Requiem for a Mastiff
Today a champion died.
March 7, 2011
Most of you never heard of him, or if you did, you knew him only as my pet, Dick.
In his prime, Dick weighed in at 252 pounds of muscle and
good nature. Today, old at ten years of age, he could no longer pull himself to
his feet. His great strength was finally
spent. His breathing was labored. He refused to eat.
Too weak to rise, he’d lain on his bed since 10 the night before to 1:30 in the afternoon. He had a cast-iron bladder. Unwilling to soil our house, he felt great distress and gathered the last of his powers to get up. He managed to totter out to the yard for one final pee, only to fall down into the pool of his own urine. He was deeply embarrassed.
I could not get him up. For two hours, I brushed the ants and flies off him while he rested, brought him fresh water and raw eggs to build up his strength and waited until he was ready to try to walk again. Finally, with my encouragement and to please me, he struggled to stand. Once he was up, I slipped a bundled and knotted old sheet under his abdomen as a sling and helped him back into the house. He collapsed three times on the way.
He had an appointment with death at 4:40 that afternoon.
I had made that decision the day before. I should have made it several days before, but could not. You see, Dick has been with me from the second he was born, and an integral part of my life since. My congenial companion through all my travels (he loved a cross-continent road trip) and the muse, content to lie beside my chair through all my writing adventures.
My husband left work early, and between the two of us, we managed to help Dick, half suspended in a sling, to walk the twenty feet from the house to the van. A trip requiring fifteen minutes. It almost finished the grand old dog. And both of us by the time we lifted and hauled him into the van.
At the vets’ office, the doctor and his burly assistant came out into the parking lot to help us. We managed to slide a stretcher under the exhausted creature. The three men had a hard time to carry him.
Once he was lowered onto the floor, Dick raised his upper body, searching for me. I slipped his blanket under his head and sat beside him, stroking him, comforting him as best I could. He was so ready to go.
The doctor gave him a powerful sedative. Within five minutes Dick felt nothing. The doctor asked me if I was ready. I was. He injected the fatal shot into Dick’s veins. His labored breathing ended in a long sigh, and he was gone, slipping quietly into death.
If this sounds like the most maudlin thing you’ve ever read from me, bear with me. This is a loss as grievous as any I’ve ever suffered, I admit it.
Let me pull myself together and wipe away the tears; it’s not the loss I want to share, but the life.
Dick was a sterling example of this amazing breed of dog – the mastiff.
I want to share some of my mastiff memories with you here.
- Diva tells all -- the inside story of dog breeding
Diva tells the inside scoop of responsible and ethical dog breeding, including the costs (and this will blow you away.) And please check out the photographs of her relatives, friends and their beautiful puppies.
Dick had excellent bloodlines.
His real name was Champion Cheadle’s What the Dickens, son of International Champion Seville’s Lynnspride Maxfli (USA)( Cdn), known to those that loved him as Max, and Champion Cheadle’s Contessa Valentine (Cdn,) my much beloved Shirley.
His grandmother was none other than my grand old lady, Tess – the mastiff bitch of 210 pounds who once dragged a full grown man who tried to attack me down to the ground as easily as a terrier worries a mouse. (Another story for another hub.)
These dogs weren’t merely pretty; they were working mastiffs.
Oh, by the way – Cheadle Kennels was me. For many years, I ran a kennel breeding good quality mastiffs and providing boarding facilities for all breeds and shelter for many of the dog rescue groups. (Yet another story for yet more hubs, one day)
Dick was born October 19, 2001, one of thirteen siblings delivered by caesarian section. Such a delivery requires a lot of hands because the mother is not the only one anesthetized, but so are the puppies. The longer they remain in the uterus, the more drugged they become, so the surgeon works at top speed to get them out. The puppies are handed out like hot dogs at a barbeque, and the small army of volunteers goes to work stimulating them, rubbing them, clearing the fluid from their respiratory systems and ensuring they don’t drift off to sleep. Sleep means death. It is a flurry of activity.
Eventually, the mom – Shirley in this case – wakes up to find her pups busy having their first feeding, all are pronounced stable and the pups, packed into a box with a hot water bottle, and mom, still groggy and drugged out go home.
Where the real work begins. See my hub, “Diva tells all” for a description of what raising a litter entails. This is Dick’s story, so I’ll stick to his litter.
Thirteen ravenous puppies, and Shirley got a uterine infection requiring hospitalization and strong antibiotics, which meant we raised those pups by hand. Feeding every two hours, thirteen pups – we bottle fed round the clock. Those pups drank my neighbors goat herd dry.
