The Commercial Appeal
BREEDING MISS LIBBY
Puppy-making ordeal results in bounty of fluffy joy
Seeing that his purebred Bernese mountain dog had puppies safely turned into a labor of love for sports columnist.
on to LIBBY
The e-mail arrived while I was on a quick three-day Carnival cruise, with my three boys and my elderly parents. The subject heading said: “Finally!” It was about my Bernese mountain dog, Libby.
I had left Libby with a breeder in North Carolina named Laurie Farley with hopes that Farley might manage to get Libby — this may not be the technical term — knocked up for me.
This is not as easy as you might think. Two years earlier, I drove Libby to a breeder in Alabama with a handsome boy. He never — this may not be the technical term, either — made a connection. So I drove Libby back to that same boy a year ago. Once again, no connection.
Both those previous times, we resorted to artificial insemination. Alas, no litter.
So this was the last effort. I’d try with a different boy. I found Farley and her dog Brew in North Carolina.
It did occur to me that the timing wasn’t perfect for a guy who makes his living writing about sports. A dog’s gestation period is 63 days. If Libby actually got pregnant, she’d have her litter right about when the NBA playoffs started. But what were the odds it would work this third time? And the Grizzlies wouldn’t last long in the playoffs anyway, right?
I went on the quick cruise. I waited for news. On Feb. 15, I opened up the e-mail and clicked on the attachment.
It was a photo. Not just any photo. A photo of Libby in the act. That’s right. Doggy porn. Sent across an international border. I never imagined I’d get an actual picture!
But there it was. Explicit visual evidence, along with a cheerful note from Farley.
“Not really sure she was thrilled about this, LOL! After it was over, she was VERY proud of herself.
“Enjoy the rest of your trip. I think we got her.”
NOT EVIL, BUT NOT EASY
Before I go any further, let me say that I understand some of you are already miffed.
He intentionally bred a dog? But there are a gazillion unwanted dogs in shelters all around town! Dog breeding is indefensible! Really, I get it. It’s true, of course, there are a gazillion unwanted dogs in shelters all around town. My eldest son volunteers at one. Irresponsible dog breeding is indefensible.
But if there were no responsible purebred breeders, there would be no beautiful golden retrievers, no regal Great Danes, no indefatigable Australian shepherds.
Before I ever thought about breeding Libby, I spent hundreds of dollars having her tested. Her hips, elbows and eyes were certified. Her thyroid and her heart were examined.
Even then, Farley spent most of our initial phone conversation trying to talk me out of it.
“Why do you want to do it?” she said.
“I want my kids to have the experience.”
“Wrong reason,” she answered. “What if Libby dies in the process?”
This nearly dissuaded me. We couldn’t bear to lose Libby. She’s the one who snuggled the boys to sleep, who woke them up before school every morning.
I had wanted a Bernese Mountain Dog ever since I was 12. When I got divorced four years ago, I bought one instead of a convertible. I still remember handing over the 18 $100 bills. For a dog. I was crazy.
Except it’s the best money I’ve ever spent. Libby is — I say this without bias — the sweetest dog in world history. She’s gorgeous, for one thing. And she loves everybody. She especially loves her boys. I can’t imagine the last four years without her.
But Bernese mountain dogs have very short life spans. They’re highly susceptible to cancers. The average Berner lives until 7. Many don’t last that long.
That’s the real reason I wanted to breed Libby. I wanted another dog for my boys, just like her. Plus, my mother raised standard poodles when I was growing up. I wasn’t a total neophyte. Farley relented. “Drive her over,” she said. “But if you’re going to do this, you’re going to need a mentor.”
A PUPPY DOULA
Two days before Libby was due, Farley showed up at my house with, among other things, an oxygen tank. “Is that for me?” I asked. Farley didn’t think this nearly as funny as I did.
When people ask me what the purebred dog breeding experience is like, I often tell them I feel like I’ve been living in the movie “Best in Show.”
Like the characters in the movie, Farley is utterly over-thetop. You should have seen the list of supplies she brought to help deliver the puppies.
Hemostat? Calsorb gel? Goat’s milk? Chlorhexidine?
I had the same thought that many of you are doubtless having: Haven’t dogs been successfully giving birth forever?
They have, of course. But then, so have humans. And how many of you relied on that logic to cancel the obstetrician?
Farley moved in to my house for the delivery. I had hired a puppy doula. I also found a veterinarian, Gerald Blackburn, who specializes in canine reproduction. Other wonderful vets told me to go to the Summer Avenue emergency clinic if Libby got in trouble after hours. Dr. Blackburn told me to call him.
