On Love and Logic- and Letting Go

Int GCh Aria's Satchmo at LeSphinx, photo by Marit Folgero
Int GCh Aria’s Satchmo at LeSphinx, photo by Marit Folgero

One of the hardest aspects about transitioning from dog lover to breeder is learning how to use your head, and not your heart, to make most of the decisions.  Most would-be breeders start by collecting several dogs – that urge to find “the perfect breeding stock” can be pretty overwhelming.  If the novice is even halfway on track, each of these dogs will be lovable with great personalities – they’re so easy to fall in love with!

The intelligent novice, as she learns, will start to realize that not all of these dogs fit with her “vision” of what she wants to do.  Health, genetics, temperament, conformation – it’s easy to have two very good dogs who just don’t need to be in the same breeding program.

This is where it gets difficult.  She loves them all, she can’t think of parting with any of them – each one is so special, in it’s own way!

Hopefully, logic – or a good mentor – steps in.  If the keeps all of them now, what happens when she breeds her first litter?  How many of those need to be kept to move forward?  What if she breeds two litters?

If the heart makes all the decisions, soon there are 10, 15, 20 dogs – what then?  She can love all of them, but who gets her time?  What happens when all of those first dogs start to get old, and are past breeding age?  In a long-lived breed (many of the Toy breeds), dogs may finish their breeding career at 8-10, but live to 15 years or more.  Potentially, that’s 2-3 generations of “seniors” who are incapable of breeding – where do they go?  Does she keep them? Rehome them?   But she LOVES them!

It’s so easy to love all of them.  Whether we rescue, buy, or breed, those of us who love dogs LOVE dogs.  We learn their habits and quirks, and they become so dear to us – it’s hard to imagine going through the day without that particular face smiling back at you.  This dog really gets it when she’s sad, this one is always happy, this one just wants to spend his entire life curled up on her lap!

Now, she’s either started making hard choices, or she’s a candidate for the next episode of Hoarders (I don’t need to watch the show; I see it every day in real life).

Hopefully, she’s both a good breeder and a good communicator – because selling puppies takes a LOT of communication.  I know plenty of great breeders whose interpersonal skills rank slightly lower than Tarzan’s.  If she’s really lucky, or really good, those first few homes are great.   They send pictures, they post on Facebook, she gets to see dozens of photos with her beautiful dog smiling back at her, and she knows he’s in love with his new people, and they’re in love with him.

If she’s great, those first homes tell other homes, and she finds herself with wonderful families who are in eager anticipation of acquiring one of her dogs.  Handing them off to make their way in the world isn’t any easier, but those excited, happy human faces help make up for it.

If she’s smart, and lucky, and just plain works her bum into the ground, she goes to sleep every night knowing that her pups are happy and loved – every one of them.

Those novice breeders who aren’t as smart, or as lucky, or willing or able to work as hard – they end up in different places.  Some become headlines.  Some quit. Some flounder somewhere in between, never quite able to let go.

At the beginning, for most breeders, is love.  I truly believe this.  Almost every breeder I’ve met (good, bad, or in the gray area) loves their dogs, especially at first.  Age, poverty, exhaustion – so many factors can change that – but at one point, I believe that all of us were shiny faced teenagers who thought that cuddling a puppy was the best place in the world.

In the end, what distinguishes the best of us from the worst is logic, and letting go.

I have dogs here, right now, who are ready to go to their “forever homes.”  I like some more than others, but I know and love every one of them.  Pick one, any one, and I’ll tell you more than you ever thought that any person could ever know about a dog.  I know each voice, and I know each “style” of bark.  Right now, Bridget, in “maternity queen” mode, knows I’ve entered the house, and Her Royal Majesty feels that my first duty should be to bring her more cold water, fluff the blankets on her bed, and let her outside – she’ll scold me for whatever order I choose, because I always get it wrong.  I adore her.  She will be seven in October, this is her third (and last) litter for me.  Her retirement home is waiting anxiously for her pups to be born and ready to leave – her place on that sofa is ready and waiting.

