I don’t feed the birds

I don’t feed the birds.

Instead, I do my utmost to plant and preserve the native plants of the land.

Today, in the middle of a little cold snap, I was rewarded with the sight of a robin feeding on the wrinkled fruits that hang on my Pacific Crabapple tree.

I am not sure if robins ‘cache’ their food for the future, but I’d like to imagine that this robin made a mental note last summer to come back to this tree waiting with its preserved bounty.

Last summer, when his world was a’brim with choices.

Twenty, Twenty one

The best thing about the year commonly known as 2021, is that it’s not 2020.

Unlike the year 2020, we’ve no plans, no big commitments, nada.

Why is that the best thing about this new year?
Well, clearly. We have no expectations. And no where to go, but up.

My Kaylah. Never forgotten. Always loved.

Penthouse to Sh**house

It was the Spring of 2016, at one of my first dog showing weekends, and my neighbour in the grooming hall was a very entertaining and experienced breeder/handler. He returned from the ring one time and I asked him how things went. He rolled his eyes theatrically, carefully placing his treasured Pomeranian on the table.”Sometimes you’re in the penthouse” he sighed, “and sometimes you’re in the sh**house.”

On July 6, 2019, I drove to Nanaimo BC to participate in a United Kennel Club show and obedience trial. Eight months earlier, Ruby had been awarded a UKC Best in Show as well as a “Total Dog” award for achieving a qualifying score in Rally the same day. We weren’t expecting another ‘penthouse’ experience but I hoped to gain some breed points and rally qualifications towards our titles.

That was not to be.

On our way to the show ring we trotted past an American Bull dog. He lunged and his leash slipped through his handler’s fingers. He covered roughly twenty feet in a couple of big strides, blindsiding Ruby. For the next few terrifying moments I frantically reached into a screaming mass of whirling dogs, trying to grab her. He bit back at my leg and then I saw he had her hindquarters in his jaws. That’s when I screamed my horror and despair to the universe, crying “Not my dog!” I was sure I’d lost her.

Several people had by then appeared and helped pull him away.

Someone put Ruby in my arms. We were immediately taken to the emergency veterinarian.

When we returned a couple of hours later, the nightmare deepened.

I sat at the registration table and wrote out my statement. The club president informed me that she had taken several statements that claimed that Ruby had been off leash, and that we had approached the American Bulldog. Oddly, the show chair insisted that earlier in the day she’d warned me to put Ruby on leash. That never happened. A false story was building and swirling disinformation seemed to be everywhere.

I packed up my crate, table and gear and left for the three hour journey home. Still in shock and some pain, I held onto the hope that surely, the truth would come out.

That night, the show officials sent me a form, entitled “Disqualified for Attacking” stating that my dog had attacked the American Bulldog, and that by signing, I accepted being disqualified from the UKC. I would not sign. The show official told me that they would send it into the UKC unsigned anyway and that it might go better for me if I signed. I said I could not sign because it was not true.

On Monday, July 8th, I contacted Nanaimo Animal Control, asking them to investigate the attack.

On July 12th, The United Kennel Club disqualified Ruby from the United Kennel Club, permanently banning us from ever participating in any UKC events.

I phoned the Animal Control officer several times over the following weeks. He was friendly, but vague. He admitted to being confused by the conflicting reports and statements. I asked him if I should continue to call and he said I could, but he probably would have nothing else to tell me.

I spent the next few months trying to seek justice for my dog and I. The Nanaimo show officials unanimously repeated the false story that I had caused the attack by having my dog off leash.

Unbeknownst to me, the case had been referred to a senior SPCA Officer.

The SPCA had left a single phone message on my message machine. I never received it. The SPCA did not send me a written copy of his report, nor did they attempt to contact me further.

In January, 2020, I used the FOI (Freedom of Information Act) to secure the Nanaimo Animal Control files from the City of Nanaimo. I learned what Mr. Fraser, the Senior SPCA officer had decided, based on all of the evidence. Here are some of the key points from his report.

