Runt of the Litter

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2019 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo of sara and Fritz.
Dave, Sara. Eddie and Fritz von Etgen.

This story is a memoir vignette and a true, biographical account of my childhood pet Dachshund named Fritz von Etgen.  Although Fritz was the runt of the litter, he was a mischievous, lively Dachshund with a huge heart.  He not only was my confidant but also was my best friend. 

I stepped off the back porch and approached Fritz’s house, which was nestled beneath his favorite spot under the shade of my family’s sprawling pecan tree. Using our shared German language, I commanded Fritz to dinner: “Fritz! Kommen Sie hier— Abendessen!”

Yet, Fritz didn’t come when called to dinner. I knelt down and peered inside his doghouse. I caught a glimpse of his shiny dark nose and found him huddled in the back corner of his doghouse, shivering and whining. He tried to stand up, but whimpered and collapsed.

What’s the matter? Why are you shaking?” I reached inside, hoping to pull him into my arms, but he yelped even louder. His doghouse had no floor, so I lifted up the house, placed him in my arms, and wrapped him in the softest blanket I could find. I rocked him back and forth, gently stroking his back. “Just go to sleep. When you wake up, you’ll be okay.” As I waited for him to drift off to sleep, I remembered the day Fritz came into my life.

I was just six years old that hot August afternoon when Mr. Davis announced, “Hilda’s gone into labor!” I leapt down the back porch steps, ran next door, and watched Hilda strain as five pups slowly wriggled their way from her belly. Fritz was a runt and the first of Hilda’s litter of five milk-chocolate-colored Dachshunds.

I giggled as I watched the five bundles of energy squirming beneath their mother’s tummy, all begging for lunch at the same time. But the magical moment abruptly ended when Hilda nudged her runt puppy away from her. The runt inched his way back to Hilda’s stomach. She shoved him away again, growling and pounding on his tiny back and tail. The runt yelped. I screeched in horror. Mr. Davis, the neighborhood Dachshund aficionado, ran to my side.

She’s hurting him… make her stop!” I waved my hands in front of Hilda’s growling face.

Mr. Davis scooped up the injured pup and placed him in my hands. “Run, kiddo. Find a shoebox and put that pup in it! Hurry back!”

I darted for the Davis’ house, gingerly holding the wounded pup in my hands. I found a shoebox, placed the pup in it, and then watched it stretch and twist its tiny body ever so slightly. Relieved, I returned to Mr. Davis’s side.

Hilda’s a mean dog… I don’t like her!” My voice trembled. “Why would a mama dog kill its own puppy?”

Kiddo, you have to understand that Hilda’s not mean; she loves her runt. But her instinct tells her that her puppy is too small and weak to survive, and she believes that killing it is the strong and merciful thing to do.” Mr. Davis patted me on the back. “Hey, kiddo, if you have a doll blanket and baby bottle back home, go get them. I believe we can save this pup.”

I dashed home, found the two items, and returned. We put the blanket in the box and placed the runt on it. We heated some milk, added Karo syrup to it, and poured the mixture into the baby bottle. The runt sucked on it and wiggled contentedly. While I caressed its tiny body with my fingers, he fell asleep—serene and out of harm’s way.

You know, kiddo, many runts die before they ever open their eyes. But if we can keep this runt alive until his eyes open, he’ll probably survive. If he pulls through, you can have him. I bet he’ll be the most loving and energetic pup of the litter.”

For 14 days, we handfed him and waited for his eyes to open. Over the next few weeks, we watched the runt develop into a high-spirited, mischievous but loving Dachshund puppy with a slightly broken tail.

Hey, kiddo, at some point you have to give your puppy a proper German name,” suggested Mr. Davis.

Well, for some reason I like the name Fritz. It suits him!”

Fritz is a right and proper name. I like it. Fritz it is.” Fritz quickly became part of our German family. For the next 12 years, we were inseparable except when I was in school. Immediately after school, I’d run home, throw open the backyard gate, and plop on the back porch steps. Fritz would dart up the steps, jump into my lap, and shower me with love and kisses. Then he’d turn his head from side to side as if to ask, “How was your day at school?”

