Friday, February 17, 2006

The Puppy Saga

Our family has a dog, a pure bred Australian Shepherd tri-color named Faye. When we purchased her from a breeder we entered into a contract to do a "puppy back" deal. We got a good deal on her, but agreed to breed her and give the breeder the number one pick of the litter. It seemed reasonable at the time, since Stef's desire was always to breed our dog and keep a puppy. The idea of our family having multiple generations of the same dog family appealed to her.

A few years pass, and the time has come to breed Faye. After a few false starts with a breeder, including a sterile stud, we finally breed Faye with a Blue Merle owned by our original breeder. The dogs were not closely related, so we didn't think there would be any inbreeding issues. Stefanie was thrilled when we determined that Faye was actually pregnant. What Stef wanted more than anything was to have a Blue Merle puppy. We both agree that Blue Merle's are the most attractive Aussies, and the breeder even bought into the idea that if only one puppy was a blue merle, we could keep it.

Time passed, and we approached her estimated puppy date. (I don't know... what do you call a due date for a litter of puppies?) We had some sort of vision thing done to Faye (ultrasound or similar) to determine that there were five puppies in the litter, which was a surprisingly low number considering that Faye's birth litter had been a whopping twelve dogs. We figured that we would be selling three dogs, keeping one for ourself and giving one to the breeder. A pet quality Aussie can fetch $500, so we were confident that we would be more than compensated for all the vet bills that this was incurring. We bought a kiddie swimming pool to act as a birthing/whelping area for the pups. Anticipation built.

The night Faye went into ... labor?... it didn't take very long to figure out that something wasn't quite right. Our friend Sherry was over to help us (having been through it before) and the stories that both we and she had heard from people led us to believe that it would be quicker than this. Hours passed with no puppies, only an increasingly agitated mommy dog. I went to bed, and Stef stayed up with Faye. In the morning, when the vet opened, Stef took Faye to figure out what was going on. A couple hours later I stopped in to check on them. It turned out that one of the puppies had been deformed severely enough that it didn't survive, and was the blocking factor in the birthing. The other four came fairly routinely after that, and before we knew it we had two tri-colors (mostly black and white, like their mommy) a red merle and (thrill!) a blue merle!

Things started going wrong before we even left the vet. Newborn puppies are more like sausages than dogs, and it took a while before we realized that the surviving red merle had rear leg deformities; the deformed dog that died at birth was also a red merle. Other than that it seemed exactly like the others. We took the whole litter home and put them in the whelping pool (now in our living room) so that Faye could attend to them. There was a sense of relief about the whole thing. We had our puppies! The only troubling part was what to do with "red" as we were calling him. With deformed hind legs he might have special needs his entire life. Let me explain now that my wife is an animal lover. The idea of putting a dog down for a relatively small deformity would torment her. I finally stepped in and offered what she could not bring herself to ask me. If nobody wanted Red, we would keep him. I didn't want to keep him, mind you, but could see no other option.

The next day, Stef called me at work with sad news. We had noticed that Faye paid special attention to Red, licking him ceaselessly. Mother dogs do that, in part, to stimulate defecation. Stef discovered after examining him was that Red had no anus, which was why Faye was frustrated with trying to get him to go. There was the option of surgical correction, but it was complicated and we couldn't see putting this little dog (or us) through it. We had been praying about what to do with this dog, and praise God He took the decision from us. That isn't to say that it wasn't painful, but direction was given and we praise Him for answered prayer. I decided to make it as easy on Stef as possible, so I came home at lunch and took Red to the vet to be euthanized.

Okay, here's a little glimpse into my life. I have had way too many animals die in my arms. I hate it. I can't become callous to it, and it rips me apart in ways that I can't describe. Stef and I owned ferrets before we owned the dog. The oldest of our three ferrets, Rikki, died without notice; he was old and slept a lot, and we found him dead one day. The middle one, Bear, died suddenly. We came home one evening to find him in distress in his cage, half hanging out of his hammock. I scooped him up to hold, comfort and assess him while Stef called the vet. He was having trouble breathing and was stiff. I warmed him and pet him until he rasped, writhed wretchedly in my grip (whatever was happening, it was clearly painful) and then went limp. That was it. He was dead just like that. I could feel the tension leave his body, a chilling and terrible sensation.

Now, there I was about to put this little dog, barely 24 hours old, down. We said our goodbyes to him, and I held him in my jacket for the drive to the vet, the last small comfort I could give him. For no describable reason, I opted to be present and hold Red for the euthanasia. It didn't seem to be painful but it wasn't quick. Newborn puppies are surprisingly resilient. I held him until the nurse confirmed that there was no heartbeat, then drove solemnly home. It wasn't as bad as Bear had been, and I suppose in a way it was merciful, but it left me melancholy and unsettled.

Things perk up a bit here. Three puppies can make a lot of ruckus, especially with a couple little kids to chase and wrestle. The two red merle's had been male and had been deformed. The remaining tri's and the blue were female, and we surmised that maybe something genetic had happened, which the breeder vehemently denied. We had named each puppy according to a physical characteristic, Blue for the blue merls, Ring for the tri with a white ring around her neck and Spot for the tri with the spot of white on the back of its neck. Eventually my girls decided that our puppy, the blue, would be named Cutie Pie (Pie for short.) The other two would be named by their respective owners. The breeder opted to let us sell both tri's in light of the problems we had had so far, of which we were grateful. As it is we might break even by selling the two of them. The puppies grew, my allergies went nuts, Stef was ecstatic about having her blue, and the girls just loved having puppies in the house.

