The Rotties soon gained a fearsome reputation. There were two reasons for this.
First, and most alarmingly, they kept breaking through the rotten wire fences which surrounded our property to go walkabout through the village. I would receive frantic phone calls advising me that my dogs were roaming around terrifying people.
The first time this occurred, Tasha rushed out and found them in our next-door neighbours’ yard, investigating the premises.
The neighbours had cats, one of which considered our yard to be part of its territory. Fortunately, although they made some spirited attempts, our dogs never succeeded in catching it, and it soon learned that it was not advisable to wander into our yard at will.
The only problem was that the dogs were now fully aware that there were cats next door and they spent a lot of time at the fence, staring through it, and no doubt planning what they would do if they could just get their paws on them.
On this occasion the cats were not in sight. Tasha brought Poppy home first and then went back to fetch Tess, who had by then moved on and was, as Tasha put it, “exchanging unpleasantries” through the fence with another neighbour’s pitbull.
We found the hole in our fence, concealed from view by the thick hedge, very close to the main gate and the company handyman came to repair it. They escaped so often that we got to know this man and his team quite well. They were convinced that the dogs actually ate the fences. (Sometimes I wondered about that myself!) Barry eventually decided that enough was enough and the fences along both sides of the property were replaced. The garden had previously been open to the dam, but as aesthetically pleasing as this was, the thought of our dogs wandering around the countryside at will did not appeal, and Barry had arranged for this to be fenced before we moved in.
The dogs continued to escape, nonetheless, forcing their way out by burrowing under the new fencing. The team then arrived with wooden poles which they laid end to end all around the garden, securing them with wire to the bottom of the fences. This finally put an end to their little excursions.
Their second method of frightening the villagers was actually devised and executed by Poppy.
The back entrance was a wooden door set in the brick wall which separated our yard from the street behind us. This door had a small, round opening so that you could open the door from the outside by putting your hand through and lifting the inside latch. (It could be secured with bolts on the inside to prevent it from being opened in this way.) Poppy would wait at this door whenever she heard pedestrians approaching and the moment they were opposite the door, she would stick her muzzle through the hole and growl ferociously. She had also put on weight since our move (the swimming did not make up for the lack of whitethroat chases) and the thumping of her fifty kilograms against the door shook the brick wall. This, together with the bloodcurdling snarling, led to several near heart-attacks.
The irony was that Poppy would not say boo to a rat. Literally.
We had had a rat problem in our roof in Iswepe and had put poison in the roof. (Yes, I know. I have qualms about this method of rodent control myself.) The warfarin causes intense thirst and I came into the kitchen once to find a rat slowly creeping across the floor to the dogs’ water bowl. Poppy was on her blanket and watched it with alert and friendly interest but did not budge from where she was comfortably lying.
Tess, however, was another matter all together. She was wary of strangers, and, to the end of her days, could not be trusted with young children. I was extremely relieved once the fence problems were solved.
Poppy was a very voluble dog. Of all the dogs we have ever had, she came the closest to actually speaking. I always knew when it was five o’clock, because without fail she would come to find me and inform me that it was suppertime. I wish I was able to transcribe her language, but it is impossible to put it down in black and white. The closest I can come to it is a sort of “Nyow-yow-yow” repeated several times. Once she had my attention and saw that I had heard her, she retired to the kitchen, lay down and waited patiently with her head on her paws.
She was also a tattle-tale. If Tilly got out of the yard, she would come rushing to tell me. “Nyow-yow-yow”, she would say over and over again until I followed her outside so she could show me what that naughty Tilly was doing.
On one occasion she came to Tasha with a frantic “nyow-yow-yow” and on following her to the kitchen Tasha discovered that Tess had stolen the (expensive) free range beef steak which had been defrosting on the kitchen table! Tess lay outside on the grass licking her lips with great satisfaction. It was quite clearly the best meal she had ever had. Just as clearly, Poppy was most upset. She also wanted a steak!
