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Merry Christmas, Jessie!!

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Merry Christmas, Jessie!!
Time Passes
Christmas 2012
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Do you have a little (or big) dog like this?


Don't get me wrong; lots of dogs with wheelies or other forms of assistance live perfectly happy, busy lives.  I've had little dogs who would probably have happily sacrificed all four legs if it meant they could live in my pocket permanently!

Dogs don't have a concept of disability; they simply adapt to their circumstances.  They're not brave or heroic either; however much they might inspire the morbidly sentimental and saccharine among us, they just adapt.  The best thing about them is the simplicity with which they accept and enjoy life: does it hurt? does it feel nice? is it safe? do I like the taste? can I run as fast as I want?

So this isn't a polemic about poor little dogs being tortured by owners without the grace to put them to sleep (I tend to reserve my harshest words for people who think long-term chemotherapy and similar treatments are in any way ok for a dog.)

All I'm asking you to do is take a careful look.  Does your dog have quality of life, or is your dog displaying quality of spirit in spite of a failing and troublesome body?  And if it's the latter, is there anything you could do?

The reason I'm asking is that, in spite of a lifelong rule, inherited from Dad, of not allowing my dogs to suffer, and putting them to sleep a little early in preference to risking them struggling and being in pain, I've just allowed myself to be suckered by sentiment and to break my own rules.

Let me tell you about my dog Jessie and I hope you'll understand.  It's quite a long story (three pages!); she's an incredible dog.


Jessiepic1My life with Jessie began on Christmas Day 1999.  I had been invited to lunch with my very dear friends Sharlene Sutherland and Barbara Preece of Sharbara Dobermanns, and had a puppy booked (and paid for) from the litter they were expecting from their beloved bitch Ch Sharbara Gud Goli Ms Moli (‘Moli’), who had been mated to the outstanding American import Am. Ch. Cara’s Skeeter.

Moli, true to form and hogging the limelight as usual, allowed us to finish the first course before she went into labour.  We spent most of Christmas day delivering puppies.

I had pick of the bitches, of which there were three – two black and tans and a brown and tan.  It was the Sharbara ‘J’ litter, and Sharlene had chosen musical names for all the dogs – Jazzabelle, Jive Wire and so on.

“Please”, I said.  “She was born on Christmas Day.  Call her Jingle Bells.”  It seemed logical to me – started with a ‘J’, fitted in with the musical theme and commemorated her birthday too.

“Absolutely not!” said Sharlene in horror.  “Under no circumstances whatsoever!”  And she stuck to her guns.

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.  My kennel name used to be Pandemonium, for reasons which are very clear to those who know me.  “The day will come,” I said icily, “when you will want to take a puppy from this bitch.  I’m going to register it as Pandemonium Ping Pong.  You can call it Ping, or you can call it Pong.”  I would have, too.  So there.

When the pups were four weeks old, we did a very gentle initial temperament test to see how willing the pups were to leave the litter and their environment in order to chase a toy.  One little bitch was far bolder than the rest.  She left her brothers and sisters behind, raced after a soft ball, caught it, fought with it and then trotted over to me and went to sleep on my foot.  That was that.  You don’t choose the great dogs in your life.  They choose you, and I had been chosen.

At seven weeks, in a more formal temperament test conducted by a local trainer, she showed the same courage, independence and outgoing nature.  “That’s my dog,” I thought.

Jessiepic2I had picked Sharbara Jive Wire, but I had to fight for her.

“No, no, take Jazzabelle.  She’s got a longer neck,” said Sharlene.

“The brown bitch is the pick bitch.  Take her,” said one of the doyennes of the Dobe club, Jo Stemmet.

“But she’s so small,” complained someone else.

“I’m not picking her for show, I’m picking her for temperament,” I said, and although I practically had to kidnap her, I got my puppy.

I started her off on the clicker straight away – she has never had any punishment more severe than a scolding – and took her to puppy socialization class until she was 16 weeks old.  She ruled the roost, bullied her brothers, played with every puppy in sight, adopted their owners, investigated every blade of grass, every ankle and every twig with great cheerfulness and enthusiasm.  She hasn’t changed.  