Now comes the disaster. I'm warning you in advance. About 8 weeks after their birth, the puppies were exactly what puppies should be. Not "cuddle in your cupped hand" newborn puppies, but playful, jumping puppies. Fun puppies. Loud puppies. Stef and I were sitting at the kitchen table one Friday morning while the girls played with all three puppies in the living room. Stef turned toward the living room (which was blocked from my view) and said, "Mike, I think there's something wrong with Pie." I assumed that Pie was walking funny or some such, maybe after one of the kids had stepped on her foot. "Mike, there's something wrong! Oh, no! I think she's choking!" Stef raced into the living room, and I followed.

I'm getting nauseous writing this.

When I came around the corner, Stef was holding Pie and trying to figure out what to do with her. She was trying clumsily to perform mouth-to-snout ressusitation. At this point, I said something that haunts me. I just didn't understand why she would be doing that if the dog was choking. "Wrong way, darling," I sneered at her. My own voice cuts at me now. Stef was running out of composure now, and gave Pie to me. She was unconscious, but there was life in her. After feeling Bear die like I did, I was sure of it. I started abdominal compressions, like a dog version of the heimlich maneuver. I was sure it would work. When she became awkward to hold and compress I laid her down on the wood floor to try, but she didn't lay flat enough. I picked her up again, cradling her in my left arm and compressing with my right hand. When she didn't respond in any way, I pushed harder. I had no idea how hard to push.

Blood and foam poured from her mouth. I froze. She was dead.

Stef bursts back into the room, having gotten her car keys. "Give her to me," she sobbed frantically.
"I don't know what happened," I answered. I was panicked and tearful.
"Just give her to me!" she yelled, grabbed Pie and was out the door. She took off in my truck.

I went back to my bedroom and sat down. I was covered in blood. I was in shock. Did I rupture her internal organs? I was sure she was dead. Sure of it. My five year old (at the time) Sarah came and sat down next to me. "Daddy, did Pie die?"
"Yes, sweetie. I'm pretty sure she did."
"I don't want her to die," she said, and then we're both crying and holding each other. After a minute, Sarah looks up.
"Daddy, can we pray?" she asks. We pray together, for Stef, for us, for things we can't even name.

When Stef came back in the door, speckled in blood, she was as lost as I had ever seen her. She was still in her pajamas. I tried to hug her at the door. She just wanted to go back to the bedroom. When we got there, I applied what Sarah had brought to me. "Pray, Stef," I prompted her. Her voice was muffled and soft.
"No, I don't really want...." she trailed off.
"Pray. You need to pray" I begged her.
Stefanie fell to her knees, and cried to her Father, "WHY?" She shook with sobs. "Why? She was so pretty. She was so...." I held her for a while, sitting on the floor with her.

Much later, she told me that making her pray there was the best thing that could have happened. If she hadn't done it then it would have been a long time before she would have come to grips with it.

Unfortunately I didn't learn the lesson that quickly. I held a lasting resentment. For months I questioned God about His part in the matter. Why, indeed? Can't the creator of the universe, in control of everything, manage to let my wife have her puppy? The one thing she had desired for so long? I was angry and could not understand why God would deny her such a seemingly simple happiness. The resentment stagnated in me, until I wasn't sure why we should care about anything around us. If God, in his Perfect Plan, could just sweep anything we love away, no matter how simple or epic the act, then why care about anything? If everything moves according to His inscrutable whim, why endeavor to change anything? Months pass.

Here is one of those moments where you don't see an instant solution, but it occurs to you quite suddenly that things are already fixed. I was mad at God, pure and simple, for what He did to Stef. I simmered in me, but never felt like a pressure cooker, or whatever cooking comparison you wish to use. One day, though, it just suddenly occured to me that everything was fine. That's it. That simple. Everything is fine. Sounds dumb, doesn't it? It was like God had written me a note and stuck it to the fridge that said, "See? I told you it would be fine." Despite my childish tantrums, God was in control of the whole thing, and although I raged at Him for His choices in the matter, in the end everything turned out fine. There was no heavenly fanfare of "Incoming Divine Message!" or other pomp. Just a quiet, calm reassurance that when I was ready to stop being angry He was ready for me to come back. I came back.

We ended up keeping Spot. The namesake spot on her back has disappeared into her black fur, but you can see it if you dig around on the back of her neck. It's her secret spot. We renamed her Lovey, partially after the heart shape on her chest, partially after the Gilligan's Island character with whom we share a last name. A family from the bible study Stef attends adopted Ring, naming her Reilly. They are very happy with her.

This is the story that kept me from blogging for a long time. On my home site, with its kludgy little posting engine, I had created an "I don't like puppies" post. After the disaster I just couldn't write about it. I was still angry and writing reminded me of it. I was prompted to write this by a friend, and I'm glad I did. The lesson I take out of it is to learn that God is in control for the better, not as an indifferent application of power. I'm not sure I would have learned that without a much harsher lesson than I got.

1 comment:

  1. Good heavens... I had no idea! But what a profound experience, painful as it was. I wish God didn't have to so often use painful events as teaching tools, but there it is.

    I'm glad you were finally able to write about it -