Dec 7 2020

On Mastiffs

(Crossposted from another platform)

When I lost my dog… And let me stop here because I need you to understand that she was a mastiff. 

That means she was a huge girl who needed leash training and needed doggy kindergarten training but never needed protection training; you don’t ever do that, with mastiffs, because protection training involves putting a dog’s person in simulated threat and prompting them to fight on behalf of their person. A mastiff will do that anyway, and they will do it very well, and any “training” scenarios would be a) distressing for the dog, and b) dangerous for the people pretending to be threats.

Most mastiffs in a home-burglary situation will use their weight and ferocious bark/growl to immobilize intruders: they’re pretty famous for sitting on would-be burglars until the police come round. (These dogs get to be about 200 pounds, depending. Thora was on the slim side but trust me, nobody wanted to try her.) They don’t enjoy fucking people up. They are gentle giants. They bite as a last resort.

But they absolutely will do it, in defense of their person.

I was Thora’s main person, and she never needed training. She knew in her bones that guarding the house and the people in it was her job. She wouldn’t stray far from me, but she liked to plop her entire bulk down in the middle of hallways so that she could get sightlines to everyone else in the house as well. She guarded us from dawn to dusk and round through the night too. She was on top of it, in a lounge-y way. If I went to get a glass of water from the kitchen it would be to the accompaniment of scrabbling claws on hardwood and the soft effortful grunts of a mastiff heaving herself up, because she could not let me out of her sight.

When I was sick, she would be lying at the side of the bed.

When she was sick, finally, of old age, she went out into the yard and stretched out under my window. When it became clear she wasn’t coming back in I went out and stayed with her, trying to coax her to drink chicken broth; we couldn’t move her without her cooperation, so we found a vet that would come to us, but by the time the vet came it was for funerary services.

Anyway, so, when I lost my dog, I never stopped feeling her presence. It’s been twenty months since she died and the reason I made this post is because I absentmindedly just leaned over to scritch the vacancy where her ears would be, if she was lying in the place where she ought to be. I can feel with absolute clarity the space her ghost takes up, and I never want it to leave me.

Don’t ever buy a mastiff. Rescuing ones that already exist and need homes is different, if you know what you’re doing, but I’ve become convinced that it is immoral to knowingly create beings so good who only live for such a short time. Big dogs live shorter lives, and seven to nine years is not enough. Much better to have a less saintly dog that lives longer. That mastiffs exist at all is a reproach to the arrogance and hubris of humankind: we thought we’d make something good. We weren’t prepared for the cost of loving and losing them so soon.

Someday I might adopt another mastiff, as a rescue, but only if I’m ready for another ghost.

Apr 19 2019

RIP Thora

Last year Thora was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, a
progressive and incurable disease of the spinal cord in older dogs. She was only six but sadly that is old, for a mastiff. She lived to be almost eight, with mobility issues that increased steadily but did not prevent her from having a good quality of life.

When the end came it was pretty abrupt. Two days ago she picked a spot in the yard and stopped moving altogether. We brought her water and treats. I made her chicken broth and held it to her mouth so she could drink it. Then she stopped being interested in food or water, and sometime early this morning, she died.

We had already had an appointment scheduled with Bridge Veterinary Services; they were very helpful, even though hospice and euthanasia had both become redundant options. But the vet was warm and immensely kind. She made a plaster cast of Thora’s paw for us, then we loaded Thora onto a stretcher and the vet took her away for cremation.

I never imagined having strong feelings about pet burial but in this case I find that I do. I want Thora’s ashes to be scattered here, because this is her home, and it is not complete without her. She is woven into the fabric of our lives and she belongs here, with us, where I still feel her warm and loving and protective presence. The spot she chose in the yard was just under my window. I think she was still guarding us.

The last thing I said to the vet was “She was so good. She was so good.” It felt important that she know that. It feels important that you all know that. She was so good, and I will miss her so much, my big girl forever.

May 9 2015

Thora’s New Bling

I don’t have a daughter to buy pretty clothes for, so I indulged myself by getting a sparkly new collar for my big girl:



It’s by Paco Collars, a leatherworking studio in San Francisco, and although it was almost unjustifiably spendy, I think Thora carries it off majestically.

There’s not much new here to report: Davy’s surgery hasn’t been rescheduled yet since he’s still got a cough, but he hasn’t had any problems with the hernia. Everyone else is fine. And I’m very much looking forward to Mother’s Day tomorrow!

Oct 2 2013



Jul 9 2013

One Year Old!

Happy birthday to our big girl!


Feb 19 2013

Tragedy in the Henhouse

Thora killed one of our chickens. This happened a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t have the heart to write about it until now. She came trotting into the house with a chicken wing in her mouth: I screamed, everyone came running, there was yelling, and Thora dropped the severed wing and went tearing all around the house peeing and defecating everywhere to signal her submission and distress. A few minutes later she puked up a belly full of chicken innards. As apologies go I must say it is the worst I have ever received.

Eventually we comforted the dog, Sam went outside to gather up the remains (it was not an open casket funeral), and we gave Penny a decent burial. I said a few words. Her sisters did not attend the ceremony: chickens are not sentimental creatures. Sam said they were busy cannibalizing the corpse when he arrived at the scene.

We have mostly processed the whole episode at this point. The boys wanted to talk a bit about death and what it means: for Robin, it seemed to bring up some dim memories of Marlis, because he began saying things like “We used to have a cat but we don’t have a cat now.” I reiterated some of the things that I told him when Marlis died. I told him that death means you aren’t in the world any more. I told him that everything that is alive dies eventually, but that he and we are young and won’t die for a long, long time. I told him that when someone dies you can be sad and cry because you miss them a lot, and also that sometimes you might not feel sad, even though you still miss them. I suppose this is one of the benefits of keeping livestock: kids grow up experiencing the natural cycles of life.

