By any reasonable measure, we should have turned down a puppy from this litter. The young man who owned the mother was a practicing vegetarian who did not believe in meat for himself or his dog. Both were very thin, and the puppies were alarmingly scrawny. But this was the day we planned to buy a dog and so we did. The little puppy we chose was suffering from malnutrition, according to the vet we took her to. He gave the impression that he would not have purchased her himself.
Of course we kept her and set about fattening her up. Bismarck was very solicitous and gentle with his new tiny companion. I thought it might be fun, while she was still so small, to show both dogs to our younger daughter’s second grade class, and I asked the teacher if we could bring them in for “Show and Tell.” The children seemed impressed to know that this little puppy would grow to the size of the older dog, but mostly they wanted to know the puppy’s name. “We don’t have a name for her yet,” I told them. “We’re still trying to decide.” The children gave us several suggestions, the only one of which I remember was Tiny. “Umm,” I said. “We’ll see.” The next day our daughter brought home a note from the teacher thanking me for our visit to the classroom. Seeing the teacher’s signature, I knew we had a name that fit all the criteria of our family’s naming process. I went to see the teacher and said, “We’ve come up with a perfect name for our puppy. It’s a pretty name and it’s German. The only problem is that it is also the name of our daughter’s teacher.” Almost before I’d finished talking, she said, “I’d be honored.” And so Elsa was no longer nameless.
She grew quickly and was soon also no longer scrawny. She followed Bismarck around the yard, and when he tired of playing he’d lie in the grass and watch her amuse herself. One of our pictures shows her running around the yard with the string of a balloon in her mouth, the balloon following in the air behind her. She was turning into a character whose antics made us all laugh. When it became time for obedience training, our older daughter, then age ten, decided she wanted to take the dog through the course. At the first class, Elsa tried to hide her increasing bulk under a folding chair and refused to go out onto the floor with the other dogs. Our daughter was mortified. But she persevered and eventually over several weekly sessions, she and the dog completed the course. At the final class, Elsa was presented with an award for “Most Improved Dog” as the instructor reminded everyone where the dog had spent the first class. Our daughter was not amused and promptly announced that Elsa needed to go through the course again. And she did.
While Elsa flourished, Bismarck began to give in to his advancing age. His legs, never all that strong owing to his inauspicious beginning, were weak and caused unsteadiness. His favored spot was his bed in front of a large window where he could snooze and watch the world outside. And then his kidneys began to fail, causing incontinence. He’d wake up with his bed soaked and a distressed look on his face. “How did that happen?” In time, we were faced with the same old question: Which is kinder, keeping an animal alive but miserable or providing a gentle end with dignity? It was time to bid farewell to a grand old guy who, in spite of everything, made it to age ten.
As with all our dogs, when the older one left, the remaining one searched and seemed confused by their friend’s absence for a while until settling into the new role of only dog. Elsa took to that role, placing herself in the midst of family activities. She allowed our young nephews to crawl over her body on the floor or use it as a pillow for naps. Frequently, she’d snatch a stuffed animal from the children’s toy shelves and carry it around like a puppy. “This dog really wants to be a mother,” I told the vet. “Actually,” he said, “it probably represents a hormone disorder.”
Then once again, Ed’s company decided to transfer him back to New York. We headed back to Montclair, the town we’d enjoyed so much for such a brief time, and another old wreck of a house crying out for our attention. The yard was quite large with room for a swimming pool, a promise we’d made to our daughters as consolation for leaving one in California. Rather than have a large boulder blasted out of the way of the concrete deck surrounding the pool, we had the contractor incorporate it into the design. Another picture we have of Elsa shows her lying on the concrete and using the boulder for a pillow. But while she would do that and make her way around the pool’s perimeter, occasionally nipping at swimmers’ hair as they tried to swim laps, she never showed an interest in getting into the water herself. One day, however, she slipped on the wet concrete and landed in the pool. How she got out really did seem like levitation. There was no doggy paddle to the edge, no scrambling up the steps. One moment she was in the water and the next moment not. You tell me how she did that.
