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Timbreblue Whippets and the Future of Dogs in Virginia
When Sharyn and I decided to get married in the fall of '97 it was probably preordained that we'd wind up breeding whippets. She had thirty years of showing, breeding and rescue experience; I had a lifelong love of dogs that I had been able to indulge only since retiring. And her dowry was twelve dogs and an '88 Astro van suitable mainly for going to dog shows.
Moving from near Lexington, South Carolina and Front Royal respectively, we bought and renovated an old house in Rockbridge County to accommodate her dozen and my two -- an assortment of collies, whippets and mixed breeds. Most were pets and already spayed/neutered but there were also two truly outstanding whippets, the result of Sharyn's daughter's desire to show 'her own' breed. Of course when Johannah got married, most of her whippets were left with mom "until I have a bigger place."
In a three-month whirlwind we gave our home-to-be modern electrics, a well, central heating, lots of paint, and a fenced yard directly outside a downstairs room that we dubbed the 'dog room.' Some dogs would live mostly there, where Sharyn was to spend most of her days working on the computer, others would be mostly at large in the house, with me.
Fourteen dogs was unmistakably too many for us, but none of them could really be placed in other homes and some were elders who would not be with us for long. Had we planned our lives wisely we'd have met and married in 1969 rather than going off on highly educational marriages to other people. The best we could do now was play the hand we had.
As the dust of a new marriage and a new home began to settle, we looked at each other: Could we breed? We couldn't handle collies, but there were good reasons for Sharyn to change breeds anyhow, she had some whippet experience and the all-important friends among experienced whippet breeders (where she was known as "Jo's mom"), we had the critical 'foundation bitch' and with the dog room and yard, two people home full time, and an upstairs bedroom we could use for whelping and young puppies, an ideal setup for home hobby breeding.
And we had the same view of the breeding hobby: Fine examples of a breed in every respect, bred and raised to live as family pets. Call them "pets you could show." Our focus was to be on sound structure, health, and temperament. We would not breed to whatever dog was winning in the dog show ring, but rather to those animals we believed would give us the strongest, healthiest and happiest inheritance.
While this isn't the universal show breeder outlook, the dog show world was essential to our goals. The pedigree is the foundation of what a puppy becomes but names on a sheet of paper are useless unless you know who those dogs were. How long did they live and how did they die? Did they have the kinds of temperament we wanted or were they given to unhealthy shyness? What health problems did they have?
And all the same questions for their littermates and puppies.
This information is only found in the memories of the generation of breeders who are ahead of us on the breeding road, and on any weekend of the year, most of those breeders are at a dog show.
"Kennel blindness" -- the belief that your own dogs are perfect -- is the dog breeder's flu: we all get it and if you don't have more experienced people looking at your dogs, it will lay you low. What the judge says in the ring can be important but what the giants of your breed say at ringside is critical to a sound breeding program.
Being retired we wouldn't have the money to be important in the show ring, but a continuing modest presence was essential.
Sharyn would do the showing and most of the work of breeding; my duties became genetics and training issues, fixing stuff the dogs broke, planning, most of the worrying about money, the bringing of ice cream during all-night whelping sessions (dogs nearly always give birth post-midnight), getting enough sleep to drive for a whelping emergency run to the vet, and doing the laundry. A secret you might not wish to know: Those shining puppies in the pictures are what you get after several weeks of being up to your elbows in varying kinds of filth.
In the fall of 2000, we whelped our first litter; six fine puppies. We found wonderful homes for them all and we were off and running. Breeders often name litters according to themes like movie stars, country singers, highway signs, and so on. Our theme became 'things your mother told you to never do': That first litter included Timbreblue Blames Her Brother ("Snitch"), Slams the Door ("Banger"), and Plays With Matches ("Ember").
And in the spring of 2002, the animal rights movement landed on Virginia, big time. I still remember the evening in May when Sharyn brought me a copy of Senate Bill 260, already passed and awaiting signature. "The rescue email groups are all in an uproar over this; would you write some common sense that I can post to help them quiet down?" Standing at the kitchen counter (the scene is etched on my memory) I read. I read again ... and again. Every time I read, it got worse. Home dog rescuers -- that is, dog owners who take in, rehabilitate and resell unwanted dogs -- were to be counted, registered, required to post their names and addresses in public animal shelters, inspected, required to open their records to whomever, and keep regular 'business hours.'
Home-based rescue is a crucial part of the management of unwanted pets. Shelters can (and public pounds must) take in the unwanted, but only rescue can evaluate, train, rehab, match to the right new home and guarantee an adoption. Like breeding, rescue is a passion and done by people who do it strictly for love.
