Lesson #3: The exact right dog will always come into your life just when you need him most.
I first laid eyes on Dante in the parking lot of a Gibson's discount store in Montrose, Colorado, when his breeder brought him to meet me at the agreed-upon time. A man I met briefly had just lost a Wolfhound named Zaephod, and though this man and I had nothing whatsoever in common, and I would not have even considered taking a restaurant recommendation from him, there was something about the way he talked about Zaephod that stayed with me for years. I knew nothing of breeders and their varying scruples at the time, as all my other dogs had been pound rescues. I saw an ad for Wolfhound puppies in the Denver Post one day and without doing the slightest bit of research, called the number and bought a dog.
In the seven years since that day, I have heard many things about various breeders, few of them complimentary. I have heard the words "puppy mill" used in connection with their names. I have heard about those who breed sick dogs to sick dogs to make a buck or two off the litter, with little or no regard for the future of the puppies that they sell. I have no way of knowing whether any of that is true of Dante's breeder, but it strikes me that if you're out to make a buck, breeding dogs who eat enough to double their body weight six times during the first twelve weeks of their lives might not be the very best strategy.
What I do know is that Dante has had chronic health problems since he was a little more than a year old. The first thing we discovered was that his heart is unnaturally large, irregular, and growing; his heart function dips as low as 18 percent of normal from time to time. The second thing was cancer: He was diagnosed with osteosarcoma during the week that he turned four.
For his heart he takes digoxin and enalapril, a combination of fairly sophisticated drugs that keeps his heart function stabilized around 40 percent without any dramatic side effects, and he gets an ultrasound scan twice a year. For his osteosarcoma he had four failed limb-sparing surgeries, an eventual amputation, six rounds of chemotherapy (which did have rather severe side effects), and he now needs a follow-up chest X ray every three months, which will continue for the rest of his life.
Because we spend half the year in Colorado and half the year in California, Dante has two sets of specialists: oncologists, radiologists, cardiologists, orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors, massage therapists, and reiki masters. To speak in the leftover language of my father, Dante is currently a thirty-thousand-dollar dog.
Having said all that, would I have traded him for a healthy dog from a breeder who only fed the puppies organic wheat germ, and kept perfect records, and refused to breed any dog that had a shadow of disease anywhere in his genealogy? Never in a thousand billion years.
I don't really expect you to believe me, but I've got to say it anyway: Dante is the wisest, kindest, most loving, most elegant dog to have ever graced this planet. If on top of cardiomyopathy and osteosarcoma he had diabetes, leukemia, hip dysplasia, a liver shunt, gingivitis, and a tape worm, I would still have considered myself the luckiest girl in the universe to have known him, to have learned from him, during his much-too-short time here on earth.
If the gods bring to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen.
So begins one of my favorite poems, "Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World," by Jane Hirshfield. The world gives us everything we need just when we need it, and when we are really lucky, it takes the form of a big gray three-legged drippy-nosed dog.