Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Drunken Pigs

The pigs went on their first and last trailer ride yesterday.

Loading pigs into a trailer is a famously difficult, dangerous, shit-spattered, squealing ball of stress. Accomplishing this when the pigs roam a half-acre of lightly-fenced pasture generally involves three or more people with sorting boards and electric prods and one or more dogs with teeth. And lots of time. And, apparently traditionally, yelling. Also, it seems to be a prime opportunity for equipment suppliers to sell lots of special fencing and gates and chutes for many thousands of dollars.

Why would an animal walk peacefully into an obvious trap? Especially when being screamed at?

The butcher's schedule this time of year is non-negotiable, and meant that I would be loading the pigs by myself in mid-afternoon.

Our "stock trailer" is just our flatbed utility trailer topped by a repurposed city bicycle locker I bought at Construction Junction and mounted on wooden skids. Two hogs just fit in there. This is good for the actual transport -- they are safer and calmer if they can't thrash around -- but makes it trickier to get them in there.

I took advice from three sources and made it happen.

At the 2013 Mother Earth News Fair, Perfesser Chaos and I sat in on a short class on pasturing pigs, and took away several priceless nuggets of advice from the experienced farmers who taught it.

One tip was to feed the pigs on the stock trailer.

Just roll it into the pasture a few weeks before butcher date, and start feeding them in there.

The instructors also started their little piglets on pasture by first housing them in the same trailer for a couple weeks. That wasn't an option for us, but I was pretty sure we could cut that corner.

We trialled this concept with the meat chickens. Rather than waiting for full dark to round up 50 or 100 birds that would have to be stuffed squawking into the trailer, I now feed them on the trailer for their last week or so.  The evening before butcher day, 85%-90% of the birds load themselves; I close the gate when more are exiting than entering, and we wait until dark to scoop up the stragglers. The stragglers are typically the smallest, fastest, canniest chickens (in a flock of meat chickens, these are not very small, very fast, or very canny at all), but with only 5-10 birds to catch in their sleep, there is minimal work and no drama.

With two pigs, we need to be sure of 100% self-loading, and it needs to work the first time. Screw it up and make them scared, and we're back to a rodeo.

Our friend Janeen had told me about her friends getting pigs drunk on vodka so that they were in a stupor when the on-farm slaughter truck arrived.

We don't have any on-farm slaughter services here, and I didn't have any of the vodka in the plastic bottle that I'd be willing to donate to porcine self-anesthesia.

But I did have about eight cans of cheap undrinkable beer that had been sitting in the basement for several years, against the day I'd need to trap slugs.

I emptied the skunky cans into the bucket about 30' from the pigs' pasture; by the time I opened the third can, they had gotten wind of the treat and were screaming for it. I poured the beer into their trough, and by the time I'd set the bucket down and grabbed my phone for a photo, there was only froth left, and they were fighting over that.

I had to spend a few minutes futzing around securing the bike locker to the trailer (I didn't strap it down earlier because the pigs will chew the straps); by the time I was finished, they were enjoying a mutual stupor in the sunshine.  I had to wake them up with a hard nudge to the butt for phase three.

Kristin Kimball, who handles a much larger herd of free-ranging pigs, including huge sows and a breeding boar, told me "I wish I loved anything as much as pigs love mooshy apples."

So I saved some of the bruised and past-it apples from Cider House Farm Market special for this day.

Showed the drunken pigs the bucket of apples.

Tossed the apples into the trailer.

Waited while the hogs stumbled up the ramp.

Closed and secured the door.


When I got to the butchers after a 40-minute drive, they were snoozing quietly. A couple more mooshy apples and they contentedly stumbled off the trailer into the holding pen.

I don't have a special pig-loading white dress like the one sported by Caroline Owens, and I didn't have anyone to document the non-ordeal with video (Cole was my standby dog for both loading and unloading, but he has trouble holding the iPhone) but I did grab one of PC's retired white dress shirts, which I wore all day, and get the butcher to take a snap when all the loading was done.

 No yelling. No boards. No electric prods. One little dog and one pointy stick on standby, not employed. No squealing, balking, biting or fear.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

That Rug Really Does Not Tie the Room Together

We can haz traction?
There are three days left to help Lebowski out of his close second-place position in the quest to replace the abused floors in the Brandywine farmhouse.

Vote here for Lebowski!

The Dude got off to a commanding start in the voting, but late last week was passed by the sullen Australian shepherd who is pictured on a shiny new-looking floor.


Perhaps it's just that the circles I run in are more, you know, dog people?

Lebowski would like to point out that he is an apprentice dog, and as such, deserves the votes of dog people.

Floors so awful we have to stack the animals

Not just an apprentice dog, but an apprentice English shepherd. One of the more difficult sorts of dogs for a Dude born a cat to pull off. He's been working on the Family Yoga Pose.

Don't judge.

At the emergency vet on Thursday I saw a poodle/Yorkie cross that I actually thought was a cat at first. She was a very nice little dog, of mature years, and not feeling too well. She sat so quietly in the chair next to her owner's chair, and had such dignity, that I mistook her for one of the clinic cats. Easy for her. Lebowski has a more challenging task before him.

Wait, what?

The emergency vet?

What has Sophia done this time?

Nope, not Sophie. Not this time. Though it's a very Sophie sort of thing to happen.

You shoulda seen the other guy.
Rosie was helping me to teach young Charlie to swim. Mission accomplished with the help of a retriever bumper and some social modeling/competitive spirit. But Rosie knows that she can get a head start on both Charlie and Cole by launching herself with great force from a dock, while the others prefer the less flamboyant shore entry.

The other guy. Seemingly unaffected.

I'm mindful of the danger to toes and toenails posed by the gaps in the decking on docks.

Never occurred to me that an agile little dog could slip just as she launched and get a hock entrapped under the  rope cleat. And then hang there. Screaming.

