Doing It All: Losing Sylvia

Sylvia TDX and I enjoying our success.

We lost Sylvia at sixteen and a half, which has put me in a reflective mood.

Conformation breeders focus time and effort on the dogs with good show potential. So did I. I would have a litter and keep good show prospects, placing “pets” as they washed out because of faults that would reduce their chances of winning in the conformation ring. Sylvia was a washout. She was bred as a show dog, but as she matured, she became a girl with traits I decided not to exhibit or breed. I decided to place her at 5-6 months of age, but I didn’t have any calls seeking older puppies. So, I held onto her.

I decided to place her at 5-6 months of age, but I didn’t have any calls seeking older puppies. So, I held onto her.

During early puppy and adolescent months, it was my habit to teach all puppies I kept the basics in order to open lines of communication, and build confidence and teamwork. So, while we waited for a call, I began training Sylvia, thinking, of course, that a trained puppy would have a wider appeal. She loved to retrieve and started tracking well. I did Basic Obedience with her just to make life easier for me and her future owner; she enjoyed that too. Meanwhile, no suitable calls came.

Baby Sylvia
Baby Sylvia

As Sylvia matured, she became irritable, snapping at any males for getting close to her. I was sure this behavior was associated with an upcoming heat cycle and ignored it. I decided I would go ahead and spay her after her cycle, but as she neared two she still didn’t cycle. I gave up and spayed her, asking the veterinarian to take note of her anatomy and tell me what may have affected her lack of an estrus cycle. He found nothing weird as I’d expected, but thought it appeared she was showing early signs of her first season. Of course!

During the time I waited to spay her, we had become very close. That closeness was going to make it difficult to place her as she had become a one-person dog, unlike most Labradors. She didn’t really show much interest in anyone other than me. So, now what? I kept females to show, breed, and work, but this one struck out on two of the three reasons for her to stay. It was decision time. Sell her, feelings be damned, or keep her and follow a new path for my homebred? I gave up on placing her, and let her take me on a life path different than my others. I have never regretted that decision.

Dog retrieving ducks.
There’s nothing greater than retrieving ducks.

I gave up on placing her, and let her take me on a life path different than my others. I have never regretted that decision.

Throughout our months and years of working together, Sylvia exposed me to lots of new challenges I would have otherwise missed. I learned a great deal about dogs with personality quirks like hers and ways to manage her in a pack. I found that choosing an all-performance career for one of my dogs rather than primarily conformation was different, but fun too. I met and became friends with many people more skilled than I in field work, learning a lot of tricks of the trade to help me train and exhibit a shy, stubborn girl like Sylvia. I am a better performance trainer today because Sylvia made me think outside the box. I miss Sylvia, but will be forever grateful for the things she exposed me to and the adventures we had together.

Sylvia loved tracking, dragging me through the snow to find all her TDX articles.
Sylvia loved tracking, dragging me through the snow to find all her TDX articles.

In closing, I encourage breeders and dog owners to consider trying new things with your dogs. We are very fortunate to have many options these days in the canine sports world. Your little show dog or that “washout” may be the best dock diver in the world, but how do you know if you don’t try? Each and every dog in the breed ring would benefit mentally and physically from a job that gives them some responsibility and gives you a new perspective on that amazing critter. Dogs should be more than a specialty winner to live a full and rewarding life. It’s also a great and enriching experience for owners.

Dog lying on the ground
Good old Sylvia, never far, rests at my feet.


Doing It All: Losing Sylvia
Featured photo: Sylvia TDX and Sandy McMillan enjoying their success.


Are you looking for a Labrador Retriever puppy?

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  • Sandy McMillan is a retired cardiac research and rehab nurse who survived terminal endometrial cancer to find her dream job; breeding, training, and exhibiting Labrador Retrievers under the kennel name Dutch Hollow. Since life-saving surgery in 2002, she has rescued and rehomed approximately 350 dogs, mostly Labradors. She has also raised thirty litters of Labradors that have been trained and shown in the all-breed and specialty rings, tracking fields, hunt test fields, and obedience rings. Her dogs have earned more than 100 titles and awards, including multiple specialty wins and placements, breed championships, tracking championships, rally and obedience titles, and tons of hunt test titles that have included Master Hunters and even a GCH MH/Specialty Winner. Sandy has been an AKC tracking judge, judging more than 50 TD and TDX events since 2004. She is also an AKC Breeder of Merit who has an interest in puppy enrichment programs and the careful selection of dogs for breeding based on health clearances, conformation, and performance. Sandy has been a member of Capitol Canine Training Club of Springfield since 1986, where she has been Canine Courier Editor, Director of Training, Chair and Secretary of the club’s tracking tests, and an obedience class instructor. She is a member of the Labrador Retriever Club, serving as the Chair of the club’s National twice. Sandy is currently a member of the LRC Rescue and Versatile Producer of Merit Committees. She is presently keeping busy with her current pack, and training dogs for pet owners and hunters. She sleeps well

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