Optimism

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They say that planting a tree is an optimistic and unselfish act – even as you plant it, you know that it will mature 10, 20, 30 years later, whether you are around to see it or not.

There are lots of other acts of optimism. Building or buying a house, planting bulbs, having children.

Getting a dog.

While many people have some romantic notion that the puppy they buy or adopt will magically become a steadfast and loyal companion, others know that it takes a lot of work, consistency, patience, and love, to make a good dog.

It takes appropriate breeding – while it is possible to simply be lucky, responsible breeders work very hard to select for breeding the healthiest dogs and those who are best suited temperamentally to do the work for which the breed was developed. They breed for structure, for type (who wants a Saint Bernard that looks like a Whippet?), and to avoid as much as possible the health issues to which their breed is prone.

And they work hard to make the right matches of their puppies to potential owners, knowing that the relationship that begins with ooohing and aaahhhing over the cute bundles of fur will be a relationship that will last at least as long as that dog lives, and probably a lot longer.

A breeder is optimistic that the puppies will be healthy, the bitch will survive and take good care of them, the new owners will love their dogs even more than the breeder loves his or her own.  The breeder will be there to answer questions, offer guidance and support, laugh with them and, in the end, share their grief.

And in the wake of that grief, which breeders and owners alike know all too well, responsible breeders will optimistically keep trying to breed the healthiest, strongest, best dogs they can, and owners will smile at a little ball of fur and imagine the training, the late nights, the chewed shoes and cell phones, the carpet cleaning, the vet bills, the worry and the pain, and tell the breeder “I would love to take that one.”

Canine health – Hope and Tragedy

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Why do we do it? Why do we put ourselves through this over and over and over again?

This morning I found out that a dear friend’s dog was diagnosed with cancer – a cancer all too prevalent in the breed we love. This is the second dog she has had with this form of cancer this decade.

Years ago I lost my beloved Border Collie to hemangiosarcoma. At the time, I could imagine nothing more devastating.

Then I fell in love with Bernese Mountain dogs.

Sanity would suggest that these dogs are their own Greek tragedy. Their life span is one of the shortest of all breeds, they are subject to multiple cancers as well as having a tendency to bloat, bleeding, and dysplasia. Why anyone would self-select for the kind of grief that is almost certain is almost beyond comprehension.

Until you meet the dogs. My first Berner was not my first dog. And my relationships with my dogs before her were wonderful relationships. But something in Sophia really, really got to me.

She was a challenge, both in attitude and health. We had a lot of issues to overcome before she blossomed into the dog we always both knew was lurking behind her pain aggression.  We worked together to make her well. She taught me so much about patience and courage and perseverance and joy. Especially joy.

Even on a bad day, she could light up with energy, happiness, goofiness, … She was clever and she was smart. And she needed me in ways I had never expected. When she was young, she wasn’t ready for the responsibility of the whole house – I quickly learned the up – and down sides of crating. For her, a few months of being crated while I was at work gave her the time to mature to the point where she could take care of the whole house while I was gone. She became my most trustworthy, ‘bulletproof’ dog to be loose in the house.

Berners love their people – and don’t like separations. For a time (after she had once again been given full run of the house all the time) she was growing increasingly agitated when I got ready to leave. After a week or two of this escalating anxiety, one day I turned around, set my stuff back down, and sat down in front of her.

“I always come back. I will always come back. As long as there is breath in my body, I will come home to you. I will never, ever abandon you.”

I sat with her, looking into her eyes and telling her this, for several minutes.  I watched and felt her body relax. She finally put her chin down between her front paws and gave me that look: “What are you still doing here?” I never had another moment of separation anxiety from her.

My girl died of cancer, Malignant Histiocitosis, several weeks shy of her eighth birthday. Although we tried chemo, we were too late. She let me know she was ready to leave.

I wish that no one ever again would have to experience the kind of grief I felt, but I know that isn’t going to be a reality for some time to come. I fear that my friend’s dog, another goofy, sweet, intelligent and challenging dog, will break her heart much as mine was broken.

But I know, too, that the sorrow we feel is a reflection of the love and the joy we have known, and I have never known dogs that bring more joy than these.