I was certain her hock was broken. Things moved that are not supposed to move. I didn't diddle around after discovering that. Three wet dogs into the car and off to the emergency vet, as it was approximately four minutes after my real vet closed for the day. Since the emergency vet was Doogie Howser's prom date*, since the advice that seemed so counterintuitive when she gave it was also very wrong according to Doctor Google, since Rosie was completely tripoding and clearly in terror that something would touch her foot, and since (we later discovered) the radiograph I paid for did not cover the entire relevant section of dog, we followed up with a visit to our real vet, who corrected these deficiencies and fashioned a wondrous splint that appears to include in its engineered innards both a yogurt cup and a system of flying buttresses.

The good news is that it isn't fractured. The bad news is that it isn't fractured. Hock sprains with this kind of dramatic mechanism of injury can be a nasty business. Lots of complicated ligaments down there. Putting them right can get ugly as well as uncertain.

We will see whether conservative treatment -- rest and splinting -- gets Rosie back into fighting form. Meanwhile, we are bereft of our best and most versatile SAR dog, and hoping for no hairy deployments.

Oh, and the vet bills so far have et up what I'd scraped aside to replace the worst floor, the stinking old carpet in my office, with the cheapest vinyl planking I could get. A visitation of The Budget Gremlin.

So now we really, really need Lebowski to win us some damn floor. I'm more determined than before to get rid of the slippery laminate in the living room, too. I feel it lurking there, ready to throw a search dog into a skid and wreck a knee or ten.

And I need all who wish well to Lebowski and his adopted transpecial pack to vote for him, tell your friends to vote for him, bribe your co-workers to vote for him, harangue your Twitter followers and Facebook friends and blog readers and Yahoo groups and whatever happens on Instagram and Pinterest and MySpace and LiveJournal.

Apparently the mechanism for voting limits you to one vote per device (phone or computer or tablet). Which has been a bummer for the families we know who all use one computer.

The link:

Maybe you'll win floors yourself. Someone will. Two thousand dollars can get you some pretty nice hardwood.

Lumber Liquidators Cutest Pet, Ugliest Floor Contest. Lebowski. Certainly cuter than the sullen Aussie. The floors on which he romps certainly uglier than the shiny new one on which the Aussie is being sullen.**

The Dude will thank you.

Voting ends Thursday, July 31. Not much time left.

I shouldna have started measuring it before the contest was over. That jinxed it


*Yay! Baby-talk for both animal and owner! We love that shit. Especially from someone who is younger than some of the stuff in the back of my fridge.

** I freely admit that Lucy the puppy with the dork ears is hella-cute, and the floor on which she is lying is heinous. But Lucy is out of the running. She's the Ralph Nader of cute pets on ugly floors. Do not be distracted by the puppy with the dork ears. Lebowski is your candidate!

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Pigs are new to the farm this year.

I was warned that I would find them very charming and clever and would get attached and cry into my bacon.

So far, notsomuch, which is fine by me.

They like to eat -- like to be fed -- and are prepping to be dangerous assholes about food. So I take at least one, and usually two, dogs in with me when I'm messing with their food trough. When they try to slip by a dog while my back is to them, they always get bit. And they always try to do it, and they always scream when it works out exactly the same way it did that morning, and the night before, and yesterday morning.

Their mastery of the electric fence is similar.

Not even a turkey tests electronet a second time after the first jolt.

But these two porceinsteins had to check it each for himself with a wet, snotty nose, about every three feet along its length, and scream in indignation every time it did exactly what it had done five seconds earlier.

I'm trying to learn about pig behavior generally, and finding it a bit of a conundrum.

I totally get predators. A dog's mind makes intuitive sense to me. I grok why the kitten stalks moths and plays games in which he puffs up into a GIANT MONSTER GONNA GETCHA.

And I've learned a lot about what makes the hoofstock tick, how they see the world and how to manipulate them into cooperating with my plans.

The hogs are neither fish nor fowl. It makes total sense to me that swine aren't kosher. They are in a really confusing space that isn't really even "in-between" the carnivore mind and the grazer's quiet consciousness. They are their own thing, and that thing is kind of weird.

Ken Ham, the smaller pig, will lose his opportunity to eat in order to stick his head right next to the larger Francis Bacon's at the trough, or when they were smaller, into FB's bowl while his own bowl sat untouched.

Then FB will just beat the shit out of KH between bites, finish what he has, and take KH's portion too. KH is not going to catch up with FB on growth by following this brilliant diet plan. The bigger the difference in their sizes, the more he's going to get beat up.

But if one were to separate them for feeding, neither would eat.

They were cohabiting with Buck Rodgers, the goat herdsire, and his companion wether for a couple weeks.

At first the two species seemed to ignore one another while sharing a pasture and shed, and that seemed fine.

Then I noticed that the damn pigs -- commercial crossbreeds, definitely not the droids I was looking for  -- were following the goats around the pasture and apparently learning to forage from them. That was better than fine.

Then I saw Rodgers bite Francis Bacon's ear and realized he'd learned this uncaprine martial art from the pigs -- not so fine.

The next day I observed Rodgers, coming into the rut rather early, teaching an uncooperative Ken Ham to squeal like a pig.

No, it was not a dominance thing. I moved the goats to new pasture the next morning. I accept that barnyard animals will comport themselves like barnyard animals, but there is a limit.

Tuesday, when it was hot, I dumped out a couple of extra water troughs behind their shed, creating a glorious mud mire for their entertainment. This seemed to get them excited in a way I'd never seen before.

Francis Bacon was biting off (inedible, or in any event, never-eaten) weed stalks and shaking them in as doglike a way as a pig might do, even carrying them around.

And Ken Ham was nuzzling Francis Bacon and then performing a ritualized jaw gape.

I seriously have no idea.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Banish the Ghosts of (Other People's) Pets Past

Meet Lebowski.

He's the new assistant "barn cat," by which we mean, cat whose food bowl is on top of the fridge in the barn well out of scamming dog range and who has whatever house privileges he chooses to avail himself of.

As he's currently snack-sized and naive, he lives in protective custody in the house, mostly occupying whatever keyboard I'm trying to use, until he has enough mass to start apprenticing with Gollum.

But we've already put him to work. He wants to live in the farmhouse, by gum he needs to contribute.

Currently his only talent is absurd cuteness. As it happens, there was an opening for someone with his exact qualifications.

And The Dude has qualified as a finalist!

