It all started innocently in 2006, when, daydreaming about owning a labradoodle, I did a web search for labradoodle breeders in the area. I live in Southwestern Virginia, a place my daughter calls “the middle of freakin’ nowhere” so by “area” I meant anywhere in West Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia. To my surprise, I found a place not too terribly far from where we live. Then, at a local vet’s office, I saw a photo of a handsome dog—Labrador-like but with wacky hair. The caption underneath advertised labradoodles and gave a phone number. It was the same place from my web search. Was that meant to be or what?
I called and talked to a very nice lady, whom I’ll call Nancy. Yes, she had labradoodles, and the puppies were sooo cute! I ought to drop by and play with them sometime. Could I come this Saturday?
This was in May or June. Being a writer and prone to flights of imagination, I pictured myself sitting on a sunny bank of green lawn shaded by towering trees as fat curly coated pups climbed onto my lap, and gently licked my fingers. A breeze cooled my face and, well, you get the picture.
“Our next dog should be a labradoodle,” I told Tom, floating the idea. “They don’t shed, and they don’t have as strong an odor as hounds.” Tiyo, our old hound/German shepherd mix, had pretty much been an odor and shed monster since we adopted him from a shelter eleven years before. “No hair to vacuum up!” I added, trying to seal the deal.
I came back to earth with a crash when the woman said she was offering her pups for a bargain. Only $500, due to the poor state of the economy.
Our personal economy, evidently in even a poorer state, had no room in the budget for an extra dog, especially, as the spouse put it, a $500 yuppie dog. Not with poor Tiyo racking up vet bills as his age increased and his joints deteriorated. I thanked her, begged off, and hardly gave it another thought. [Now, in 2018, $500 would be a bargain for any purebred dog, and a steal for labradoodles who often cost more than $2000. This is a sore point for many breeders of purebred dogs, who think all, or at least most, doodle breeders are little more than puppy mills producing “mutts.” More on this later.]
Hardly a thought, but the daydreams continued.
A year and a half later, as it became clear that Tiyo wouldn’t be with us much longer and we were already beginning to grieve in advance—because Tiyo, odor and shed-monster that he was, had been a loving and loyal companion—I went back to the website. This time I noticed the dates on the photos of puppies for sale were still from 2006. I emailed Nancy again asking if she still had labradoodles and, if so, how much did they cost?
She answered, “Due to the economy, we can’t sell our babies. So we are giving them away. They need homes more than we need money and they are costing us a lot to feed them.”
Can I honestly say I didn’t read a thin line of desperation hiding underneath her words? If so, I was too excited to think about it. We made arrangements to see the puppies on the weekend.
Now, as my husband and I stand by the barn, waiting for her son to bring the rest of the puppies up from the deer carcass down by the creek, that line of desperation is thick and visible. Three poodle-like female dogs, teats drooping, watch us from a distance, their eyes suspicious, and their heads low. Not one comes up to be petted. They look like sheep who have been in a bizarre shearing accident. Matted hair hangs in wool-like clumps over scraggly coats.
“Those are the mothers,” Nancy says, following my gaze. She shakes her head. “It’s just impossible to keep their coats good when they’re nursing. No amount of grooming can keep up with it.”
It’s hard to believe any amount of grooming has touched those coats in some time. “And they’re all labradoodles?” I ask. In her email, Nancy had said the pups were F2 labradoodles, which would mean they’d have labradoodle parents.
“Maggie over there is a standard poodle. The other two are labradoodles,” she says. I study Maggie, trying to see more poodle in her than in the other two, but to my eyes they all look pretty much alike.
Her son returns carrying two puppies. When he sets them down, they show no interest whatsoever in us, busy hopping around the bag of Ol’ Roy or piling up against the other pups who are napping. I begin to worry that they haven’t been properly socialized.
“How old are they?” I ask.
She tells us they are about eleven weeks old.
My fears about improper socialization intensify.
According to many dog experts, the time from weaning, around 8 weeks, to about 12 weeks form a magical window in a puppy’s life, a time when the pup is exceptionally open to new experiences. After the twelve week mark, however, the pup gradually becomes more cautious in strange environments. While all the puppies here seem to have had plenty of socialization with other dogs and general country life, I wonder how much they’ve had with humans. One week isn’t a lot of time to cram in four weeks’ worth of activities.
“Have they been handled much?”
“Oh, yes. Cory, here, is out here all the time with them, aren’t you Cory?” Cory gives a sullen nod that doesn’t reassure me.
Nancy hands me a female puppy. “She’d make a great dog for you,” she says.
I’d hoped to get a female puppy and this one even licks my hand, the friendliest of the lot. But she has straight hair and I can see she’ll end up with the wacky Labrador coat rather than the non-shedding poodle one. And since “doesn’t shed, doesn’t stink” is what I’d promised Tom, I want the most poodle-like of the bunch. Plus, this pup is big, a good third larger than the other puppies. We hoped for a smaller dog than Tiyo, who weighs 80 pounds and takes up the entire back seat of the car.
I put the pup down, exchanging her for the one with the curliest coat in the bunch, a male. He lies dead-still in my arms, showing no sign of affection or even recognition. The wind bites through my jeans and I shiver, eager to get out of the cold. I stroke his head, but he doesn’t respond. “Okay,” I say. “We’ll think about it. Could we come back tomorrow if we decide to take him?” I try to hand him back to Nancy.
Her arms remain folded. “Oh, you’d better take him now. I can’t tell these pups apart. I couldn’t be sure you’d get the same one if you came back. And I don’t know how long we’ll have them.”
“We really hadn’t planned on bringing one home now—”
“He’ll be fine. I’ll give you some dog food if you need it.” She turns and practically pushes us toward the car.
I begin to wonder if I’d said “We’re starting up a small dog-fighting ring and I need a few pups,” if she’d say “How many do you need?”
I’m sure she wouldn’t. Her dogs are all well fed, have large pens and a larger exercise area, and she obviously cares for them. She seems more overwhelmed than anything else. Like the time I thought I can handle a quarter-acre garden even though I didn’t have a tiller or any tools other than a hoe and a shovel. We had moved from New Mexico to Indiana the summer before, and having lived all my life in deserts, I had no idea how things could grow in a hot, humid climate. Before that summer, I’d never realized what it is to lose your garden to weeds: lose in the sense of truly not being able to find the plants. There is that moment of despair when you realize no amount of work can redeem the situation, that all your dreams have strangled in complications thick as growing vines.
Nancy nudges us towards our car. From the dog pens in the big barn above the house comes a riot of barking and howling. Is it my imagination or do I see on her face what I felt when I looked at my garden that summer?
You don’t buy a horse for its color. You don’t get a dog for its coat. I mean, that’s just stupid, right? Obviously, a woman who claims not to be able to tell the puppies apart, and can’t reliably tell us which dogs are the mothers is not running the type of reliable breeding program that will guarantee healthy pups. Read any book on dogs and it will tell you. These pups could all be great candidates for hip dysplasia, skin allergies, or genetic diseases such as degenerative myelopathy.
But somehow, even as I’m thinking this, I’m opening the car door and climbing inside, the pup still in my arms.
“I don’t have any idea what to name him,” I say, as my husband, looking a little stunned himself, starts the car.
Only later will I realize that this is truly the least of my problems.
(continue with Chapter Four: Putting It All on Black)
Want to meet Shadow’s alter-ego, Doodle? Click here.