I’ll miss her desperately – she’s funny, and imperious, and strong willed, and commanding.  Boys twice her size flee if she curls her lip at them.  I’ll even miss her initiation of group howls whenever she feels slighted, or  siren screams when I play Maria Callas on the stereo (her grandmother hated Callas, too – is it genetic?).

Love wants to keep them all.  Logic dictates that some must move on, or I’ll not be able to care well for any of them.

Logic wins, and I let them go.

Ode to Sparta

Sparta loved children and was the best dog he knew how to be.
Sparta loved children and was the best dog he knew how to be.

I killed Sparta today.  He was old, he’s been sick, and 140 pounds of Great Pyrenees creates all sorts of issues when it comes to elderly care.  After two years with us (he was a rescue that somehow found his permanent way into our lives), he actually looked a LOT better than when I first succumbed to him.  He was never “cute,” he didn’t like people, he hated other dogs, he sometimes guarded our own home against us.  He was never a candidate for a “cute” ad.  He stank, he had nasty oily hair, he farted, he bit, he barked randomly at all hours, he never grew hair on his back or tail (horrible staph infection and flea infestation when we got him), he thought that nail trims were a matter of life or death (his life, my death).

He was, in his own Sparta-like way, a very happy dog during the two years he was with us.  He loved children, chew bones, his bed in the cave that is my stepson’s room, and sometimes he even loved us.

Chances are, we could have kept him around a lot longer.  I’ve known many owners who do; some keep them for too long.

But here’s a sad irony.  As a breeder who spends a fair bit of time in the public eye, every dog I own seems to be a target for people who are anti-breeder.  My hounds and I are held to a much higher standard than your neighbor with the 20 year old blind and deaf poodle.  Because I’m a breeder, the dog who is just plain old and tired becomes “neglected and abused” in the eyes of those who are anti-breeder.   Because I’m a breeder, the elderly dog with fatty tumors, male pattern baldness, and nails that drag the floor is a cause for headlines. Because I’m a breeder, no one stops to consider that the dog might be impossible to load in the car and considers biting the vet to be the highlight of his day.

Because I’m a breeder, compassion is not available for me, or even considered to be a trait I might possess.

Now, we know that’s not true, because we know me, right?

As our beloved dogs age, it’s easy to see them as they were, rather than as they are.  We see what we want to see, and believe what we want to believe.  Any vet can tell you of the old dogs they see on a daily basis, their deplorable condition, and the difficulty their owners have making that final decision.

Old animals are hard.  They become increasingly frail, and there becomes a point where medical expenses exceed the budget for your next car – with no purpose or end in sight.

When our neighbor chooses to let his old dog shuffle from day to day, not happy and whole but not at last prayers, we empathize with him.  When a breeder undergoing inspection has several old dogs in the same condition, it’s “neglect” – we lose our compassion and somehow ascribe the existence of those dogs to greed.  Realistically, nothing could be farther from the truth – it’s much less expensive to let old dogs go, than to spend the time and money to keep them on.

I never argue about that last, best, most difficult choice we must all make for our dogs.  Each of us has to come to terms with our choices, and nearly all of those make those choices out of love.  Each of us has our opinion on when it’s “time,” but I believe we owe it to each other to support our friends as they make those choices, and not argue or criticize them – isn’t it hard enough as it is?

Compassion.  For the hounds, for each other, and for Sparta.  He was the best dog he knew how to be.


When Less is Much, MUCH More

We’re all aware of how much more stressful life is today compared to “way back when.”  It’s not our imagination. We are all bombarded with a ceaseless stream of information – what our “friends” are doing, news, sports, rock stars, movie stars, stars who are just stars for some unknown reason, Causes we should support, Petitions we should sign, new information that meat is good (or bad) for us, new exercise routines, new ways to decompress at the end of a day….. It’s overwhelming.

