Thursday, January 28, 2010

Xena, My Own Warrior Princess

A couple of weeks ago I posted a piece about my cat Albee. Although I have plenty of other things to write about, I really can't go much longer without writing about my two dogs, Xena and Annie.

I got Xena about six months after I moved into my new house in Stockton. It was Martin Luther King weekend, 2003, so at the time of this post, I have now had her exactly seven years.

She was a bit of a change in plans from my original plan. I had originally wanted to get a dog from a German Shepherd Rescue group in Northern California, and even got to the point that a strange woman came out and "interviewed" me to make sure I'd be a good "parent." Needless to say, with my gigantic yard with lots of shade and room to run and brand new fencing, I passed with flying colors.

But as fate would have it, things changed. A few weeks later at a family gathering, I mentioned to my niece Alison that I was looking for a German Shepherd to adopt. I knew she had two and I vaguely remember meeting them once: a female and a male. Not that this made any difference to me; I was still set on getting a rescue dog. But Alison's husband offhandedly mentioned that they were looking for a new home for their female Xena, who was a year and a half old. They had two other dogs by this point, and three kids. They knew they didn't have the time to devote to so many animals.

I had never watched the TV show Xena the Warrior Princess, but the name wasn't one I would have picked. A lot of dogs were being named that. But I thought I should at least go out and look at her. I told them I'd come by and look at her again.

Andrew brought Xena out to the front yard. She was a beautiful dog, with a long back: the old-fashioned type of German Shepherd. She seemed shy and not exactly super-friendly. She seemed to be intently interested in the black cat next door. I kneeled down and hugged her and she leaned into me. The rest is history, as they say.

When I got Xena into the back seat of my car, of course I was nervous. My first dog in over 15 years, I wasn't quite sure how this was going to go. She was docile enough, laying down in the back seat, completely ignorant that her life was drastically changing at that very moment and would never be the same. At one point I looked in my rear-view window: Xena had sat up and was staring at the back of my head. Do you know how unnerving it is to have a German Shepherd staring at the back of your head while you're driving?

One of the reasons I was nervous was because Xena had never been inside my niece's house for any length of time. She was a backyard dog. So when I brought her up to my house, I brought her in the garage first. She dutifully followed me into the garage, but I could feel her alarm system starting to ring some bells. She looked around nervously. Where was she? I pulled down the garage door. At that point, the full weight of the event must have hit Xena, because she bowed her head and placed it between my ankles.

Poor Xena. Her day was not over when it came to surprises. I brought her into the house, and there she met Albee the cat. Or rather, Albee made her presence known. Albee had already graced me with her presence for six months by then, and she was, as far as she thought, queen of the realm and nothing was going to upset her domain. I was petting Xena, praising her, trying to keep her calm - you just kind of know when a dog is on the verge of falling apart because they're not in familiar surroundings - and I looked up to see Albee in the hallway, back arched, puffed up to four times her normal size.

Xena was fascinated. Finally she found something to take her mind off of her terror of a strange home. But Albee was anything but interested. She was furious. And now, seven years later, she still hasn't forgiven me.

Albee of course was threatened. And I had to admire that little 7 pound cat, because she was absolutely not afraid of this 80 pound dog one bit. Or if she was, she didn't show it. I know I learned something from that. Never let them see you sweat, as the saying goes. Every time Xena, full of curiosity, would try to make friends with Albee, that cat would hiss and try to swipe Xena across the nose. A couple of times she succeeded, drawing blood.

But that wasn't enough for Albee. She was out for the kill. She wanted this dog off her property.

I was commuting an hour each way to Livermore at that time, and had to leave Xena alone for long periods. Leaving the back door open that led to the yard, Xena had the garage for shelter and the yard to run and do whatever in. So she was set for space. But I felt bad: considering everything and how the cat was acting, I knew the cat wasn't necessarily a good buddy for her, to say the least. But at least they'd keep away from each other, I thought. Wrong.

A few months went by. Everything was pretty much calming down. The dog and cat had learned to stay away from each other, even though poor Xena, yearning for company, always tried to make friends with Albee, but to no avail. It was about this time that I started to seriously think about getting another dog to keep her company. She was so depressed when I left in the morning. Can you imagine - going from a family with three children and two other dogs, to a house that was basically empty every day except for a seven pound demon that was committed to making your life hell on earth?

Then one morning, I noticed something strange. When I was in the garage with Xena in the mornings, before leaving for work, I noticed that she was afraid to go out into the yard. She would stand at the door, peering out into the yard, her tail tucked between her legs. What was going on?

Directly outside the garage door, to the left, was a deck that had been built that was roughly eighteen inches to two feet off the ground. The space underneath the deck was just that: space where any small animal could easily hide. Including a cat.

I watched. I guess Xena really needed to get into the yard, because suddenly she started to make a run for it past the deck. And out from underneath the deck, that seven pound ball of hell exploded out from underneath. Albee was ambushing Xena every time Xena went by that deck.