• Rolph’s answer is consistent and supports her dog was in fact leashed at the time of attack

• Witness 1 says Schipperke was leashed and attack was unprovoked
• Witness 2 was nearby and by coincidence was watching and admiring the Am Bulldog’s stance and colour when the AM. Bulldog suddenly lunged forward. …saw the handler fumble for the leash and suddenly …was running toward the little black dog.
• These statements … causes me to believe that the Schipperke was leashed and the Am. Bulldog was not provoked to attack.

Actions to be taken :

• Owner of AM. Bulldog to be issued with a Dangerous Dog CAUTION

• Handler of Am. Bulldog to be issued with a Warning Notice Uncontrolled dog

• Owner of Schipperke… inform of these actions and our conclusion that …was not at fault.

You can read the redacted report here.

On February 27th, 2020, I informed the United Kennel Club of Mr. Fraser’s decision and requested that they restore Ruby to her previous status. There has been no response from the UKC.

To this day, neither the owner nor the handler of the American Bulldog that attacked Ruby have taken responsibility for their dog’s behaviour.

This experience destroyed my trust, not only in the Nanaimo Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club, but also in the dog showing community. I no longer trust in the reliability of the dog show officials nor in the dog show participants. I no longer consider dog shows to be safe environments.

Nevertheless, I am grateful for many things. I am grateful that Mr. Fraser had the ability to discern the truth and that his report exonerated us. I am grateful that although the American Bulldog was clearly young, prey driven and poorly handled, he did not do as much damage as he could have and Ruby escaped with her life.

I am grateful for the excellent medical and rehabilitation care that Ruby received and that she has recovered well. Here’s a short video record of her first week, post attack. One year later, she has regained much of her former confidence, but remains wary of large and fast moving dogs.

Finally, I am grateful for the love and support I received from my many friends.

And then

Your dog’s not pregnant,

The doctor says.

Heart, kidney, gall bladder, bowel

But no blobs

Empty.

And I’m fine.

I knew this was possible.

My friend squeezes my hand,

and texts her husband,

he sends an emoticon with tears.

There’s none from me.

We walk the dogs a block or so, then

take them back to the cars, shaded from the morning sun.

We walk down the street,

Pointing out shops where we’ve found nice things

before,

just talking.

I buy the coffees and a strawberry tart to share,

We sit outside and sip and talk

Calm and matter of fact.

I always knew this was possible.

Later, as I drive, my eyes sting

behind large black sunglasses

The Sad, takes root inside

and grows wide.

The vines curl around my heart

They hurt, but I won’t t tear them off

and cast them far away

As I might like to.

Cracked dreams are crumbling,

Tumbling down the sides

of a vast sinkhole.

I peer over the edge, to

the wreckage below.

I wander restless

Around the house.

I touch her and the Sad

grips me hard again.

Her love shines

No super model, she,

But still the face of indescribable beauty.

We walk to the beach.

She’s quiet.

Little jagged rocks

of disappointment, of how unfair’s,

are strewn along our path.

Bright coloured shards of self pity

Draw my eye,

But I don’t pick them up

And carry them with me.

There’s no blame, no explanation,

That will salve this pain.

There’s just the hot sting on my face,

as I watch my dreams burn on a pyre

Stacked high with work and hope and love,

That I will watch until it’s down

to soft, cold ashes.

And then.

Schipozzies, anyone?

Ruby and I enjoyed a walk with my friend and dog breeding mentor, Caren of Tidewalker Australian Terriers and her 5 month old Aussie, Gracie. We talked about the challenges breeders face, finding and accessing good quality mates while being mindful of inbreeding coefficients.

Pat Boggs and Kathy Lytle, from whom I purchased my inimitable Ruby, had a model that worked for them. Pat preferred living and working with males, and Kathy kept the females. They built relationships with local Schipperke breeders and in this way, expanded their gene pool. Many dog breeders collaborate like this, sharing experiences and background knowledge of pedigrees and dogs, reducing or waiving stud fees, handling or training each others’ dogs. These kinds of efforts allow breeders to access larger numbers of Schipperkes for breeding than they could keep on their own. It helps them manage their COI levels and reduce costs. It works best when there are several breeders within a reasonably close geographical area.  

Caren has built strong relationships with other Australian Terrier breeders both in Canada and the USA, but she still travels quite long distances to mate her dogs. Travelling with an in season bitch on a time sensitive mission is both stressful and costly. Importing frozen semen is equally stressful and costly. Without appearing to condone the practice, it becomes easier to understand why people are tempted to breed to the nearest dog or the one they own and just hope for the best. 

