Man’s Best Best Friend(Updated)

Frisco and Sterling

Frisco, muzzle white with age, and brother Sterling

Those of you who know me personally will understand that among all my various endeavors, one of the relationships I cherish is the one I enjoy with my dogs.  In fact, one could truthfully argue that among all the things in the world I have known and have loved throughout the course of my life, there’s been nothing more constant than the dogs.  As life goes, on occasion it is right to make an accounting of one’s choices and decisions.  My life is full of things I would like to improve, but there’s one area in which I think I could scarcely do much better.  I make no bones about the fact that when it comes to canines, I enjoy them all, but if were to be sentenced to do a re-run of life in the body of a dog, I would choose to be a Great Dane. They are man’s best best friends

For those of you accustomed to my political rants, I suppose it’s safe to say you might believe I’m cracking-up.  That may or may not be the case, but what is certain is that I tend to say what I mean because I feel obliged to relate the truth of a thing.  Dog preferences are subjective, and as individualized as the human race, but for me, looking back across the span of decades, living my life as I have, I’d have no other breed before the gentle giants that are the Great Danes.  Fierce and gentle at once, bold and courageous when times demand it, yet able to approach an infant in the softest, most non-threatening manner, exhibiting a kind of cross-species empathy that defies most of the rules of the natural world around us, I can think of no finer testament to a man or a woman upon their departure from this life than the heartfelt mourning of a Great Dane.

We had our first Dane some twenty-five years ago.  We adopted her from a shelter in North Texas, and she was a wonderful dog. Our first papered Dane was a pup, just six weeks old when I brought him home, a fine fellow of black and white.  He was smart, but a bit on the shy side, a gentle young fellow, who grew strong, swift and obedient. I trained him daily, in small sessions measured in minutes at first, teaching him all he could take in with the mind and attention of a wee puppy.  It didn’t take long before his skills were sharp. I could place him in a sit-stay at the end of our block, walk all the way to our home, and re-call him. Dutifully, he would zoom up the sidewalk, his adolescent athleticism covering the ground with ease, and from there, I knew he was something quite special.  He grew and became an average-sized Dane, and as he blossomed into a fully mature dog, I recognized in him agility and talent that I’d never seen in a dog so large.  It wasn’t long before we had purchased a house out in the country, and there was a great deal of work to be done.  Of necessity, I suspended his training because with work and everything ongoing at the house, there simply wasn’t the time.

In those days, there weren’t a large number of Great Danes entered in obedience or agility trials, so it was that one would feel a bit like the odd-man-out. After a little more than a year-long break from our training, we recommenced, and it didn’t take long for my pal Max to earn his Companion Dog title.  He was already a mature dog by the time he earned his CD, and at the show in San Antonio where he completed his CD, he was already showing his age as  he slooooooowly sat, his hips already showing signs of early arthritis.  This is one of the common maladies of the breed, and undoubtedly one of the reasons the breed has such a short average life expectancy of just seven-and-one-half years.

I think of all the things in nature that are awful, this may be among the most cruel: Great Danes are a breed with so many natural virtues, among them being that they will  almost universally grow to be real members of families, beloved and treasured. While it takes them two years (or more) to reach full maturity, the prime of their lives is so very miserably short.  From two years, you can generally count another five, and then it becomes a long, downhill slide, slowly at first, but generally accelerating beyond the age of eight.  My pal Max lived to be nearly nine.  Others have not been so lucky, one poor fellow not quite making five before being claimed by cancer.  Our current pair is already nine-and-one-half years old.  This is generally a geriatric age for these noble creatures, and recently, my fellow Frisco is starting to show the beginnings of arthritic hips, and the degeneration of the spine known as spondylosis deformans(or commonly, shortened to “spondylosis.”) This now is coming to be his biggest problem.

This is one of the ways nature seems almost to punish Great Danes for their virtues of size and athleticism, but it is far from the only way.  One rescue adoptee we had from eighteen months old developed the degeneration in his back by the time he was seven, but try as we might, in the end, it was another common Great Dane malady – bloat – that took him down.  Conan might have survived the surgery, but the recovery was likely to be touch and go, and with his spine and hips giving him so many troubles, at times unable even to stand without exhausting effort or assistance, we decided to let him go.  How much should a good, loyal dog be required to endure,  or be permitted to suffer?

“Owning” Great Danes is one way of looking at the relationship, but it’s hardly the only way to view it.  What you find commonly among Great Dane owners is that they are in a thorough sense owned by their dog, in the same way one is owned by his or her children.  I know this is so with my current older fellow, Frisco, and his kind but epileptic brother Sterling.  They became a big part of our lives, sort of toddlers in a permanent state of arrested mental development, who will always look to you, always forgive your foibles and failings, simply accepting and giving companionship happily.

