On a calm day in December 2011, Stella and I walked home from the Brooklyn Bridge dog park along our usual brownstone-lined route. Stella, my 68-pound pit-lab mix, was a few months shy of three years old and had been dominating some of New York’s finest green spaces for more than two years. My Tennessee-born rescue had dodged her kill shelter fate to become the easiest-going canine in King’s County—until she wasn’t.
That afternoon, as we turned onto a familiar street near my apartment, Stella rose up on her hind legs like a spooked horse. She drew in her front paws, launched her body into the air and—before I could emit a Marlon Brando-esque “Stellllaaaa”—wriggled out of her snug harness. I lunged forward and caught a big enough handful of her white-tipped tail to thwart her frenzied attempt to run into a busy street. I scanned the block. There wasn’t a person, dog, garbage pile, or subway grate within throwing distance. I had no idea why Stella freaked out.
Stella’s bewildering behavior continued. Before walks, she would freeze and go into what my roommate termed “trench-warfare mode.” She would fall to the ground, dig her nails into the sidewalk and fitfully crawl back into my building. When she did submit to a walk, she did so in hapless distress—with red eyes and slicked-back ears, she’d dart into traffic or storefront entrances. I tried to tease out the source of her upset, but her inconsistent reactions to potential triggers made it tough. She had become an animal with seemingly no instinct or predictable behavior pattern.