As the earth leans closer to the sun, the days are longer and the snow that falls melts quickly. Spring is less than three weeks away. Spring, the season of hope and renewal. The season for planting and raking and taking stock in what will be required to begin again. But Winter lingers, barely visible, in the yards and fields and sometimes in the heart. Some things living when the snow first fell will be dead when newer growth emerges, warmed by the sun.
Sometimes Winter takes its toll on more than just plants, a few birds and old feeble elk. The Spring thaw reveals the death of dreams long-held, lying dormant through the winter, waiting in vain for the spring that will never come. In our house we have weathered the ravages of winter kill more than a few times. My father died in February, one year, and my husband in December of another. Across the street melting snow slips to the edges of well-tended beds. Safe underground lie bulbs bursting with life. The gardener’s hands stilled barely two weeks ago by a brief but fatal illness. Her husband and son, and their uneasy relationship, left to tend her garden, keeping her hope for plentiful blooms alive. .
As we leave through our yard gate into the driveway to go about the mundane daily errands, we will no longer have to fish in our pockets for pieces of dog biscuits to feed Mia Ham, our neighbor’s dog, her soft fur the color of a carmel dessert. Mia, in her time, bore several litters of mongrel pups in a barn on somebody’s horse property before becoming the much beloved, rotund companion to our neighbor next door. Loved to death, her diabetes overwhelmed her and she slipped into the blackness that lies beyond life as she knew it barely a month ago.
As Spring approaches, wind often fills our skies as if to blow away Winter. Prematurely built birds’ nests, ripped from their tenuous holds, end up in the driveways and lawns of our neighborhood. Sometimes tiny speckled eggs are already in the nests. The parents will build anew and raise another clutch of chicks under more favorable conditions, without emotion. We are human beings, though, full of emotion and daring to hope that each Spring really will bring our dreams closer. We have the intellect to understand the inevitable losses but somehow unable to detach ourselves from the pain. And while dog breeding is to some, no more important or valuable an avocation than gardening, the loss of a tiny, two-day old winter puppy can make any breeder heartsick.
Puppies are tangible evidence that hope exists. That Spring will come and we have all survived the Winter. Puppies are the renewal of the breeder’s line and her committment to her breed. Her choices of sire and dam reflective of her interpretation of the breed’s standard and her wish to leave something better than she found it. Like homegrown tomatoes in high summer, puppies are round and fresh. Full of promise. Who doesn’t love a puppy? What breeder hasn’t stared into the whelping box and imagined how wonderful her pick puppy will look, grown up, on the jumbo-tron at Westminster. How many puppies enter the world as part of the “K” litter, the “M” litter? Each letter a notch in the timeline of a breeder’s life. The breeder may name her human children Katie, Barry or Edward, plain names meant to carry them into adulthood and hopefully into decent jobs, but she will name her puppies the most wonderfully creative names she can think of. Each name designed to make a statement as to the quality of the puppies and their destinations as companions or show dogs. Our Danny has such a name. He is our Chance Redemption. A dog that came into our lives unexpectedly when our attempts to breed a male to our liking failed.
Being somewhat superstitious, we never name our puppies until they have survived the first three weeks of life. In our breed that is the time of danger. We tell ourselves, and anybody who asks why the puppy doesn’t have a name by the time his eyes are open, that we haven’t decided on a name yet. We say we let the puppy pick his own name as he grows. But that is at best a half-truth. We wait to name the puppies until after three weeks so we don’t waste a great name on a dead puppy. Once used, a name may never be re-used and will always be linked to the poor puppy who first owned it. A terrible jinx might follow the dog who gets the recycled name into the ring and into his life. So tiny puppies pass out of this life unnamed. A name is only a reference point for the breeder. A Winter puppy that never lives to roll in the Spring grass, or lick water droplets off the hose, or fall asleep on the cool, metal seat of the porch glider will linger in the breeder’s heart for many seasons.
For us, the Denver shows mean Winter is ending. Our dormant show season stirs and we dare to dream about success in the ring. These shows bring out many puppies, some of them entered, some along for their first exposure to what the breeder hopes will be a way of life in the near future. So many Winter puppies, or so it seems to breeders whose puppies never lived to see these shows. Breeding is hard on the wallet and the heart. It is why we prefer to show dogs more than breed them. Yet like our neighbor the gardener and Mia Ham begging for a treat, we continue to breed dogs hoping our line will grow and flourish in one more Spring.
As we rake the yard and clear away the straw from the fence line in preparation for the start of the grass season, our mood is dull. We indulge ourselves, at least momentarily, in the chance to mourn the ending of our line on the bitch side. As I bend over to grab the Frisbee Eva has retrieved, I watch her circling in front of me. Her athletic body with its powerful rear and reaching front still lean and fit at nearly seven. She shags another throw, jumping high in the air to snatch the spinning disk. Winter has not killed her spirit nor ultimately, our faith in ourselves as breeders. At least we have come through another Winter.