Most rescuers are women; more than a few live alone. Such regulation was a 100% sure-fire way to kill off rescue. Then there was the Constitutional catastrophe: There's no justification for government to claim a private home is a dangerous place of business subject to 'pervasive regulation' like a restaurant or hospital just because the owner occasionally buys and sells a pet. The abuses that sometimes occur in home rescue settings are exactly like those possible for any pet and home owner and subject to the very same animal neglect, cruelty, sanitation, and general nuisance laws.
I wrote, trying for common sense, but with an aim opposite to settling things down. We were already operating an email group for owners of pet dogs to exchange information; within a couple of days we had founded the first of what grew to several groups devoted to fighting the animal rights movement. Over the next year, hundreds of Virginians mobilized against SB 260 and in the 2003 session of the Assembly, it was effectively repealed.
2002 was a very educational year. We learned that the animal rights movement is world wide and that its goal is ending all use of animals: no meat, no hunting or fishing, no animal research, no circuses or rodeos, and no pets. We learned that the flagship of the U.S. movement is the so-called Humane Society of the U.S. (though it runs no shelters whatever), a non-profit corporation grown fat on the moral fraud that checks from millions of animal lovers go to 'help animals' although the truth is that they're used to raise more money, promote HSUS itself, and pay lobbyists and others to pass restrictive laws. We learned too that affiliates like the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies (VFHS, chief backers of SB 260) are the HSUS no-fingerprints lobbying arm, lending credibility and state and local connections in exchange for modest grants, training materials, and support on local issues.
Over successive litters Timbreblue owners have spread from Florida north to New Jersey and west to Nevada. Usually they find us via the internet and apply online; most contacts we either talk out of getting a whippet (no breed is right for every family!) or refer to other breeders we trust. We get acquainted with the few who match our goals and timetable over the following weeks by email and phone; when the time comes, they visit us to pick up their puppies. There are other perfectly good ways to sell pups (many breeders will ship) but that's what works for us.
One owner suggested and, with our encouragement, put on a first Timbreblue Puppies Reunion in 2002; it has been held every year since. This year fifty dogs and their families attended. We started an email group for owners and found that more than cute puppy stories is shared: As I write, the list is pouring out support for one of us whose husband has just died.
Our owners bought dogs from us, but most of them have gone on to join our extended family. Via webcam and a second 'pupwatch' email group, whelpings and puppy first days are now shared with folks who plan to buy one and with other interested 'family' as well.
No pets. How could we forgive ourselves if we simply allowed the movement now sweeping the country to win? We had an absorbing hobby but the rest of the leisure we thought retirement would bring became an unpaid full-time job, fighting the animal rights movement.
Virginia has done well, considering that we're in the center front of the battle lines with HSUS (headquartered in Washington, D.C.), PeTA (Tidewater area), and the VFHS (run from a handful of hard-core AR oriented animal shelters in Virginia). The last three years have seen the AR establishment effort gain covering fire from the 'put shoes on the natives' Virginia Voters for Animal Welfare. VVAW bills contain frequent laugh lines, but with the Assembly dealing with tens of bills per session day, every one must be fought and we're very thin on the ground.
The truth is that we are losing more slowly in Virginia than elsewhere in the nation, but we are losing.
Timbreblue's current breeding program consists of Talks in Class ("Whisper") and Talks to Strangers ("Candy"), both fine bitches of our own breeding, with qualities we want to carry on. After her litter, Whisper will go to the young woman who now owns our first stud. She's a brilliant dog (and sweet) and she needs a job: Deb does canine freestyle dancing and other performance activities with her dogs.
Plays the Joker ("Diamond") has already had two litters of fine puppies and is an excellent mom; she's up for one more and will probably then be retired and sold. It is impossible for breeders at our scale to keep as lifetime pets all the dogs that are needed for the program, an adult whippet is a better fit in many families than a young hellion, and the dogs go from being one of many to doted-on only pet or perhaps one of two. Whippets almost always adapt quickly to new good homes. And just as for our puppies, if it doesn't work out they can come back, no fault.
One who wouldn't adapt (and we could never give up!) is our foundation bitch, Ivy. She's 11 now, in good health but so closely bonded to Sharyn and vice versa that she will be here the rest of her days. Ivy has graduated to just-pet status, although as grandma and great-grandma to the others, she continues to play a role. She's pictured here with Cadence, the owner of one of her grandpuppies, now living in Winter Haven, Florida.