I was, and still am, completely besotted.  I thought she was spectacularly beautiful, too, in spite of all the doomsayers who thought I should have taken a different pup.  I’m told I have something of an eye for a dog, but in this case I decided I was just kennel-blind.  The bigger she got, the more perfect she became to my eyes.  I couldn’t see any faults.  But then, I’m biased.

When she was 10 months old, she was entered in her first all-breeds Championship show.  We hadn’t done much ringcraft.  Sharlene, used to Slug, my other dog, whose ringcraft is immaculate and who always keeps himself in trim, was horrified at having to handle my fat, unruly puppy.  Jessie, however, saw the showring as just another place to have fun.  On her first show stack, she spotted a butterfly and started chasing it while the judge was trying to go over her, and on her gaiting triangle, she spotted a sandwich in a ringside tent and hurled herself over the ring barrier in an attempt to help herself.  The audience was in stitches.  Even the judge had to conceal a smirk.  Sharlene was furious.  And, needless to say, my baby didn’t win anything – not even her class.

“Oh, well,” I thought, “I suppose she’s not really a show dog.  It’s not why I picked her, anyway.  I still think she’s beautiful, though.”

The following weekend was the Dobermann Club of the Cape Specialist Show, which that year (2000) was to be judged by Jens Kollenberg.

Jessiepic3Every Dobe fan in the world knows who Jens Kollenberg is.  He was the breeder behind von Norden Stamm kennels, which produced the most titled Dobermann in history, Kalina von Norden Stamm, and has had a profound influence on just about every major Dobermann bloodline in the world.  He was the Breed Warden of the DobermannVerein in Germany, the most senior Dobermann club in the world, for many years, a ZTP (temperament) and conformation judge as well as being a Schutzhund judge.  His knowledge of the breed is unparalleled.  Love him or hate him, one cannot deny that he is probably the most expert and experienced Dobe judge in the world, by a long way.  

“Do you think I should bother to bring her down for the show?” I asked Sharlene, still very aware of the previous week’s humiliation.

“She’s too fat to show, but put her in for numbers,” she said. (For a small dog club, every entry counts, although with a judge of this caliber, we had no doubt that we would easily get enough entries to make both CCs worth 2 points.)

So I turned up again, with my fat, unruly and this time somewhat dirty puppy (she’d been rolling in our magnificent Breede River Winelands clay, and it’s difficult to brush off.)  And Sharlene was horrified again.

“I’ll die of embarrassment going in the ring with her looking like this,” she bristled. 

Hymie Leibman, the owner of her sire, eyed her and said "Not bad, but she's dreadfully fat and dirty.  And anyway, I want a two-point CC from a Skeeter daughter."  And he turned away dismissively.

I was cringing.  I shouldn't have come, I thought.  I should just have stayed in McGregor and let my puppy roll in the mud.

But when the Bitch Puppy Class was called, in Sharlene went, with Jessie cavorting and bucking like a wild pony.

She won the class.

I was quite pleased, but didn’t expect any more from the outing.  The best dogs in the country had been traveled for Jens, and those that were not already made up were in the running for the points.  I couldn’t see Jessie getting past them, and in any case, European judges do not in general give points to dogs under 18 months old.  So as far as I was concerned, her outing was over, and I settled down to gossip with friends while the other classes were judged.

Jessiepic4At last it was time for the Bitch CC, and in went all the class winners, with Jessie at the back, trailed only by the minor puppy.  

He stacked them.  He sent them around.  He shuffled the placing. He stacked them again.  He sent them around again.  He moved Scoot, a Junior Bitch, another Skeeter daughter, already a big winner and the leading contender for the points, up to the front.  That was that, I thought, good decision.  He sent them around again.  He moved Jessie up a spot.  He sent them around again.  Then he moved Jessie up to second place, behind her half-sister.  He sent them around again.

“Well, well”, I thought, “we might have a chance at the RC after all!”  For a pup, an RC from Jens Kollenberg was a prize well worth having.  It looked like turning out to be a nice afternoon after all.  I sat back and bent over to rummage in my handbag for a peppermint.

“It’s the puppy,” someone next to me said.

I didn’t catch it at first.  “What?” I asked.

“He’s given it to the puppy,” she repeated.  I looked up.  Jessie had been moved up past Scoot.  She was leading the line-up.  My jaw dropped.

She won.  My fat, dirty, unruly 10-month old pup took a two point CC from the best Dobe specialist judge in the world, against the best un-made bitches in South Africa.  It was unbelievable.

