Sable: A canine angel with tattered wings.
“Mike,” I said into the phone, “I’ve just heard about a 6 1/2 year old Newfoundland in New York that is in need of a home. I’m thinking of adopting her myself. Since you know our dogs well, what do you think of the idea?”
For the next twenty minutes, our friend and trainer gave advice and admonitions about rescue dogs, answered Donna’s and my questions, and shared his experiences with rescues over some 20 years in dogs. We decided that it would be best if I took Misty, our dominant female, along to meet the owners of the rescue. That way, if the two dogs hated each other on sight, we would each turn around and each go back the way we came, rather than my bringing a new dog into a hostile environment. Knowing the Newfoundland temperament we felt that the possibility was remote, but there are no sure things when it comes to dogs.
“So, Mike, what are you doing this weekend? Would you be able to come along?” I asked.
“Carole!” Mike yelled away from the phone. “What are we doing Saturday?”
“Let me guess,” came a voice from the background, “going to pick up a Newfie?”
Later that evening, I called the rescue’s owners and made arrangements to meet them halfway. “Halfway” turned out to be about three hours from our house, so Mike and I planned to leave early in the morning to get there and back before dark. We also had to move the date to Sunday to accommodate the owners.
After an uneventful trip Sunday morning, we arrived at the designated meeting place at exactly the time agreed upon. The intersection of the two state routes happened to be in the center of town near a grassy area. We didn’t see the other vehicle immediately, so Misty and I got out and walked around the grassy area in order to be obvious to our party. Within five minutes a van pulled up and a man got out and walked toward us.
“John?” he said.
“Yes, you must be Steve.” I countered, extending my hand.
We chatted a couple of minutes then he returned to the van to get Sable. It took several seconds once he opened the van door, but eventually out came a dingy gray bundle of matted fur in the approximate shape of a Newfoundland dog. Sable walked with her head down toward the sidewalk, Steve’s hand gripping the scruff of her neck. I approached with Misty as Mike got out of our car to meet Sable.
Mike was annoyed to discover that Sable had neither a collar nor a leash, but fortunately, he had told me to bring both just in case. Donna and I had purchased a new nylon web collar the previous day, since we didn’t have any around the house large enough.
Sable stepped up on the sidewalk, then turned and spied Misty. Her eyes lit up like she had just found a long lost friend. Her tail went up and her whole demeanor changed instantly. She sniffed and nuzzled Misty while I introduced myself to her. Then, leaving Misty with Mike, I went to the car to get the collar and leash.
Steve put the collar on Sable while Mike instructed me to take Misty and walk a few feet away. He then called us back and I said to him, “What do you think?”
“I don’t think you’ll have any problem.” he said.
I led Misty back to our car, with Mike and Sable following. Opening the back door, I told Misty to get in. She jumped in and turned to face the front, taking up about half the back seat. Mike led Sable to the door, and she jumped right in beside Misty with no hesitation whatsoever. Misty seemed to have no problem with this interloper in her car, so we shut the door. Saying our goodbyes to Steve, we drove off toward home.
On the way home, Mike told me of his observations of Sable. He noticed that she seemed a bit worried when I walked away from them with Misty, as though she thought we weren’t coming back. She had jumped into the car immediately, with never a backward glance. It was obvious she was happy to be going with us.
As we drove, we noticed that in addition to the mats in her fur, Sable was rather ripe. We rode most of the way home with the rear windows open, despite the 20-degree weather. Sable sat calmly in the back seat next to Misty and looked out the window at the passing scenery. Misty lay down with her head between the passenger seat and the car door, as she likes to do, and went to sleep.
We arrived home after dropping Mike off at his house and I pulled the car into the garage. Closing the garage door, I let the dogs out of the car. Misty went straight into the house to her water dish. Sable climbed out of the car and began sniffing around the garage. Donna came out to meet her, leaving the others in the house.
“Hi, sweetie, how are yooo…oooohhh, she stinks!!”
