What Dog People Do Best

From the monthly column "Becoming". ShowSight Dog Show Magazine, June 2019 Issue. Click to subscribe.

Call the Cavalry! Dog people are there to help! I was struggling to come up with an idea for this month’s column. I read what other people were writing, and I surveyed what I was doing with my dogs this month. Nothing was entering my consciousness as worthy of writing about. I started to write about the art of selling puppies, since I have been doing a lot of that lately. I was not feeling inspired. Part way through the column I got a really disturbing phone call. My Bedlington co-breeder in Madison had just been admitted to the UW hospital with a major heart attack, and the call was from his neighbor, Gert, who didn’t know what to do with his dogs.

Gert is an amazing woman. She’s 76 years old, sharp as a tack, funny, resourceful and always willing to help a person or animal in need. She’d been helping Joe with our nine week old Bedlington litter because Joe had just had cataract surgery, and he hadn’t felt well for a couple of weeks. In hindsight, I am guessing he had more than cataracts going wrong, but he was not identifying the symptoms of heart failure. Thankfully, Gert was there to help. She came to his house at least twice every day to feed and clean-up the puppies and let the older dogs out for potty breaks. Joe had three adult Old English Sheepdogs, two adult Welsh Terriers, two adult Bedlingtons and eight puppies when she began assisting. He’s also a landscape contractor, so having puppies in Spring made life very busy for him. We had just split up the litter three days earlier, and I was very happy with the quality and condition of the eight puppies. I kept four and sent the other four back home with Joe and Gert.

Joe is 46 and lives alone with his dogs. He’s a hard-working small business operator who just loves to breed dogs. He’s good at it—has one or two litters every year, carefully checks out the stud dogs he uses, does all the health testing breeders recommend and takes advice and correction well. He will drive halfway across the country to breed to the right dog, and come back to a full work schedule. He does not show the OES or Welsh Terriers, though they are all purebred, but I have always shown the Bedlingtons for him, so his Bedlington foundation stock is all titled. I love to work with Joe because he is straight-forward, honest as the day is long, reliable and has no patience for small talk. His motto has always been, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” Promises mean something to him—he keeps them, and he honors them. He sometimes complains that he can’t find good reliable landscape workers or that he doesn’t have much of a social life, but he never complains about the dogs. I have, on occasion, suggested to him that he spend a little more time in social arenas where he can make some human friends, but he usually says he has no time for that frivolity. And he really enjoys the company of his dogs. I think he just doesn’t have patience for the small talk and flirtyness required to start friendships. He’s too no-nonsense in a social world that likes fluffy, light talk 
and selfies.

Joe also has a history of health issues and he tries to take good care of himself. He’s diabetic and has some hereditary issues that he does not dwell upon. He sees doctors when he needs to and had just had cataract surgery so he could begin to drive at night again. He was sure he was not having heart problems because none of the doctors he’d seen in the previous two weeks had said anything about his heart, it had always been strong. So he did what a lot of people do, he guessed that the symptoms he was feeling—the tiredness, the inability to focus, indigestion were all symptoms of other minor ailments or side effects of the cataract surgery. They weren’t. They were symptoms of a major heart attack, and it hit him hard on the Tuesday morning after we evaluated our litter.

For the second time in two months relatively young Bedlington friends of mine were having heart attacks. We had just lost Nancy Kosteleba to a sudden heart attack during a barn hunt last month, now Joe was in the cardiac care unit of the UW hospital battling for his life. His family converged around him, but there was only Gert to look after the dogs.

Fortunately Gert was there when Joe’s family realized what was happening to him. I was her first call. She was clear and calm, but obviously starting to panic as she realized she was going to be responsible for Joe’s 11 dogs, and that was part of the friendship she had not signed up for. At that point we did not know Joe’s prognosis, so I suggested we get the word out to the dog world that we had a lot of dogs that needed temporary fostering until we had solid information about whether Joe would be able to care for them himself. We had no idea how long that might take—we just knew the dogs needed a place to be by the next day. Gert wanted to bring all of the dogs to me, but that didn’t seem like a really good idea. I could handle the Bedlingtons, but the others would put a huge strain on my already thinly stretched staff 
and facility.

