We've all seen the bumper stickers: "I (Heart) My (Dog Head)." People love their schnauzers, their poodles, and their Pekingese. They love their English setters, their Labrador retrievers, and their Jack Russell terriers. I appreciate dogs of all shapes and sizes, but when it comes to picking a dog of my own, I like 'em big!
What's so special about big dogs? They make me feel a little more secure, perhaps. I can hike for hours on end in the company of a big dog and not give a thought to my personal security. And I like their temperaments, by and large (pun intended). Big dogs have nothing to prove. Every big dog I've had, and most big dogs I've known, have been sweet and gentle. This includes rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, German shepherds, and great Danes. But that doesn't mean they aren't protective. "Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked;" this ancient Irish wolfhound motto applies to all of these large and giant breeds.
I have an enormous, wide-open doggie door in the back door of my house. Several visitors, upon seeing this big, unlocked portal, have asked, "Aren't you afraid a person will sneak through that door?" To which I've replied, "Think of what that door implies. What crook would bother sneaking through a door designed to accommodate a dog of that size?"
Where It Began: Sugar Bear
My love of big dogs probably dates back to Sugar Bear, the rescue Samoyed that became my family's first dog when I was 4 or 5.
Sugar was about a 1-year-old when she took over our house. She was on the small side for a Samoyed; in retrospect, she was probably part American Eskimo. But at about 19 inches tall (dogs are measured at the shoulder) and 70 pounds, she was big enough to take care of my brothers and I, and far larger than the terriers my mother and father had before they had children. Most importantly, her heart was huge. Sugar Bear was the perfect family dog, not to mention a head-turning beauty.
King Of My Heart: Burly
After those sad, dogless years of college and early apartment-dwelling adulthood, I settled into my 20s with Burly, an enormous red chow chow.
Burly was large, heavy-headed, and had the deepest, richest auburn coat known to dogdom. He weighed about 85 pounds when full-grown, and was on the large side even for a male chow, probably 22 inches. When I divorced at 29, Burly was the only item contested in the dissolution. I won the argument with a brilliant defense about the instance of heartworm in my soon-to-be-ex-husband's new home state. Burly and I went on to have fabulous adventures in my subsequent years as a single woman. I learned about pet-friendly hotels and B&Bs, and we went everywhere together: the beach, the mountains, long road trips. Burly kept me from being lonely. Come to think of it, his company probably enabled me to be more selective in my choice of a second (and final) husband, as I was content living in my household as a single woman with a fabulous dog companion.
Smudge, The Boisterous Clown
When my new husband and I were buying a house and putting down roots, it seemed only natural to consider a dog. Burly was gone, and while my new man came with a charming mid-sized mixed breed (my stepdog), we wanted a dog of our own.
Enter "Smudge," the old English sheepdog. Smudge was my first step from "large breed" dog owner to "giant breed" dog owner. He topped out at 110 pounds and about 26 inches tall. He reminded everyone of a cartoon character or the pet in a favorite Disney movie. He was silly, sweet, and never stopped being a puppy. He lived to a ripe old age of 12-1/2 years (short lives are, unfortunately, a hallmark of giant breeds) and his death in August 2004 was one of the saddest events of my life.
With Finnegan, We Begin Again
I tried to convince myself that life without a dog would be easier. No more poop to scoop, no more hair on my clothes, no more worries about allergic houseguests. It's so much easier to leave town when one doesn't have to consider a pet-sitter. And so much cheaper to avoid expensive dog food and vet bills. Neither my husband or I thought we could stand the pain of losing another well-loved dog. But I'm afraid dog ownership is in my blood.
About a year after losing Smudge, I started scanning the Internet for the Holy Grail of giant breeds: the Irish wolfhound. Said to be both the tallest dog and the heaviest coursing hound, these magnificent creatures top out at 36-to-37 inches at the shoulder and 175-to-180 pounds. On Labor Day of 2005, a litter of 12 pups was born to a sweet wheaten-colored hound in Colorado named Kosai. On Veteran's Day of 2005, we drove 2,000 miles round trip and brought Finnegan home.
Some may think that diamonds are a girl's best friend and that a dog is man's best friend, but I'll take my big dogs over jewelry any day.
Sally O'Neal Coates lives, writes, hikes, and takes care of her big baby, Finnegan, in southeastern Washington State. At this writing, Finn is 14 weeks old, weighs 52 pounds, and is 23 inches tall.