How I Came to Do What I Do
I have been a animal lover since I was born.
My mom tells me stories about how I used to call to our cats as a small baby. As most babies would, I simply mimicked they way I heard her call them. We had animals my whole life. Mostly cats and dogs with the occasional abandoned baby bird or bunny we would rescue and rehabilitate. I was obsessed with them all. I spent countless hours playing with our animals, building them beds, creating hideouts in our woods, reading them books (I had a cocker spaniel that especially liked Dr Suess), and making them crafts. What cat doesn’t like macaroni art, right? I often rode our quad down the road to visit our neighbor's horses and bring them apples. I must have drove my mom nuts with the apples I went through, but she never said if I did. My Mom is where my love of animals comes from. She definitely got it.
When I was a teenager I started to think having kittens or puppies would be “fun." Clearly this is not a good reason to breed. I know this... but I was a kid. I often asked my Mom, yet she wisely never cared to go down that path. Now I understand why, but at that time I didn’t. I asked often for babies, any babies.
I grew into an adult. The desire for breeding began to grow and take on a more responsible tone in my head-- slightly more responsible, at least. I mostly knew that I wanted to be in a good place, emotionally and financially. I also knew dogs were my greatest love. Years went by, I got married, had a couple kids, went through some hardships... the time was never right.
Then, finally at 34 I felt ready.
I researched many, many dog breeds and landed on Labradors--maybe boring to some and certainly the most common breed. My husband even referred to them as “vanilla” one time when he was trying to convince me to get a German Shepard. I considered it, as I considered many breeds. But the Labrador was just the best fit. I have always preferred large breeds. Plus, Labradors are very trainable; they want to please, they are great with kids, they are great with other dogs, they love people, they love to play fetch and they love to swim. I mean, they REALLY love to swim. Anyone that knows me knows that water and the beach are my love language. My favorite thing in the world is to go to the beach with my girls, play some fetch, and swim, swim, swim. I am very fortunate in that my in-laws have a private home in Grand Haven MI right on the lake. I hope they never move.
So I was ready and now I needed dogs. I had decided that I wanted yellow labs. By no means do I think they are better than chocolate or black, just my personal preference. On Mother’s Day, 2011 I went to see a local breeder. He told me he had one yellow female, a “very dark yellow” he said. I wanted a lighter yellow, but I went to see her anyway. There were 4 puppies left. Three chocolate boys and one “very dark yellow” girl. Boy was she dark, I never saw such a dark yellow--actually red. He let the puppies out, they all came charging at me, the boys in front with the “very dark yellow” taking up the rear. Being rushed by puppies is one of my favorite things in the world, it's impossible not to smile, just like when a baby giggles. So here they came. All three of the boys ran right by me, but the “very dark yellow” ran right TO me, landing right up on my lap. My Tinket, soon to be Tink. We found each other. My heart soared, I paid, I collected her up, and I went home.
Now we could start our life together. We trained, we walked, we talked, we played, we ate, we loved and I researched... a little. She was one of the sweetest things had I ever met, so well behaved, and so smart. I found out a few weeks after having her that she is a Fox Red lab, and I had never heard of a such a thing. It should have been a red flag that her breeder apparently hadn’t either. But I was still learning and I had much further to go than I ever imagined. I thought that breeding was very organic and natural. I had no idea yet how complicated it really is. Unfortunately I would learn the hard way, but I will get to that later.
I knew I wanted a couple girls for my breeding. 3 or 4 was my dream. After getting Tink I started doing some reading about breeding. I learned that labs can have bad hips as they age, and that one should find a breeder that tests for hips. Other tests would be great too, but hips were the big one. I should have done this research before getting any dogs, I know. This never occurred to me. I thought breeding was natural and would just happen, perfectly. I always say, “how can you know what you don’t know?." Luckily Tink was the epitome of good health. She was spunky, bright, alert, smart, agile, athletic. I really got lucky.
So I was off to find my next girl. I found a local breeder and FIRST asked about the sire and Dams hips. I knew what I was doing now. He said he doesn’t test hips any longer, he used to, but now knows his dogs lines going back 30 years, so he gave me a verbal guarantee. Good enough for me. This story is not as magical as when I got Tink. I went, saw the puppies, nobody seemed to pick me, they all looked alike, and they were all exactly what I wanted. I spent some time with them, it was a very hard decision. There was one shy one in the corner, she was the biggest and she just pulled me in. My Olive. I paid, I collected her up, and we went home. My two girls were 9 months apart. A good start. I felt complete. I planned to wait about 4 years to get a 3rd Lab. I wanted to space them out a bit after my first 2, because like I said, I knew what I was doing now.
I poured myself into research.