“Yes,” I said, “she needs a bath and a lot of brushing. I’ll take her out to the back yard and we’ll introduce the other two.”
Donna went back in to get her coat and Sable and I went out the back of the garage into the yard. In the harsh afternoon sunlight, I saw the full extent of Sable’s condition. She was virtually one large mat from her chest to her tail. On her back was a large spot where the fur had been shaved out to remove a burdock (Steve had said they had lots of them at their place). The hair at the end of her tail had been clipped off straight, apparently the victim of another burdock. Her entire underside and the back of her legs were tightly matted, and there were several baseball-sized mats on her sides and chest. Her coat was filthy, she having been an outside dog, and felt dry and brittle to the touch.
Sable began investigating her new surroundings, while Donna went to get the other dogs for introductions. Misty wasn’t terribly interested in the proceedings, but she’d just had three hours of “quality time” with Sable, so didn’t need any further introduction. Panda, the Cocker Spaniel, raced out of the house to see what this intruder was doing in her yard. She screeched to a halt near Sable and looked at me as if to say, “Oh, no! Not another one of these monsters?” After some intense sniffing, she walked away, moving on to more important matters.
The last to meet Sable was Tux, our two-year old male Newf. He trotted toward her, tail up, ears alert, eager to make her acquaintance. She took one look at him and lit up like a neon sign. Her tail went up, and she positively quivered while they sniffed each other.
Introductions over, it was time to show Sable her new home. She appeared eager to go inside, so we took her in through the family room and showed her the doggie cafeteria in the breakfast area. She lapped up most of a bowl of water, looked around a bit, then lay down on the family room floor.
We let her rest a couple of hours while we ate supper and put out food for the canine members of the family. We had expected to have to mix her food with the food we feed our dogs, but she ate our brand of food with relish so that issue was moot from the start. It was obvious that she was a bit nervous, as she couldn’t lay still for more than a few minutes before getting up and sniffing around.
After supper, we resolved to get her cleaned up as much as we could so that she wouldn’t drive us out of the house! It was too cold to give her a real bath, so we got out the dry shampoo, brushes, and scissors, and went to work. A couple of hours later she was lighter by about 1/4 of her coat, most of it, fortunately, from her belly and chest so it wasn’t too obvious, although she did lose a significant amount of the hair on her tail. She smelled 100% better between the shampoo and some odor eliminator spray we found. There was still a lot of matted undercoat that needed removing, but she and we were all exhausted from the long day, so we left it for another time.
The final adventure of the day was to try to get her up the stairs to the second floor. Her previous home had had no stairs, so we weren’t sure what she would think of stairs. As it turned out, she went up quite willingly. Since we didn’t know if we could trust her on her own, we had set up the Newf crate in our bedroom. She wasn’t thrilled about going into it, but she did. It took her a good half hour before she relaxed enough to lay down, but once she did, she seemed to go to sleep.
The next morning, Sable did everything she could to disprove the old adage “What goes up, must come down.” She was deathly afraid of the opening to the stairs, and would not come anywhere near it. An hour of coaxing, cajoling, and several slices of cheese later, I managed to get her close enough on her belly that I could drag her front legs over onto the first step. From there, she went down with no problem. It was obvious, though, that it would be a cold day in a very warm place before she’d attempt the stairs again.
As it happened, Donna was off work that Monday so she was able to supervise and observe Sable while I went off to work. She reported no problems between Sable and the others during the day. She did note, however, that Sable seemed to have no idea what treats and toys were all about. Our dogs get “lunch” when Donna is home from work, which consists of several dog biscuits. Sable did not know what to do with her biscuits until Donna put one in her mouth. She also watched the others happily crunching on their biscuits and apparently figured out the procedure from there.