So we keep coming back to these dogs. We rescue, we support the health studies, we support each other in times of illness or injury (to our dogs, mostly – our own illness or injury seems trivial in comparison).

And we support the breeders who carefully track the health of the dogs they are considering breeding, and of those dogs’ relatives, and of the puppies they have been responsible for bringing into this world – those breeders who work so hard to breed toward longevity and health and self-confident dogs.

We know they exist – we have met some, and we celebrate the 10- and 12- and 13-year old dogs, and the people who love them. And we weep with the people who love the 4- or the 5- or the 7-year-old dogs who have just been diagnosed.

It isn’t fair that such lovely, loving and intelligent dogs should have such short lives. It isn’t fair that the people who love them feel such grief at their loss.

But we are so lucky to share what few years we do with them.

And I will put in a plug for the Canine Health Foundation – they support research into so many of the ills that plague our dogs, of whatever breed. If we keep working and searching for the answers, perhaps someday I will not see the letters MH and feel like I have been kicked in the stomach.

We can overcome. My Berner taught me that.

Mill apologists

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Once again there are a bunch of anti-regulation/dogs are property-no more, no less folks who find every way imaginable to claim that any seizure or rescue of a breeder’s animals is unfair, wrong, illegal, unconstitutional, theft, WHATever.

To their minds, a dog in a neglectful home is better off than that same dog in a shelter – but god forbid we should ask those same apologists to adequately fund shelters!

And if a breeder wants to leave their dogs exposed to all manner of weather, with minimal vet care or human contact or even exercise, well, that’s their right, right? Right?

Wrong.

While I can almost see the argument to consider dogs as property, they are a special class of property in that they are living beings, and, under law, are considered companion animals.

As such, they require adequate food, water, shelter, vet care and socialization. If they are being used to make (mill) more dogs for the sake of profit, then vet care must be more than adequate, it must meet the need to protect consumers and their families and friends from diseases that could be carried by said ‘property.’

Which means that ‘property’ must be wormed, vaccinated, treated for any bacterial or viral diseases. And it must be what it is both implied and inferred to be – a COMPANION animal. Socialized. Biddable. Which means that it cannot be removed from mother and siblings too early (much of a puppy’s restraint is taught by its mother and littermates) and it should be handled gently and lovingly while still young so that it learns that humans are good things to have around. It should not be tossed around or struck or yelled at, or stuck away in a dark cage.

I certainly do not consider my dogs to be mere property. They are companions, housemates, helpers, entertainers, teachers, students, and so much more. It took each of them time to get to that point. One was used as bait in a dog fighting operation, one was left with an injured eye untreated until a rescue stepped in to take over his care. Another two were abandoned as strays by those who couldn’t be bothered to tag or chip or contain their animals, even those who could have served them well as herders and guardian dogs.

My other dog was not mistreated, but was simply imperfect and therefore not saleable. Rescue stepped in before he could be put down as a waste of food. He lacked early nutrition and never learned much from his mother, but he’s coming along nicely now. Were he simply property, he would likely have been dead before I could ever have heard of him.

There have been several seizures across the country this past week. The conspiracy theorists blame it on shelters needing dogs to sell. Yeah, right. They don’t consider that when a woman says she just put the pups outside (in subfreezing temperatures) while she cleaned their cages, she might have been ‘cleaning cages’ all day without consideration for the dogs in the freezing weather. One conspiracist’s response was that they’re dogs, they SHOULD be outside.

Now, I’m a believer in fresh air and sunlight and exercise and all, but puppies without shelter (or, apparently, their mother) do NOT belong out in the cold for prolonged periods of time.

It’s interesting, too, to see the apologists humming right along until it is their own breed that has been put at risk. Then, suddenly, there ought to be a law and that law damn well better be enforced.

There are laws. They are being tweaked and improved and made easier to enforce. And they will be.

Those who abuse living beings, human or ‘property,’ will face justice. If not now, later. Apologize for the abusers all you want, neither God nor Karma will be swayed.

Definitions

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I grew up near Chicago. At the time I knew little of puppy mills or dog auctions or any of the miserable ways companion animals were exploited for proft.

I do know now. I’ve seen it, I’ve cleaned up after the mess, I’ve helped to rehab some of the victims. I like to think that my thinking has evolved.