She took Best Puppy against her brother, Joshua, and then it was time for Best of Breed.  I really didn’t expect anything more.  The winners of the Champions classes were two of the best and most experienced show dogs in the country.  This was the Big Leagues.

Jessiepic5In they went, Champion Dog, CC Dog, Champion Bitch, CC Bitch.  My roly-poly baby was at the back of the line-up again, still cavorting, while the Big League campaigners stood rock still, exuding nobility from every pore.

He moved the CC Dog up to first place.  Then he moved the Champion Bitch up to second place.  Then he moved Jessie up past the Champion Dog.

“Whoops,” I thought, “that’s going to ruffle a few feathers.”

Then he moved her past the Champion Bitch into second place.  Several more jaws dropped.

And that’s what she took home.  Best Puppy in Specialist Show (BPISS), a 2-point CC and Reserve Best in Specialist Show (RBISS) – not too bad for a fat, naughty, dirty 10-month-old puppy!

Jens came up to me after the show.

“I can’t fault your dog,” he said.  “She is completely harmonious.  If she was cropped, she would win anywhere in the world.”

“Oh,” I thought, “all right, perhaps I’m not that biased then.”

He went on to complain bitterly to Barbara and Sharlene that he felt himself lucky if he was able to breed a dog of Jessie’s caliber once in five years.  He regarded it as extremely unfair that they had done it more or less by accident, as he saw it.

After that, we managed to settle her a little in the ring by doing 10 minutes of clicker ringcraft with her before each show, and she rocketed through the rest of her points with almost no showing, taking 2 out of 3, 1 out of 2 and 2 out of 2 available points on her next outings, and whizzing past the then Supreme Dobermann for another Reserve Best of Breed, beaten only by the dog who became Supreme Dobermann  the following year.

She never learned to behave in the ring, though.  She was in and out too fast to have time.

Jessiepic6She kept her wonderful temperament, running an excellent Junior Aptitude test, and was and is the happiest, funniest, cleverest, bravest little bitch anyone could wish for, and a delight to work, as well as being stunningly, stunningly beautiful – and that you can take to the bank!  Trotted out of retirement aged around five to show when Sharlene, a few years later, was coming to the end of her terrible battle with cancer, Jessie took the Champions Class twice in a row against, amongst others, the superb import Ch Irinland Fabulous Frosja, one of the loveliest bitches ever to grace the South African ring. 

RBISS BPISS Ch Sharbara Jive Wire of Pandemonium DMA (“Jessie”) is undoubtedly the best Christmas present I’ve ever had.  I still say they should have called her Jingle Bells, though!

Next: Time Passes

Time passes.  I had planned to take a Pandemonium litter from Jess (including, of course, the famous Ping Pong).  She turned out to be vWD Affected (von Willebrand's Disease is essentially haemophilia, a blood-clotting disorder, although Dobermanns do not suffer as badly as humans and some other dog breeds), and so as a result I had more or less decided not to breed her.  (I was also increasly fed up and disillusioned with dog world politics, which frequently threaten to ruin the sport.)

Then Sharlene was diagnosed with the secondary cancer that would eventually kill her in November 2005.  Jess was probably the best dog she and Barb had ever bred, and for Sharlene's sake we decided to go ahead with a litter, so that she could leave us knowing that the bloodline would carry on.

The first attempt, early in 2005, with Ch Trustdore Oliver (who lived in Jhb with JC Pieters), was by AI and was unsuccessful.  On her next season in October, when Sharl had about six weeks left to live, we fought to get my roly-poly hooligan tranquilised, drove from vet to vet with a supposedly sedated dog hanging out of the window trawling for business, and eventually shoved her into a crate and bunged her on an aeroplane to Johannesburg, where she was successfully mated to Oliver.

She barked all the way there, and all the way back, and arrived in Cape Town three days later, exhausted, a seasoned flyer, and very proud of herself.

But the 30-day scan was negative.  The mating had failed again.  "I'm not going to try again," I said to JC.  "It could be a fertility problem, who knows?  She's getting on; I'm just going to spay her instead." We were both disappointed and disconsolate, but agreed that there was nothing further to be done.

