Downsizing the Best Friend

By Linda Nagata

When I was small I lived in a house full of Great Pyrenees. Think of Newfoundland dogs, only white. They’re big and fluffy and probably weighed two times or more what I did. At their peak population in our household, my family had three females and one male, along with occasional litters of very cuddly puppies.

The upside of this was that even as an eight year old, I wasn’t the least frightened of big dogs. I remember walking into a room full of Great Danes and thinking nothing of it. There is something glorious about being best friends with giant dogs, especially when you’re small.

But there are downsides to big dogs too. This was made clear to me when I was maybe nine years old. I took one of the Pyrenees for a walk on the multi-acre property where my family was living at the time. As we neared the road the dog spotted our neighbor’s new kitten and took off after it—and I suddenly discovered there was no way a skinny child could control a hundred-plus pound dog. I was hauled along behind, still clutching the leash, while the poor kitten was caught and killed. After that, my big best friend was quite happy to again do exactly what I asked her to do, but I think that was the last walk I ever took her on outside the fenced section of the property. And to this day I am known to intone: “If you’re not big enough or strong enough to control that dog, you shouldn’t have it.”

When I was around ten years old my family moved from California to Hawaii, and our family dogs were downsized from Great Pyrenees to Golden Retrievers—and what a fantastic size for a dog that proved to be! The Goldens were so much easier to deal with than the giant breeds, but they were still plenty big enough for rough-housing and play. “A dog-sized dog,” as people like to say.

From the age of ten or so, until I left for college, I lived with Goldens in the house, and when I graduated, my gift to myself was a Golden puppy named Daisy. In later years my husband and I had two more Goldens—and then I downsized again.

Finding a well-bred Golden that I could afford became an impossible task and eventually we wound up at the Humane Society, where we adopted a tiny black puppy described as a border collie-lab mix. He grew up into a terrific dog that weighed in at only forty-five pounds—twenty pounds or so less than a golden. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it was enough to make handling the dog significantly easier, and feeding him noticeably less costly. This, I thought, is the ideal size for a dog.

Then we downsized again. My daughter bought a Japanese Spitz puppy that came to live with us for a time. At her adult weight, Koda is only fourteen pounds—not tiny by the standards of tiny breeds, but plenty small to me! Koda was my first real experience with small dogs, and I have to say that she is awesome: very smart and loving, with a wonderful temperament. But she inspires in me small-dog anxiety. Maybe it’s because she’s the size of a baby, but I worry about her just like I would about a toddler. It’s an anxiety I never had with the bigger dogs, but when I look at Koda I can’t help thinking how defenseless she would be if a bigger dog came after her. Maybe this is just the trauma of the kitten-incident surfacing decades later, but it’s almost impossible for me to let her wander alone around our big fenced yard.

When Koda moved back with my daughter, my husband and I found ourselves without a canine best friend for the first time in our relationship. So I guess you could say we’ve downsized to nothing. That suits us for now, but I think I can promise that the next dog we get will finally reverse the long trend of the shrinking best friend.

Hepen the Watcher by Linda NagataLinda Nagata is the Locus and Nebula award winning author of The Bohr Maker, Vast, and Memory, all available at Book View Cafe. Her latest book Hepen the Watcher, is the second in a fast-paced mythic fantasy series featuring the antihero demon, Smoke.

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About Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata is the author of many novels and short stories including the far-future novel Memory, a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial award, the novella “Goddesses,” the first online publication to receive a Nebula award, and the story "Nahiku West," a finalist for the 2013 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her “scoundrel lit” series Stories of the Puzzle Lands. Her newest novel is The Last Good Man, a near-future military thriller due out in June.
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8 Responses to Downsizing the Best Friend

  1. For reasons known only to the Fates, all three of the major dogs in my life (not counting the lamented Bagel the Beagle, given to my family as a hostess gift when I was six, and regifted at my mother’s order six weeks later) have been the same size and build: pointer-types, weighing in at about 45 pounds. It is hard for me to think that there is any other satisfying size/conformation for a dog, but I make friends with littler dogs at the dog park, and you know…if and when Emily goes to the Great Dog Park in the sky, we might downsize too.

