Monthly Archives

July 2011


Bronte, redux

This is Bronte leaving for her new home a year ago. You’re going to see the same view pretty soon, moving in the opposite direction.

She’s been very, very well loved. Unfortunately, due to serious illness in her retirement family she is coming back to us.

I am nervous about putting her back in the “available” column because I cannot stand dogs being shuffled around like silverware. I am inclined to keep her forever but I am not sure that’s for my peace of mind or hers – in my house she’s the bottom of the pack and, while the others are far too polite to pick on her, she tends to get really quiet and a little sad. As an only dog she is happy all the time. But let me say this – if she does leave, it will be only to a perfect place where there’s no question of permanence. I won’t see her moved around again.

If you’re interested, she’s now four and is probably the best dog who ever lived. Behavior-wise she is flawless and faultless, quiet, lovely, affectionate, LOVES training, loves food, kisses a lot. Very silly, knows how to tell a joke. There’s pretty much nothing bad I can say about her except that she doesn’t thrive in a big group situation.

She can be placed from her current home near Buffalo for the next couple of weeks. After that she’ll be here in New Hampshire. I will try to help with transportation if needed. She’s spayed already, healthy, practically perfect in every way.

I almost deleted this post about five times, because I really, really don’t feel good about her moving around a lot. She doesn’t deserve it. I guess I want you to read this as 90% of a “Yay, we love Bronte and she’s coming home!” and 10% of “If you’ve adored her for the last four years and wished she was available for a retirement home, contact me and be prepared for a LONG interview.”





I deeply apologize, installer guy who got here three hours early and is afraid of dogs. We’re packing them away into every corner we’ve got.


Squeak – squeak – squeaky squeak!

Bramble is in the whelping box, squeaking one of Godric’s stuffed hats with all his might. We’ve got one of the big boxes set up now, after moving everything in our bedroom around to make a space. We’ll let the pregnant girls get used to it and then make a decision on the other one once we find out how they get along after whelping. Fitting another one in here means sleeping crushed up against a filing cabinet, but anything for puppies, right? If the moms decide they don’t want to see each other we’ll put the other one in the living room.

Clue is at my feet, stretched out on her belly, which is spreading gracefully to either side. Today she thought about going upstairs, got up two steps, and said “Oh, heck with this” and came back down again. Such is the power of the belly – I remember exactly how she feels. We made her c-section appointment today; August 23 (62 days from the breeding) with an option to do it the 22nd if her temp drops.

Juno is sleeping on the bed with Doug. She thought about coming over here too, but Clue showed the tiniest edge of one tooth and Juno figured the bed was a better idea. If anything, she’s even bigger than Clue – but she’s younger and can still make the jump. If I’m right, she’s due the 22nd on the dot, 61 days from the day when Shade said was the best day, but it could be plus or minus one from that.

I’m practicing taking deep breaths. Three and a half weeks to go.


Machias bound! And puppies too!

Honour and I were sewing the last buttons on the little girls’ summer dresses as my mom and dad drove up this morning. Tucked in one big kid, two little kids, two car seats, clothes and dolls and kisses and hugs and off they go to Maine for twelve days of torturing their grandparents and eating loads of sweet cereal.

Honour and I came in, reeled around for a moment, and said “HOLY CARP THE HOUSE IS DIRTY.”

This is the one time a year that I can really clean, so starting tomorrow morning every room is getting emptied into the hallways and their floors and walls scrubbed, kitchen organized, fridge cleaned, freezer defrosted, basement torn up and most stuff thrown away. Every piece of clothing in the house is now in the living room so we can go through it and purge anything that doesn’t fit or is too stained even for play duty. And the master bedroom (which is kind of a misnomer, trust me; it’s not exactly palatial) will be stripped to the walls and everything scrubbed and the floor tarped so we can put two litters of puppies in here. As soon as they’re a couple weeks old I can move them out into our dining room like I did before, but for those first vulnerable days I want them at arms’ reach.

Clue and Juno have four weeks to go as of yesterday. Doug asked me how many I thought we’d have and I said, “Well, usually we’d just be seeing them look a little bit pregnant right now, with four weeks left.” He eyed Juno waddling around her belly across the kitchen and said, somewhat hoarsely, “Oh no.”

