Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Making the Right Choice

So you’ve found your dream dog and you’ve managed to get everyone on board with its acquisition and employment.  Now, there’s only one hitch in the giddyup.  It’s not easy to find a Bedlington Terrier puppy.

It turns out that at one point, Bedlingtons almost disappeared due to Copper Toxicosis of the liver, so today’s breeders are ardently conscientious about blood lines, DNA checks, and strengthening the genetic makeup of the line.  The result is that only about two hundred fifty Bedlingtons are born each year while in the same period there are somewhere in the vicinity of ten thousand Lab puppies looking for a home.  I began my search by first checking the bona fides of the Bedlington Terrier Club of America, and let me tell you, these folks are serious about the protection and celebration of the lamb dog.   From them, I not only learned about the breed’s history and temperament, but also found a list of Club approved breeders. 

Part of my obsessive research on the Sunday after the First Sighting included scouring the websites of the BTCA associated breeders in my general vicinity.  That didn’t take long.  There is only one, a hundred miles away.  He would have no puppies until sometime in the summer.  I cast a wider net and included all of the West Coast.  One litter eight hundred miles away.  The West Coast is a really big place.  I emailed to ask for information, then I began clicking on every link on the BTCA site.  Hurray!  A breeder in Michigan who might be willing to send a puppy by air.  I completed his online interest form, expressing my plans for the puppy and asking if he thought his dogs would be good candidates for therapy dogs.

I should probably admit to a bias right now.  I wanted a girl dog.  Yes, it’s ridiculous, but I simply didn’t want to deal with a male therapy dog.  I have nothing against boys, completely the contrary.  But I just couldn’t mentally get around the image of the eighth grade girl sitting in my office crying her eyes out about whatever crisis she was facing as the dog lolled around on the carpet with his winkie hanging out.  Plus I’ve always had girl dogs.  Girl dogs, boy cats.  That’s just the way it has to be.

The breeders I talked to were very understanding.  Does passion for something engender generosity towards others who share your interests?  Or does it take a generous person to become passionate about a fuzzy four-legged?  Whichever the case, it has been my experience that Bedlington folk will gladly spend hours talking about their dogs, giving advice, providing a sounding board to a newbie. 

Within twelve hours I had heard back from both my inquiries.  The woman in Portland had committed all of her new puppies, but she did have a little girl from her other dog’s earlier litter.  This puppy was now five months old.  And the man in Michigan?  He had just committed his last puppy to someone in New York.  He wanted me to know, though, that he had a very good friend in Texarkana, Texas, a woman with a champion Bedlington who (that?) had given birth to six puppies about a month earlier.  He thought it was possible that she had some puppies unclaimed and he forwarded my inquiry to her.  Sure enough, within a couple of hours I had an email from the Texarkana woman.   She had one little girl still available. 

I called the Portland woman, a wonderful, down-to-earth person who talked with me for nearly an hour.  She explained that she had planned to keep her five-month-old, but was quickly realizing that five dogs were simply too many for a single woman to take care of.  Though she hated to part with her little girl, she felt it was the best choice for both of them.  The nice thing, she told me, is that an older puppy is already partly trained and would be over the more demanding stages of puppyhood.  Thumbs up for therapy dog potential.  Either I could fly up to Portland and pick her up, or the woman would fly down to Monterey to deliver her.  This dog was liver.

Bedlingtons come in two colors: liver and blue.  The liver start out brown and gradually become light tan.  The blue start out charcoal, almost black, and fade to a silvery grey.  Both are lovely.

So I call the Texarkana woman.  The mother of her litter is a show dog, but also the family pet.  About three years earlier she had had a very small litter.  The woman and her husband had so enjoyed raising these babies that they decided to have one more litter “before they got too old to keep up.”   The puppy was five weeks old.  As it turned out, they would be flying to Phoenix, Arizona, just as the puppies reached eight weeks old—the age that they could leave their mom and go to their new homes.  She could bring the puppy and, depending on airline restrictions, pop it onto a plane for the short flight to Monterey.  She, too, was convinced that Bedlingtons would make terrific therapy dogs.  She quickly emailed me a photo of her baby.

First Look

That is a face to fall in love with. 

My husband and I spent a considerable amount of time talking over the advantages and disadvantages of a five month versus a five week old dog, but it was finally pure emotion that made the choice:  I wanted to experience every bit of this puppy raising.  I wanted her to be mine.  I wanted a tinky puppy.  Oh boy, had I ever forgotten just what that means.

But we emailed lovely Jan from Texarkana and sealed the deal.  She was thrilled and had the graciousness to tell me she was honored that her little one would have the chance to comfort the distressed.  She told the puppy she was “a lucky girl.”  Can you get much more supportive than that? 