After two years in Hermannsburg the pack occasionally swelled to five members with the arrival of Rambo and Tuffy, my parents’ daxies. Regular readers of these annals might remember that Rambo, now aged twelve, was the father of Schnudie’s puppies, and Tuffy, previously known as Popeye, (see Déjà Vu) and now aged ten, was the sole surviving member of the litter.
My parents had moved into a cottage near the factory a hundred metres or so down the road from us. (We had long since sold our Vaalpark home, having become accustomed to clean air and having no desire whatsoever to return to the pollution of the Vaal Triangle, and my parents had been living in Durban.) Because they had for so many years been our house-sitters, our dogs knew one another well, and so whenever my parents visited us the dogs came along and were happily welcomed into the pack.
Towards the end of that year, Tuffy developed a malignant anal tumour. It was removed, but remembering what had happened to Mickey (see The Calico Cat), I was not too surprised when, just a few months later, he was again off his food and unable to climb stairs or jump up onto the lounge furniture. We went back to the vet who removed another tumour, this time from one of his anal glands.
All went well for a short while and then the problem began again. The vet could not find any more tumours. It was almost a certainty that the cancer had metastasised.
After another week of suffering, with Tuffy grunting miserably through the night, my mom and I finally convinced my dad that we had to end it and I took him and Tuffy through to Greytown one last time.
My dad, with tears coursing down his cheeks and his voice breaking, explained to the vet that this had been his soul dog. The vet, a hardened farm doctor, had tears in his eyes as he watched my dad stroking Tuffy’s poor dead body.
It was not very long after this that we were faced with our own difficult decision.
Tess had reached the age of eleven and, like her father, she was a victim of arthritis. Mercifully there was no hip or elbow dysplasia, but her joints were very stiff and her wrist joints were enlarged and painful. Like Wolfie, she could not stand for long and she was even becoming reluctant to walk. The cortisone tablets which had been so helpful for Wolfie were no longer available and for the past year she had been taking a daily dose of a very expensive canine anti-inflammatory. It was effective at first, but as time progressed, Tess spent all her waking hours lying and constantly licking her wrist joints. It was a wonder she had any hair left on them.
Being the typical stoical Rottweiler that she was, she gave no other signs that she was in discomfort, but it was crystal clear that the pain levels were increasing. The autumn nights were also becoming colder and we decided that it would be cruel to let her suffer through another Midlands winter.
One morning Tasha brought her inside and insisted on treating her to another free range steak, then took her outside for a thorough brushing, which, for Tess, was the highest form of earthly bliss.
A short while later I also went and gave Tess a brushing. Knowing it was the last time, I could not hold back my tears and they dripped onto her as I brushed.
As I was still raw from dealing with the death of Tuffy, Barry and Tasha took our Tess through to Greytown.
And so it came about that Poppy was once again allowed to be an inside dog.
Wolfie, Lulu and Tess had been hardy creatures. They could not tolerate the heat inside from the winter fires and well do I remember looking out of the kitchen window in Iswepe, one cold winter’s morning, to see all three of them curled up together in a dip in the middle of the lawn, their backs white with frost! Mostly they did sleep sandwiched together in the sole surviving kennel, though. (The wooden kennel we had eventually bought for Purdey (see Stop! Thief!) had been destroyed by Lulu. Nothing like munching on a kennel when you are bored!)
But Poppy was of an altogether different breed.
Although she had accepted the change in their sleeping arrangements while we were still in Iswepe (you might remember that she had to join Tess outside when we brought Wolfie inside [see Of Birds and Beasts), she was delighted to once again be inside the house.
We had a free-standing oil heater in the lounge, and during any winter’s day, it was not unusual to find Tilly curled up on one side of it with Poppy on the other, her back pressed up against it. In the evenings they would both stretch out in front of the fireplace, luxuriating in the heat coming from the wood fire.
Now, however, we faced another problem. Poppy was due to come on heat and while this had not mattered while she was an outside dog, it certainly did matter now.
As stupid as it sounds, my chief reason for not having had them spayed when they were pups was for aesthetic reasons. All our spayed dogs – Bambi, Purdey, Lulu and Tess had lost their streamlined waists and developed matronly shapes. As Tilly was a beautiful, slinky little dog, I was extremely reluctant for this to change.