Frisco has always been my “talker,” who murmurs and groans in expression of his emotional state.  He’s highly vocal.  When he was young, when he found he could make an un-Holy racket with his great bark, it was a thing he began to do, at times we believed simply because he could, and because he seemed to like it.  He would march out the back door and into the yard barking, as if to announce to the world he had arrived.  Like many things with this or other dogs, one way to address unwanted behaviors is to make them on-command behaviors.  Frisco was therefore taught to “speak.”  It didn’t entirely cure his occasional unwanted barking, but it did reduce it somewhat.

One day, goofing around, it was discovered that if one sings to Frisco, he will begin to howl, low and soft at first, but eventually breaking into a full-throated howling that would rival a whole pack of coyotes.  This began the introduction of a new command – “Sing” – to Frisco’s repertoire,  and you can now hear Frisco sing merely by asking.  One day not so many months ago, I was lounging on the sofa, Frisco to my right with his head laid across my lap, and I said to Frisco, for no reason whatever: “Getting old sucks,” as I scratched behind his ear. He flipped his head over, looking at me from an upside-down point of view, and groaned.  I repeated my lament, and much to my surprise, he repeated his groan.  Since then, I’ve repeated my complaint often, and if I preface it by simply addressing it to him directly, as in: “Frisco, getting old sucks,” he will answer with a groan and a low, soft howl to mark his general agreement.

Recently, Frisco had to go to the vet, to have x-rays taken, and some dental attention since he would be anesthetized already for the films.   (Anesthesia for a Great Dane is not an inexpensive service, so best to combine procedures performed while under.) His spondylosis is advancing, and we’ve now commenced a regimen of NSAIDs to help treat his condition, with the hope being that we can restore some of his mobility and quality of life for a little while before anything else needs to be considered.  As I laid on the floor next to him Tuesday night, commiserating with him as two old guys now years past their physical prime, it struck me that the last nine years had virtually flashed by, and indeed all of my own fifty.  It always seems this way when you’re coming to the end of things, and as time flies past, you become more conscious of its rapidity.  In all these years we’ve owned Great Danes, all but the first two years of our marriage, it never dawned on me how much of a fixture they had become in our lives, or how they had come to define who we are and who we’ve been.

Maybe it’s the melancholy of the season, the season of life in which I’m more fully entering my own inevitable decline, but whatever the reason, I’ve grown a good deal more sensitive to all of this with the growing recognition that time is running out for me as it must for us all.  All of life’s little postponements are coming due, and it’s suddenly clear to me, in the dread nature of Frisco’s spondylosis, that I must become more concerned for this day, because the number of possible “laters” are running out.  Man is a creature who must plan beyond the day or the week or the year, simply because his existence will not allow him to live as a dog, with no regard to some distant future.  We must make our best guesses about what that future will look like, and on that basis make our plans in order to prepare for those days should we survive to see them.

Dogs have the great natural blessing of needing only to consider the imminent, taking moments as they come, but never anticipating much beyond their next meal, or their next pat from their human companions.  Sadly, this is also their curse, because when their quality of life diminishes to the extent that all they can anticipate is the next moment of pain or struggle, they have not the means to rationalize the situation, or to make use of their time with distractions from the pain so that they can still live with some purpose other than to suffer.  This is our great blessing, in that man can now persist, and with fruitful purpose, long after his body has begun to fail him.  We can still find happiness and comfort in anticipation of a future we are able to rationalize into some semblance of joy, by some cause all our own, so that physical pain need not imprison us.  This is why it rests with us to look out for our fine canine friends, who had been our best friends through thick and thin, and to know when it is time, however painfully, to bid them peace.

Just as I cannot tell you this day the exact hour of my inevitable passing, neither can I tell you the manner in which I shall pass.  While the former is still true for my pal Frisco, the latter is less so.  The day will come in some months, or years, when it will fall to me to recognize when there is no good remaining in life for him.  On a farm, this is a thing that happens, and if you keep pets, it is a thing you either have or will eventually come to dread.  It is one of the things that torments pet owners, because one doesn’t wish to make waste of the good days that may remain, but neither does one wish to extend by even one minute the unmitigated pain or suffering that will be endured by one’s cherished animal friends.

