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Too afraid to cross the threshold

Dogs in my Life – Part 3 / Dog 4

“Open the door and let it come in. It will fill your mind and dance with your heart.”
― Debasish Mridha

It is amazing how elastic the heart is. When we put Alja to sleep for the last time (all the euphemism for killing a dog are somehow terrible), I thought I would shatter. She had been very sick but we were hopeful that she could get better and then suddenly she was gone. For weeks, I couldn’t think of anything else. Even now, months later, things happen and I think how she would react and how she was. My Sweet Pea. I miss you.

But there has been a dog in our house for more than 17 years and eventually even in the pain I felt, I needed to hear the click of claws on the floor and feel warm fur under my hand. We wanted a Kuvasz because once you are experienced the strength, intelligence and loving openness of these dogs paired with an exceptional beauty, you want more of it. All of the breeders within reasonable travel distance weren’t expecting puppies for up to a year and somehow I didn’t want to wait that long. So we started looking for Kuvaszes to rescue and found German clubs that support Hungarian Shelters to place dogs. They had several Kuvaszes to adopt and we decided on Aranyosh. There were two cute videos of her and she looked so sweet. We also asked an animal communicator to talk to her to see if she would like to come. With everything seemingly ok, two weeks later I drove down to the parking lot in southern Germany where the Shelter brought several dogs to their new owners and was given a dirty, scarred, battered and terrified creature you almost couldn’t call a dog.

During the drive home, after a hefty struggle to shove her into the car, I was shell shocked. She didn’t look like a Kuvasz to me, and she was so scared, I thought we would never be able to deal with her. I called my husband still on the road and told him I still wanted to get a puppy because Aranyosh wasn’t what I had been expecting or wanting. When I finally got home, he carried her into the house because she wouldn’t come in on her own. She was trembling and laid herself right in front of the door and wouldn’t take another step into the house. It was nearly midnight so we just went to bed. The next morning, we thought about giving her back but I felt like we had made a commitment and that we couldn’t give back such a traumatized animal. It just wouldn’t be right. We would just have to figure out how to help her to trust us and find a home with us.

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Laying under one of her favorite trees.

Fast forward 6 weeks. We are still struggling with some issues – parts of the house are still too scary to explore – but the change in her is amazing. A couple of baths (one wasn’t enough) and brushings and the magic of baloney (her favorite inducement to try something new) and you wouldn’t recognize her as that terrorized heap that I picked up in August. She is half the size of Alja so most of the neighbors have decided they like her better (I guess she isn’t so scary to them but they never really knew Alja). And also because she doesn’t bark quite as much but that is also changing as she more and more accepts that this is her house and her yard. And she loves to cuddle! She is still trying to train us to let her be outside 24/7 but baloney helps and when I sit on the couch to watch TV and knit, she is usually laying on her bed behind my shoulder, grunting every once in a while to let me know she is there. We have decided not to get a puppy at the moment. It seems like too much and we are afraid it would make her nervous again. But we are enjoying long walks with her through the woods and learning about who she is. We call her Yoshi. She can twist herself in amazing directions in her attempt to make you think she isn’t dangerous. So I had a Bunny Dog (Weia), a Monkey Dog (Alja) and now I have a Wormy Dog and my heart is learning to love again.

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Alja at 6 weeks

Farewell My Love

Time has ceased
But cherished memories still linger
This is the way of life and all things
We shall meet again
You are only sleeping.
―José N. Harris, Mi Vida

Last weekend, we put our sweet dog, Alja, to sleep forever. The one I always called Monkey Dog because she was always jumping and playing and doing something silly, who was so alive and conscious. She heard planes go overhead and would watch them go. You could see her nose follow the path. She greeted everyone like they were her best friend that she hadn’t seen them for years, even if she had never met them. She was smart. She understood “squirrel” and “fox” just by the tone of our voices. Spelling didn’t work. She would jump up at the first “S”.