By this time, that once-scrawny puppy was full-grown and powerfully built. She woke us up one night wanting to go outside and immediately began barking furiously. Then we heard screeching sounds. Ed and I both ran to the door and shone a flashlight out. Elsa had a large raccoon by the scruff of its neck and was throwing it up in the air. When it fell to the ground, she’d pick it up again, throw it up and let it fall back down. We yelled at her to come to us and after several tries, we got her into the house. The raccoon lay on the ground making pathetic crying sounds. “Oh Ed,” I said, “we have to put it out of its misery.” “And just how do you expect us to do that?” he said. “You could hit it with a shovel,” I suggested. “No, I’m not doing any such thing.” He said. “I’m going back to bed and we’ll deal with it in the morning. Whether it’s dead or still alive, we’ll call Animal Control to take care of it.” So we closed the door on the raccoon’s cries and went back to bed. There was no trace of the animal in the morning. But raccoons made a wide berth of our property for many years after.
Our home those days was a busy place with our daughters’ friends coming and going. Our older daughter spent much of her time in the ballet studio but the younger one was a social butterfly. She and her friends made much use of the swimming pool and large yard while Ed and I spent our spare time scraping wallpaper and painting walls of first one room and then another. Elsa seemed to enjoy being in the midst of all the activity.
In time, we decided Elsa needed a playmate and we brought home a puppy we named Lorelei. So now Elsa was the one being trailed by a little one. And of course kids who came to the house made a fuss over the newcomer. We didn’t stop to think how this was sitting with Elsa until the day the high school majorette greeted Elsa on the TV room couch and put her face up against Elsa’s. “How’re you doing Elsa?” she said. Elsa answered with a nip on the girl’s face, just under the eye. Oh my God! Off to the emergency room with frantic calls to the girl’s parents and declarations of our intention to pay all costs including a plastic surgeon’s. And yes, the girl’s father was a lawyer. Here we go again! Will this be the time we are sued? Fortunately, the father’s ire was directed at the surgeon who came off the golf course to perform the surgery. He was accompanied by a pre-teenage niece whom he directed in helping him tie the knot in the stitch he was applying to the majorette’s face. “If I were a litigious person…” the father said. For years afterward, whenever I ran into the former majorette I’d say, “Let me look at your face.” The scar was minimal and fading.
Our poor dogs endured our ignorant bumbling as we learned what to do and not do for the breed. From the very first we knew to elevate their food and water dishes because the dogs’ heads are so high off the ground. When visitors would question the presence of the dogs’ feeding tables, I’d say, “Think how uncomfortable you’d be swallowing up.” But one thing we learned through disastrous results involved bones. I used to ask the butcher for large bones, ones that looked like barbells, and the dogs would spend hours happily gnawing away on them. But Elsa with her powerful jaws apparently caused a bone to splinter. A piece lodged in her throat and she repeatedly – and unsuccessfully – tried to expel it by vomiting. We were unaware this was happening until the next morning when we realized she was in trouble. Her abdomen was extended and she lay listless on the floor. With the help of a small rug, we were able to lift her into the car. By the time we got to the vet, she was dead and we learned for the first time about bloat.
Gastric Dilatation-Volvulur (GDV), commonly known as bloat, is a potentially life-threatening problem that occurs most commonly in deep-chested animals like cows and many breeds of dogs. In fact, it is the second leading cause of death in dogs after cancer. For reasons that are not completely known, gas builds up in the animal’s stomach, causing distress and frequently an urge to belch or vomit. At the most acute stage, the stomach can flip over, shutting off blood supply to vital organs. Unless the gas build-up can be eliminated quickly, the animal goes into shock and can die. Time is of the essence. And since bloat frequently occurs at night, a dash to an emergency veterinary clinic is called for. There, medical personnel spring into action, taking x-rays to determine the position of the stomach and then usually inserting a tube down the animal’s throat to expel the gas and any accumulated liquids.
Beginning with that horrible introduction in the 1980s, we have lived long enough to observe a growing awareness of GDV among dog owners and veterinarians and subsequent discussion of ways to prevent it or if need be seek surgical techniques performed prophylacticly to help avoid its fatal results.
But we knew none of that when we let poor Elsa struggle through the night. In time, we learned some of the ways to help prevent bloat: feeding a dog more frequently than just once a day, avoiding exercise before and after feeding, using one brand of high quality dog food, refraining from feeding table scraps, and of course eliminating such things as candy and birthday cake from the dog’s diet. But we are slow learners apparently because we lost Lorelei, the dog you’ve barely met here, four years later. The circumstances were different but the cause was, once again, bloat.
Elsa was nine years old when she died. Such a sturdy, healthy dog that started life so malnourished probably would have lasted much longer were it not for the blissful ignorance of her owners. We thought we were giving her a good life but could now only hope that those nine years were happy ones for her.