Ruby loves her Aussie playmate Eddie. I’ve told Caren I’m sure there’s a market out there for Schipozzies, but so far, she remains unenthusiastic.

Considering the threat that inbreeding poses to the Schipperke and many other breeds, it seems like a natural place for breed clubs to focus their financial and educational resources.  Perhaps in the future, they will turn their attentions to that.

On being rare

Rare.

Roll that word around in your mind for a moment. Rare, like a rare cooked steak? Rare, like difficult to get and only available to the lucky few, like a precious diamond?

According to this showScene article Schipperkes are amongst the rarest breeds, based on CKC and KC registrations.

“The Schipperke had 134 individual registrations in Canada over a 3 year period (60 in 2016, 48 in 2017 and 36 in 2018), compared to an even lower number in the UK of only 33 individual registrations in 2018.”

Consider that.

  • Thirty six Schipperke puppies were born and registered in 2018, in Canada.
  • Thirty three Schipperke puppies were born and registered in 2018 in the UK.

Wait a minute now, you might be thinking. Not all Schipperkes are registered with kennel clubs. Think of all the unregistered Schipperkes being bred in backyards and apartments.

I checked Kijiji and my search today produced a lot of puppies for sale In British Columbia.

Many varieties and mixtures of dog breeds are available, every one adorable, sweet and friendly and offered for considerable amounts of money. But no Schipperkes.

My Petfinder search for schipperkes, anywhere in Canada and USA, produced just 22 Schipperkes and most were mixtures. https://www.petfinder.com/dog-breeds/schipperke/

Perhaps there are fewer Schipperkes being produced by the ‘grey markets’ than we think.

One thing is clear. Schipperkes are distinctive, precious and rare.

Rare, like almost extinct.

It’s hard, not doing

An idea that crept in, then

Grew big with talk and plans

and study,

has gone small again.

What’s going on in there,

I wonder.

It’s hard, not doing.

I entertain myself,

Imagine the unimaginably small

Bits and strands moving and

Pulsing and twining together.

Doing.

She rests.

On the couch, her bed

the rocking chair, the floor,

Unusually quiet,

or is she?

Is she well,

What’s going on?

She lifts her head and meets my eyes.

I make up things

She might be saying.

She leaps up on my bed,

and misses, falling awkwardly

I fear

To lose that, which

may not even exist,

She must not leap anymore.

Perhaps I worry

Too much.

She eats.

Robust.

Runs to the door for walks

But doesn’t she tire more quickly?

Time grows and shrinks

Long moments drip,

and pool,

like raindrops on the leaves that hold

then tip,

Sluicing them to the ground.

What’s going on,

I wonder.

She lifts her head to look at me
Then drops it back down,

again.

The best chance I can…

The Schipperke breeding population is very small and the practice of line breeding to create beautiful and consistent ‘type’ has created high coefficients of inbreeding. When COI’s exceed 5%, there are scientifically confirmed, deleterious results. Genetic malfunctions that are obvious (like MPSIIIB) are easy to breed away from, especially when there are genetic tests for them.

If a breeder produces a puppy that has an obvious condition, they won’t breed that pair again.

It’s the deleterious genes we can’t easily see that are the challenge, because many effects of inbreeding are very subtle. Enter, genetic testing.

Embark offers a Matchmaker tool that allows breeders to screen the available males in a growing database of Schipperkes. My first step was to filter against males who might carry the same recessive genes that Ruby carries. She carries one copy of a dilute coat gene and one copy of a canine retinopathy gene. One copy, no harm. Two copies, potential problems.

Then I filtered for the lowest coefficient of inbreeding for her potential litter. That’s where it really got interesting. Of 149 potential males in the database, only 16 dogs were in Embark’s “Green”

( safer to breed) category, ranging from 0 to 20. The lowest COI available was 7 and the highest was 19. 6.25% is the equivalent of having children with your first cousin.