More and more, I see dogs who are equally overwhelmed – and less able to cope.  Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest (or whatever’s “trending” this minute) flood us with photos of dogs wearing hats, painted toenails, elaborate grooming or costumes that make them look like anything BUT a dog, dogs wearing children, children wearing dogs, dogs on surfboards or skateboards or just on boards. … And everyone wants to get on board! Social media has increased the demand for those endless cute photos of dogs as accessories to life, regardless of how the dogs might feel about it.

I’m the poster child for overscheduled Americans. A few years ago, we added my stepson as a full time member of our family.  I was already employed (albeit at home), and an active AKC judge, breeder and owner handler.  As usual, something had to give, and something did.

Prior to that point, I was a typical dog-show mom.  I do use handlers more than the average, but I got my puppies out young and finished their championships quickly – often by 9-12 months (in a breed that doesn’t mature until 2-4 years, this is something).

Something gave – and I learned that maybe I wasn’t the “super dog mom” that I thought I was.

Instead of getting out and going to shows, my puppies were getting out for a weekend or two, then coming home to grow up.  Lacking time to devote exclusively to them, I spent my time with them off and on during the day. But, I didn’t go to handling class or obedience class or coursing practice or do anything “constructive” with them.

Our home has a great arrangement for the dogs – an air conditioned room (split with our home gym area), attached to an acre field with two terraces and trees and a big open area for running.  I’ve added two “isolation runs” that are separate, 15 x 60 feet each.  Except for the two runs, my kennel room is just a big room with food and water and LOTS of dog beds, plus a dog door to the field.

Still,  I felt like a bad person.  I felt like I was failing my dogs, and my breeding program.

Then, one day,  I actually looked at my dogs.

Somehow, during my absence and my constant scheduling, they created a happy, cohesive, relaxed pack.  They played with their toys, or “created” new ones out of logs, rugs dragged outside, watering hoses, and the occasional tool stolen from my handyman.  They decided that they didn’t always want to be inside dogs, and sometimes started sleeping outside in the dog houses I built when we first moved in.  They sometimes became nocturnal, like  little vampires –  playing at night, and sleeping in the air conditioning during the day.  In the winter, they stopped sleeping inside at all.  They ignored specially prepared meals, and ate the kibble that was always there (and the occasional unwary squirrel or bird, too).

They stopped being pets, “fur-children,” or show dogs, and started being DOGS.

Today, if fellow borzoi fanciers think anything about my dogs, I think they recognize how my dogs are always happy, relaxed, and ready for anything.  They ride escalators, attend political conventions, go hiking off lead, and sometimes go to dog shows.

But when they leave those places and come home, they become DOGS.  I don’t yell at them – really, almost never, for anything.  Because they’ve already eaten the siding, the garden hose, my handyman’s cell phone (sorry about that!), chewed on the buckets, and dragged $100 beds outside in tatters.  Sometimes, I yell if they jump on my back.  But not really (and Nia knows I don’t mean it, anyway).

We have a few “house dogs,” and others rotate in and out.  But the babies stay out in their place for the first 2-3 years of their life, except for occasional trips and shows.

Because of this arrangement,  my puppies are happier than they’ve ever been.  No schedules, few rules, just lots of food and drink, places to sleep.  They always love when I’m with them. Because they’ve already eaten that room, so really, what’s left to be mad at? I’ve become a 100% positive experience.  They don’t cry to leave their crate at night – because there isn’t one, and they can go out when they please.  They don’t get yelled at for eating shoes, because we didn’t want those anyway (and Bryan’s old shoes are the BEST TOYS EVER).  As a sighthound owner, the best part of my new method is that they always come when I call – because coming to me is always a good thing.

When I think about it, my youngsters live my dream vacation every day of their lives.  Lots of choices, no stupid human rules. All they have to do is get along with each other and be happy.  When I visit, they’re always happy to see me, because (other than on dreaded bath or nail day), I’m always there just to visit and enjoy them.

