It was a different world than the one we live in now. The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City were still years away, and we were all blissfully unaware that such a horrific event could transpire on American soil.
My name is Gary A. Donahue, but my friends call me GAD, which is an acronym formed from my initials. In September 1997 I celebrated my 33rd birthday and two weeks later my lovely wife, Lauren, celebrated her 32nd . We had been married for two years, and had just moved into our first house – a wonderful bi-level on two acres in rural New Jersey. We were young, eager, and ready to take on life. I was working as the manager of Engineering for a small Internet Service Provider (ISP) called Planet Access Networks before the big telecom companies had all but destroyed the small ISP’s ability to survive.
Our house was 30 years old, but it was in perfect condition. It had beautiful new wall-to-wall carpets in a wonderful shade of light green, and a new complement of Anderson double-pane windows and sliding glass doors. It was immaculate, had lots of land, and was in a wonderful upper middle class area that had great schools and a great atmosphere. It was the perfect environment for kids: kids that we did not yet have.
Lauren and I both tend to let fear of the unknown prevent us from taking the next steps in our lives. We had just bought a house, and the next step according to, well, apparently everyone, was to fill it with babies. Frankly, the idea was terrifying, though deep within my wife’s brain was an ancient voice screaming its singular incessant message: BABIES! NOW!
I usually allow fear to prevent me from action for only so long before I then say to myself screw it and jump in whole-hog. That’s how we bought the house; we were both convinced that it wasn’t possible until I finally said screw it and talked to a mortgage broker. A few months later, on what was possibly the hottest day in history, our friends helped lug our ridiculously heavy and numerous belongings into our new immaculate home with the beautiful light green carpet.
I also tend to be an “all or nothing” kind of guy, so if I do something, I do it all the way. For example in 1997 I tested for my second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Why? Because having the rank of first degree wasn’t good enough. Some may call me obsessive, though I prefer to think of myself as thorough. My wife describes me as quirky. Most people probably just think I’m nuts.
My wife, by comparison, is more relaxed than I am. While I can’t stand it if there’s a speck of dust on my windshield, she will drive for weeks with dirt so thick on the glass that I wonder if she can see outside the car at all. I will obsess for weeks researching all of the options while shopping for a very specific item. Lauren will walk into the store and say, “I like the red one”, and then buy it without remorse. I am an absolutely, fully committed control-freak. Lauren is happy to let life happen the way it does, except where it is in her best interest to be a control freak. Usually, in any given situation, our different views will average to something that makes sense.
Life was good in our nice clean house but something was missing. Our life was quiet, and it was quiet largely due to the fact that our house with the pretty carpets and slick new doors was, aside from us, utterly devoid of life. The house felt empty.
It was at this point that we did what many young families do: we decided to get a dog. Actually that’s not quite accurate. Lauren had decided that it was time to get a dog. She then proceeded to try and convince me that we thought it was a good idea. This, I would come to learn, was the very definition of marriage.
We both love animals, but I’m allergic to cats. I’m actually allergic to dogs too, but to far a lesser extent which works out for me because I really don’t like cats. Lauren grew up with a litany of dogs and cats and felt the need to fill our house with a menagerie of our own. I had grown up with a single dog: my best friend, Brandy.
Since Brandy’s untimely death fifteen years earlier, I had not owned another dog, and had never really considered owning one due to my bachelor apartment-dwelling ways. With a house of our own I felt ready and I told Lauren that the only logical choice was a Saint Bernard. Thus, I thought the matter settled. Lauren had already decided that a Newfoundland would be the dog for us, so I started to research the breed in order to convince her that mine was the better choice.
I amassed countless books on the breed, and compiled numerous charts and graphs in order to help prove my point. I am, if nothing else, thorough. I learned that Saint Bernard dogs had almost became extinct in the past, and that Newfoundlands had saved them. Apparently the monks that had cared for the Saints in Switzerland had bred Newfoundlands into their lines to bolster their numbers and to add longer coats to help them with the cold. Many of the traits that I loved about Saint Bernards were actually a result of their having been bred with Newfoundlands. My thorough and exhaustive research was backfiring.
Saint Bernard dogs had also become very popular and overbred thanks to the popularity of the numerous Beethoven movies, leading to many of the breed suffering from genetic problems like deformed hips and bad temperaments. While good examples were available from competent and qualified breeders, there seemed to be a lot of problem Saints out there. The more I read, the more I concluded that Lauren was right (again) and that a Newfoundland dog was a great choice for us.
One day while Lauren and I were sitting at the kitchen breakfast counter having lunch, she pointed to a large clean space on the floor and said “wouldn’t it be great to have a giant Newfy sleeping there?” Somehow, after all of my careful research, this simple question was what pushed me over the edge, and just like that, I was sold. We started shopping for breeders, found a couple near us and made an appointment to visit one that we liked.