When we picked her out at the breeders, she was so small you could have held her in one hand. The breeder wanted us to get to know her while she was still in her family but I couldn’t go at the time, so Wolfgang would go alone and she would stumble over to him and fall asleep between his feet, full of trust and love. When we brought her home, she fit on a quarter of the blanket we had bought. When she was full grown, she was too big for the blanket.

When we were renovating this house, I was here alone with her and wanted to go back to Frankfurt after having done some work and she sat at the top of the stairs to the door and wouldn’t come. She had decided that this was home. She will always be a part of this house to me.
When we went hiking in the mountains, she was always climbing up high rocks and trying to pull ahead. Her joy and excitement were catching. It made the hard work less hard. Walking in the woods here near the house with her was one of the joys of my life. She seemed so alert and engaged. It was having a real companion on the way.

Fun in the mountains

Fun in the mountains

She was always my husband’s dog really. I took an “Animal Communicator” course just to see what might be possible and another participant in the course who tried to contact her said that she asked Alja who her favorite playmate was and she saw “some guy,” she said and seemed upset. She expected another dog. But I knew that Alja’s favorite playmate was my husband. He would lay on the floor and she would try to get the ball away from him. She never tired of that game.

But she and I had a special relationship. In the house, I always talked to her like she would understand. Somehow it felt like she did. People say that dogs don’t understand. That they just hear blah, blah, blah, treat! blah, blah, blah, walk! But that’s not how it felt to me with her. She seemed to know and sympathize.

Two and a half years ago she started to get sick and my life went on hold. The doctor had an idea what was making her sick but he wasn’t really sure so we tried lots of things. She would get better for awhile and then it would be worse again. So we would try something else. She lost muscle mass, she became incontinent. We tried something else. That really didn’t work either and she became blind. And the loss of muscle mass accelerated.

Monkey Dog

Monkey Dog

Three weeks ago, I stayed home with her while my husband went sailing to get his sailing certificate. We had planned to put her in a pension and I would go with him but she was just too fragile to give to anyone else. We had the feeling she wouldn’t live out the week. And I was tested for the first time in my life. My whole day was wrapped around her, getting her out to pee every two hours all through the day and night, getting her food, making sure she was ok. The bond between us deepened in a way I can’t really describe. And her condition improved at least some. We started to hope that she was getting better.

Then last Friday when I was already in bed, she started bleeding from the nose and it wouldn’t stop. She was hemorrhaging. We have a very kind vet who came over at midnight and he said he believed the bleeding would not stop. It was too thin, not showing any signs of clotting and that she would probably bleed to death. So we helped her go. We held her in our arms as she took her last breath.
My house is empty and my heart is broken.

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Alja at her favorite pasttime - Play!

Dogs in my Life – Part 2 / Dog 3

Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.
― Mark Twain

When we put Weia down, I thought I would never want another dog. She was so special, so much a part of us. But after you have lived with a dog in the house it is hard to live without one and so after about a month, I started looking in the internet for dogs to save. This time however, Wolfgang insisted on getting a puppy, so we found a breeder where the mother dog looked a lot like Weia – there is quite a range of looks in the Kuvasz breed – and we asked if we could be considered for a puppy. Interestingly, because it was the first litter, the breeder wasn’t sure that there would be enough puppies to give out. Usually the first litter is quite small. But “Devina” had 11 puppies in her first litter and after they were about a month old we went and picked one out.

Honestly, I would have taken them all home. Puppies are so cute as they stumble around and snort. I wanted a boy dog but Wolfgang insisted that we get a girl dog. Male Kuvasz dogs can get to over 100 lbs and there was reason to believe that I wouldn’t be able to control him so I agreed. We chose one little puffball called “Antares”, which is also the name of a star. It was very important to the breeder that we got to know the dogs before we picked them up – and also I think that they got to know us, they were very conscientious about making sure that the people who got their dogs would take good care of them -so we came a few times before we took her home and every visit with the whole bunch was a joy.

