I was always something of a "cat lady," having been raised with my mother's Siamese as a girl and then always having a pair of felines in our household as a married woman. My husband and I even bred and showed Maine Coons for a period of time – a kind of empty nest pastime that grew into a passion for a while. But somewhere lurking in Greg's and my subconscious had always been the desire to have a dog – and not just a small lap dog – the kind appropriate for apartment living in the New York metropolitan area – but a real dog – something big, strong, powerful, impressive!
No sooner had we set about to build a house and move to Brunswick, Maine, than we began our search for the perfect canine companion. We attended several dog shows, talked to breeders, did our research. We both wanted a water dog, and Greg, far more of an outdoors person than I, imagined taking his pooch with him in the canoe he would buy and the boat he hoped to sail. I imagined taking the pup to dog shows and competitive obedience classes. Greg seemed set on a Labrador Retriever for quite a while, but it was a visit to a water rescue demonstration held by the Newfoundland Club of New England that changed our minds for good.
These giant bear dogs astounded us with their strength and skill, "rescuing" drowning humans, pulling boats to shore with ropes in their teeth, and diving below the surface to find "victims." And not only were they heroic when focused on a task they were born for, but once back on shore with their handlers, they were big, goofy, gentle, gallumping creatures hard to resist.
And so, having settled fully into our Brunswick home, we made plans to adopt our very first dog. Greg insisted on a male – the bigger, the better – and we found a recommended breeder and a puppy back in New Jersey. We named him Rufus – Amity's Sea Dog Rufus, actually – and brought all twenty-five pounds of him home one late September afternoon. Rufus made himself immediately at home, taking a very proprietary attitude about "his" domain. He approved of his large back yard and enjoyed his rather fancy outdoor kennel which allowed him to watch everything that took place on the trail that ran alongside and in the woods beyond. He adapted well to the routines we imposed, beginning with a 6:30 a.m. walk around the neighborhood, followed by a grooming session, breakfast, naptime, playtime…..
Like new parents intent on doing everything "right," we enrolled him in puppy class and were thrilled with his quick acumen for the first six weeks. But by the time Rufus was ready to start intermediate class, he had grown to 110 pounds at just 8 months, and he was beginning to have a mind of his own. He balked at the slippery linoleum floors in the entrance hall to the gymnasium in Bath, where the classes were held, and staged a weekly sit-down strike, requiring us to tug and slide him into the room. He was also a bit rambunctious on his walks, and it definitely became a two-person job to manage his pulling. Where he was the happiest, however, was in the water. Greg and I decided to train him seriously to swim and prepare for water rescue. For six months we traveled to New Hampshire each Sunday to a wonderful canine oasis called "Doggie Dome" – an indoor swimming
facility for dogs – where he and Greg swam together and began the rudiments of the rescue regimen, while I watched and took pictures.
There was something Zen about these sessions – an hour where dog and man were bonded together, focused on a single, synchronized task. I believe they were among the happiest hours Greg spent that last year.
Because on one cold day the following winter, when Rufus was 9 months old, 140 pounds, just starting lessons with a new trainer that very morning, Greg suffered a massive fatal heart attack while exercising on the treadmill at home. It was Rufus, whom I had just brought home from his walk, who sat whining by the door until I opened it to discover the terrible tragedy.
The next forty-eight hours were a complete blur, but sometime during the calls to family and friends, the making of funeral arrangements, and the arrival of folks from New Jersey, the thought crossed my panicked mind that I could not keep Rufus. Not only wasn't I physically strong enough to manage him, but I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I knew I would not have the time to finish raising him as he should be. I called the breeder and asked her to take him back. It was the first and only time in my life I had ever parted with a pet before the animal died. I hated myself, and yet I could see no other course. Our family friend, Peter, who had come up to help me in those days after, sadly loaded Rufus into his SUV and drove him back to New Jersey. I remember kissing the poor dog on the nose and looking into those sad brown eyes, and whispering, "God bless you, Rufus!"
