My husband began campaigning for a dog two years ago, shortly after my younger son took Magnum, his Siberian husky, to California.
My husband has had a dog ever since he got out of the Navy -- and that was at the end of World War II. He has countless stories about his dogs, and of late, he's been telling these stories countless times, having a dog vicariously. He plots his campaigns with subtlety and timing that would be the envy of Stonewall Jackson. But after 10 years of marriage, I'm on to him, and I knew all these dog stories had a purpose: he was setting the stage.
My initial response was unequivocal. I said, "Look, I've spent 30 years taking care of children, aging parents and pets, and I'd like a breather." He might as well have suggested having a baby. That response did nothing to dissuade him: It merely gave him a reading on how long it would take to persuade me that I wanted a dog.
By the time our anniversary came at the end of September, we decided that our gift to each other would be to seriously consider a dog. We were visiting my sister and her husband at the time. "Do you really want a dog?" my sister asked. "I don't know," I answered. "But Dick really wants one."
By that time, he was consulting the classified ads with the same intensity he devotes to the bridge column. He started making phone calls to breeders and had me researching on the Internet. Finally, we called Mark Lipsitt, who owns Sugarland Kennels in Poolesville and who years ago transformed Magnum from an unmanageable 40-pound puppy into a manageable dog.
"I may have the perfect dog for you," Mark said. "I have a litter here of what may be the best dogs in the world."
Mark has trained dogs from around the world, including lots of classy German shepherds, so that was indeed high praise. "What kind is it?" I asked. At which point I heard him saying something that sounded like Mid-Asian atkachoo! I nearly said "Bless you." Instead, I said, "Could you spell that for me?"
"O,v,t,c,h,a,r,k,a," he said. And then he added, "I don't mean to be presumptuous, but that probably doesn't mean anything to you."
"You are absolutely right," I said. He explained that this is an ancient breed of dog used to guard sheep against predators and thieves in some of the most rugged environments in Central Asia. He owns the mother and had been training the pups since birth. He suggested we come to see them.
I got on the Internet and found four sites for "ovtcharka," including one set up by Rusdog, a breeder in Bangor, Pa., who had posted some fascinating history. These breeders prefer to call these dogs Central Asian ovtcharkas, in part because they come from the four Central Asian countries we know today as Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In modern times, these dogs were prized by the Soviet military, bred very selectively in state-run kennels and could not be legally exported from the Soviet Union until the early 1990s. This sounded like some kind of dog.
We got out of the car on a beautiful fall Sunday shortly after Mark had let the dogs out to run, and the puppies came bounding toward us like clowns getting out of a circus car: flying bullets of black and white, brown and white, white and black, with cropped ears and tails that wagged nonstop, massive chests, large heads and beautiful eyes. We watched while he exercised them in a field, and then his assistant brought out the mother, an absolutely regal black dog with white markings. She was 3 years old, and had been born in Russia. She'd been bred to a stud from Rusdog.
We watched the puppies romp. Mark told us they'd been socialized into every experience a puppy is likely to be exposed to, including children, boats, water, cars, cats, sheep and horses. I wanted to know what the dogs had over German shepherds. "More common sense," he answered. Plus they have not been so inbred. He pointed out the markings on the puppies: "There's a tremendous gene pool there."
I told my husband that if we bought one, I wanted a female because they did not get as big as the males. We went into the office with several of the females so we could see if there was one we wanted. And, of course, the puppy chose us. White with black markings, enormous paws and an imposing chest, she began nuzzling us affectionately, wagging her tail when we talked to her, rolling over when we petted her, and when she looked into our eyes and cocked her head, she won our hearts. "That's Norma," said Mark. ("Norma?" I thought.) "I tried to give them all Russian names," he said.
Mark worked with us for much of the afternoon, showing us how to handle Norma. On the way home, I called my daughter. "Norma?" she said.
"Norma," I said. "That's what Mark named her and I'm not going to try changing names on this kind of dog. Besides, I kind of like it."
I walked Norma up the front steps of our house. My daughter opened the front door, took one look at Norma, sat down on the threshold and said, "Hello, sweetheart!" at which Norma rolled over and fell in love.
Norma is sweet-natured, which is good since she weighed 51 pounds at 3 months and is growing rapidly. It turns out that norma is the Russian word for "norm" or "standard," according to Slava Paperno of the Russian language studies program at Cornell University. Norma has an amazing sense of territory and she takes her guard duties very seriously. She barks when deer are in the meadow. She can smell them from inside the house.
So my husband has once again mounted a successful campaign to win me over to one of his pricey schemes. And like most of his ideas, it looks like getting Norma is going to work out just fine.