In December of 2000 I brought home an 8-week-old German Shepherd Dog (GSD) whom his breeder had named “Tank” because of his size. Oka, as I named him, was the result of an “accidental” breeding between the German National Champion (who became world champion about the time that litter was born) and a bitch being exported to Hawaii.
Oka was a revelation to me. Even though we eventually washed out of Schutzhund because he lacked sufficient prey drive and intensity, he was still a better example of the breed in every respect than the two previous GSDs I’d had: the first an abandoned “pet-GSD” puppy, the second a dog from German show lines.
Deborah and I had often joked that Oka, with his energy, would be like the one-hoss shay, that “went to pieces all at once,” and so it was. Cancer took him halfway through his 13th year: a lymphoma that we fought successfully for about 4 months until it turned into leukemia, turning him from the slowing but still active dog in the picture below (taken only two days before he died) to one that could no longer even get up, or even sit up, in only 48 hours. He died where he’d last laid down, eyes tracking his beloved laser dot, gobbling treats, not even noticing the needle.
In retrospect, I think Darcy interrupted our grieving for Oka, which didn’t seem that deep at the time. For myself, I thought that was because I had so much time to prepare, and knew Oka so well that I could see that the time was down to weeks at best before the actual crisis arrived.
I don’t think so now. Four months, or even the couple of years that commenced when I realized he had degenerative myelopathy (progressive death of the spinal cord), isn’t enough of a cadence for over 12 years together.
But puppies come when they come, and when Oka’s trainer said he had a litter on the way, we didn’t hesitate. So only 2-1/2 months after Oka died, we had a 7-week-old male puppy we eventually named Darcy.
Now, for reasons I’ve already discussed, we’ve had to return Darcy to his breeder. (“The fault lies not in our dog but in ourselves.”) That happened Tuesday. Darcy was mopey the last few days, a bit more so after Deborah left Sunday afternoon, and the last night he went into his crate on his own.
However, when we got to Steinbeckland Kennels the next day, Darcy was totally at ease, and trotted away on a leash without a backward look. Yesterday I talked to David Deleissegues, the breeder/trainer, and he said that Darcy settled in as though he’d never left: no whining, crying, or barking. It probably helped that he was reunited with one of his sisters, although he’s so much bigger than her that she ends up bowled over again and again. GSDs play hard! David already has some interest in Darcy from his network, and doesn’t think Darcy will be there very long at all.
So it appears the separation was harder on me than on Darcy. Much of that was the “but…but…but” I mentioned last week, as I grasped at straws that might allow me to continue training him with Deborah absent. That continued even after I returned him, and stopped only yesterday when David told me that he would soon be placed. Then I found could let go. But there are still moments, especially when I come upon a leftover toy, when I miss him intensely. The worst was cleaning up the house and storing all the dog stuff. It wasn’t that big a task, but it took three days because it was so depressing. That was when the tears were most likely to come.
It seems that the mourning is for both dogs, and what follows me around the house is not the cliche black cloud of grief but a dog-shaped hole…no, a GSD-shaped hole. I remember their energy, their intensity, their intelligence, and most of all, the emotional bonding. The breed standard for GSDs describes them as “aloof.” What that means in practice is that they generally bond strongly to only one person—so strongly that they often ignore strangers who attempt to greet them.
(I once left Oka in a down outside the little jewelry store in town–evocatively named “Blind Pilot”–and went inside to talk. A couple of minutes later I heard baby talk directed at Oka, escalating rapidly to scolding and looked out to see a woman almost furious at this dog that wouldn’t even look at her. She’d been dissed by a dog!)
Even Deborah, as close as she was to Oka, and as skilled as she was at working with Darcy, found it hard to keep their attention when I was nearby. Both Oka and Darcy would look to me for direction. Darcy would often try to heel on me when we were walking even when Deborah had the leash. Interesting tangles ensued.
So now that Darcy is really gone, I’m playing out the interrupted cadence that will also release Oka into memory, understanding that these neural traces represent the ways in which he has become part of my soul. And so with Darcy.
Next week, in The Gifts of Dog for the People of Dog, I’ll talk about some ways in which all of my dogs have changed me outwardly.