To say that the next few years were the most painful of my life would be understatement, and I have written about them often in my fiction, but among all the things that needed sorting out for me was this persistent sense of "unfinished business" when it came to my life with a Newfoundland. Though Rufus completed his training, went on to a home in Long Island, and was apparently very content, and though the decision I made was the sane one for the moment, I began to feel keenly the absence of a canine presence. Newfs take up a lot of space and they are hard to ignore. Even when they are lying quietly nearby, you are aware of a force beside you, almost like having a human companion.
I began to toy with the idea of adopting another Newfoundland – this time with a few modifications. I would get a girl – almost 40-50 pounds difference ultimately; I would install some fencing; I would find the best trainers. And so with the help of some of my friends in the Newfoundland Club of New England, I found a breeder in Vermont who promised me a puppy from her next litter. The litter was born on the first Christmas Eve after Greg's death. There were two girls, and I put my deposit in for one, though I did not tell family and friends who would surely have questioned my sanity. On February 23, the first anniversary of Greg's passing, my friend Peggy and I drove to Vermont to collect my new baby
I named her Forever Sea Lady Ruffian – "Ruffian," after the thoroughbred filly –. Her breeder told me she was the fearless one in the litter, and I wasn't sure if that was going to prove a blessing or a curse. But at least for the beginning, it made her homecoming and our bonding delightfully easy.
Ruffian was curious, cuddly, and was eager to do anything I suggested. She learned quickly, excelled in obedience classes, loved romping outdoors, playing with box loads of toys – stuffed animals always her favorites – and yes, she LOVED swimming! I continued her lessons for a very long time at Doggie Dome, using the long drives to sort through my thoughts and memories. For two summers we spent every Sunday at Peggy's in New Hampshire doing water training with a group of other enthusiasts. Ruffian had the potential to be a star; it was her Mom who did not. I am an abysmal swimmer and am terrified of being in water over my head, so playing the "victim" or falling off a boat did not suit me very well, and after we had reached a certain level in the exercises, I realized it was prudent for us to give it up – at least as a competitive sport. But I continued to take her
throughout her life to a canine pool in Cape Elizabeth where she swam for pleasure.
Water was Ruffian's passion. I told the story last month of how she mortified me in Saratoga's Congress Park by diving not once but twice into the fountain. On that same vacation, the house we rented had a pool, and as I was bringing Ruffian down to the yard, she spied the water, broke off the leash and dove THROUGH the porch screen making a beeline for the water.
She also enjoyed Rallye, and we trained at that AKC sport for several years. Though I was a terrible handler, she did win some events when handled by a professional and she earned her Rallye Novice title. We never did garner the next title because off lead, her "fearlessness" and impulsiveness usually proved too much. Once, she finished half the course and then bounded off to steal some treats from a bystander along the sidelines. Another time, almost at the finish, she saw the toys which were to be the prizes on the
judges' table, and to my chagrin, she simply helped herself to one and trotted off.
But as unorthodox as all this was for those who took the events far more seriously than I, there was never any doubt that Ruffian was a creature full of life. She loved her sports; she loved jumping hurdles like a dressage horse in the backyard, but she also loved getting pretty. She enjoyed the groomer, posed for pictures, wore a different flower on her harness for each season, and even allowed bows in her ears on special occasions. There was quite simply a joie de vivre about her.
And so when she contracted lymphoma just before the age of six, I was not prepared for the sad and sudden decline. She responded to the oncologist and the chemotherapy well for a few weeks, and then she crashed. The decision was obvious, and though I had helped many a pet cross the Rainbow Bridge over the years, saying goodbye to Ruffian was unspeakably hard. She had been my rescuer for six years; she had watched me pull myself out of the desperation and gloom of losing Greg and refashion a life that had meaning. She had been with me as I reclaimed my press credentials and took up journalism again, as I published five works of fiction and began to work for a theatre company I loved and found special friends who loved me. She was the constant through all of this and all at once she was gone. The feeling was all too familiar.
