The Unsinkable German Shepherd

This has nothing to do with politics

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I am on the wrong coast and I hate it here. It is soft and quiet and misty and the trees are majestic and everyone on the highway is very polite and I have not seen a single rat or heard a single car horn since I got here. I cannot live like this. How can anyone live like this.

I am here in Portland, Oregon, a place I once swore I’d never return to, because the dog that once lived with me and my ex-husband, then just with me, and now with just my ex-husband, is dying. This does not necessarily mean that she is going to die. Luna has been dying on and off for four years, but no one has told her this and anyway she’s always been stubborn and willful and frankly a bit of an asshole and she has so far simply refused to succumb to the nose cancer that has been trying to kill her since late 2019. With radiation treatment, they said, she might live 18 months if we were lucky. That was over four years ago. Who will bark at the passers-by, if she sheds this mortal coil? Who will eat liverwurst and gourmet hamburgers and whatever other nonsense my ex husband spoils her with?

Still, it’s not looking good. She is tired like I have never seen her tired. Her appetite goes in and out. Her nosebleeds are getting worse. She sounds like a Harley Davidson when she breathes. She has not barked at anyone in days. It is unfair to ask her to continue to live like this. I have promised her that, one way or another, she won’t have to feel like this for much longer.

In one week, Luna will go for her third round of radiation, because unlike me, my ex husband is sensible enough to be “employed in tech” with a “steady paycheck” and can afford to pour sacks and sacks of money into the German-Shepherd-shaped black hole that lives in his house. If he couldn’t, I’d have to work a diffferent job so I could. I paid for her first round of radiation back in 2019. Never did I ever think I’d be one of those people willing to pay this much for a dog, and I cannot explain to you rationally why I have become one of those people now. If you met her, I think you’d understand at least a little. She is a brilliant fluffy asshole with a million opinions who barks at anyone with the audacity to walk past her property as though she is going to tear them limb from limb and has never, ever been physically aggressive with anyone. She is the most manipulative creature I have ever met, her hustle is off the charts. I feel a deep kinship with this dog. She taught me how to love unconditionally. She is brave and good. What else is there to say?

The radiation should help. Luna’s tumor has grown — hence the Harley Davidson noises — but it has also demineralized, which is not something that is supposed to happen and which is very good news. The radiation should be more effective than it was last time. Aside from her German Shepherd hips and, you know, the cancer, she is ridiculously healthy for a thirteen-year-old. They can’t kill the tumor, but they can shrink it. They’ve done it twice before. This is the last time. You can only irradiate a dog so many times before there are Effects. We’ve hit that limit.

So we’ll see.

In April of 2014, my then-fiance and I had just bought a house, this house, the house I am in now. This house has a nice yard. I wanted a dog the way some women want a baby and, when we weren’t unpacking, I was spending a lot of time on Petfinder looking at Belgian Shepherds. I’d met a Malinois on my second deployment named Diesel 13 who was, apparently, an absolute killer in the field and also the biggest dork I have ever met. Just the goofiest, smartest boy. I knew a Malinois was probably a bit much for me as a first-time adult dog owner, but Groenendaels, another type of Belgian Shepherd, are slightly mellower, and also they are fluffy. We had a yard. I like to run. What could go wrong?

Thing is, there aren’t a lot of Belgian Shepherds in animal shelters, or at least there weren't back in 2014. If you want to look at pictures of Belgian Shepherds on Petfinder, you have to turn off geographical settings and look everywhere, which is what I very stupidly did, because I thought of myself as a rational and level-headed person who would never be emotionally destroyed by finding, say, a Belgian Shepherd mix named Sabrina at a kill shelter in Los Angeles who looked like a cheerful werewolf.