Oh no is right. I keep telling myself that these are small dogs for their breed – and they are. And I keep them fit and hard, so they don’t have a lot of fat and they show quicker. And Shade is a long, deep dog and should make bigger puppies. But Juno’s already shifting uncomfortably around a big belly when she lies down and Clue’s waistline is below her ribcage. I have a feeling of total impending doom.

Everybody needs to think thoughts like “Five apiece!” and “No more than six!” for me; right now I am staring at both girls like they’re champagne bottles being shaken… hard.

Responsible Breeding

Update on the very thin puppies

I am sorry to say that though offers of help, support, advice, sharing dog care, food, and even money have been made, the person involved has cut all ties with anyone perceived as criticizing the condition of the dogs. My best hope at this point is that the puppies leave for new homes as quickly as possible to get bathed and wormed and their noses in full pans.

My biggest lesson in this entire thing – what you haven’t seen is a group of people working their butts off over the last few days trying to do something that would improve conditions – is that it’s critical to communicate. When breeders have personal disagreements that keep us from checking on references, however valid and accurate those disagreements are (and I know very often they are), dogs fall through the cracks.

I never post things about individual people because it’s not useful, not good for anyone, and because I honestly almost never have a right to – I do things that get people mad, I make breeding decisions that are controversial, and if I spoke about individuals I’d expect to get my butt kicked. This isn’t “fugly dog of the day.” The reason a post about a single person ended up on this blog is because I was just so incredibly frustrated and sad that it was post something or instigate dog-related grand larceny. I won’t be posting anything about this again and I won’t name the person or the particulars.

The ISSUE here – bringing it back to what we should be talking about – is that care rises above all else. The disagreements we have about stud dog choices or who should have won that class or whether so-and-so has ugly dogs are just static; the foundational issue is not hurting dogs. Do whatever flapdoodle thing you want, honestly – if your dogs are clean and healthy and well-fed and happy we can argue for hours about ear size but we’re fundamentally on the same side.


The year of learning dangerously – MIT OpenCourseWare

Since my camera is on the fritz I’m consuming lectures like a thirsty camel – if anyone is interested in my plan for this year, I’m going to be trying to teach myself some sort of docu-landsca-portraiture, basically forcing myself through a year in art school. I’ll be talking about it here not because I think it’s SOOPER FASCINATING for you to read, but because it makes me accountable to myself so I don’t end up in January wondering where the year went.

First servings: Photography as Inquiry. I watched the first two lectures while proofreading something about runny noses (no, seriously). I’ll finish the lectures this week and then begin the observational part of the assignments.

Meanwhile, on the home front, tomorrow I have to sew six dresses before 3/4 of the kids leave for a week in Maine with their grandparents. And yes, Dawn, they are going to MACHIAS. (Dawn’s famous quote from last year, after being there for the weekend, is “Why on earth would anyone, anytime, EVER want to go to Machias?”) We pack them up and send them off on Monday morning. Then Honour and I will spend a week getting caught up on laundry for the first time in a year, scrubbing things with old toothbrushes, moving whelping boxes into place, and skating across clean floors wearing socks before the whirlwind of dirt returns.

Both Clue and Juno are obviously pregnant now; I could tell on Juno a good week ago and Clue a couple days later. I hate to predict numbers, and do not quote me on this, but based on the fact that they started showing this early I am guessing we’ll have decent numbers from both. Shade’s first litter with Lithie (Ch. Wolfwood Lithium Ion of Kingscourt) was seven babies, and that litter is going to be here on the 6th for evals – fantastic not only because we always love puppies but because I can see a bit of a preview of what he’s likely to improve in my girls. If he gives me similar numbers it’s going to be quite an interesting few months!

Right now, I have to tell you, Shade (who has been living with me for a month – I always forget that I have told on the blog, but he came up here from Sarah’s house because Sarah took Friday to handle her, and we keep thinking up reasons for him to stay a little longer because we love him) is the picture of the expectant dad. He knows very well what is going on and he checks his girls constantly, nudges food around for them, backs down immediately when they snark that they don’t feel good right now, and gets terribly worried when Juno finds herself a cave (she’s so tiny that she has them all over the house – little spaces behind couches and so on) and barks at me to come get her out. He honestly even looks different – more mature and direct in his eye contact. He’s a good, good boy and I’m looking forward to these babies a huge amount.

Mystery puppies

You know this nose

Gorgeous photos of the spottily delicious Kipling (Clue’s only black son) and his utterly enviable life (he gatecrashed the Leaning Tower of Pisa!) are on Maggie’s blog. I know she’d also appreciate your thoughts as he gets over a very nasty bladder infection. Kipling, we think you’re the bees knees, and miss you constantly.


