Monthly Archives

March 2012

Responsible Breeding

Bracing for the fire hose

My oldest daughter has a dream.

She, all on her own, found a high school near us that she wants to attend. This school could not POSSIBLY be a better fit for her. It’s arty, it’s free-form, it’s community focused; being loving and kind to one another is one of the tenets of the entire organization. It’s sort of like a Montessori school for almost-grown-ups.

It’s one of the top prep schools in our area. It costs more than a private college. We have trouble putting food on the table most weeks.

Before I go on, let me tell you a story. It’s a story that has been repeated so often that it’s passed into legend or lore; I have no idea if it ever really happened, though I’ve found it referenced in dozens of scholarly articles (but never with a footnote). It FEELS so real that nobody seems to mind.

It goes like this:

Behavioral scientists set up a food reward – let’s say it was a bunch of ripe bananas – at the top of a ladder, and let a group of monkeys into the room. The monkeys immediately made for the ladder and the bananas, as you’d expect. Easy access, great reward.

As soon as the first monkey touched the ladder, the scientists sprayed him with ice-cold water. Then they ALSO sprayed the rest of the group with water, so the entire band was punished for the first one’s effort. 

Another monkey tried it – same result. Ice water in the face for the whole group.

Within a short amount of time, not only was nobody heading for the ladder, but if a monkey so much as considered it, the rest of the group would drag him down and beat him up. They were not going to take the fall for that monkey’s mistake.

At this point, the scientists introduced a new monkey, one who had never been sprayed. The new monkey headed for the ladder – and was immediately grabbed, dragged down, and punished. He quickly learned to not approach the ladder. 

As the experiment progressed, the scientists introduced more and more new monkeys, and gradually removed the original ones. By the end of the experiment, the entire group was made up of monkeys who had never been sprayed with water, who had no idea why they shouldn’t get the bananas, but who were just as viciously attacking any newbie who dared to go near the ladder.

Thus ends our story. The moral is twofold: First, misery and deprivation are extremely contagious, and the disease is usually spread through deliberate effort on the part of the miserable one. If I’m depressed and feel like my life has not met my expectations, I’m going to do my very best to make sure that everyone around me feels the exact same way – by force if need be. Second, you really have no idea if somebody else can’t do something. All you know is that YOU can’t do it. Don’t perpetuate a myth that is really all about you.

So every time I think about that school and my daughter’s dream, I am closing my eyes and shutting up. She’s incredibly mature and she knows her own mind better than most adults; she’s not oblivious to our family’s means and me telling her that we’re poor has no purpose except to steal her joy and knock her off the ladder. She’s surprising me already. She got herself to the open house and spoke to teachers and students. She’s investigating creative writing scholarships; she’s (on her own) made appointments for a full day of shadowing a peer student and meeting with the admissions director. Even if she never gets any further than this, the lessons she’s learned about how to be a serious adult and network are invaluable – and she never would have learned them if I had said “Impossible; it’ll never work – have you seen how often we eat beans?” And she ALSO would never have learned them if we were wealthy enough to just write a check. Whatever happens next, whether a great reward or a no, she’s gained a level of determination and optimism that may well change how she lives the entire rest of her life.

And, of course, this made me think about dogs – because everything makes me think about dogs – and the other big theme in my life, which is teaching and photography. And I wondered how many times I’ve seen new breeders knocked off that ladder, or new teachers, or new photographers. How much time and energy and love is wasted by that group milling around the bottom of the ladder looking for an ankle to grab? And how much time is wasted on the fear that somebody will think we’re being “too big for our britches” until we are so paralyzed that we’ll simply stop the effort entirely?

I think I need to go try to climb some ladders. Bananas may be awaiting me.




Four weeks ago this hour

Despereaux was born.

And tonight I realized I hadn’t weighed him today.

You have to realize what a milestone that is – for the first two weeks he was weighed after every tube feeding, every sub-q fluid bolus, every bottle. Since we knew he couldn’t tolerate an empty belly because he was born with no fat reserves, I fought for each gram; for over a week he was tubed every two hours through the day and night. We were reaching for a gain of 20-30 grams each day, but he couldn’t tolerate more than 3-4 mls at a time (that’s less than a teaspoon), so we just did it more often. After he turned two weeks old I cut back to weighing 4-5 times a day, making sure each time showed a trend upwards, however slight. This last week I’ve plopped him on the scale maybe twice a day, and today I forgot entirely. That’s how well he’s doing.

