In their dying as much as in their living, pets can enrich our lives and teach us much about our own nature. The succession of pets in a pet owner’s life seems tragic, but it need not be…the repetition of birth, life and death in our pets during our lives can help us to understand better the constancy of our existence, the constancy of the cycles of life. Just as the seasons change and a spring will never be the same, there will always be another [pet]. So it is with life. We can learn and accept the constancy of nature through the succession of animals. They can also give us a symbolic image of natural perfection…
~ Bruce Fogle, "Bereavement," from Pets And Their People (out-of-print, but still available)
Warning: If you’re no fan of sappy dog stories (especially sappy dog stories that, like the average dachshund, are a little too loooong) – or if you don’t like it when I veer a bit off-topic on this blog – skip this post, and please accept my apologies. I’ll be back to snarky in no time…just not today. And if you are visiting this blog for the first time, please note that this post is not representative of my regular subject matter. I just don't want you to to be disappointed if you come back expecting a dog blog and step instead into a snark mine.
The routine is nearly always the same. When supper is finished we pile into the living room, Ron and I and our passel of dogs, joining the cats in "their" part of the house to watch TV and be cat furniture. "Be nice to my cats!" Ron always warns – to no avail – as the dogs stampede into the room, shoving their noses up as many cat butts as they can get away with before being corralled by Ron or slapped by an indignant feline.
The one dog to whom Ron rarely had to issue his warning was our miniature dachshund Noelle, who was far less interested in cat harassment than in jumping up and settling into her spot on Ron’s recliner. "Make a hole, Noelle!" Ron would always say when he found her taking up a little too much real estate on his chair, as was her habit. Sometimes he would get to the chair before she did, and, of course, he would always "make a hole" for her – except for those times when she had taken a quick detour for a snack from the cats’ litter boxes. Ron refuses to share his intimate chair space with coprophagiacs; man of refinement that he is, there is something about cat-poo breath that he finds off-putting. I confess I was always more indulgent, scooping Noelle up to hang with me on the couch after her rejection by her dad. But I was obviously second choice.
For although Noelle was originally "my" dog, by virtue of being the offspring of the dogs I’d brought to our household, it was apparent that she was Daddy’s girl. And she much preferred snuggling up with Ron on his chair, snoozing through countless movies and episodes of CSI or Cold Case or Boston Legal, to lying next to me. Ron was clearly the alpha dog, and her protector.
* * * * *
Once upon a time, if you had suggested to me that I would be so completely in love with dachshunds, I would have laughed in your face. A wiener-dog lover? Not I, a woman who ran with the wolves – literally, and years before that book came out. Having shared my home at various times with German Shepherds, a full-blooded timber wolf, and a couple of different wolf hybrids, I was a big fan of big dogs; little dogs, in my mind, were barely worthy of the title of "dog."
And dachshunds? Ridiculous dogs, really: fashioned in their present form by Teutonic breeders in a bygone century, their mission being to create a master race of fierce little hounds foolhardy enough to go after badgers and other ground-dwelling creatures. Teckels, as the Germans sometimes call them, were made-to-order for burrowing into tight spaces but, as is nearly always the case when humans tinker with the genetic material of other species, there was little regard for the well-being of the product of all that careful breeding. As a result of their ludicrously long backs and squatty little legs, the average dachshund is a spinal disaster waiting to happen. Given their length, I’ve always thought they would have fared so much better with an extra pair of legs in the middle. So much for German engineering.
It was my ex-husband Roger, a wonderful guy with whom I’m still friends, who got me into dachshundry. He’d had them years before and insisted they were delightful dogs. At that time we had two cats and a Husky-wolf hybrid named Xen, but there was room in our household and our lives for another animal or two. Roger finally sold me on wiener dogs, and our first one, a lovely long-haired chocolate-and-tan female named Natasha, was soon joined by a short-haired red male we called Nicholas. Needless to say, I was infatuated from the beginning, and when Nicky and Tasha decided it was time to start a family, or nature decided it for them, Roger and I didn’t stand in their way. I realize it may have been irresponsible to let them breed, and in light of the pet overpopulation problem, "backyard breeding" is generally not recommended. But then again, if Tasha and Nicky hadn't bred, there would have been no Noelle. Over the next few years our little couple produced four litters (curiously enough, every one of the pups was short-haired and mostly red-headed like their dad). Roger and I kept Cody, a boy from their first litter, and the rest went to other good homes.
