Valkyrie and Boudicca
For dog lovers, a house without a dog doesn’t feel like a home. And for us, a home doesn’t feel quite right without a Great Dane. Our older daughter said, “Of course you’ll get another Great Dane. It’s part of your image.” I don’t know about that. If people choose dogs that look like them, I wouldn’t mind the comparison – tall, thin, physically fit and most often blond. But like us, our dogs have also gotten gray and overweight, though like us we try to control the latter in them. I do know the dogs have given us identity. Many times we’ve been introduced to neighbors who don’t seem to recognize us. “Oh, you’re the people with the Great Danes,” they’ll say. “Yes,” I’ll reply. “Our only identity.”
This time, we lasted only four months without our identity. Time enough, I said then, for the carpeting to air out and both of us to put on weight because there was no one urging us out on morning walks. We found a breeder in New Jersey and purchased a female puppy we named Kismet’s Proud Valkyrie. For the first time, it was not fawn color but rather brindle, a combination of fawn and black. Sort of like a tiger, which was the name of one of her sisters who also lived in Montclair. They never played together, however, because in very short order we obtained a two-year-old fawn female Dane named Boudicca who liked Valkyrie well enough but never took to Tiger. Probably because the two brindle puppies were huge and in no time a head taller than the two-year-old.
Valkyrie’s breeder, Kirsten Kraunsoe, who became a friend, was a persuasive type and we soon found ourselves involved in the activities of a Great Dane club. It was through the club that we learned about Boudicca and her need for a home. Owned by a young Army officer and his family, the dog had been purchased in Arizona and moved with the man, his British-born wife and two children when they were transferred to New Jersey. When the young wife became seriously ill, the man realized that care of the dog was more than the family could handle, and he found someone to take her. But subsequently, he learned that the dog was not being properly cared for and took her back. That was when he contacted a Dane rescue organization which got in touch with the club. We thought Valkyrie could use a companion so we drove to the base, met the dog and her family and waited while the man took his dog for one last walk before putting her in our car. Driving away from the family was heart wrenching. All we could tell ourselves is that we were helping by assuring them that this time the dog was in good hands.
Boudicca was our only dog with a non-Germanic name, named for the ancient queen who led her warriors in a revolt against the Roman invasion of England. And of course Valkyrie’s name refers to the maidens in Norse mythology whose job was to carry the slain warriors off the battlefield to Valhalla. We wondered how two pacifist types like us could wind up with dogs with war-like names. We called them Val and Bo, the warrior queens, and didn’t Antonia Fraser go and publish a book shortly afterward with the same title (The Warrior Queens, not Val and Bo).
After life in army housing, our big yard must have seemed to Bo like a world of acreage, and she raced outside that first day and right across the swimming pool which was still covered for the winter with a mesh tarp stretched across like a trampoline. And when she hit the middle, that’s exactly what it looked like she was doing – bouncing on a trampoline. The literature for those pool covers pictured a baby elephant standing on one, and we were glad to see that the brochures didn’t lie. Bo got herself across the pool and onto the concrete deck, and thereafter shared with all our other dogs an aversion to water.
Bo racing around the yard with Val one day also resulted in a serious injury to the younger dog, a torn tendon in a back leg, which was being treated by our vet. But when Kirsten, the breeder, learned of the accident, she was exceedingly unhappy with us for letting a young dog play so roughly. She insisted we remove our dog from our local vet and take her to the Animal Medical Center of New York for treatment. It was most embarrassing to do this to Dr. Wilson, who’d been our vet for many years before and continued for many years afterward, but we did what the breeder ordered. The trips into New York and the treatment Val received have faded into memory’s haze for me, except that it was very expensive and the attending veterinarian warned us that the dog would probably suffer from arthritis in her later years. And she did.