Alja all tired out - 10 weeks old (Note the rubber chicken under her head)

Alja all tired out – 10 weeks old

At the time we got Alja (pronounced AL-ee-ah and means “the Sublime”- we renamed her when we got home, Antares was a man), there was a lot of press about a polar bear cub that had been born in the zoo and we felt like we had our own little polar bear. Her fur is thick and bushy and her black-rimmed brown eyes look black from a distance and the black nose. Her paws were unbelievably soft in the beginning and wide and flat like a bear’s. She loved to play – not typical of the breed – and she was always so excited to see us and everyone else. It was always so cute, at least when she still weighed under 20 lbs.

But she grew up of course. She now weighs around 80 lbs and she still tries to jump up on us and on other people when they come, something we have never been able to cure. We were hoping that she would be different than Weia and get along with other dogs. To achieve that, we have tried to bring her together with other dogs as often as possible. We also take her regularly to a “day pension” for dogs so that she can have time with other dogs and get worn out from playing and we have never had a complaint there. But at home, if another dog walks by even if it is 100 yards away, all hell breaks loose. People who see it are shocked. She is so sweet with people and so aggressive with most dogs. We get lots of tips about what we should do to fix that.

The thing is with Alja nothing has seemed to work. Since she was a puppy, we have taken her to dog trainers. I have watched several Cesar Millan DVDs, I have read several of his books. I have read books about click training, about how to deal with a dominant aggressive dog. We had a private dog trainer who worked with us and Alja for six weeks. When it came to dealing with the aggression, she was shocked and helpless. We paid for two sessions with an expensive certified dog trainer and when she was there, Alja was perfect. The minute she left it was back to ground zero again. As sweet as she is in our four walls, when she gets outside and there are potential dangers to be seen or to be smelled or even to be imagined, she goes berserk. Kuvasz are very territorial and bread to be watch dogs and on top of that Alja is exceptionally “awake” for a dog. When a plane flies over, she stops and watches it go. At every wildlife track in the woods, you can see her go on alert and check it all out. As a result, we also have to really be on the alert. It can sometimes be very tiring.

Tired kids.

Tired kids.

That all being said, she is still a joy. Her fur is soft life silk velvet and she loves to be cuddled for hours. Alja is a young soul, unlike Weia who was so quiet and peaceful. Alja is full of bounding energy and is still like she was as a puppy, ready to play at the smallest opportunity. I defy anyone to resist her when she stands with her blanket in her mouth and looks at you with those big button eyes. She trusts us completely – at least in the house – you can do anything to her and she doesn’t complain. And when I come home after a whole day of teaching, even at 5 years old she still jumps for joy like I have been gone for ages. She is a wonderful energy in the house and we both adore her. We will do everything in our power to give her a long, healthy and happy life.

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Weia in her favorite cuddle pose

Dogs in my life – Part 1 / Dogs 1 and 2

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.
― Milan Kundera

When I was a kid we had a German Schauzer named “Whiskers” and if you know the breed and you know how they are clipped you’ll know why. He was a little dog but he was full of spunk and stronger than an ox. He used to drag us all down the street. He was really my mom’s dog, although she wasn’t particularly fond of dogs in the first place. But we all loved him and cried when he died.

For a long time, I couldn’t have a dog. Too busy, too much moving, living in an apartment, never at home. But when my husband and I moved into a house in the country together, suddenly my desire to have a dog got really strong. I talked to Wolfgang about it and he said, “It will cost too much”, and I said, “If it’s too expensive, I will pay for everything”. He said, “We don’t have time, we’ll be tied down…” and my response was to cry and that did the trick!

I wanted to rescue a dog and so we went to animal shelters in the area. This was shortly after the law in Germany changed and you had to pay more tax to own a pitbull – yes in Germany you pay taxes on owning a dog although not on cats – and the shelter mostly had pitbulls and that kind of breed. I have nothing against terriers, etc. but I prefer long-haired dogs. There was one cute German Shepherd mix but the woman in the shelter said that we couldn’t possibly let him from the leash and that was something Wolfgang was determined to be able to do with his dog.

