Chapter One: A Furry Prince CHAPTER ONE A FURRY PRINCE
The e-mail arrived in my inbox with a subject line that made my heart race: “Good News.”
I had been waiting and hoping for nearly a year for a German shepherd pup from a respected breeder in Ohio. We wanted one of Joan’s puppies. It seemed our wait was finally over.
“We have one gorgeous male,” Joan said in her e-mail to me. But he had to be delivered by C-section, lifted out of his sedated mother’s womb. He was a heavy lump. A litter of one.
I gazed at the photos Joan sent me with the lone male pup’s birth announcement. In one shot he nestled in Joan’s cupped hand. In another he was latched on to one of his mother’s ten teats. Vita looked mournful, lying in the whelping box with one pup suckling.
No wonder he was strong. Inside the womb, he didn’t have to share nourishment with other pups. Outside the womb, he had his choice of milk dispensers.
His head didn’t look gorgeous. His nose looked squashed. His eyes were squinty. But I realized that Joan knew much more about newborn German shepherds than I did. This solitary pup was her twenty-fifth litter.
Photo courtesy of Joan Andreasen-Webb
The newborn pup looked like a mole to me.
The pup wasn’t just handsome and strong, Joan told me. He also had a fine nose. The three of them had been back from the surgical delivery at the vet hospital for only a few hours, but when Joan walked into the room, the pup woke up and bobbled his head.
“His nose was working scent!” Joan wrote.
I read right past that piece of news. I knew what “working scent” meant, and it didn’t interest me. I’d taught my German shepherds to keep their muzzles away from visitors’ legs and crotches.
Dogs recognize each other that way. Most people find it rude.
“No sniff” was a standard command that David and I used in our house. But the house had been empty of German shepherds for nearly a year. Our sweet Zev had died almost a year earlier.
I found the most important news buried a few paragraphs down in Joan’s e-mail: “You have the choice to have our little prince as we see how he develops.” Then she assured me we could discuss any concerns I might have about his being “a singleton.” She—along with her helpful adult shepherds—could help the pup overcome these issues.
Concerns? Absolutely not. David and I had a puppy! I had checked my e-mail every hour for the last week, waiting for news about the litter’s arrival. Humans stay inside their mothers’ wombs on average nine months from conception to birth. For dogs it’s only about two months. But it felt so much longer to me.
Now it was early spring, and the next chapter of our life with dogs could begin. This pup would play a starring role.
I ran to find David, who was working on his logic classes in the study. “Puppy!” I said. He knew what I meant.
Then I flitted around the living room. I landed in front of my computer. My patient husband stood and listened as I read the entire e-mail to him.
I waited for my dizzy joy to ebb before responding to Joan. I wanted to sound like a grown-up. I was supposed to be one. I felt bad for her. All that planning and work and cost and hope. And one lone puppy instead of a squiggling mass of them. Other people who had been waiting for this day like me would be so disappointed.
I knew all of that. I also knew that we had the pup I wanted.
I had fallen in love with Joan’s many German shepherds, and with the idea of this pup, ten months before. Joan lived in Ohio, but she bred and raised shepherds that had a West German family history.
As she weaned the pups from their mother’s milk, she replaced it with goat milk and a raw-meat diet. They had lots of early exposure to woods and creeks, to friendly people and suburban malls, to toys and games—and to her other dogs.
Joan’s adult dogs lay calmly on the sidewalk next to café tables. They attended children’s reading hour at the library, heads planted between their paws, listening. They herded sheep, for fun. Some German shepherds, like border collies, have an innate desire to keep groups of people and animals together and moving in the right direction.
They also excelled in a sport called Schutzhund, a German word that means “protection dog.” I didn’t know much about it, except that the dogs had to bite someone on command. Luckily, that person had a hard protective sleeve on. A couple of Joan’s pups grew up to become police K9s. When I was a newspaper reporter, I once spent the night shift with a patrol K9 and his handler. The dog’s intensity and deep-throated bark startled me.
I didn’t want that kind of German shepherd. This pup would have two jobs when he grew up. I wanted him to lie beneath my desk while I wrote articles and graded student papers, and then leap up and play ball in the yard with me when I wanted a break. If he won awards in the obedience ring, that would be a nice bonus.