But they thrived. Especially Dick. He was the biggest and also the shyest. 11 ounces at birth, by six weeks he was twenty-five pounds.
Dick grows up
From the very beginning, it became apparent that for all his size, Dick was no alpha. He wasn't even an omega. Even Peewee, the runt could chase him off his food, and a strange noise would find him at the bottom of the puppy pile shaking.
Yes, Dick was a true coward and that never did change. Even at his prime, a stranger would send him behind me,(all two hundred and fifty pounds of him) peeking around my legs trying to be invisible. He was a disgrace to his breed, but I loved him.
And accepting! He never, ever showed discomfort. A chicken he might have been, but a stoic one.
At around six weeks of age, somehow -- I never did know how -- he got a paw stuck in the hinge of the panels of the puppy pen. He must have been rearing up for some reason and pushed out the fence trapping his foot. Did he cry? No. I found him later hanging there by one leg, looking dejected but without a sound as though his philosophy was "this is my fate; so be it!"
I think it was that combination of physical promise and total submission to life that caused me to select him as the puppy to keep. Always been a sucker for the needy ones.
Dick the hen-pecked
Poor Dick grew up with his mother, Shirley, his sister and litter-mate Alice and his grandmother, the grand matriarch of the kennels, Tess, who'd as soon give him a good whopping as look at him. But then she felt pretty much the same about all of us -- me included. She used to like to pinch me with her front teeth if she thought I was being disrespectful, and I walked through life with a collection of purple bruises on my thighs from her chastisements (though I told people my husband did it... I mean who wants to admit they have a dog who abuses them? Another story for another hub -- I know.) We all respected Tess.
Shirley and Alice used to love to play the "hunt" game with Dick. Now, understand mastiffs were bred to be big game hunters and they work in pairs. They are surprisingly fast and agile -- at least if they're well bred -- capable of running down their prey and dispatching it with their great strength. Well, the two bitches would invite the gullible young Dick to romp and he'd joyfully race the full length of the field with them. Until -- at some secret signal, the two bitches went in for the kill. They'd crash into him, grab the loose skin of his neck -- all at full speed, you understand -- and send him tumbling ass over head, then pick at him until he lay flat out on the ground in total surrender. When the girls had tired of the game, he'd slink off, tail between his legs, his tiny pride dashed. Of course, Tess would give him a good view of her teeth as he passed, and then turn her authority on her daughter and granddaughter, admonishing them for having too much fun.
Yes, Dick was the brunt of everyone's malice.
And he fell for it every time -- like Charlie Brown who believed that Lucy would not pull back the football, this time. I used to wonder how any animal could be quite that dumb. But he was.
Fear and Dog Shows
Dick’s fearfulness grew with his size. He was afraid of thunder (okay – who isn’t?) of fireworks, of gunfire (remember this is rural Alberta) of backfiring vehicles, of my husband’s sneezes… At one point he was stung by a wasp and grew fearful of buzzing insects, once trying to climb a six foot fence to get away from a bee. He was afraid of football games on the TV, of plastic bags caught on the fence that blew in the wind – and oh horror! – the Remax hot air balloon that sailed overhead. He was afraid of the vacuum cleaner, the dishwasher, the jetted tub, brooms, mops, spray cans (in fact anything that went psst!) He feared drapes that billowed in the breeze, bicycles, school buses, small dogs, the vet, pit bulls (one bit him,) cats, large birds, small children, raised voices. In fact it would be simpler to tell you what he wasn’t afraid of. He loved to ride in cars, provided he wasn’t asked to get out of it before getting home again.
Above all, he hated going to dog shows. Which, considering that was his job in life, posed a problem.
A sack of potatoes showed better than Dick. He was gorgeous. He was magnificent. Nothing around could touch him when it came to physical prowess. But he galumphed around the ring with his head and tail down, the picture of dejection. We went through so many handlers trying to find one who could work with him, but they all gave up. A couple couldn’t even get him out of our driveway. Dick plopped himself down, refusing to budge, staring at me in reproach.
Nothing worked. He hated liver treats, could care less about
toys. He went into zombie mode the minute you put on his show collar. He just
didn’t want to show. But he had to.So few mastiffs have that great bone structure, healthy joints, bulk and good proportions. The breed has suffered from too much mediocre breeding. Dick had what is lacking -- size, bone density, health. But without show credit...
Finally, I took on the job myself. Which meant I had to go to handling classes and learn what to do. And I did – just for Dick. I also knew his secret pleasure – bananas. Dick loved bananas. And if you don’t think I didn’t feel like a total fool trotting around the show ring baiting my dog with a banana… well I did! So did everyone else – but it worked.