So we went to another animal shelter and there they didn’t seem to want to get rid of any dogs. With every dog that we named to the woman in charge, she came up with some reason why that dog couldn’t be placed. With one dog, she said it was sick and when we asked if they would call us when they knew that is was going to be ok, she said no. And when we asked if we could call to find out, she said no. We decided to try another place.

At the third shelter, they were very strict about people getting near the dogs so we had to be led around the place in a group of 6 to look at the dogs. When we finally got to the cages holding the dogs, there was one large, shining, white dog who seemed to be looking directly at us and calling to us. We weren’t allowed to get next to the cages so we could only stand several feet away and look at this beautiful creature from a distance. At the end of the tour, we were asked if we had an interest in any dog and we said we would be interested in the white one. Suddenly it was ok to get really close. Wolfgang left his ID and we took the dog for a walk.

She was big and had unbelievably soft curly fur. Her name was “Halina” at the time, a Polish name. She was so incredibly sweet, she came when we called and we fell in love immediately. We went back to the shelter and it turned out that we couldn’t take her with. I had assumed we would just pay the money and get to take her home. They told us that they would need to check our living situation before they could give her to us, which actually seemed very responsible especially because she had been returned twice already. We asked how long it would take to get an appointment and they said two weeks. I was shocked. We begged them to come earlier and they finally gave in and made an appointment within the week. That appointment only lasted 5 minutes and the next day we picked her up. We changed her name to “Weia” (pronounced like Vaya) because I was singing the Ring at the time and the song of the Rhein maidens “Weialaia, laia la laia” was ringing in my ears. It didn’t really matter, she didn’t listen to her name anyway.

She became Wolfgang’s dog. After all my drama about wanting a dog, she was much more attached to him than to me. It turned out that she was already four years old and a pure bread Kuvasz, a Hungarian herd protection dog. Her instincts told her to protect us, protect the house from any danger. We lived where sheep grazed in the field and her instincts told her that those sheep were meant to be kept in a group and so she would run towards the sheep, not realizing that they were protected by an electric fence. One time she misjudged her speed and touched her nose on the fence by accident. It took us weeks to convince her to walk that way again. She thought it was too dangerous!

She was herself somewhat dangerous. After paying a few Vet bills, we decided that we couldn’t allow her from the leash except when we were absolutely sure there was no other dogs around. She also had a knack for catching hedge hogs, grabbing them on the neck, shaking them and throwing them away. Her mouth would be full of spines but she wouldn’t stop. We tried to keep her from it but she would always find them before we saw them. Unfortunately, hedge hogs are a protected species in Germany and we had to cover up her killing as best we could.

Weia on the Dunes of Denmark

Weia on the Dunes of Denmark

She was unbelievable sweet with people though. Everybody loved Weia and she went everywhere with us. She radiated a kind of peace and love that drew people to her. Everywhere we went, people wanted to take a picture of our dog. She was always the star. Once we left her with a colleague outside of Notre Dame in Paris so we could go inside. When we came out, he was furious because more people seemed to want to take a picture of our dog than of Notre Dame. When I taught, she lay under the table in my studio all day long. I think she must have been a little deaf. When a tenor friend came to coach with Wolfgang – she especially loved men – she rolled herself around his feet and stared up at him most of the time he was singing. We used to joke that the only reason a Polish orchestra hired Wolfgang to conduct was because they all loved the dog so much. When we were there, she had free reign of all the orchestra offices backstage.

She lived till she was over 14, a “Methuselah” age for a large dog according to our Vet. In the end she had cancer in a front leg which couldn’t be operated because her back legs were weak from a nerve problem in her back. The doctor convinced us to “put her down”, something I regret doing. At the time, it seemed like what we had to do. The Vet was kind enough to come to our house, which is not usual in Germany . I asked him to because she had always been so petrified of the Vet’s office and I didn’t want her to be afraid at the end. We both held her as she drew her last breath.

I was devastated. I thought I didn’t want a dog again for a really long time. But the heart is unbelievably elastic. After only a couple months I was looking in the internet for dogs. But that is another story.

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