Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Over the past 15 years, I've probably fostered 50 or 60 Great Danes in my home. These are/were dogs who were either lost and their owners couldn't be found, or they were surrendered by their owners for various reasons. I worked with established Dane rescue organizations that were responsible for taking in the dogs, finding temporary (foster) housing for them, paying the medical expenses to get them healthy and get them spayed or neutered, and for finding new permanent homes for the dogs.

My responsibility - as the temporary or foster home - was to teach the dog how to live with people as a member of the family (if it didn't know this already and many of them didn't) and to assess the dog in an attempt to decide which sort of family would be the best fit for the dog in the long run. And sometimes I also had to help nurse the dog back to health before they could even be put up for adoption.

Sometimes this was a big job - I got many dogs who had obviously not had ANY training at all, and once they reached adolescence they could be a handful. Think of a hyper, untrained "puppy" who weighs over a hundred pounds and you get the picture. But fortunately Danes are usually pretty quick to figure out what is in their best interest, and once they realized that unacceptable behavior resulted in undesirable consequences then it all became just a matter of teaching the dog what WAS acceptable. I called it "boot camp" but it wasn't really harsh - just a set of simple rules that were enforced with great consistency.

But many times it was actually an easy job. I had lots of foster dogs who were quite mellow and not interested in testing the limits at all, but were just thrilled to get some TLC, and having plenty to eat and a comfortable place to sleep were just icing on the cake.

Most of them were really nice dogs, who were destined to be beloved pets - but while I loved them all I didn't fall in love with them. I didn't think of them as being "my" dogs - which isn't such a good idea anyway if you are fostering, it is hard on the person and can be confusing for the dog - but rather I thought of them as "someone else's dog" that I was just taking care of for awhile. Which was the truth, in a way. So when they got adopted, it really wasn't all that hard to say good-bye to them. I stayed in touch with their new owners, and it was satisfying to see how happy they were. But that was about it.

A few of them weren't so nice - dogs who were so damaged by a disastrous mix of bad genetics and bad upbringing that we soon realized they could be dangerous. Danes are SO big and SO strong that no reputable Dane rescue will try to place such dogs with members of the public. The potential for catastrophic damage is too great. Sometimes an experienced Dane owner comes along who can handle such a dog safely, but most of the time we have to put them down. It's a very difficult decision, and we do our best to make it a peaceful event by feeding the dog treats or letting him have a special toy, sedating him if he doesn't tolerate handling or restraint (so his last moments won't be full of struggle or panic) and generally comforting the dog the best we can. Fortunately this was very rare - in my experience only two dogs I fostered had to be put down.

But there were others - also just a few, but memorable - who really captured my heart. I only succumbed to one and adopted her - that was Patience and it wouldn't have mattered at the time whether or not it was a "good" time to acquire a new dog. Fortunately it was, but I would have kept her regardless because I realized very quickly that she was "my" dog. There is more about her on her memorial page on our web site and also on our info page.

There were 4 or 5 other really, really special ones that I was sorely tempted to keep, but in the end realized that - to be fair to the dog - either I just didn't have the time to do right by them, or for some other reason they would be a better fit for another family. Those were the ones that although it nearly broke my heart to let them go, I later was glad that I had when I saw how happy they were, and how happy their new families were with them. Actually, now that I think about it, it was very good training for being a breeder and being able to let puppies go to their new homes! That is hard to do, too.

Anyway, one of those super special dogs was an adorable puppy bitch named Sophie. She was a fawnaquin, which although it isn't one of the recognized (i.e. showable) colors for Danes is still very pretty and flashy. She was not only friendly and outgoing and confident, but was smart as a whip, and I happened to have her about the time I first learned about clicker training. I experimented shamelessly on her and the results were nothing less than spectacular. I could teach her a new behavior, or a new trick in about 10 minutes, tops - and her retention was perfect.

Sophie coming home with me - is she adorable or what?

What a face!!