The listing had a video of Sabrina as well as the picture above, and she was frankly a bit of a mess. That crooked ear? They said in the video it was an ear infection but it looked torn to me, like something got ahold of her while she was wandering in the Hollwood Hills. The ear was Frankenstein-stitched together and half her head was shaved. She’d clearly just had puppies and her body had not yet bounced back. She was a hyperactive, overstimulated ball of nervous energy, but even in that agitated state showed no aggression. I fell instantly in love with her and did what I’d done with other Belgian Shepherds that seemed cool: I favorited the listing and checked back every day to see whether she’d been adopted so that I could imagine her in a forever home out in California, happy and healthy.

She did not get adopted.

Then she kept not getting adopted.

I looked it up. She had something like thirty days before her time ran out. I looked at the date on her listing. I watched the clock tick down.

I started having dreams about her. I fell asleep watching a UFC event and dreamed that the event was a tournament to see who would get to adopt Sabrina. In this dream, my then-fiance poked gentle fun at me for ever thinking that an amazing dog like Sabrina wouldn’t find a forever home when everybody obviously wanted her and then I woke up and started crying and my fiance said, hey. Seems like maybe you should go down and get her. I was clearly losing my mind, and worst case scenario we could drop her off at an Oregon shelter where dogs do not get put down.

I emailed the volunteer organization that had taken her picture and made the video and put her up on Petfinder, United Hope for Animals. It was her last safe day, but they got the shelter to give her a few more. I used frequent flyer miles to grab a flight down to LA and landed in the middle of a torrential downpour, the kind of thing that almost never happens down there. My sister lived in Pasadena at the time. I crashed with her.

The next day, we pulled up to the Baldwin Park Animal Shelter between Pasadena and San Bernadino: a collection of squat cement buildings in the middle of a warehouse district. We walked past rows and rows of dogs in kennels— sweet dogs, friendly dogs, wagging their tails and jumping against the doors to get our attention, dogs I could not and would not look at, on our way to the kennel that contained Sabrina, who looked at the volunteer but did not look at us at all.

Things had not gone well for Sabrina since the video. No dog does well in a confined space for extended periods of time, but working dogs do especially poorly and smart dogs do the worst of all. Shelter policy said that all dogs had to be spayed or neutered before adoption, but she was sick with kennel cough and it wasn’t safe to put her under, so they were willing to make an exception (though we had to pay extra as a deposit, to be returned when we showed proof of spaying).

The volunteer took her out of the cage and into the meet and greet area, where she made a beeline for the exit. “She knows how to open gates,” the volunteer explained, and blocked Sabrina’s attempt to flip the latch open. I tried to coax her over but there was no chance.

As I sat and watched her frantic, half-mad attempts at escape I had a moment of doubt. Disappointment. This was not the way I’d envisioned our meeting at all. But as the minutes wore on, it struck me just how amazing, how brave this fucked-up dog really was. Trapped in here, getting sicker and weaker every day. She might not know about euthenasia but she wasn’t stupid either: if she did not leave this place she would die. And so she was spending all her strength, all her energy, on trying to escape. With stakes that high, what kind of idiot would spend even a single second fawning over some weird stranger? In all likelihood she’d been in this enclosure several times over the past 30 days, and none of the people who visited her had done anything for her except for the volunteers at United Hope for Animals who had cleaned her up and taken her picture and posted her on Petfinder and socialized her when they could.

I was not at all sure I could handle this much dog, but I knew she had to live. If you’d asked me then, I would have told you that I saw myself in her. Nine years removed, I think the truth is that I saw something in her that I was missing, and that I needed very badly.

Around the time these thoughts solidified, Sabrina briefly abandoned her assault on the gate to make a single lap around the meet and greet area, sniffed my hand dismissively as she passed, then lunged for the gate once more.

Good enough. “I’ll take her.”

The volunteer wanted to take a picture of Sabrina riding away with us in the car with the window open but there was absolutely no chance of that happening. It took the volunteer, my sister, myself, and two leashes to get her into the car long enough to close the door. As I drove away, Sabrina jumped up and put her paws on either side of my head, from the back seat, and rested her head on top of mine. My plan was to drive the werewolf from LA to Oregon in one shot. I was beginning to wonder if we were going to make it to the veterinarian five minutes down the street in one piece.

