The Best Insurance for Not-Being-Left-Alone

Have I mentioned the reason why we two old geezers have a formidable German Shepherd Dog rather than a mellow Lab or transcendent poodle?

After Gene died, I had the company of our German Shepherd, Lady, a gift when she was a puppy from our son David. With noble Lady present—from running free on an acre she sweetly acclimated herself to our studio apartment–I never felt lonely. Not for eight years not for one moment. When Lady died in my arms on a Monday, after researching which dog would be best for our circumstances, Friday from Bichons and Buddies I brought home Cakes, a year-old bichon-poodle found wandering on the streets of downtown L.A. without a collar, without identification. Cakes was so intelligent, so adorable, the void Lady left was filled instantly.

Point being, when one is alone, it’s best not to stay alone, but to share one’s life. And in my long experience, a dog is ideal for filling the void, for sharing.

Perhaps this is the place where I might mention that were it not for the dogs in my life, I would not be the whole sound effervescent I-Love-Life-Sylvia. As an only child with parents who loved me dearly but did not, shall we say, figure me in their daily lives, for company I had the maid and the dog. The maid was usually kind, sometimes even fun (oh that Abby!). But my dog made me whole. Growing up there were boxers, first Benny Leonard then Gentleman Jim Corbett—Corbett was my best bud through my sophomore year in college. That’s why I bonded so with Lady—she came after boxer Cassius Clay who came after our black Lab Sam Sam the Baker’s Man. When I faced difficult times, I wept into Sam’s, Cassius’s, Lady’s soft shoulder, was mutely but deeply comforted.

And that’s why since the odds are good that one of us will leave the other—unless Bill and I are simultaneously hit by a truck, which of course I would prefer—I convinced Bill that we should get a German Shepherd for Not-Being-Left-Alone Insurance. What about Cakes? In his previous life Bill had Juno, a beloved Alaskan malamute, so he confessed he’d like a similarly substantial creature.

When word of our intention got out, we were bombarded with, “You guys can’t have a German Shepherd! That’s madness! You’re too old!  They’re too big! Your house is too small! There’s no space in your garden for a dog like that to run!” Well-intentioned, of course…

Where to find one?

I had a friend in Connecticut whose family loved their Scout, a handsome GSD (German Shepherd Dog), and he suggested I call Scout’s breeder. Fortuitously, she had puppies in the oven…due out late January. We reserved a female, and for the next months I drove the poor woman crazy with notes and calls reminding her we needed the most affectionate puppy. Barbara was very patient with me, and a week or so after the puppies arrived on this earth, she called.

“I’ve chosen your puppy for you. She’s very loving—she climbs up on my lap every chance she gets. And she has a white chin.” “I don’t want a dog with a white chin,” said Bill. I knew Bill would love a white chin when it came attached to a marvelous puppy.

We looked at hundreds of German girl’s names, chose Uschi (Ooshee), a diminutive for Ursula, which means Little Bear. Which she is.

Now we decided we should take under consideration the racket about not enough space for her to run. Our back garden is standard tract-house size, I imagined Lady in it running back and forth. Yes, sadly, our kitchen garden of seven three-foot-tall redwood boxes had to come out. A landscaper did that (I couldn’t watch) then laid flagstones, connected them with creeping thyme. Moved the graceful Italian bird bath and two tall wrought iron poles holding bird feeders close to the old Meyer Lemon tree so Uschi wouldn’t crash into them when racing.

When she was eight weeks old, Uschi was flown to us. Till the end of my days I will remember standing in the freight-claim section at the San Jose airport impatiently waiting for her, when from a distance I heard frantic high-pitched screaming wailing crying yelling barking sounds of distress—was that our puppy?—it came closer and closer–lordy was she all right?

We released Uschi from the airline’s crate—she was gorgeous, bright brown eyes, little white chin, gave abundant kisses—Bill wrapped her in the blanket we’d brought and he held her on his lap as I drove us home to Santa Cruz.

When Uschi met Cakes, they were both fifteen pounds. Cakes—who sadly hadn’t been socialized as a puppy—was never interested in other dogs, royally ignored her. Uschi instantly recognized Cakes as Top Dog and scooted away. Détente lasted as Uschi grew larger and more territorial…she was mostly with Dad and Cakes was mostly with me in my study curled up on her silk cushion. Bill walked Uschi, I walked Cakes–or vice versa. When she was eleven, of a sudden my beloved rescue dog who rescued me fell irretrievably ill, went to Heaven. I sprinkled ashes of little white Cakes around the white Blanc Double de Coubert rugosa rose in our front garden…our artist friend Nan Wollman created a white porcelain marker for her. I greet Cakes every morning. (Lady is now an element in the cork oak we planted by Papa’s grave. I am grateful for aspects of immortality in roses and acorns.)

We immediately enrolled Uschi in puppy classes. At the first class we were told discipline was achieved through pocketfuls of treats. There were a few exercises, lots of treats, but at the end of the second class, rambunctious Uschi was expelled, and we were happy to go. Pocketsful of treats weren’t working. We apprehensively took her to a school famous for strict training of GSDs. Uschi loved it, we loved it, every Saturday morning for a year and a half we made the two-hour round trip to Watsonville, all three of us in training. Uschi had just been promoted to the top class when COVID hit and classes were canceled. Bill and I had learned the essentials and practiced them with her. Sometimes still do. Uschi will readily Come, Sit, Down, Heel, and Wait…Stay is a sometime thing.