Noelle was the last of the line, her name inspired by the fact that she was born one week before Christmas 1993. The birth took place at around ten o’clock at night in an animal emergency clinic, as Tasha was having difficulties in labor. The first pup out the chute was a little boy; Noelle was next, but took her time coming out. Puppies come gift-wrapped in individual birth sacs, and it was Noelle’s sac that came out first, considerably before she made her appearance. All we saw at first was a bubble, which rapidly grew almost alarmingly large – but no puppy. We were beginning to wonder if a pup was even there. The vet, Roger, and I were all hovering closely over Tasha, and when it became clear that the bubble was going to burst, the vet and I got out of the way. Roger didn’t, and he soon got splattered. This messy prologue was immediately followed by the emergence of the tiniest girl pup I’d ever seen, and one of the sweetest Christmas gifts I’ve ever received.
At this point we thought Tasha’s work was done – she always had very small litters – but then the vet said one more was coming. Another little girl slipped into the world soon after, but she was finished before she’d even begun: motionless, and unresponsive to the vet’s earnest efforts to revive her. So Noelle really was Tasha’s last-born – a mere mite of a dog. (Somewhere in my archives is a Polaroid of her and her brother taken at the age of one day or so, the two of them nestled together in Roger’s hand.)
At the time of Noelle’s birth, Roger and I were completing the process of splitting up. It was an amicable split, with no custody battles over the animals. The Husky-wolf mix Xen had died a couple of years previously, and I got custody of Nicky, Tasha, and their new brood, leaving Roger with Nicky and Tasha's adult son Cody, as well as one of the cats (we had three by then), and the promise of the new male pup when he came of age. When the puppies were old enough for new homes I found that I couldn’t bear to part with Noelle, though we already had a house full with Nicholas and Natasha, my two cats Bruce and Sabrina, and Ron’s two dogs Siva and Snapper. But Ron was kind enough to let me keep Noelle; what was one more tiny dog, after all? As promised, her brother went to Roger, who named him Ziggy and gave him a very happy life. In the years to follow, two more cats joined our household.
As she grew up it was apparent that Noelle, though "ours," was, in her mind, Ron’s. He called her his "little bit of dog." "Not much dog at all!" I’d sometimes say of her, and he would reply, "But she’s all the dog she needs to be."
And she was. There’s no doubt she capitalized on her cuteness and small size, exploiting our natural desire to baby her. She was good at getting her own way, and not terribly responsive to commands. Ron often teased her about not being the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but she was by no means dumb. That she didn’t take to "training" was a combination of my own negligence in that area and the natural stubbornness and "selective hearing" for which dachshunds are quite well known. But Noelle was an expert in doing what she needed to survive. Besides the cuteness-exploitation angle, she had the fundamentals down pat. She knew, as most little dogs do, how to stay out of the way of the big dogs, except when the hormonal fires of estrus had burned away her normal caution, compelling her to flirt shamelessly with our big dog Rex, who outweighed her by more than 120 pounds. She would sometimes position herself underneath him, eagerly "flagging" him with her tail, and he, neutered but no stranger to sex, would oblige her with a manly display of "air-humping."
She did recognize certain commands. For example, she knew and obeyed "Get out of the kitchen." It was the concept of "Stay out of the kitchen" that she had so much trouble with.
Like most spoiled dogs she was a consummate beggar, and I am sorry to say I didn’t exactly discourage this. I eat lots of yogurt, and in the last couple of years it became my habit to offer Noelle the carton when I was finished. (I know, I know; dogs aren’t supposed to have dairy products or sugar. But I always rationalized that the amount of both was negligible; by the time I was done there was never more than a dachshund-sized lick’s-worth of yogurt, if that much.) Noelle would grab the carton in her mouth, trot over to her little dog bed under Ron’s credenza in the front office, and settle in with her treasure. Later one of the other dogs would snatch it, lick out the last remaining yogurt molecules, chew on the carton a bit, and then take it outside to position it carefully in the back yard, as if styling an ad for Yoplait. (And a fine ad it might have made, especially with all of those tooth marks: "Yoplait. It is so good, it's you’ll even want to eat the carton good!") It got to the point where I would no sooner get a carton of yogurt out of the refrigerator than Noelle would be dancing around my feet, whimpering for her yogurt fix. "Wait your turn, Noelle," I’d always say, and she would, but not quietly.
Noelle was more fortunate than many dachshunds, as she wasn’t plagued with the back problems for which the breed is notorious. Her own father, Nicholas, had very bad back problems, particularly in his later years. And her brothers Cody and Ziggy, Roger told us, had numerous problems, some of which required expensive surgery. Not so Noelle. Even as she grew older, morphing from a solid red hound into a white-and-red one, she still got around very well. We did try to control her jumping up and down off of furniture, because that’s very bad for doxie backs, but she often did it before we could stop her.
