BARK!! BARK!! BARK!! BARK!! BARK!! I hear the dogs behind the door.
We have come to meet the 2 doggos we’ll be walking while my husband’s co-worker is on vacation. I can hear the friendly ‘Arf! Arf Arf! Arf!’ of her black lab, but along with it I hear the sound of her hound dog. His distinctive, ‘Arrroooo!!’ speaks to my stomach, and the fear begins. I look uneasily at my husband, and mutter, “He’s aggressive.” Just then the door opens, and the cacophony of large, barking dogs drowns out my voice. The two dogs are being held by their collars, their front legs pinwheeling into space.
We slip into the apartment, and in less than 30 seconds I can feel that the hound dog has fixated on me. His ‘Arrroooooo!!’ is now punctuated with snarls. I hear him snapping, and I KNOW that the moment his person lets go of his collar he will make a straight-line dash for me and bite.
Shaking my head I say, “I can’t,” and slip back out the door. I have been in the apartment for less than a minute. Back in the car I begin to shake, feeling the way you do *right* after avoiding a terrible accident by mere inches. He was a biter for sure.
Later, my husband’s co-worker calls to let him off the hook, saying she’ll make other arrangements for the dogs, and that she didn’t trust the hound with the strange way he acted. She apologized for wasting our time, and was just puzzled about the dog’s behavior.
I knew what was up: For 50 years I have been the person that aggressive dogs make a bee-line for. I’m the woman who normally friendly dogs turn upon. “Oh my god!! He’s never done that before!!” is genuinely something I’ve heard dozens of times in my life.
Ever thus it was – or at least for the last 50 years.
I was just 3-years-old the first time my mom successfully pimped me out to show business. The year was 1967, and I did an unremarkable advertisement for AeroJet-General, which ran in a magazine of no particular import. It shows a pre-school aged little girl earnestly comparing sweaters in a full length mirror, and the copy encouraged companies to let the defense industry automate their business. The ad is a delicious mix of military industrial complex arrogance, consumerism, and systemic sexism, topped with a generous helping of patriarchal infantilization that suggests women just can’t help themselves from shopping, and being vain – no matter how young they are.
I’d gotten the job because my mom had dragged me along on every one of my brother’s interviews for print jobs and commercials. To be fair, she couldn’t leave me with my eldest brother, who was only 11 — because he was already busy being responsible for his 7 and 9-year-old brothers. But, make no mistake she was dual-tasking, and parading me around to the photographers and casting people. So it was really quite a shock – I mean a shock – when I was eventually cast for a print job just after I’d been potty trained. At that point my narcissistic mother could count 3 of her 6 children as ‘working in the business.’
Over the next few years I did all sorts of modeling jobs for calendars and catalogues as well as newspaper advertising and inserts. Most of my work was repeat work booked directly through the photographers, which was an absolute no-no in a union town like Hollywood. It was the beginning of my mother and father lying to the unions (SAG & AFTRA), and to the IRS, about the work my brothers and I did, so that they could keep our earnings off of all of their records. My mother was as ethical as she was reasonable.
By the time I started kindergarten I’d been in more than 2 dozen calendars. These were calendars that insurance salesmen and realtors handed out as a ‘thank you’ to their customers, and they illustrated a bucolic all-American family life that never was.
When you worked on a calendar shoot you might be in 1 month’s picture, you might be in all 12, or anywhere in between. Each set-up corresponded to a specific month. You might find yourself sitting in front of an ice-cold turkey for the Thanksgiving picture first thing in the morning (when everyone’s hair would be the best), holding sparklers for the 4th of July shot before lunch, and sweltering in the afternoon as you’re bundled up for pretend winter. It was always a long, often tedious day that involved rushing to wardrobe changes, being hyper-vigilant not to mess up your hair, having your makeup retouched, and being told to hold an uncomfortable pose for half an hour or so.
