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.”

I couldn’t, I will

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I couldn’t call you to dinner tonight

Nor take the time to lovingly prepare your food

I have no need for turkey necks or sweet potatoes or summer squash

Your brush lies idle, I cannot use it on the other dogs

There is no silken fur that compares with yours

I could not lie on the floor with you

Playing pattycake or just quietly sharing a moment of calm

I could not take delight in watching you run

Nor smile at your expressions as you watched the other dogs getting all worked up about something or other

Your special chair is not a spot for the others to rest

I have put some papers there, and computer bag

It isn’t a place that can be taken

I could not take time before sleep to hug you,

To tell you how much I love you,

To tell you how big a place you will always have in my heart

The little things we shared are bittersweet

I still hear you, see you, talk to you

But I don’t know whether you hear

You stayed so faithfully by my side

Not long enough, though I am grateful for every moment

I will always love you

I will always remember you with joy

I will always remember the feel of your lovely head

Your warmth and trust, your stubborness and your strength

Your special grace and beauty

A year does not ease my sorrow

Any more than it could lessen my adoration

It only helps me realize that much more how remarkable you were.

Tonight I still miss you.

Tonight I still wish you were here.

God speed, sweet girl.

I will see you again someday at the Bridge.

Thanksgiving – a hard year, and yet…

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This is going to be a very odd Thanksgiving.

A year ago my sweet Sophia was diagnosed with cancer and I lost her less than three weeks later.

In July we moved our parents into an assisted living facility near two of my sisters and both Mom and Dad promptly ended up in the emergency room. The move meant leaving the house where they had lived almost 60 years, the only home I had ever known until I left for college.

Though both parents bounced back from the stresses of moving, in October Dad died, and I’m not sure that I have really gotten through even the first few steps of grieving.

In March I welcomed Hagar into my home. He’s settling in, finally, still a goofball, still a challenge at times, but a sweet, silly Berner boy.

And I remain thankful, even in the midst of grief and stresses and a complete lack of time and organizational fortitude, for how incredibly lucky I have been.

I got to spend more than 57 years with the support and love of two of the best parents anyone could hope for. They have challenged me, helped me, guided me and given me a foundation in life that I have been privileged to pass on to my own children.

I have three of the most remarkable sisters on the planet. We often disagree about the little stuff, but we all understand the importance of family and being constructive and being there for each other. I don’t think any of us could have gotten through the difficulties of this past year without each other.

I have sons of whom I am unapologetically proud. They forgave my mistakes in childrearing and embraced the lessons passed on through me from my parents, and have become thoughtful, considerate, wonderful young men. I’m not sure exactly what I did right, but I’m so glad I did.

And then there was Sophia.

As I approach the anniversary of her death, I feel her loss more strongly than ever. She was my beautiful silk scarf, a little exotic, a little fragile, definitely exquisite in her grace and joy in life. We had a bond that was born of struggle, as we worked through her pain aggression, her food allergies, her hip and elbow dysplasia and finally her cancer.

She taught me patience, determination, forgiveness, and faith. She approached each day, even when I knew she was in pain, with such courage and strength that I was in awe. She knew how to stretch the envelope – whether helping convince my vet that a raw diet was not some sort of fringe cult behavior, or helping me learn about canine health, positive reinforcement, and not leaving eyeglasses or Pringles cans or First Editions of books out where a curious puppy could get to them. After all, exploration is the the start of knowledge!

Even with four other dogs in the house when I lost her, and then the addition of Hagar, I miss her more than I can begin to say. As a friend wrote when she lost her own Berner, as much as she appreciated how lucky she was and as much as she appreciated the outpouring of sympathy and support, she just wanted her girl back. I still wish I could give her one more, ten more, 100 more hugs, hand her a few more turkey necks, cajole her a few more times to come back inside so we could go to bed.

But she isn’t coming back. And it hurts.

I still feel so lucky to have shared almost eight years with her. I know that few people have the kind of relationship with their dog that I had with her. I still see her, hear her, sense her presence in times of both quiet and chaos. I know that she, like my parents, my sisters, my kids, will always be a part of me, a part of who I am and what I do, and for all of them, I give thanks.