Early on in her time with us, Bo would get out the front door or gate and run away up the street but never so far away that she couldn’t see the person chasing after her. Once Ed, the one doing the chasing, got fed up and turned back toward our house. When he peeked over his shoulder, the dog was following behind him. It had become a game. But one time it was not a game. She took off and disappeared completely for four days. We were frantic, posting Lost Dog signs in the neighborhood and beyond wherever people called with sightings. One person reported seeing her on a traffic island in the middle of a highway, appearing confused, another saw her crossing the highway and noticed she was limping. She’d headed up over a hill into another town. Ed went there with flyers. A young boy said, “I saw that dog” and told Ed where he’d seen her. Ed posted more flyers there. We wondered if she was trying to get back to her original family and dreaded the phone call we’d have to make reporting her disappearance to them. But late on the last night Val began barking furiously and when we went to the front door we saw Bo coming up the walk. Her collar was missing and her coat was covered in dirt. She came inside, drank an entire big bowl of water and collapsed on the stair landing where she slept for several hours before going up to her bed and back to sleep. We took her to our vet the next day who found nothing but bruises and sore muscles. After that, we could leave the front door wide open and the dog would not go out. Except one day when Ed was going out for the paper. Bo raced out the door, across the street and up over a hill to the wooded area beyond. Oh no, not again, Ed thought. But just as suddenly, she came back down the hill, back across the street, up our walk and into the house. She looked at Ed as if to say, “See, that’s how I did it, but I’m not doing it again.” And she didn’t.
I, of course, have a conspiracy theory: Someone had found her and planned to keep her. “This is a valuable dog,” they thought. But when we plastered the Lost Dog flyers all over, the person couldn’t keep her because his neighbors would know. So he removed the collar, which had a tag with her address on it, and dropped her in front of our house late that night. Ed thought my theory was nuts. But six months later I felt it was corroborated when a man called from a town even farther than where we’d looked. “I found this dog collar behind my garage,” he said. “Was the dog who belongs to it ever found?” Ed was glad to be able to tell him yes and to drive to the man’s house to retrieve it. The collar was dirty and the metal parts rusty which Ed claims proves his theory, that the collar became caught on something and came off behind that garage and that she came on home on her own. I maintain that I am right and the person who wanted to keep her threw the collar there to hide the evidence. Of course, he could have just thrown the collar in the garbage, so perhaps my theory is nuts after all. We’ll never know for sure.
Bo was a lovely-looking dog with one flaw in her appearance: one of her ears flopped down while the other stood straight up. When she came to us we were working on Val’s ears, trying to get both to stand up straight. But she took one look at Bo’s ears and seemed to say, “Oh, so that’s how they’re supposed to be,” and down would come the one ear – the same one on the same side as Bo’s.
The persuasiveness of Kirsten the breeder extended to dog shows, something we never had much interest in and as a result, I believe, our dogs didn’t do very well at. Most of the events were matches, not actual shows, run by the club. It was a pleasant enough activity, sitting outside talking “dog” with other Dane owners. Since neither Ed nor I were very good at handling our dog in the ring, Kirsten suggested one time that we hire a young man to do the handling for us.
When it was time for Valkyrie to show her stuff, the handler took her out into the center of the ring where…she promptly lay down on the grass and refused to budge. That day marked the end of her show career, and soon after, first one dog and then the other suddenly shot both ears upward, staying that way till the end of their days. I always said it was because they realized we would never again make them participate in another dog show.
We took both dogs to obedience classes held in the high school gym. Bo did fine but Val repeated her lying-down-and-refusing-to-budge routine, which angered the trainer running the class. “You’re too easy on her,” he said. “Let me show you what to do.” He grabbed the dog’s leash and pulled her, still lying down, across the length of the room. We left that night and never went back.
Ed had taken early retirement by then, so the dogs had company during the day. A year later, retirement looked so good that I left my job so we could all be home together. But days – literally days! – after my job ended, our property tax bill arrived. It had doubled, representing yet another example of our financial acumen. Surely we should have anticipated that, but we didn’t. So we hopped to and launched our own home-based business, Nieder & Nieder Associates, Public Relations and Business Communications. So much for a long-thought-out business plan.
