Happy Birthday to my Heidi! Yes, I’m late in wishing my girl a happy fifth birthday; the actual anniversary date of her birth was last November 28, but that same day my right lung collapsed and I was carted off to the hospital for surgery. Recovering at home now, I’d like to make amends by bringing you up to date on how our turbulent love affair turned out. Some of you may remember that I began this blog some years ago with an account of our stormy romance. Well, for those who weren’t tuned in then, I’m going to retell the tale here, and next week publish the sequel, an candid tell-all update on how our torrid and unlikely romance has passed the test of time.
MORIARTY AND ME
What Happens when an Ailing Geezer Takes in an Abused and Testy Rescue Pup and Tries To Tame Her? Love and Mayhem.
It’s never too late to fall in love, and suffer the consequences.
I’m talking dogs here. Yes, I love them as a species. Most of them love me. On the other hand, my wife of 33 years loves all animals, preferably rescued, and all animals love her. No surprise then that Timarie assembled early in our marriage a rotating complement of a rescued dog (presently a sweet six-year old Golden Retriever named Gypsy), a rescued cat (currently a 14-year-old, 12-pound, tough tabby named Marie) and a purchased canary (called Zorro for the black mask that covers the front of his canary yellow head). Most pet lovers would say three’s enough.
But on a fateful day this February we added another rescue, a nine-week-old puppy (cruelly taken from her nursing mother at three weeks) that my wife agreed to have over for a viewing, a neglected and reputedly abused blonde of alleged Lab ancestry who came advertised as housebroken.
My defenses were firmly in place. I’m eighty years old and heir to more than a few of the thousand natural shocks that living that long brings, ready or not. So, I squared my shoulders and hardened my heart to say “No-- no way.”
The pup raced into our home like a supercharged blur of vim, vigor and young mammalian exuberance, and just took over in a matter of minutes, proving it by immediately biting and badgering our beloved Gypsy, then trying to mount the eighty-pound matron of the house to let the Golden know who was boss.
On one of the pup’s rushings-by I reached down from my Laz-Y-Boy recliner (referred to in the family as the “Geezer Throne”) and grabbed her...a ball of the softest blond fur I ever felt, stretched taut over ten pounds of nothing-but-bones. I melted. Yes, she had been starved. Suffered. Survived. And look at her now! I was smitten.
My wife suggested we think about it overnight. I said that was unnecessary. We had a place for her. More putty-hearted than I, Timarie caved. “Very well, and we’ll call her Heidi,” she said, the decider in such matters. Heidi.... Well, she was a girl. Wavy blond hair. Might have come down from the wilds of the Swiss Alps. OK, Heidi it is.
We soon learned Heidi was not as housebroken as advertised; we also found she was addicted to serial acts of coprophagia. More important, and, probably as a defense from ill-treatment received, she had an aggressive streak in her strange for a Lab, with a need to bite the proffered hand...even our rescuing hands. That still seemed strange to me, a previous owner of two Labs, who knew and appreciated them for their kind dispositions. Then there were those honey–colored waves of hair down her back that resembled Gypsy’s distinctive coat. And what about Heidi’s wolf-like snout? Where did that come from?
Yes, we knew the pup was teething, and my wife went right out and bought a surplus of plastic chew-toys to cope. Wasted expense. Heidi gave them a cursory chomping, then went for bigger, more important game that initially included Gentle Gypsy’s trove of stuffed animals; they were routinely eviscerated by the newcomer, the floor of the room where the atrocity took place covered with a fresh snowfall of cotton and kapok...and an occasional plastic eye (its mate presumably swallowed) staring up at you.
Sensing an advantage, she used normal dog-play to bully early passive Gypsy into submission, chiefly by constant chewing on her vulnerable ears; she tried the same rough approach on the cat, but old battle-scarred Marie countered quickly with a wicked right cross that tore a gash under the pup’s left eye, drawing blood and a first yelp of pain from this embodiment of a panzer division invading Denmark. Heidi showed her smarts immediately by backing off and giving the cat an extra-wide berth, moving gingerly around the diminutive feline; Marie mirrored that intelligence, not pressing her momentary advantage, sensing perhaps that in two months this impudent little canine would double her height and quadruple her weight.
Timarie and I watched in awe Heidi’s appetite expand daily from puppy pellets to broken glass, splinters of plastic, rubber bands, sticks, rocks, paper, scissors (thankfully un-swallowed...but a game there?), bananas, one of kind family photos, but above all, almost daily, pens. Chewed up and spat out in small pieces right in the writer’s sight. Was this getting personal?
