I drove off the island crossing bridges and freeways to meet the black five-year-old Great Dane I was going to foster. Duchess’s guardian had reached out to the rescue group I volunteered with because she was traveling more for work and her twin daughters were away at college, and they wanted Duchess to continue to thrive.
They had rescued a young, skinny Great Dane in 2007 from an Oregon shelter, who came with a prescription for her anxiety. With their love, Duchess blossomed into a beloved, confident companion who occasionally was treated to a red-nails pedicure.
I sat in their living room listening to family stories and looking through photos while Duchess, with her soft, floppy ears, laid down and napped. When it was time to go, Duchess walked out with me to my van, eagerly leaped up onto the middle seats and we headed west.
As a foster volunteer, I had vowed to never adopt a Great Dane. Dogs die too soon, and the bigger the dog the shorter their life span. My Dobermans had died between the ages of 8-10 from heart disease or cancer, and I knew the extra-large Dane is vulnerable to bloat, a potentially deadly gastric condition. The last thing I needed was to get attached to one of these beautiful, amusing and affectionate dogs and then lose her too soon. No way was I going to sign up for an early broken heart.
On our way home, waiting in the van on the dock for the next ferry, I unwrapped a sandwich. Before I took a bite, Duchess shifted in her seat where she sat sniffing the salty breeze through the opened window, her nostrils now tracking the scent of cheese. I turned in my seat, like a body possessed, tearing off a chunk of my sandwich and offered it to her. I was breaking a hard-and-fast rule. I never shared my meals with dogs, whether my own companions or foster dogs. Once given, in the dog’s mind, it could happen again. And again. And they would sit drooling at every meal until it did.
The moment Duchess’s gentle lips picked up the cheesy bread from my palm, my heart opened and she walked right in. My worries about how long Duchess might live drifted out the window. She was offering a new love, and I said yes.
Duchess fit easily into her new life with my Bodie, a young and goofy, black male Doberman who was thrilled to meet her. He was typically thrilled about everything. His body occasionally stilled for an anticipated treat, except for the nub of his ever-eager tail. Black ears folded sharply, head tilted to focus his good right eye, he knew how to turn on the charm.
Max, the short-haired black rescue cat, taught Duchess the house rules (read “cat rules”), as he did for all dogs who entered his home. As long as a dog behaved, peace was likely. Foremost was the enforced “ye shall not chase the cat.” One lesson usually sufficed.
Duchess’s outdoor routine included patrolling the meadow fences with her bouncy sidekick, Bodie, and napping on the sunny patio.
She became a demo dog for students taking courses at the island’s animal massage school. Her pony-sized bone structure and muscles made them easy to find and explore. Students gathered around Duchess in the classroom or on a soft pad in the dog yard on warmer days to practice strokes, to gently move a long leg in a set of rotations or to curl their fingers into her pliant, warm fur.
Duchess survived significant health challenges when she was seven and eight years old. She had surgery to remove a foot-long connective tissue tumor from her left thigh and another to cut out a mast cell tumor from the inside of her right rear leg. Tearing out stitches from her almost healed left leg left a long scar, a survival tattoo. I was relieved when future lumps were merely benign fatty growths. One grew behind her right elbow, however, and began to compromise her mobility.
As she aged, she began barking in the kitchen at my back as I prepared her fresh meaty meals on the counter, urging me to HURRY. I knew someday I’d miss that startling boom and my reflex-clenched jaw.
Duchess welcomed everybody to her home, but her world began to tip if I was out of sight. She whined, paced and panted until I reappeared. She soaked up sun whenever she could, whether on the warm concrete patio or in a grassy spot in the meadow. She occasionally woofed to the world and then lay her big head down to find the next dream.
I was grateful for each year and then each month with my big girl. When Duchess was 10 years old, she began to decline both physically and mentally. Her spine became roached, rounding like a camel’s. And her rear leg muscles weakened, causing her back paws to occasionally drag or fold under when she walked.
Duchess’s mobility improved with acupuncture treatments from her veterinarian, settling onto a padded mat in the clinic for about 30 minutes. She relaxed into the routine of a trail of needles placed in strategic points from head to toe, some of which were then clipped to wires attached to a machine with a regulated electrical current. The vet and I would catch up on current medical trends or consult on shared client issues, murmuring over Duchie’s relaxed body while soft piano music played from my portable player.
At home, she developed new anxieties around sudden weird or loud noises: thunder storms, TV game show buzzers, the ferry fog horn and the dishwasher. I added a prescription to help manage her anxiety and pain, and it helped to take the edge off. It took me awhile to find the right balance of how much and what time of day Duchess needed her meds, and with her veterinarian’s help we flexed with her needs.
I also spent more time massaging her long, knobby body, helping aged limbs and muscles remember their roles, soothed by the sound of her deep breathing.
I’m pausing Duchie’s story here to reflect on past canine, feline and equine companions. These early companions, along with the cats and dogs who joined me as an adult, and those I’ve helped in the canine rescue world, have inspired me to pursue a career in companion animal behavior.
The decisions I made for them and the steps I took after they were gone have helped the animal companions in their wake. Each creature has added a lesson or two to help me care for the next one, how to make the decision to let them go or mourn their abrupt end.
And how to love again.