Voting runs from today to July 31.

One random voter will also win $2K worth of flooring*

The ugly floor in the photo?

Not the farmhouse's worst floor. Not even third-worst. I'm currently de-booking my office so that I can remove the carpet that resurrects the spirit of some previous house owners' incontinent pets whenever the ambient humidity goes over the stank threshold. I'd assumed that there was an old pine floor under it, but have found only a particleboard subfloor. So this is not going to be addressed with a rented sander and a can of floor paint.

Then there's the hallway, and the aged bordello-red carpet in the bedroom. And the cheap-azz slippery laminate in the living room that I worry will cause a dog to skid out and blow a knee one day.

Every time I start fixin to do something about these floors, the Budget Gremlin knocks a hole in something that is supposed to be waterproof, or in the bottom of the well, or in a Subaru transmission, and No floor for you!

If you feel moved to allow Momma to floor her office in something other than the cheapest vinyl planks that fall off the back of a truck and end up at Ollie's, you can do so at the link:

Do it for the search dogs' kneecaps. Do it to cleanse the lingering spirits of someone else's pets. Do it to erase the interior design crimes perpetrated against this 116-year-old house's dignity in the past 30 years. Do it for the chance to win your own new floors.

Do it for The Dude.

* But Houlie, sez you, I dunna haz a house! Or I haz a house, but it is outfitted with floors already!

Dude, donate that shit to Habitat for Humanity. Or your local equivalent. 2K Karma points.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Field Guide to Ethical Breeders

First published in the August 2013 Whole Dog Journal.

Why, you ask, are all the subheads huge and a weird color, and also there are some errors in line spacing?

Because Blogger says so, and swears that there is no extra strange code in there to make it like that. And I'm sick of messing with it.

Why no cute puppy pictures in a post about puppies?

Because Blogger is also being a douche about pictures.

You are a conscientious and skeptical consumer. Whenever you have a choice, you buy quality products that are made to last by manufacturers who take good care of their workers and the environment, who are mindful of safety, who stand behind their products, and generally follow best practices to produce them sustainably and ethically. Since you invest more in each purchase, you also invest more in caring for that purchase, whether it is maintaining a pricey hand-crafted tool or carefully cooking that expensive local grass-fed steak. You know that by taking extra care, you not only meet high ethical standards, you get a better product for you. Who wants a bunch of shiny junk that will break and end up in a landfill, with the seller gone as soon as your payment clears? Not you.

You also know that there are costs to being conscientious. You will pay more up-front, sometimes a lot more. You have to put in a lot more effort to get the product; it isn’t waiting for you on the shelf at Walmart 24 hours a day. You have to research and weigh values against one another. You may have to wait a long time to get just the product you want. And you must hone your radar for advertising claims that mean nothing (cholesterol-free apples?) and scrutinize various allegedly independent seals of approval that serve as marketing smokescreens for sellers who want to exploit your conscientiousness.

Here’s a challenge, though: Can you apply that smart, honed, skeptical consumer consciousness to the next dog or puppy that you buy or adopt? Can you resist the first adorable puppy that is plopped into your arms, or the desperate sad story on a Petfinder entry?

 Not only can it be done, it must be done, if you are deeply involved with your own dogs and care a great deal about the welfare and future of dogs in general. This is the acquisition that most demands a restrained, educated, skeptical approach that serves your own self-interest as well as supporting practices that are good for dogs. For no other purchase does intelligent self-interest mesh so closely with good social ethics, whether you are buying a purpose-bred puppy or selecting the best-for-you “used” dog from a shelter or rescue.

Here’s how to identify an ethical breeder – one whose concern for the welfare of her dogs and devotion to the future of her breed extends to the well-being of those dogs’ owners. In a followup post, I’ll describe how to identify legitimate, top-quality rescues, and avoid those that apply more sentiment than expertise, as well as frank swindlers who prey on animals and kind-hearted people.

Finding Ethical Breeders

It can be difficult to give useful generic advice about many aspects of buying a purpose-bred puppy. The husbandry practices, selection criteria, and to some extent the attitudes that make a great Bichon breeder would be anathema to someone breeding Belgian Malinois. Different breeds have different cultures. I can’t tell you the fair price for a puppy – what is highway robbery and what is alarmingly cheap. I don’t know what health conditions beset the breed of your choice. I don’t know whether the breed club offers transparent guidance or is purely a marketing smokescreen. (I can tell you with reasonable certainty that the search terms “ puppies for sale” or “ puppies ” will bring you almost exclusively the new marketing-savvy Internet-based puppymillers, who now know how to work search engine optimization.) I don’t know which Yahoo list or Facebook group offers the best discussion and the most honest direction. You are going to have to find out the specifics for the kind of dog you seek; I recommend that you find guides and mentors who know the breed well and have nothing to sell you. 

That said, some field marks of the ethical breeder are general in nature. Her opposite number is the puppymilling profiteer. Both self-interest and social responsibility depend on you avoiding that puppymiller. Here are some feathers and crests to look for as you winnow through the information overload:


I mean, other than make puppies with them. She’s part of a community of dog-lovers, hobbyists, and professionals who compete or perform service with their own dogs. Their dogs are seen and assessed by other experts, and there are thresholds – a working title or certificate, a conformation championship, breed-survey rating, temperament tests, qualifying in a trial – that dogs achieve before being bred.

Veteran French Bulldog breeder and rescuer Carol Gravestock and I come from radically different tribes of the dog nation (that’s why I asked her for input). For the two working breeds that I own, a conformation (show ring) championship is a clear signal to avoid the dog’s progeny and the breeder, because of health, temperament, and breed conservation considerations. In Carol’s world, with a breed designed from the outset purely as house pets, “You have to show. It’s how you earn the right to breed a litter.”

As you scrutinize the performance claims about the breeder’s sires and dams, though, beware of “champion lines.” How many of those champions – or obedience-titled dogs, police canines, hunt-tested retrievers, etc. – are or were owned by the seller? Do the pup’s parents number among them? Alas, it is not difficult to buy the grandson of champions to spruce up the ol’ pedigree charts on the website. Your questions about a pup’s ancestry should be guided by the principle, “What have you done for me lately?”