Thank you for being here, for sharing so much with me, for helping me be a better person. Were it not for the love, there would be no grief.

 

Put rescues out of business?

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Every rescuer I know would much rather have the luxury of just taking care of their own animals without having to rescue, vet, rehab, retrain someone else’s animals.

So, how? What can we do to help keep dogs and cats and other animals safe, healthy, and in homes?

How do we educate the public on how to train and maintain their own animals, and how to keep them if they have to move, if they lose their job, get a divorce, etc. etc?

Please, leave comments with your ideas. Somewhere between 2 and 4 million dogs and cats are killed by shelters each year, perhaps not all of those animals can be rehomed, but shelters should be a place of last resort anyway. There have to be other options!

Education? Regulation? Incentives?

Be creative! Be realistic! Be cynical, if you must, but offer some sort of solution. After all, if you’re not 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.

Neutered

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Well, it’s done. Hagar’s encroaching doghood has been nipped in the, well, bud.

As a rescue, there was never any question that he would be neutered. It’s in the contract and I take that agreement seriously. I also take the health of the breed seriously and with no background information for him or his sire or dam or siblings or grand-sire and -dam, etc, etc, even if Hagar were gorgeous and typey and a well-behaved agile herder and drafter, it would still be wrong.

I cannot imagine life without Berners. But not at the expense of a healthy breed. I would rather do without Bernese of my own than see their already precarious health tipped over the edge just to ‘meet consumer demand.’

And that’s probably the biggest difference between those who can ‘justify’ so-called Professional Kennels (commercial kennels sounds soooo crass, doesn’t it, yet that’s really what they are, or, not to put too fine a point on it, puppy mills) and people like me who actually care about the “product” of those kennels.

“Oooh, that one’s damaged? Sorry, we’ll make some more.”

should have been

“A genetic problem? Let’s see whether the same issue is showing up in related litters or anywhere else on the family tree. If we find it, we will remove the parents and siblings from our breeding program right away!”

No dog is going to be perfect, but the honest, ethical breeders I know go through a lot of work and a lot of heartache trying to find the best combinations of breeding lines to try to IMPROVE the overall health of the breed. The status quo really isn’t good enough, not when the life expectancy of the breed is still less than 8 years.

So as a rescue, who had to be neutered as a condition of adoption, and an unknown quantity in terms of the genetics behind him, today he lost his marbles.

With luck, since he will be playing at least one fewer party game, maybe the brain fairy will find him *before* he’s two years old.

I can dream, can’t I?

The little things

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Watching a puppy so happy and excited he can barely stay in his own skin

Feeling warm sun and a breeze on your face after a storm

The scent of honeysuckle wafting through the yard, mixed with new-mown hay and clover

The feeling of hitting a tennis ball exactly on the sweet spot of the racket

Hearing the birds greet the morning before the sun is visible

Feeling the presence of those animals I have lost over the years – seeing their shadows settle on my feet, only making way for one of the living dogs

The soft silky fur or a Berner – so unlike any other tactile experience, exuding peace and joy and unconditional love.

We call them the little things in life, but these are some of the things that make the difference between an ordinary existence and a life of joy.

My parents taught me to appreciate the little things. My sons gave me a chance to pass that wisdom to another generation. My dogs make sure I never let go of that wisdom.

This moment, right now, is all we have. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may happen as we expect it to but then again maybe not. Though we can plan for it, it will be gone again before we know it, and if we forget to pay attention, if we are so focused on other times, other places, other plans, we lose this moment and we can never reclaim it.

I would rather live with joy than exist with lots of plans.

A plan can’t turn the evening landscape into a performance of lightening bugs. A plan can’t appreciate the sweet crunch of a fresh-picked apple. We can do things now that might make those things possible later, as long as we don’t forget to enjoy the digging and planting and watering and watching the blossoms and the buds and the ever-ripening fruit.

Just as there is joy in watching a dog learn to play, learn to work, learn to trust, so there is joy in sometimes just letting those moments happen, without forcing or coaxing or pushing them, just laying some groundwork and trusting yourself and your dog.

The colors of the sunset today will be different from the colors yesterday or tomorrow. Absolutely lovely.