I honestly don't remember how I dealt with that problem from then on. It's not like you can tell a cat to stop ambushing a dog. You can't tell a cat to not do anything. But I do know that was about the time that I started to look for another dog for Xena. There's strength in numbers, I decided.

Xena is a beautiful dog. People stop in their cars to tell me that. She's a fearsome watch dog - she's been known to go through screens when a strange person walks up on the porch. I have a chair that sits next to the big front window, and when people walk by, Xena loves to get up on the chair and bark like mad. It startles quite a few passers-by - a six-foot tall German Shepherd. But what they don't see is her beautiful tail, gaily wagging the whole time.

She's a gentle soul, really, who only wants to be good. She's sensitive and can't even stand it when I raise my voice. When I started to grow a flower garden in my new home in San Pedro, I noticed Xena one day just staring at the flowers as if she was hypnotized. She was waiting to catch a bee, a sport that she still loves to partake in. Don't ask me whether or not she's been stung yet: if she has, she hasn't learned to stop. She's never been interested in fetching a ball, perfectly content to have her nose buried in the flowers.

If you're thinking of getting a German Shepherd, I'm no expert: I can only give you my experiences with Xena. People are always talking about German Shepherds and their propensity to develop hip problems. I have to say that so far, Xena's never had a problem. In fact, now she's nine years old and actually seems to be getting younger all the time. Just watch her when she's at the park and chasing squirrels.

I've also heard from more than one vet that German Shepherds have a tendency to be finicky eaters and have digestive problems. This I can attest to. Sometimes Xena just is not interested in eating; in fact, about half the time she will not eat her breakfast. She's not sick -- she's just not interested. Maybe she's trying to keep her girlish figure. When she does eat, she eats. very. slowly. One. piece. at. a. time. Sometimes she'll take a bite, look around a bit to see what else is going on, takes another bite and saunters out to the living room to see what's on television, then will go back into the kitchen to take another bite.

And for God's sake, don't get a German Shepherd if you don't like dogs that shed, or if you live in any area where there wouldn't be shelter for it in very hot summers. These dogs were bred for cold German winters, not summers in Arizona.

All in all, Xena is the best dog I've ever had. She can be aloof and doesn't bond as much with me as my other dog Annie, the subject of my next pet post. But Xena is my Pretty Girl, my Girly Girl, my Xena Ballerina who dances with her front feet when she's excited and who talks in a growly-howly kind of way when she needs to tell me something. Xena is my Best Girl.

And I'm happy to say that after several years Xena and Albee have learned to co-exist. You notice I say several years. I never thought I'd see the day when she and Albee would share the same food bowl. It was scrambled eggs that brought these two together.


Matthew P. Mayo said...

A lovely post, Laurie. Thanks for sharing all that doggy goodness. She seems fantastic.


Laurie said...

Thanks, Matt. Some people might think it's self-indulgent to write about your pets, but other people like to read dog and cat stories. And some people like to write them, too. My grandfather wrote a couple of great dog stories, and I plan on having at least one in the anthology I'm putting together.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lovely dog. You can see how bright and curious she is.

Barry Traylor said...

What a lovely dog Xena is and thank you so much for sharing. I am a sucker for dog/cat stories (I think I am a little to sentimental).
My wife's daughter and husband had a HUGE Rottweiler named Brooklyn and around 5 or 6 years ago they had Brooklyn over here, when Tracy (Lynn's daughter) went upstairs to talk to Lynn the dog followed her up. We did not know our cat Cleo was hiding under the bed. She attacked the dog and climbed on her back, the poor dog was terrified! I do wish I had a camera ready as the sight of this little cat on the top of this big dog sure was funny.

Barry Traylor said...

Forgot to mention that in the picture of Albee she looks like an old west gunslinger a starin' ya down. 8-)

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

What a touching story. I had a shepherd for 13 years, a pound dog, and he was wonderful. He did have hip problems and eventually became crippled. He also had a tumor on one ankle the size of a softball and a couple of body tumors, so I had to have him put to sleep. But for over a dozen years he was a kind, smart, noble friend and companion. Since you got Xena at 18 months, you might not have gone through her teething stage. Spike, my boy, chewed on everything he could find during his advanced puppyhood, including the corners of the picnic table and benches. I'd still like to get another shepherd before I die.

Laurie said...

Thanks, Charles. She really is a good girl.

Barry, this cat - I'm telling you. She gives me the dirtiest looks sometimes.

Cap'n - what a wonderful life your Spike must have had. They certainly get into your soul, don't they? As for Xena chewing, she never did that too much, but man, could she dig. She dug up so many flowers and under so many fences, she was like a mole. She's kind of outgrown that, but I still have to put little fences around new plants I put in the ground. Ive noticed her digging again lately.

Laurie said...

By the way, Cap'n, you'll see in my new post that the dog that was rescued from the L.A. River was picked up by his real owner today. His real name? Spikey.