She also wanted to be with Donna constantly. I, too, had noticed that she couldn’t get enough attention. While being petted, she had a blissful expression on her face as if to say, “I’ll give you just two hours to cut that out!” Stop petting her and the next thing we knew, a paw was raised to say, “Don’t stop, please.” It was apparent that there was a very large hole there that would take some effort to fill. To this day she is happiest when being petted, brushed, or otherwise fussed over.
We had made an appointment with our vet for Monday evening to have Sable checked out, so that was the order of the day immediately when I got home from work. Sable hopped willingly into the car and off we went. We went through the usual “new dog” paperwork at the receptionist’s desk, then were ushered back to an examining room to wait for the doctor.
We’ve been going to the same vet over 20 years so he is intimately familiar with our furry “kids,” but we hadn’t told him about Sable since we weren’t going to know for sure until Sunday that she’d be coming home. He walked into the exam room, looked at Sable, and said, chuckling, “What is this, a Newfie rescue league?” I looked at him deadpan and said “Yep.” He was taken slightly aback, realizing that she was a rescue, but recovered immediately and stooped to introduce himself. Sable sniffed his hand politely and stood quietly while he examined her. She weighed 126 pounds. Her teeth were quite brown, but otherwise appeared in good shape. Her ears were dirty, but had no parasites. Her blood was tested for heartworm and other problems and later was found to be negative. We had sparse medical records from her owners from which we were able to determine that she needed her booster shots so those were administered. Sable was pronounced fit, all things considered, and we left the office glad that no major problems had been found.
That evening, I got out the grooming tools and spent another hour or so brushing and trimming out mats, burrs, and undercoat from Sable’s coat. She lay quietly for most of the time, but began to get a bit uncomfortable, so we stopped for the night. Over the next several evenings, we spent a half an hour or so each evening making a bit more progress toward getting Sable’s coat in more reasonable condition. By Friday, she had become more trusting of me and willing to let me move her to get at other areas of her body.
During our Friday night grooming session, I rolled her over on her side and went to work on her belly. Lifting her rear leg, I discovered that her groin area was a deep red and looked very sore. She was reluctant to let me examine the area, so I made note of the appearance and let it pretty much alone. I told Donna that if it didn’t look any better by Sunday, we’d call the vet and get another appointment for Monday evening. As it turned out, we did take her in, as the redness was unchanged after two days.
I explained to the vet that when we had first brought her home, her rear legs had been matted and damp and smelled very strongly of urine. I had clipped away all the matted hair, brushed out the rest and treated both legs with Elimi-odor spray the night we brought her home. We put Sable in a down, then rolled her over on her side and he examined her. We concluded that the problem was urine scald, apparently from her having wet herself repeatedly and it not being cleaned up properly. Since she was an outside dog, she also had much more fur in the area than any of our dogs. The vet decided to shave the area to eliminate some of the hair that was trapping the urine and keeping the area damp. Sable was not happy with that idea, but with the help of one of his assistants we managed to get the job done without offending her too badly. An application of some ointment and Sable was allowed to stand and put her ruffled dignity back in order. I asked if the hydrocortisone spray we had at home would be good to apply periodically to the area and was told to spray the area twice a day until the redness cleared up.
Unfortunately, nobody explained that plan to Sable. The redness improved slightly, but very little over the next week. It was during that period of time that we began to notice that she seemed to be urinating on her sleep carpet in the foyer. Ever since the first night debacle with the stairs, Sable had slept by herself downstairs after everyone went upstairs to bed. It took her about ten minutes after she arrived to discover Tux’s 52″ round L.L. Bean denim dog bed and claim it for her own. You could almost see her thinking, “Oh, wow, a bed!! And it’s for DOGS!!” She plopped herself down in the middle of it and happily surveyed the family room from her new throne with a look on her face that said, “I’ve definitely died and gone to Puppy Heaven!”. Thereafter, at night, I would take the rest of the dogs upstairs for their bedtime treats, then come back down and give Sable hers on her wonderful new bed. She quickly learned when it was time to “tuck her in” and headed straight for the bed each night. As soon as I turned out the kitchen light and went back upstairs, she would walk out to the front door and lay down on the thick rug in the foyer.