This is the only thing about Great Danes that recommends against the breed, for truth be told, by the time they have become thoroughly woven into your life, your love, becoming even part of your identity, the hooks are set deeply, yet already, the countdown has begun.  I’ve owned other dogs, notably a number of friendly mongrels who enriched our lives and our home, and good as they may have been, I’ve noticed that the Danes just want the human companionship more.  They act as though they’d just as soon be one of us, and it may just be that in some ways, a bit like permanent toddlers, they become us.  Whatever it is particularly, (and I am sure there are advocates of other breeds who will feel the same,) there is something strikingly superhuman in the Great Dane’s apparent capacity for compassion and empathy.  This is undoubtedly the cause for their superior performance as Therapy Dogs, and the reason stories like that of Bella and George receive so much attention.

Still, knowing the difficulties of the breed, we have again brought into our home a new Great Dane pup.  “Maggie,” as she will be hereafter known, is being brought along now, in part because we love the dogs and need them in our lives, and also because before too much longer, one or the other of the two aging brothers will make that sad final journey, leaving his sibling otherwise canine-deprived.  We’ve been through that before, and what we’ve observed is that having one’s canine pack removed can be a depressing, debilitating circumstance for the survivor, and with an older dog, it can spell the end.   The truth is probably that Maggie should have come along sooner, since now as she grows into a young, mature dog, the two brothers will be in a much more frail, fragile condition.  We’ll have to watch to make sure her rambunctiousness in youth does not cause harm to her elders.  Truthfully, I think it best to always have at least two, staggered in age by three to four years, since the elder will still be young enough and vigorous enough to contend with the youthful dog, while the younger dog will gain from learning the house rules and protocols in part by imitation of and compliance with the elder.  All of this does not eliminate the blow that is the loss of a pack-mate, but it does soften it a little.

Years and years ago, when we lost poor young Brutus to cancer, my pal Max was already in old age.  Max had been ever the Alpha dog, and with the loss of Brutus, his “Mini-Me,” (who was not at all “mini,”) Max almost entirely lost the will to live.  I am sure his hips and spine had been bothering him for some time, but mostly, as the Alpha, he would “tough it out” in order to avoid showing weakness to his side-kick.  Once Brutus passed, poor Max had no reason to stiffen his upper lip, and in a matter of weeks, he was in complete free-fall.  In the span of less than six months, he came to care not for this world, and among many tears, we bade him farewell.  One might suspect that there could be another cause, and it is true to say that the degradation of old age was hard upon him, but until Brutus died, Max soldiered on.  Absent Brutus, he wasn’t the Alpha, and since every Alpha needs to lead a pack, he was left purposeless.

As if to punctuate my point, and to answer the looming question, a fascinating circumstance arose in our living room.  Frisco, who’s still sore from the extension of his legs for accurate X-rays of his hip joints and spine, had taken up position on one of our two sofas. The pup had picked up a squeaky-toy, made to look like a lamb (with thick eyelashes, no less) and was squeezing it, causing it to squeak endlessly.  She brought it over to me, and away I tossed it. Off she charged, and when she picked it up, I urged her to return it to me, telling her to “bring it, Maggie, bring it.” Having played this game a bit on Monday, she knew to return it so I could toss it again. Toward me with a mouthful of squeaky-lamb she charged, releasing it gently into my grasp.  Away I threw it again, and off she streaked, again returning it as I urged her on.  Frisco had been watching this from the other sofa, watching the toy streak past, then Maggie flying by in both directions, but on the next throw, before Maggie could close on the toy, quicker than Frisco has moved in some time, off the couch he leaped and onto the toy. He picked it up and charged over to me, remembering perhaps the feeling of fun we had known together when he was just a pup.  I took the toy from him, patting him a long while, his tail wagging happily as it had so many years before.

On this day, it was as if Frisco wanted to reassure me that he was far from done, though I knew we had reached the beginning of the long goodbye.  Thankfully, it’s not time yet, not nearly, so we will hang onto Frisco and his brother for so long as we are able, and so long as they are willing, taking the gift that is each day with our canine friends as they come, one at a time.

Update: Today, more than eighteen months after I hammered out this post, Frisco was relieved of his watch over our home. His brother Sterling soldiers on, with Maggie to keep him company.  Though I’ve known for the last year-and-one-half that this day had been coming, we did our best to extend our time with Frisco, supporting him in his diminishing physical capacity, while his spirit and the quality of his companionship never faltered, not even at the end.  I will miss Frisco more than I can relate.  He’d just made his eleventh birthday, but returning from a business trip just a week ago, I recognized that even in my brief absence, his condition had worsened.  It was time, and as I held his big head while the kind veterinarian who comes to our farm administered that final dose, I remembered the day we drove home with Frisco and Sterling, just ten weeks old, who laid on the back seat of our car, snuggling together on a blanket, comforting one another, but quiet through the long drive.  I’m so glad we brought them into our lives, but all in all, I may probably never see Frisco’s like again.

 

 

 

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