The kitchen floor would never be clean again.
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Reputable breeders are very protective of their dogs and their chosen breed in general. If a breeder thinks that you won’t be able to provide for one of their dogs, you simply will not get one. It seemed to be very much like adopting a child based on the stories I had heard. While we thought that we would be checking breeders out, it soon became clear that quite the opposite was true.
We were welcomed into Linda’s home after commenting on the “please don’t trip over the watchdog” door mat (how delightful!). We were then led to a room that she described as being “for the dogs”. There was nothing in the room except for an old couch and a cage we would learn was called a crate. The door to the crate was open revealing easy access to a rather large dog bed littered with toys. Lauren chose to sit on the couch while I kneeled on the floor, a habit learned from many years of martial arts training. Linda told us that she was going to let in the first dog whose name was Clyde. She asked if we were ready, and we said that we were.
We were not.
Having grown up with a Saint Bernard, I had been around a big dog before, and therefore I felt that I was an expert (a common mistake in my life). I had, however, never before sat on the floor and experienced a 160-pound male dog come roaring into the room wanting to play. He wasn’t big – he was huge – and he was drooling. Good Lord was he drooling! Clyde had padded into the room at Linda’s side with a sort of “I’m so big I don’t need to be mean” attitude so common in big lovable men that don’t know how to close their mouths when they drink and thus live lives perpetually wet from the chin down. That was, until he saw me.
Clyde saw me kneeling on the floor and no doubt thought playtime! Clyde lept from the threshold as a lion might leap for a gazelle, but utterly without malice. No, he didn’t want to eat me; he wanted to tackle me! As he made a beeline for me, he lowered his massive head and rammed it into my chest, knocking me on my back with authority. He then proceeded to lean over me and smother me with kisses so wet that I gasped for air through bubbles of stringy wet drool.
Instantly, I was nine again playing with Brandy on the farm. I grabbed his big head and mashed my face into his and he licked me, his huge tail wagging furiously. This was my kind of dog! When he realized that Lauren was on the sofa he ran over to her and mashed his head into her lap, covering her lap with more thick drool, some of which remained attached to me via long slimy strings. I looked down and my shirt and shorts were covered with black hair, held in place by large smears of white frothy goo. It was disgusting. It was glorious. We’d been slimed.
During all of this roughhousing with the biggest dog I’d ever seen, Linda stood in the corner and quietly watched both Lauren and me to see if we recoiled in disgust or showed any signs of fear. Satisfied that we weren’t clean freaks or terrified, she led Clyde outside and brought in two of the girls: Katie and Daisy. These two sisters were a bit more reserved and lady-like than Clyde had been. They each gave us some sniffs, after which they both went into the crate and curled up together. While the crate was large, it was not two Newfs at once large! I commented that there was a lot of dog mashed up in that wire enclosure after which Linda explained that these two girls adored each other and loved being in the crate together. We gave them some love and Linda led them back outside.
Next we met Buddy. Buddy was also a big male, but next to Clyde his 140 pounds seemed downright tiny. He was still bigger than Brandy had ever been, and he was a studly, young, energetic boy. We frolicked with Buddy for a bit and he certainly tried to be everything that Clyde had been, but where Buddy had all the young bravado, it was clear that Clyde was the king. After some more roughhousing and slime, Linda led him out so we could meet the queen.
Our last introduction was to Ellie May, the elder Newf. Ellie May was retired, and was the “house dog” now, and she walked into the room with a regal air befitting a queen. She was small for a Newf (at least next to the previous examples), and with her white muzzle appeared to be the obvious senior of the bunch. She gently walked up to the couch, lithely jumped up and lay next to Lauren, expecting Lauren to fawn over her. Lauren gladly obliged. I felt like I needed to bow and ask permission of the queen before kissing her ring.
Having passed the first battery of tests, we were then given an interview. We had to answer a series of questions in writing, including: did we have a fence? (no); If not will we get one? (yes); How big is your yard? (two acres); Will the dogs stay inside? (yes); Did we have air conditioning? (window units); Do you like your house to be neat (uhh… sort of); are you capable of caring for this animal? (yes); can you afford the vet bills? (yes); Would you ever give up a dog to the shelter? (no); will this dog be part of your family or just a dog (family); and so on. Linda seemed satisfied and we made arrangements to get a female from the next litter, though we still would not be officially approved until she called our references. Thankfully our friends gave us glowing recommendations, a fact for which I am astounded to this day.
* * *
A few weeks later we were told that the puppies had been born (whelped in breeder-speak) by Katie, and that we could come see them in a couple of weeks. Some short weeks later we went over to experience our first litter of Newfoundland puppies.