Please, please stop posting pictures of your dirty, half-starved litter of puppies on Facebook. Better yet, how about you keep posting pictures and FEED THEM? No, I won’t tell you they’re cute. They’re not. They’re underweight and wormy and pitiful and I want to cry every time I see them. If you don’t want to make them raw beef and goat’s milk, fine. But how about you put down the dish of Purina and actually fill it? And then keep it filled until your babies don’t make me weep. Signed, Judgy McCriticalpants.

PS: No, really, actually fill it. Like now. No, I’ll wait.

aggression, Dog Behavior and Training, General

Removing the taboo of biting

Today I tried to count how many times I saw the dogs use their mouths on each other, and I lost track after about a hundred – in about half an hour. I also counted how many times they used their mouths on humans, and aside from Godric’s hand-chewing the grand total was zero.

No big whoop, you should be saying. Aren’t your dogs “good dogs”? That means they shouldn’t ever bite people. This shouldn’t be some kind of dramatic statistic.

This is going to be a short one, because I’ve already talked about how aspects of temperament and behavior can change and why I can’t stand labeling dogs, and even about biting (wow, is that an old post and I need to go edit parts of it to make it clearer, but the core of it is still what I think is true). But we need to have a conversation about this, because I think it’s so dramatically misunderstood.

The world of dog ownership in this country has defined dogs who bite people as “bad” dogs and dogs who don’t bite people as “good” dogs. I read – frequently – about how dogs with “biting problems” (usually defined as one human bite, or maybe two, or even a couple of dog bites) are the enemy, like “I can’t believe they let a dog with a known biting problem into that therapy program” or “She’s a bad breeder; my dog grew up and turned out to have a biting problem.”

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s very worthwhile for anyone interested in the changing role of dogs in this country to read the dog fiction that has been written over the last century or so.

I’ve always loved the “hero dog” books – White Fang, Lassie, Buff, Algonquin. And, TO A ONE, those books have a dramatic confrontation in which a dog bites a human. Lad bites. Old Yeller bites people. Savage Sam kills somebody. Heck, Buck kills an entire group of people. Lassie bites. Fortinbras growls at people and offers to bite them. Toto, Huan (from the Silmarillion), Jip, Roy the wolfhound who solves a Holmes mystery by attacking and almost killing his master, Kazan and Baree – I could go on and on. Every hero dog attacks people, every hero dog attacks other dogs. There was some sort of cultural expectation that if you did something stupid or bad, a dog would bite you, and it would be YOUR fault.

Now, in 2011, if a dog ever bites anyone or anything, it’s a bad dog and should be put down or at the very least isolated from life forever and ever. Something must be wrong in its brain and it is never to be trusted again.

In fact, the old books were right. We’re the ones who are wrong. I promise, I don’t think that a dog should go tear the throats out of twenty people, even if they are kidnappers or something, but what is very correct about those old books is that dogs live according to a very simple and very pure moral code, and if a person does something that breaks that code and won’t listen as the dog tries to tell them that they’re doing something wrong, they’re going to eventually get bitten.

What we are actually seeing when we make the 2011-style “good dog/bad dog” statements is not a dog who won’t bite versus a dog who will bite. We’re seeing a dog who is very patient and accepting of mistakes versus a dog who is slightly less patient. It’s always amazing to me how my dogs do their absolute best to include me in the conversation, doing the dog version of speaking really loudly and slowly – big wide tail movements, big slow mouth smiles, exaggerated ears. When it comes to disciplining me, they are even more forebearing; I don’t get a mouth correction unless I do something really awful (and the current dogs, with the exception of Bramble, have actually never given me a mouth correction even when I richly deserve it), whereas they’ll correct each other with mouths on a constant basis.

That’s why it’s ridiculous that we have a line in the sand when it comes to dogs biting people. Dogs don’t have a biting problem – they bit because they felt they needed to. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time it was a human problem and not the dog. That’s why there are so many “former biters” in therapy dog programs or living with kids or happily placed in homes. They aren’t former biters, and they weren’t problems. But back then they felt that they needed to bite and now they don’t. If they don’t feel they need to bite, they are no more likely to do so now than any other dog. The stupidity of the “biting problem” is like telling someone that once they yell in frustration they can never be trusted again and now they’re a problem yeller, and why can’t they be like Mrs. Henkel who never speaks above a whisper, and there must be something wrong with them because they yelled. Put that person in an opera audience and he’s no longer a yeller. Put Mrs. Henkel in a room full of fire ants and I promise you she’s going to be a yeller.