It wasn’t the pinnacle of glamour, but I vividly recall those early shoots, and understanding that the camera was pointed at us, and that all of the hustle and bustle on the set was to capture something we were representing. Even at such a tender age I grasped the abstract notion that every person there had a job that faced towards the set, and we were there to make things look happy and fun.
That’s how I found myself on the shoot with the dog who wanted to rip my face off.
I don’t always have trouble with dogs. Hell, I don’t *usually* have trouble with dogs, and I’ve had several in my life. When I was a toddler we had a Samoyed named Frostie who allowed me to ride on his back. Sir Lancelot the loyal mutt was around in elementary school. Brandy the St. Bernard was 150 pounds of slobbery love during my time on Mary Hartman and through high school. Spike the wonder dog was my companion in my first marriage, and he actually protected me once from an attacking pack of feral dogs. But, the longest company of a dog I was lucky enough to have was the 11 years Buster spent with us.
We adopted Buster from our local shelter in 2001 when he was 2, after he was rescued from an abusive home. Buster was an adorkable black lab mix who – if he had opposable thumbs – would have shoved beans up his nose, and eaten paste. He adored strawberries, bananas and pumpkin, and hated the rain. The mailman was his mortal enemy. He had a propensity for counter surfing, and at different times he pirated a 2 lb raw pork roast, a cheese and nut ball, a pound of butter, a large bowl of squash soup, and the day after we brought him home he ate my son’s sheet cake for his 14th birthday. Let’s not even talk about the parakeet he snacked on.
Buster loved to be groomed, and wear bandanas and things around his neck (like the above rainbow lei), but would NOT put up with fripperies like like antlers or bunny ears. He was an absolute love sponge who adored me, and thought the sun rose and set on my husband. But he was dog aggressive. Crazy dog aggressive. In Buster’s mind those other dogs were going to take my family away!!! and they needed to be treated like the threat they were. BARK!! BARK!! BARK!! SNARL!!
You would tell this 75 lb dog straining at the leash to knock it off, and he would look up with liquid eyes full of hurt, “Gosh, mom. Why are you yelling? I’m only protecting you!” his eyes would accuse. The mutton head.
Although I’ve had many dogs in my life, it’s always interesting meeting a new canine, and seeing their reaction. Some love me up right away, and we have a mutually beneficial relationship where I scratch them endlessly, and they shed on me. Currently, my son’s dog, Nikolai, does this the most.
But other dogs… They hate me right away, and that’s that.
Take, for instance, Duke, my friend Norma’s dog. Duke hated me from the moment he laid eyes on me, and he nursed that grudge until the day he died. It was something like 7 years I dealt with him, and every damned time I would go to my friend’s house he would ceaselessly bark at me, and attack my shoes. Thankfully, Duke weighed about 20 lbs, and only posed a threat to my shoelaces, which he would strike at when I moved my feet. Eventually Norma and I would dissolve into gales of laughter at his rage, which probably made poor Duke even angrier. He never did this to anyone else.
But, not every dog is an aging chihuahua mix with a thing for shoelaces. Dozens of times I have been charged in parks by off-leash dogs ‘who wouldn’t hurt a fly’. I have had to kick dogs like I’m an NFL punter, and tell people if their dog gets close enough I will use my cane like a bat. Nothing tops the fake indignation of an owner who is all huffy when you threaten to defend yourself against their unleashed, charging dog.
Twice I have had different neighbor’s dogs nip my hand out of nowhere: One laid my finger open and required a tetanus shot, the other grazed 2 knuckles. Another of my husband’s coworkers came up to our ranch to scout for game, and on arrival her German Shepard damn near came out of their truck window after me. They leashed and muzzled their dog, which turned out to be a good thing when he broke free and attacked me. He hit my calf three times, and my thigh 4 times before the coworker’s husband dragged the dog off of me. They were *beyond* mortified, spent their time alone at the top of the meadow with the dog on a lead, and they haven’t come back to camp at the ranch in 2 years.