my bare feet to let the dogs outside and stepped in a wet spot on the carpet. Lifting the carpet, I discovered that there were several stain marks on its rubber backing from previous wet spots that had dried. The carpet had also acquired a rather distinctive odor. It was apparent that Sable was wetting the carpet but the question was when and why would she continue to sleep on it while wet? I concluded that she was likely urinating in her sleep, a not uncommon problem with older spayed females. I had seen discussions of this problem in the Dogs and Cats Forum on CompuServe, and on the Newfie discussion group on the Internet, so I was fairly sure of what the problem was. It would also explain why her legs had been so damp the first night we brought her home.
In retrospect, Sable had seemed uncommonly willing to stand for long periods of time. Our other Newfs will stand only as long as they’re asked to, then they sit or plop themselves down somewhere. When asked to sit, Sable had been extremely reluctant, and we hadn’t wanted to force the issue, not being sure how much obedience training she’d had. As it turned out, it’s no wonder! At any rate, it was back to the vet for confirmation.
“Oh, you heard about our new policy that we like to see new clients every week for at least the first year?” said the vet, grinning. I explained what I’d observed and he agreed that it was the most likely explanation, but wanted a urine sample to check for other possibilities before ruling anything out. I resolved to get a sample the following morning and bring it in for analysis.
The next morning I followed Sable out the family room door to the back yard. She squatted to urinate and I deftly slipped a plastic measuring cup under her tail and between her legs. She finished and stood up, and I removed the cup from under her. Empty. She looked back over her shoulder at me as if to say, “How COULD you embarrass me like that?” I went to work thinking I would get the sample that evening.
Sable had other ideas. She simply refused to pee while I was anywhere near her in the yard. I finally resorted to the old feigning disinterest trick, keeping watch on her out of the corner of my eye and quietly keeping close enough that when she finally did squat, I’d be able to reach her and get enough for a sample. After several minutes of this cat and Newf game, she squatted, I hurried over, and this time got a full cup. I transferred the booty to a capped container and drove it to the vet. The tests revealed an elevated white cell count, indicating a slight infection, so antibiotics were prescribed with instructions to bring another sample the following week.
A week later we played the same game again, only I managed to get a sample on the first try, much to Sable’s chagrin. The sample was negative, indicating that the infection had cleared up, but the vet was concerned that the specific gravity seemed quite low. In other words, her urine was extremely diluted. In order to check that she was able to properly condense her urine, a further test was required, meaning, you guessed it, another urine sample. This sample had to be taken first thing in the morning after withholding water for 12 hours. Talk about pressure! I set the trusty measuring cup on the table by the family room door, ready for action the following morning, picked up all the water dishes, much to the dismay of the rest of the dogs, and went to bed.
For a third time, Sable walked around the yard, sniffing at the grass, one eye on me, trying to get far enough away to do her business in peace and private, while I stalked her relentlessly. Finally, she could hold it no longer and the sample was had. That sample passed with flying colors, so we were ready to begin medication for her “leakage” problem.
We decided to try treating Sable with DES first. DES is one of two medications prescribed for this condition. As it turned out, Sable didn’t respond to the DES, so the vet put her on phenylpropanolamine, which she will be on the rest of her life. It hasn’t completely stopped the leakage, but it’s under control and she simply needs her rear legs cleaned and brushed periodically.