Whenever the food plate goes down, the first head in and the last head out is his. Day before yesterday he got his last bottle, and is now lapping formula and food with the others. He’s learned that his small size is a potent advantage in the puppy wrestling matches, and can outplay and outlast the bigger guys. His face, which started off thin, is now plush and pretty. His body is strong and sturdy. You can still see him in the box because he stands out size-wise, but now it’s “Oh, a cute little puppy!” and not “Oh dear; what’s wrong with that one?” Thankfully, there never was anything wrong – he was just tiny and needed to get through a few weeks of “gestation” outside the womb before he could take off on his own. We’re terribly proud of him and look forward to a healthy and long life of doing something very special.

Oh, and I just weighed him – he’s gained 80 grams today. He got a kiss on the nose for that one.


Puppies are almost four weeks old!

It’s been almost two weeks since we started the first tastes of solid food for the Fine Nine, and during that time they’ve done their absolute best to absorb their food through their skin, ear flaps, and paws. They were STINKARIFIC.

Yesterday we had an amazingly warm (even hot!) day, crazy for mid-March, so we gave the puppies a spa day and then let them dry out on the porch in the sun. By the time they were dry and fluffy we had almost lost the light, so I apologize for the imperfect photography, but I figured you’d all lynch me if I made you wait for the next warm sunny day!

There’s also a sentence that goes here that says blah blah camera lenses distortion wide angle aperture blah blah, and means “Yes, they look a little bit like bobbleheads. It’s not really like that, just the way I was trying to use a short lens to take their pictures because if I used a long one and got further back they would all have plummeted to their deaths off the chair I had put them on because they repeatedly tried to plummet to their deaths as it was even though I was only a foot away.” I suppose it’s a good thing in the end, because that way I can’t look at these and torture myself trying to evaluate tiny baby puppies who can’t be evaluated at this age!

So what are these babies like? They do have a slightly different flavor than the litters we had last year. They’re more dependent on people, and they believe utterly that humans will always save the day (they kept walking off that chair and trusting I’d catch them, over and over and over again; they never saw the edge and pulled back). They’re incredibly snuggly. They want you to understand everything they’re going through and they tell you stories all day long. Big talkers for sure.

They are bigger bad-human-noise-alerters than the last set were; they don’t panic or worry but if they hear a plate fall or something break they will all bark exactly once in a chorus and then sit up and look at you and expect you to solve it. They also don’t like angry words or bad sounds; if one of the kids yells at another kid in actual anger, it sets up a whole chorus of rumbles from the box. However, they’re completely relaxed around all “scary” sounds; we’ve had the fire alarm go off and kids screaming in play and video games and (just last night) a HUGE thunderstorm with lightning strikes very close to us, and they either sleep or gaze around thoughtfully through the whole thing.

Last night during the thunderstorms we lost power, so the puppies got exposed to flashlights and lanterns and eating their supper meal by Itty Bitty Booklight. Nothing phases them. As long as a human says it’s OK, they’re fine.

Oh – one note on the babies: Nobody’s ears are coming up this early. It’s actually the opposite. Because these guys are smaller, in some of them (Corduroy and Hugo show it best in these, but it’s actually the case in a bunch of them) the ears haven’t gotten heavy enough yet to fall forward from the horizontal newborn position. They should be down in the next week or so and then we’ll wait for them to come up to normal Cardigan position when they’re 8-10 weeks old.

So here are the little bubs:


DESPEREAUX (who hit 2 lb yesterday!)






MILO (who is SO handsome this week – and also SO fluffy)

BIANCA (her eyes are fine – one of the things I don’t like about using wood shavings is that they’re dusty and make eyes run, which stains faces. Once we get them off the shavings the little tear stains will disappear)


These puppies arrived right as Sammy was finishing up a false pregnancy, so she’s quite hormonally attached to them and believes that perhaps they have something to do with a great achievement on her part. Whenever they’re out she puts herself next to them and poses gleefully.

Responsible Breeding

Why we MUST drop our obsession with coat and color in AKC dogs

1) It makes us look stupid, because we’re being stupid.

This is one place where pet owners, who are always genuinely bewildered and often legitimately offended by the fact that their dog “can’t” be a good Labrador because of a big chest spot or a breeder is petting out a dog because its coat is too long, are absolutely right.

And, even more tragic, because none of the other things we talk about – the subtle layback of shoulder, the length of the croup, the topline – can be seen or appreciated by the general public, but they CAN see coat and color, we have become the idiots who don’t see that their dog is wonderful because he’s got a toenail the wrong color.

That’s never going to change until we can say “You’re absolutely right; I may have personal preferences, but none of us really care about his coat. Let me show you what I DO care about.”

2) It teaches breeders to focus on superficial qualities that are not even genuine faults.

