This past weekend, we walked for about 12 miles in and around Hampstead and particularly enjoyed Hampstead Heath.
I was, naturally, fixated on observing all of the dogs, who get to run around the gigantic park off leash. Hampstead Heath is like an enormous, boundary-less dog park, and the dogs all appeared to be in heaven. And per usual here in London, they were all behaving beautifully. I didn’t see a single fight or tussle. Many of the dogs ignored each other, and if they did stop to greet each other, it was very brief and polite.
Quick phone photos of a small fraction of all of the dogs we saw:
(*The only anxious dog I saw was a German shepherd puppy. Go figure. We asked to pet her, and she was a fluffy bundle of nerves, about 12 weeks old. She was crying because she couldn’t bite the wheels of a child’s tricycle. Her back hocks were horribly misshapen and she had no strength at all in her back end. I hate seeing that. I really do.)
More than anything, this park made me wish our girls could have been raised in London. I daresay they would have been so much more well-adjusted in public, if they had had regular access to such immense and beautiful off-leash places. Definitely something to keep working on once we come home in August.
Visiting this park inspired me to visit more of the parks in our area back home. We don’t have an off-leash space quite to this degree of magnificence, but we do have some safe trails to practice recall. I am inspired!
Do you have an off-leash area near where you live?
Eden was our belated Christmas present to ourselves last year. The day before we left for Christmas vacation, I received a brief, excited email from the vice president of the German shepherd rescue that we fostered for (and from whom we adopted Pyrrha). She knew that we were looking for a friendly, confident young dog to add to the family — as a companion for Pyrrha, who thrives in the company of other dogs, and as a reward for Guion, in a sense, for so patiently abiding with a dog who feared and disliked him, through no fault of his own.
“I think I have a puppy for you,” she wrote, attaching a photo of a smiling 4.5-month-old Edie (then named Eva) sitting between the legs of an older man. We were instantly smitten and told her we’d “foster” the puppy for a few weeks and decide if we wanted to keep her. “Everyone who has met her wants to keep her,” the vice president wrote, “but I want you guys to have first dibs.”
Eden was purchased as a puppy from a Maryland breeder (specializing in West German imports and schutzhund) by a well-to-do young family, with three small children. The family, although they took good care of the puppy, was unprepared for the level of insanity and energy that a working-line German shepherd entailed. Instead of being returned to the breeder (which struck me as a black mark on the breeder’s record), she was surrendered to the rescue.
She was first evaluated to see if she’d be suitable for police work, owing to her immense amounts of energy, but she failed that test, as she lacked focus and would rather jump on and kiss the handlers instead of completing the task at hand.
Cassie, our rescue contact, brought her to meet me at the same Petco where we met Pyrrha, on a very rainy, gross day at the end of December. Eden bolted through the automatic doors and ran right up to me, ready for pets. We sat on the wet floor of the Petco and talked for a while about the puppy’s background. The family who gave her up sent her with a box of expensive toys, deer antlers, high-quality kibble, and a pricey collar.
“She has just one physical defect,” Cassie said, gently opening Eden’s mouth. Panting happily, I quickly saw the issue; this puppy was missing a good chunk of her tongue. “Apparently, they had her in doggy daycare, and she was attacked by an older dog,” she said. “But she doesn’t seem bothered by it at all.” Indeed, she didn’t seem the least bit frightened of other dogs, who kept coming in and out of the Petco as we talked. Eden seemed to see them all as potential playmates.
She got along with Pyrrha easily from the first day. As you can see from the photo above, she was immediately respectful of Pyrrha’s space. But as she got more comfortable in our house, she became more gutsy and bold and started getting testy around her food bowl (when Pyrrha approached, never with us). We started working on that from Day 1, and I’m happy to say that her resource guarding issues are greatly diminished.
Truthfully, the girls are probably not the most ideal pairing of dogs. Don’t get me wrong — they get along beautifully 90% of the time. But they are not in love with each other, like Ruby and Boca, for example. They are both stubborn, strong-willed, and relatively high-strung bitches. But when they play together in the morning, racing in wild loops of tag games and tossing out play bows with abandon, it warms one’s heart considerably.