One of the first decisions we had to make with Sable’s addition to the household was what to do with her while we were both at work. On the days Donna works, we’re gone about eleven hours. Our other three dogs have had the run of the house for most of their lives. Except for the occasional surprise, they’re all trustworthy and do not need to be crated. Sable was an unknown quantity. She had been kenneled outside, but obviously was both happy and grateful to be allowed inside. We couldn’t easily get her upstairs to put her in the crate, and bringing the crate downstairs was out of the question, as we had little enough room as it was. I had the strong feeling that she was trustworthy and would be unwilling to do anything to jeopardize her newfound luxury. There was only one way to find out, so we left her alone with the others while we went to work on Tuesday. When we got home, it appeared that everyone had simply laid down and gone to sleep the moment we left, only to get up to get a drink occasionally, and lay back down. Sable had apparently been an angel, so we resolved to let her go until she either proved herself or goofed up badly enough to warrant crating her. To this day, we’ve never had any reason to doubt Sable’s trustworthiness so she has the run of the house with the others. The crate is once again stored in the basement, awaiting our next addition.
Newfs being Newfs we were not surprised at all at the lack of territorial aggression between the dogs since Sable’s arrival. She and Tux get along like old buddies. Misty is the alpha dog, so can’t demean herself by actually fraternizing with Sable, although she allows Tux considerable liberties. Sable will play with Tux, but is reluctant to join in if he and Misty are roughhousing. It was apparent that Misty had accepted her the very first day when she allowed Sable to share her back seat with her for the trip home, however, to no one’s surprise, we had two very minor incidents.
The first occurred when I got in the car to drive home from the rendezvous. Misty was laying with her head between the seat back and the door, as is her habit. Sable was sitting in the other half of the back seat. I said, “Good girl, Sable!” Misty’s head jerked up and she gave me a look that was half surprised and half dismayed. I said to her, “You’re a good girl, too, Misty.” She immediately softened, put her head back down and promptly went to sleep.
The second incident occurred several days after Sable had come home with us. She and Misty were out in the back yard and tried to come in the family room door simultaneously. They made it, but not without some bumping of rib cages. Each turned to the other and snarled slightly. A quick, simultaneous “No!” from Donna and I put an end to the confrontation and we haven’t seen even the slightest disagreement between them since.
Over the next weeks, Sable settled in as a member of the family, charming the neighbors as well as us with her sweet disposition. Her obvious gratitude and happy personality endeared her to all who met her. She’d been with us a couple of weeks when we realized that neither of us had heard her bark. Our dogs bark at anything deemed important enough to warrant their attention so there’s never a shortage of canine vocalizing around the house. Since our dogs know to bark to go outside, Sable had never needed to tell us she needed to go out. She simply waited until one of the others barked, then she’d go outside with them. As for coming back in, she had apparently figured out that if you stand and stare at the door long enough, it will open. At least it worked for her.
We began to wonder if she could bark at all. There were at least two occasions when Tux had barked for her to let us know she needed to go out. He’d let out his “I need to go out!” bark, then when one of us came to let him outside, he’d laid there on the floor looking at Sable like, “It’s she that needs to go, not me.” Sable, meanwhile, eagerly trotted out the door to the yard.
Then, one day she was out in the back yard with the others when the neighbor let her Chesapeake Bay Retriever out. Our dogs began barking, of course, then we heard a long wailing sound ending in a sharp bark! Apparently, Sable couldn’t stand it anymore and tried to let out three weeks worth of barks in one. She was standing at the fence, tail up, ears alert. Each time she barked, she did so with such enthusiasm that her front paws actually left the ground.
I walked out into the back yard, closing the door behind me. Sable heard the door, turned and looked at me, then put her tail, ears and head down and began to slink across the yard toward me. She looked as though she expected to be severely disciplined for having barked. We can only speculate that she had been punished for barking in the past. I met her halfway, petted her and thanked her for guarding the yard. She seemed relieved, but continued into the house. Of course, now she’s one of the first to sound the alarm when a neighbor’s cat, dog, or other major threat to the household security is spotted.
The one obstacle left was the stairs to the second floor. I knew she would resist climbing the stairs due to her traumatic first experience with them. Had we been wiser, we would have deferred the stairs until she was more settled. As it was, she went up trusting us, then discovered to her horror that the way down wasn’t nearly as easy as getting up. No amount of coaxing could get her to climb further than her front paws could reach without her rear paws leaving the foyer floor. I finally formulated a plan to overcome her fears with gradual desensitization.
