We got Darwin, the pure bred, championship-quality Pembroke Welsh Corgi, as a freebie from our vet. Why? Darwin was born with an incurable heart problem that was supposed to kill him within his first few months. With a new medication, and great care from the vet, Darwin’s made it to six years old – far outliving all expectations.
For his first five years, Darwin shared the house with a chow-golden retriever mix. The bigger animal never really understood how to play with another dog.
So Darwin played with people, bringing us toys and teaching us games. For all that he had a heart problem, he was passionate about chasing a ball.
When the golden-chow died six months ago, we got a corgi-pit bull-cattle dog-Rottweiler puppy we named Tegan. Tegan is the most playful dog we’ve ever had. If you try to put on a sock, it is instantly a pull toy. If you give her a yogurt container, it provides hours of amusement. And all with a healthy puppy’s energy.
At first, Darwin didn’t know what to do with Tegen-the-whirling-fur-ball. He wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to have to deal with all that young energy.
But one day about a month after we got the puppy, Darwin came out of his dog cave, looked at Tegan and gave a high-pitched growl. Tegan tentatively play-bowed and raised her paws to him. Darwin responded by yipping and running. Tegan chased him. Game on!Puppy Play
Since those first days, their games have changed. They play tug of war over a favorite pull toy. They chase each other. When Darwin comes downstairs after his afternoon nap, Tegan pesters him mercilessly, play-bowing and groveling flat on the floor – then mouthing Darwin’s feet until they are wet with slobber. She’ll grab a mouthful of the fur on his butt, and yank, pulling him off balance.
She’ll swing her hips around and slam him with her rear end.
After Darwin wakes up a little, he responds in kind, biting Tegan’s cheeks and mouthing her muzzle.
If you don’t keep reminding yourself that either dog could leave at any time, you’d be worried by the intensity of their play.
Darwin’s condition began to decline just before we got Tegan. While Tegan was just a few months old, Darwin was able to hold his own against her playful assaults. But by New Year, he was having a lot of trouble. He now pants constantly, and his chest heaves as he tries to suck in enough air to keep his body going.
I took him to the vet, who took an ultrasound of his heart. While a normal heart compresses about a third of the way down each time it beats, Darwin’s heart collapses completely. The vet said, “I don’t see why this dog is alive, let alone walking.” I didn’t tell her that every evening involves a twenty minute play session with an active puppy.
That night, Darwin and Tegan played as hard as ever. But I noticed something remarkable. Tegan, at four months old, was handicapping her play — when she got too excited, she’d redirect her energy to calm things down. In the middle of wrestling with Darwin, she’d turn aside and bite the table or chair legs, or more recently, my legs. Not hard, which is remarkable given the frenzied nature of the play, but with enough pressure so I knew she could do real damage if she lost control for a moment. These redirected bites clued me in to how much Tegan the puppy is holding herself in check so she didn’t hurt her sick friend.
Once I noticed her redirection, I could see more examples of restraint. When she gets too aggressive, she rolls on her back, or when she pulls the rope toy away from Darwin, she brings it back and offers it to him.
Today, while we were playing fetch, Tegan let the dying dog get the ball, or if she happened to get to it first, she’d drop it in front of him to keep Darwin in the game.
After all, isn’t that what friends do?