Unfortunately, breeders will often, like magpies, stare at and make judgments based on obvious visual cues. Color and coat become a convenient way to sort “bad” dogs from “good” dogs, which is what new breeders are usually obsessed with and (unfortunately) what many breeders never move past. Additionally, in breeds where color rules have led to a description of what breedings are allowed – again, purely based on color – breeders get fixated on color as defining a good breeding.

I am not sure anyone could possibly come up with a MORE NONSENSICAL way to tutor and mentor our new breeders. I am also not sure anyone could come up with an easier and swifter way to boot every breeder into a greater sense of responsibility for understanding soundness, type, and pedigrees than removing it.

3) It allows judges to place greater weight on superficial choices than on soundness or type.

Judges have a maximum of two minutes per dog, and if they are honest most of the time they’ve got half the class judged by the time they’ve gone around the first time. That’s not a bad thing – a good eye for a dog means you SHOULD be able to do it fast. But judges are no less prone to adopt anything that lets them make snap decisions about a “good” dog than anyone else. Coat and color encourage them to make an immediate decision – that one, or those three, I can stop considering right now because I can see that the coat or color is wrong.

I don’t care how ethical and wonderful a judge is – if a coat or color feature allows them to sort dogs, so no dog of a “bad” color or coat ever comes into consideration, they are being both allowed and encouraged to judge first according to superficial features. That does no good for the dog, the breeder, the owner, the handler, the judging community, or the breed.

4) None of it stands up to the most shallow logical scrutiny.

I’ve harped on this until my fingers are sore, but it has to be said again – there is nothing we do with bigger self-imposed blinders on than talk about coat and color being a sign of functional worth. It is laughable, or would be if we didn’t hold on to it with such single-minded attachment. I’ve heard Chesapeake Bay Retriever breeders say, with an absolutely straight face, that their dogs must have an oily and curly coat to retrieve in cold water, and then show pictures of their dogs in field trials retrieving in November and there’s a Golden in the corner of the picture. Cardigan breeders insist that a long coat is not a working coat, as they’re grooming next to a Polish Lowland Sheepdog and a rough-faced Pyr Shep. A Pudelpointer must be solid but a Spinone must not be.

It’s completely inescapable: Decisions about coat and color are simple cosmetic preference. We’ve got to admit it. If we can, we can retain color and coat *individual preferences* if we wish – nobody should be penalized for liking a certain color or coat. But we should all admit that it’s a cosmetic decision, not a functional one or one that genuinely matters in terms of whether a dog is a good or bad one.

5) As we know better, we do better.

The be-all and end-all of arguments for color in standards (and for a phrase that we need to wake up and realize is incredibly offensive, “color purity,”) is that the breed founders wanted it that way and so they must know something we don’t.

That’s nonsense. We don’t do it with any other part of our doggy lives – are you still worming with calomel (mercury chloride, a potent poison)? Are you still drowning all but six whelps in large litters? Still using paint thinner for mange? All of those are the hard and fast advice of breed founders.

Color and coat are human decisions made by people who were convinced of them. Sometimes they were using good thought processes; more often they were basing their decisions on superstition (white is a weak color), old wives’ tales (hair equals the constitution, so soft hair equals a soft constitution), and – probably most perniciously – old German breeding assumptions. (A bunch of these center around the notion that phylogeny is indicated by physical traits – basically, you can tell the ancestors of an animal by looking at the appearance of an animal. If you want to get away from what you think is an undesirable ancestor you select against his color – so yellow indicates that the dog has a mastiff ancestor or long hair indicates a collie ancestor, so if you breed away from those things you’ll be making your breed more pure and less adulterated.)

It’s not that we dismiss the wisdom of breed founders. It’s that we hold it up against everything we know (not believe, but KNOW) about dogs now and we go with what we know is in the best interests of the breed and the dogs. Our dogs demand no less.


Oh yes, we’ve got puppies (with New! Photo Proof!)

At two weeks they’re still just hamsters, but we managed to get them to at least open their eyes for you all! Above is Handsome George, big tri boy.

Bianca (with Honour hands) – either really dark brindle or black girl. Mostly impossible to take pictures of.

Corduroy, one of the little guys. Born at 9 oz and then lost a ton, and had to struggle a bit to get it back. Doing great now and getting nice and chubby. He’s a dark brindle with just a few stripes, and a big fat white blaze. 
Despereaux! We’re pretty sure he’s a black and white – sometimes when you have super dark brindles like we got in this litter it’s not obvious for a while, but he’s got some brindling under his tail that we think means he’s a true black.