Half an hour later we had antibiotics for the kennel cough and, thank God, some sedatives for the ride home. The maniac was beginning to calm down, more out of exhaustion, I thought, than anything else. I left her in the exam room while I went out to pay, but before I could slide my card, the vet tech came and got me. The moment the door closed behind me, the werewolf lost her shit. Could I please come back in?

I went back in, knelt down, and promised her that I would always come back. Gave the vet tech my credit card. This time, when we left, the dog got in the car on her own power. I dropped my sister off and found a park so Sabrina could stretch her legs while the sedatives took effect. While walking, we passed a large electrical box behind a wire fence that looked a lot like the fence at the shelter. The werewolf went berserk. Lunged at the gate. We’re on the right side of the fence, I told her as I pulled her away. It’s going to be OK.

I put her in the car, where she slept for sixteen hours while I drove straight through back to Oregon. By the time we pulled up to the house, I also wanted to sleep for sixteen hours but Sabrina made it very clear that this was not an option. We went for a walk. We were both home.

Over the next few weeks, Sabrina became Luna. Sabrina was timid and nervous and skulked around the back yard. Luna trotted with her head held high as she patrolled the perimeter. Sabrina refused to eat anything except for pieces of beef that my fiance cooked and fed to her by hand. Luna wolfed her food and stole anything we were foolish enough to leave on the counter. Like Sabrina, Luna knew how to open gates, but never once opened the gate that separated our back yard from the street. Why would she? This is her property. She lives here.

(Years later, during her first radiation treatment, Luna would unlock the kennel where they kept her before the zappings and then wander the hallways, drugged to the gills, in search of her people. The hospital staff never figured out how she did it.)

Luna did not understand toys at all. They were not made of meat; what did they have to do with her? We bought her rib bones and gave them to her raw, and she understood those well enough. “It’s weird that we just have a wolf in the house,” my fiance — husband, at that point —used to say. “She just lives here. And asks for belly rubs”

It took Luna six months to ask for a belly rub. The first time she flopped over, I was shocked. Once she learned that belly rubs were an option, she became much more insistant about it — but only to us, and to a few select people. She was polite to strangers, but distant.

The first time Luna saw the Willamette river, she stared at it for probably ten minutes, fascinated. After a few visits, she dared to wade in. A few visits later, she discovered she could swim. Maybe a year after she discovered swimming, Luna found the only game she would ever learn to play: fetch the stick out of the water. She will not fetch anything that is not a stick. She will not fetch a stick on land. But if there is water, and if there is a stick, she will play fetch until she is shaking from exhaustion, then fuss and whine as you drag her away to the car so she can pass out, soaking wet, in the back seat.

The first time Luna saw the ocean she lost her mind. I suspect that, as a herding dog, the unruly waves personally offended her. She would race back and forth along the sand, barking and nipping at them, and then, if you had a stick, charge into the waves to retrieve that stick for as long as you would throw it, utterly indifferent to the way the ocean tumbled her. Fearless, having the time of her life. On our first visit, she drank seawater and made herself sick. She never did that again.

Once, at the beach, we met a family with five kids. Like most kids Luna meets, they fell instantly in love with the werewolf in their midst. When they swam with her, they held onto her tail and pushed on her back, horsing around, no bad intent. I cautioned them to be more gentle with her, and they listened, but Luna never got upset, with them or with anyone else. In the nine years I have known her, she has never so much as growled at any human being.

It was autumn in 2019, the day of my cousin’s wedding, and I reluctantly got out of the hotel bed and stepped in something wet.

I’d seen a couple droplets of blood on her favorite chair the week before we left to drive to Colorado. She’d had a sneeze that had some blood in it, too. I was going to take her to the vet when we got home. Maybe the dry air. Probably nothing.

It was not nothing. Blood on the floor. Surely the bleeding would stop soon. I’d go to the wedding. I’d get her checked out the next day.

