A Farewell to Laylabelle

Laylabelle in 2019

As you will soon understand, what I write now has been heavily on my mind for more than three months. A week before our arrival in Marquette, we brought Laylabelle, our standard Poodle, into our Knoxville veterinarian for her regular teeth cleaning. The vet removed a small skin tag from her gumline and said he didn’t think it was anything serious but would still send it off to the pathologist.

A week later, we had just moved into our summer digs and Terri was sitting at the kitchen counter when her phone rang. It was our vet calling to tell us that the pathologist found the skin tag to be metastatic melanoma. That meant that Laylabelle’s lifespan would be measured in weeks rather than months or years. He ran through some medical alternatives which included things like removing part of her jaw followed by chemotherapy. But that would not likely add more than a year to her life, and she would be very debilitated for most of that time.

To say the least, we were in a state of shock. After all these years of planning to have a great summer up on Lake Superior, we were looking at watching our beloved animal companion sicken and die. The skin tag that was removed soon turned into a tumor, and Terri kept track as it grew large enough to impair her eating. At that point, we made the decision to have our Marquette veterinarian remove the tumor although he cautioned us that it would return fairly soon, and with greater force. But it did give Laylabelle an additional month of a happy life up here on The Lake. She also got to go to Milwaukee with us and visit the grandkids and Shoshana and Karl’s beautiful dogs, Jazzie and Dottie.

Five weeks after the surgery, Laylabelle’s tumor was back with a vengeance. Now covering two teeth and bleeding. While Laylabelle continued to walk with a spring in her step and shower us with affection, she lost the ability to eat regular dog food. This week, she had trouble eating soft, canned food and things like the scrambled eggs I brought her from our hotel breakfast.

At 4:30pm today, we brought Laylabelle to our Marquette vet and two vets agreed that the time had come. Not only was the tumor inoperable, but in all likelihood the melanoma had spread to other parts of her body. By 4:45pm, our beautiful puppy of eleven years had slipped away from us. In a few days, her ashes will join her older foster-sister Nina de Amor on the coast of The Great Lake.

Nina’s Life

Nina de Amor arrived in our home in a rather haphazard fashion. The story begins with the end of another. Our family dog Caleb passed away rather unexpectedly in the Summer of 2003. Both of our kids were away from home at the time. I sat down at the dinner table and couldn’t help but notice that Terri was unusually quiet throughout. As we picked up the dishes, she said to me, “I think the dog is dead.” I raised my eyebrows at this and replied, “You think?” “Doesn’t a Ph.D. biology allow a little more certainty in a matter such as this?!” She said, “OK, the dog is dead.” I should mention that Caleb had epilepsy and Terri had already literally raised him from the dead about a half dozen times, so his passing at the age of 7 may have been unexpected at that moment, but not surprising nevertheless. But that left us with the decision of how to replace him, because we knew that our then 12 year old son would insist on having a dog.

The added complication was that Terri’s allergies were getting worse, and she was specifically allergic to the dog-dander of fluffy dogs and dogs and oily coats of dogs like Labrador Retrievers–a breed she was quite fond of. Since I worked in IT, my immediate course was to Google it. What came up was a “dog calculator.” In this scheme, you enter the three most important things to you about the dog you want to acquire, and the computer will tell you your optimal breeds. I placed “hypo-allergenic” at the top of our list, and the computer spat out three breeds: Wheatland Terrier, Poodle, and at the very top of the list, Spanish Water Dog. I had never heard of the Spanish Water Dog, but if you’re reading this you’ve probably heard of the Portuguese Water Dog because that was breed adopted by the Obamas after they moved into the White House. As I later learned, the Portuguese Water Dog was bred for size from the SWD. The SWD is likely the originator of this line because its 35 lb to 45 lb range seems to be consistent with the origin of the dog species. The SWD was not recognized by the American Kennel Club, but was sanctioned by several other international dog clubs. Obviously Spain, but also in England and Scandinavia. Terri and I aren’t “dog snobs” or in need of purebred pets, but in this case it was important because we were seeking a dog that met the hypo-allergenic criteria, and that is a characteristic of breed.

Acting on these suggestions I started my search for places where we might be able to find either a Wheatland Terrier or a Poodle, but came up empty-handed. Dog breeders explained to me that the summer was not a time when dogs generally produced puppies, and perhaps I would have better luck in the Fall. Striking out on these breeds, I scanned for Spanish Water Dogs. There weren’t many breeders, but there were a few in Ontario not far from where we lived in Michigan so I called them first–no luck. Same story as with the others. I was about to give up when I noticed a Web site for the “Spanish Water Dog Association of America.” That turned out to be a bit of hoax–it was really the Web site of a family that had gotten into the business, but I was happy to give it a try. Sure enough, they had a brand new litter which the proprietor explained had come about “accidentally”–a second breeding in the same season. And he noted that because the puppies were unanticipated, they were also unreserved, so we could have the pick of the litter.

We gave him a deposit and awaited Ephy’s return from summer camp, just a couple of days away. As it happened, Ephy was pretty discombobulated as he emerged from the camp bus–the trip took hours longer than it was supposed to. As soon as we picked him up we said, don’t get settled, we’re on our way to Tennessee to pick up a puppy. He was not a happy camper (so to speak) as we drove ten hours to Knoxville, at several points accusing us of having murdered his dog. But somehow we got there in one piece. And that’s how I landed in Knoxville for the first time in my life! Little did we know what the future had in store.

Nina’s birth location was a country home in the Tri-Cities area of East Tennessee, about a 90 minute drive from Knoxville. We arose early and drove that last 90 minutes. When we got to Nina’s home, before we reached the door, it opened and a man dressed in sort of Amish-like clothing emerged with a musket or some sort of old rifle cradled in his arm. We then noticed a woman dressed in this fashion. And we thought to ourselves, whoa, what have we gotten into!