When was the last time your dog had even one day that he could just be a DOG?

So, the next time you look at my exuberant dogs and think, “poor dogs, they spend all day in a kennel, how horrible is that?”  Remember, my dogs are looking at yours and thinking, “hey, man, you need to get out of that high-stress job with all those rules and regulations and bed times and potty times and dinner times – wow – it’s like the military!”

It’s their world, and it isn’t (and maybe shouldn’t be) written by our rules.  What world does your dog live in?

Aria Borzoi - The Breeder's Corner
Bridget, Nia and Yarrow “drag race” with my two foster puppies, Tango and Houdini

The Preservation of Bloodlines

Bryan Rice and Westminster Select GCH Jaraluv's Rhapsody in Blue
Bryan Rice and Westminster Select GCH Jaraluv’s Rhapsody in Blue

About a year ago, while listening in on a massive conference call held by the USDA/APHIS (that’s the US Dept. of Agriculture, and its division the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), I discovered that the preservation of bloodlines is what I do.

Trust the US government to suck the life out of twenty years of love, passion and committed stewardship and turn it into dust thicker and drier than that on specimen skeletons in the basement of the Museum of Natural History.

That call also marks the first time I truly discovered a group of people who hate who and what I am as passionately as I love the hounds who share my life. Because I identified myself while asking a question, my email was flooded for days with threats and accusations. The question I asked had to do with maintaining my exemption from being called a “commercial breeder” while still giving my time and assistance to rescue. The new ruling would prevent me from ever fostering another rescue dog, and I needed clarification.

I have no more caused the death of an unknown dog in an animal shelter than you have killed a child in Africa by choosing to have biological children of your own.  Luckily for you, there are no social workers throwing rocks at you when you take your child to a baseball game.  I, on the other hand, get strangers screaming in my face in New York City when I dare take my candidate for the Westminster Dog Show for a walk in Central Park.

I love these hounds as I love my life, and I am fiercely and passionately dedicated to keeping a creature this beautiful alive on our planet for the remainder of my days, and those beyond.  My body and soul sing to see them leap and play, to watch the joy on their youthful faces as they discover their amazing athletic potential, and the perfect peace in their eyes as they age into stately dukes and duchesses not seen in human form for a hundred years.

These hounds are living art.  Created by man to form a partnership centuries ago in man’s hour of need, they have never needed us to survive.  That these perfect creatures still choose to be with us and share our lives must surely be an indication that human beings still possess qualities of value– for these hounds are every bit as self-sufficient now as they were in antiquity.

As a breeder, I can’t improve on this kind of perfection. Instead, my duty is to preserve their incredible athleticism and impossible beauty, and their tremendous fortitude and bottomless empathy.  I will try to hold and steward these qualities for as long as it is my honor to do so.

These awe-inspiring animals bring us back to an era when we needed this partnership for our very survival. By choosing to preserve and curate their perfection, they serve to remind us of the best qualities in our human race. We need no help to remember the worst.

I strongly believe that when we lose the ability to wonder at their magnificence and no longer strive to preserve this beautiful partnership, we also lose a vital part of what it is to be human.

Preservation of bloodlines, indeed.  They preserve me.


The Breeder’s Corner

Knowledge is the key to understanding; unlocking those doors with an open heart and mind gives us the opportunity to create a bridge between worlds.  Too often, the disconnect I see between dog lovers and dog breeders is created by the way we see our world, and a lack of understanding to cross the gap.

We are all animal lovers.  Even if you believe that there should be an end to breeding of any kind, I hope your visit here will show you that all of us adore our hounds, and that we want the best for them, always.  If love is not the answer, then it’s always part of the solution.

I hope that each post will become a brick in our bridge, and that together we can learn that it’s possible to meet in the middle.

If you have a topic you’d like to address, or a question that I might answer, please email me at Rita@AriaBorzoi.com – if I don’t know the answer, I’ll try to find out, and we can learn together!



“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.” Rumi