She’s nosy. All up in your underwear drawer. Seems judgmental. Probably has an application that you must fill out, sometimes before she will talk to you or correspond at any length. You feel a bit violated. Like you have to prove to her that you are worthy of one of her pups. Because you do. (Please refrain from snorting, “This is worse than adopting a child!”
 People who have adopted a human child, or who have tried to adopt and been unable to do so, don’t find it a bit funny.)

In contrast, says Gravestock, “With puppymills, the dogs are their job, and they work that job. That means answering the phone and returning emails in 30 seconds flat, and being charming. They have a product to sell; their product is a puppy, and they are salesmen. 

“Ethical breeders work to support their dogs; their dogs do not support them,” says Gravestock. They may not get back to you the day you call, and they will not be charming and aggressive in their eagerness to sell you a puppy, because that breeder’s number one goal is to ensure that every puppy goes to a lifetime excellent home, not getting every puppy paid for and out the door the moment he is weaned.

“Good breeders are paranoid – we are downright afraid of you, puppy buyers of the universe! Those of us who do rescue have seen the worst-case scenarios.”

The benefit to you of cultivating a relationship with someone this cautious? A breeder who is very careful about where her puppies go is the same breeder who is there for the life of the dog, to answer your questions, help you with any problems, cheer you on in your endeavors, and take away the worry of what would happen if you could no longer keep your dog. Every one of her puppy-buyers is a dog-in-law.

 What to Look For 


You provide personal and veterinary references, and she calls those people and grills them about you, your character, your experience as an animal owner, and even your personality. She may also insist on visiting your home, or sending someone she designates who is near you. Note that puppymills are increasingly sophisticated about aping the surface plumage of good breeders. Many now have applications on their “click & buy” websites, and some of those applications ask for references. But they will not actually call the references you provide. When you provide references to a breeder, let those people know you have done so (that’s just polite), and ask them to call you after they speak to the breeder so you can find out what the conversation was about. I’ve found conversations with personal references to be extremely valuable in matching pups to new families.


Call and question the breeder’s references! For example: “Would you buy another puppy from this breeder? Why?” I always advise puppy-buyers, and dog owners looking for a trainer, to ask for references. In 20 years of professional training and nine years of breeding, I have never had anyone ask me for a reference.

Not one person.


Review the contract. What does the “health guarantee” cover? Puppymillers have discovered that written contracts not only make them look legit, they can be used to weasel out of obligations that would otherwise be presumptive under law.

Carol Gravestock cautions buyers to look for the “dead dog clause” in any health guarantee. If the breeder requires you to return the puppy to her in order to receive anything back, she is using the “health guarantee” to guarantee that you will not invoke the contract and she can keep your money. Who would send back his beloved ill pet to a breeder who will have the dog put down, and then accept another puppy from the same person as “replacement?” Not you, right? The profiteering puppymiller is counting on that.

Also, if you live in Florida and have the pup shipped from Missouri, you won’t be able to return the pup with parvo to the seller because no vet will sign a travel health certificate for him. Catch-22.

Good breeders' contracts are well-meaning, if not always well-written. (If you are a lawyer, paralegal, or just good with contracts, do your new dog-in-law a kindness and offer to help her with her puppy contract. There is a 98% probability that hers is vague, unenforceable, and generally terrible, concealing rather than advancing her best intentions. In contract law, the thought does not count.)

Talk with the breeder about the terms of the contract, and what is guaranteed by the breeder, as well as the obligations you take on. The best breeders will want you to agree to provide good husbandry to the pup, to accept limits on the circumstances under which the pup might be bred, to perform specific health tests, and share the health test results when the pup is of the appropriate age. And every ethical breeder obliges herself to take back your puppy if you ever cannot keep him, often requiring that you give her the right of first refusal before the dog ever changes hands. If the contract does not include an RTB – a “return to breeder” clause – walk away. It is your dog’s ultimate safety net, and the surest field mark of a breeder who puts dogs before her own profit and convenience. 

If every dog breeder enforced an RTB, there would be no followup post on ethical rescue groups and shelters.


Your poor brain will throb as the breeder spins out a story of ancestors and relatives in a pedigree that you cannot hope to parse; this is a sign that the breeder is more concerned with the character of her dogs than with the perishable marketability of a puppy. In contrast, a puppymill’s website will almost invariably consist of pages of individual mugshot photos of each freshly bathed, shell-shocked pup, showing color and markings, with a draped background or sofa cushions, and often with adorable props. There may be a payment button next to each photo. Adult dogs, if present at all, are relegated to the background of the marketing efforts. (Betsy and Ranger had eight darling puppies, ready for adoption just in time for Christmas!) When you speak to this breeder, she will have a lot to say about the pups that she currently has for sale, but little that is insightful about their parents, older siblings, ancestors, uncles, and aunts.


Don’t fall for claims that the pups are “health tested” and “DNA verified.” So? What health tests? Some puppymillers market pups as “health tested” because they have the federally required health certificate for shipping before they board the airplane! (We have now entered the realm of certified low-sodium broccoli.) And yes, all animals have DNA; I can verify that for you right now. And what of the results? A breeder who has her dogs’ hips radiographed and rated by OFA or PennHIP, and then breeds each dog regardless of the results of the test, is not performing due diligence. (The good hip scores become marketing fodder, while the bad ones are buried in silence and denial.)

 The appropriate health tests vary widely by breed; this is why you must research the breed or type of dog thoroughly before contacting breeders. A Saluki breeder who doesn’t check hips is normal, because Salukis do not have an issue with poor hips in their gene pool; it would be an expensive diagnostic test performed for no purpose. But a Labrador breeder who skips this test “because my dogs have never had a problem,” or who spins a tale about how it’s all feeding them right and keeping them off slippery floors, is selling snake oil.

