The 180-pound European Great Dane lumbered into the psychiatric hospital’s recreational area, which looked a lot like an enclosed parking garage. He glanced around briefly at the dozen or so male patients gathered for the therapy visit, then elegantly lowered his horse-sized body to the ground.
“What is it?” one of the men asked.
“A Great Dane.”
“Mixed with what, bull?”
Allie and Melanie both laughed. They frequently heard those types of reactions when their dog Grendel walked into a room, but still found them amusing. People usually compared Grendel to spectacular-sized animals – elephants and horses, mostly – as they studied this humongous body disguised as a dog.
The first time I met Grendel was while shadowing another therapy dog, Rikki, for a book I was writing. I had seen Rikki keep her distance from other canine partners on Animal Assisted Therapy visits, but it was different with the Great Dane. As soon as she saw Grendel in the parking lot at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, Rikki’s Golden Retriever body shimmered with delight. She led handler Chuck Mitchell quickly toward the Dane and offered herself in a submissive pose – on her back – inviting Grendel’s undivided attention.
Grendel and Rikki were members of “the three stooges” that visited carefully screened mental patients about once a month as part of the patients’ rehabilitation program. The other therapy dog was Caja, a retired AKC champion agility dog who has her own trophy room.
After we passed through the security scanner and assured the guard that we had no cell phones or tobacco products, we were escorted to the gathering place and the teams went in separate directions. Caja entertained onlookers by twirling on her hind legs, jumping, rolling over and spinning. Rikki leaned her body into those she was visiting in a type of hug, and Grendel generally just lounged on the floor. His sheer size was captivating and his calm demeanor was a source of both distraction and amusement.
Watching Grendel’s therapeutic approach, I quickly fell under his spell and better understood why Rikki found him so irresistible.
Weeks later, I visited Grendel and one of his pet parents at their home on 83 acres in Gadsden County, a menagerie of sorts that included four horses, several cats and other critters. I learned Grendel was named after the monster in a horror flick, though he was anything but scary. Grendel weighed 30 pounds at nine weeks and, like others in his breed, was fiercely loyal to his family (furry and otherwise). He was in need of almost constant companionship.
Allie Howe, who writes screenplays for horror movies from home, said Great Danes can’t be left alone for significant periods of time or, “they will re-arrange your furniture.” The Howes gladly accommodated Grendel’s need, taking him on all family vacations – he loved sleeping in hotel beds – including New Orleans, one of the dog’s favorite destinations.
Allie said that taking Grendel out in public was like escorting a celebrity and he felt a little “dog proud” at times. He and Melanie supplied the Dane with an extensive wardrobe, which added to the dog’s charm. I counted 24 different collar and leash combinations at their home.
While all animals require responsibilities on the part of their human companions, there were special requirements for Grendel – such as keeping a “drool rag” handy on outings and re-touching paint on their walls to cover sling marks – Grendel was known to shake his massive head vigorously on occasion.
But there was one characteristic that the Howes and other Great Dane parents can never be fully prepared for: the dog’s relatively short lifespan of 7 to 10 years.
Grendel retired from Animal Therapy visits earlier this year when his mobility declined. He turned 10 in July and attended a reunion of therapy teams in October, which everyone knew would be his last.
Then on November 10th, after taking Grendel on a slow walk in the woods and bribing him with bits of rotisserie chicken and ice cream, Allie and Melanie Howe “sent Grendel over the Rainbow Bridge” with the help of a veterinarian who makes house calls.
When a friend shared a cartoon on Facebook this week, I was again reminded of Grendel. St. Peter was standing at heaven’s gate as an older man was coming through the clouds. A dog was running toward the man, wagging his tail ferociously. The caption: “So you’re little Bobbie; well, Rex here has been going on and on about you for the last 50 years.”
For anyone who has ever loved and lost a pet like Grendel, that’s a comforting thought.
As Rikki’s pet dad, Chuck, said, “it would be impossible to calculate how many miles of smiles that dude generated.” In a few weeks when Rikki’s book comes out, he’ll enjoy one last little bit of fame and perhaps generate a few more smiles.
Grendel, you left a massive paw print on our hearts. See you in heaven, buddy.