A dog who is biting is a dog who is in a room full of fire ants. He’s being pushed beyond what he can bear. For some, like Bramble, the “fire ants” stage is reached very quickly, especially when he’s nervous about the person involved (I can do anything with him; my brother-in-law terrifies him and wouldn’t even be able to touch him); for Clue, you’d almost have to threaten to cut off her leg or something before she’d get there. But it’s the same stage, both dogs WILL bite, and Clue is no more “good” than Bramble is.

The one thing I think we’re allowed to still say about biting is that it’s a sign that something’s very wrong. It’s something wrong with the environment or the people or the dog’s life or health, not with the dog’s soul, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sign that something must change. For some dogs the greatest gift you can give them is to rehome them – second homes are often “miracle workers” for biting dogs because whatever it was that was driving the dog crazy is no longer there. For others adequate changes can be made in the existing home to bring the dog back under the stress threshold and make him “not a biter.” Biting is always a reason to seek out a vet and a good, sympathetic behaviorist (wow, I am pulling out ALL the ancient posts today), but it’s not a life-ending crisis or a disaster. It’s a caution sign and a reason to reevaluate exactly what happened and what went wrong and, if possible, to remove the likelihood of the situation occurring again in exactly the same way.

Now go tell somebody she’s a good dog. Because she is.

buying a puppy, General, Responsible Breeding

10 Questions you must ask your breeder – AFTER you know she’s responsible

There are a thousand web pages out there that will give you a list of questions to ask a breeder. They’re almost all oriented toward helping you find a person who’s above a certain level of responsibility – does she attempt to preserve or improve a breed, does she health test, stuff like that.

And those are good lists. I am always glad when I get a puppy buyer who is reading off what is obviously a laboriously collected set of questions. It’s a great sign that they’re doing their homework and research.

What you may not know is that your work isn’t done yet – not if you’re really serious about this. If you stop now, if you get the answers you need and then buy yourself a puppy, you WILL get a well-bred puppy. You’ve done that basic, extremely important job. But what you have NOT done is found out very much about whether you’re going to be happy with this breeder for the next (hopefully) fifteen years.

I’ve often spoken of dogs in terms of brands – because I think that the best way for most people to think of the way purebreds are produced is to put it in terms of the real thing or counterfeits. You always fall in love with the real thing – nobody ever finds a picture of a “Couch” purse and says “Wow, I like that better than the $300 version!” You WANT the real one. You get suckered into paying for the fake one because you convince yourself that it’s enough like the genuine article that you’re actually smarter to get the knock-off.

We all knows what happens to the knock-offs, though. You wear them for a few days and then the finish begins to wear off the Leather-Like (R) surface or the Tiffanee ring leaves a green stain on your finger, and they end up in the back of the closet. On the other hand, the ring you killed yourself to pay for at the real counter is a signature piece that you wear every day for the rest of your life and leave to your grandkids.

Those basic questions for the breeder, the ones you ask first, establish whether you’re buying the real brand or a counterfeit. The questions I’m going to suggest you ask next are the ones that tell you what kind of “store” you’re buying from.

Please, please understand that THERE ARE NO RIGHT OR WRONG ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS. They define certain aspects of the relationship you’re going to have, and my ideal answer is going to be different from yours. In fact, it may be radically different. If you ask me these questions, my answers may tell you that in fact you’d be quite unhappy buying from me, but thrilled with the experience of buying from someone else. That wouldn’t hurt my feelings – in fact, I want it.

I want you to think about them because I have seen so much good come from lifelong friendships that are formed when people who are on the same wavelength are involved in a dog transaction (some of my most wonderful friends are people I’ve either bought dogs from or used a stud dog or whatever), and I’ve seen so much personal hurt and misunderstanding come from two people who are both terribly well intentioned but who have completely different ideas of how the breeder-owner relationship should be.

So here they are:

1) Why did you personally get involved in this breed?

2) What do you consider a successful breeding?

3) Have you ever had a real disaster of a litter?

4) Why did you choose these particular two dogs?

5) Do you often get fluffs and mismarks? (Substitute whatever the biggies are in your breed – whites in boxers, for example, or long-coats in Shepherds; do enough research to know what they are.)

