We had responded to an ad and driven down to the San Francisco Bay Area to buy a puppy, returning home with Ladymeade Glenora, a fawn-colored, roly-poly, floppy-eared creature with huge paws. We named her Dagmar, hoping people would not associate the name with the voluptuous blond actress of 1950s television. While we expected our Dagmar to grow into a beautiful statuesque blond, we really chose the name for its Teutonic roots, a practice that became increasingly challenging through the years with our mostly female Danes. There should be no duplicate names, we believed, and none the names of any of Ed’s relatives, living or dead. Except for the TV personality, we had never known of anyone named Dagmar until a friend said, “Thanks a lot. I have never been able to call my mother-in-law anything but ‘Um, as in um, please pass the butter,’ and now I’ll never be able to say her name without thinking of your dog!”
We spent the weeks waiting for our baby to arrive working on house training our puppy. The duplex had a fenced yard and that became a must for every place thereafter; I marvel at dog owners who are able to house train their dogs without one. I’m sure there were many frustrating moments of inside accidents and chewed woodwork, but the passage of time has erased most from my memory. As it was, we arrived at a kind of compromise with the dog: “We’ll let you get away with this much but not that much.” Pretty much the way we raised our children. Ed made a wood-enclosed bed with her name on it for the dog, and we seem to remember that she slept there and not on our bed. If that is so, she would be the last one before Dane Number 9 not to do so. I have a photo of three Great Danes – two full grown and one almost so – stretched out in sublime bliss on our king-sized bed. On cold winter nights I have been known to pine aloud about the comfort a warm dog or two provides. “Be careful what you wish for,” Ed will say. And he is right. It was somewhat unnerving to open my eyes in the morning and look into the limpid brown eyes of a dog, stretched out full length, head on the pillow, and taking advantage of a just-vacated other side of the bed. Also, I have enjoyed, once Lotte joined us, not to be confined to “washable” when buying a spread for the bed.
The next hurdle after house training was ear cropping about which we knew nothing. So we asked our veterinarian who had never performed the operation before but was willing to try. The ears turned out amazingly well and even our bumbling efforts at after-care (taping, splinting, etc.) were successful. Every picture of a Great Dane we’d ever seen showed ears that stood straight up so we assumed this was a necessary procedure. It was quite some time before we learned how disapproving of the practice some people are – including all of Great Britain where ear cropping is forbidden by law. Years later, visiting London, we bought a figurine of a Dane with uncropped ears to add to a collection. Even after looking at it now for a very long time, sitting there as it is on a shelf alongside all the “American Danes,” it still looks odd. Goofy is the word that comes to me. But it never occurred to me to ask British visitors how our dogs’ appearance struck them. Disfigured, they might have thought, or damaged, another cruel American practice.
Why are dogs’ ears cropped anyway? We’ve heard it said it was to protect their ears when hunting wild boars, the dog’s original purpose – that and lying around the castle, I always say. But perhaps it’s just a look we became accustomed to. Nowadays, when I am accosted by zealots who tell me my dog’s ears are a mark of animal cruelty, I generally display my usual cowardice and blame it on the breeder or the dog’s previous owner. And in truth, it’s been quite some time since we had to confront the issue.
After the ear cropping came obedience training and since by that time, our daughter had been born, that responsibility fell to Ed. He took the dog to classes and on nightly walks around our neighborhood. And I should mention that during this time Dagmar had been growing almost before our eyes. On one of their nightly walks, she and Ed encountered a Chihuahua who thought this girl was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He began watching for the nightly walk by his house and following behind them. “Go home!” Ed would say. “Scoot now!” It was embarrassing, walking along with this increasingly regal-looking dog followed by a pipsqueak whose little legs could hardly keep up. But the little dog kept following them all the way to our home. And now that he knew where she lived, he’d come by at other times and sit outside the picture window gazing in. I don’t remember how Dagmar reacted to him. I think she wasn’t sure he was the same species, perhaps something like our cat. And anyway, she was convinced she was one of us.
We’ve become much more careful about our dogs’ diets but back then, if we were eating something, Dagmar wanted it too and we’d give her a taste: ice cream, cake, chocolate – all those things we now know dogs should not have. (For many years, whenever they heard us singing “Happy Birthday,” our dogs would come running for their own personal piece.) If we were eating it, Dagmar was determined to like it, and she usually did – until the day of the sour dill pickle. We laughed uproariously at the look on her face as she tried valiantly to chew up and swallow that hateful thing. It was one food she never begged for again.
Not only did we live in a small, two-bedroom duplex but our car was a Volkswagen, a cute little red Beetle with a sun roof. We reconfigured the back seat to make a temporary perch for the dog to sit on with her head out the sunroof, steadied by her feet on the floor. I sent a story about it to the VW people but I guess they weren’t interested in encouraging other owners to gerry-rig their vehicles in that way. Too bad as it took a lot of doing to get the dog’s head through the roof in just the right way to indicate the car brand. That picture now hangs on our wall.