I had her for only a few weeks, but have a lot of happy memories from that time because I was able to do a lot with her. We went to training classes, we went on walks and outings, and on one memorable occasion we got kicked out of an AKC show.

You usually aren't allowed to bring dogs who aren't entered in a show onto the show grounds, although exceptions are made for various reasons. And it is strictly prohibited to bring in a puppy less than 6 months old - which is the minimum age for showing a dog in AKC conformation classes. Sophie at the time was about 4 months old - she'd had all her vaccinations so it wouldn't hurt her to bring her, but she was obviously too young. I was showing Patience in obedience, but we didn't have any of our dogs entered in conformation that weekend, and after Patience and I were done I wanted to go watch the judging and see some people I knew. It was a local show, so I decided to bring Sophie along. We had a great time, and Sophie did not disappoint. She walked boldly into that huge building, echoing with the (not so) subdued roar of hundreds of people talking and a couple thousand dogs barking. All the sights and smells and sounds can be overwhelming even to worldly-wise adult dogs - never mind a puppy. But her tail was wagging and she was absolutely thrilled by it all. We watched the Dane judging and talked to LOTS of people, and Sophie got petted and fussed over and got her picture taken dozens of times.

Sophie at the show

Sophie and Patience doing a Sit - Stay for pictures at the show

Then one of the members of the Kennel Club that was hosting the show walked up to me and asked, "How old is that puppy?" I knew the jig was up but lied anyway, in a most half-assed way: "Six months?" I asked. It was such a bad lie it was kind of funny and he almost smiled, but just said "I don't think so. Please take her out of the building". So I got kicked out of an AKC show for the first and (hopefully) last time. I'm such a troublemaker.

I really, really was tempted to keep her, but I do believe that things often work out the way they are meant to. And when this absolutely fabulous family asked about adopting her, the writing was on the wall. It would be best for all if she became their dog. It damn near killed me to let her go, but I've never regretted it. Her owners stay in touch, and Sophie has developed into the amazing dog we knew she would be. She's had lots of adventures but has remained that happy, sweet smart girl that I knew all those years ago.

Today her owner emailed me to say that they had to say good-bye to Sophie yesterday. She was healthy and happy up until the last few days, when it sounds like a cascade of things started going wrong despite everyone's best efforts. Euthanizing her was obviously the right thing to do, and she was with the people she loved at the end, just as they had been with her for all these years. But I know how hard it was on them, and my prayers and good wishes are with them tonight.

Sophie in her new home

Farewell, Sophie. You were one of the Special Ones.


Fred said...

What an amazing looking dog Sophie was. Really unforgettable. I can see why you had a hard time giving her up.

Also, I was just on your main website and saw the photos of Kinsey doing agility. Now that's something! Maybe you could put up some video? I can barely get my Dane Stella out of bed in the morning. The last time I tried to get her to jump over a foot and a half tall bar, she tried to crawl underneath it.

Barb said...

Hi Fred,

Thank you! We're very fortunate down here in that there are several Dane owners in our area who compete in obedience and/or agility. Agility is certainly not designed for very large dogs, but they can do it very well anyway if they want to.

Last summer a friend took some video of Ronnie and Kinsey at an agility trial, and posted two of the runs on YouTube - you can find them Here:

and Here:

Not bad for a six and a half year old Dane, huh?

If those links don't work, try searching for "Kinsey Agility" and you should find them.

Fred said...

Too bad we didn't live closer. Kinsey could teach Stella a thing or two. She's 6 and a half as well. The only special skill she has is she can whack other dogs, people, dishes with big sticks.

Barb said...

Ha!! I saw those photos on your blog of Stella and her stick. That is so cute!! Well maybe not so cute when she whacks you in the knee. I used to have a Lab who would carry big sticks like that - even fence posts - but I have had VERY few Danes who were natural retrievers.

Teddy used to carry big sticks around a lot, but he doesn't do it much anymore. Although come to think of it, since we don't have any trees he's probably just run out :-)