October is birthday month around here. My own birthday is early in the month, on or around Columbus Day, and our son’s birthday is at the end of the month, close to Halloween. Since fall is also my favorite season and Halloween is my favorite holiday, it’s no surprise that October is also my favorite month of the year. But I’ve written about all of this before.
What I have not written about is the third big birthday of the month, that of our beloved four-legged family member, Mac. He will turn nine this week, which is an occasion for both joy and sadness, since nine is something of a landmark age for large canine breeds, but one that inevitably raises the question of how many more birthdays there will be to celebrate. Perhaps I am particularly sensitive to this mixed mood of birthday joy and sadness, since I reached a landmark birthday myself this year. Luckily for Mac, dogs don’t lie awake at night contemplating their own mortality; rather, they live entirely in the moment, wanting nothing more than to play, to love, and to share joy and devotion with their human family. Ah, a dog’s life indeed. But I digress…
Our Mac is a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, the largest of the four Sennenhund breeds that include the better-known Bernese Mountain Dog, the medium-sized Appenzeller, and the small Entlebucher. Legend has it that the Greater Swiss is descended from a large, Mastiff-type canine that led the Roman legions through the Alps 2000 years ago. Early ancestors of the Swissy (as they are familiarly called) in Central Europe were used by farmers and merchants for herding and drafting. Large and muscular, they are eager and able workers, steady in temperament, natural guard dogs, and devoted companions. They were often called “butchers’ dogs” or “the poor man’s horse” because of their utility. While still considered a rare breed, today’s Swissy is a fully recognized AKC Working Group dog who competes not only in the conformation ring, but also successfully claims titles in drafting and obedience. (See the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America, gsmdca.org for more information.)
My husband and I have been “doggie people,” showing and training and for almost 50 years. In 1974, we encountered our first Swissy at Grant’s Farm, the historic Busch family farm (as in Budweiser) that houses the Clydesdales outside of St. Louis. Though we had Rottweilers at the time, we fell in instantly in love with that great big black, white, and tan good-will ambassador named Casar von Neuhof owned by August Busch III. It took us six years of research and waiting before we finally got a Swissy of our own.
He was Baron of High Ridge and he was a star right out of puppy class, named Best in Show at a Club Specialty (because the breed wasn’t yet recognized by the AKC) in both 1994 and 1995. Baron was “discovered” by an ad exec at one of those Specialties and became the mascot called “Network” for Sun Microsystems. We used to take him into New York City for photo shoots, where he was so incredibly well behaved that no one could believe, after their initial apprehension about his size, that he not only didn’t need a leash in the studio, but didn’t even nibble at the food and refreshments set out for the staff. Baron, aka Network, appeared in magazines and newspapers all over the Country and even accompanied the CEO of Sun on stage in Manhattan at an annual meeting. Baron was regal and impressive; his name was a perfect fit.
Our next Swissy was Derby’s Eisenhower, Ike for short. While Baron was dignified and composed, Ike was all over the place: anxious to do, eager to please, hard to ignore. As a little puppy, he gave Baron no rest, scrambling over and under him, nipping at his heels, stealing his toys, and occasionally eliciting a disgruntled growl. He had boundless energy which made him quick to learn and easy to train. He was a beautiful dog, easily becoming an AKC conformation champion (the breed was officially recognized in 1992); he was smart, attaining a CD obedience degree in short order; and he was a real worker, becoming the first Swissy to earn a NDD in drafting (cart pulling). Always alert, he slept with one eye open, the little brown dots above his eyes that I call eyebrows shifting and raising with every noise or movement around him in guarded vigilance. In addition, he was fun and had a definite sense of humor, once stealing a houseguest’s underwear and taunting her until she chased him down the hallway for it. “Mom, you finally have a dog that is you,” my son had said when we got him. He died of bloat in a veterinary emergency room late one night because a young, inexperienced vet didn’t know how to treat him. I have never gotten over it.
Once we moved to Texas, we gradually quit showing our dogs. There wasn’t enough competition in the ring within easy driving distance to earn points, and the challenges of extreme heat and the mess of dirt floors in a cattle ring on a black-coated dog were too much. We have had three more Swissys since Ike, all descended from Baron, all alike in conformation, all good-natured and loving, but each also different in his own way. As we have gotten older, our dogs’ lives have also necessarily gotten quieter, though we still train them to be well-mannered.
Mac is short for Mt. McKinley, the mountain litter from Taylor Made kennels in Tennessee. We drove to pick him up in an ice storm right around New Year’s in 2014 and he rode in my arms and on my shoulder all the way home, just like a baby, which is why I call him “Baby Mac.” Swissy puppies are so adorable, perfectly proportioned little black, white, and tan bodies with big fat paws that indicate the size to come. Poor Mac was so frightened at being scooped up and taken away from his littermates that he couldn’t stop shaking, so I held him. As I looked into the deep, dark brown pools of his eyes, I thought how old and wise those eyes seemed. They still do.
Mac has proven to be the perfect Swissy for us at this age and stage of life, especially during these years of pandemic isolation. He is calm and loving, all but climbs into your lap for a big, hearty hug around his neck, which feels soooo good for the both of us. He notices everything, every detail in a room, every small change, every new addition. He is an abiding companion, staying by your bedside if you are ill, sitting by you quietly if you are sad, lying out in the yard “working on his tan” while you are gardening, standing by your feet (sometimes on your feet) while you are cooking, and yes, lying on the couch next to you when you watch TV in the evenings. He is hardly ever sick, still has his youthful good looks with little graying, and will still run and play in the backyard if someone can keep up with him.
I’ve read that the average Swissy can learn about 165-70 human words for a vocabulary that is similar to that of a 2 ½ year old child. I don’t know about the exact number of words, but I would agree that Mac has the understanding of language and direction and the general disposition of a small child without any of the tantrums. He is easy to be around, friendly and affectionate with guests, and never aggressive with strangers. (Given his size and his deep-throated bark, why would he need to be?) And he loves presents and treats and special occasions like Christmas and holidays, sharing in the spirit with great curiosity to see what all the excitement is about.
This birthday will be all about him. I have made Mac a new Halloween kerchief, and we have gotten him a giant, stuffed candy corn toy, which we will give him in his own gift bag filled with colorful tissue paper that he is free to “open” by sniffing, pawing, pulling, and dragging around. And he will get some special additions to his doggie dinner that day. We’ll even sing “Happy Birthday” as we hope for many more.
The sad truth is that Mac will probably be our last Swissy. As easy and darling as he has been to live with, he is still very big (about 125 lbs.) and impossibly large (28” at the withers) for us to handle if he is physically incapacitated. These are the realities of growing older for all of us, canines and humans alike. Coincidentally, St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, has his feast day in October, so today as I say a prayer for Mac, I will also ask for some of Mac’s “in the moment” enviable attitude of gratitude and joy as we celebrate his longevity.