Thursday, August 22, 2013

Surface Tensions

Once you get right in there, you're gonna find the dirt.

Surfaces can be sterile or colonized in abundant life. Porous or inpenetrable. Transparent or opaque. Flat or polished to a reflective gloss. Rough or slick. Thing about all of them is that there is stuff underneath, behind, within. If what you are interested in is the whole thing -- is that ring gold or electroplate, does that lawn cover bedrock or landfill, what horrors lie beyond the dread drop ceiling? -- you'd best take out a proverbial pocketknife and do some digging.

A colleague in dogs sends me a venting rant about a local (to her) puppy producer.

By the checklist, on the surface, they would seem to be the kind of breeders that I'd send a buyer to. Parents seem to have the breed-appropriate working titles and health checks. A lot of thought and expertise and expense obviously went into designing the puppy-raising facility. The kennel employs a young woman to care for the pups.

All that thought and expertise is engineered towards the end of producing marketable puppies in the most uniform and efficient, lowest-risk, touch-free, labor-saving manner.

Do they cut corners on feed and vaccines and bleach? Apparently not.

Are they religious about rubber boots and foot baths and non-porous surfaces, and perhaps airlocks and hermetically-sealed bubbles?  Apparently so.

Do they have the AKC's Good Dogbreeding Seal of Approval, achieved by, among other things, promising to make their buyers register all the puppeez? They do.

Do they think that if some vaccination is good, then asstons of vaccination is best of all? Ayuh. Best and most current scientifical vaccination protocols that 1975 has to offer.

Are the puppies they sell aware that human beings have legs? This is unclear.

Unlike the agribusiness-compliant plastic whelping boxes under the red heatlamps, there are a lot of nooks and crannies just below the surface where nasty things can lurk with a puppy-producer.

After a minute or so of bopping around the efficient, non-porous website, something seemed eerily familiar here, something about the attitude towards the dogs, their puppies, and the people to whom they sell them.

Oh. Right.

Yep, our old friends the puppy-rafflers. The Jesus will sort them out approach to buyer screening. What's one $1600 puppy to an outfit that has to be grossing around $170K in puppy sales alone? Great advertising and PR for the price, that's what it is. If you are producing @100 puppies a year, you gotta keep 'em moving.

We produce somewhat fewer puppies of a very different sort, but also prioritize keeping them moving.

At 2 1/2 weeks, the Jolly Crew has crawled on towels, fleece blankets, carpet remnant, an old sleeping bag, the canvas cover of the futon dog bed, the flannel duvet cover on the big bed, and most recently grass, and dirt. They've climbed each other, their mother, human legs, laps, chests, rolled up flannel obstacles in their nest, the pillows meant to barricade them onto the big bed, grass tussocks, and the daunting slope in the front yard. Pretty soon they are going to start climbing their containment system, and then the games begin.

The one surface type they have not experienced has been a slick, non-porous one. Easily-sanitized loses out to good traction. Puppy joints are forming, and they should not be formed as the puppy splays out scrabbling for a grip on a plastic substrate as newspaper scraps fly by. When a pup has gained the strength and will to stand, she should fight only gravity, not a omnipresent banana peel of a floor. They can learn to negotiate these when they've got their sea legs. The other surface type that they have not and never will experience is the efficient wire kind where pee just magically disappears and puppy craps get extruded through like Play-Doh in a Fun Factory. Theoretically.

Because they are puppies, not broiler chicks.  (Also, my broiler chicks aren't raised on wire either. They are out scratching around in a stall that I didn't even sanitize before moving them in.)

Now, I understand the reason that CAFOs and puppy mass-production facilities go with the jet-cleaning and foot-baths, the chronic antibiotic use and the inoculation schedule that makes Jenny McCarthy sound like Jonas Salk. Their goal is to get as many animals as possible through an unnaturally crowded system alive in a matter of weeks or months.

If the eight-month-old pig is alive when he steps onto the truck and the six-week-old puppy has not croaked of parvo when his new owner forks over eighteen benjamins and plucks him off the grating, win! The state of the former's feet or the latter's immune system is of no concern. One is meant to be bacon, and the other -- checks clear very fast these days.

It helps if one offers a "health guarantee" that is not only half the duration required under the California Puppy Lemon Law for initial disease and defect, but includes what the black wit of Carol Gravestock has dubbed the "dead dog clause" for the breed's enzootic genetic defects, which also must, per the contract, be diagnosed prior to the normal age of evaluation, oops Catch-22, customer loses.* Enjoy that blind dysplastic dog.

And you control the calendar. The longer those critters hang around, the more opportunities they have to croak. Get the super-fast broiler chickens that are ready to butcher at seven weeks; if they are puppies, charge your buyers a steep storage fee if they don't show up with the money in their teeth and a cat carrier in their hand when the puppy is six weeks old.** Don't worry about tiny details like socialization and canine developmental stages -- I've always told people that if a puppy is in a bad situation, it can be better to get him out of there rather than leave him to languish for another several weeks for the sake of time with Mother and littermates.† And in any event, Mother was demoted to twice-daily milk bar cameos weeks ago, so it's not as if she's doing any, you know, mothering. Temperament testing or other measures are moot anyway. The trainer says so:

Picking an individual pup from the litter is the least important part of the whole purchase process. There has been much written on extensive, complicated testing procedures to determine the "pick of the litter"! I personally haven't found a puppy's reactions and behavior at six or seven weeks of age, to be of much significance in predicting future behavior.

I have even had people ask me to teach them how to pick the best pup out of a litter. The truth is, I haven't figured out a reliable way to do it, and probably never will! I once kept a bitch pup for myself because a bird feather drifted by her kennel gate and she barked and carried on to get it. I sold her litter mate, who slept through all her carrying on. The bitch was completely untrainable and her docile litter mate turned out to be a Field Champion. I get many letters telling me how well the last pick puppy turned out.