Nina’s godmother

As it turned out, they were both quite modern people of our own period–but that day they were participating in a historical recreation of the early 1800s, hence the garb, musket, etc. When they saw us they waved us over and after that it was all dogs and puppies.

They did a demonstration of their adult dogs’ diving ability in their pond, and it was indeed amazing. They threw objects that sank to the bottom of the pond (which was quite deep) and dogs emerged with them every time. One of the traits of the Spanish Water Dog is that the fur in their paws fills in densely and allows them to use their paws as flippers to drag themselves deep under water. At the time a Spanish Water Dog held some sort of Guinness type record for deepest dive by a dog. For all I know that record still stands.

Every breeder we spoke to was concerned to let us know that these dogs are work dogs and as such are happiest when they have things to do. They don’t necessarily make good pets if one’s idea of a pet is an animal that lies around the house most of the day. The breeder was relieved to hear that we lived in the country on 11 acres and that Terri was experienced with farms and farm animals. So we passed that test. After giving us some paperwork assuring us of the pedigree, we plopped our eight-week old brownish red puppy into the back seat with Ephy and we began the 11 hour drive back to Ann Arbor.

Nina was everything the Spanish Water Dog sites claimed. She learned with amazing quickness and had a broad skill set. She was a fierce guard dog and protected her family with passion. Throw a stick and Nina would beat any other dog to it. When we added a poodle to the family (Nina was then about 8 years old), Nina made sure the poodle knew who was boss, and then showed her ropes of coping with the LoveLees.

Spanish Water Dogs live an average of 11 or 12 years, but Nina showed no signs of slowing down until she hit 14. She went partially and then almost completely deaf which meant she could no longer hear knocks at the door–and she was visibly disturbed at having people show up without her personal scrutiny. We tried to move her downstairs so she wouldn’t need to navigate the staircase, but she had nothing of that. On her last day with us, she still dutifully climbed the stairs to her bedroom. And that last day she lay down and could move no more. Our wonderful vet helped her out of this world without further pain and I don’t think I will ever stop missing her.

Sho and Clara Say Goodbye To Nina

Midnight is gone

Midnight went on her last hunt. Our oldest pet, a black cat who reached more than 19 years, Midnight ran the house. When we moved to Michigan, our first cat passed on very quickly, and our first Michigan cat (Hattie) died quickly, probably from the same illness. A black cat named Sarah came into our lives. Terri and Sho allowed her to have one litter (turned out to be 8 kittens), and we kept Midnight after finding homes for the rest. After about three years, Sarah went out to hunt and never came back. Not long after, Midnight did the same.  At that time Terri and Shoshana found our gray tabby twins, Tommy and Rachel. But Midnight was always full of surprises and after an absence of 6 weeks, there she was back again. We’ve theorized that she might have been locked away in someone’s garage but managed to survive–I guess she lost quite a few of those proverbial nine lives in that episode.

But that broke our stream of bad luck–Midnight was here to stay. And she made it pretty clear that she would have nothing to do with the twins. Wouldn’t even share a litterbox with them. Fortunately for us, she preferred the outside life, so for most of our years with her she was our outdoors cat. She liked to come in for the day and stay out at night. And she would deign to keep us company during the coldest nights of Winter. And for all those years there was a steady stream of “gifts” left for us on the front porch.

Old age caught up with Midnight a couple of years ago, so for the past two years she was around the house a lot more. We threw in the towel on the litterbox issue and got her her own private one.

Two months ago, at her annual physical, the vet found a tumor on her paw and the diagnosis was immediate–cancer. She might survive a bit longer, we were told, with an amputation. But why put a 19 year old cat through that misery? So we gave her the most comfortable life we could provide and let her eat the wet food she preferred over kibble. What a pain that was because Nina our dog would do everything she could to get that food with very unpleasant consequences.

This morning the tumor opened up and Midnight bled profusely. I got a call from our cleaning crew (it was our biweekly cleaning day) telling us that the cat was clearly ailing. So after work Terri and I headed once again for the vet. One shot and a few minutes later, Midnight was sedated. Terri pet her and she purred until she was out. A second shot and her strong little heart was stilled.

Terri buried her under the tree which was a favorite napping spot of hers for so many years.

It seems like these days half my activity in this blog is writing obits for my pets. Midnight was 19, Tommy 14 and Roxanne 9. So in the last few months, we’ve lost pets who occupied 42 collective years of our pets’ lives. I miss them all.

Farewell Roxie!

We lost one of our pets yesterday–Roxanne Degu Love moved on to wherever beloved pets go when they cease to exist in this plane. Roxanne began her life as “Princess Jen” but was expelled from home for being too ornery. After a series of foster homes, Andy Vosko took her in and renamed her Roxanne. When Andy headed off to grad school, Roxanne found her new home with us. Roxanne joined us about 7 years ago when she was 2, and and contributed 50 offspring to Science.

Roxanne was preceded in death by her first and second husbands. I only recall husband number 1 whom we named “Gordon”.

Roxanne occupied an aquarium in the main living area of our home. We all recall the one day she managed to escape. She was discovered by all three of our cats who lined up in a row to observe her, but thankfully we saw the grouping and Roxie lived on almost to her ninth birthday. We were pulling for number 9 because that might have set a Guiness record, but alas Roxie didn’t quite make it.

I like to think that Roxie had a good life with us. She worked through many running wheels, built hundreds of nests, and lived happily with her men-folk. When at last she was too old to bear more young, and her last husband passed on, Roxie trotted solo in her running wheel until at last she could travel no more.