You get the picture: Something about me makes dogs itch.
Sometimes they want me to scratch that itch, and sometimes they want bite that itch hard. It’s really a crap-shoot how any given dog will respond to me – which was perfectly illustrated the other day when the black lab was wagging his tail, and the hound was in attack mode. Their behavior isn’t so unusual when you understand that it’s rooted 50 years in the past.
The above photo was taken in early 1968 when I was 4 years old. The black and white 4×5 Polaroid is a test picture is from yet another calendar shoot. It shows a suburban living room with a fireplace, and a little girl holding a glass while she kneels in front of an enormous Rough Collie that looks exactly like Lassie.
While it’s not as bad as it used to be, looking at this picture still makes me physically uncomfortable. My heart rate raises, my jaw clenches, and my palms start lightly sweating. It is physically difficult to write this part of the story. Intellectually I know I’m safe, but the part of my brain that allows me to recall certain things in excruciating detail doesn’t give me a break on the bad memories.
I found this picture when I cleaned out my mother’s house after she died. It was inside of a box of press clippings, catalogues and various ads of mine that she had collected, and then saved for nearly 25 years. I opened the box, and was fishing through a treasure trove of magazines and Sunday paper inserts when I saw it. I was immediately transported back to that day decades ago.
The shoot started like so many others: The night before my mother set my hair with the large, pink plastic rollers whose grabby teeth poked at my scalp, and made it hard to sleep. Early the next morning she put my hair into a dozen long sausage curls that were gathered tightly on the top of my head with a flat bow, and doused with enough Aqua Net to make Tammy Faye Baker proud.
When we got to the location the stylist had an outfit ready of a simple yellow dress, black Mary Janes and white lacy ankle socks. Normally photographers required the models to use their own clothes for these off-the-books shoots. So, the outfit was as unusual for them to have as the as the young makeup artist who put foundation, mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow, blush and lipstick on me. This all felt very grown up and special.
While I was fussed over and primped, I saw a dog come on the set. I didn’t get a good look at it because I had to keep my face forward, and eyes up. When I was finally freed from the makeup artist’s chair, I was paraded in front of the photographer and passed muster.
From behind his tripod and while looking in to the camera, the photographer instructed me to go kneel in front of a big, beautiful dog that was doubtless from some branch of the family tree of the real Lassie. I was in love. He was so beautiful, and had been groomed for hours, his gorgeous long hair looking like a stuffed animal.
‘This must be my lucky day,’ I thought, ‘I get to play with the doggie while they take my picture, AND I have a party dress and makeup on!!’
As I walked up to to the Rough Collie and chirped, “Hi, Doggie!!” the dog’s handler told me curtly, “Don’t pet him. He’s not a petting dog, he’s a working dog.”
I kneeled down near the dog as they framed and lit the shot. when they were ready to do the test shot the animal handler left, and someone handed me a glass. The photographer told me to hold the glass out and the dog would drink from it.
I did as instructed, leaning forward with a smile on my face, and the glass in front of me. As I did so the dog began to growl quietly in the back of his throat. I stopped up short,and looked around to see if anyone else had heard it, but apparently no-one else had. Because all I could see were expectant faces of grown-up, and a scowl from the photographer.
I put the smile back on my face and leaned in again. The dog began growling quietly again, this time making eye contact and glaring at me. I was less than a foot away from a growling dog, and really beginning to be scared when, without warning, the photographer snapped the test picture. The sound and the bright flash set the dog off and he exploded in a fury, barking viciously in my face, and biting my arm.
I remember shouting and general confusion for a moment. The handler dragged the dog back, and I was scooped up and away from the snapping cur and plopped down on a chair behind the camera. I began to tear up.
Suddenly my Stage Monster was beside me, growling in my ear the way the dog had been just moments before.
“Don’t you even think of crying,” she said snarled through clenched teeth. “I swear to God,” she hissed, eyes narrowing, “I will give you something to cry about if you don’t Stop. Right. Now!”