The vast majority of available dogs (126) were in the “Amber” (proceed with caution) category, and would give Ruby’s litter a coefficient of between 20 and 30. By far, the majority ranged from 26, 27, 28 and 29. A COI of 25 is the equivalent of a mating a brother and a sister. A COI of 25 means that the risk of having a puppy with some type of genetic disease, subtle or obvious, is also 25%.

Ruby and Rebus do not share many common ancestors. This is what breeders commonly refer to as an outcross. Responsible breeders make use of out crosses in their breeding programs, for exactly this purpose, to reduce COI’s. In the past, breeders have had to rely on pedigree analysis, which is subject to error. You can read more about that here.

The ability to test for genetic similarity (homogeneity) is a very recent advancement, and understandably some people are reluctant to trust it. Ruby was tested twice. The first time, she was part of the Schipperke Foundation of America’s program to test 100 Schipperkes for 162 genetic diseases, as their way of building a database for supporting breeders and research in the future. I chose to test her a second time. Both tests returned the same results.

Ruby and Rebus’ litter will have a COI of 10%. (Individual puppies’ numbers may vary slightly, because genes don’t distribute exactly the same, every time) A 10% COI, means that Ruby’s puppies have only a 10 % risk of genetic disease, compared to a 25% risk. Her Embark test revealed the recessives that she had, which I ensured that her mate did not share. However, genomes are big and complicated and there are many, many recessives that we do not yet have the ability the test for. That’s why reducing COI’s, reduces risk.

If I’m going to produce puppies, I’m darn sure I want to make use of the best tools available to give them the best chance I can, for a long, healthy life. Genetic testing doesn’t guarantee good health in the puppies, but it gives me the power to reduce the genetic risk.

What do Robins know?

Robins are a common sight here in the Pacific Northwest. This robin lives in my backyard and he posed for a portrait this morning. He is easily identified as a robin because of his ‘robin like features’.

The scientific term for that outside appearance is ‘phenotype’. Probably this robin’s mom, thinks he has many unique qualities but for most of us, a robin is a robin and difficult to distinguish from any other.

On the genetic level, this robin is likely to have considerable genetic diversity. He inherited half his genes from his mother and half from his father. While it’s possible that his mother and father share some common ancestors, it’s not extremely likely, given the robin’s wide range and large open population. Genetic diversity is what makes both individuals and populations strong and resistant to disease.

A Schipperke is a Schipperke, because of its “Schipperke features” They are easily identifiable by those who know their features. People often stop to admire Ruby and ask me “Is that one of those Belgian Barge Dogs?”

But in contrast to the robin, my Ruby has much less diversity in her genome. Her COI is 22%, meaning 22% of the genes that she inherited from her mother and father came from an ancestor that was common to both of her parents.

Robins re-create their exterior characteristics quite well and still manage to maintain a considerable amount of genetic diversity. Schipperke breeders re-create the Schipperke phenotypes very well too, but have lost a considerable amount of genetic diversity. When dogs are spayed, neutered, or just not considered ‘good enough’ to breed, whatever genes those dogs had are lost to the population.

Robins breed quite well, at least they do in my yard. They lose eggs to predators like squirrels and only about 25% of baby robins survive to adulthood, but it’s safe to say that American robins are very successful. Any robin can mate, subject only to his attractiveness to others and his natural fitness. Robins have a wide range of choices.

Schipperkes are a closed population, where no new genes are introduced. The CKC and AKC studbooks are closed. Most Schipperkes are spayed and neutered and only a very small number are permitted to breed. Schipperkes’ mates are chosen for them, from a very, very small number of possibilities.

As fewer and fewer dogs are bred, their puppies become more and more similar genetically. The benefit that breeders appreciate is that they get a very reliable ‘type’ of Schipperke. The downside is that with greater similarity of genes, the likelihood of genetic diseases rises quickly.

Rebus, Ruby’s mate has also been genetically tested by Embark and his COI (Coefficient of inbreeding) is 32%. This means, that 32% of his genetic material is identical, coming from ancestors shared by both his father and his mother. So, if Ruby’s inbreeding number is 22% and Rebus’ inbreeding number is 32%, how can I be reducing the risk of genetic disease by breeding them together?

According to the National Wildlife Federation, “The American robin’s population is large and appears to be increasing. The bird has an extremely big range and has been successful at adapting to human alterations of its habitat.”