I finally stopped daydreaming and looked up the word “singleton” on my computer. In math a singleton is a set with just one element. Most humans are singletons (though some of us are born as twins, or triplets). In dogs “singleton” means exactly the same thing, “a single one.” But with horror stories attached.
The vast majority of puppies have littermates, from three to twelve, or more, depending on the breed. Those littermates exchange thousands of signals daily. That’s part of how they grow and learn. They tumble over one another, squeaking and mewling at first, then, as their baby teeth come in, licking and biting, squealing in pain, licking and wagging in apology. From there a pup might learn to bite a little less hard the second time.
Solo photo by Sherri Clendenin
Litter photo by Diana Bunch
Solo was a singleton. Most pups have littermates who help them learn dog manners.
Litters are adorable, and the puppies’ interactions help each pup become a well-socialized dog. Pups learn to play well with others because they receive instant feedback from their littermates if they don’t. That rough-and-tumble play can help a puppy learn how to deal with a variety of other dogs—the elderly miniature poodle in pain, the next-door neighbor’s rude retriever. That play even prepares dogs for chance encounters with weird people.
As I kept reading, the tales of singletons got darker. A singleton dog lives in a universe of “yes.” A singleton tends to lack “bite inhibition” because he never learns from fellow pups what’s too hard or what hurts. He doesn’t know what a hard bite feels like. At the same time, a singleton can be overly sensitive to touch, even from his human. He’s never had to sleep with a squirming or snoring littermate on top of him, or underneath him.
A singleton is “unable to get out of trouble calmly and graciously.” (Although I wasn’t an only child, I related to that one.) A single pup can have an “inability to handle frustration.” (I related to that one too.)
I stopped reading about the bad and tried to focus on the good. Singleton dogs can sometimes make extraordinary companions, as they can bond closely with their people.
David and I avoided the nightmarish what-ifs that night. We wanted to celebrate. We had named this puppy even before Vita was pregnant with him. Coda means “tail” in Italian. A coda comes at the end of a long musical composition. A coda looks back, reflects, summarizes what came before.
This pup was going to run alongside us in the North Carolina woods near our home, be with us when we had dinner with friends. Sleep in our bedroom.
We were realistic. At least, we told ourselves that we were. Sure, this pup, with his relatives coming from West German lines, was going to have more energy and be tougher than Zev. Gentle Zev had loved lying in the grass, sniffing the flowers and clover.
Photo by Cat Warren
Zev had been mild-mannered, kind, and easy to train.
We had nicknamed Zev “Ferdinand,” after the peaceful Spanish bull who had no interest in fighting in the ring but wanted to chill in the meadow.
And we didn’t plan to upend our lives because of a new puppy. We already had a dog who took a chunk of our time and energy—a beautiful female Irish setter we had adopted from my father several years before. I told David it would be fun, a grand adventure, to adopt a spacey year-old Irish setter and drive across the United States in August with her.
I had lied.
Megan was now four years old, and we no longer fantasized about sending her to a nice farm in the country.
But my feelings about Irish setters hadn’t changed much. When I was a child, they filled our small house in Oregon with their joy, their disobedience, and their uncanny ability to bolt around our legs and out the door.
They would disappear into the fog of the Willamette Valley and end up lost, miles away from our little house on the hill. Always at night.
I grew up with Irish setters. They liked to run. Often far, far away, with us running after them.
Their other sins were small. They loved to jump on guests and sneak onto our beds and easy chairs.
My father loved their moments of mutiny, loved to stroke their silky heads. They distracted him from a grinding work schedule. Their minor mischief-making was his only vacation.
Even as a child, I loved German shepherds. I loved their intelligence and dignity, their heroic acts in books and movies. I loved the way they looked—like wolves. A dog scientist could have told me that Irish setters were as closely related to wolves as German shepherds—and that the German shepherd was created as a breed in 1899. It didn’t matter. I’d had two fine shepherds, Tarn and Zev.
And now, a third.
That night, after I’d finished reading all about singletons and their issues, David and I realized the squashy-faced pup needed a name that suited him better than Coda.
His entry into the world, and his pending entrance into our lives, didn’t feel like a thoughtful summary anymore. David, who loves jazz, renamed him “Solo.”
Solo is also an Italian musical term. It means “alone.”