By now we realized we could no longer stay in this big old house with its high heating bills and exorbitant property taxes – New Jersey’s are the highest in the nation – and were making plans to move to Los Angeles. “You’re leaving New Jersey because it’s too expensive and you’re going to Los Angeles?? friends said. Well yes, but financial acumen has never been our strong suit, has it? At any rate, knowing we would be moving meant it was not a good time to get a dog. And then moving and getting settled meant it was not a good time either. But finally, after all the boxes were unpacked and the pictures hung, we began thinking about what was missing. We didn’t want that last heartbreak to be our final experience with Danes. A friend asked, “Are you getting the same breed?” “Of course,” I said. “I know you probably think it’s stupid for people our age to have a dog like that.” She said, “No, it’s not that. It’s that I don’t know how you can bear it when they are so short lived.” “Well,” I said, “we hope each one will be the one that beats the odds. But in the meantime we enjoy them for the time they’re with us. And we have wonderful memories of each.”
(I have gotten this far without ever revealing the fact of the Great Dane’s average life span. It is seven years. But remember, that’s an average. Bismarck and Valkyrie made it to ten and Bo to twelve. You have to have hope. Besides, it could be worse: The average life span for Irish Wolfhounds is five years.)
So we put the word out to Great Dane people we knew and began making inquiries. In this age of anonymous e-mail addresses and unrecognizable telephone area codes, it’s interesting how far afield such a search can take you. “Where exactly are you located?” I asked a woman with whom I’d been discussing puppies. “Wisconsin,” she replied. “Oh I guess I can find some a little closer,” I said. Then another day I was talking to a breeder in Phoenix who had two puppies left but both were male and we wanted a female. “I’m going to Nebraska to pick up a ten-month-old female,” she said. “If you might be interested in her, I’ll contact you when I am back.”
“Yes,” I said and thought, “Wow! House trained and leash trained. Yes indeed.” I’d been wondering how you house train a puppy when you live on a hill (of course we’re back on a hill) where much of the yard is vertical and access to flat space is past decks and steps. She told me this dog had been purchased as a show dog but had developed a “bad bite,” what in humans would be called an under-bite, a major flaw in dog show competition. She offered the owner the difference in price between a show dog and a companion dog, but he was not interested. He had had plans for the dog to become a champion so any puppies she produced would be valuable. Learning that, the breeder was only too glad to drive there and retrieve the dog. She sent us a picture when she returned and gave us a report on the dog’s temperament and how well she interacted with the breeder’s other dogs. We drove to Phoenix and met our newest Great Dane, Shalako’s Lotte Lenya.
We named her Lotte Lenya because a show about the German singer and her husband, composer Kurt Weil was just opening (and shortly closing) on Broadway, and NPR was discussing it one morning while I was sleeping through the clock radio. We pronounce her name “Lottie” even though our German friends tell us the correct pronunciation is “Lott-ah.” Yes, I counter, but then people will say, “Oh yeah, a whole lotta dog!” Add that to all the other comments we hear like “Got a saddle for that thing?” And “Nice little lap dog you got there.” A group of Latino workmen taking a break one day called out “Chihuahua !” I answered “Grande Chihuahua,” thereby exhausting my entire Spanish fluency. But we all laughed.
Lotte is truly wonderful, very calm and quiet, friendly to people and other dogs. Although little dogs do sometimes carry on, barking furiously as she passes by. She barely reacts to them, just glances in their direction as if to say, “What is your problem?” At Halloween, each time the doorbell rings, she runs and stands in the open doorway while children and their parents fuss over her.
Like churches everywhere, our Episcopal church in Pasadena celebrates the Feast of St. Francis by holding a Blessing of the Animals service each year. Because this is a very big church, the most recent of these celebrations attracted some 300 dogs. Lotte was the largest one and according to more than one observer, the best behaved. At the start of the service, the choir and clergy form a procession into the church, followed by all the pets and their owners, moving down the center aisle to the front of the church. Smiling people in the pews on either side of the aisle “ooh and aah” and occasionally reach out to touch a passing animal. When the procession reaches the front of the church, it turns left and proceeds out a side door to the lawn where an outside worship area has been set up under a tent covering. This is the third or fourth time we’ve participated in this processional and each time Lotte has assumed she is meant to continue straight ahead and up the steps to the altar, much to the consternation of at least one of the priests standing there. I give her a gentle nudge with my hip and she continues out to join the others. There, she lies down quietly, her head erect, intently listening and watching the closed circuit television screens set up to show the proceedings from inside the church. This attentiveness surprises me because at home TV holds no interest for her. Maybe we’re watching the wrong things.
At the start of the most recent service, a man approached and asked if I could take Lotte to the Children’s Chapel where his granddaughter had been in tears because she didn’t get to meet “the big dog” before the service started. Earlier, he’d walked her around and around pointing out various large dogs but at each the little girl would say, “No, not that one. The really big dog.” I suggested at some point in the service he could take me to the chapel. Once there, many of the very young children were happy to see Lotte and the man’s granddaughter was thrilled. She threw her arms around my dog’s neck and hugged her for a long time. And Grandpa got a photo.
Southern California, and our neighborhood in particular, is loaded with dog lovers. People pitch in to help find lost dogs or to help reunite lost dogs with their owners. Some will take in strays, even paying for medical attention and neutering before trying to find homes for them. And they are justifiably proud of owning “rescue dogs” they got from a shelter. In a sense, our dog is a rescue dog too, just one that we paid considerably more money for. I don’t say that of course. Nor do I say what many owners of purebred dogs contend: If people were more conscientious about the care and breeding of their pets, the shelters would not be overflowing with unwanted dogs and cats. That doesn’t take into account the problem of puppy mills. But, then, that’s a fight for another day.
There is another Great Dane named George living a few blocks from us. This is not the famous George who’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the world’s largest dog,” though this one is impressive. We reach this dog’s yard by means of a long outdoor stairway. Many times, as we pass the entry to the stairs, Lotte will tug at the leash. “Let’s go see George,” I imagine her thinking. And if I do allow us to take that route, it brings to mind a teenage girl, beseeching her mother to drive by the home of a boy she has a crush on. The mother accedes to the request and then observes her daughter staring straight ahead, pretending it’s just an accident they’re driving by this particular house. George barks his head off, runs back and forth along the fence line, and Lotte walks by with her nose in the air.
When we first got Lotte we had her spayed – when she was destined for the show ring, that was an impossibility – and at the same time had her stomach “tacked” to the abdominal wall as a preventive measure. She could still bloat but the stomach cannot flip over and send her into shock and probable death. I tell her frequently how lucky she is. “You don’t have to do that stupid dog show stuff,” I say. “And you don’t have to have litter upon litter of puppies to satisfy some guy’s “get rich” scheme. We could have told him it doesn’t work anyway.
Ed and I have always enjoyed slow, quiet beginnings to the day. Even when we had jobs out of the house to go to or children to be prepared for school, we’d gladly sacrifice an hour of sleep in exchange for time to first drink coffee and read the papers. Each of our dogs has adjusted to that routine. These days, Ed gets up at 6 when the clock radio clicks on to the morning news. I settle in a while longer, ostensibly to listen but in truth many times to fall back asleep. When the radio shuts itself off an hour later, it’s the sudden silence that jars me awake. Slowly, I rouse myself just as the dog in her bed across the way does the same, and together we drag ourselves upstairs (remember, it’s a house on a hill so the bedrooms are down below). I shuffle out to the kitchen for coffee and the dog flops down on the floor and goes back to sleep. How can you not appreciate a dog like that?