This was a good thing, as it turned out. On April 18, Libby went into labor. She panted and circled and panted and started pushing. After several hours of fruitless pushing, we called Dr. Blackburn at 6 a.m., and he told us to get her to his office.
He immediately discovered the problem. One of the puppies was stuck, upside down. He fretted that we had waited too long for a C-section.
“Let’s see if we hear any heartbeats,” he said. He heard one, faintly. “Let’s get her ready,” he said, and she was off to surgery.
Time passed. I paced in the waiting room. An hour later, Dr. Blackburn emerged.
“They all made it,” he said, beaming. “Eight healthy puppies.”
GRIZ WIN, HAVE A PUPPY
Remember when I said the timing of all this may not have been wise for a guy who makes his living writing about sports? But remember when I said the Grizzlies probably wouldn’t last long in the playoffs anyway?
Hahahahahahaha. It was a complete, hilarious disaster.
The puppies were born on April 19. The next day, I flew to Los Angeles to cover the Grizzlies and the Clippers. This meant I would need full-time puppy sitting. And I really do mean full time. As in every moment of the day, all 24 hours.
For the first couple of weeks, the puppies could very well be squished by their big fluffy mother. If she was with them, someone had to be watching.
I assembled a team. Heather Branstetter, one of Dr. Blackburn’s assistants, said she’d pitch in. I found the rest of the team on Facebook. Mary Ann Pigott is a dog sitter around town. She had a friend, Stacey McNeill, who was willing to help. By the end, Stacey had volunteered her husband, John Argroves, who is a drummer in a rock band. There were others.
It was surreal, really. We had an elaborate shifting schedule. Somewhere in there, I happened to mention the puppies on Twitter. Naturally, Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers read this tweet. Didn’t you just know that Simers would hate puppies? He ridiculed them in a column.
Right then, I resolved to tweet a photo of a puppy every time the Grizzlies won a game.
“Griz win, have a puppy,” I tweeted after they won Game 4.
“Griz win, have a puppy,” I tweeted after they won Game 5.
“Griz win, have a puppy,” I tweeted after they won Game 6.
By then, people were clamoring for puppy pictures. Four more wins over the Thunder produced four more puppy pics. The San Antonio series was depressingly puppyless.
This was a tough way for the season to end. But it was hard to beat what I had waiting at home.
CUTEST. PUPPIES. EVER.
My God, they were cute. Impossibly cute. Times eight. With puppy breath.
All puppies are adorable, of course. But Bernese mountain dog puppies are — again, I say this without any bias — the most adorable puppies ever.
They didn’t have names, really. They had colors. This was another trick I learned from Farley. To tell the puppies apart, you put a collar of different colored rick rack — that’s a sort of fabric — around each of their necks. So the girls were Yellow Girl, Orange Girl, Pink Girl and Purple Girl. The boys were Red Boy, Blue Boy, Brown Boy and Green Boy.
They grew, faster than you can imagine. I had to focus on the matter of finding them homes. People were lining up to pay $1,800 for their own Bernese mountain dogs. Except the trick wasn’t really finding them homes. The trick was deciding
which of the dozens of potential homes would get a puppy.
Farley directed people to fill out a questionnaire that the CIA would think burdensome.
Sample question: What arrangements will you make for your puppy when you go on vacation? How often do you travel?
Sample question: Do you have a fenced yard? How tall is it at its lowest point?
You’ve heard of the Soup Nazi? I began to think of Farley as the Berner Nazi. As fast as the applicants rolled in, Farley found flaws with them.
But remember when I said Farley is over-the-top? She’s only over-the-top in defense of her breed and her puppies. Spend 10 minutes with the woman, and you understand the difference between a responsible and an irresponsible breeder.
Gradually, they all found wonderful homes. Blue Boy went to a teacher in Vermont who named him Loki. Brown Boy went to a family in Massachusetts who named him Oberon. Green Boy went to a guy who works in sports information at the University of Tennessee who renamed him after a legendary Vols football player, Bad News Cafego.
Oh, and Yellow Girl went to Scott and Mary Morris of the Church Health Center. They named her Sydney, after their late friend Sid Selvidge.
The boys and I have our own puppy, of course. We had the hardest time naming her.
My eldest son voted for Harper. I was leaning toward Clover. The younger two were inclined to just keep calling her Pink Girl. So, naturally, we bagged all those options and settled on Juno.
Juno is the reason we started out on the enterprise. She’s pretty close to perfect. Indeed, just the other day, Peter, my youngest, asked me a question.
“Dad, in a couple years, you think she can have puppies?”