This biting-chewing bender was interrupted big time three weeks to the day she joined us. Timarie had advised treating her gently to control her aggressiveness, and on this early evening I was trying to play with her, gentrify her, when she bit my mildly teasing right hand with her needle-sharp milk teeth. I’m on blood thinners. A red rivulet ran down my index finger. I thrust again. She bit again. Drew blood again. Instinctively, I drew back my right hand and extended my left to ward her off, just as she lunged a third time. Her mouth closed on my fingers, then she fell back, onto her back, gasping. Was she all right? Seemed so. It took me a minute or two to notice that my wedding ring was missing. Oh, no! Had she swallowed it?
A frantic trip to the vet next morning for an x-ray showed in her stomach, slightly to the right of her little spine, my clunky, square, industrial-sized wedding band.
What to do? “Little dog, big ring,” the vet said. “She can’t pass it.” And....? That meant abdominal surgery. Surgery? Yes, as soon as possible, so the gold’s weight would not further bruise her stomach. We scheduled it for eight o’clock the next morning.
I went to bed that night trying to guess the cost of the cutting: Fifteen hundred dollars? Two thousand? Where would we get it? I fell asleep without an answer. Then, just after two a.m. my wife and I were awakened by the sound of retching. Lights on, we found a trembling little fawn-colored puppy standing in a small pool of barf...a big, square ring resting smack dab in the midst of the upchuck.
We rejoiced, but prematurely. Surgery might no longer be required. But her stomach had been damaged by the heavy ring.....Which meant? She had to put on an expensive special diet, and her healing progress had to be monitored with continual checks on the amount of blood in her stool. A small price to pay, we thought at the time.
It was a tribute to hardy Heidi’s genes and my wife’s loving care that the dog was restored to robust health in ten days—just in time for her to take her “welcome-back-Heidi” cover of goodwill to launch in earnest her spring offensive. Misdemeanors now climbed to high crimes, which included chewing to bits my wallet, my wife’s prized silk scarf, the DIRECTV channel changer, and my Visa card (a drastic means of budget control this child of the Great Depression does not need) in a mere two days.
“We got to get rid of her!” I muttered one afternoon later as she ran from me into the back yard with a carving knife in her mouth. My wife was within earshot. Had she heard me? Was she also wavering? I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
The biting had been bad enough. But now she added stealing, skillful and unrelenting, to her rap sheet. Turn my head to sip a beer and a piece of pizza vanished from my lap. A roasted chicken breast on the kitchen counter beyond yesterday’s reach was within the compass of today’s stretch...and gone. All you would see was her little blond rump, long bushy tail curled up, bouncing jauntily as she made an unhurried escape in an athletic trot. She didn’t look like any Lab I ever saw.
If I witnessed the crime and chased her...it was in vain. She knew at once I couldn’t keep up and would turn to shake the stolen article in her mouth (up to and including the weight of my Mac keyboard) at me, while wagging her tail. To give back and make up? No, to taunt me, and rub-in her superiority as she loped farther off.
At first, I tried retrieving those pilfered objects by throwing her favorite squeaky ball within her reach, to get her to drop her loot. She bought into that ploy just twice. The third time, when she had run off with my computer mouse, she ignored the tossed toy with an “is-that-all-you’ve-got” look back. I knew then the game had been raised to a level beyond my abilities to compete. She stared me down with a clear, cold message in her unblinking eyes: Catch me if you can, old lame one, you with your spinal stenosis and plastic/titanium knees.
I admit this hesitantly, but honestly. Though I lean to the skeptical side in my belief system, from the first I began thinking her crimes and the animus behind them were aimed at me, personally. Certainly the evidence was there. My cane got chewed up. Ditto for my plastic pill containers that hold my morning (11) and evening (7) medications. She even chewed through the connecting cord to my Schwinn Recumbent Bike that is supposed to keep this cardio patient alive through daily at-home exercise. (The only link in my at-home life-support network not savaged—at least to this moment--is my bedside CPAP machine, which I have seen her eye as an item of interest; I daily thank whatever gods there be that she hasn’t learned, as yet anyhow, how to turn a doorknob.)
Back to my hesitancy and honesty. Though I could admire her crafty smarts and athletic skills, after the disabling of my recumbent bike I screamed at her loud enough for neighbors a half-block off to hear: “You sadistic bitch!”
Almost immediately I felt ashamed. What kind of behavior was that? Yelling at a dumb animal. Well, an animal. And, really, how could dogs be sadistic? Or bipolar, as had also crossed my mind? Schizophrenic? Or all of the above? Well, think about it for a moment, as I did; their kind has hung out with our kind-- their “best friends”-- going way back to Neanderthal times. Maybe before. Why not?