I immediately called a groomer friend who lives in Madison and she suggested we get the word out through social media. Facebook was our primary platform—personal pages and a Wisconsin Groomers page. I put out an emergency notice on my personal page and my daughter put out a notice on the Wisconsin Groomers page. Within one hour our posts went viral. Mine was shared 64 times, and my private messages were coming in so fast that I couldn’t keep up. I got a text from a Bedlington owner who said she could go over that evening if that would help. I asked if she could go over to reassure Gert that the Cavalry was on the way, and if she could handle fostering the puppy Joe wanted to keep from the litter, Gert and I would be eternally grateful. Two hours later I got another text from her showing me the baby girl resting comfortably on some soft blankets. She was noisy, but safe. One down, ten to go. At least Joe’s pick puppy was tucked safely away with somebody I trusted completely.

The next hurdle was finding people to foster the three OES and the two Welsh Terriers. I scanned the offers for help and chose one from a person who has been a family friend for 20 years, and one from a breeder in the Madison area who immediately started working on the logistics of getting the dogs placed by forming a Messenger Group of people who were local and ready to help. Both people agreed to meet Gert at Joe’s house the next morning and make sure all dogs were out of the house when they left.

I was still responding to private messages and texts at 11:30 p.m., and finally by 1:30 a.m. I decided to try sleeping. It sort of worked, but I was up early to check for more messages, send responses and get the latest news from Gert.

At 8:30 a.m. the next day, the Cavalry showed up at Joe’s house. I was on the phone with Sue when Gert pulled up, and she said Gert was speechless. I quickly got off the phone so they could do introductions and get to work. I had spoken to Gert at 8:00 a.m. She thought she was going to be alone at the house. I told her I was pretty sure at least two other people would be there to help with the dogs. There were six people in all. As they were working, I received a text from my groomer friend in Madison, who said she actually could take the two Welshs because they are Terriers, not Springers as she first thought. Everybody left Joe’s house with dogs. The Bedlingtons were brought to me by Gert and Joe’s aunt and uncle, two OES went with our family friend and the two Welshs left with the people fostering the other OES, to be delivered to the 
Madison groomer.

This experience has taught me some really valuable lessons. Don’t take good health for granted. Find a neighbor like Gert to have access to your house if something happens. Make sure she knows who to call first for help with the dogs. Have a list of names and phone numbers of people to contact, including your veterinarian. Have your dogs identified and their records in good shape. Use Social Media for good! Ask for help and be grateful when it arrives.

This story is far from over, but here is one last thought I had this morning as I was discussing the situation with one of Joe’s puppy buyers. I started to think about what would have happened if Gert had called the Humane Society or SPCA instead of me. Gert is just a friend who loves puppies. She doesn’t know or much care about the battle between good breeders and the Animal Right’s movement. Only one of Joe’s dogs has been altered, because he is a breeder. If she had called a humane society, they would have “helped” her by picking up the dogs, spaying and neutering all of the adults, then selling them to create income for their business. In a sort of morbid way of looking at it, Joe’s demise would be more convenient for a shelter because then they would have valid reason to collect and sell his dogs without having to worry about legal ownership issues. They don’t care about careful breeding programs or pedigrees, they just want inventory to sell to make money. Oh how the world has shifted. Remember when good shelters used those very words to describe the terrible puppy mills?

Every single person who has one of Joe’s dogs appreciates the work he has done to breed healthy purebred dogs. Every single person will take care of his dogs in the hopes that Joe will be able to reclaim them in the same condition they were in when they lived with him. Every single person who is fostering understands the true meaning of dedication to the passion for breeding healthy dogs and the importance of preservation breeding. Every single person who has taken Joe’s dogs is genuinely concerned about his health and recovery, and wishes him well. Every single person is taking this situation personally and seriously, and they are all prepared to be in it for the long haul.

Yesterday my daughter said something to me that really got my attention; “You know, Mom, I had forgotten how nice it is to be part of this tight-knit dog world that really cares about each other and helping people out when there is a need. I actually got teary eyed watching the responses to your post come in. These are great people, and I’m glad I’m back!” I got teary-eyed when she said that. It is a remarkable community that we live in. I am not sure we always give ourselves enough credit. Yes, we can be fiercely competitive in the show ring. But we also come together in a crisis like no other group I have ever seen. An attack against one of us is an attack against all of us. We are our own United Nations. 

Special Thanks and a huge hug to the following for showing up on short notice.

The Cavalry:

Gert Peneboom

Karen Ritter

Sue Green and son

Michael Finnegan

Jen Amundsen

Lis De Sousa

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