Our life settled into somewhat of a routine: Early morning walks with the warrior maidens, then us at our desks with the dogs in our office with us or lying outside in the sun. When a business trip entailed both of us going, we hired pet sitters to stay in our home. Years earlier we’d learned that Great Danes, at least not ours, don’t do well in kennels. They’d refuse to eat and we’d return home to skeletal creatures with attitudes that would take several days of sweet talk to earn their forgiveness. Better to leave them in their own place. And they did own it. Once during a dinner party, both dogs positioned themselves under the table as usual. I heard one woman say to another, “Can you imagine living with two of these things?” The reply was no, she couldn’t imagine it, but in truth when you do live with dogs like this you tend to forget how big they are until someone else mentions it.
Walking the two dogs one morning, we encountered a woman power-walking in the opposite direction. “I certainly hope you pick up after those things,” she said as she passed by. In those days my poop pickup routine involved a garden trowel, plastic bag and brown paper bag to help disguise the contents of the plastic bag. The woman was moving pretty fast so all I had time for was to raise the trowel for her to see. “Oh, you could just be carrying that for appearances,” she said as she progressed out of hearing. Aside from the name I silently called her, it was probably a block later that I came up with the perfect, now useless, retort: “Trust me, Lady,” I should have said. “There’s nothing anonymous about these dogs.”
(Of course we have been diligent about our dogs’ waste products – in the yard and on the street. I dispensed with the trowel set once I learned to put my hand inside a plastic bag, scoop up the product in one fell swoop, turn the bag inside out and secure it at the top. I always had a supply of plastic grocery bags neatly folded to fit in a jeans back pocket and stored near the dog leashes. But now here in Southern California more and more communities are banning plastic bags so dog owners are forced to purchase bags at the pet store. It seems rather redundant, trading free plastic bags from the supermarket for purchased plastic bags from the pet store – it’s still plastic bags in the landfill, although if you’re really environmentally conscientious, you can buy bags that claim to be biodegradable.
(And if you’ll excuse me for continuing just a little further on this unpleasant subject, I will tell you what I think about on my daily walks these days. Rather than use the time for deep philosophical musings, I find myself getting angry at those dog owners who do not pick up after their pets. “Pig!” I sometimes mutter. I had an idea for a small business project: paper or plastic pink pigs on a stick that you could place in the ground next to the offending substance. But then I realized that would be just adding to the littered landscape. Perhaps, I thought, pink chalk that I could use to write a message on the pavement: “Pig!” But here where it hardly ever rains, my messages would stay there for long periods, adding to the ugliness. Best was the solution I read about in The New York Times. The town of Brunete in Spain enlisted volunteers to pick up poop left by thoughtless dog owners, package it in boxes marked “Lost and Found” and send it to the owners’ homes. The result of the operation was an increased use of pickup bags by dog owners. Brilliant!)
The Town of Montclair frequently hosted visiting delegations from other countries and because our house was large, we would be asked to host two or three people. I think I usually warned the visitors when I picked them up that our home included two big dogs. Once with a Czech group, our guests were two young men who spoke no English. And since we spoke no Czech, we were struggling to find common words while the two men sat very close together on a couch eyeing the dogs. We finally arrived at the word “beer” and while they were sipping their drinks, I gave each of the dogs a piece of rawhide to chew on while getting used to the newcomers’ presence. In the course of the chewing and the switching of places to see if the other’s rawhide was better, one piece ended up a little distant from a dog. Our younger daughter, who was living there at the time, reached her foot over and pushed the rawhide toward one dog. Not the right one apparently because immediately there was a huge fight, the two dogs on their hind legs snarling and snapping. “The Clash of the Titans” I called it later. Our Czech visitors were frozen in horror while Ed and I and our daughter screamed at the dogs, brandished rolled-up magazines and finally got them separated. And that’s when we saw that Bo was injured, a big gash on one foreleg obviously requiring stitches. I left the others to entertain themselves while I took the dog to the emergency clinic. The vet there was amazed when the dog sat and raised her paw to be stitched, no anesthetic required. One gutsy dog. (She did the same thing when having her nails clipped and you’d think in that case we’d have been really good about keeping her nails trimmed. We weren’t, possibly because doing Val’s nails required one of us lying on top of her to hold her still throughout the procedure.)