Such useless speculation aside, it was time for a name change. Heidi had defaulted on her namesake of a Swiss Alps sweetheart beloved the world over for quite a different character of fictional origin: Moriarty . Yes, Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, the master criminal, the Napoleon of Crime.
I am no Holmes, nor was meant to be. I’m not even much of a Doctor Watson, but one that will swell a progress...an easy tool. That confessed, I decided there and then to find out who my tormentor really was...this hound from hell... or just the Baskervilles...whatever. I would do that scientifically, by sending away the pup’s saliva to a laboratory that tests a dog’s DNA and tells you what you really have. If, as my wife and I had long since doubted, that the dog could have any origins in Labrador, then where did she come from? We would learn the truth.
One April day the mayhem suddenly stopped. Moriarty became listless, moving lethargically about the public rooms, dropping into a corner, then rising to find another, collapsing again, her belly heaving, too weary to even look me in the eye. She was sick, suffering. And so was I. Something she ate no doubt...maybe some chocolate...residue from a cookie, or a purloined avocado, or a few grapes or raisins, or something else that’s supposed to be toxic to them. Given her risky life style, there was no way of knowing what.
My wife gave me a probing look. “You’re really worried about her, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, the truth forcing its way out. The ease of the admission surprised even me.
For a day the pup suffered thus. Then she bounced just as suddenly back, all the spunk and sass intact. I felt relieved. More than a little. Why? Well, I thought I was making some progress with her, taming her, seeing the aggression flag some and her tail wag more than it had. Increasingly, I was getting more loving licks than nasty nips. (And if the truth be told, she has never yet bit me when I kiss her on the lips.)
Another reason to celebrate her recovery was that she had reached a milestone in a local dog’s life. Her forced confinement was over; all her shots were done and the danger of parvo passed; now our new family addition could make her social debut on a mile-long stretch of California costal perfection, on the north end of Surf City (aka Huntington Beach), where the combers come crashing in on dogs of all breeds, creeds and colors, on leash and off, accompanied by masters and mistresses of equally wide variety, united only by the plastic collecting bags they all carry.
Our extended family picked a perfect, surfs-up sunny day in the seventies to introduce Moriarity to Dog Beach, as it properly called locally, the happiest place on earth for dogs and dog-lovers to my mind. And while the others took her and Gypsy to the ocean’s edge for that baptism in origins, I plopped myself down into a beach chair on the sand to see our cocksure Miss Mischief make her first public appearance. So many questions to be answered... Would she like the salt of the sea? Would she make friends? Would she pick a fight? Hold her own? Would she shrink and cower? Squat and pee? Whatever her pedigree turned out to be, I knew she was no lapdog, but born to run this sunlit surf-line as fast and far as her young and eager muscles could take her.
I watched. Moriarity hugged Gypsy’s sheltering flank for the first minute-or- two-trot up the strand, her blond ears laid back and tail drooping, a sign she was unsure of herself but open to anything as she got her first look at her kinfolks, who came in all sizes, shapes and temperaments. Then she suddenly bolted from the Golden’s protective bulk into the glorious middle of the Dog Beach Mixer. She charged, dodged, bobbed and weaved, and just plain immersed herself in this fest of happy dogs sniffing out each other’s identity, with little friction and a lot of tail wagging. I’m tempted to the say the breeds ranged from A to Z, but would have to amend it to B through W, because I did see her schmoozing with a Boxer and a Weimaraner.
Questions answered. She could hold her own in dogdom and she loved the ocean.
And then the tide turned. A cocky Welsh Corgi spotted her and decided she had my pup’s number. She did. Moriarty panicked when the squat brown, black and white blur closed on her menacingly. Fear I had never seen flashed across her face as she raced across the sand to...me! Into my arms. My arms! I hugged her to reassure her before she suddenly broke free and rushed back toward the sea. Not fast enough. The Corgi, bred to the art of herding, cut her off. But the ever-resourceful Moriarty cut a sharp left and U-turned back into my arms again. I felt a rush. Her patsy had become her protector! I felt honored.
Tireless as the pup she was, Moriarty extricated herself once again and swiftly made a third run for the surf--and made it ahead of the Corgi this time. Then a most amazing thing happened. My dog looked back at her adversary and started prancing laterally back and forth in the eighteen-inch-deep surf, daring the dwarf-legged Corgi to come and get her. I read her thought bubble: “Thalassophobic, Shorty? Come in, the water’s fine.” She was taunting her tormentor with the flair she had perfected on me; in football that would draw a fifteen-yard penalty.