I knew that a dog shouldn’t have puppies until they are at least two years old. I had just a little over a year until Tink would be 2, and I wanted to be ready. I started learning more about health testing. This was very important to me at this point. Titles and trophies are certainly impressive, and they definitely don’t hurt a dogs lines. But, I very much believe that any lab with a good temperament is trainable with a good handler. I knew I wanted to focus on health and temperament in my breeding program. I found that bad hips are not the only problem that commonly affects Labradors, much to my surprise.
I learned that The American Kennel Club is in partnership with an organization called OFA, which means Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. OFA reads specific tests done by a Veterinarians office, like X-rays for hips, then they determine a rating or score for that dog’s test. In further reading I found that a Lab should be genetically tested for hips, elbows, eyes and something called EIC (exercise induced collapse), whatever that was, probably doesn't matter right?
I started making calls for appointments for testing, and Tink would be first because she was older. I knew she would be fine, she was just so perfect, I just wanted the certificates to prove it. The more I learned the more I started to get worried about Olive. She was just so big: a big stocky english girl that was comically clunky. But, we would pass that bridge when we got to it.
Tink’s First Appointment was for her hips. Penn Hip was the name of the test I choose. Penn Hip is more expensive than OFA, but I choose them over OFA at the time because they allow you to test earlier than OFA, which requires minimum of 26 months old. Tink was 18 months, and I wanted to be ready to go when she turned 2. It was in the Fall of 2012 when Tink had her Penn Hip test done. I was so excited! My dreams were coming true! I was being true to myself, going after my goals, and doing right by the breed.
It was a long 3 weeks to wait for the results, I got them on a Tuesday night after getting home from work. I will NEVER forget that moment, I sat down at our kitchen counter with tears in my eyes... I was so happy. I am getting teary eyed thinking about it now...
I opened the envelope. All I can remember is complete and utter CoNfUsIoN. All I could comprehend was the number "20%". What did 20% mean? 20% of what? The medical jargon was beyond me. I just wanted to see what I though I knew: big letters that said “SHE IS PERFECT! JUST LIKE YOU THOUGHT!" So, I kept reading. I got more confused. I cried, but my tears were no longer happy. How could this be. 20% is bad? This can’t be. I must be reading this wrong. I called my husband over to help decipher the frustratingly accurate doctor talk. He didn’t understand either. But, sadly, I did understand, I just couldn’t face it then. Her hips were bad. But how? She’s so healthy... so agile. The only word to describe what I felt was complete devastation. I never, ever imagined a bad outcome. It genuinely never occurred to me. I had so many dreams wrapped up into this little red ball of love. Now what? I’ll call the Vet in the morning, because certainly I just don’t understand…. Unfortunately that was not the case. I understood too well. It was like a death. Today, 3 ½ years later, it still hurts.
I didn’t know what to do at that point. Do I write a very worded letter to her breeder and bash him for being irresponsible? I had so much rage towards him! But wasn’t I just as irresponsible for not asking about hips when I got her? I certainly was.
I had so many conflicting emotions at the time. She is so smart, so sweet, has such a wonderful temperament and would be such a good mother. Maybe just one litter? Maybe no one would care and it wouldn't matter? It took a lot of strength but I had to remind myself of my goals as a responsible breeder.
I had her fixed, and it crushed me.
Even thought he idea of "just one litter" haunted me for quite a while, I knew what was truly important to me as a breeder-- responsibility to the breed and the profession in general. I had 2 years to come to terms with this fate for Tink, yet it was still one of the hardest days of my life. I kept it mostly to myself. While my family supports my love of these animals, and my desire to breed, they just don’t understand the passion. It’s odd to most people I think. Very few understand, and I understand that.
I tried very hard to look at the positive and to trust fate, often with success. I thought maybe the universe was saving Tink and I from a different kind of disaster, something that I would never experience now. Maybe she would have lost all her puppies in the birthing process? Maybe I would have lost her in the birthing process? I will never know. But I do believe there is a reason for everything, and that belief has helped me accept the situation. I will always mourn that loss, but I understand.
Many breeders “re-home” their dogs when they no longer can produce for their breeding program. I will never do that. I could never do that. These dogs are family. Tink will just live out the remainder of her years a spoiled Mamma's girl, a great big sister and role model to my other dogs, and an amazing aunt to what I hope is many puppies.
Now I had to focus on big goofy Olive. She was now 2 years old, which is considered the ideal age to have these tests completed. I was terrified! My eggs were ALL in her big, clunky basket. I could not face another devastation like I had with Tink. I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t cut out for breeding? I questioned everything. I read... I learned...I researched...I pondered. I was becoming as much on of an expert about breeding as one can be without actually having experienced breeding. The desire was stronger than ever. It took me another year before finally going through the testing with Olive. Looking back I think I just needed a minute... or 525,600 minutes. Give or take.