Apparently there are still too many who just haven’t quite gotten it yet. Or maybe they just don’t want to. After all, if they admitted to the realities of puppy mills, they might have to admit that their participation in a throw-away culture could be part of the problem. If they have gotten a dog on a whim, without planning, research and commitment to the animal for the whole life of that animal… well, failure on any of those counts does, indeed, contribute to the problem.

I just found out that there is a pet store selling puppies near where I grew up. It used to be that you either found a breeder (not an easy task years ago) or went to the shelter for a pet. Not so any more!

Between the Internet, slick salesmen and people’s increasing willingness to hawk anything for a buck, you rarely have to spend more than 15 minutes looking for whatever purebreed or mix you want. And many of those selling those dogs would deny with their dying breath that they are puppy millers or that puppy mills even exist.

Sigh.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to go looking for the physical publication, but I am willing to take the word of the Chicago Dog Training Examiner on the Examiner.com when she writes “according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a “Puppy Mill” is defined as “a commercial farming operation in which purebred dogs are raised in large numbers” – a definition with which I agree (even if the dictionary weren’t referenced!).

I wish that I could believe that all state and federal inspectors had the best interests of the dogs at heart, but I have seen some of them who just want to be pals with everybody, including the “commercial kennel” operators whose mantra seems to be out of sight (even if not out of hearing range), out of mind. I’ve been to auctions attended by those federal and state inspectors where outdated medications and vaccinations were sold off along with other equipment and where lack of teeth, eyes, or limbs were seen as no obstacle (and perhaps even a plus) to the dog doing its job of making lots more dogs.

Heck, one of the reasons all those ‘other’ registries got started was so that dogs could be sold with papers without having to go through all of the inconvenience of providing a paper (and occasionally DNA) trail to the AKC.

I have seen cages stacked on top of each other, sick dogs sold, dogs that have been injected to mask symptoms until well after the sale was completed. I’ve seen people with a lot of dogs whose dogs are well cared for – those are people who breed ONLY when they have enough background on their dogs’ pedigrees and health histories and when they honestly believe that they can produce dogs that will be better than the current generation.

I’ve seen backyard breeders who realize their dog was coming into heat who call out for a male of the same breed, background be damned, they just don’t want to miss the opportunity for a few extra bucks.

Companion animals should be just that – companions. Not profit centers. Not machinery to produce goods for sale.

Our dogs give us their trust, their devotion, their protection, their companionship.

Can’t we give them the dignity and care they deserve, by treating them as living beings rather than a crop?

What a shame

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So it was well past time to clean up the in box, so I ran quickly through a lot of news alerts and saw a rather interesting phenomenon.

Those who don’t like the animal protection laws (basic welfare, folks, we’re not talking about treating dogs like people) either scream that the existing laws shoulda just been enforced or they try the old, tired argument that there aren’t enough laws to protect children so why are we worrying about animals.

Well, guess what! We can protect both! What a concept!

There is no need whatsoever for anyone to keep several hundred dogs, breed the females every cycle and ship the puppies to pet stores or across the country through internet sales. Someone with several hundred dogs is unlikely to be keeping up with the latest regarding the health issues for their breed(s) and probably won’t endanger their profit margin by actually conducting health testing and breeding only the best of their dogs.

Gee, it would cost more to make (and keep) healthy puppies! Yeah, and it would cost the consumer LESS in the long run to buy healthy puppies – dogs without dysplasia, allergies, heart murmers, PRA, kidney problems, breathing difficulties – the list goes on and on, and I haven’t even mentioned the costs of treating dogs for cancer.

Just think, if a commercial kennel (oh, sorry, they like to call themselves “professional breeders.” Thanks, but I’d rather get my dogs from someone who breeds to create the best possible, and healthiest, examples of the breed because they are breeding for the love of the dogs rather than the love of the money. Look up the root of the word ‘amateur.’) spent an extra $200 for some simple health tests on a breeding female, and  was able to get three litters of six from her, that extra cost was just over $10 per puppy.  But I guess that would be too much to ask of someone asking hundreds of dollars for each pup.