Sharlene was in a coma most of the time by now, but we did manage to have one conversation about it. "Never mind," she said, "can't be helped, just spay her after her due date to be quite sure."  She didn't seem to be upset at all.

On the 29th of November 2005, Sharlene finally lost her battle and slipped away.  It was a Tuesday; the group of us who had been glued together around her for the last eighteen months collected at the house, and stayed until late that night, braaing, talking, drinking, crying.  We had spent so many hours in chemo wards, at the house, taking turns to babysit, listening, talking, just trying to be there.  I used to call us the Chemo Ward Club.  Sue, Barbara's sister-in-law, hit the nail on the head when she looked at me and said: "What are we going to do now? Play scrabble?"

The funeral, although beautiful, was bigger and less personal, as funerals are.  It was held on the Friday following Sharlene's death - the 2nd of December.

SharltshirtsmallThe next day I took Jessie to the vet.  Something just wasn't quite right.  Natalie rummaged around a bit and then straightened up beaming.  "Well," she said, "unless she's got poos with skulls in there, she's pregnant!"

It felt like a gift from Sharlene.  I phoned Barbara, who was still too stunned to take it in, and sms'ed JC, who phoned me back a few moments later in tears of joy.  We were ecstatic.

And after all my worries about her health and her vWD, Jessie produced four perfect puppies on 13th December 2005, doing all the work herself except for Simon, my lovely podgy brown boy, who needed a helping finger to get one of his legs delivered.  She didn't bleed at all and didn't even need an oxytocin shot.  And she was an excellent mother.

Sandy (Sharlene's sister) and I discussed names with Barbara.  She agreed.  The paperwork to get all the dogs transferred around was horrendous, and the Sharbara letter sequence had only gotten up to 'P', I think, but we managed to register them as the Sharbara 'S' litter.  They even have a t-shirt.

Sabre (Sammy) went to a friend of mine who had never had a Dobe before.  He's been a difficult dog, but she's hooked.

Shady Lady went to Sharlene's sister Sandy, who worked really hard with her.  She's Ch Sharbara Shady Lady now, and has had a good litter of pups.  Sandy also has a rescue male from one of the big PE breeders, who asked her to take him after the first home proved a problem.  RBISS BPISS Ch Donnehaus Xaran APT EX is one of the best working and show dogs we've seen in this country for a while, and the first Dobe in a long time to be rated Excellent in the very tough Swedish Military Working Aptitude Test.  We're busy trying to mate him to Lickety - Sharbara Spitfire.  The first mating failed (shades of Mom?) but we'll try again next time.

Simon Says is a bit of a dud - slightly dysplastic hips, a cryptorchid testicle, various stomach gripes.  He stayed with me, as did (Lickety) Spitfire, easily the pick of the litter.  And Simon and Lickety gave me a wonderful little surprise who was born on the 6th of January 2007 (the 12th Day of Christmas) and who was promptly christened Partridge, later shortened to Puttle.

Although his life was cut short at 5 earlier this year by rapid-onset Wobblers, Puttle was a joy, and the light of Granny Jess's life. He teased her, played with her, adored her, deferred to her, and generally kept her young.

Next: Christmas 2012

And Jess?

It became clear with the passing of the years that Jess was going to make disgracefully old bones.  The fears about vWD in her youth came to nothing. She whelped and reared her pups with ease.  When we spayed her she had a prophylactic blood transfusion and a dose of Desmopressin (a vasoconstrictor), and came through the surgery without a hitch.  The worst consequence of her spay was a big weight gain which left a huge lipoma (benign fatty tumour) on her shoulder when we finally managed to get some of the blubber off.  It didn't seem to bother her, and because of the vWD, we decided not to remove it, so she looked a bit like the hunchback of Notre Dame for her last couple of years.

The only health problem she had in later life was a squamous cell carcinoma of the toe on one of her hind feet when she was ten (I think).  Once we'd worked out what was wrong, the toe was amputated, again without complications, and because her birthday is on Christmas Day, she was promptly nicknamed Mistletoe.

She answered to Jessie, Granny, Old Lump, Pork Chop, and Mistletoe in the end.  As with old dogs, her spine was getting arthritic, her back legs were weakening as a result and her footing was less secure, she was a bit incontinent, fairly deaf, and a bit more senile, but she looked all set to make her 13th birthday on Christmas Day 2012.  She had been such a wonderful Christmas present when she was born, and it was going to be so wonderful to celebrate her 13th Christmas with me - a second Christmas present.