Medical jargon coming now: Blah, Blah, Blah! I know, I know... but this is important. In my vast research and in talking with my Vet I learned about another organization in partnership with OFA and AKC. They are called Canine Health Information Center, or CHIC. I found that all these organizations together recommend tests specific to each dog breed, determined by the occurrences of medical ailments reported nationally by doctors of veterinary medicine. They recommend testing on hips, elbows, eyes and EIC. Heart is optional. If these requirements are fulfilled with good results, CHIC issues what is called and CHIC number that is attached to that dog’s AKC registration.
I remember once thinking EIC (exercise induced collapse) was a joke, a term created by overly critical animal enthusiasts being overly protective. It turns out EIC is very important. EIC is an aliment that will not kill a dog, but a life with it is not pleasurable. What EIC really means is that a dog affected with it will most often collapse after about 15 minutes of exercise. Simple things like fetch or swimming can trigger EIC. This affected dog will literally fall to the ground, unable to move, in a seemingly paralyzed state. The dog will usually spend about 20 minutes in this state and then it will get up and keep it going like nothing ever happened. Its a very odd ailment that experts don't fully understand yet. Its believed that it does not cause any pain or damage to the dog. That being said, it clearly can't be enjoyable.
There are 3 possible results with EIC testing, and they are: Effected, Carrier, or Clear. An Effected Dog should never be bred. A Carrier may be bred under certain circumstances. A Clear dog is always OK to breed.
Now it was time to test Olive... she was now a little over 3 years old. I decided to do her eyes first. It is the cheapest test, so if and when that came back bad, I wouldn’t be out as much money, right? Her eyes were clear, which was great. Whew--I breathed a little bit easier after that. Next, I had an appointment at my Vet’s office for EIC blood work, elbow x-rays, and that evil hip one that took Tink out of the running (well that's how I thought of it at least). I was so nervous! I definitely had myself very prepared for bad news this time. Last time I was blindsided, this time I was preparing for the worst. Talking with my Vet that day--test day--I almost backed out 4 times. I felt that on one hand, I had to follow through with my dreams and goals. On the other hand, pessimism was taking over and I just KNEW in my heart I was doing little more than throwing away our hard earned money on these dumb tests. Obviously they would be bad, especially that "evil hip one."
While the Vet completed testing, I had to leave Olive there for a few hours because the x-rays required anesthesia. When I got her I was shaking like a leaf. How was I going to wait weeks for the results-- the results that surely would be horrible yet again? The Vet came out and talked to me. He told me he had no way of knowing how her EIC would come back because that was just a blood draw... BUT! her x-rays both looked good to him, so I should rest easy. Elbows and that "evil hip one." Both! Do I dare? Could the results be good? My resignation was that he clearly didn't know what he was talking about.
I went about my business, which really now seemed to be a full time job watching the mail box. The pay was terrible, but this was my situation. A couple weeks later I got the elbow and hip results on the same day. Stupid mail man. I knew what results I wanted. The scale goes from Excellent, Good, Normal, Fair then to Poor. Poor you never want, I would definitely have to spay her and may as well make an appointment before the letter hits the garbage. Normal, Good and Excellent are the desired scores obviously. My brain taunted: "HA, fat chance Niki!" Then I saw her scores... Good and Normal?!!!!???!
I knew what this meant, yet I felt like I was reading another language or some obscure guide for how my barren dog will experience the rest of her time on Earth. Good and normal what? Her spaying will go good and the results will be normal? She will live a good and normal life? Her fetching abilities are good and normal?...
When it sunk in, I couldn’t believe it! I was ecstatic! We got a bottle of campaign that night. We were 3 for 4. I knew we were celebrating prematurely, and I worried about jinxing the whole thing. But I was thrilled, ecstatic, relieved and hopeful. One more to go… EIC was the final test.
Olive’s EIC results came another week later. ALL CLEAR!
This, obviously, was the best case scenario. I could not believe it! Was I finally ready? YES! I was happier than I had ever been in my life.
Olive's next heat was expected late April to early May. I found a beautiful stud dog a couple hours away, a black lab with an owner that is very kind. Now, we wait…
I started to seriously think about getting that third dog now. Tink was 4 and olive would be 4 at the end of this year. My puppy plan was to get one every 4 years from now on. I couldn’t believe it had been almost 4 years since we got Olive. I decided to start looking in the Fall, when my son went off to college. That would be perfect timing.
In the mean time, April came and went. May, June and July all came and sped by like it was their business. I didn’t know what to think... why was this dog not going into heat? I started reading, reading and reading. The I discovered silent heats and started to wonder if she had one. It basically means a dog has a heat, could still get pregnant, but there is no bloody show; therefore the owner doesn’t realize a heat is happening, so doesn’t bring her to a stud. Times like this make me wish I owned a stud dog, but that's not a path I choose.
