Our world travels followed a primarily unscheduled easterly path that began in England where we boarded a chilled Greek bus for a three-day ride to Athens. We experienced serious sensory muddlefecation in Egypt, marveled at the herd migrations across the Serengeti in Tanzania, embraced bouquets of taste, color and humanity in India and Nepal and recovered on the serene beaches in Thailand, away from the Bangkok chaos. After six months, we flew home over the ocean from Hong Kong with a plane change in Tokyo and landed back in the Pacific Northwest.
Seasoned and sun-drenched from hours outdoors, with lighter bodies and packs, we returned to aisles of indecision at the grocery store, and began trading our travel stories to family and friends for space on a couch or in a guest room. Soon we landed jobs and finally settled into a rental home in northeast Seattle with a big yard. A perfect dog yard.
We heard about a nearby family with Doberman puppies looking for new homes and went to meet the beautiful black-coated mama named Dancer and her brown-red litter. Their people invited us to relax in the sunny backyard on a low wooden deck, and we enjoyed watching the puppies romp and roll with occasional lap breaks in the shade.
We were drawn to two sisters who seemed well matched, brought them home and named them from our travel memories: Dancer’s Taj (after the Taj Mahal) and Arusha (a small town at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro). Taj was all sweetness and Arusha was full of adventure. One early memory of our life with these inquisitive and playful delights was of a too-long walk on hot sidewalks that blistered little paws and two heads peeking out of a backpack as we carried them home.
I have photos of them stretched out with round bellies enjoying a well-earned nap beneath puppy-harvested rose bushes in the backyard. When they were six months old, we were invited to bring Taj and Arusha back to their original home and yard to enjoy a birthday celebration for the entire puppy pack and Mama Dancer, with party cone hats and a beef cake.
We created a puppy zone in our empty attic with newspapers laid down for their home-alone time where they napped, ate and played when we were at work. I shake my head with my years’ of experience now wondering why we thought this was a good idea. The puppies survived their freedom and our blissful ignorance.
A few months later when our lease was ending, we moved to another rental home a bit further east with a great neighborhood for walks. Our pups were becoming adolescents, and we knew it was time to begin training them. We took Taj and Arusha to a local community hall that hosted a weekly obedience class with a confident instructor. During our second week, a Malamute chose not to take his person’s direction, and the instructor demonstrated how to change the dog’s mind by holding its leash in both her hands above the dog’s head while the dog struggled and growled, its front feet in the air as the tension increased.
The owner and the rest of us stared mutely at the shocking scene, frozen by the trainer’s determination and authority. The Malamute and his owner never returned to class, but most of us continued and learned how to use a prong collar and how to jerk a leash to get attention, embracing punishment as our co-pilot to the confusion of our young dogs. I read books written by other canine training authorities, like “The Monks of New Skete” who supported this training philosophy. And, I remember the beginning of clarity and connection when Barbara Woodhouse demonstrated her more humane training methods on my television.
When Taj and Arusha were around two years old, we bought our first home a bit further east across Lake Washington, with a backyard that bordered a forested state park. In addition to taking the girls out as my running partners, we often took them to the large fields and wooded, hilly trails at the park for off-leash adventures.
One day we came across a home-made notice at a local store with a photo of a beautiful adult male Doberman available for adoption. We called and were invited to meet Ramses. He was a friendly, confident and beautiful boy. His family loved him dearly, but since the kids had grown up and the adults worked daily away from home, they wanted to find a home where Ramses would have more activity.
He moved in with his raised feeding station, his bag of toys and his home-cooked meals, becoming a great buddy for Taj and Arusha.
We had not spayed the girls because we planned to have a litter of puppies someday. As they matured, however, hormones began to kill their relationship and Arusha, the aggressor, repeatedly demonstrated her sisterly rage. The intensity of their skirmishes increased, leaving them with minor injuries.
One afternoon when I had taken the trio to the park for an off-leash romp, something set Arusha off and a ferocious battle erupted. She was trying to kill her sister, and I was all alone in the empty field surrounded by tall fir trees. I yelled for help, unsuccessfully tried to separate the girls and stood trembling gasping for air, watching Taj as she struggled to defend herself.
A serious dog fight is immediately engaging for humans. Our adrenaline rockets as we witness the savage escalating growling mass of bodies leaping, lunging and jerking, teeth slashing and grabbing, and we are terrorized by the unknown outcome.
I jumped back into their now slowing and more deadly holds. Arusha had Taj down on the ground, her jaw clamped around Taj’s throat, and I could hear Taj struggling to breathe. Goofy Ramses circled excitedly wanting to get in the game, but not understanding the rules. Somehow I pulled Arusha off of Taj, perhaps using a leash to gain leverage, and we all collapsed on the ground.
I carefully checked the girls’ slobber-covered heads and torsos, watching the still-aroused Arusha eyeing her sister. Continuing to hold onto Arusha’s collar, I waited while I caught my breath and the dogs calmed down. Then I leashed them all and we walked slowly back to the car. I drove to the vet office to have Taj’s neck punctures and Arusha’s less serious wounds treated.
This escalating confrontation was the one that got through to my heart and my mind, and we made the life-saving decision to find a new home for Arusha. Sweet Taj remained with us and Ramses, and our pack grew when we added Surrey, a black cat who came home with us from Vancouver, British Columbia.
We decided against breeding Taj after tests revealed she had Von Willebrand’s Disease, a hereditary bleeding disorder. When she was around eight, she developed mammary tumors and underwent a radical mastectomy. The vet’s wife called me from the clinic with an update before the surgery ended. She told me they were not sure if they could sew her back together because her disease was so advanced, and they worried that her bleeding issues would affect her recovery. But Taj pulled through and her “tummy tuck” always confused people meeting her for the first time who thought she was a much younger dog.
Taj was my heart dog, grounded, sweet and a friend to people, dogs and cats. She was a tireless hiker with her buddy Ramses even weighted with their packs full of dog food. We enjoyed the tranquility of our annual week-long hikes near the Canadian border, where the only other humans were herding sheep. Active or napping, Taj was content to do whatever we were doing.
When she was ten, Taj was diagnosed with lung cancer. I don’t remember much about her last days, but I remember how she lived. With joy and a lightness of spirit that drew others to her. I remember our last drive to the vet, lifting her out of the back of my car, supporting her until she got her footing and following her wobbly self as she made one last sniff and pee shuffle around the parking lot.
Taj motivated me to create “goodbye” cards to share the news of her death with my friends and family. It had a cover photo of her sphinx-like, red-brown body soaking up the sun with a poem inside about her life and her passing. My darling Taj.