I was a bit worried about the weakening legs, which had deteriorated noticeably in the last couple of months - a trip to the vet and some cortisone hadn't really helped.  She had to be separated from her daughter and she didn't enjoy her kennel roster very much.  This wasn't a huge imposition because Lickety loves kennels and boxes and will get into any available one and guard it, but still.  Jess seemed to be getting a bit more anxious and noisy about kenneling up, and the weather was getting warmer, which was difficult for all of us. 

But there was no reason for her not to make her 13th birthday, I thought on the 25th of November this year, a month to the day before her birthday.  It was a month away, and it was obvious that her indomitable old heart would carry her a good bit further than that.  I had had the best Christmas present of all when Jessie was born, and I was about to get another one - 13 years with my wonderful dog.

And then the penny dropped.  I was getting not one, but two Christmas presents.  And when was Jessie, my magnificent old girl, going to get her Christmas present?  When was she going to be set free of her weakening legs, her less-than-lucid brain, her deaf ears, her fading eyesight, so that she could go and romp to her hearts content with Puttle and Slug, her dearest companions who had gone before?

Today, I thought.  Right bloody now.  What on earth have I been thinking?  And I hurtled into action.

A last clicker session - should I make her do it?  She's retired, after all.  Then I thought, Jessie doesn't know there's a word like retired.  So we used tinned dog meat as treats - yummy, goopy, stuff, and she worked to her heart's delight while her children grumbled and complained in the background because they weren't getting a turn. 

Then I rushed out for Jessie's Christmas party decorations - some tinsel and a star.  I ambled along the old Malmesbury Road at my usual elderly and careful 70km/h for a while, worried about being late.  Then another penny dropped; I'm an RAF brat, not a bus driver's daughter.  So I put the pedal to the metal as my Meteor jet bomber pilot of a father had taught me, and rocketed along our scenic but bumpy back road at 140km/h in a 1400cc CitiGolf, using the torque to get me round the corners.  I haven't driven like that in years - what a rush!  A couple of times I overdid it slightly - I'm out of practice - and I could swear I heard the old man saying: "Slow down to a gallop, lovey."  And I did.  A fast gallop.

I hurtled round the shop, grabbed some tinsel, and managed to buy a box lid in the shape of a star by telling the manager I was going to a Christmas party and was running late, which was perfectly true.

Raced home again, collected Jessie, and off we went, this time at a more sedate pace so she didn't get thrown around in the car.  At one point she fell off the seat and couldn't get herself back up, so I stopped and got her out so I could help her back in.  Jessie had other ideas.  I'm going for a walk, she told me very clearly by yanking me several yards down the road, and so we did.  A last happy amble together, with Jess, as usual, pulling like a drayhorse and investigating everything.

And at last we got to the vet.  They were a little baffled by the tinsel, but didn't object, and Jessie left her tired old body at last.

I came home grinning from ear to ear, sad because my dog was gone, happy because I knew I could never really lose her, to find her daughter Lickety tucked up in Mom's box looking very contented, having abandoned her armchair.  I had a tiny spoonful of tinned dog food when I fed the other two - just to keep Jess company.  That was my Christmas dinner this year, and I shared it with my beloved old girl - the best Christmas present ever, both ways.  On Christmas Day, I will, of course, be celebrating Jessie's 13th birthday.  What else?

Yes, I know there are complaints of an extremely rowdy party going on at something called the Rainbow Bridge Club.  What on earth do you expect me to do about it?

And so, to come back to pictures of little dogs on wheeled carts, or any other dogs with health difficulties: I don't know whether your dog is as happy as the day is long, or coping with a difficult life for the sake of being near you.  The only thing I do know is that sometimes, with the best will in the world, we get it wrong, and put our dogs through something they don't need to suffer.  Jessie didn't need to drag her back legs around for another month just to be here for her thirteenth birthday.  She'll be here regardless.

And if this rings any bells for you, if it makes you look again at what sort of life your dog really has, then go on.  Make Christmas count.  Why not?  There's one hell of a party going on over there!

Jessiepic7RBISS BPISS Ch Sharbara Jive Wire of Pandemonium DMA "Jessie", photographed for International World of Dobermanns 2004.



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