(May 8, 2000 – July 15, 2011)
Somewhere a journey begins at the end of the worldly existence we know,
Somewhere a path stretches over the stars and rivers of memories flow…
Somewhere a silence is heard far away and the brightness of day fills the night,
Where the trials of life are resolved into peace when a soul finds its way to the light.
I said good-bye to my girl today. And I will miss her so much.
Portia was not supposed to be my dog. She was a replacement puppy for her littermate, Faith, who died of kidney failure at 14-weeks. The breeder had planned to keep Portia for himself, but when he was informed of Faith’s passing, he sent Portia to the states to be my companion. And I’m so blessed that she came.
I’ll never forget the night I picked her up from the airport. She arrived under the cover of darkness in her little vari-kennel. She was covered in poop and smelled to high heaven. The trip from Karlsruhe, Germany to Minneapolis was a long one for a 4-month-old puppy, but I was glad to have her once she arrived… and after she had a bath!
Portia taught me many things. I started to train her using traditional training methods only to learn that while she could take a hard correction it broke her spirit, so began my quest for training through understanding and appreciating dogs as individuals.
We tried our luck in the conformation ring and she took fourth place in her first show – there were only 4 dogs entered. I didn’t know anything about handling for conformation, and she certainly didn’t have the look that was going to win in any AKC show. She had a ‘roach back’ - a rounded top-line which I think made her extremely fast when she ran. And the girl could run! She was the fastest of all my dogs and to watch her run was one of my great joys. I thought she looked so beautiful and happy when she ran - she was certainly a free spirit.
From obedience and conformation we moved into the sport of Schutzhund. Portia was really good at this sport, which is why I think the breeder had picked her for his own. Imported from Germany, she was the offspring of strong Schutzhund lines and she took to the training like a fish to water. I was too busy with life to seriously campaign her for a title, but I do think she would have done well. Conan did Schutzhund too, but he never took his work seriously.
Portia was completely focused on the training field and always gave it her all. She was smart, too. And often used rather underhanded methods to achieve her goal… More than once she would launch herself forward and push her front paw into the back of the decoy as he ran away, effectively knocking him off balance as she sunk her teeth into the bite sleeve and brought him down. Another time we were working on bark-and-hold, this is where the dog sits and barks at the decoy, but cannot bite the sleeve until the decoy moves. Portia learned if she bumped the decoy in the crotch with her nose, he would move – fair game to bite the sleeve. (The decoy learned to always wear protective athletic gear.)
I also learned about breeding with Portia. After much research, reading and careful contemplation, I ran all the medical tests necessary to ensure a healthy litter of puppies. I chose a quality stud dog of excellent lineage and drove to Illinois for the mating, not once, but two different heat cycles. Portia did not become pregnant either breeding. I’m grateful for all I learned and the great people I met as a result of my quest to start an exceptional quality breeding program. I’m disappointed that all my efforts to produce good dogs were fruitless. It’s unbelievable to me that there are people who stick two intact pets together (sometimes not even of the same breed) just because it would be “cool to have puppies,” or “so the kids could experience the miracle of birth” and successfully whelp a litter. Yet with all my care and planning puppies never came. Still, I would not trade my experience with Portia for the best breeding bitch on the planet.
Portia certainly did some amazing things in her life that could not be taught… I remember a time we were training for Schutzhund one morning in Le Sueur, Portia got excited in the car and stepped on the automatic door locks, locking herself and the keys in the car. I left her in the car supervised by my friend, Curt, with instructions to break a window and get her out if it gets too hot. Kirsten drove me back home to get a spare key, we were on our way back to the practice field, just a ½ mile away when we got a call that Portia had managed to unlock the door, and she was out and running around.
Another time I took Portia with me to visit a friend in Lake City. I left her in the ‘man cave’ for an hour while I had dinner with my friend. Not being happy that we left her, she attempted to open the door by herself by crushing the stainless steel door knob so she could get enough traction to turn it. I’m certain if left another half hour, she would have managed to let herself out. The only damage was to the door knob itself – not so much as a toenail scratch on the door. Indeed, she was a very smart and focused dog.
Portia taught me about commitment. She didn’t not get along with my other female, Phoenix, and they had to be kept separate for her entire life. Given the chance they would have killed each other. There are things I might have done differently now that I am a more experienced trainer, but at the time separation seemed the easier option. I thought about re-homing Portia at one point, but I couldn’t find a home that would appreciate and be able to manage her work ethic and drive. So she stayed with me. It wasn’t always easy keeping dogs separated, while giving them the time and attention they all deserved. But I made a commitment to be her family and to keep her safe, loved and happy, and I’m fairly certain she had a pretty good life with me.