Lord knows the commercial kennels don’t want to share the costs of the inspections that need to be done, but it seems only fair. Heck, states and municipalities could consider assessing a fee for each puppy sold or brokered to help fund the local shelters. They’re helping create the mess, they can help clean it up.

Then we get to that argument about the children. Yes, there are children living in conditions that are deplorable. They should be helped. They should be safe and cared for and educated. Child welfare laws are a wholly separate issue from animal welfare laws, unless, of course, you’re breeding for profit.

But the so-called self-anointed ‘professionals’ would decide that the lawmakers were trampling on their property rights again. With the animals or with the children. A living being is not the same thing as a refrigerator. Special care and consideration is due to those entrusted to us.

Dominion is not strictly ownership – is it also benevolent *care.* But there you go again – that care might cost a few extra bucks per dog.

What a shame.

Expectations of shelters

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I’ve seen a lot of grousing about local animal shelters the past year or so, and it’s getting on my nerves. Mostly because most of the grousing comes from the people most resistant to actually funding the shelters at a manageable level and/or making use of user fees to help with that funding.

First, let’s define what the shelters are there for – to provide a safe holding space for stray animals and/or sick or vicious animals until such time as either they can be returned home, found a new home, made healthy, or humanely euthanized. Shelters are in place to protect the public health and safety.

They are NOT intended as a convenient place to dump a pet you really should have thought about more *before* you got it. They are not intended as the place you go to get your pet treated for free, or, failing that, turning over the responsibility you should never have had in the first place.

So where do all of these stray or unwanted animals come from?

Some of them have simply wandered from a loving home when someone left a door or gate unlatched. Some got bored and wandered away, in spite of the owner being convinced that their dog would *never* leave the yard. Some of them may have spotted a deer or a rabbit or squirrel, gave chase and got lost. For those, the shelter can be a single place for owners to hopefully find their healthy pet instead of having to search the whole county. Presumably, the shelter will provide some education regarding responsible stewardship (and good fences) when the owner happily reunites with the animal.

Ah, but then there are the rest of the animals. The ones who are dumped for so many sad reasons.

I can’t housebreak him.

I didn’t know he would get so big.

She just won’t get along with the rest of the dogs.

She can’t tolerate the toddlers grabbing her ears and she nipped at one of them.

She keeps chasing my livestock.

I can’t afford the vaccinations.

I didn’t know they shed so much.

They keep bringing mud in the house.

They bark at everyone walking by.

He hates my boyfriend.

I refuse to pay for a $5 license, take the dog.

She just won’t obey me.

He keeps chewing the furniture.

She doesn’t go with the decor.

The claws are scratching the floor.

My new apartment won’t take pets.

She’s getting big and I don’t know whether she’s fat or pregnant.

I thought I would get over my alergies if I got a dog.

Well, you get the idea.

Some would say that those weren’t homeless pets. They might have been better off if they had been.

To expect shelters to clean up after our idiocy while operating on a shoestring is ridiculous. And people wonder why animal control officers and shelter workers get cynical or burn out.

I haven’t even mentioned the breeders (so-to-speak) who sold or wholesaled those animals in the first place with little concern for whether they were going to good homes – as long as the check cleared. Where is their responsibility to the shelters?

I doubt that I’m changing any minds here, but it does help to vent. At least I know I can stop by my local shelter, drop off some supplies or some cash, and know that it is clean, well-managed, and even many of the local breeders recognize that they have an obligation to fund the place. And to help find homes for the dogs who have been abandoned for what is really no good reason other than an irresponsible seller and an irresponsible buyer.

Please, please, support your local shelter. If you don’t like the way it looks, help paint some weekend, or fix walls, or buy some light bulbs or some bleach. If you’re supposed to be licensing your dogs, do it. The shelter often depends on licensing fees for its operating fund.

Instead of griping what a horrible place it is, give an hour or two a month and help make it a better place. Help socialize shy dogs, bathe them or feed them or walk them. Whether you like the dog catcher or not, maybe you can at least come to understand each other better.

This isn’t a perfect world and shelters are not an ideal place for any animal to end up. Often they are scared, confused, abandoned, sometimes even injured. A shelter can be a waystation, a bridge between abandonment and home. Help make that shelter a good place rather than a place you just keep kicking while you keep it from being properly funded.

Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?

Buying a dog…

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So, you want to get a dog. Great!

But before you shop online and submit your credit card information, let me ask you this:

Where do your puppy’s parents live? Inside a home, where they are loved and cared for and groomed and trained? Or outside in a kennel, with food tossed in once or twice a day, whatever water can be hosed in or collects from the rain, with little human contact unless someone is dragging them to a different cage?

Are your puppy’s parents tested for the health issues common to the breed? Does the breed have heart problems, dysplasia, eye issues, skin problems, kidney diseases, bleeding factors? Is there documentation easily available for you to see on your own and compare with other dogs in the breed? Or are you supposed to take the seller’s word that “Oh, my lines don’t have any of that kind of problem”? Or “These are from European lines and they’re much healthier than these inbred American show dogs.”

Sigh.

Puppies bought over the Internet are almost always the “product” of commercial kennels – otherwise known as ‘high-volume breeders” or – yes – puppy mills. They are manufacturing puppies with the purpose of the highest possible profit, with the puppies’ parents as the machinery or the raw materials.

Even if you are lucky and *your* puppy is healthy and long-lived and temperamentally sound, consider that puppy’s mother and father. Where are they? What conditions are they living in? Buying that puppy online or from a pet store just tells the puppy miller (excuse me – ‘professional’ kennel — they would have us believe that selling dogs for a profit successfully makes them professionals) that he or she was right to breed those dogs and that doing it again (and again and again and again and again) will be a boost to the old profit margin.

If your puppy has problems — major, minor, fatal — what does the breeder expect to do? Will they be there to offer advice and support for the life of that dog? Or does their relationship with you and your dog end as soon as your credit is approved? What happens if you find a few years down the road that your dog has a late-onset genetic disease? Will you be able to contact the breeder to share the information, will you know where your dog’s littermates and siblings are so that you might be able to share notes with their owners and figure out what treatments work best for the dogs? Will you be able to share moments of joy, training tips, anxiety, and even grief with the owners of your dog’s siblings?

When you get a dog, you should be developing a relationship with a number of breeders and other people involved in the breed you want. You will need support, advice, someone to share pictures and accomplishments and worries with. Your relationship with the breeder of your dog is one that should last before, during, and after the life of your dog. The breeder (or even the shelter manager, if you’re getting a pound puppy) should understand your lifestyle, what you *say* you want and what will be a temperament that will work with your household.

They’ll *want* to know a few weeks and a few months down the road how things are working out, whether you have any questions, how they can help. You have a dog they helped bring into this world, that makes you very important to them. Much more important that the size of your wallet.

We are a society enamored of instant gratification. That may be fine for buying books or dresses or toasters. It’s not okay when you are making a commitment to another living being for as long as that life shall last.

So when you see that picture on the web advertising healthy, happy puppies in this rare breed or that one, ask yourself why all the puppies weren’t already spoken for before they were born? When/if you contact the seller, see whether they can give you a coherent explanation of *why* they bred that pair of dogs, what health testing was done, what their health guarantee is, what their availability will be if you have questions in a month or a year…

*IF* they don’t hang up on you/ignore your e-mail, and are willing to talk to you about why they breed and what activities they participate in with their dogs and what their commitment is to those puppies and to you, be ready for a lot of questions about what kind of you you have and will provide to their pup, and other questions to determine what YOUR commitment to the dog will be. Be glad that they do.

You might even have found an ethical breeder.

Check with the kennel club, the regional breed club, see whether there are Yahoo groups related to the breed where you can learn more about the dogs and the people. Find the breed clubs breeder referral list or breed stewards and see whether they know this breeder and whether they can recommend them.

Okay, this is not a process in which you can decide today that you want a puppy and go pick it up tomorrow. Get over the frustration and impatience. This is a living being, a companion who will be sharing your home for the next decade and a half, god willing. So you be willing to put in the time, effort and patience to find a breeder you can live with for the same amount of time.

A breeder who breeds for health and temperament and type. For the love of the dogs and the breed. From the Latin root, an amateur.

“Professional” breeders be damned. A puppy mill by any other name is still a puppy mill, and I have yet to meet an ethical breeder who sells through pet stores.