The more I read, the more convinced I became that she had had a silent heat. That was so frustrating, but I needed to look to the future. I estimated that her next heat could be around late October of that year. I checked her constantly, always waiting, always watching... yet nothing. I now believe she had another silent heat. Ugh!
Now it was late Fall and I had been seriously thinking about getting a new puppy. I had been looking for a few months, but nothing ever felt right. Then, at the end of November on a Saturday night, I saw a picture of a litter of puppies. I showed my husband because I thought they were the most beautiful puppies I had ever seen... it wasn’t an advertisement, just a picture shared on a Lab Lovers Group I follow on Facebook. This picture stuck with me. A couple of nights later I woke up at 5 am and did a search for that picture. I have no idea why, but I found it and located the person that had posted. I learned they were her puppies. She had 2 litters, 20 pups total with 6 girls and they were all still available. They were the lightest yellow of English labs. Exactly what I wanted. But the issue was medical clearances. This was more important than the right shade of yellow for me. Thankfully both sire and dam had all the clearances I was looking for.
My husband and I talked it over for a few days. He was very supportive, but I had a hard time pulling the trigger. This puppy was more expensive than I ever dreamed I would spend on a dog. Granted she was in my long term plan and this was not a spur of the moment decision, but still i needed to think. I am not a frivolous person. I don’t wear Jewelry except a wedding band and have been to a hair salon maybe 3 times in my life. I don’t care for name brand clothes. I don’t do nail stuff. I kinda loath expensive shoes and purses.
Maybe I deserved this puppy.
Everything felt right, but it was a lot of money. After a couple of days I decided to go for it. We put down a down payment through Paypal and settled in to wait 2 weeks until I could go pick her out and take her home. We didn’t tell our kids since we wanted it to be a surprise.
On Dec 16, 2015 I traveled by myself from Grand Rapids Mi 4 ½ hours to a little town in Ohio. I spent the night in a hotel in preparation of meeting her at 7 AM on Dec 17. I was nervous and excited. I picked at my dinner. I sipped on some wine. I barely slept... flipping through television channels all night, aimlessly. I took 4 baths with calming oils throughout the night. Finally, 6 am rolled around. I got up, got ready, and went to meet me some puppies. What would I do if it didn't work out? I got there at 7 AM exactly and there were 5 girls to choose from. It was not an easy choice. They were all perfect. How can you tell a personality in a few minute's time?
The one I liked the most was quiet and sleepy the whole time. She did not want to wake up which reminded me very much of how Olive was. Another one was enthusiastically all over me, possibly “picking me"-- kinda like Tink did-- but the enthusiasm was almost too much. I thought she might be a hand full. These were the two that stuck out. This was a huge decision for me. I went with my gut and choose the sleepy one, which was also the biggest one.
She would become Mel... Melanie... Mellie Bean.
I paid for her, collected her up and headed for home. It was a long drive and she was absolutely perfect.
Arriving home and surprising my kids, Tink and Olive with her was beyond exciting. She was just in time for Christmas. She fit in immediately and took right to her new sisters with no adjustment time and very little whining in her crate. It’s like she was born and meant to be here. I loved her so much, so fast. She was definitely a Banger... definitely a Mother Pup.
Only a couple of months has gone by since then. Mel is a fun, bright, happy, sweet and smart new addition. I think she will be #2 in the hierarchy of dominance. She is submissive to Tink, but runs the show with Olive. She is almost 5 months old and growing rapidly. She will definitely catch her sisters soon.
Olive is a little over 4. She is my most submissive dog... a silly, big goofy girl, if only she realized her size. I guess that’s how these things go. We are still waiting for her heat. I'm hoping around April 2016. I just need to be ready. At this rate Mel might have a litter first, but I hope not.
Tink is the leader of the group, silently dominant. She will be an amazing aunt to these future puppies. I know she will adore them.
Tink will always be special to me as my first Labrador as an adult.
She may have never had puppies, but in many ways I will always consider her to be the most valuable dog in my breeding program. She is so good, so well behaved, so sweet, and has the best disposition. New puppies always learn from the older dogs in any house. Tink has set this tone. She has established the base line for every puppy that will ever leave this house. Tink is the best role model and its been amazing and surprising to watch Mel learn from her and follow her. We can already leave Mel home alone, un-crated, without her being naughty. She follows her sister’s lead. If Tink and Olive got into the trash every time I turned around, or chewed up shoes, or got on the furniture, I know that Mel would mimic those behaviors. I will always be grateful to Tink for that, and I think the credit is all hers.
I hope that what ever dog you choose, where ever it comes from, you love it, appreciate it, and are patient with it. They will return your efforts, over and over and over again... A dogs love is the purest!
Thanks for reading! Now go grab a bumper and play some fetch!