Ed occasionally took the dog down by the river to run free. Once after a particularly rainy spell, he took her there during what he thought would be a respite, only to have the rain start up again. Putting the dog in the car, he started the engine and quickly became stuck in the mud. There was nothing to do but leave Dagmar there and strike off on foot in search of a gas station and a tow truck. When he and the driver returned, the guy said, “You could have had that dog pull you out.” Ed was too miserable by then to point out that, at dog shows, Great Dane people are frequently amused by the fact that their breed is included in the Working Group. Lying around the castle didn’t take a whole lot of effort. New York Times Columnist Gail Collins once compared the US Senate to “a narcoleptic Great Dane.” Now there’s a woman who knows her dogs, I thought, as well as her politicians.
It was always our intention that any dogs we owned would be primarily considered pets and members of the family, not show dogs. But at the final obedience class, the instructor devoted time to the intricacies of showing a dog on the chance anyone would be interested. Ed decided to try. He registered Dagmar for a show being held locally and was surprised when the day arrived just how nervous he was. Standing outside the ring, awaiting time for their entrance, he was brushed aside by a woman and her dog. It was the breeder whose dogs were out of our price range. She looked Ed and Dagmar up and down. “Are you showing that?” she asked, not waiting for a reply. Now he was doubly nervous as he entered the ring and didn’t feel he or the dog did very well. But you know what? Out of four dogs in the group, Dagmar came in second. Third place went to that woman’s dog. She was not happy.
Dagmar might not have slept on our bed, but she did sit on the couch – especially if it allowed her to sit alongside a person. She sat as many Great Danes sit: backing up so the rear is on the couch and the front legs on the floor. “Isn’t this nice?” you almost expect them to say to their seatmate. All that’s missing is a teacup and saucer. That might be why some aficionados refer to these creatures as “people in dog suits.” One evening our friend Margo and her husband came by for a drink before we all were headed out for dinner. Margo was afraid of all dogs but especially of this monster we lived with. But we operated on the basis of “love us, love our dog” so people like Margo, if they wanted to be our friend, just gritted their teeth and hoped for the best. On this particular evening, the rest of us managed to leave Margo alone in the living room with the dog momentarily. We re-entered the room to find this poor young woman on the couch, frozen in fear. Sitting next to her, proud as punch, was Dagmar, and from her mouth hung a mangled glove. A long, white kid glove, something I had yet to own and which I dearly wished for. “Oh Margo, we’re so sorry. Why didn’t you holler for us?” “The words wouldn’t come,” she said through her clenched teeth. The next day I went downtown and bought a pair of white kid gloves for our friend. The undamaged mate to her pair traveled around the country with us through many moves until, eventually, the fashion changed and I threw it away. I never did get a pair of long, white kid gloves of my own.
Soon, Ed was transferred to San Francisco and we all moved to a small rented house in the city out near the ocean. It was still just two bedrooms but there was another small room downstairs that we used as a study and guest room. I’m sure we asked if our dog would be welcome, though I’m not sure we mentioned the breed. Dagmar and the landlady did meet eventually, and Dagmar was very sweet and well behaved.
Ed began taking the dog down to the ocean to run on the beach, which of course in San Francisco is usually cold and therefore uncrowded. She loved running along the water’s edge, just skirting the waves as they washed ashore and running away before she got wet. Not one of our dogs has ever liked water and later on I’ll have to tell you about the one that practically levitated herself out of a swimming pool she’d fallen into by mistake.
We had a lot of good times in San Francisco. There were so many things to entertain a toddler and her parents, and whenever possible we brought Dagmar with us. Always during a weekend prowl of the city, we’d stop at Swenson’s before it was a nationwide chain and order ice cream cones for each of us. When Dagmar licked her scoop onto the sidewalk, we switched her to ice cream in a cup. We attended very boisterous Chinese New Year festivities one time and noticed that our dog’s presence created a swath in the crowded sidewalk for our little entourage. One man, though, offered the dog a turkey leg which we had to decline, much to the dog’s disappointment. A soft bone like that would be too easily splintered in her strong jaws, we explained.
Our family excursions came to a halt when our 2-year-old daughter tripped over a toy at the babysitter’s house and broke her thigh bone. With her in traction for a month and then home in a body cast for six weeks, walks for the dog and runs on the beach fell mostly to Ed. And then one day we felt a lump on Dagmar’s stomach. The vet diagnosed a large abdominal mass requiring a long, complicated surgery. She survived the operation and was recuperating slowly when a new mass appeared. It was cancer, and the prognosis was bad. Rather than putting her through another surgery, the vet suggested euthanasia. We reluctantly agreed. Our first Great Dane was dead at only three years old. We were devastated, and our friends and co-workers sympathized.
The wife of one of my co-workers heard of our loss and contacted us. She was a breeder of Great Danes and knew of one of her puppies that needed a new home. Too soon, we protested; we’re still in mourning. “But at least meet her,” the woman said. “You don’t have to make a commitment.” Famous last words.