I knew I couldn't wait too long to welcome home another puppy. I made arrangements and waited for the summer theatre season, which is insanely busy, to finish. On a September day, a friend and I drove to Massachusetts to collect Mariah, from a breeder who had worked with Rufus' breeders. In keeping with the horse motif, I called her Bowater Mariah's Storm after a brave filly who came back from injury to win the Breeder's Cup.
Mariah's homecoming should have been a tip off for me. This puppy was drama queen personified. Having never been crate trained, when we put her in the huge crate in the back of my van, she proceeded to screech and howl for two solid hours. Arriving home, I attempted to take her into the backyard to do her business. There are two very shallow steps from the deck to the lawn. Mariah was terrified! No amount of coaxing would work, and only carrying her onto the lawn did the trick. She evinced no interest whatsoever in the numerous toys and could not be bribed with treats. The first few nights of crate training were sheer torture. The one encouraging sign was that she wanted to be wherever I was. One of twelve puppies in a bustling household, she was experiencing, I imagine, her version of separation anxiety. Our being together so much did allow us to bond
quickly and to this day wherever I am - at the computer, watching television, in bed, Mariah is very close by.
Unlike Ruffian, Mariah is a bit of a tomboy. She likes going to groomer's because there is water involved, but no sooner is she all cleaned and brushed and beautiful than she heads for the nearest mud puddle or pile of leaves to roll around. She is a champion drooler – Newfs are as a breed - but the extent has to do with the jowls among other things. And not only does Mariah drool. But she shakes her head and sends a blanket of spray everywhere. Not for the faint-hearted!
Mariah completed her puppy and adult classes and even got her Canine Good Citizen designation – heaven knows how – but she showed no interest in some of the AKC sports Ruffian had. We would try to do exercises in the backyard, but she was unmotivated by food and lost interest after a short while. Only swimming delighted her, as it had both Rufus and Ruffian. The first time I took her to Cape Elizabeth, she did not even wait for me to put on the life vest; she DOVE into the deep end of the pool and unfazed began swimming without hesitation.
Because my own schedule had become virtually full time again with writing and theatre work, I enlisted some help with Mariah. Besides taking her to daycare which she enjoys every bit as much as Ruffian did, I hired a dog walker, who rapidly became her best friend. I think it is safe to say Mariah's happiest time of day is her walk through the woods with Carl or the hiking or beach adventures he sometimes takes her on with his own family. She is, like the entire breed, obsessively fond of children. She will pull Carl's girls through the water and romp with them on the beach.
But perhaps the most touching evidence of her intuitive love for kids came one day when a friend brought her autistic grandson with her to visit. Elliott sat on the floor face-to-face with Mariah and allowed her to lick his face while he giggled and squealed, "I love you, Mariah." After a while, the two settled back and just sat gazing at each other. Mariah didn't move, and her deep brown eyes seemed to caress and calm Elliott.
Newfs are energetic puppies and don't really settle into themselves until at least two years old. When we first got Rufus, a neighbor said to us, "There isn't a day when a dog doesn't make you laugh." This has certainly been true – each in his own way – of Rufus, Ruffian, and Mariah Though they are famously gentle and sweet-tempered, there is a mildly stubborn streak in all of them. I like to call it the Bartleby mode. Like Hermann Melville's curious scrivener, Newfs often simply "prefer not to." I have learned to recognize when Mariah is having a Bartleby moment, and because we are both older and wiser, I have learned to let it pass. At three and-a-half now, she is a most companionable dog – one who insisted in her slightly stubborn way to be taken on her own terms, but one who is loving and loyal and funny and sweet.
The one drawback is that like all large breeds, they are relatively short-lived. I know in my heart Mariah – for practical reasons of my age - will be my last Newf. It makes me sad to write those words, but at the same time, I would not wish to have missed out on these last twelve years – a time which, like the dogs themselves – has been a larger-than-life adventure.