However, I must say that as the years progressed, the nuisance of the regular heats had forced me to reconsider.
Besides the bleeding, Tilly had taken to developing phantom pregnancies, and two months after every heat for the past three years, she had delivered a litter of invisible puppies on the lounge couch. Before the delivery she would be whiny, shivery and constantly licking her feet and the furniture. We always knew when the puppies had been born because she would be curled up in a corner of the couch licking away at her lactating teats.
After about two weeks she would apparently succeed in weaning them and sending them on their way, as all symptoms would disappear and she would once again go birding.
I had also learned that unspayed bitches are prone to develop mammary cancer, just as unneutered males are prone to develop testicular cancer, as had happened to Wolfie.
It was time to get the deed done.
But it turned out to be very bad timing. I had not realised that the vet only had outside cages where the dogs were placed after the ops, and by the time we fetched them, Tilly, who did not have an ounce of spare fat, was almost stiff with hypothermia, it being mid-winter. (And the irony was that spaying did not make the slightest difference to her shape.)
Poppy was not affected by the cold, simply because she had an ample supply of adipose tissue. She had ballooned to 59 kg. Strict dieting had reduced this to 53 kg, but the fat was mostly on her abdomen, with the result that it turned out to be a complicated operation.
She had a terrible time recovering from the anaesthetic, and then began to bleed out between the stitches. It was a thin but steady stream of bright red arterial blood! I phoned the vet in a panic and he advised me to bandage the wound tightly. As I wrapped the bandage round her, she moaned with pain and then fainted!
I immediately released the pressure, retied the bandage with thick padding as securely as I could without inflicting too much pain and then kept monitoring her condition. Gradually the bleeding slowed down and eventually I could relax.
But this was the last straw. Never again! All our subsequent dogs have been neutered and spayed, but pronto!
During the following weeks, with her now being visible to us at all times, we became aware that she struggled to get up from a lying position. It was as if her hind legs were weak. My heart sank at the thought of another dog suffering from arthritis, especially as she was only six years old. But once she was up, after limping badly for the first few steps, she would recover and walking and running seemed to present no problems at all. She continued to enjoy the walks around the dam, and still loved swimming. It didn’t seem to be arthritis.
One morning in early September Tasha took her and Tilly down to the dam.
Suddenly Poppy fell over into the dam and couldn’t get out. Tasha had to help her as she could barely walk. She managed to get up to the house, where she lay for a long time before we managed, with great difficulty, to coax her into the house. She could not walk without assistance. She just made it to her cushion in the laundry and from then on could not move, no matter how hard she tried.
She still had strength in her front legs but her back legs were paralysed. That night Barry took her outside wheelbarrow style, holding her hind legs while she walked on her forelegs. Then she lay on the grass looking at us with bewildered eyes.
The following morning Barry repeated the process and she sat on the grass holding herself up with her forelegs and had a bowel movement, which just squished out from under her. She also seemed to be losing strength in her forelegs. We cleaned her and then Barry carried her to my car (no mean feat, I assure you) and as soon as we could get ready, Tasha and I took her straight to the animal hospital in Pietermaritzburg. This was clearly beyond the expertise and facilities of a country vet.
At the hospital, one of the vets and an assistant carried her from the car on a stretcher and she was sedated and x-rayed.
The x-ray revealed that Poppy had been born with a deformed vertebra and the disc had collapsed onto the spinal cord. The prognosis was very poor. She would need to go to a specialised facility and the starting cost of the operation would be about R10 000 with no guarantee that the damage was not permanent. The vet felt that euthanasia would be the kindest thing we could do, but the decision was mine.
I asked for few minutes to think about it, but I already knew what I had to do.
Oh, but it was hard.
The animal nurse was one of the kindest people I have ever met. She fetched tissues and she sat next to me in the waiting room and comforted me while I cried.
And so I said goodbye to Slippety-Sloppity-Poppity, the most beautiful, the most benign and good-natured, most obedient dog we have ever had.
I have mentioned before that if I could ever have one of my dogs back, I would want Scampy. Well, if I could have two, Poppy would be the other.
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