Falling off the turnip truck

As you know, I am a tiny new baby breeder, and really not much better in Danes. I don’t think you really get there until you’ve been breeding and showing long enough that your third or fourth generation dies of old age. My first are now veterans (sniff!) but I cut and run, and when I did so I asked the owners who had the last puppies on full registration to spay them. So there will be no more. I am thrilled that dogs from my breedings got titles and recognition and that the breeding I decided to do will go on because of wonderful owners like Sue G., who put Gr. Championships on the dogs she bought from me, and her boy became part of some very nice pedigrees and her efforts with him live on. I am in some ways even more proud of the TDI dogs, the obedience dogs, the “just a really good dog” pets.

But the fact is that I barely got going in Danes and now I am a baby again in Cardis. And I am still just feeling my way, acting on my convictions but in many ways groping forward with very little idea of what’s next. I am still hurt by every tiny setback, still putting all my eggs in one basket, still building air castles. 

None of those things are particularly great, which is why I don’t tend to talk about my breeding plans (because I am stupid and very much still guessing) and do tend to talk about behavior or philosophy or responsible breeding, where I feel more at ease and have many more years to back me up. I bred my first animals (show rabbits) almost thirty years ago, and since then I’ve showed everything from zucchini (no, I’m not joking) to horses. I am not sure I’ve ever done anything without competing with it, in fact – from crabapple jam (first prize!) to Nubian and Saanen goats (one of the few things I rescued from the burned house was a bowl with “Highest Butterfat Production” engraved on it). 

I’ve been told I’m incredibly naive because I still think that showing is fun and I still trust people. I even had someone yell – and she was genuinely mad – “That’s not the way it works!” when I told her that I had asked a competitor about a problem with my dog. She said that every “real” exhibitor knew that you never reveal a fault, never let them touch your dog, and (I am not exaggerating) never let them know YOUR REAL ADDRESS. Because in the real world, as soon as you look like you have a decent dog they’ll try to wreck it or poison it or throw rat bait over your fence. And every group-winning dog has her tail fixed, or is secretly spayed, or whatever.

I don’t live in that world of constant suspicion and expectation that people are in a steady state of trying to screw me. And that’s not because I’m inexperienced – it’s because since I was seven years old and given a copy of the ARBA Standards of Excellence and somebody set up a Dutch rabbit on a grooming table and showed me what a cobby body is and why cowhocks are bad, I’ve had SO MUCH help. From polo players who taught me how to pick a stall to the ADGA judge who showed me what a good medial suspensory ligament is to the dog people who clucked over my dog and not only immediately helped me fix her but hugged me when she finished and I cried, I have not only been impressed by the generosity of animal people, I’ve been OVERWHELMED. 

So let me tell you how amazed I was, one more time, at the help we had with Bronte and her puppies. And how much care and consideration was shown to a pair of brand-new breeders. And let me be honest and set myself up to be screwed by saying that I’m worried about Bronte, because she seems to have taken this pregnancy hard, and I am always, perpetually, constantly worried that the puppies will thrive. For the next twelve years I’ll be looking for that e-mail or that that voicemail or that instant message that will make me go over to the couch and put my face in my hands. 

All of which is a very long intro to the fact that I am still new enough to breeding and to dogs that I can have major epiphonal moments where a thousand cogs in my brain all of a sudden fall into place. I think, at least for me, a lot of showing and breeding is like that. You read and talk and watch videos and go to shows and read and talk some more, and then you go to Nationals and actually see sixty dogs gaiting in a row and movement suddenly makes sense. You talk and read and e-mail your mentors and put your hands on all the dogs you can, and it all builds up in your mind until you have your first litter. And then the light finally turns on and you understand how toplines mature and why they affect how the dog moves.

That’s why in some ways I have gotten more out of the non-regular classes at the various Nationals I’ve attended than I get from breed – seeing the Stud Dog class at my second Dane nationals turned on a major lightbulb when I saw how clearly it showed what that dog consistently improved and what he could not improve or even made worse. Watching Veterans teaches you more about structure than most classes – which dogs are still moving easily and consistently at age eight or nine? Which were huge winners in their youth but now can barely trot? 

One of the very cool things about having showed so many animals is that when those pieces fall into place they do so across a bunch of species. Why are cowhocks bad? Because they don’t leave any room for the udder and bang against the mammary tissue (goats and cows). Because they can’t get out of the way of the animal’s own manure (rabbits). Because they destroy the efficiency and power of movement (dogs and horses). A well-laid-back, well-blended shoulder is the same thing in rabbits and sheep and goats and horses as it is in dogs. A long loin is a weak loin in every single animal. A narrow ribcage with very little space between the ribs is penalized in every single standard of every species I ever took in a ring or put on a table. And so on. Structure is structure is structure is structure. Movement is movement is movement. Proportions are astonishingly consistent; what makes an attractive head or a strong front or a functional croup is very much the same across most of the mammals. 

Which is why it was such a delight, a new moment of wonder and clarity, when I was able to go over Bronte’s puppies. Forcing my brain to adjust from Danes to Cardigans has been extremely difficult and I was not sure I could do any kind of a job of understanding those puppies. And I still know I have EVERYTHING to learn about “type.” But the structure… it was all there. It felt under my hands like it was in miniature (I’m used to 25-lb eight-week-old puppies, not 7-lb!) and having all that hair takes some real getting used to, but shoulder, topline, ribspring, second thigh, tailset, all there.

It was an abrupt and very dramatic mind-change for me, too. I all of a sudden understood why established breeders enjoy having multiple breeds around, why it’s a virtue that Pat Hastings has bred 28 different breeds. It’s honestly a huge kick to find the truest and best structure hidden by the various superficial differences between the dogs. I wanted to go home and touch a whole bunch of puppies. I DID go home and watch six hours of Crufts, trying to see if I could see rears under the Lhasa’s hair (no, not good enough yet) or shoulders in the sporting dogs (getting there). 

It made me feel that maybe the scent of turnips is a tiny bit behind me now – not very far (I can still see the tire tracks) but I’m at least a tiny bit more prepared to make good decisions.

3 thoughts on “Falling off the turnip truck

  1. Oh STOP. Because now I am crying.

    I’m going to shut the laptop and go watch more Crufts. Don’t say any more nice things or I will totally fall apart.

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