6) What kind of owners tend to do best with your dogs?

7) What do you feed your dogs and what would you like buyers to feed?

8) What’s one thing people often don’t know about this breed that you wish they did?

9) If there was one thing you could wave your wand and fix in your breed, what would it be?

10) If I buy a puppy from you, do you call me or should I call you?

See what I mean that there are not right or wrong answers to these? What they’re going to do is let you know what the priorities of the breeder are, how he or she perceives himself or herself in the grand scheme of the breed, reveal attachments they have with other breeders or owners, and (perhaps most important) tell you whether this breeder wants you in bed with them or at arm’s length. There are some breeders who want (and should get) weekly updates for the first year. There are others who don’t mind if you never call them again. Will the first drive you batty or make you feel loved? Will the second give you the freedom you crave or does that scream “uncaring”? Your job is making sure your breeder is close to you on the spectrum, or that you can meet his or her expectations without strain.

If I ask these ten questions questions and the answer to the “successful” and “disaster” litter questions are two sides of a single coin, I know what the top priority is for that breeder. If they center on show success, conformation, or absence of faults, that’s likely to be a breeder that I’d go to for a “flyer” show dog. If they instead dwell on how happy or unsatisfying the placements turned out to be, that’s a breeder who cares a lot about relationships. If I hear a lot about health – or personality or herding success or therapy success or fill in the blank – I can tell if this breeder and I have the same definition of an A-plus job.

I personally think it’s very revealing to explore the idea of those cosmetic faults that tend to be show ring DQs or such big no-nos that they’re in effect DQs. A breeder who says “Oh my goodness, I would never EVER do a breeding that would make fluffs – it’s my job to make as many dogs who could be shown as possible!” is a very different person than one who says “I adore fluffs and have kept several; I never worry about them in my breeding.” Neither one is right or wrong, but if you’re looking for a very reliable pedigree with zero coat in it you’re going to be happier with the first. If you would rather have a breeder who’s a bit more loosey-goosey (and maybe likes “cute” even more than she likes “correct”!), the second breeder is likely to be your gal.

Now that magic wand question is a bit of a subtle one – I love to ask it because there’s an answer I want to hear and if I do I am thrilled. But I’d honestly ask it even if I didn’t have something in mind, because the answer is going to tell you something about that breeder’s long-term plans and big-picture goals. “Group placements” is a different answer than “Temperament.” “Longevity” is a different answer than “No dogs in rescue.” They’re all GOOD goals. But one type of breeder is going to be your better fit.

Number 8, the one thing people don’t know about the breed, is the one I want to address last, because it’s the one thing on there that could cause you to not just walk away from a breeder but walk away from a breed entirely. It’s a very simple question with some very high stakes.

For example, if I told you that the one thing I wish people knew about Great Danes is that they are NOT big brave dogs but in fact are very soft and sensitive and a huge minority of them have fear issues – that we usually DON’T get the TV version of the breed, that they’re not suited to dog parks, that they can be sharp with other dogs and do a lot of damage even when behaving normally – if you’re honest with yourself you might realize that the picture in your head that you had of your life with this dog is no longer correct.

At that point the huge temptation will be to say “Well, none of the books I read say that, and I am sure she’s wrong – or I am sure the puppy I get won’t have that issue.” But I’m going to honestly BEG you to trust her when she says whatever it is she says. It doesn’t mean you don’t get the dog, but it might mean you need to put down the phone and have a very serious conversation with your spouse or your roommate or you obedience trainer.

One final hint – ask these in the course of a normal relaxed conversation, or your breeder is going to think she’s stumbled into the Spanish Inquisition! It’s great to ask up front if this is a good time to have a breed discussion – if I hear that, I chase my kids outside and know I’m not going anywhere for an hour. Long phone conversations, or long ringside conversations, or twelve-page e-mails, are normal for breeders. We all expect it. And you’ll get some major brownie points for asking and understanding good questions. But try to avoid asking them as somebody’s got a dog on the table getting nails trimmed!

Off I go – to trim nails, natch. And Clue needs some midnight soup; she was breathing hard when she came up the stairs tonight because all of a sudden she’s dragging a load of golf balls with her. So I’ll end this here – but if you are a breeder, or you are an owner who wants to add to this list, PLEASE comment. I never mind being told that I forgot something, and a good list is power for both breeders and owners.