While Donna and I were still dating, she had reacted negatively to a couple of enthusiasms of mine, and when we decided to get married she took the opportunity to lay down the law about them. "No pipe smoking, and no dogs," she said. At the time we were getting married, that wasn't a big issue; I'd already quit the pipe on my own a while before that, and I had previously been married to another woman who wasn't inclined to share her family with a dog, either. In the inevitable reorganization of my life after the divorce, I was left with neither money enough nor living quarters suitable for a dog, and after our marriage Donna and I continued to live in a succession of apartments owned by landlords who seemed to see dogs as the spawn of Satan bent on destruction of their property. The circumstances of my life had conspired against me, and for many years I had not been able to have a dog. But I never gave up hope. From time to time I would tell Donna about the various dogs that I had known in my childhood: Schnapps, my own dog, a frisky German Shepherd/Collie mix (except for her right ear, which insisted on hanging down in the Collie fashion rather than standing up in the Shepherd fashion, she could have been mistaken for a purebred Shepherd); Sassy, my grandmother's genial German Shepherd (my grandmother was an excellent cook, and Sassy was the beneficiary of that talent, as she had dibs on the leftovers; as I recall Sassy was especially partial to my grandmother's mostacolli); Schatz and Kurt, my aunt's and uncle's German Shepherds (Schatz was the first dog I knew who held the C.D.--Companion Dog, the AKC's first obedience title); Sean, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi that my aunt got after Schatz; and many other dogs too numerous to mention who belonged to friends or neighbors, or who just seemed to be a standard part of the scenery of a middle-class American urban neighborhood in the '60s and '70s. Gradually Donna's resistance to having a dog wore down, and she agreed in principle to the notion.
In the summer of 1991 Donna and I caught the home ownership bug. After some looking, we managed to find a house that Donna liked a lot. I liked it too, but several years of law practice had taught me that you never show excitement about an impending deal; if you feign indifference you can sometimes pull concessions out of other parties to a negotiation. So I managed to keep a suitably blasé demeanor as Donna first showed me the place. The strategy worked. The only down side to the house was that it had a one car garage; as we are a two car family, that meant that during the dead of winter one of us was going to have to get out in the cold and scrape various types of frozen nastiness off one of our cars. Donna's first concession was a powerful one. She simply said, "If we get the house, I'll let you have the garage." Understand that I'm lazy by nature; my lack of motivation generally makes the tree sloth look like a dynamo by comparison. Already she's reduced my workload on a cold, winter's morning significantly. I felt my resolve weakening, but managed to control myself. One concession was made; others might be forthcoming if I didn't break down. "Maybe," I replied, and still presented my indifferent façade. After showing me through the house, we stepped from the back door onto the deck, which overlooked a medium-sized fenced back yard. Turning to me (was that a mischevious twinkle in her eye?), Donna said, "And look at the fenced back yard. Wouldn't it be perfect for a dog?" She had said the magic words at that point; I capitulated without a moment's hesitation.
The house deal was concluded towards the end of that summer. Donna is a schoolteacher, and the new school year was fast approaching. We couldn't get a dog immediately; with both of us working full time it wouldn't have been fair to a new puppy; (s)he'd have to be left alone all day from the very beginning. The best time to bring a new puppy home would be the summer; I'd be able to take some vacation, and Donna would be home full time during summer recess. That gave us a whole year to research the issue, investigate breeders, and prepare for opening our house to a new arrival.
The choice of breed was simple from my perspective. Most of the dogs I'd had contact with in my youth were German Shepherds. From very early childhood I'd admired the breed. German Shepherd Dogs were beautiful, noble, intelligent animals that made steadfast and loyal companions. I couldn't think of having another breed. If that sounds chauvinistic and closed minded, so be it. This was an emotional decision, and it's not like dog breeds are a suspect class making my discrimination in favor of one breed or against another morally or legally wrong. So in early 1992, I joined the German Shepherd Dog Club of St. Louis, in part to get a handle on who were the reputable breeders of German Shepherds in the area. In May of 1992 we called Judy Deane, of Judeen Kennels, one of the prominent breeders around our area. We were looking to bring a puppy home in early July. Judy didn't have any suitable puppies available herself, but she had put one of her dogs, Judeen's Little Treffer (or Little Treff, for short; Ilsa's "sire," or father) out to stud, and she had committed to help the owner of the brood bitch (Gale Schneider; her bitch, Muffin For Ransom is Ilsa's dam, or mother) place the puppies. Judy told us that the puppies from that litter would be at her kennels the following week, and that we were welcome to visit and decide if any of the pups were suitable.
We visited the next week. The nice thing about buying a puppy from a reputable breeder is that the breeder will assist you in choosing a suitable pup based on your own needs. We told Judy what we wanted--a puppy who was somewhat assertive (I had hopes, unfortunately never realized, of putting our dog through obedience trials), yet not aggressive, a pup who would be a good companion, and who therefore need not be a physically perfect, show quality specimen. Based on my earlier experience, I had a mild preference for a bitch over a dog, feeling that a bitch would be slightly more affectionate and nurturing. Based on our expressed needs and desires, and on her observation of the litter over time, she had two good candidates picked out. Unfortunately, one was claimed by someone else before we got to Judy's, and the other was being looked over by another couple also interested in a dog. Fortunately for us, the other couple didn't buy, and we adopted the puppy. When time came to register the pup with the American Kennel Club, I chose the name Judeen's Gemstone Nonpareil. Judeen, is of course, the kennel name; Judy had asked that we include that in the puppy's registered name, which I was happy to do. "Gemstone nonpareil," or "jewel without peer" suggested what I wanted our dog to be, and I am to this day amazed how well she lived up to that name. In addition to her registered name, we needed to choose a "call name" for her. After all, it's not like Donna or I would stand out in the front yard, calling our dog: "Here, Judeen's Gemstone Nonpareil!" For a call name we chose "Ilsa"; this choice having the advantage of being both suitably Teutonic yet pleasing to the ears.
