There is one less heart beating in Wheeling, tonight. Rosie, the 10 year-old Newfoundland dog who had fought back no fewer than three life-threatening illnesses, was put to sleep this morning.
It was a long time coming. She had struggled through her last few years of life. Big dogs like Newfies have bodies too big for their hearts, too heavy for their hips. After hundreds of years of haphazard inbreeding for specific physical traits, big purebreds just don’t live as long as their smaller cousins. We knew we wouldn’t have Rosie with us forever, but even the greatest care and the most loving family couldn’t coax her through a longer life span than her failing, ancient body permitted.
She was never much like her fellow Newfies. They tend to drool an awful lot, but Rosie didn’t. They have warm, loving personalities, but Rosie was aloof and standoffish.
There are two stories about Rosie that illustrate her personality. If they were the only two stories I knew about her, they would be enough.
My mother is constantly redecorating and rejiggering the bedrooms on the second floor. Carpet one decade, hardwood the next. A few years ago, when Rosie was in her prime, my mom hired a couple of carpet installers to plant a fresh, new carpet in the bedroom that I had once occupied.
They went about their preparations, scoping out the room and bringing up the first load of tools. Rosie had been in the back yard, her favorite place in the world, and my mother let her in while the workers were upstairs.
A few minutes later, my mother heard low, hushed tones:
“I’m not going near it – you go.”
“No way, man. You go.”
My mom looked up the steps and saw Rosie, stock still, peering over the edge of the landing, watching the workers in the bedroom. She wasn’t growling, or barking, or swishing her tail, or panting. She stood there, silently, and dared them to approach her.
My mom laughed and told Rosie it was ok, and she turned around and went back downstairs, never to so much as glance in the workers’ direction.
This would be familiar behavior to any Newfie owner – they intimidate with their size, rarely needing to resort to teeth or growls. Whenever a visitor came inside, Rosie would stand between my mother and the guest. When my mother gave Rosie the a-ok, she would go back to whatever she was doing.
Grizzly, my mother’s second Newfie, is much more like the standard for the breed. Where Rosie is too tall, Grizzly is of the perfect height. He drools a whole hell of a lot, but especially when there’s food around. My mother is constantly wiping dried spit from the walls. He also stands between my mother and a guest, but he behaves as most other Newfies do when she gives him the thumbs-up – he throws himself at the guest, demanding affection and attention in a gentle, if forceful way. Not Rosie.
A friend of my mother’s came to visit the house in the same period of Rosie’s life as the previous story – in her prime. Rosie was lying in the front hall, head between her front paws. My mother’s guest was an older woman who had spent much of her life suffering from debilitating leg disorder that forced her to walk with canes on her wrists. She also loved dogs, and Rosie’s 120lb, furry, black body was hard to resist. Rosie took no notice of her when she struggled, painfully, to sit on the floor next to her. Rosie did not raise her head, or look around, or wag her tail. My mother’s friend finally made it to the floor, huffing and puffing, and reached out to pet her. Rosie stood up and walked away.
There are so many stories like these, and even rare moments of affection. Rosie’s way of expressing her love was a simple nudge of her head against your leg – which we called a “newfie hug.” If you were lucky, you might even get two. When she wanted pets, she barked. If you were near her and she didn’t think you were petting her enough, she would rake her paw across your face – in the gentlest way, of course.
And while Rosie was aloof, she seemed to actually enjoy having my nephews mess with her. Owen and Miles would pull her tail, pull her ears, crawl all over her back – and Rosie would stay right where she was, occasionally sniffing a nephew with her big, wet nose, or languidly changing to a more comfortable position. One concern with big dogs around children is that the bigger ones can knock down the smaller kids without really knowing what they’re doing. Newfies aren’t like this – even ambling, forceful Grizzly knows when to be gentle.
There are so many little things to remember about Rosie. Newfies are water dogs, used for centuries in rescue boats along the English Channel – the only breed to be recognized by the AKC with “natural life-saving instincts.” When she was a puppy, she would dive into my mom’s running baths.
Rosie eschewed any kind of toy we bought for her. Instead, she would carry big rocks from the back yard and chew on the edges.
She begged at the dinner table by planting her drooling, wide head on the tabletop, looking up at the nearest mark with those high-peaked eyes. She learned to do it on command when we said “do the cute thing!”
Rosie may not have been the best dog, but she was our dog. She was a constant feature of my parents’ house, always included in family celebrations, always discussed, always loved. Her spot on the T.V. room rug will always mark her decade with us. The battered, steel bowls that she loved to chase around the basketball court will always have her dents on them.
I will always remember Rosie’s frantic efforts to bark the storms away from the house, running up and down the stairs, yelling her gruff threats to the pounding, window-rattling thunder.
Even though Rosie was not forthcoming with her affection, we never once doubted that she loved us. My deepest wish is that she knew how much we loved her.