The two youngsters in our program are Timbreblue Spies on Santa, "Boo" and Timbreblue Loves a Romeo, "Juliet." Boo was kept as a potential stud: Although at one year old he's pushing the 22" size limit in the whippet standard, he's the first male we've kept in several years Five or six years ago, we learned that our breed has a late-developing inherited heart problem -- many experienced breeders knew about it, but many weren't willing to address it. After all, admitting that the bloodline you've worked for years to develop is a critical setback.
Along with a few others, we approached the Whippet Health Foundation about studying the problem and we began to take steps here to insure that our dogs' hearts are as sound as the rest of their bodies. Boo will be the first male to get our complete heart health program. We have echocardiograms done on all our breeding stock now and Boo has two generations of sound hearts behind him. The dogs even further back in his pedigree lived normal lifespans as far as we've been able to tell. It will be years before we'd use Boo at stud -- we never use young males, because some genetic problems (like the heart defect) don't show up till middle age. But if he passes all the tests, Boo's genetic material could be important to the future of the breed. At nine months, Juliet is in the running for our next show star and breeding prospect. We don't breed them before two years old at the earliest, so for now she's just enjoying being a puppy and learning some manners...well, we're working on that anyway!
Five whippets in the program plus some just-pets plus an occasional litter of puppies is about as few dogs as you're going to find in the home of any breeder with a long range plan. Three- and four-pet limits, common in many parts of our state and soon to be enforced by laws like last year's HB 339 (which will require veterinarians to report rabies shots for licensing purposes if we don't undo it before the July 2007 effective date) will end the kind of breeding we do across broad areas of our state. 'Kennel licenses' may offer a higher number in some places but probably only at the cost of converting a right to a pervasively regulated privilege.
Some breeders will move, but of course the areas with the limits are those where most of the jobs are located. The general result will be a shift away from home breeding, toward commercially bred dogs, those of 'puppy moonshiners,' and out of state back-of-the-pickup imports. We can make laws against the worst abuses but commanding the tide would be a better use of the time.
Pet limit laws have been found unconstitutional in a couple of other states on grounds that if three pieces of property is okay, declaring a fourth of the same to be illegal is purely arbitrary. But the machine that dispenses such decisions is uncertain of performance and bears a sign "Insert cash here – $10,000 bills only – No change returned." Wealthy dog breeders are almost unknown. Removing the power of localities to set such low limits probably makes better sense.
Pressed by the VVAW, a second Virginia county has now decided that home breeders should be licensed. This trend too is likely to spread and of course the VVAW offers us an annual bill to do it statewide. SJ 37, HB 2927, SB 55 ... we already know that this year will bring a new number.
What we do is a break-even hobby and a passion. It can't be improved by pervasive regulation and we won't try to do it in that environment. We love our home and we love Virginia but if such regulation comes to us, we will move to another state. We're old enough that one move should take care of the problems for as long as our health lets us continue to breed.
However, even young breeders can only play the 'move' card once because we're going to run out of states in their lifetimes. Anti-home breeding legislation is spreading like wildfire in the populated areas where there are jobs. Driven by animal rights – a bizarre cult-like religion with hardly a thousand believers in the nation – America is now deciding that its dogs should come from large farms, located in remote areas and producing thousands of puppies annually, and from local folks willing and able to hide from the law.
I believe we have about five years to turn things around nationwide, more like two or three to do it in Virginia. In this year's session of the Assembly we expect the VVAW to deliver the usual roughly a dozen bills to make the problems worse, the VFHS will be looking to tighten the screws on HB 339 and – desperate to hide the stench of the discovery that their employees had been picking up dogs and cats with claims that new homes would be found, then euthanizing them in the van and tossing them in dumpsters – PeTA will be pushing for a no-tethering law.
Timbreblue will be passing the torch within a few years, in any case. I hope that we'll be able to do it in the knowledge that our children and theirs will be able to continue the race openly and publicly, focusing on the art, science, and love of breeding great dogs, rather than struggling just to breed and sell a few puppies before they're caught – the future that awaits them if we don't reverse the trends.
The next litter – currently planned for spring 2007 – will be our eighth. Among the names will be Timbreblue Snaps Her Gum, ("Poppy"), Goes With Sailors ("Tart"), and Writes On Walls ("Scribble").
Home breeders don't all do things as we do, but many do the most important parts and only home breeders can do any of it. No pets. For how much longer will home breeding be possible, in Virginia or anywhere in America?