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. OK, 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 yearlong 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.
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.
“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.
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, 61, broke and bewildered, beginning to see that his 35-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 40s, nearing the end of a 20-year marriage, seeking to find her lost creative soul.
And finally there was Frieda, aka “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