But, affectionate to a fault, Uschi loves people, jumps up on them to greet them, all eighty-eight pounds of her. We asked a grandson who is a Dog Whisperer to work on it with her…

Uschi is so intelligent, so eager to please, but inconsistent about boundaries. Cakes, for example, finding the front door open, would take off, run down the street. Uschi might stroll out as far as our parked car in the driveway, but has never run further. That’s comforting as occasionally there are cars on our street. But indoors, she still naughtily cadges things from a tabletop or counter. Our kitchen is an L off the dining area, and she likes to amble in and help herself to anything she can reach. Once it was a whole chicken. “Out!” I yell at her, and she gives me one of her soulful “It’s just me, Mom, no worries” looks, maybe turns and does go out. But when I forget to put a chair to block the passageway to the kitchen…

For example, Wednesday was her FIFTH birthday. We were so excited. After breakfast, Bill and I went to the gym as usual–to our surprise and appreciation, Uschi’s been perfectly behaved when left alone even for several hours. After gym I brought Bill home and went off to market for the birthday celebration. Bill settled in his accustomed corner of the sofa listening to a book while Uschi lay nearby on the carpet. For a present, we’d given her a monster chewie—two feet long—and Bill heard her chomping, assumed it was the chewie. (My husband has macular degeneration, his vision is blurry.) When I came home, it was a couple of minutes before I noticed an object on the carpet very orange and very black.

“Oh no! Oh my heavens! Oh Bill!” Tillamook Special Reserve Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese is very orange, its wrapper very black. I’d opened a new two-pound brick for breakfast and obviously neglected to put it back in the fridge. Also forgot to push a chair to block the kitchen passageway. Big tooth marks in the middle of the brick—the cheese was half-gone. I told The Birthday Girl she was a Very Bad Dog, was so angry at her. Not just angry, but bitterly disappointed. Just a few days before I’d mentioned to Bill that Uschi hadn’t taken anything off a counter or table for some time…maybe she was past that. Ha.

But here’s an example of why we adore her. Monday, Bill was at the dentist. I planned to pick him up at noon. Around eleven o’clock, I was at the kitchen table when, nattering to Uschi, I said, “We’ll go pick up Dad pretty soon.” Then I opened the door to the garden so she could go out and went into my study. Ten minutes later, Uschi came to my study door, pushed it open with her nose, gave a sharp bark. That’s her signal that she wants to go outside, but I didn’t need to open the garden door so I didn’t respond. She stood studying me, then went away. Ten minutes later she came back to my door and again barked sharply once. Suddenly I made the connection: I’d said the word “Dad” and she expected to get him. She knows “Dad” because when he has a Zoom gathering, I say to her, “Go be with Dad,” and she ambles into his study and lies down…it’s nice for him to have her company, it’s nice for her to have his. Two more times in the next twenty minutes Uschi came to my study and gave me a noodge—“Come on, Mom—you said we’d get Dad!” Uschi loves being in the car…although when we pull into a parking lot she cries because she hates being alone having to wait for us.

I’d never realized, never imagined, that a dog could hold an idea in its head, could think about something coming in the future. But now that I think of it, at night Uschi follows commands that are anticipatory. After supper when we say, “Movie time,” she trots down the hall to our bedroom where we have the monster television and jumps up on our bed, stretches out…she knows we’ll be sitting on the sofa in front of the bed. When we say, “Bedtime,” she trots down the hall, jumps up on her elevated dog bed and makes herself comfortable—never on our bed because she knows we’ll be getting in it and there won’t be space for her to stretch out—she is looong. Now that I think of it, “movie” and “bed” are as anticipatory as “Dad.” And, now also that I think of it, when she sees she’s in a parking lot she anticipates she may be left alone. Marvelous.

Is she as affectionate as we hoped? Clearly she’s Daddy’s Girl. Dad walks her every morning, she spends most of her time near him, he gives her many more treats than I do, and she traipses around the house following after him. But when I’ve been out of the house for a bit, when I arrive, Uschi is at the front door, presses close to greet me. I’m the one that feeds her and until I fractured my knee I walked her a mile along the ocean every day (breaks my heart, a painful loss for me, I’ve been told I must not walk her any more, she’s just too big and I’m too absent-minded). She shows me her love in a dear way. When we’re walking down our narrow hall together, she’s always in front, she’ll stop and turn around to make sure I’m coming—the shepherd instinct—then she’ll lean back and press against me with her whole eighty-eight pounds. Then she may take my right hand in her mouth and feint a love bite—when she was a puppy, she gave me many true love bites, had to disabuse her of that habit. Interesting to me that she doesn’t press against Dad…it’s a Mommy thing.

A happy thought these days is that the makings of three cedar raised beds for growing vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers have arrived from Oregon. I’m pleased with myself after five years of not being able to grow anything in the back, suddenly one morning it struck me that if the boxes are only two-feet wide running the width of the garden, Uschi will still have room to run. Which she does—she races top speed from one end of the garden to the other, around and around the course…a beautiful sight.

Three raised beds and how they’ll grow are, I hope, my next book. All thanks to Uschi.

And, yes, to my joy, Bill has told me that if I go first, Uschi will be a great comfort to him.

He just must remember to put away the cheese.

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