We brought Ilsa home Independence Day Weekend, 1992. I had put in for vacation the following week, and with the long holiday weekend and a full week of vacation ahead of us we had plenty of time to get the puppy acclimated to her new surroundings. In addition to Donna and myself, my daughter Tristyn was visiting us over the holiday weekend and through the next week, so the new puppy would not suffer for companionship. We brought the puppy home, led her into the house, and let her sniff around a bit. Ilsa headed straight downstairs, sniffed her way to a spare bedroom which I used as a study, and proceeded to pee on the carpet. She was already making herself at home.
Donna had a little adjusting to do, at first. I at least had the advantage of having had dogs and been around them when I was young; Donna had not been exposed to dogs before this. Still, I am firmly convinced that the person who can resist the attractions of a puppy is a person without a heart, and I knew before this that Donna had a big heart. Ilsa would win Donna over, I was sure. And sure enough, she did. About a year later (fall of 1993), I entered the Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, as a candidate for the degree of Master of Science in Management Information Systems. The Graduate School of Business Administration at UM, St. Louis is a program geared towards working students, which means that most of the classes are offered at night. That meant that many nights I would leave the house either shortly after Donna got back home from school, or sometimes even before she would get back. During those nights, Donna found that Ilsa was a perfect companion, keeping her company, amusing her with silly dog antics, and protecting her by warning her when things were amiss.
I hold with the school that says that (barring unusual situations, like skunking, rolling around in mud puddles, etc.) a dog should only need a bath twice a year, at the beginning of the warm season and at the end of it. Leaving Ilsa's first bath until October was probably pushing things a bit, but it still remains warm around here that long. Ilsa learned to tolerate baths, but never really got used to them.
Random shots from Ilsa's first Thanksgiving. The second of these pictures is Donna's favorite picture of Ilsa as a puppy (though, at seven months old she's pretty well reached her adult size). Holidays or ordinary days, mooching food became one of Ilsa's favorite pastimes. Ilsa could read people like a book, and had an uncanny knack of knowing who in a room full of strangers was likely to slip her a little something under the table.
Ilsa and a "friend"; note the look of bored tolerance in Ilsa's face.
This, on the other hand, is my favorite picture of her as a pup. I used to give her "rides" like this until she got too big; this is probably the last time I could get away with it without serious injury. To me, that is; it never seemed to bother her much at all.
Ilsa and my father-in-law, Don Sondgeroth; June, 1993
For a family that hadn't owned dogs, Donna's family took to Ilsa wonderfully well. Of course, she was a hit with my nephews and niece, but even the adults came to appreciate her good qualities. Here's Ilsa playing her favorite game, "Take the ball from me if you can" with my father-in-law.
Another favorite picture of mine. Ilsa was about three and a half years old here. This picture gives an idea of how big she got at her peak.
Ilsa keeping track of everyone from her accustomed place, Spring, 1996.
Over Mother's Day weekend, 1997, Donna, her father, and her brothers Tom and Ken were playing fetch with Ilsa in the back yard, when they noticed her foot bleeding profusely. Closer examination showed that she had snapped off one of her toenails, something which she had done before. Once we got the bleeding under control, we knew that we'd have to take her to the veterinarian, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. The vet fixed the nail (basically, the broken part had to be cut away), and sent us on our way. Over the next several months, though, it was clear that something was wrong. Ilsa took to limping, especially after jumping out of a car, and showed signs of being in some distress. On further examination, our vet took X rays, and determined that Ilsa had in fact broken her toe as well as snapped off her toenail. Again, nothing seemed terribly amiss, until it was clear to all of us that the toe was not healing properly. The veterinarian performed a number of tests, trying to rule out various conditions. In August of 1997, we received the bad news: after consultation with a veterinary radiologist, our vet concluded that Ilsa had bone cancer. Bad periods (severe limping, swelling of extremities, and weeping sores resulting from edema) alternated with good periods where it was hard to tell that Ilsa was ill. On final diagnosis, the vet advised us that she probably had no more than six months to live. All we could do was keep her comfortable until the inevitable. Still, until the very end, except for a noteworthy loss of energy (she no longer wanted to play with her toys, or play games like fetch which she had enjoyed before), she stayed cheerful, loving, and more concerned with our welfare than her own. Finally, in early February her condition took a drastic downturn. Her weight, which had been dropping slightly over time, began to plummet (in her last months she lost about 30 pounds). It became more difficult for her to find a comfortable position to lay in, even though we had bought her a foam "egg carton" pad and encouraged her to use it as a bed). Finallly, she developed a tumor on her right rear leg. It quickly swelled from hardly noticable to the size of a small peach, and caused edema of the surrounding tissues. The edema caused the skin surrounding the area to burst, and her right rear leg became one large, weeping sore. As Ilsa walked, her right rear leg would turn underneath her, and she sometimes lost her balance and slid down stairs because of it. We knew it was now time to let her go, and ease her discomfort. While not an easy decision, we knew it was for the best.
I had already determined that I wanted to be in at the end; it would provide a sense of closure. The veterinarian was wonderful about the whole process; he explained to Donna and me what would happen, and some reactions which might happen. He then prepared and administered the injection. Within seconds, Ilsa had drifted off into a permanent sleep. . . .
You asked for so little, yet you gave us so much. Few humans show the unconditional love, and the ever present devotion you found so natural to bestow. The house you shared with us seems empty indeed, and the vacancy that remains from your passing will take a long time to fill. Sleep well, faithful friend. We shall miss you very, very much.
Last modified: March 25, 2000