’t mean to behave this way, but I know I do. I don’t like chitchat. I don’t let sleeping dogs lie. I have made very few good friends in my life, for various reasons, and until recently, most of them have simply gone away.
I didn’t feel so restless with Maria. If I was crazy or intense, she didn’t seem to notice or mind. Apart from worrying that Frieda would tear me to bits, I didn’t sense any discomfort at all.
Our lives in the country offered easy ways to get to know each other. We met again, soon after, by a neighbor’s burn pile, where anybody in the neighborhood could bring their scrap to burn. The same friend who’d first told me about Maria had called both of us and told us the burn pile would be going and then told each of us the other was coming. When you brought wood and junk to a burn pile, you had to sit there until the fire had burned down. It was common to arrange for some company, as the process could take hours. I called Maria and told her I was coming and offered to bring hot chocolate. It was nearly freezing. She said she would be there.
Maria and I hauled over our logs and brush, and sat by the fire. I’d brought her some books by writers I loved—Jane Smiley, Annie Proulx, Anita Brookner. She already owned the Smiley and Proulx, took the Brookner.
It was so easy to talk to her.
We talked about everything: books, dogs, art.
“Why aren’t you making art?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Nobody would want it,” she said. She made quilts from recycled fabrics, and many people in the art world didn’t consider that art. I knew what she meant. Lots of people in the publishing world didn’t consider dog books literature, either.
I did most of the talking, but she listened, curious, sometimes tilting her head at an odd angle.
I got the sense that she was unhappy with her life.
Mostly, that evening by the fire, we talked about dogs. We were both in long marriages, and had anyone suggested to either of us that we would one day not be in those marriages, we would have fainted dead away. Both of us. I never once thought I would get divorced. I said a million times that no matter what happened, I would never get divorced. Maria often said the same thing.
Dogs do not understand things like marriage and divorce; nor are they interested in the twists and turns of the human psyche. Frieda was very nervous around me that day, as well as protective of Maria. I could see it. The panting, the eyes shifting back and forth, the squirming around, the growling. Even then, on that first day, when I was blind to so much, Frieda seemed to sense something happening. She reminded me of my border collies when they hear a storm approaching, many miles away, before I see any visible sign of it. Their eyes narrow, and they circle, whine, growl, and cannot find a place to alight. That was how Frieda behaved as I talked with Maria.
Given her fury, it was hard to get a really good look at this enormous dog, a menacing creature, wolflike and powerful. But every now and then, she would stop barking and look me up and down—and I saw that she had the sweetest brown eyes. I don’t know what Frieda was seeing when she looked at me that first day, but I do know she wanted it out of the house.
Maria and Frieda had connected on a very emotional level, each protecting the other, each feeling safe and grounded with the other. Those are the most powerful kinds of human-dog relationships. Also the most confusing.
I remember thinking this: Nobody ought to try to come between Maria and this dog. It never occurred to me for a second that I would be the one to attempt it.
Frieda, it seemed to me, did not know how to live in the world beyond Maria. She had no idea what her job or purpose was, and nobody had yet appeared who could teach her. How interesting, I thought. Because I was in exactly the same situation: at loose ends and purposeless. Looking back, I see that this was our first connection.
Maria was quiet, a good listener, and I enjoyed talking with her, but she was so reserved at times I wondered if she had trouble speaking. You know some people by what they say, and others by what they don’t say.
I asked her about it soon after we met, and she looked at me and her eyes filled with tears, and then I understood that she had a voice but had lost it somehow.
Maria said little about her life, nothing about her family or her marriage, even less about her art. She was from Long Island. She’d been an artist once but was not one now, and when she said that, she couldn’t hide the pain and sorrow in her eyes. This was one of the problems in my life. I never missed things like that. And I rarely let them go.
Sometimes, she said, it was the art world that made her uncomfortable. It was too commercial. “I wasn’t making anything good.” Sometimes, she said, it was because she was too busy working to restore houses—hard, physical work—and she didn’t have the time.
I told Maria that I thought Frieda might benefit from some basic grounding training, and I could see she was interested. I remember thinking how small a space that barn was for such a big and unnerving dog.
As I left the burn pile that night, I thanked Maria for the windows she had given me and we shook hands. I said we all ought to get together for dinner sometime. We exchanged telephone numbers. We seemed so very different, but I also thought she would make a great friend. That would be nice, but unlikely. Married men and married women don’t often become good friends with each other. I didn’t really think I would ever see her again.