Top Dogs

Tim Yeaglin

“I think we are drawn to dogs because they are the uninhibited creatures
we might be if we weren’t certain we knew better.”
— George Bird Evans, sportsman, author, illustrator and dog breeder

Think about it. A dog lives out loud, like nobody’s looking. They’re goofy and playful, unabashedly and blissfully unaware of being judged or criticized. A dog loves to stick its head out of a moving car’s window to feel the air blow its ears around or tickle its face. Any open cupboard, closet door or drawer is an invitation to exercise innocent curiosity. A dog’s demands are few, beyond a bowl of food and laps of water, a toy—makeshift, hand-me-down or found object, it matters not—and an occasional pat on the head and exclamation of “Atta girl!” or “Good boy!” Dogs are at their very best when we need them most. If we are lucky enough to offer a loving home to a dog and open up our hearts, they can make us a better person. And if we observe a dog’s actions—how, no matter if they’re sleeping, eating or walking on a leash, this very moment is the most important thing that’s ever happened to them—we can learn to live in the present.  The 435 South readers who submitted their dogs in our online contest know the priceless return in their nominal investment as pet owners. The winners, as determined by an online vote—Kaiya, a blue-eyed angel who came into the Barbour family at precisely the right moment; Donovan, a puppy mill pup being nursed to strength and health by the Letak family; and Lloyd Dobler, a lovable clown who provides comic relief to the Kieslings—all prove that the human-canine relationship is one of life’s pure joys.  Grace, trust and friendship—that’s what these Top Dogs are all about.


First Place (773 votes)
Breed: Blue German Shepherd
Qualities: Compassion, exuberance, unbridled joy, teacher

Some of Christine Barbour’s most sublime and saddest moments are those shared with her pets. The past year has been difficult at best for this woman whose passion for four-legged creatures runs deep and fierce.

But every story has a happy, if not bittersweet ending, and Kaiya, the elegant, head-tilting, unconditional-love-giving, statuesque Blue German Shepherd is the final chapter in a heart-wrenching season for Barbour.
It’s a real-life “Marley and Me” saga that bears witness to not only the power of learning life lessons from a dog, but also the resilience of human nature.

To know Kaiya is to know Titan and Nikka, the German Shepherds that were part and parcel of the Barbour household for years.

Last March, Nikka, a 7-year-old female who entertained Barbour, her husband and two children, became very ill overnight. Always a healthy and vivacious dog, she stopped eating, became wobbly and uncharacteristically lethargic. Barbour’s veterinarian, John Teeter, DVM, owner of Nall Hills Animal Hospital, diagnosed the robust dog with two rare autoimmune disorders—IMT, which attacked her platelets and IMHA, a condition where her immune system attacked her red blood cells.

Barbour—and Teeter—kept vigil over Nikka as she rode the swells of her physical challenges, including several trips and stays at the vet’s office. There were times when Barbour climbed into Nikka’s crate at Nall Hills to offer solace to her beloved pet. She brought an improved Nikka home on March 18, but several weeks later, Barbour returned to the vet with a sick dog. On Tuesday, April 5, 2011, Nikka passed in her sleep at Nall Hills, not long after she rallied. During an autopsy Teeter—whom Barbour considers an indispensable part of her life—found a tumor on Nikka’s spleen and cancer in the lymph nodes of her chest.

A heavy-hearted Barbour returned home to her surviving German Shepherd Titan—a regal creature whom she regarded as her “once-in-a-lifetime” dog. She decided to call Stoneridge German Shepherd Dogs, the Spring Hill, Kan., breeder who sold the Barbours Titan and Nikka. Call it serendipitous, but a litter of pups was about to be born—and one of the girls had Barbour’s name all over it.

Kaiya came to live with the Barbours on June 15. Friends celebrated the pup’s arrival, offering support to their friend who was devastated by Nikka’s death,  during a spirit-raising gathering. Titan joined the party, catching Frisbees and bounding around the backyard.

Hours after the party, Titan became ill. Barbour’s intuition was bloat, the second leading killer of dogs, following cancer. She knew the symptoms, and in a panic, Barbour and her husband drove Titan to an emergency clinic. Her suspicions were correct, and the family faced the unthinkable: euthanization of their precious pet. Barbour’s children said their goodbyes, and buckets of tears were shed.

Though Barbour lost huge chunks of her heart following the untimely deaths of Titan and Nikka, Kaiya has gifted her with a galaxy-sized piece of heart. The Blue German Shepherd, with its haunting and intense blue eyes, is a reincarnation of Titan’s intelligence and Nikka’s endless antics.

And, like Gilda Radner who once said that dogs are role models for being alive, Barbour considers the pain and the ultimate joy of caring for pets as a link to paradise.