If a breeder doesn’t health test, doesn’t share the results, won’t give you documentation unless you buy a puppy or put down a deposit, or is any way cagey, walk away. Most health tests do not guarantee that your pup will be unaffected by the problem that the test evaluates. Only a few tests for simple genetic mutations can determine that. However, good test results increase your odds of getting a pup who is free of that issue – and you support someone who follows best practices. Once you have the results of the parents’ health data (and, ideally, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and any older siblings if applicable), you should ask someone who is an expert in the breed and has nothing to sell you to explain them, ideally without letting on who the dogs or breeder are. This is likely not your veterinarian – unless she owns that breed and has an interest in breeding and genetics. Another breeder, or a trainer, dog sports competitor, or other professional who has a lot of experience with the breed, is often your best source for disinterested information. And no matter how many Good Housekeeping Seals a pup’s parents can present, you still need to inquire pointedly about overall health in his family. Who cares if the parents have fantastic hips, eyes, elbows, knees, and cardiac function if all four grandparents died of cancer by age six, Dad has epilepsy, and Mom has a running bar tab at the vet?


It takes years to become an expert in just one breed of dog; a breeder may own one or two dogs of other breeds, but she’s a specialist in just one. Puppymillers know that buyers will encounter this advice, so they now separate the websites of their different breeds. Google is your friend; check phone numbers, business names, individual names, and any other keywords you can glean for signs that the breeder has multiple websites for different breeds of dog. Hiding these parallel websites is a sign that there is something to hide.


No puppies having puppies. That means, at minimum, that each dog is two years old before being bred. Older is better, especially in slow-maturing breeds. Males, in particular, may be quite mature before siring puppies. If your pup’s parents are mature, ask about their reproductive history. If Momma, or any other bitch the breeder owns, is on her fourth litter at age five, you have your answer. If the breeder is cagey about answering, walk away.


Puppies take a lot of care, and it’s not just constant feeding and cleaning. A good breeder spends hours every day observing and interacting with the pups to learn as much as possible about each one and to socialize them thoroughly. They have puppy socialization parties with friends, take the tykes on field trips, and lose countless hours to puppy reverie. Even a house full of highly disciplined home-schooled children can’t properly socialize, much less assess, 20 or 30 pups at a time. And there is no way that a breeder can effectively screen potential homes with diligence with so many pups at once. Ethical breeders all report being drained and exhausted after raising a litter, mostly due to the hours spent screening potential buyers and agonizing over puppy matches. Puppymillers like to produce in big batches for efficiency. Occasionally a breeder plans two litters in a year for compelling reasons, and her bitches synchronize so that the only way to manage it is to have them close together. But the breeder should present this as an exception without prompting. Most who try it once swear “never again” while lying in a dark room with a cold compress on their foreheads.


(This is always where the puppies and their mother live, by the way.)

Preferably, you visit before picking up the puppy – perhaps even before pups are born or conceived. This can vary depending on how common the breed is and how far you have to go, but you are always welcome to visit with polite notice at a mutually convenient time. If the breeder offers to meet you somewhere off-site “to save you driving time” or to deliver the puppy to you, proceed with great caution. Sometimes these offers are sincere; say, the breeder is traveling for a dog show to your area anyway. Tell her that you’d rather come to her and meet the pup’s mother and other relatives. If she is resistant, walk away. If you get as far as visiting the breeder’s home and the pups or adult dogs are dirty, crowded, stinky, isolated, caged, scary, fearful or in any way not what you would wish for every puppy, everywhere, walk away. If you can’t meet the adult dogs, walk away. If you would not wish to own the puppies’ dam, walk away


 Ethical breeders do not produce enough puppies to require this licensure.


You can be sure that the dogs’ dependent is making compromises about the dogs’ welfare: whether to breed that bitch who had a litter six months ago, what brand of dog food to buy, does this pup really need to see a vet? And if you find that you must return your puppy a year or 10 after bringing him home, you will also find that that charming aw shucks farm lady who just loved all her li’l puppies to death when they were ripe and shiny and for sale is not returning your calls; if you catch her, you can expect, at best, a referral to a breed rescue.

An ethical breeder, a great breeder, doesn’t just take her own puppies back at any age, for any reason, she supports breed rescue and other animal welfare causes. She may pull, evaluate, transport, and foster dogs that puppymillers forgot about the minute the check cleared. She might sit on the board, fundraise, or just cut a check at Christmas. She helps salvage the mess created by those “other” breeders.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Purebred Polar Bear

Dad, are you sure I'm all polar bear?
Yes, son, what else would you be?
You -- you're a polar bear?
And Mom, she's all polar bear?
Of course.
Grandma and grandpa, they are 100% polar bears?
Polar bears.
And Mom's mother and father, are they pure polar bears?
So you are certain that I am a purebred polar bear?
What the hell, son?! Why would you think that you are not all polar bear?

Because I'm fucking freezing!

So, early this winter I was pretty sure I was not even a polar beardoodle. It got cold early in November; I showed up to an MRA vertical training in normal attire for the conditions, and found that I quickly became completely useless -- fingers like Jimmy Dean links still in the freezer box, feet that would qualify as wood if wood could transmit excruciating pain, shivering and huddled and fuzzy-brained and pathetic and whiny.

I started understanding about snowbirds. Seriously considered recusing myself from the upcoming recertification weekend on the grounds that I would not be any kind of asset.

But before I conceded defeat, I took some steps.

Started suiting up and working outside for at least four hours a day every day that it was cold.

Admitted that my 22-year-old all-leather spring mountaineering boots were not going to cut it. Not because they aren't still great boots -- they are quality Italian footwear in fine condition -- but because it's not just asses that spread out in the decades between mid-20's and late-40's. Suckers are just too tight for winter use on my middle-aged feet. The sloppsy-woppsy Sorels that I had been using for farm chores and hunting are out of the question for mountaineering, and modern plastic mountaineering boots substitute blood and bruises for frostbite. So I bought a pair of insulated Columbia winter boots that kind of split the difference, and, astonishingly, with push of a button will draw on rechargeable batteries to heat my toes. (I have worn virtually nothing else outdoors since Thanksgiving.)

At our MRA regional team recert in Vermont in December we started the first morning with dead car batteries and -10°F. Out all day doing rope work, it never got above 10°F, there were periods of inactivity, and all of us were fine. Just fine. No cinderblock feet or stupid fingers or hypothermia stumbles. Even me.  In a month I'd gone from a pathetic equatorial poikilothermic lizard-woman to a fucking purebred polar bear.

