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The Duke of Happy by Robert Jachens and Tracy Ferea

If we at Thulani ever forget why we do what we do, it only takes a message like this to remind and reinvigorate us. And to remember to thank all of you generous donors who make this work possible.

The vet at West LA Shelter called me in a panic—she will have to euthanize this old man if a sanctuary or rescue can’t be found. His birthday is this week.

“The lady bought him for thousands of dollars … hmmm. All the volunteers were yelling at her for not taking him to her vet. She said it would be too sad, so she brought him to the shelter. He is somewhat weak in the back end, might have degenerative myelopathy, and had ‘bloat’ surgery, is frail and thin. Seems gentle in every way. Karen?”

If we at Thulani ever forget why we do what we do, it only takes a message like this to remind and reinvigorate us. And to remember to thank all of you generous donors who make this work possible.

We were literally Duke’s last chance, so we took him. We called him L(os) A(ngeles) Duke T, but we should have named him The Duke of Happy. He came to us horribly emaciated (weighed 55 pounds when he should have weighed about 90), with coarse brittle hair, scabbed-over areas all over his body, and a huge smile and attitude to match. He is now in his forever home. He gained 35 pounds, and his skin and coat are incredibly healthy. His smile and attitude are even better than they were, if that is possible. He is a wonder dog, living with three fur siblings and keeping his dad active as the designated ball thrower.

I could fill pages and pages about Duke, but I want to use my space telling you about him and toys. Everything is a toy to him, and he is a toy “redesigner.” Plush toys are unrecognizable in minutes. Metal bowls become Hammered Pewter Objects d’Art in a flash. And large, improvised toys become parts of games with smaller toys. Duke is one very clever dog.

A classic example is our “water bowl saga.” I tried giving Duke water in a standard hard-plastic water bowl—demolished before I made it out of the exercise yard. So I tried a metal food bowl. He grabbed it, dumped the water out, carried it around in his mouth, and then started practicing to be an NFL long snapper with it. I tried a heavier metal bowl—same result. Bowl, toy, no water.

I always tell my adopters “you’ve got to be smarter than your dog,” so off I went to follow my own advice. I bought a metal bushel basket, filled it partway with water, and voilà—take that you destroyer of worlds! Well, he immediately picked it up, dumped the water out, and over the next half hour bit enough holes in it to turn it into a bushel-basket sieve. Drat!

We finally arrived at a solution to the water bowl problem (a friend gave me a small horse-watering trough that Duke has yet to figure out how to turn over) with a toy twist. Duke now uses the bushel sieve in combination with his other toys. He stuffs his other toys in it and carries them around. Duke turns the sieve over and puts his toys on top of it, in preparation for knocking them off. He puts his huge ball in it, hides other toys under it, and then works to dig them out. Two-toy dogs are pretty remarkable, and he is a very good one. 

LA Duke is an amazing dog and, as expected, has turned into a wonderful family member—the source of hours of entertainment. He is just one example of the incredible senior German shepherd dogs that come through the Thulani program. Anyone interested in providing a temporary or permanent home for one of these special companions should email us at or fill out the online adoption questionnaire.  Remember, we provide free doggie Medicare even after adoption.

About the Contributors: Robert Jachens and Tracy Ferea are members of the board of directors of German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California (GSRNC). The GSRNC Thulani Program rescues terminally ill or extremely old German shepherd dogs from all of California and Nevada. The Thulani Program has received grants from Grey Muzzle since 2009.