THE FIRST GERMAN SHEPHERD dog dies while I am at work and I am losing embryos. People say, Don’t get a puppy. Have the baby first, then get a puppy. Given probability, given me, it’s more a baby, the puppy. Everything is failing. Husband so busy we live on different sides of the day and I am alone and want a hero. Someone tells me about a breeder of hero dogs, in Washington State. I learn all about these dogs, descendants of Rin Tin Tin with these baffling, German names. Working bloodlines. I don’t know what that means but they are beautiful, strong, wedge heads, straight backs, muscles and ears. The breeder sends me a photo of two female pups with the message, your pick. One looks content, her eyes soft as melted chocolate, calm. The other glares at the camera: muscles coiled — I want that one, I say.
After the airplane flight, eight hours in the air at eight weeks old, she bursts out of the crate with head and tail high on caramel and licorice little legs. She opens her mouth in a sharp pup-toothed smile. Licks at my thumb, tests it in her needle teeth. Vaults straight into my lap, grabs the cuff of my shirt and holds fast. A little blue leash, a little blue collar, a little puppy the color of chocolate cake watching the rainy city night, her front paws up on the window ledge, her back paws on my leg as we drive home, heart drumming steady.
Working line: Police dogs. Search dogs. War dogs. Drug dogs. Hero dogs. Not show dogs. Made to be smart and indestructible. Mostly indestructible. Don’t discourage her bite, the breeder says.
She shreds every cuff of every shirt I own.
I name her Lee after my grandmother, Leonora, who crossed Europe at age 12 and a half and settled in America, who married Jack and taught him English, who had two children with him: my father, my aunt. Jack may have other children out there too. He was a tale-teller, a secret man, a sweet talker, handsome, disloyal. To divorce him on grounds of infidelity, Grandma Lee snuck into his mistress’s apartment and photographed them in bed.
But what if there is ever a daughter?
Then you’ll have the two-legged Lee and the four-legged Lee, my father says.
Four-legged Lee likes to chase the set of master keys, ten keys on a heavy metal ring, the keys to everything for the past eight years. I toss them through the apartment and she hurls after them, grabs them with a growl, races them back, yips Here, throw it again and regards me square in the eye. The bonds of love are formed by patterns: I do, she does, again again. The keys are prey to be vanquished, shaken back and forth in her teeth. She takes her prize to her little blue bed. Licks the brass and nickel and mouths the ring. Turns my history into a chew toy. Is the brass saltier than the nickel? Is the key to the house upstate sweeter than the key to the apartment?
She plays tug with anything. A sweater, a rag, a towel, a blanket. I learn to not offer if I do not want it destroyed. She is a force of nature, growing a pound a day. Nothing phases her. She is Lee the undauntable.
Her brown eyes are always on me. She blinks at me to go out. I get up, we get leash, run downstairs, she goes out, we come back up, I go back to work, she lays down on the bed in the dining room where I work, watching me. I look at her. At 7:30 she curls around her body, nose under tail, and goes to sleep on the bed near my bed. And does not wake up until the next morning, ready to do it all again.
She is my walk through Brooklyn, my arm toss in the park, my sit on the stoop, my weekend up in the country, my never alone, my not going to die for such a long time it feels like forever, my Lee. Her tongue is grilled cheese. Warm and soft and flexible and wet, stroked and melting across skin, the same spots, studiously. Her ears go back like the arms of a diver about to fly into deep water. She concentrates, covering my skin, can lick for half an hour or more if not stopped at a pace ranging from even to urgent, slowing, quickening. Apparently when dogs lick it releases endorphins and lowers their heart rate, but does it lower progressively? Or just get to a low point and stay there? Her mighty heart, steadied this way?
She grabs things other dogs are baffled by, growling and tossing her whole body back and forth. Picks a fight with a garbage can, chases it all over the park, inventing garbage can soccer. Sights a tree branch still on the tree, lunges up and onto it, wrestling it to the breaking point. Tears it off like a limb.
What is she doing?
She’s killing it.
Her father: Cruger the Boom, a burly male, world champion. Her mother: Mona vom Schaictal of East German bloodlines. Wedge ears, wedge heads, wedge fangs, broad shoulders, sable coats, black points on their toes. Dog people are mystified: She’s so focused. Shepherd people admire her: She’s so focused. This is what a hundred years of selective dog breeding is supposed to do, not those frail wrecks at Westminster.
Maybe 12, 14 years?
Then just die of old age?
A shepherd person tells me: These dogs won’t die. You have to kill them.
This is how she gives me hugs: she faces me and buries her face in my stomach, pushing into me with her skull. Her ears are silk, her breath is warm. She pushes, steady, just enough, keeps pushing.
Why a shepherd?
I want to do things with it.
You can do that with any dog.
You could get one in a shelter.
I wanted a puppy. I wanted what I wanted.
But there are so many dogs.
None of them are Lee.
I know my life is hovering, hanging, I am unguarded, unwatched, untended. Here are some synonyms for shepherd: Guide. Steer. Tend. Guard. Watch over. Centuries ago, sheep herders were buried with a tuft of wool in their hands, so that when Judgment Day came they could prove their occupation and be excused for missing church on so many Sundays.