I think most of us who have tried to add a Schipperke to our lives have noticed that the Schipperke population is not large, nor does it have an extremely big range.

Maybe the robins know something we don’t…

Science, Technology and a little bit of Magic

Ruby woke me up at 5 AM on the morning of her procedure. I’d slept well, thanks to wax earplugs that subdued the neighbouring guests’ party music, and Ruby had too. When she was younger, Ruby alarm barked her way through most of our show travels, but this trip, she settled into our low rent motel life and is being a wonderful travel companion.

Dr. Sophia greets me at the door, her brown eyes friendly and reassuring over her masked face. The defrosting and preparation of the semen is time sensitive, so she has waited for our arrival. I watch and listen as she explains everything as she works. Curling puffs of vapour rise above the storage tank when she opens it. Liquid nitrogen maintains the semen at a storage temperature of -195 Centigrade. Using a clamp, she carefully draws out a a series of 5 inch long ‘straws’ and checks the labels. Defrosting takes very little time, and Sophia places a drop onto a slide, bends over the microscope and says “Oh, yes, I’m a happy camper! Would you like to have a look?”

I turn the focus knob and suddenly they appear, incredibly small and powerful little bundles of Rebus’ genetic material, dancing on the slide. For the first time, the whole project feels real. When I flew to Arkansas to pick up Ruby from Pat Boggs, I had confidence that she had chosen a good quality, healthy schipperke puppy for me but I had no thoughts of breeding her. Her litter mate sister, the lovely Jade, had been selected to be part of Kathy’s breeding program. Even though I showed her in conformation, I did it for the experience and not because I wanted to breed her. Yet here I was, five years later, watching these potential puppy lives, wriggling on a slide.

I lifted Ruby onto the table and we placed a wide strap under her hips to prevent her from sitting down during the procedure, which could injure her. Ruby stood calmly, munching treats, as Sophia inserted a short plastic tube into her vagina, through which the catheter would be guided. In moments, we were watching the screen, following the catheter as it threaded its way through the tube, the vaginal canal to the cervix, and through that doorway into the uterus. All of the tissues looked very strong and healthy. Sophia inserted the semen, withdrew the tube and we were done.

Well, not quite done.

After everything was put away and the Ruby was released from the strap, Dr. Sophia leaned over, placed her hands gently on Ruby’s hindquarters and intoned, “Maaaaake PUPPIES!”

Scratch a scientist and you’ll probably find there’s a little bit of a mystic, underneath.

Test test test!

Test test test! is not only good pandemic policy, it’s essential for a successful canine insemination. We want to time the sperm and egg meet-up as precisely as we can. We test the blood daily or every second day to observe a big hormonal spike upwards that indicates that she has ovulated. I have considerable confidence in Ruby’s reproductive health, but she has never been bred before, so I’m mildly nervous. Test, wait, test, wait..tick tock tick tock…

On Monday her levels were gradually climbing but were still relatively low at 7.3. Tuesday morning she tested at 9.4 and I couldn’t stand it anymore. We could have remained here on the island and continued to test, but I decided to pack up Ruby and catch the ferry to the mainland, where Dr. Sophia could take over. We’d be more settled into our accommodations and Sophia would have a chance to meet Ruby and I.

On Wednesday, Sophia drew the blood and I was the tech! That was quite a change from pandemic procedures at Sidney Animal Hospital, where I’d been handing her over to the staff at the front door and receiving her back after the blood draw! Sophia chose to draw from Ruby’s foreleg and it was my responsibility to hold her steady.

The next day, now that I knew my role, I worked with Ruby, clicking and rewarding her for presenting her foreleg, permitting the tourniquet to be placed on, (I used a poop bag (unused) and tied it tightly around her foreleg) allowing the tension and building duration. It was not ideal to have to train a cooperative care procedure that quickly, but Ruby has a strong history of positive reinforcement training and she learned quickly.

For Friday’s test, I still needed to use some physical restraint to hold her head away from nosing her foreleg but I was pleased at how well she tolerated most of the procedure. That afternoon, Sophia called with the good news that Ruby had indeed ovulated the day before, and we would inseminate on Sunday morning. It was a great relief to hear that!

Saturday, we wandered around Harrison in the rain

and

waited.

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