But we were not home free quite yet…

First Halloween

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Getting Beyond "We'll Never Own Another Dog"

When, at age forty, I married the perfect man, his household included two young kids and mine included two cats and a dog.  It was a tossup which caused more angst.  While I struggled to grow into the parental role I never thought I wanted, John became caretaker to a timid, anxious, sweet and loving former puppy mill puppy.  His work as a composer, musician and music teacher allows him to work from his home studio until after noon.  Mine as a teacher demands that I am out of the house often ten hours a day.  That meant that John was the responsible parent who walked the dog, kept the vet appointments, interrupted his work to let her out, and generally saw chunks of composing time eaten up in canine maintenance.  When she died at the age of thirteen, we agreed that our dog days were behind us.  And for a couple years, the choice felt like the right one.

One Saturday, John and I went out to breakfast at Parker-Lusseau, our favorite little French bakery.  As we were leaving, my sweetheart exclaimed, in a disbelieving tone, "Honey!"  

And I said, "What?"  

And he said, "Honey!  Look down."  

So I did and saw nothing but my shoes.  

"Honey!" he said again, "I can't believe you, of all people, missed it.  Look there!"  And he pointed to a very small sheep at the end of a man's leash.  

Okay, it wasn't really a sheep, it was a dog, but it did look like a little lamb.  We patted it and I have never felt a softer dog.  It was gentle and calm and lovely.  What kind of dog is this? we asked the man, and he spoke the magic words: a Bedlington Terrier.  

On our way to the car, my thoughtful husband, who knows me so very well, put his arm around me and murmured, "You know, sweetheart, if you really want to get another dog, I think we could make it work.  I just wish you could take it to school every day so that it wouldn't have to be alone so much."  

"You mean as a therapy dog?"

"Why not?"

In fact, I contemplated, that could be a really wonderful idea.  I am the dean of students at an independent school that serves brilliant, ambitious, creative adolescents from all socio-economic levels.  Most of what I do involves counseling teenagers who are stressed out by uproars at home, by social or academic upheavals at school, or simply by the trials of adolescence.  If a student has a meltdown she or he will end up in my office.  A therapy dog could provide a point of focus and maybe even comfort for upset students who are trying to tell me about their situations.  What's better for stress than the unconditional love of a dog?  It could be helpful for students and teachers both.  And one of my concerns has always been how to break the perceived barrier of my office door--how can I make it more comfortable for a student simply to drop by and say hi?  A dog would be an easy draw.  I wondered what the school would say to the idea.

So, in my obsessive way, I spent six hours the next day researching Bedlington Terriers.  Everything I learned about them encouraged me.  They're gentle, mellow, even tempered, smart, eager to please, people oriented, agile, confident, and help little old ladies across the street.  Okay, maybe not the last one.  I sent inquiries off to two members of the Bedlington Society of America who indicated they had puppies available.

On Monday, I took my idea to our head of school.  He looked at me with his, "What in the world will you surprise me with next?" look, one I've gotten pretty used to over the years.  Before he could respond, we were interrupted and never had the opportunity to return to the topic.  That night, I sent him an email explaining more about what I had in mind, along with pictures of grown-up Bedlingtons.  The next morning he replied saying that he actually loved the idea, was a big fan of therapy dog programs, but that we really needed to involve our business manager to ask about the insurance ramifications and other issues.

Now, the thing you need to know about our business manager is that she has mastered the use of the word NO.  As a friend of mine says, she's exactly the kind of person you want in a business manager.  She's also a warm, caring individual who loves the school fiercely.  Before I talked with her, I wanted to have my case pretty airtight.  The next day I happened to be talking with the school's lawyer about a different issue when I had a flash of inspiration.  If I asked our lawyer about a dog and she told me it could never fly, then I would just let it go and move on.  But, if she said yes, her word carries a lot of weight with our business manager which might be exactly the extra ammunition I needed.  Not only did she not say no, she adored the idea.  This is a down-to-earth, practical woman and she was going gaga about the benefits of a therapy dog for our students.  She was quite familiar with Bedlingtons, knew their reputation for looking like little lambs, knew they are hypoallergenic.  

Emboldened, I went to the business manager and as I asked her to investigate what the insurance ramifications might be, I dropped into the discussion the fact that both the head of school and our lawyer were completely behind the idea.  She was cautiously intrigued by the possibilities of a therapy dog, but hesitated to commit herself until she had spoken with our insurance agent.  Within the hour, she called me, astonished, to report the agent's response: "What a terrific idea!"  Still, he needed several pieces of information from me to present to the actual insurance company representatives.  What certification would the dog get, for example?  What certification would I get?  What would the dog's duties be?  Blah, blah, blah.  And wasn't everyone astonished when the insurance company responded, "Oh, therapy dogs have to go through so much training we have no problem with them.  It wouldn't affect your insurance a bit."  

When I told our head of school that the therapy dog was a go, his jaw literally dropped.   Then he made a sardonic (though witty) remark about my efficiency.  In five days, I had transformed from a woman who never wanted to have a dog again to a woman who had persuaded her husband, a business manager, a lawyer, a head of school and an insurance company (not to mention herself) that a dog was not only a wonderful companion, but a vital necessity for the well-being of two hundred fifty teenagers.  

The next step was to find the perfect dog.