Through the looking glass – Beauty without vanity

The Westminster Dog Show. Every year I sit in breathless anticipation watching the humans, dressed in everything from formal evening wear and tuxedos to ill fitting skirts and pant suits, try to pace their breed of choice in a stunning display of flowing fur and manicured nails, gracefully around the ring. Each contestant has been bathed, brushed, trimmed, styled, trimmed some more and prepared with the most adept trainer/handlers available to those particular owners to flaunt their respective stuff in, arguably, the most prestigious show in the dog world. Lacking only in having to answer questions about world hunger, the pageant showcases their beauty, agility, intelligence and grace. The dogs, not the humans. The humans tend to bely the traits of their canine companions which saddens me. I appreciate my father’s philosophy: The more people I meet, the more I like my dog.

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I’m always interested in the new breed designations. The commentator, who could easily double for a boxing commentator, announces the new kids on the block as they present. ‘And in this corner, the first time ever at Westminster, we have the Schnickerdoodle! A stout breed hailing from the Mastiff and the ever popular Hairless Chinese Crested….’. My husband quips, “I thought this was a dog show.” I shake my head. Tragic. I used to be able to recognize breeds. Now, there’s no end to the amount of cross bred weirdness. I have determined, however, that you can trace most breeds eventually back to the Mastiffs. And, ironically, they look nothing like wolves!

So what defines a dog? Can it be bred to a point of no longer being canine? If it fits in a purse does it still qualify? I prefer dogs that can carry me, thanks. And can someone please explain to me the methodology behind the poodle? What possesses a rational mind to look at an animal and think ‘hmm, nice dog, but if we shave it here, here and here and then fluff up the remainder… ah yes. Now that is a good looking dog!’? But then I never really understood the ‘lopsided’ haircut on women either so maybe it’s my fashion sense that’s lacking. One thing is certain, each brand new pup that is, often, unceremoniously propelled into an often cruel and unusual world, is born with an undying sense of loyalty, faith and love. And often, despite a human’s best efforts, these traits remain in tact.

My formative years were spent with dogs that didn’t require explanation. Setters, Labs, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels and various mixed breeds that didn’t require clothing to survive in cooler climates. In my adult years I have maintained the theme of the ‘real’ dog with Huskies, Newfoundlands and Pyrenees Mountain dogs. We have often used the guideline that a dog has to be above the knee to qualify. Not to brag, but ours reach my hip. I have discovered, however, that their bravery is not directionally proportionate to their size. Farley is about 180 lbs and he once almost had a heart attack in our vehicle when he stepped on a bag of chips causing it to explode. What they lack in bravery, they more than make up for with devotion and love.

Given my devout love for dogs it was only a matter of time before I turned my interests to breeding. My very first venture was a beautiful Golden Retriever named Meg. She had a small stature and her temperament was typical Golden. She was lovely. Over coffee one afternoon we discovered that friends also had a Golden. A gorgeous male named Sam. Conspiracy followed and at the first sign of Meg’s heat we surreptitiously lured her into the vehicle and drove her to our friends home. Sam was about to be a happy boy. Meg, not so much. With teeth bared and rear end glued to the ground it was looking ominous for Sam. Almost to the point that I feared for his safety. Just when we were about to call ‘check please’ it seemed Meg had a change of heart. Before we realized the shift had happened, they were locked. Enter awkward silence as we all stood staring in disbelief. I mean, we had hoped for this moment, but I thought there might at least be some foreplay! That particular union proved unsuccessful, but now older and wiser, we felt confident that we could make this happen.

Farley was our first attempt. After a year we brought him back to the breeder to see if they thought he would make a good stud. This was our first professional breeding. We were determined to do it right. They sized him up , commenting to each other about how well he’s developed, quipping breeder talk like “he’s got a great ass” and “really strong front end.” Dion and I exchanged shrugs but assumed it was good! I’ve never really sized up a dog’s ‘ass’! Given their excitement over Farley they offered to help us get him stud ready, which apparently required a little more than a bottle of wine and some cologne. They had the perfect bitch in mind. She was the great granddaughter of Farley’s maternal aunt. Now, you may be doing the math and coming up with a union that’s only legal in certain states, but apparently in the dog world, close is ok! And really, Farley and this female were only second cousins once removed. Hardly related at all! Yeah, I had to draw that on paper!

I drove to Calgary to see a Veterinary Cardiologist and Ophthalmologist as part of the requirements to clear Farley for breeding. Apparently we’re more selective in breeding animals than we are humans. We will also show our animals mercy in death while humans are forced to suffer long, drawn out, however painful deaths without reprieve. Ever think we got it all backwards? Receiving the clearance forms from the vets I sent them, along with the appropriate registration fees, to some organization in the states and waited anxiously to start pimping him out! Well, at $2000 for stud fees, I guess it’s more of an escort service! I wonder how I’d look in a long purple velvet trench coat?

Hoping to solidify my station in the dog breeding world and to further the ever constant endeavor to give my dogs better than my children, I then decided to feed them a ‘raw’ diet. Now, in the world of dog aficionados, this is a highly respected practice and really, the only way to go. In my world, it’s gross. But, the dogs seemed to like it and Farley and Zoe abandoned their adventures through the bush in search of rotting cows. Equally gross but much more stressing when they would disappear minutes prior to a pet therapy session at the local elementary school. Every morning I would send the kids off to school and prepare to commence a production of epic proportions. Chopping raw chicken, blending vegetables together with honey or molasses, adding fruit and numerous supplements, weighing everything as I went, while the five dogs made no effort to contain their excitement. By the time I handed each fluffy, slobbering ball of anticipation their dish, the kitchen looked like a cross between a compost heap and a slaughter house. Making two meals a day took me about an hour. The cleanup took me two. It got old fast. After a month I decided my health and sanity far outweighed the dogs’. Back to dry dog food. We did buy the most expensive and recommended brand we could find but it’s still kind of like sending your kid to a community college instead of University.

A few weeks later we got the letters back from the various certifying organizations regarding Farley’s eyes, heart, bones and joints. Everything cleared except his elbows. Elbows? They check elbows? Apparently Farley had elbow dysplasia in his left leg. This devastating news precluded him from breeding. I think he understood the rejection. He gained about fifteen pounds. After he was neutered. And, I know chocolate is really bad for dogs, but clearly no one ever told Farley. He ate an entire box.

We’re still working on breaking in to the breeding world. Nana is in the process of clearances and we should be able to breed her by spring. I suspect my biggest problem will be parting with the puppies! Dion has put his foot down to more dogs, although I think with enough coaxing I can move his foot. In the meantime, we love them and cuddle them and keep them safe from intruders. Honestly, Farley hid in my curtains a few days ago! The breeding failure seems to have had a profound effect on him! At any rate, I will not shave them into geometric shapes, blanket them in protective clothing, or breed them with Chihuahua’s. I promise. And in my entire life I can only endeavor to love them half as much as they do me. The best representation of the profound impact of the relationship between man and dog is a quote I love, written by Lord Byron about his beloved Newfoundland Landseer, Boatswain:

“Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man, without his vices. This praise, which would be unmeaning flattery if inscribed over human ashes is but a just tribute to the memory of Boatswain, a Dog.”

Jennifer Barry is a writer for The Spectator Tribune

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