I always obliged him with some school story. “Today I learned how to write in cursive. I’m not very good at it yet, but do you want to see?” I would open my satchel and pull out my writing tablet.

He’d tug on my school satchel, wag that broken tail of his, and bark as if to say, “Where’s my treat?” I’d offer him a cookie or other snack that I’d saved from lunch. While he munched on his treat, I petted his elongated back and belly.

As I grew up, I often shared my deepest thoughts, secrets, and fears with Fritz. “Today I met the cutest boy in my algebra class! Do you think he’ll ask me to the dance? I want to go to the dance, but what if he doesn’t ask me? You know, Fritz, I’m not very pretty, and I’m not a popular girl. Maybe I should just go by myself.” He’d tilt his head side to side as if to nod and look at me with those encouraging doe-like eyes. “What if my acne flares up the day before the dance? What then? Should I go?” He’d lick my face, wag his tail, and bark, leaving me to interpret his advice.

As Fritz matured, he embraced his German heritage, for he loved sausage, sauerkraut, pretzels, and even an occasional dark beer. At some point, Fritz acquired a bit of wanderlust—escaping from our yard and roaming the neighborhood. I always found Fritz, for he was the only neighborhood Dachshund with a broken tail. As soon as I spotted him, I yelled in German, “Fritz, kommen Sie hier. Schlechter Hund!” As commanded, Fritz came to my side with his head down and his broken tail between his legs, pretending to be my bad dog.

Once inside the house, Fritz sounded like Fred Astaire tap dancing—his little toenails clicking on Mother’s linoleum floor. Fritz was half-a-dog high and a dog-and-a half long with short, stubby legs and tiny feet. As you can imagine, he lacked Astaire’s coordination and grace, so he often ran down the hallway sliding out of control with the back of him always going in front of him.

Today, though, Fritz looked listless, fragile, and feeble. “What do you need, old boy?” I stroked his head. “Please tell me. I’ll get you whatever you need.”

Mr. Davis must have seen us on the back porch. “Hey, kiddo. Looks as if old Fritz is in some pain. Let’s take him to the vet. How does that sound?”

I silently boarded Mr. Davis’s truck, resting Fritz comfortably in my lap. When we arrived at the vet’s office, he immediately took Fritz from me and disappeared from view. When he reappeared, the vet said, “Fritz has arthritis, and he’s also had a severe heart attack. He’s an old dog and too weak to survive.” He took my hand in his. “The strong and merciful thing to do would be to put Fritz to sleep.”

Are you sure? Maybe all Fritz needs is some rest.”

Yes, I’m sure. I know you love Fritz and letting him go is a hard decision, but…” the vet’s voice trailed off.

I gulped hard and nodded. “Okay.”

Would you like to see him one last time?” The vet patted my shoulder.

Go ahead, kiddo.” Mr. Davis squeezed my hand. “I’ll wait for you right here.”

I entered the back room and approached the examination table. Fritz lifted his head, licked my face, and wagged his broken tail. I stroked Fritz’s belly and patted his head, choking back tears. “Fritz, you’re weak and sick, and you’re not going to get any better. I don’t want to see you suffer. So I’m… I’m… putting you to sleep.” I hugged Fritz one last time. “I’m going to miss you!”

Fritz looked at me with those familiar doe-like, understanding eyes, and then nodded his head as if to say, “I’ll be okay. Thanks for being strong and merciful.”

The vet handed me a box of tissues. “Putting Fritz to sleep is safe and harmless. Fritz will receive two shots. The first will render him unconscious. The second will painlessly put him to sleep, usually within about thirty seconds.”

After Fritz received the first shot, I waited until unconsciousness washed over him like a soothing rain. Then, with the second shot, Fritz peacefully slipped away. I lingered by Fritz’s side for quite some time and remembered what Fritz taught me about tenacity, love, encouragement, and now, death.

The next day, Mr. Davis and I buried Fritz in his favorite spot—beneath the cool shade of the family pecan tree. Afterwards, I stood in silence and found myself thinking back to the day Hilda tried to kill her runt puppy. As I did, my perspective shifted, for I now better understood and even respected Hilda’s instinct to be strong and merciful.

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