Eden also likes to kiss Pyrrha’s mouth in the morning, after breakfast. Sometimes, she sticks a good part of her muzzle into Pyrrha’s open jaws, as if hunting for treasure (food remnants, more likely). It seems like a dangerous gambit — someone’s going to lose an eye! — but they enjoy this ritual and observe it regularly.
She LIVES to PLAY. Play is just about the only thing that matters in her universe. She has a devotion to fetching that parallels a retriever’s, and her athletic, acrobatic displays in catching items mid-air have become spectacular.
To keep everyone sane, Guion has been wonderfully faithful about morning Frisbee games with Eden. This, naturally, has made him her favorite human, which was part of the goal in adopting her in the first place, so that poor Guion could have a dog of his own.
If Guion doesn’t move fast enough for her liking in the morning, she begins to emit a series of excitable whines and cries, often seeming to mimic an aboriginal song, with moans and ululations. She prances around him, singing and shrieking, until he pulls his boots on. And then: Silence. GAME FACE.
A few months after we got her, she started dropping weight and not gaining it back, to a dangerous degree. She had dipped to a mere 43 pounds by the end of January. The vet ran all sorts of tests; nothing was conclusive (no worms, no giardia). I was convinced that she had the debilitating disease EPI (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency), which is common in shepherds. But we ran the expensive series of tests for that and those also came back negative. Finally, the vet tried a more intensive version of the giardia test that we’d done earlier, and there we had it: Little babe was riddled with giardia. She then passed it on to Pyrrha, and we spent about two-and-a-half (very expensive) months getting them healthy again. I am happy to report that she is now healthy and stable and weighs in at 56 pounds, which seems just about perfect for her.
Eden is bold with eye contact. She wants to stare deeply into your eyes and hold you there in her gaze, unblinking. Pyrrha cannot handle this kind of intense eye contact, even with me; it is too much for her. But not Edie. She wants to look deep into your soul and learn all of your secrets.
She loves to bark. To announce her presence! To inform the neighborhood that she is large and in charge! It’s not usually a protective bark. (The protective bark we’ve heard from her a few times, and that is a distinctly different, dangerous timbre. She actually sounds frightening when she pulls that one out.) But her typical bark is far from scary. It’s heraldic, joyful, self-important.
Eden is growing sweeter, I think. Just as a teenager gradually becomes less self-absorbed and starts to recognize the presence of other beings around her.
She is especially docile and cuddly in the evenings. It is my favorite time with her. She is a positive terror in the mornings, so much so that I almost never have a peaceful breakfast, but when the sun goes down, she is ready to be a placid dog. She wants to sit at your feet, or lean against your chair, or hop up on the sofa and put her sweet little head on your shoulder. I think she is saying, Here I am. Right here. Don’t forget to love me.
My imagination has constructed a vivid backstory for Pyrrha, composed of stories from the rescue workers who sprung her from that prison in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The images, although they are entirely created in my mind, often make me too sad. I do have some facts about her. She was called Katie then, and she lived her whole life in a small wire pen with a plastic doghouse in it, on top of which she liked to sit. A man named John kept her and her family members in similar states of neglect. He tossed kibble at them through the chain-link fences a few times a day. This was the extent of their human interaction. Katie was scheduled to become the next breeding bitch, but then John got tired of the work and upkeep and told the rescue he would kill all the dogs he had if they didn’t come get the animals in the next few days.
Her half-brothers, Archer and Ammo, were so psychologically damaged and so emotionally attached to one another that when the rescue tried to separate them to send them to separate foster homes, Archer scaled a 7-foot-tall privacy fence to get back to his brother. They did finally separate them, but Ammo died just about a year later, from a cause unknown to me. All of the shepherds sprung from that operation, Pyrrha’s family, were surprisingly gentle. They were afraid of everything, but they never lashed out at people.
We met Pyrrha in a small grassy area outside of a Petco. Her foster mom had a puppy in a tote bag and Pyrrha on a pink leash. She was being called Lyndi then. She was too afraid to greet us, to interact with us in any meaningful way, but I saw this beautiful, damaged dog and instantly made up my mind to take her. She sat on Guion’s feet in the grass, and this was enough to convince us.
