After our beloved Leonberger rescue Bella died unexpectedly, it was only a matter of months until Ruby arrived into our lives. I thought I wanted to honor Bella's life with the absence of a dog, because Bella was so important to me: a dog who had truly filled an emptiness in my heart. Bella was all mine, by-my-side, beautiful, smart but timid, silly and clumsy. Maybe as I imagined the daughter I never had?
Every day Bella made my family laugh, belly laugh, as she moved through the house with the grace and coordination of a train car off its tracks. After 10 years of love, laughter and calamity came Bella's sudden death and our home became unsettling and unbearably quiet. The collective sadness of our family physically weighed on each of us: the grief was heavy and relentless. Within days after she died, I reached out to a breeder who, miraculously, was able to understand the question between my sobs. "Do you have any puppies available?"
Weeks later, when the puppies were ready "to go", I collected my boys and took the drive to "just look". You know how that scene ends, happy kids and a wiggly puppy in the backseat on a car ride home: we laughed together for the first time in what felt like forever.
"Ruby" was 8 weeks old when we brought her home. At this point in my life, I've raised and trained a lot of dogs. Among them we've had our challenges: a Shepherd who was aggressive, a Labrador Retriever with food issues (imagine that?) and a French Bulldog who wanted to rule the world. I handled each of them a little differently, a firm hand for Sonja, patience and lots of exercise for Bill, and Daisy had to be reminded she was a dog, a dog who we loved like family, but "just a dog" nonetheless. No throne in her future, just a cozy bed on the hearth of the fireplace.
This girl Ruby...I couldn't put my finger on her needs. She seemed bright, trainable, strong and docile, usual traits for a Leonberger. But I had a hard time house-breaking her and she did not respond to usual commands. She would not "sit" when I told her to, she wouldn't come when I called to her, she preferred to lie down, especially on the cool, soothing earth under the birch tree in our yard.
As Ruby grew, it became evident that she was physically challenged and is significantly handicapped. We discovered that she has osteochondrosis dissicans in both knees and had a fragmented coronoid process in one elbow. In plain speak, she is an orthopedic disaster.
Because we are in the business of fixing animals, we were optimistic that her conditions could be corrected if not by us, by some of the many specialists we have worked with over our years of practice. Rube's first evaluation was by a friend of ours who is a boarded veterinary surgeon. He is brilliant and skillful and when I asked him for the "good" news, he looked at me very matter-of-factly and said, "There isn't any. " But we still attempted to fix Rube's elbow, thinking that any stabilization of one of her limbs could help her.
Our second reach was to a veterinary orthopedist who specializes in knees (yes, these people exist!) We drove our pup to Tufts Veterinary School in Grafton, the very same place Jeff and I first met. After performing a Cat Scan on her knees, even the specialist was taken aback. He'd seen only one other case like hers before. Although very concerned about Rubes concurrent conditions, he consulted with some of his colleagues and came up with a plan, and that day we were put on a wait-list for a cadaver cartilage to replace the non-functioning cartilage in Rube's "good" knee. If that worked, we would address the second knee. At this point, the elbow surgery had not been as successful as we had hoped, and we were desperate to do anything to help our puppy.
Weeks later we got a call that a cadaver part had been harvested and we needed to schedule surgery right way. We can't say enough about the wonderful care both Ruby and our family received at Tufts. The students at Tufts were so bright and energetic and eager to help. They swooned over our mammoth dog, a gentle giant whose best and worst quality is her love of people. It is her best when that person loves dogs back, but her worst when she imposes herself on people who would rather not be demanded 140 pounds of her furry affection. The cadaver implant surgery was a technical success, but a practical failure. That is how some surgeries go, and we knew going into this expensive and time consuming process, there were no guarantees. We tried one more corrective surgery to her knee and again, without success. So our big 18 month old pup is feeling the wear and tear of the joints of a much older dog, and although she is not suffering, we are beginning to face questions about her quality of life. Rube loves us and trusts us. She knows that when the time comes, we will make the heart-wrenching decision to let her go, far sooner than we ever imagined we would have to do so.
In spite of Rube's condition, I am so glad she is ours. Like my Bella, she is a Mama's girl and wags her tail wildly in the morning as we exchange wet kisses. After that, we share toast and she gets her morning pills. And after that, I watch my stiff -legged puppy go outside and often lie under the birch tree: when the time comes, I think that is the place she will rest forever.
We share our personal story because we each have our own stories. We love these beasts we choose as family and in their own indiscernible ways, they steal our hearts as no person can. It is not lost on Jeff or me, or anyone on our staff, that medical choices, especially end of life decisions are among the most difficult and confounding decisions that that we will ever have to face in our lifetimes.
Rube is still with us for now and she is happy. Rube's breeder (who has also never seen the likes of Rube's orthopedic issues in any of her litters) offered us up a healthy pup this past summer. And although "Dory" won't add years to Rube's life, she has certainly added life to her years. The "crazy Leo sisters" roll around the yard everyday and play for hours. It's as if Dory understands her unique purpose and we are grateful for her, and her wisdom.
So for now, all is well.