So just pick the one you like after the guys who paid a deposit first pick theirs and its all the same. It's probably God's duty to sort the pups out, too.

But wait, we digress. This is about dirt. The stuff of which my Granny said every kid needed to eat a peck. We didn't all have asthma back then, and peanuts didn't kill us on sight.

Now you want to avoid filth at all costs. Filth is the wages of crowding, it comes from not cleaning, it accumulates as shit mashes into the little squares on the wire floor, as diarrhea runs down the leg of a steer who is standing hock-deep in more of the same, eating corn instead of grass while his liver dies, as parasites and smaller cooties hop and crawl and aerosolize from host to stressed-out host and find puny immune systems cowering in the corner with their eyes closed.

In order to prevent filth when you are okay with porosity, or dogforbid making use of dirt, you have to be vigilant about cleaning and changing surfaces (though whelping boxes do not, contrary to the video, require much if any cleaning for at least three weeks after changing the actual whelping bedding). You have to be involved. And you have to provide space -- enough physical space for all the critters, mental and social space, temporal space between batches of babies.

Physical space -- with, guess what, variation in the surfaces -- allows the noobs to learn to poop over there, play and sleep over here. It's the best barrier to pathogens and parasites. Or, if they are chickens, just keeps the poop spread out enough so it isn't a problem.

Mental and social crowding stress a Momma or a baby out. Everybody needs a little mental health break, the ability to get away from anyone who is bullying or irritating you, the freedom to move around and get jiggy, or to choose not to, the opportunity to not interact. Another aspect of social crowding is stability; if your pack is stable and there are roles that all understand within it, then it's not up in your grill demanding your psychic energy to sort things out.

One of the things that broke my heart at the start of Operation New Beginnings was the chain-link runs where the Momma dogs were housed. They were housed there because it was the only place that could be heated, and it was January in Montana. But each mother was constantly and keenly aware of the dam on her left and the dam on her right and the dam who was pitching a fit three runs down. Fishbowl.

Time between litters not only allows the puppy play-yard to defunk, if necessary, but it is a refractory phase for the humans involved, during which they can ask themselves how that went, whether that breeding was a good idea, how are the puppies turning out as they grow in their new homes, how will we do things differently or the same next time?

It lets you dig down under the surface, past the facade of an always flawlessly cute fat puppy, a perhaps deceptively shiny puppy, and sift out what holds it up.


* Here's how the Dead Dog Clause in a "health guarantee" works.

In order to get a refund or, better yet, a "replacement pup" you either prove that you killed the defective one yourself or give him back to the breeder, who has made it clear with option A that she is going to kill him upon receipt. Otherwise, no refund.

Your beloved pet/working partner, who you have raised for the past year or two, and who is now hurting. Not hurting enough that life is not worth living, but he needs help, he needs the vet, he needs you.

Are you a sociopath?

See how that works?

** How's that go, exactly? How is that legal? My guess is that there's one o' them flexible-type vets on retainer who signs the form for every puppy, every time, on their six-week birthdays. California, you cannot be trusted to write sensible animal welfare laws. You screw it up every time. Just. Stop.

† I do not, however, advocate paying ransom for the privilege of rescuing a puppy from the shitty socialization regimen of his own breeder. You are just encouraging them, dammit.


  1. Love the dead dog clause. About 9 or 10 years ago my daughter had been researching bloodhounds for a while. One breeder had a litter that my daughter was very excited about. I corresponded with the breeder, got all the “right” answers, (except for some quick softshoe about why there were no hip scores on the OFA website for the dam) but for some reason she kept “forgetting” to send me a contract. Lots of pictures, lots of marketing. My 15 year old daughter was very!! excited!! about this puppy. I kept telling her I was not committing to anything without seeing the contract. I was told I had to put down a non-refundable deposit to reserve a puppy. I told her I needed to see the contract first. When I got the contract it had the dead dog clause in it. I told my daughter we were not getting the puppy. She didn’t understand at first because we had never dealt with anyone who had that clause – she didn’t even know it existed. I told her that clause specifically was why I kept insisting on seeing the contract. We later got a great bloodhound from a great breeder – who stands by her dogs for life. The first litter of puppies did a lot of winning in the conformation rings, but I don’t believe I have ever seen any of them at a trailing trial. Chili, on the other hand, is amazingly talented where it counts.

  2. Heather, you are spot-on as always. I know you are enjoying the puppies, and whoever they end up with will be forever grateful for the wonderful foundation that you have provided.

    Mary O'Connell

  3. As Mary O'Connell pointed out > SPOT on.

    IMO, ANYone producing more than 2 litters a year is suspect. Anything over that and we are waltzing into puppy mill land.

    Just because you title dogs does NOTNOTNOT give you a pass on the whole production thingee. The more puppies you make, the less able you are to INDIVIDUALLY intersect with each of those living beings, AND -- more importantly... the more likely they are to become mere numbers. I remembers in the wayfarback how puppy millers would buy finished champeens to breed to their puppy mill moms in order to advertise **champion lines**. . .

    As has been famously pointed out, you can put lipstick on a pig...

    1. Sometimes you can skip the middleman and just buy the champion's registration papers. No need for the dog hisself to be, you know, *alive.*

      Especially handy with the little fluffies where breed is rather ... fluid.

  4. Getting a Lab puppy (any pup really) at six weeks?!? Good luck teaching it bite inhibition as well as all the other doggy manners they learn from littermates. I don't understand how anyone can bear to let pups go that young. But then I don't understand how anyone can think of a puppy as a product either.

  5. They lose me when they deem a dog "untrainable." I've never met this mythical type of dog.


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