New York Turned My Poi Dog Mean

A furry Island transplant finds the Big Apple considerably edgier than Honolulu.
Dora and Dan

Straining at her leash, our dog Dora drags me down the Manhattan sidewalk. I keep close watch for any nonhuman movement, as a glimpse of another dog sends Dora into a frenzy of barking, hackles raised, teeth bared. Sweet old ladies scurry away, Chihuahuas clutched to their cardiganed chests.

It wasn’t always this way. We adopted Dora from the Hawaiian Humane Society in 2000. She spent a happy year in our ‘Alewa Heights apartment, scarfing L&L leftovers and dismembering the occasional gecko. She was a sweet mutt, romping for hour after muddy hour in the dog park with two Boolas and a half-dozen Hokus. Sure, sometimes she got a little overenthusiastic, barking madly while chasing another dog in circles, but wasn’t she just spreading aloha?

In 2002, we moved into a small apartment on the north tip of Manhattan. At first, Dora loved the Big Apple; no place in the world, I’d imagine, smells quite as fascinating to a dog as the sidewalks of New York. But Dora soon learned that our neighbors mistook “spreading aloha” for menace.

It didn’t help that our adorable puppy had turned into a rock-hard, 60-pound pit/boxer blend—the kind of dog typically kept in northern Manhattan by Dominican tough guys in muscle shirts. Other dog walkers didn’t care about Dora’s jaunty aloha collar; they took one look at her and crossed the street. On one of Dora’s first forays into our local park, she tore off after a little white terrier as I ineffectually called, “Dora? Come?” After a lap around the lawn, the terrier’s owner rushed in, kicked Dora, and screamed at me to expletive expletive my expletive dog, please. Stunned, Dora and I slunk away—or rather, I slunk away, dragging a joyously barking Dora behind.

illlustration: Tim Foley

Soon, though, the confrontations broke Dora’s spirit. And several truly mean dogs actually attacked her, one even drawing blood (and a $200 vet bill). Dora’s response upon seeing another dog devolved from eager tail-wagging to anxious hackle-raising to all-out barking and lunging. Our carefree poi dog had turned into another angry, neurotic New Yorker. We probably should have taken her to a shrink.

I don’t fool myself that this transformation was solely New York’s fault; we’re lazy trainers, who never perfected simple instructions like “Come!” or “Heel!” (Dora has mastered ever-useful commands like “Eat this bacon!” and “Sleep on our bed!”) But I can’t help but think that at the heart of Dora’s anger is New York itself—a city, after all, where on my brother’s first visit he was punched in the face by a dreadlocked rollerblader while riding in a moving taxi. New Yorkers pride themselves on their standoffishness, their self-reliance—the opposite, really, of aloha.

I was never truly a local when we lived in Hawai‘i, but I bought into the spirit of the Islands in a big way, and, just like Dora, I’ve lost that friendliness. On a recent visit to Honolulu, I couldn’t believe all these people who just smiled at me, right there on the sidewalk! What did these crazy, aggressive Islanders think they were doing? When I barked at them, though, baring my razor-sharp teeth, they usually backed off.

Dan Kois has written for The New York Times, Slate and Salon. Eventually, he will move back to Hawai‘i. This is his first piece for HONOLULU.