That all ya got, Green Mountains?

It's been the consistently coldest winter in years, and there I am outside in my Carhartts during the day and then later doing my night chores and looking for more little jobs that need doing (and can be done in single-digit temperatures and significant snow cover*) so I can stay out longer. Maybe I could bring some more firewood from the shed to the front porch? Prune something? Shovel this walk again?

Indoors, the Thermostat Wars rage.

55°F at the thermostat (which is a few feet from the back door and its integral dog door, thus the coldest part of the house) makes for perfectly comfortable indoor temperatures. And we have the woodstove insert in the living room for sitting of an evening and baking like iguanas with a red lightbulb.

Nevertheless, I catch Perfesser Chaos turning the thermostat to a shvitzing 65° while he is sitting in the room next to Vulcan's forge and the weather station ten feet from the stove says 78°.

Ferchrissakesputasweateron. The oil bill this winter is already more than double last year's, and a man could have died in the effort to keep our pipes from freezing. There is no need to burn more money. At any given time there are no fewer than five rooms of the house occupied only by torpid stink bugs and Asian ladybeetles. Although they enjoy the heat, they contribute nothing towards the oil bill.

I might be, for this year at least, a born-again Ursus maritimus, but I am not alone.

Moe's health makes him miserable in the damp cold of fall, or during mild winters like last year's mudfest, but when things get really frigid he and his excessive not-fat-fluffiness are at home in the snowdrifts. It has always been thus, since he went on his first frosty mountaintop bivouac at the tender age of four months, and instead of emulating his mother and serving as my sleeping bag hot water bottle, he declared himself a timberwolf, scratched a nest in the leaves, curled up in a ball and denned solo.

Now, Moe looks the part.  Really, look at him. You just know that when John Thornton dies he's ready to go lead the wild brothers.

He's the guy in the middle. 
But Charlie?

Baby girl Charlie?

Little fur-less Charlie?

Charlie whose mother tucks in under the bedpillows every night? The scion of the little bitch who rides home from SAR training in the passenger's lap so she can have a heated seat and the full blast of the car blower?


Yes, somehow Charlie pup turned out purebred polar bear. Runs all day in snow up to her puppy wazoo, wants more. Breaks through the creek and comes out bejeweled with instant ice, whatevs. Takes her bones and kongs and stolen ski boots out the dog door so she can enjoy them in a snowdrift. Waits in a frigid car sprawled out tits up. Spurns our blankets and offers to cuddle. Has grown a thick polar bear pelt on her puppy belly, contrary to the family tradition of nekkid bellies.

Her siblings apparently agree. Her brother in Louisiana has the fewest options, so he just lives in the pond.

Not a nutria.

Her sister up in Ultima Thule has embraced her heritage

The elusive Loch Ness Mary

Last summer, when Charlie was born, was the coolest in a long time.

I have some bad news for her about this thing called "July."

* This eliminates all fence-building, any manipulation of shatterable plastics or glass or splitable lumber, power tool use, pasture maintenance, garden clean-up, fence-line clearing, manure management, energy-sapping stockwork -- in short, farming.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Career Change Dog

This week AMRG welcomed a new canine teammate to our roster.

Teddy, nee Tad, is a career-change dog. Meticulously purpose-bred* and carefully raised to have the traits of a CCI "program dog," destined for a life serving a disabled master, he had just a bit too much exuberance to keep damped down for that job. Add a touch of possessiveness with objects, and the trainers at CCI knew that they needed to find him different work.

Exuberance and a touch of possessiveness are unalloyed assets in a search dog.

We drove to Long Island last week, toured the lovely training facility and kennels, and ran a brief evaluation; he exceeded our expectations for a prospect in each of the little exercises we asked of him.

So here he is, Rebecca's new partner.

His primary function will be as a Human Remains Detection dog.

Here he is encountering his target odor for the first time, less than a week after coming to live with his new handler.

My aim had been to walk him downwind of it so that we saw a small head shift to the right on the first pass, and then make a second pass during which the sample would be in range. Instead, he caught a whiff and went for the sample just as we started the first grid. The wind was good for long-range finds today. But it was still a surprise to see that he was that motivated to the odor.

The scent sample is a placenta, frozen, and safely encased inside a capped PVC pipe. We never use artificial odors to simulate the real thing in training.**

When he hesitates to approach the container a second time, I think that's because he thought that, since he was rewarded a little ways away from the sample the first time, that maybe he wasn't supposed to go over there. So we'll reward him with his beloved toy right on top of the sample for a while.

* Not purebred. Teddy is a golden retriever x Labrador, a now-common cross for service and guide dogs. An excellent example of the difference between fancy breeding and purposeful breeding. One of the CCI reps mentioned that, while most of their service dogs are Labradors or Labrador crosses that were originally derived from field-line dogs, they have been selected for different traits for so long that one may as well consider them a separate breed.

** And I cannot overemphasize -- all materials that are legal and ethical to possess.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Guest Post: All That Glitter Cost Your Gold

One of the many things for which I am indebted to my friend Rob McMillin is the education he has given me in the art and science of vetting charities based on their fiscal practices.

For example, I am willing to bet folding money that the number of predatory and fraudulent veteran's charities outnumbers those that are credible and effective.

I've developed fairly high-gain bullshit radar for uncharitable charities – especially animal and public safety/SAR charities, which is the world in which I typically move. By bullshit charities, I have always meant people who don't do what they say they do, don't stand for what they say they stand for, and aren't who they claim to be.

Some notable offenders have been the Bear Search and RescueFoundation, People for the ethical (sic) Treatment of Animals, and an assortment of fake, fraudulent, confabulous, evil and felonious SAR poobahs and dog handlers. New cynical schemes involving animals – a popular one now is “service dogs” for disabled(often autistic, diabetic, or seizing) young children, another is “horse rescue” that is merely a meatman's ransom scam – pop up all the time, and are transparent to the trustworthy subject-matter experts in my circles.

Learn enough field marks for the new species, and even a relative neophyte can spot them. Wherever popular sentiment (or the strong loyalties of some discrete minority or interest group) rests, reason and skepticism flee, and shysters see the cavitation and rush in.