Ah… there it is. The good old stand-by of abusive parents everywhere.
Thankfully the bite didn’t need stitches, and could be bandaged up. The dog had bitten my left arm, which was fortuitous for the shoot: it was the arm away from the camera. As I listened to the adults talk about how I could leave my left arm at my side and not get the bandage in the picture at all, it dawned on me: They meant for me to finish the shoot.
Afraid, I choked back the tears and my mother spoke quietly into my ear, buzzing like an angry wasp. It was made very clear to me that I would do it or there would be hell to pay. No whining, no crying, no complaining – put on your apple pie smile and get out on that set NOW. Despite being terrified that Psycho Lassie might bite me at any moment, the thought of defying my Stage Monster was even scarier.
In short order they patched up my makeup, fixed my hair, and hustled me back onto the set. After all, how could they be expected to waste *all* that money they’d spent setting up the shot? I’m sure they justified it by telling themselves it wasn’t their fault the animal performer they booked was unpredictably violent due to being abused all its life. How were they to have known it would bite the model? They weren’t doing anything illegal, after all. These people all talked themselves out of owning any responsibility for my abuse, put their conscience on hold, and delivered for the client.
So, they forced me back on to the set, where the handler kept the dog on a short leash, just out of the shot. I did what they told me to do, smiling and trembling and holding out the glass while that tortured creature growled and occasionally snapped at the air, getting beaten by his trainer if he did so. I knew that if I didn’t sit inches away from that unpredictable cur I would get beaten that way later by my Stage Monster. I was shaking when the session ended, fortunate enough to finish the shoot without getting bitten again.
What a sad meeting of two souls being used and abused without thought by so many people.
Ever since that afternoon half a century ago I’m the one an aggressive dog will go after, and I’m the person the ‘she never barks at anybody!’ dog will bark at. They all sense something visceral about my fear and pounce on it.
For the longest time I didn’t know why dogs zeroed in on me that way. Then my mom died in 2005, and I cleaned out her house and found the box full of clippings and ads and photos. As I was going through the box I came across the old black and white Polaroid and froze in fear. The test photo with the beautiful Rough Collie made my heart race. I remembered that shoot. I remembered the dog, and the bite, and the chaos because the picture had been taken moments before I was bitten. If you look at the photo that dog is staring me in the eye, his ears are in a fearful, aggressive pose, and he wants nothing to do with either me or the glass. The flash bulb went off, and the dog reacted the moment after this picture was captured.
My parents, in their infinite wisdom, decided the best course of action was to pretend like the dog attack never happened, and never spoke of it again. They dealt with so many unpleasant things in life by disappearing them down the old memory hole, and they demanded fealty from the family through silence.
Finding that there was a reason for dogs zeroing in on me didn’t stop it from happening, but I quit feeling obliged to force myself to be around people’s animals who are clearly aggressive towards me just because they insist that Champion never bites — and whoa… I am SO sorry Champion bit you, I can’t believe he did that! Bad Champion!
It’s a healthy to know your boundaries, while at the same time embracing that all dogs are not like Champion or Psycho Lassie. Some are awesome, and the get the zoomies and need belly rubs, like Nikolai, while others are love sponges that stick beans up their nose, like Buster.
The good news is that animal performers have legal protections now that prohibit their egregious mistreatment on set. It’s no longer legal to abuse animals or use pain to force them to perform or do dangerous stunts.
The bad news is that what my mom did to me that day 50 years ago is still legal.
The hard truth is that it’s 2019, and we offer the animals in show business more protections than the children with whom they perform.
We have ethical coffee, clothing and chocolate. It’s long past time for our society to work towards ethical entertainment that protects child performers from Stage Monsters, greedy production companies, and predators drawn to the business. We owe it to the children whose talents we enjoy to treat them at least as well as dogs. Don’t we?