For a while Davy and Robin would say “Thora is a bad dog!” because one of the things I yelled over and over, when I was yelling, was “Bad dog! Bad dog!” So I also had to explain that actually Thora is a good dog who did a bad thing. And that it is not really her fault, she was just being a dog. (Although I have to admit that it changed the way I look at her a bit. “She’s a murderess,” I told Sam, who responded quite reasonably that her kill count is nowhere near the total that Marlis racked up. “Yes,” I said, “but Marlis never killed anything with a name!”)

The boys also seemed to just like to tell the story of what happened: “Thora killed our chicken and then you screamed,” one of the boys would say, out of the blue. And I would just say, “Yep, that is what happened.” “And then you cried.” “Yes, I cried because I was sad.” We must have had that conversation ten or fifteen times in the first few days after. At this point they don’t seem to need to go over it so much.

Robin is very keen on getting a new hen. “We need to get another girl chicken with a bow,” he says. I did try to explain to him that not all creatures that are girls wear bows on their head, but he is quite certain that the next hen ought to come beribboned.

In fact we probably will want to replace Penny at some point, but introducing a new hen to an established flock isn’t necessarily easy. The existing chickens will try to drive off any bird they perceive as an interloper, and can injure or even kill a new hen by relentlessly pecking her. One way to get around this is to wait until one of the hens goes broody and then to slip some fertilized eggs underneath her, letting nature take its course from there. So I’m inclined to give it some time and see if Henrietta or Genevieve show any signs of wanting to be a momma.

Meanwhile Thora and the chickens are no longer allowed to share the yard. Instead we keep the hens cooped up until late morning, giving Thora a chance to run around for a bit, and then the chickens are let out and Thora is kept inside until sundown. (She also gets a walk in the early afternoon.) Once the chickens have put themselves away, Thora gets free run of the yard again. In some ways it’s a better arrangement anyway, because I don’t have to worry about the dog finding eggs before I do.

Here is a picture of Thora looking angelic. (Murderess!)

mastiff on the rug

Dec 31 2012

Happy New Year!

We’re just back from a visit with Pappy and Nonna in Carson City—Robin and Thora had so much fun in the snow. (Davy, not so much. He took one step and immediately fell down on a slippery patch, and after that insisted on being carried over the treacherous white stuff. California boy!)

And I saw a tree full of quail, which was thrilling. Quail, with their funny bobbing head-tufts and their plump little bodies, are the most adorable birds ever—especially if you spot a momma with her little ones all trailing after. Sam, native son of the West, is thoroughly blasé about them and can’t understand why I get so excited every time. “They’re just like pigeons,” he says. “All over the place.” (They are not just like pigeons, they are wonderful and I will never get over them.)





I hope all of you have a new year filled with warmth, love, and joy!

Nov 30 2012

Big Girl

thora, almost five months

Thora, a week shy of five months. She had a vet check today and weighed in at 55 pounds. Some people mistake her for a full-grown hound dog, but most can tell that she’s still just a puppy (and are able to conclude that she’s gonna be huge)!

We’ve started taking her to the dog park, where she behaves very nicely with the other dogs. She’s also fully house-trained, and she’s growing less “mouthy,” though she’s still teething and the inanimate world is pretty much her chew toy at this stage. We need to work on: the “down” command (she jumps up on people, especially on a first meeting), leash-training (she has a tendency to pull, which is not tolerable in a full-grown mastiff), and most especially her behavior towards my chickens, which is not exactly that of a loving big sister.

To us, though, she is unfailingly sweet. She has a big dog bed in my office, but it’s not quite close enough to my desk, so she dragged a blanket over on the floor right next to my feet so that she can curl up next to me in comfort. She asks for so little, really—just fresh water, kibble, a daily walk, and the company of her family. And in return she offers boundless love, loyalty, and vigilance. It’s a pretty excellent bargain.

Sep 29 2012

Puppy Education

Thora went to her first “puppy preschool” class today! She got to socialize with lots of other puppies and their owners, and she made good progress on learning the “sit” command. She’s always responded to “come,” because she’s such a lovebug and always wants attention, but we’re reinforcing that too. “Down” and “stay” will be next on the curriculum.

After class she relaxed with her bone:



Sep 16 2012

Two Boys and a Puppy

I snapped this while the boys were watching television—an uncharacteristic moment of stillness. They always look so much older after a haircut!


The show was “My Little Pony.” Robin is a brony now. He got some birthday money from his great-grandmother and he decided to spend it on a Rarity doll. Maybe it’s a Rarity “action figure”? Anyway, that choice came as a surprise to us, because he mostly talks about Rainbow Dash—but after Rarity arrived, he started saving up his allowance for Fluttershy. So I guess those are his favorites!

The allowance is a new thing too. We’ve started giving him $5 a week, which would basically allow him to get one new pony a month (although some of them are on sale sometimes). We keep track of his money on a notecard attached to the fridge. It’s the Bank of Mom and Dad. The advent of the allowance coincided with the arrival of a weekly chore schedule—he’s now expected to let the chickens out of their coop every morning, and to help set the table for dinner.

Davy’s hit some new milestones too. He’s successfully transitioned into his own bed, in Robin’s room: it’s awfully sweet to hear the two brothers chatting to each other in the mornings. The next big challenge will be potty training. I’m going to give him six weeks or so to settle into the school routine, and then start pushing to get him out of diapers.

Lastly, here’s our little girl, at almost ten weeks:


Still a baby, but getting bigger!