That was not Bo’s first, nor the last, nighttime visit to the emergency clinic for stitches. As they got older, the two dogs found more reasons to fight, and since Val was much the bigger dog, poor Bo got the worst of it. Eventually, we kept them separated, alternating each dog’s time in the yard. The big house was an advantage. But once, when we were making the switch, the two passed one another on the stairs and were at it again. We blamed the altercations on Val’s promised arthritis problem which was now showing itself. Toward the end, watching her try to lie down was painful, for the person watching as well as the dog: She’d inch downward and just before reaching the floor let out a little yelp. When she was ten years old, we answered that “which is worse?” question and had her euthanized.
Meanwhile, Bo was soldiering on. We were on a trip to New Mexico, when the house-sitter called to say she’d found Bo in convulsions on the bathroom floor. Once the convulsions abated, she took the dog to the vet who spoke to us by phone and obtained our permission to treat her however he deemed necessary. He put her on phenobarbital and kept her for observation. By the time we returned home, phenobarbital was part of her daily regimen, keeping her from having more seizures. Then, in a routine examination, Dr. Wilson found abnormalities in her heart rate and suggested we consult a canine cardiologist in a specialty veterinary clinic that had opened nearby. Once again, it was a place that suggested you approach with your credit card at the ready. Our first visit was a revelation. Lined up on the counter in matching holders were cards for an internist, a cardiologist, a neurologist, an oncologist, and many other specialists. The doctors, when we got to see them, all looked about twelve-and-a-half years old to us. But they were very dedicated and caring. And intrigued with our senior dog. “We don’t often get to see Great Danes this old,” one said. Bo was by then approaching age twelve. They ran tests using sophisticated equipment not unlike that found in a medical facility for humans and diagnosed congestive heart failure. The medication they prescribed was to be purchased in a regular pharmacy. Bo continued on that medication, along with the anti-seizure medication and possibly other vitamins and minerals that I no longer recall. She continued for periodic visits to the specialty clinic.
Once, however, we needed to take her back to Dr. Wilson for some routine procedure not related to her cardiac treatment. Just so he’d know about all the medication she was now taking, I gathered up all the pills and brought them with me. He was shocked. “What are you doing?” he asked. Holding out the one from the regular pharmacy, he said, “Do you realize how much each one of these pills costs?” “I don’t want to think about it,” I said. (When I started writing this, Ed suggested the title should read “Why We Have No Money.” I guess we really are slow learners because it has taken us to our present dog to carry pet insurance. On the other hand, judging from the bank tellers’ reactions when I deposit pet insurance rebate checks, perhaps this is a fairly new phenomenon. Whatever, it helps.)
One night – of course it was nighttime – Bo began behaving as if she did not feel well. We looked her over and carefully felt her abdomen. Was it bloat? We weren’t sure. She was not a skinny dog and it was hard to tell. We decided I should take her to the emergency clinic just to be certain. There, the veterinarian on duty wasn’t certain either until seeing x-rays. “These days,” she said, “if it is bloat we are suggesting preventative surgery be performed immediately while the dog is still under anesthesia.” “All right,” I said. “I’ll call my husband while you’re doing the x-rays and let you know what we decide.” Ed and I told one another this poor old dog did not need to be recuperating from surgery on top of all her other medical problems. So when the vet affirmed bloat, I told her to euthanize the dog. “Would you like to stay with her during the procedure?” the vet asked. “Yes,” I said, deciding suddenly. We had never done that before. It was something our old vet did not believe in; he would let you stay with the animal as long as you liked beforehand but felt for some reason that you should not be present for the actual death.
So the young veterinarian and I arranged Bo on a blanket on the floor and got down there with her. I stroked the dog’s head and told her what a good friend she had been all these years and watched her slowly drift off, almost as if going to sleep. And the vet and I sat there with her as I reminisced about Bo’s life with us and what a wonderful dog she had been. At one point I said, “I know this is all therapy for me but you probably have other patients to see.” No, no,” she said. “We’ll stay as long as you need.” “Oh, my God!” I suddenly shouted. “I never called my husband back. He’s waiting to hear the results of the x-rays.” I called and he was indeed waiting by the phone and hoping the answer would be no bloat and no euthanasia. I felt terrible and apologized over and over. “But,” I said, “I wish you had been here. It was really so very peaceful and beautiful.”