Second Place (740 votes)
Breed: Shiba Inu
Favorite activity: Chasing Maddy
Best word to describe him: Gangbusters
Motto: Don’t give up

The tiny Shiba Inu attracted Toby and Christina Letak like an irresistible fur-lined magnet.

That, they decided, was the dog for 11-year-old son Cameron’s Christmas gift.

The couple walked out of the pet store, cradling the tiny 8-week-old pup, oblivious to the ordeal that was about to happen.

Quickly the family became familiar with intestinal infections, dog flu, kennel cough, upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, and bronchitis and ear infections—medical conditions that dogged the newest member of the household with a vengeance.

Named after Landon Donovan, a superstar midfielder with the Los Angeles Galaxy, the plush little scrapper that looks like a stuffed animal suffered from a string of illnesses as a result of being bred in a puppy mill. The Letaks had to leave Donovan at the vet for nearly three weeks, administer antibiotics, steroids and extra-large doses of love to get the dog on the road to recovery.

And nearly eight weeks following a harrowing experience with a dog that struggled to live, Toby Letak calls Donovan a little survivor.

“Though we wouldn’t change one thing, this is a cautionary tale about buying a dog from a pet store,” says Letak. “Everything happens for a reason, and I believe we have Donovan because he needed a family who would stick with him through thick and thin. If someone else had walked out with a dog as sick as he was, they might not have put the money or determination into getting him better.”

Donovan shares the Letak canine spotlight with Maddy, a 6-year-old Shiba Inu. He and Maddy tussle over toys, and Donovan has a tendency to hoard what doesn’t belong to him. He sits, lays down, high fives and shakes on command and is learning to roll over. He prefers soft chicken treats and chews on rawhide sticks.

Letak likes the temperament of the Shiba Inu breed, which is hallmarked by intelligence, loyalty, and of course, its squeezable good looks.

The lessons that Donovan has taught the Letak family include patience and responsibility. Cameron walks him in the morning and feeds him, and helps give Donovan his medication.

“If you must shop and not adopt, do the research on the breeder,” says Letak. “Make sure you get a healthy dog from a reputable breeder.”

And Donovan the heart-stealer, who is growing into a strong and vibrant dog, would probably high-five his master’s statement.


Third Place (401 votes)
Breed: Basset Hound
Distinct Feature: Wistful eyes
Full-time job: Comedian
In search of: His tail, which he chases

The eyes have it.

This precious 9-month-old black-and-brown Basset Hound with the deliciously soulful eyes is named after owner Laura Kiesling’s favorite cinematic character in the 1989 Cameron Crowe movie, “Say Anything.” Lloyd Dobler, played by actor John Cusack, has an endearing manner that resonates with Kiesling—and fits her family’s pet as snugly as a glove.

“This dog just acted like a Lloyd Dobler,” says Kiesling, who researched different breeds and was attracted to the qualities of the Basset Hound.

Lloyd Dobler—or LD, as Kiesling’s husband has nicknamed the dog—is a stand-up and sit-down comedian. Basset Hounds, with trademark short legs and long bodies, are known for their penchant to take it easy. In between floorshows where he performs all sorts of tricks and spontaneous moves—such as chasing a laser pointer or burying his bone in an imaginary hole in the carpet—Lloyd Dobler likes to relax. Sometimes he’ll stand long enough at the food bowl to chew on a couple of nuggets of dog food and slurp up some water, and then will plop down, as if the sheer exertion of eating has tuckered him out. When he returns from a spin around the block, Lloyd sinks into his pillow as though he’s just run the Kansas City Marathon.

“He’s like a very old man in a 9-month-old body,” laughs Kiesling. “We love to watch him move, with his crooked little legs.”

The Kiesling’s 10-year-old black Labrador, Maggie, ruled the roost before Lloyd Dobler’s arrival. According to Kiesling, the elder dog has a new lease on life, tumbling, galloping and running with the playful Basset.

“Maggie was a cranky old lady before Lloyd came to live with us,” says Kiesling. “She gets her daily requirement of exercise keeping up with him.”

The Kiesling family, which includes three daughters, thoroughly enjoys the added layer Lloyd has brought to the household. And Kiesling says her husband particularly appreciates LD’s presence as a second male.

“Scott was a bit hesitant when I was pushing for a second dog,” says Kiesling. “But he likes having another guy in the house. LD is the first one he’ll talk to when he gets home from work.”

Lloyd Dobler is a social canine, earning him the title of “most congenial” during frequent trips to the dog park. Regardless of the breed, LD will befriend—a lick, a sniff, a quick chase.

That’s just how LD rolls. 

Categories: Arts & Entertainment