This past year she was always hungry and thirsty, a side effect of her seizure medication. There were days when I felt like all she needed me for was food delivery and clean up. She was always grabbing for food and trying to eat anything she could get her mouth on – including her stainless steel food bowl, rugs, shoes, a spoon and a dish towel. She chewed up more things at the end of her life than she did at the beginning! Ten days ago I was standing in the kitchen and she came up behind me and grabbed my fingers, trying to firmly but gently pull them off my hand - the way a dog would try to steal a sandwich off a 5-year-old kid. Only my fingers were not a sandwich and her firm grip was startling. She seemed to have little idea why she couldn’t pull them off… I think she was losing her mind a little. Earlier in her life she wasn’t at all concerned about food, and her new obsession with it was both disturbing and sad. My Portia was slipping away.
For nearly the last year of her life Portia suffered from seizures most likely caused by a brain tumor. They were horrific to watch. It was heart-wrenching to stand idly by for the 2+ hours it took her to recover and gather her wits about her. Each seizure took a little more out of her and she became more vacant and more despondent with every episode. In the end the seizures became more frequent and it took her longer to recover. I would look in her eyes these last few months, but my Portia was not there. So with four seizures in six days I made the difficult decision to schedule her final vet visit.
During those last five days of her life (after the appointment was made) she came back to me a little. Her eyes seemed less vacant, she seemed a bit more alert and there were few, if any, ‘accidents’ in the house. She still had trouble pulling herself up and was occasionally unstable on her legs, but she seemed to be a little more of her old self once the appointment to end this life had been made.
This last week was difficult for me. When my other animals came to the end of their lives, it seemed I would know when it was time, but I’ve never had to make an appointment so far in advance before. And this whole week she seemed to be doing better and I started to second guess and rationalize… Maybe I should cancel the appointment and wait till she got worse. If only she would have another seizure, I’d know I was making the right decision. What kind of thoughts are these? Wait till she got worse? Did I really want our last memory to be of her going out in pain? One more seizure? Hasn’t she already suffered enough? Did I really need her to have one more seizure to prove to myself that it was time for her to go?
As stressful as it was, knowing that every day I was a little closer to ending her life, in hindsight it was the best decision and gave me time to grieve with her. We could say good-bye to each other a few hours at a time.
My wise friend, Sheri, shared with me this thought, “After she’s gone you will be much happier that you put her down one week too early rather than one day too late.” Of course! I didn’t want her to suffer. I didn’t want the last look I saw in her eye to be one of desperation and pain. I didn’t want to have to look back and think, “Why did I let her deteriorate so much?”
All week I’ve been giving her a little more of her favorite foods – an extra ½ pound of meat each day. Some tripe, some chicken, some duck, white crab meat! A great big raw meaty knuckle bone! More treats… a lot more treats! Thursday night I brought home a big bag of McDonald’s French Fries and we shared them. I know food doesn’t equal love. But she’d been craving food for so long, and who knows what kind of sensory experiences or fast food restaurants there are on the other side?
We took more walks.
And Friday, the day of her crossing, I declared the “Day of Portia.” It was dark, gloomy and rainy in the morning – perfect for my mood, but not for my plans for our special day. The weather never did clear up and it seemed all my special plans to spend the day together would be washed away! So Portia brought me one last lesson: Don’t let something stupid like a rainy day hold you back! I donned my rain gear and off to the park we went! We left the house in a downpour, but we were going to the lake anyway… and wet is wet. I should not have been surprised that by the time we reached the regional park the sky cleared up and the sun came out! My lesson – just stick to your plan and take the first step, everything else unfolds from there.
So while Portia enjoyed the water and the walking, I got the joy of enjoying her enjoyment. It gave me time to both appreciate her and to see just how far she’s declined. She WAS ready to go, but she was also happy to enjoy being out of the normal routine one last time to sniff around, drink lake water and feel life! We enjoyed each others' company, and I was able to just BE in the moment with her… no future, no past… just now.
We shared a slice of pizza – she got the bigger half (I don’t really like pepperoni that much anyway :-) ).
Then off to the vet... to let her go ...and on to her next big adventure.
I’m truly blessed for all the years that we lived together. I learned so much from this beautiful German Shepherd Dog whose name I chose because it means “offering.” She was offered to me to replace her sister, Faith, who was also a great gift in my life. And with her I have been blessed too many times to count.
“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
~Portia, from The Merchant of Venice,
by William Shakespeare
So many lessons learned. So much love shared.
Godspeed, dear Portia. And thank you.