But bad intentions and incompetence at performing the stated mission are not the only, nor even the primary, mode of charitable failure.

When you are thinking about giving – money, time, your own reputation – to a charitable cause, part of due diligence is ensuring that what you give will be spent honestly, effectively, and sensibly.
When in doubt, check it out.

When you are sure, check it out anyway.

Disclaimer: Blogger is being a real douche about properly formatting this piece. It is choosing spacing, line breaks, fonts, sizes and styles as it wishes and contrary to my instructions. I give up. I think the links are working now.

A Cynic's Guide To Reading Nonprofit (501©3) IRS 990 Forms

By Rob McMillin


We live in an age of frauds, but that in no way changes the need or desire to alleviate suffering. If anything, it amplifies the need to do due diligence on those who would claim our charity, to ensure it accomplishes the ends they say they seek. I confess a prejudice against large charities, as such tend to have more ratholes in which to hide revenue than smaller charities (and also, more overhead). Part of the reason to engage in charity is the psychic benefits of having helped someone in need, and large charities insulate the giver from the act. So in some wise, the extremely short version of this article may be summarized as,

Don't give money to large charities.

Failing that, we may at least learn something about how to avoid pitfalls in giving, even with relatively small charities. This is not easy to do, as organizations like CharityNavigator have discovered when they attempted to build an automated scoring system to filter out some of the worst performers. As we shall see, it is all too easy to game such systems – and indeed, some of the most egregiously self-serving charities score deplorably well there.

I should add that this is really the Cliff Notes version. The long form course is at the NonprofitCoordinating Council of New York website.

The IRS 990, And How To Find It

The IRS Form 990 is a form most 501(c)3 nonprofits are required to fill out annually. (Small charities may use the 990-N, which is a postcard-sized variant available to organizations with $50,000 or less in income. Religious charities, such as the Salvation Army, churches, and certain other organizations are not required to file at all.) All evaluation must start with this form, as it provides a limited but valuable window into the operation of the charity, giving information about who is involved, the types of activity the charity engages in, and most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, income, assets, and expenditures.

990 forms can be found at a number of sites online:
  • Charity Navigator has 990 forms as part of their scoring system. It is a reasonable first stop in evaluating a charity, but only in the sense that if a charity has a bad rating, it is probably because the operators are too lazy to bother beautifying their IRS 990 form to score better. Charity Navigator does not claim to be comprehensive (at present, “over 6,000”, which I take to mean “less than 7,000”, and the acknowledge they do not analyze foundations or charities filing 990-EZ forms), but they will certainly cover the larger charities. (They have lately increased this number to 1.6 million, which they claim covers all 501(c)3 entities.)

  • The Foundation Center's 990 finder is vastly more comprehensive, but often enough has search issues if the same charity is listed under multiple names. Often, it is necessary to do a separate Google search to find the same filing under a different name. (One example of this came up recently when I was looking for the Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey, which uses the Popcorn Park Zoo as its 501(c)3.)

  • More recently, I've been using GuideStar, which seems to be at least as extensive as the Foundation Center (they claim 1.8 million organizations and 5.4 million 990's, with 3.2 million digitized). Their search seems to be a bit more flexible (they got the Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey search correct, but that's nothing like comprehensive).

What's Inside? What To Look For

The Doggie Stylish Blog gave a useful synopsis of what to look for in 990's:

IRS 990 Part One
Line 12 – Total revenue. Obviously, how much they took in for this fiscal year.
Line 13 – Grants & similar amounts paid out. This can mask some of the trickier means to hide self-dealing, especially if the entities receiving grants include the same executives or their relatives.
Line 14 – Benefits paid to or for members.
Line 15 - Salaries, other compensation, employee benefits. Along with Line 14 above, gives an idea of official compensation.
Line 16b - Total fundraising expenses. This, of course, is the gamed figure.
Line 18 - Total expenses. How much it costs to operate the charity.

IRS 990 Part 3
Statement of Program Service Accomplishments
This section details the organization’s three largest program services by expenses.

IRS 990 Part 7
Compensation of Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, Highest Compensated Employees, and Independent Contractors. This is a list of everyone who officially matters at the charity (or their heavily-used contractors), and what they got paid.

IRS 990 Part 9
Statement of Functional Expenses
Pretty much the whole thing is important, but Line 26 - Joint Costs. IS VERY IMPORTANT. “Complete this line only if the organization reported in column (B) joint costs from a combined educational JSA campaign and fundraising solicitation” More on that later.

IRS 990 Schedule C - Political Campaign and Lobbying Activities
Depending on your reason for donating, you may or many not agree with a charity using your donation for political or lobbying purposes.

IRS 990 Schedule F - Statement of Activities Outside the United States
Details of grants or activities of a charity outside the U.S.

IRS 990 Schedule I - Grants and Other Assistance to Organizations, Governments, and Individuals in the United States
Details of grants or activities of a charity inside the U.S.

IRS 990 Schedule J - Compensation Information For Certain Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, and Highest Compensated Employees
Look at Part Two, Column E. This is the total dollar amount that key employees have received in salary compensation.

IRS 990 Schedule O
A detailed explanation of how the charity spent its donations from Part Three.

Examples Of Flawed 990's

And while these are all important, what's most important is to read the form with a critical eye. In my own reviews of 990's, the most important issues I have encountered are
  • Fundraising expenses moved into program expenses
  • Excessive salaries
  • Large unexplained expenses
Now to find good examples of bad charities.

Humane Society Of The United States

To see why you wouldn't want to give money to a particular charity, it's necessary to review some 990's out there from some of the more egregious charities. We'll start with the Humane Society of the United States, axiomatic as a money mill and a self-serving charity. Patrick Burns back in 2007 gave a fairly devastating critique of their 990 that, basically, boils down to one thing: HSUS moves their large direct mail costs into “program expenses”, which is obvious nonsense. (In addition, Burns engages in some informed speculation about the venal mechanics of their operation.) Worth magazine in 2002 declared them “questionable” (PDF) thanks to high mailing costs. But once the direct mail costs were shuffled into program expenses, suddenly Charity Navigator gave it its highest rating of four stars. This of course is bogus. Let's start by taking HSUS's most recent 990, for tax year 2011.

