The best little dog

Farewell to Wallace, friend to writers, enemy of the German Shepherd

It’s been three weeks since we had our fifteen-year-old dachshund Wally* put to sleep, and my husband Michael and I are still likely to burst into tears if we’re caught off-guard. Our niece sent us a painting she made from a photo of him and, bam, ugly-crying. Michael has been eating his eggs cooked hard because it’s too sad-making to wash the leftover yolk down the drain now that there’s no Wally to spoil.

Wally had an enlarged heart and pulmonary hypertension, and his quality of life had taken a steep dive. He could no longer do his three favorite things: eat, nap, and give other dogs who-began-it. Less than a generation ago, we wouldn’t have had this much information about our twelve-pound animal’s physical condition. He would have been an old dog who died of old age. But nowadays, a pet owner is made to feel they are falling short if they don’t whip out the credit card for a level of care and diagnosis that is still out of reach for many, if not most, Americans. So it happened that our previously warm and enthusiastic relationship with his cardiologist (!) ended somewhat coolly when we made it clear we weren’t willing to do whatever it took to extend his time on the planet.

Wally almost died on Mother’s Day 2020. We had been in the mountains at ten-thousand feet, and that evening, after we’d returned to home at eight thousand, his heart began racing and he struggled to breathe. We had to hand him to strangers in Denver; in an echo of the terrible choices facing families everywhere, we weren’t allowed inside with him. Did we want a DNR? No, we couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him to die alone. Five days and five grand later, he was back to normal, normal now including a temporary oxygen pup tent and three permanent medications. But that outlay bought us another year, and one we were so grateful to have. His final twelve months were spent entirely in our company, thanks to COVID. I would turn away from my computer screen to find him snoring softly on the chair behind me, or gazing meaningfully at the kitchen.

When Wally was still a pup, my good friend Gillian Fassel, who in addition to being a gifted writer sells vintage books online, gave us The Dachshund by Grayce Greenburg, third edition. Published in 1942, its agenda included rescuing this singular breed from lingering anti-German sentiment. “On many ancient tombs and monuments in Egypt appear a dog approximating the dachshund,” she tells us, before explaining that France and Belgium “seem to have the best claim as the home of the first dachshund,” and finally admitting that Germany and England are responsible for the standard that still stops passersby in their tracks for cooing and petting. Greenburg needn’t have worried about the dachshund’s future. Our little brand ambassador was an ice breaker, and almost everyone who admired him remembered another dachshund fondly.

Or “Datsun,” which seems to be an increasingly common malaprop. And in a country that literally lets literally mean anything, is this a fight the traditionalists can win?

We also learned that dachshunds, or Datsuns, are “inveterate ballers,” and their reputation as “Napoleon of the sidewalk” is well earned. Wally was more of an episodic baller – he grew bored quickly with any repetitive task or game (pets = owners once again), but his belly was scored stem to stern by a stray cat, and his soft red coat hid two sets of matching divots above his shoulders, where a pit-bull mix and a German Shepherd halted his advances – less than two weeks apart.

We came to live with a dachshund by accident. My brother, who was attending school in Houston at the time, had arranged for us to adopt a dog from a litter of Chihuahua-terriers being offered by a classmate. Our kids were still young and assisted in picking out small-dog equipment and accessories while we waited for the puppies to wean. We’d even named the creature, based on a photo the mother’s owner had sent: Punt, I think. Or maybe Puck.

Then, two days before we were set to drive to Houston to pick up Punt, or Puck, the owner reneged because the mother had disappeared from her yard. You have forty-eight hours to find a small dog, I told my brother. He went to the papers and came up with Wally from a brother-sister team in East Texas. I like to think Wally might have been descended from the breeding pair that Jack Ruby gave Candy Barr on her release from prison, but initially I felt like someone who’d gone shopping for a golf cart and ended up with a parade float.

We had no idea what we were in for – the intransigence, the marking, the refusal to be patient with small children, the frequent antagonism toward large dogs** – so it was a relief to learn that, no, we weren’t incapable (or disinclined in the matter) of teaching a dog, well, anything at all. “His obstinate, independent character, and his incapacity to be trained or broken to anything beyond his inborn, game-like disposition, are quite unrivalled among all other races of the dog,” according to Greenburg. And we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

*His given name was Walsingham, but we mostly called him Wally or Wallace, or Small Wallace, which eventually became Smallace, and about a dozen other nicknames.

** He was very fond of Shih Tzus, though, and would cross the street to greet them.

Published by elainemwolff

Writer, podcaster and former journalist.

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