The bleeding did not stop. The bleeding got worse.

Two hours later, my mother and I were driving from rural Colorado to the nearest animal hospital, hours away. Luna lay in the back seat, bleeding and coughing still. Blood and chunks of god knows what on the floor, more blood than a dog ought to have in her whole body. We told her to hold on, that everything would be OK. We were both pretty sure that we were lying. Neither of us expected her to make it to the hospital.

But she made it anyway. She got two blood transfusions and, a few weeks later, after several X-rays and a CAT scan, a diagnosis.

I was in the bathroom at work when I got the phone call, in October of 2019. I do not tend towards public hysteria, but after we hung up, I cried on the bathroom floor for about ten minutes before pulling myself together, informing my supervisor that I was leaving, and going home.

This is when I became the kind of person who pays thousands of dollars for a dog’s radiation treatment. This is also when I quit my job, a few weeks later. I’ll be the first to admit that this is a poor combination of activities. But I had savings. I had a small inheritance, and some money from the divorce. And something about my best friend in the world getting sick with something so awful for no fucking reason rendered me unable to continue treading water in life, working a job I hated and wondering if I could ever make money doing anything else. She made me try. She made me look. She’s always made me better than I am.

When my husband and I got divorced in 2018 — amicable, or as amicable as these things can be — I moved into an apartment. Luna came with me.

I took Luna on walks twice a day — long ones. We went swimming. I thought it was enough. It wasn’t enough. I realized how enough it wasn’t when she stayed with my ex husband while I fucked off to various journalistic things. She loved the yard. She loved barking at people. She seemed years younger every time she went.

When I fled Portland and drove to Mexico in the summer of 2021, Luna stayed with him. About two weeks into my trip, he called me. I was moving to New York City, which was no place for a large active dog. What if she moved in with him instead?

It made sense. I’d been thinking along the same lines. That didn’t stop me from feeling like the world’s biggest asshole when I said goodbye and moved away forever. She was mad about it too. The first time I visited, Luna gave me quite the cold shoulder. After a day or two, though, she came around. It was the only decision I could have made, short of staying in Oregon and living a very different life. I don’t feel good about it, but it’s the decision I’d make again today. She loves her dad, and her dad loves her, and has taken incredible care of her, and she is happier here than she ever would be in NYC. I don’t think she’d have made it this long if I had taken her with me.

And now here we are, in 2024, and I am back in this house, and Luna is downstairs making Harley Davidson noises, not enjoying her yard, not barking at anyone, sometimes hustling me for treats, sometimes refusing to eat. She is about thirteen years old — very old for a German Shepherd, even without cancer. And she is a German Shepherd, by the way — I got one of those doggy DNA tests and there’s not a trace of Belgian Shepherd in her, despite looking quite a lot like one. The volunteers guessed wrong. She was mislabled. If they’d gotten it right, I never would have found her.

It’s all been extra time. All of it. Every minute she’s spent with us. All those times in the river, all those times by the sea. The red velvet cake she stole and demolished an hour before I was supposed to take said cake to my thesis orals. The time she threw up directly into the heater vent and the entire house smelled like dog vomit for a month. The time she saw a deflated foil balloon in the park at night, swaying in the wind, and her hackles raised all the way up and she growled and stalked forward and eventually realized that it was just a balloon and calmed down but it was a side of her I’d never seen before and have never seen since and there was nothing funny about it: she was ready to throw down to protect us, ready to do whatever it took for her family. In a week we will take her in for her third and final round of radiation, together, and the radiation will make her pretty weak for a while, her nose will be inflamed and whatever the radiation kills will drain out and it will smell terrible and she will continue to be tired, so tired, and eventually the inflamation will subside and we will know whether it is time to let her go or whether she will once again say “not today” to death, and rise up, and continue to inform this neighborhood that she lives here and they’d better not fuck around, lest they find out: Luna, noblest of dogs: unsinkable.

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