Despereaux and Monster, to give you a little idea of scale of our wee boy. He’s growing steadily, still making about an ounce or an ounce and a half a day (he broke a pound on day 13, and on day 17 is 1 lb 6 oz), but he’s stil a tiny dude.

Monster with Tabitha. He’s a big, gentle, sweet puppy and is often toted around by the kids and given many kisses.

Hugo, the other big chocolate brindle boy.

Monster by himself. He’s a lovely chocolate brindle guy.

Harold making a break for it. He’s very dark brindle, almost black, with super neat puzzle-piece markings and a lucky spot on the top of his head.

Milo, the other tri boy. Total cutie.

Ramona! The only other girl, lovely dark brindle who is going to end up looking all swirly like her mom. Little narrow blaze and a collar.

Sleepy Chicken. Honorary puppy and socializer extraordinaire. She’s Sticky Feet’s sister and was a baby chick when the Puppygeddon litters were growing up, and was raised with them. She’s totally unafraid of dogs and lets them get deep sniffs and even chew on her without getting worried. Her name is Sleepy Chicken because even as a baby she’d konk out if you held her for any length of time. Lives in our living room and is pretty much a person. 


Daisy Poppy and the Fine Nine

I’ve been trying to snap phone pictures each day, though I know I should be doing more photo-taking. I’d love to blame being busy, but the fact is that when I start planning a big beautiful individual photo shoot I get a little hitch in my brain from just plain worry. I’ve been scared for these babies so many times over the last days that I don’t want to hex myself by declaring that all is well.

Fortunately, I think at this point it is only that – worry. Not real anymore. When the babies hit their two-week birthday they seemed to decide to thrive, and the last 48 hours have been wonderful. I’m regularly bottling only the tiniest (Despereaux) to give him a little kick of calories (he’s 1 lb 3.4 oz today, which means he’s tripled his birth weight and that’s fantastic, but of course that’s still small for 16 days and we need to make sure he doesn’t get behind); Daisy Poppy is handling the rest as long as I fill everyone up once a day. The biggest are closing in on two pounds now. They are transitioning into pan feedings with great glee and everybody’s digestive system is working well. Eyes popped yesterday and were fully open today on all nine, and they suddenly want to be dogs. They’re busy and purposeful and sweet.

The real hero, of course, is Daisy Poppy. She’s got to be the most giving bitch I’ve ever known. I’m used to these terribly efficient, brisk bitches who pop out babies and raise them with enormous aplomb. Clue is usually sleeping out of the whelping box by the time her babies are three or four days old; she’ll hop in and feed them prodigiously and then hop back out again. Juno loves her kids but you can tell she’s waiting for them to grow up enough to play. Daisy Poppy has had more crap with this litter than I’d ever want to go through again, but she ADORES them.

At sixteen days she’s still in the box every minute except when she’s out walking or if I force her out to go take a nap on my bed. She sleeps with her head buried in a pile of puppies, breathing in their bellies.

She’s also, very touchingly, decided that I’m the other one who raises them. She does all the spooky “Lassie” things that you picture about dogs when you’re ten years old. She’ll ask me to check specific puppies; she’ll bark at me and repeatedly look at me and then stare at things until I open a door or lift down the water bowl or unlatch a gate. If something is not right – usually something to do with dogs at the door or maybe Bramble has come too close – she’ll run to me and insist that I come look. She understands everything I tell her or ask her, from “Do you need help to get in?” to “Don’t worry; I’m getting them their bottle.”

The one that kills me every time is that she still thinks she needs help to get in the box, though she could easily jump over the wall at this point. So she’ll come find me and huff at me until I get up and walk over, and then she smashes herself against the side of the box. She doesn’t stand up with her front feet on the box, the way dogs normally do when they need a boost to jump. No, she carefully puts her body parallel to the box, even if it means turning herself completely around and backing in, and then looks at me expectantly, so I can use both hands to lift her in super carefully and put her gently among the babies.

Best of all, I realized today that (aside from the days she was sick after whelping) she’s not looked worried in months. Asking a dog to transition homes at four is always difficult. But she never has anything now but that warm, soft, happy eye, usually slitted in total satisfaction as she licks baby tummies or peeks at them from my lap on the bed. She hums at them and gently turns them over and licks their faces for long minutes on end. If Clue and Juno are farm wives, able to change a diaper in fifteen seconds and kiss a cheek and stir a pot and plan the spring planting at the same time, Daisy Poppy is an aristocrat. Surrounded by nannies and looking to them for every move, quite exhausted by the birth, a little overwhelmed, too elegant to know all the lullabies, but also terribly deeply in love with these little miracles. As are we.