  • On line 12, they claim $133,577,658 in revenue, most of which ($123M) came from grants.
  • On line 15, $37,788,110 in salaries paid, and $4,343,746 in professional fundraising.
  • Skipping ahead to Part IX (page 9 of the PDF), we learn there was $13,457,363 in “Other” expenses (line 11g), and $11,915,496 in advertising and promotion fees (line 13). But the real kickers are line 24: $24,137,976 for “Education material” (line 24a) and $10,116,669 for “Direct response costs” (line 24b). Adding all these expenses together with the professional fundraising – and I do not believe it is unreasonable to view these as laundered mailing list costs – it totals to $63,971,250, or about 47% of revenue dedicated to mail operations before anything else.
If we add salaries to the totals in the last bullet above, you arrive at $101,759,360, which means salaries plus overhead – and here I am not counting a lot of things overhead, such as legal fees (which really are) – this means 76% of revenues are tied up in salaries and overhead before a nickel gets spent on actual program. The reality, of course, is that it is much worse than that, and while the Worth article from 2001 cited 53% overhead, it's certainly much higher now.

National Disaster Search Dog Foundation

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation originally came to light here, and while that blog post gives a fine, detailed look at their operations, their 2011 990 opens a different set of questions. Unlike HSUS, NDSDF does not appear to be especially self-dealing, but they are poorly run – an important distinction. Particularly:
  • Self-dealing via no-bid work, so the kennel in which the dogs reside and are trained are also owned by the principal, Kate Davern.
  • Trainer's fees ($203,622 in this, $210,333 from 2009), also presumably paid to herself or her friends.
  • New for 2011 (relative to 2009): three-quarters of a million dollars in “ADP employee salary” ($775,393, line 24a)
  • Silly amounts of rubble pile charges ($600,000 exactly, line 24b; and why is it such a shiny, zero-filled number?)
  • Something called “campaign costs” (line 24d, $127,771)
  • On page 11, line 24, a $3,000,000 unsecured loan – which, on page 19 (of the PDF), part X, line 2, we discover $357,469 in accrued interest. (Paid to whom or what, it does not say.) As I noted at the time, this is something like you or me taking out a payroll loan for the entire value of our annual salary.
NDSDF has a lot of other red flags, and I'll leave you to read Heather's post to detail those objections, but this is a case where the headline does not match the output, not by a long shot. For what it's worth, Charity Navigator dings them for a high fundraising costs and failing to list their CEO, but the problems here are ones of circular outside payments that are not exactly obvious.

Eyes, Ears, Nose, And Paws

This smallish charity came to light recently in the wake of a news report that one of its principals had left a dog trainee in a car to bake to death, and appears, as with NDSDF, to be more a case of a badly-run charity rather than a self-serving one. My major concern in reading their 2011 990 is that of the $128,058 in revenue, $77,000 of it – more than half – goes to the salaries of the two executive directors, Maria Ikenberry and Deb Cunningham (page 12 of the PDF). Also, in the form 4562 on page 10, there is a $2,000,000 cost of property with $500,000 of that expensed for that tax year. This to me bears more investigation; are they using this charity to launder some other personal expense, perhaps a house or a commercial property?

Service dog charities are one of the more egregious frauds in this space these days, and while I don't intrinsically see anything wrong with paying yourself, at some point it ceases to be real charity and becomes a business. This organization looks very much on the cusp of such a descent.

Worst-Case Scenario: YWCA USA

While running through some of these examples, it's useful to note one so bad even Charity Navigator spits them out for wastefulness. One such (which made their top ten list of poor-performing charities with highly paid CEOs) is YWCA USA, which rates zero stars, Charity Navigator's lowest possible score. While there are a lot of reasons for this, a review of their 2012 990 is kind of a tour through the pathologies entrenched and old charities can accumulate over time:

  • Their CEO, Gloria Lau, earned $200,920, including a $52,000 housing allowance while she was working in Washington, D.C. (page 29).
  • As a consequence of spending faster than receipts are coming in, YWCA USA actually spent $2.7 million more than it took in despite slightly increasing its investment income on $58 million of assets (page 1).
  • On $2.4 million in revenue, $1,147,587 went to salaries of officers and other employees, of which it is claimed that $434,212 actually went into program expenses. That means less than half of their employee costs (and here I'm being generous and not even including things like pension contributions, benefits, and payroll taxes) are actually going toward program activities!
  • In addition, there are $518,019 in accounting and legal expenses, $308,559 in investment management fees, and a huge black hole called “Other” (page 10, line 11g) to the tune of $767,123. Nearly a third of revenue goes toward unaccounted-for expenses. Even if you take their word for it that $489,487 of that figure goes to program expenses, overhead is still no less than 36%.
In short, this is an organization with substantial resources that is unbelievably badly managed.

In Conclusion

It's not straightforward to read 990's, because even when you can make sense of them, they tend to obscure more than they enlighten. Large charities tend to be the worst at this, for the simple reason that bureaucracies develop habits, the same as the people who staff them. Waste, venality, and incompetence are all enemies, yet ones such organizations tend to succumb to. If you must give to large charities, read their IRS Form 990 carefully.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Show: The Desolation of Charlie

Our little ski/snowshoe party split up. Goldbrickers Perfesser Chaos and Aunt Barb continued skiing on the trail; Raindog Sophia and Charlie's big sister/niece (it's complicated) Annabelle stayed with them.

Charlie and I, the ones who were actually working, struck off into the woods, off-trail, scouting for places to hide Saturday's search subjects.

It wasn't hard to keep track of the others as they skiied the loop. Sophia sang The Song of Her People as she went; this is reliably piercing at up to 1 km away. The little Chuckster was quite content exploring the deer beds and squirrel hides while I snowshoed briskly along and marked the hidey-spots.

But then we came out onto the trail, and Little Miss Imma Be A Trailing Dog Like My Mommy dropped her nose and announced to me that Daddy passed by here and also that she intended to trail him until she caught him.

And this is what happened when I told her she wasn't allowed to.