As I mentioned, part of our nightly ritual was my trip downstairs to “tuck Sable in.” She lay on her bed and I gave her a biscuit, petted her for a few minutes, then said good night and went back upstairs. Sable would get up off her bed and pad out to the foyer and stand at the bottom of the stairs looking up after me as I climbed them. Then, I would turn out the hall light and go to bed, while she lay on her carpet by the front door. Seeing this, I figured that she might be willing to climb up a step or two to get a treat. So, I began leaving a small training biscuit on each of the first three steps. She was able to easily reach all three steps without having to reach or climb above the foyer level. I continued this pattern for several nights, then put treats on two higher steps. I found that after a bit of hesitation she would climb to get the highest treat, then immediately turn around and go back down. This continued for several weeks. Each night I would leave treats on several steps, leaving more treats on the higher steps as an incentive. It wasn’t long before she was climbing halfway up the stairs to get the highest treats. I gradually eliminated the treats from the lower steps, while adding more to the higher steps, so that she had to climb several stairs to reach the first treat, then additional steps to get the highest ones.
I discovered that one of the secrets was that she had to be absolutely alone while climbing for her treats. If one of the other dogs decided to “help” her, or I let her see me watching her at the top of the stairs, she would immediately turn around and go back down, plop herself down on her carpet in a huff, and not move the rest of the night. I made every effort to keep the other dogs occupied during her excursions and made sure she didn’t see me. I judged her progress by the uneaten treats on the higher steps. She would inch higher one step at a time over a period of days, then all of a sudden she wouldn’t go any higher for a week or more. This continued for more than a month until she was finally getting her last treat off the landing at the top of the stairs. This particular plateau lasted nearly a month. She would climb all the way to where she could reach the front edge of the landing with her nose and get a treat or two that she could reach from there, but wouldn’t go up the one or two additional steps to get treats further back on the landing.
Then, one night, the breakthrough. She actually put her front paws on the landing and ate all the treats I had spread out on the landing. Next thing I knew, she came in the bedroom and wanted me to pet her. Of course, we had a happy party to let her know how pleased I was with her. She thoroughly enjoyed herself until she realized that she wanted to go back down, but didn’t want to negotiate the steps from the landing. This time I was able to convince her in about five minutes to crawl on her belly close enough to the top step that I was able to grab her elbows and help her over the first step. Once on the first step, she walked right down, with little hesitation.
The following night, she came up into the bedroom again. Again, I helped her get started back down, but this time it took only a minute or so of coaxing to get her to “assume the position.” Within a week she was going back down all by herself. Since then, she has slowly become more comfortable, to the point where she will often come up by herself in the morning or afternoon to see what everyone’s doing up there. She still goes back downstairs to sleep (that may be her watch assignment ), but she’s quite obviously no longer afraid of the stairs. Not bad for an “old” dog learning a new trick. All it took was a lot of patience, love and praise and about four months, but we were in no hurry and didn’t want to push her before she was ready.
It should be obvious that this rescue has been a blessing for Sable and for us. After being with us six months, her coat is nearly all grown out, the color much deeper and fuller. Her tail is nearly grown back from the “rat tail” she started with after all the mats were clipped and brushed out of it. She smiles nearly all the time, “helps” Donna and Misty with loading the dishwasher, runs over to the fence to greet the neighbor in her garden, and is content to lay outside by herself in the cool grass in the morning. She loves to go for walks in the neighborhood and greet passersby with a smile and wagging tail. Donna still occasionally expresses surprise that the previous owners could not want a dog as sweet and lovable as Sable, but I remind her that if her owners had not been willing to give her up we’d never have known her or had the privilege of caring for this four-legged angel.
Submitted by John W. Sawyer from Pennsylvania via the Internet. © 1995.