We, of course, had no idea all that would go into raising an extremely fearful German shepherd. Our first dog. We renamed her Pyrrha after one of the towns in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which we had been reading together at the time. She hid from us in corners of the house for days after we adopted her. Truthfully, I am surprised that my first instinct wasn’t to return her. She was so unlike any dog I had known. I had never really been around a deeply anxious dog before. But I was instantly committed to her. Whatever it took to get her to a stable state, we were going to do it. She wasn’t going to be returned again.
Objectively, she is a very beautiful dog. I am often surprised at how sound she is, considering her background. She has had no serious health issues (knock on wood), and her build is stronger and sounder than most purebred shepherds; none of the exaggerated back end, sloped hocks, etc. People often tell me that she is the lovelier of the two dogs, the more ladylike one, the more graceful one. Her coat is a light cream in most places, and I imagine she will fade to almost pure white in her old age.
Pyrrha likes to moan and happily growl when she does her morning stretches. Or when she is receiving a particularly good petting session. Sometimes she sounds like a bear. Or a corpulent man waking up from a nap.
She is most truly happy and carefree when:
Someone is giving her meat.
She is playing with other dogs.
She is exploring the outdoors off leash.
Otherwise, she seems to reside in a perpetual state of unease. Or perhaps hyper-awareness?
I am thankful for her behavior with house guests, because we have a ton, and she is generally good with them all. There have been moments when she is unhappy about an unfamiliar man entering the house, especially if I am not around, but she warms up to them quickly after the initial shock. She is, however, a huge fan of women and meticulously inspects lady crotches as soon as they cross the threshold of our house.
The only man she loves is my brother-in-law Alex. She treats him with the same energy and devotion as she treats women she likes, which I hope he finds to be a compliment. My best guess is because Alex is quiet and sensitive. He always interacts with her in the way that she prefers, which is not to seek her attention, but to give attention when she asks for it. When he visits us, she will happily spend an hour at his feet, a scene which leaves me constantly marveling.
Sometimes, for reasons I cannot detect, in the safety and quiet of our home, she will come up to me with her ears pinned back to her head. There is nothing awry that I can tell; no one is acting in a threatening manner toward her; Guion is in another room. And so I pet her and speak to her soothingly, and then gently push her ears forward. I don’t know if this actually improves her mood, but I like to think it does. In the same way that pop scientists say that sitting still and forcing yourself to smile, even if you are not happy, will make you feel happier.
She adores other dogs, which is something that strangers would probably never guess, based on her on-leash reactivity toward them. On walks, she acts like she wants to murder every dog she sees. But leash-free in a wide space? She is totally thrilled by their presence.
Fostering six German shepherds with her in our tiny house was a marvelous experience. Having other dogs in the house really opened her up and created space between her and her myriad fears. She loved Brando best, of all the fosters we had, although she and Rainer got quite close as well (probably because we had him the longest). Laszlo was very annoying to her, because he was the baby, but she treated him with gentleness all the same. We never had to worry about her behavior when other dogs were afoot; she’d never start a fight or push buttons unnecessarily. She was just happy to exist in a space with more of her kind.
Pyrrha is a consummate huntress. She has a killer instinct. In another life, she could have been a homesteader’s hunting companion. She’s not a retriever; she doesn’t want to work with you to find something you killed; she wants to kill the thing herself. Early on in her life with us, she caught a live squirrel in her mouth. While on a leash. It is still one of the most impressive things she’s ever done.
She stalks small animals with serious devotion. Eden has no such honed hunting instincts, but she watches Pyrrha’s behavior, and when Pyrrha starts to get into stalking mode while on a walk, having spotted a squirrel or a bird or a cat, Eden will mimic her, even though it’s clear Eden has no idea what on earth we could be hunting.
Her life seems to have meaning again when I am home. You haven’t been loved like this until you’ve found a dog who thinks you hung the moon and the stars. It’s intense. And as flattering as it is, I also recognize it as debilitating. Her attachment to me prevents her from happy, carefree interactions with other people. I am repeatedly told that she can’t settle down if I am gone. At my parents’ house, she runs from room to room, looking for me, if I am absent. At our home, it’s more that she sinks into a state of total detachment.
But her eyes light up when I return, and she leans against me and smiles and smiles.