German Shepherds are double coated, with the glossy overcoat and the fluffy white undercoat that sheds out twice a year. Lee’s downy wool gathers in the corners of the apartment, along the baseboards of the house upstate, riffles against furniture, rolls into clods under the bed. Looks so much thicker than it is. In my hand it’s unsettling in its lightness, it’s lack of mass. What looks solid is air.
She grows to 68 pounds.
In the park, a Rottweiler named Big Boy mounts her. She whirls around and pins him. An irritable standard poodle snaps at her. She curls her lip, disdain dripping off her fangs. A mastiff mix body blocks her for a mutual stick. She chases him with hackles raised, catches him off balance, bumps him into a tumble. A Ridgeback takes a piss on her bed. She chokes him.
When a friend takes her for a ride up the country road in the car, Lee jumps out of the open window, rolls like a stuntwoman, rushes up into the woods after a deer. I find her bathing in the still basin of the stream, eyes half-lidded, flecks of green grass on her coat.
She snatches ten pound logs in her jaws.
But why stop her?
She’ll hurt herself.
You don’t know that.
She can’t run wild.
It’s the country.
July 4. Brooklyn style Independence Day: the park is M-80s, picnics with endless chicken. We go for a walk right through it. She is unflappable. That night the landlord comes to my door, giant, Irish, corrupt, lurching, stoned. Lee stands in the doorway, looking at him. Just looking.
Is your dog all right with me, he says.
No, I say.
I get a dog trainer, but one upstate. A fateful move.
He watches her lift logs and do her savage thing.
In about five years, she will have abnormally deteriorated disks if she keeps doing this, he says. She will have no teeth left.
He watches her chase a rude retriever back to the car.
She’s decided it’s her job to keep all bad dogs in line, he says. Not good.
But she loves people. She loves me.
She needs more to do.
Obedience, protection, tracking, searching. Apparatus: long rubbery leads, hard rubber balls with loop handles, burlap pillows, sleeves that fit over your arm: a springy, bite-proof sheath, heavily padded and covered in a skin made from repurposed fire hose. Fits over a forearm. Takes the bite. It’s all about channeling the bite. The drive. Lee has so much drive she’s a rocket with fangs. It’s called hard drive. She’s rare even for her breed.
I think of that puppy photo, her glaring.
She’s not that hard, I say, petting her silky, silky snout.
Yes she is, he says. She’s a true alpha female.
These dogs speak German. We learn:
plotz (lie down).
She becomes civil. If not civil wholeheartedly, then tolerant. She makes the decision to tolerate. She becomes brilliant. After an hour of hurling herself at sleeves, she is sweet. We sit in the green grass, panting and content.
In the city the landlord won’t renew the lease. I used to imagine a child rolling a tricycle down the long floor of the apartment, the daughter and I sitting on the stoop drawing flowers in pink chalk. I move to the house upstate full-time. Me and Lee.
I am in love with your dog, the dog trainer says.
Never mind the life I’d been living before this. Just never mind.
When Lee rushes across the field, jowls already furled, mouth already open to take that gnash-down bite, her eyes are bright, flinting in the sun. A german shepherd has a bite force of 240 to 800 pounds depending on weight, size, sex, temperament. For a female, her bite is off the charts. She is ferocious. She celebrates with her teeth. She has technique. In launch her paws spread and dig in to get more vault. Her nails leave holes in the dirt. Her nose creases into a symmetry of terrifying whorls as she holds on. Her jaws clamp and do not unclamp. She’s whirled around in circles, faster and faster, the whole world a carousel anchored in her teeth, she is ecstatic.
This has nothing to do with police work or bad history. This is just a dog getting to do what she loves to do, which is bite. She is bunched with muscles, she has the squared off cheeks of an athlete and a lean tucked-in waist. Unvanquishable. She walks into a room and people notice. Scares off bears in the woods. A subtle shift of the hair across her withers and other dogs turn tail.
None of this has to do with me. I begin to feel like her keeper, her maintainer, her honorer. She has my back and I have hers.
She learns to track. She eats so many hot dogs she farts wurst smell. All she wants to do is track.
She learns to air scent. Humans shed 40,000 skin cells a minute. She lifts her head up on the shelves of the breeze and dashes into the woods, scrambling through brush, impatient, driven, nose quivering after the scent borne on the currents of air. All she wants to do is air scent.
She leans to be precise at the heel, she is like a Mack truck idling at the side of my leg. The harder it is, the better she gets. All she wants to do is heel. We could compete at this, if I can rise to her occasion.
That’s some dog, dog people say as she sits across the field, waiting for me to invite her to run its length and launch herself into the tug I hold out. Pakken, her joy. She runs with ears pricked, tail high, teeth bared, her mouth open in a perpetual grin.
When I have to leave for a day or two, she curls into herself and doesn’t uncurl until I return. When I come back she smiles for an hour, her mouth open, lips curled back, goofy, scooping her head into the air around me, pushing against my leg, singing her barkish song of relief.