  2. I had a border collie/lab cross. We called him Moose. Wonderful friend and companion. Very protective who tried to herd the neighbor children or cub scouts, whoever was in the yard or house, into a small circle he could monitor. If one escape his patrol he was off, rounding up the errant sheep–er child– and nudging him back to the herd.

    During cub scout meetings he’d circle the dining table where we were working, making sure we were all safe.

    The lab half of him became evident in the water. He’d swim 200 yards to the middle of the river to retrieve a stick. Then drag “his” stick the half mile home.

    We’ve downsized to a lilac point Siamese cat, emperor of the universe who climbs and explores.

  3. Linda Nagata says:

    Coming from a big-dog background, I was really surprised how much I like small dogs, but the worry!

    The herding behavior on our mixed breed was minimal. He would try to exert some dominance over the lawn mower, but that was about it. I’ve since come to think of his type as “Maui cattle dogs” because I often see similar ones riding in the back of cattle trucks.

  4. Dave Harmon says:

    Heh… my boss has a couple of Great Pyrenees, which I met at a house party. Perfectly nice, but those guys were looming over people when they were lying down! And yeah, it’s non-trivial to live with animals that are bigger than most adult humans.

    My own (fairly new) dog is a Harrier mix, maybe 35 pounds since she gained a little weight. This seems like a good size — big enough that I don’t have to worry about stepping on her, small enough to shove off my side of the bed, we can mostly keep up with each other on walks.

  5. Liz says:

    I love large dogs unabashedly…my husband and I are currently dog-parents to a 130 lb St Bernard who is the star of my life. As to controlling, it’s not the size of the dog or the person (my dog and I weigh about the same, depending on who ate more that day), but the size of the personality. Because I know I couldn’t fully physically control my girl if she decided to do something, we heavily reinforce my mental command of her. The result? The two of us visit hospitals, libraries and other social places as a therapy team where she brings smiles to many faces.

    • Linda Nagata says:

      @Dave, “loom” is a great word in that situation.

      @Liz, a well-trained dog is always a joy, and St. Bernards are remarkable creatures. What a treat for people to get to visit with yours.

  6. My Airedale at 44 pounds is small for his breed, but I think it’s a great size. I can pick him up quite easily. You see a lot of 80 or 90 pound Airedales on rescue sites, and much as I love the breed I think that is Too Much Terrier.

    We hung out yesterday with a 3-pound Yorkie, who was adorable, but maybe a LITTLE small. I’d be worried about stepping on him. To each their own size of dog…

  7. Size is not everything when it comes to dogs, although it is important. My mother decided that a beagle puppy was too rambunctious for a family with three girls under eight years, and a pekinese too fragile. Somehow they decided on a miniature dachshund, and that tiny, potent personality ruled the household until I went to college. Her successor ruled another ten + years, moving in with my younger sister when the parental units started traveling.

    Hounds are hounds, even if they are less than 20 pounds dripping wet. Buttons was a traveler, and had a route through the neighborhood, adored and petted by many, scrounging treats. She never acquiesced to the new leash law, and escaped to adventures whenever possible. Her best friend was a huge doberman, and she once tried to attack a fortunately mild German shepherd for an unknown offense.

    My roommate has two dogs, and the coon hound, while sweet with people, terrorizes small dogs and nearly killed the other sweetie in the house. So I suspect she will have a new home soon. I’ve longed for a companion dog like several writer friends found, a German shepherd mix or an Aussie shepherd.

    That little Japanese Spitz is a darling. That’s a dog just barely larger than my Burmese, but I’ve finally found a small dog that might tempt me. I’ll have to investigate the breed requirements. I hope you get to have granddog visits occasionally!