She also never got grossly obese, the way so many dachshunds do, some of them looking like overstuffed sausage casings. In fact for the last six months or so of her life she was a bit underweight. In retrospect, that might have been a sign of something amiss, but I didn’t snap to it. She seemed in pretty good health overall, still whimpering for yogurt every day, and dancing and singing for her supper every night – up until her last night on earth.
And even on that final night (which at the time I had no clue would be her last one), she ate her supper as usual. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. After supper, however, she didn’t join us in the living room for our nightly session of TV watching and cat-bonding. Neither Ron nor I thought much about it, because from time to time one or the other of the dogs wouldn’t go in with the rest of us. Later, upon realizing that he or she was…horrors…alone in the front office while the rest of the pack was in the other room, the prodigal canine would bark insistently to be let in. "When Noelle hollers, I’ll let her in," Ron said.
But not a peep came out of her, so we figured she was just snoozing and didn’t want to be disturbed. When we came out of the living room to let the dogs outside once more before bedtime, however, I saw that she was lying on her bed with half of her body hanging off, as if she were too weak to make it all the way onto the bed. Alarmed, I picked her up, but even though she seemed a little weak she was otherwise normally responsive. Ron said, "She’s been a bit out of sorts today." Ah, yes. It was just one of those "spells." So I concentrated hard on trying not to worry, though we decided that if she wasn’t better by the next day we’d take her to the vet.
In retrospect I see that Ron was trying to shield me from the reality of what was happening, but it really wasn’t necessary. I knew. I’d seen the death of pets before, was all too familiar with the process. In May 1999, we’d had to have Siva, Ron's dingo-Blue Heeler mix, put to rest because of advanced inoperable cancer. Snapper, our diabetic whippet, had passed on his own two days before Christmas 2000. More recently, I had cradled four of "my" pets – the ones I’d originally brought to our household – through their final hours: Tasha in November of 2003, Nicky in January 2004, my long-haired tuxedo cat Bruce in January 2005, and Sabrina, my short-haired blue cat, a little over a month later.
Noelle actually seemed to be a little better the next morning, but we still made a vet appointment. As the day wore on, though, she weakened, refusing food and water. It became increasingly apparent that spending hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars on critical care would only buy her a short amount of time with us – and at what cost to her? She didn’t seem to be in pain, didn’t seem to be suffering at all, really. I wrapped her in an old green towel and held her on my lap, sitting on the floor in the front office, surrounded by the other dogs. At about 2:20 PM she struggled to her feet and, with one last gasp, threw up a little on me, getting me back, I suppose, for dodging that bubble on the night she was born. She lay back down, sighed deeply, and was gone.
I cleaned her and myself up, wrapped her back up in the green towel that had been her second skin for the last hours of her life, and then held her a while longer. We picked a spot in the back yard not too far from Noelle’s parents and Ron’s old dogs, Siva and Snapper. Ron borrowed a shovel from a neighbor, but the ground was too hard for digging, so he ran water on the space for a while, and said he’d let the ground soften overnight. Noelle would be sleeping in our house one more night. Removing her faded red collar, we carefully wrapped our girl in an impenetrable layer of plastic, a buffer against the time when death would begin making its presence known in more assertive ways. And then there was nothing to do but place the bundle on her little bed underneath Ron’s credenza, and await the morning.
A little later that night, when it was time to pile into the living room to watch TV, our two remaining girl dogs ran over to Noelle’s bed, as they normally do, to nudge her into following them. I had to guide them away and herd them into the other room. When Ron finally settled into his chair, he automatically made a space for Noelle. And the next day, a couple of hours after we had buried her, I finished up a carton of yogurt and caught myself looking around to see why Noelle wasn’t at my feet begging for a lick.
It will be a while before those habits fade away.
And so I find myself living, for the first time in nearly twenty years, in a home without a wiener dog. It doesn’t seem right somehow. Still, our house is far from bereft of canine companionship. We have wild-child Kali, a Blue Heeler/border collie mix who was literally captured as a feral pup, and has been, in many ways, as destructive as the deity after whom she was named. We have our smart and pretty hound-terrier mix Layla, both a lady and a bitch in every sense of the word. And of course, there is Rex The Farting Dog, our 135-pound Rottweiler-Doberman-Black Lab mix. All three are rescue dogs. So there is no dearth of wagging tails and wet noses and barking and whining in this household (although in the interests of full disclosure, I must tell you that most of the whining has always come from me).
