From the ShowSight Magazine archives - June 2014 ISSUE . Click to subscribe.
Common Sense or Commonly Held Beliefs
I fear we have just about lost all common sense among breeders. I don’t know where it went, or if we ever really had it as a group, but I fear it is gone now. It has been replaced by a set of commonly held beliefs, and this is not good.
Common sense comes from doing something, anything, regularly. It is usually derived from a combination of learned behaviors and lessons learned from people who have been doing the same activity for a long time. Part of it comes from academic-style learning and lessons taught by experts in a particular branch of knowledge. I think it is what my grandparents used to call wisdom. The stuff people learned by paying attention to their lives and what they were doing. It’s the stuff they learned from trial and error experience. Common meant something occurred frequently, and it was not extraordinary in their lives. Common sense resulted from doing the same thing, but getting better at it, and more comfortable with the process. Commonly held beliefs, however, may or may not have their basis in reality or facts. It’s the stuff everybody just “knows” about any given subject. Its origin is usually undetectable, and it is almost always unverifiable – and therefore indisputable. It forms the basis of most religions and activist movements. Common sense is fluid and flexible. It changes as times and technologies change, and as experience grows. Commonly held beliefs may change too, but usually not as quickly. Beliefs are not always subject to factual dispute or challenge, and often persist in the face of mounting evidence to contradict them.
I suppose I should have seen it coming. Commonly held beliefs have been replacing common sense in a lot of modern life, certainly in the care of pets. It’s hard for activities to become common when things around us change so fast, and the amount of conflicting information bombarding us daily is so great. People have been running to doctors with their children’s mild coughs and scraped knees for years now. My boarding clients are worse with their dogs than they are with their children. If a dog misses a meal or has a bout of diarrhea, they are off to the vet to find out what’s wrong. And Heaven forbid if the dog gets a mild cough or limps for a day – those are emergency vet visits. Anything that happens out of their very narrow definition of normal becomes a reason to call or visit a medical professional – even if a trainer or other professional may provide a better answer. I don’t know when panic, whining and complaining become the norm, but I think it has replaced common sense in dealing with every day challenges. What happened to tough individualism and thoughtful contemplation? I know. I am old. And John Wayne is dead.
Every time I had a litter I added a little to my basis of common sense. I loved having the old-and-ready-to retire large-animal vet insist on making me wait a little longer for a natural birth, then watching him use a tool to pull the puppy out of the birth canal with no damage to puppy or dam. I loved it when the younger large-animal vet made me give my in-whelp dams extra calcium in the form of multiple Tums to keep their contractions strong. She explained how the contracting muscles used up the calcium, and needed to have an additional supply to keep working. She taught me the difference between a long active labor (bad) and a long labor with short periods of productive, active contractions (fine).
My whelps have not all been happy events (they rarely are with bassets, though usually are fine with bedlingtons). I lost my entire first litter of bassets. Nine puppies died because I did not understand the importance of keeping them really warm for the first 2 weeks. I listened to the wrong bit of advice. Turns out my mother knew a whole lot more about having human babies than she did about whelping puppies. My common sense tip from that adventure was to learn that advice from someone who does not have real-life experience in exactly what you are doing is not valuable no matter how much you love and respect that person. Same goes for veterinarians who don’t whelp many or any litters. I don’t care how much they know about treating other canine conditions, or where they graduated in their class. If they have not actually whelped litters, their professional advice means little to me.
I recently had dinner with a dozen good dog people. During the course of the dinner one of them told a story about a newer breeder who had bred an 8-year old large-breed dog for the first time. The bitch had actually gotten pregnant, and they were discussing what they thought should happen in the course of this bitches’ pregnancy and whelp. They all agreed that this person should never have bred such an old bitch for the first time, and of course she should have a C-section when whelp time came. This was all based upon their strongly held belief that 8 years old was too old for a first breeding, and because of her age, of course she would need a C-section. They were a little surprised when I disagreed with them on both counts.
I don’t usually breed older bitches, but I have learned to trust what my reproductive vet says: “A bred bitch is a healthy bitch!” If she’s healthy enough to get pregnant and carry the puppies to term, she is a healthy dog. It does not really matter what our opinion about her age is, if she can do it, then who am I to say it is wrong? Second, I absolutely disagree that a C-section is preferable to a natural birth. It may be easier for her owner as a midwife, but it is not necessarily easier for the dam. Since when is major abdominal surgery preferable to natural birthing, especially for an older girl? Of course I understand there are breeds like bulldogs where C-sections are done routinely. I am not going to argue the need for these, nor am I going to take on the logic of developing breeds that cannot conceive or whelp naturally – that’s a discussion someone else can lead. My position today is that the breeders around that table were responding to a real-life situation with their commonly held beliefs instead of looking at the situation objectively and with common sense. Common sense would tell me to keep the dam as healthy and active as possible during her pregnancy, and be prepared for several contingencies during the whelp. Know the danger signs of a pregnancy or whelp going bad, and have the vet on speed-dial if any of those danger signs develop. Then let her do what dogs have done for thousands of years – have her puppies naturally.
I have bred and whelped close to 100 litters over the past 43 years. For me, this has become common in the sense that it is no longer extraordinary. I think I qualify as someone who has developed a basket full of common sense ideas, and I’d love to pass along just a few. First and foremost, if a bitch has trouble conceiving or whelping, don’t breed her again. No excuses. I don’t care how beautiful she is or how strong her pedigree, it’s not worth your time, heartache, money or her agony to do it again because the results are likely to be the same, and you do not want to pass along these problems to future generations. I do not recommend repeat breedings. No matter how beautiful a litter is, it is equally valuable to expand your gene pool by breeding to another male. Try his son or father! Learn how to naturally time and breed a dog and bitch and do your own AI’s, if necessary. This is normal, common, every-day stuff all breeders should know. Have patience! Mother Nature does not work on your busy time schedule, and you can’t make Her (nor do you want to). Use all the new science, but do not rely upon it entirely or exclusively. Sometimes your own experiences (or those of a long-time breeder) are more valuable. Don’t use heroic measures to save a puppy. Devastating as the loss is, dogs have litters for a reason. Know the difference between heroics and life- preserving care. Find a vet that actually practices reproductive medicine (large or small animal does not matter a lot). Vets are not all alike, and this is important. Don’t abuse the privilege of actually working with a good reproductive vet by calling her about minor issues. Form a network of experienced breeders, and have several of them on speed-dial. Reproductive vets are rare, and we don’t want to wear them out. A network of good canine midwives can provide you with a lot of useful information.
I was lucky as I developed my skills as a breeder. I had both long-time breeders and skilled, mostly large-animal veterinarians helping me along the way. In this day of spay-and-neuter-everything we are losing an entire set of skills and abilities among both breeders and health professionals to keep our canines going. It’s also getting much harder to find hobby breeders who want to have more than one litter every year or two. If an activity never becomes common, then it will continue to be extraordinary, and that is not useful for the preservation of our breeds. Those of us with lots of experience are nearly extinct. I would like to see a return to, or get to a time when breeding and whelping purebred dogs is more common and less extraordinary. With common comes a sense of familiarity and ease, and not so much panic and drama. I would like the breeders of AKC competitive dogs to become as skilled and comfortable with the process as the commercial breeders. But if that is going to happen, we hobby breeders must commit to questioning some of our commonly held beliefs, and begin to develop our own useful common sense. Breeding needs to become common, not extraordinary. We will need to stop attaching pejorative labels like “puppy mill” to people who breed multiple litters in a year. Then we can begin to value their expertise, and maybe even learn from them. I believe the future of our dogs depends on it.