Dick won often enough to get his championship. And promptly retired.
Dick the stud
Dick now had to prove himself as a stud. Quite a few people were waiting. No wonder; he was a beauty whose quality one doesn’t see every day. Now, my kennels didn’t produce a lot of puppies. We waited until we had a waiting list of good homes, did all available genetic testing and made the best matches we could.
The first’ lady’ to visit Dick was a beautifully put-together but small bitch by the name of Lizzy. She was brought to the kennel in the early stage of her ‘heat’ cycle and to say Dick was pleased to meet her would be an understatement. I don’t think I’d ever seen him so focused on anything other than his food bowl before.
Lizzy weighed around 135 pounds – like I said, small, but solid in her conformation. Dick outweighed her by more than a hundred pounds.
When the big day arrived, Dick performed with his usual aplomb.
He was a pig!
I’ve seen some males who really work at the job, scooping up the bitch with their front legs, carrying their weight on their own hindquarters – gentlemen, if you can apply the term to dogs.
Not Dick. He threw himself on her, his front legs hanging limply at her sides, forcing her to bear his weight and then pumped around blindly, hit and miss until only by sheer circumstances, he hit a homer. Her back legs bowed under the strain, but she stood like a rock. God only knows how.
I don’t know how many of you know about the breeding habits of dogs, but it really is quite bizarre and rather awe-inspiring. Once the male penetrates the female, her vagina clamps to hold the penis in place. At which point the male dismounts, turns 180 degrees to stand facing the other way – but his genitals are now twisted and his testicles are on top. (Yes, I’ve seen men wince at the sight.) They will stay, locked like that, for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, the male ejaculating off and on the whole time. While he has access to a female in heat, the male may mount her two or three times a day, for three to four days in a row, with no noticeable reduction in sperm count. (Pretty impressive. Now you know why there are so many dogs!)
Dick and Lizzy had a successful breeding and Lizzy returned to us to have her pups under my care.
That was the first of Dick’s stud jobs. When those pups began to be seen at six months in the puppy ring, the demand for Dick’s ‘seed’ grew. Soon, his semen was traveling places without him. I always intended to have some frozen and put in storage for posterity.
Too bad I didn't.
Three years into his breeding career, Dick developed a testicular infection and was neutered to safeguard his health.
He became a eunuch. Not that it changed him much. He never was Mr. Testosterone.
Dick’s pups are all over the North American continent. They include several show champions in Canada and the US, a couple of working dog titles, and a champion pulling dog in British Columbia who at a year of age pulled 1,400 pounds. More are simple family companions. I keep in contact with many of the families who've adopted one of Dick's pups. Sadly, a few have died. Despite all the genetic testing in the world, some things like heart anomalies, late developing cancer or other life-threatening conditions will sometimes appear. And the oldest of his pups are now approaching seven, and seven is getting on in the mastiff world.
Here are some pictures of his offspring.
Dick in retirement
For the rest of his life, Dick had only one job. At least in his own mind. And that was to stay as close to me as he possibly could. People used to say, "Oh, he's so protective of you." Yeah, right! It was so I could protect him; we both knew that, but in deference to what little pride Dick had, I'd nod and go along with the lie.
We adopted an abandonned Chihuahua to protect us. But he didn't last long. When you're used to the sedate mastiffs, quiet, humble and agreeable, a busy, demanding little dog who pees in the house just doesn't work. The Chihuahua found a new home and it's working out well.
Dick liked life in Florida. He became a real home-body, going out to pee and back in the house again. If I tried to take him for a walk, he went as far as the property line and refused to go farther, and it's not like I could force him. If I went out, he went to sleep. When I came home, he was right by my side. He slept beside my chair while I worked at the computer. On the floor by the couch if I was watching TV. In the middle of the kitchen if I was cooking. And beside my bed while I slept.
If I insisted on working the garden, he was right there lying beside me, moving every time I did but with a frustrated sigh. "Can't you stay put?"
To say I will miss him is such a paltry statement.
Writing this tribute to Dick and his life has left me feeling better. When I think of the impact this glorious but humble dog has had on his breed, I realize he lives on in so many ways. Who knows; maybe one of his puppies' puppies may find their way into my life.
Dick was the last, you see. The last of a long family line. Goodbye to Dick is also goodbye to Shirley, to Tess, to Alice, Didi, Diva, Rosie -- all of them. Goodbye to a large part of my life.
Goodbye, my cowardly lion.