Linda welcomed us more as family this time, though she was tired from apparently spending all day and night with Katie and the pups for two weeks. Buddy, the pup’s dad (sire) was outside with the other dogs while Katie, the pup’s mom (dam), was inside in the basement with her own whelping box. As Lauren and I walked into the basement, Katie fixed her eyes on me and never looked at anyone else, and I could tell right away that I was unwanted, and by unwanted, I mean “twitch and I’ll end you.” She knew that I was the only male in the room and I knew that she did not approve of me being there. Clearly, as the only male present, I was a threat and was not to be trusted (I have that effect on women). It’s one thing to be instantly judged by a woman. It’s quite another to be judged by someone who seemed capable and willing of tearing me limb from limb. I made sure to keep my distance while the women fawned.
The room had an odd smell of dog, birth, feces, and cleaning solution, but none of it was overpowering or bad. It smelled like life. The whelping box was a wooden area, like a playpen, but with walls only about four inches high. Around the perimeter was a lip of wood that extended into the area of the box. It seemed obvious that the purpose of the box was to contain the puppies, six in all, but I didn’t grasp the purpose of the lip. Four of the little puppies had smashed themselves up under the lip, which I thought was interesting. The entire basement was serving as their den – someplace to hide and be safe from the outside world. Here Katie could care for her pups without the meddling of other dogs, or predators or worse – men.
The puppies were about eight inches long and had not yet opened their eyes. My first thought was that they looked like giant links of black sausage. Most of them were squashed into the corners of the box and were sleeping, but a couple of the sausage-pups were out in the open where they seemed to have just fallen asleep mid-stride. They were cute, I guess, but they didn’t quite look like dogs.
Katie, lying inside one end of the whelping box, looked exhausted; but she also looked like she would tear me to pieces if I so much as leaned into the whelping box. I kept a respectful distance while letting the women enjoy their better vantage point. Katie didn’t even give them a second glance. All she knew was that there was a filthy man in her den and she didn’t like it.
At one point Linda let a couple of the dogs into the house to visit. Daisy (Katie’s original crate-buddy and sister) walked calmly into the basement den, gave Katie a couple of kisses, and then gently sniffed at the puppies. I noticed that Buddy, the pup’s father did not even try to come into the room, opting instead for a quick worried-looking sniff from the hallway. I’m pretty sure he knew that he was even less welcome than I was, what with him being the root cause of it all. I felt like I should have stayed out in the yard and smoked a cigar with Buddy and the boys. I think Katie would have agreed.
As the puppies woke up, they started to make little squeaking sounds. Katie rolled onto her side and the little puppies squirmed their sausage bodies over to her belly where they could feed. Suddenly the box was swarming with life and we could see inklings of personalities in the little puppies. Linda pointed out that some of them were more aggressive than the others. She pointed out how one puppy in particular kept pushing other puppies out of the way to get to Katie’s nipples. When that well went dry, it would push another puppy off to steal its share of the milk. Survival of the fittest was already the rule at only two weeks of age. Katie just lay there seemingly bored while the battle for milk raged on her belly.
After 10 minutes or so Katie stood up. Some of the puppies dropped right off while others seemed willing to hang on while she walked around. Katie was done nursing though and patiently waited a bit until they all fell. Linda locked up the other dogs except for Daisy and asked us to leave the room since Katie wouldn’t leave the pups while we were there. After we left, Linda took Katie outside to relieve herself and to see the light of day for a little bit. We took the opportunity to thank Linda for inviting us and to leave them all to their busy new lives.
∗ ∗ ∗
A few weeks later we were invited back to see the puppies again. We visited the puppies outside this time where they had the entire patio in which to folic, and frolic they did.
At six weeks old their eyes were open and they looked like adorable little toys. Each one was eight to ten pounds and covered in impossibly soft, black fur. Compared with what we had seen only three weeks earlier, these pups were huge. They waddled around on their little legs, tripping and falling all over themselves while sometimes barking with adorable little yips. They now looked like miniature Newfoundland stuffed animals.
The puppies all had grey eyes, and Linda further explained that their eyes would slowly turn brown over time. The puppies romped, ran, tripped and gleefully yipped while discovering their new world of the cement patio. Katie watched from a distance, thankfully no longer hostile to my presence. As soon as we arrived all the puppies came running over, yipping and wagging, eager to check us out. They chewed on us, wagged, nipped and were generally just little bundles of joy with fur. Their teeth were needle sharp, and they chewed on everything; fingers, shoelaces, grass, bugs, each other and anything else within reach.
We noticed that each puppy now had a length of colored yarn tied around its neck. Linda explained to us that this was the method by which she could identify them, and she called them by their color. Little white was the one with its belly exposed to the world, Blue was the one that had pushed all the other pups off of Katie’s nipples, and so-on. Linda told us that as soon as we picked one, we should also have a name ready, as she would then start to call the pup by that name so it would learn it.