And then there are the three cats: Coca and Grace, who have been with us ten years, and Sabu, who came to us as a homeless kitten and adopted us a couple of years ago. Being exclusively indoor cats, they are obliged to interact with us at great length on a daily basis and are always affectionate, but they have been particularly sweet for the past couple of days, as if they sense we are grieving. Call us anthropomorphic, but that’s how it seems to us.
As a bonus, we also have a frequent delightful visitor: our "grand-dog" Haley, a pretty, smart, and well-trained Jack Russell terrier who belongs to Ron's daughter Sharon. Haley is keeping us company today, in fact.
So it might be said that we still have a full house. But it is obvious that someone is missing from our circle. It’s remarkable, really, how much empty space one little bit of wiener dog can leave behind.
Addendum (Sunday, October 7)
It occurred to me that there were some points I wanted to make with this post, beyond the obvious one that I miss the heck out of Noelle, that she is absolutely irreplaceable (as is every dog, cat, ferret, parrot, pig, horse, donkey, iguana, etc.), and that no matter how many animals share your home, it sucks to lose any one of them. But here are some other points.
1. I wouldn't trade my dachshund-infused years for anything, and at some time in the future I may yet welcome another wiener dog or two into my life (and/or perhaps some other "long little doggie" with stubby legs, like a Corgi). I have become somewhat obsessed with that odd configuration; more than that, I have definitely gotten over my big-dog fixation and have learned to appreciate portable pooches. But, depending upon the breed, purebred dogs very often do have more inherent health challenges than mutts. So if you're considering getting a dachshund or any other purebred dog, take that into consideration. Do your research. Here's a good beginning. And certainly research your breed, and know what sort of questions to ask the breeder. Which brings me to point number 2...
2. In the United States, millions of inmates are languishing on Death Row, most of them for nothing more than the "crime" of being born unwanted, or deemed somehow unworthy to share someone's home. I think you know which prisoners I'm talking about. When shopping for a four-legged companion, why not consider springing one or two innocents from the Big House? The life (or lives) you save will enrich your own immeasurably. You might also consider contacting one of the growing number of "no-kill" shelters, or a foster-pet organization such as Houston's Homeless Pet Placement League (HPPL). By the way, as I noted above, all of the dogs now living with Ron and me were rescues of some sort (as were the cats, for that matter). Rex The Farting Dog came to us via HPPL and our wonderful next-door neighbor, who has worked with that organization for many years. Rex has been an utter joy, despite the farting.
Even if you have your heart set on a purebred of some type, you may very well find one at your local shelter. There are also hundreds of specific breed-rescue groups. Google could be your best friend in helping you find your best friend.
And even if you're not in the market for a new friend, consider supporting an animal rescue organization such as the aforementioned HPPL or one of the orgs in your own town, or Kinky Friedman's favorite cause, Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch. I'm a huge fan of The Kinkster (yeah, I voted for him for gov of Texas), and here's one big reason I like him so much.
3. No matter how cute they look when they're begging, avoid feeding dogs and cats "people food" as much as possible. I have to take some responsibility for the fact that Noelle didn't live as long as she might have (smaller dogs can live to be twenty or even older, and Noelle was a couple of months shy of her fourteenth birthday). I can't say for sure, but I honestly think that if I had been more scrupulous about not "supplementing" her diet she might have been around a few years longer. Anyway, here's a good list of things not to feed your dog, and most of them apply to cats as well.
4. Bruce Fogle, whom I quoted above, had some good points regarding the succession of animals in one's life. But beyond the lessons and metaphors is the point that if you love animals, you should always have them in your life in any way you can manage. Two (or more) are almost always better than one, both for each other and for you. It really is a good idea to "stagger" them, though. I acquired several puppies and kittens at roughly the same time, which is why, years later, I had to say so many sad goodbyes in such a relatively short time. They all lived good long lives, but the cumulative loss has been very difficult to deal with.
By the way, here's one of the better pet loss support sites, in my opinion. Created by the prolific Moira Allen (who also has tons of great advice for writers), this site wasn't at the top of the Google search, but it offers compassionate advice and some links to other resources, without going to ridiculous extremes. Pet bereavement was once a taboo subject, and that wasn't healthy, but now, as with nearly everything else, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and it has become an entire industry. Moreover, some of the web sites and online communities I've seen seem to encourage obsession with the loss, and that can't be healthy either. Still, the loss of a pet is nothing trivial. If you're having trouble dealing with it, help is available.
5. And the most important point of all: Love them unconditionally while they're with you, and let them know you love them every day. I guess it goes without saying that the same thing applies to the people in your life, too.
Okay, I think that's it for the "lessons." Again, I apologize for getting off-course here. I'll be back to being snarky in no time.