Her triumph capped our action-packed two hours on the beach, and the entire family went home tired and happy--she to a deep and deserved field-dog’s sleep, me feeling like my affection offensive was paying off. After all, I was now her last refuge, and that had to bring me some perks. I had also lately noticed that her acts of mischief and meanness were diminishing.
Not so fast, Mr. Hopeful! Two days later, while I was off to cardio gym, Moriarty went on another manic tear, found a breach in the security that denied two rooms’ access to her, where she proceeded to chew up my last check book, my replacement wallet and the three twenty dollar bills therein, not to mention the new channel changer, and the remnants of the rubber pedals on my recumbent bike.
All of which prompted another day of rage. After all I had done, the concessions made to earn her trust...and love! I felt betrayed.
Tomorrow, I resolved, I would go to the bank with my scotch-taped twenties (still missing a few corners) to get them made whole; I would sheepishly call DIRECTV for another replacement tuner for the replacement tuner of two weeks ago; and I would contact the Schwinn people in Seattle to see if there are replacement pedals for my BioDyne model, and if so, what might they cost me? I was depressed.
The next day, I didn’t get all that done. I did go to the bank in the morning where they replaced the torn twenties, but when I returned home at noon I found an e-mail report from Wisdom Panel, the dog DNA testers, with Moriarty’s results: I quickly called Timarie in to join me in this moment of revelation. And the verdict on the computer screen was:
HEIDI IS A GERMAN SHEPHERD/WHITE SWISS SHEPHERD
GOLDEN RETRIEVER MIX
The detailed results that followed fascinated us the way adoptive parents might look for the first time into their ward’s biological family’s past. On her father’s side she was half German Shepherd and half White Swiss Shepherd—an Alpine offshoot of the German Shepherd dog, also called the Berger Blanc Suisse in French and the eishund in German, recognized as a separate breed since1968. Her mother’s father was the Golden Retriever in the family tree, who mated beneath his station with a “mixed” breed that got “mixed” so far back that no single breed could be identified for sure. There were, however, “signals” detected that suggested she could be part, in descending order of probability, Boykin Spaniel, Miniature Poodle, Pekinese, Schipperke and Norwegian Lundehund. (I’d never heard of a couple of them.)
We were left with wonder at this DNA dice throw of gene-jumping, chromosomal crossover and recombination that makes us all one of a kind. In Heidi Moriarty’s toss, the German Shepherd contribution seemed entirely absent, save for a few stray black hairs on her face; no black or brown “mask” or “saddle” showing, as is so common with them. Rather, in appearance, she seemed to us a near-fifty-fifty split between White Swiss Shepherd and Golden Retriever...except for that wolfish face of hers.
So we had been both right and wrong in our suspicions. Right that Heidi had no roots in Labrador, and that she was at least in part Golden Retriever; but the White Swiss Shepherd and German Shepherd results came as a total surprise. That sent us to immediately Google-up the traits of those closely related shepherd strains: “Intelligent (check); Courageous (seemed so); Alert (to be sure); Spirited (to a fault), Obedient (not yet); Aloof (in spades!), Vocal (yes, ranging from a woof to a whimper). Courtesy of Gypsy, we were already familiar with the Golden Retriever’s Scottish heritage as a field dog with its easy-going, family-friendly ways.
Our hope was that strain would soften some those rambunctious shepherd genes.
“You were right on with the name Heidi and the Swiss connection, ” I said to my wife. I had already decided to keep it as her first name. But I would hang on to Moriarty as a surname...until she outgrew it...if ever.
Reading the Wisdom Panel report in detail had softened me. So she was what she was, herself alone, as I am what I am, as we all are—in my case a human driven by nature to draw conclusions: They were? Knowledge usually leads to understanding. Understanding almost always leads to tolerance, then to acceptance. Then, if it’s right, to love itself...surely among us mammals.
That night Heidi climbed up onto our bed between us, nuzzled us both without delivering a single nip, then fell quickly asleep, the deep kind that comes with youth and innocence, at her beautiful best, her long, lean body stretched out in all its functional athleticism, her pied coat glowing in plaited swaths of Swiss cream and Scotch butter. “You know,” my wife said, “if we had lost her, I’d have to have another dog.”
Wow! So my fate was sealed. It was till death do us part then, and I was reasonably sure whose demise that would be. You might ask, as I have myself, many times, was it wise at my age and state of health to try a new love? The answer is “no.” Did I make a mistake and reach too far? Yes. Can old men clinging to life and memories of being young not respond any other way? No. As the poet said, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a dog heaven for?
Part 2 to come next week.