Fido: from Fidelis. Fidelity: faithful, loyal.
Lee: where you take shelter from wind or weather, the lee side of the wall. As in: she is the Lee of my life. She has brought me to the leeward side of ever feeling alone again, and she is still young.
And so we thrive, Lee and I. We search out water in the woods, where she takes the biggest stick she can find and roams into the water and lays down. It could be snowing. It could be freezing. The water could be mud from storms. She loves it. She lays down, still. The motion puts her into a trance.
And everywhere we drive, we find woods and take a walk. We find water and she goes in. We are surrounded by woods and water, we are forever looking for woods and water and finding it. When I see woods and water, I see Lee.
Since Lee is too old to be allowed on the Search and Rescue team, she’s bred, instead, to make a puppy that will surpass her. It is a compromise she does not agree with. She tolerates the male. We are hoping for females, but she births seven males. They are solid and fierce. She is a diligent mother. She tolerates them for three and a half weeks and weans them decisively.
And something has shifted, unleashed by some strange biology, and soon the house we live in turns into something else: more dogs, more dogs, so many dogs and pigeons and chickens and dogs and people that it becomes a dense pack of chaos, always noisy, smelling like wet hair and dirt. I build a back room on the back of the little house, and it is like a separate place. Lee and I lie on the floor, sharing a blanket, listening. I feel like a dog, trapped in a strange and wrong place, my ears pricked to everything out of my control. But then we wander the old rutted pasture out back, where horses used to break their legs, where brambles and prickerbushes complicate the old stone walls. It is quiet out there.
But be careful, I say now. Don’t rush.
Nine hundred more things happen, and we have to leave. Lee and I find another house, another old white house on an old field flanked by mountains. And she and I and two of her sons and their half sister all get in the car and suddenly this whole world, this crammed rabbit hole, stops.
The new house was built in 1947, after the war was over, after the period of time when you couldn’t say German Shepherd, you said Alsatian. You didn’t say Sauerkraut, you said Liberty Cabbage. The house was built smack on top on an old quarry, and it’s basement is unchanged since then: a mystery of fraying wires and damp earth and rock walls. Water runs in, billowing across the floor, over-driving the sump pump, which kicks on and chokes on debris. When I have to run down there to clear the pump at 3 a.m., Lee stands at the top of the stairs, keeping watch, her head in the doorway, strangely disembodied. In this quiet house among the younger dogs she has a certain patience. She lies sprawled out, taking up space again, because there is space. At least that’s what I think. My family can come visit, and she kisses my nephew, long kisses that make him coo. Leeleeleelee, he says as she kisses him, eyes bright.
Now it is just she and me and the other dogs. She and I outside: I dare you. Throw something and I will catch it and kill it. I will taste the fresh grass and lay sprawled on the any floor I want. I will claim all the dog beds. I will insist on treats. I will lick you for hours. I will roll over on my belly for rubs from total strangers. I will find water.
When it rains and rains and water fills the trenched fields, it makes glorious ponds to lay in. She is a sphinx, half submerged, as if rising out of the earth, or sinking in. She battles giant blown-down limbs and races her sons for frisbees and lets them win. She lies by the fireplace at night to dry off, her back curled to the fire, the apex of the curve at the place where her vertebrae is all worn down. She pushes back towards the fire, drawing in the heat.
I keep her sons from knocking into her with their slapdash rangy bodies. The other female licks her face clean. I place myself in front of her when she walks down the steps so she won’t slide or trip. Her belly is rounder, her legs are spindlier. There is nothing in there, the X-rays are clear. But dog time is a funnel. The wide side is the blind birth, the world amorphous, amazing. And then it begins to taper, and it tapers fast.
There’s a finite trajectory to hurling a ball, even if someone doesn’t catch it: it bounces, bounces more, bounces more, but each bounce loses a certain amount of kinetic energy. Gravity works on it. Friction works on it. One day I hurl the ball for our usual game, out into the field, out into the timothy hay and the yarrow. It is early autumn, the leaves are that rude brilliance, that last dance before winter. She runs valiantly for the ball, and then overshoots it and tumbles down. She gets up. We are now suddenly in a new phase where, when running, she can’t stop. She overshoots herself, one hind leg cants out instead of holding her up, betraying her. It is not that she was badly built. She has simply worn herself down.
She ambles after scents, finds a rabbit bone in the grass, still fresh from its kill, finds it again and again, every time I hide it. She takes off in slow motion after things she must see and wonder about. She eats rabbit shit, the hulls of things. She hears less or listens less. Her eyes grow cloudy like galaxies through fog.
And she is more ferocious when dreaming than awake. Awake she’s restless. At night she finally settles down on her bed at the foot of the couch, licking my hand until my skin is numb. There’s all that softness, that tenacity, that warmth, rapid and steady. It’s as if she’s been storing it up, a savings account of kisses. She rolls on her side, her belly rising up like a new mountain, shifts off that one bad leg, lifts her head. Keeps licking in those velvet upstrokes. Don’t stop, I say, and she doesn’t. But she will.