In the whelping box: A breeder’s responsibility begins. Photo by Thru Marzena’s Lens.
“People have forgotten this truth. But you mustn’t forget it,” the fox told the Little Prince. “You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”
That clever canid in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous novella was uniquely qualified to lecture on the stewardship of wild things: He gave up hunting and being hunted in order to be tamed by the Little Prince. And when his tousle-haired master left their tiny planet, the fox wept — because now he had become attached and felt his new friend’s absence all too deeply.
Long ago, our dogs made a similar choice. From the moment that first prehistoric wolf started hanging around human encampments, skittishly stealing discarded bones, and then eventually assenting to being touched and petted, dogs bartered away their freedom as the price for our friendship. And on Sept. 9, which is AKC Responsible Dog Ownership Day, America’s premier dog registry reminds us of the importance of keeping up our end of this canine covenant.
For most owners, that responsibility takes the form of conscientiously caring for the dogs in our homes –- socializing them to become good canine citizens; cleaning up after them curbside; and ensuring they have good veterinary care, nutrition, a warm bed — if not the couch — and an avalanche of squeak toys and rawhides.
Denise and her most recent champion. Photo by Theresa M. Lyons.
But for purebred dog breeders, this sense of responsibility has a ripple effect. We keep tabs on our extended generations, taking back dogs years after the fact because their circumstances have changed (from reasons such as divorce to allergies to “I redecorated, and she doesn’t match the furniture anymore”), fielding round-the-clock questions from “puppy people” (some silly, some serious), and mentoring those who come after us so they don’t repeat the costly mistakes we’ve already made.
And so through our actions and our intentions, we take responsibility for our own family of dogs, and also for the breed as a whole.
It’s our bond with our chosen breed, strengthened by the blood and muck and beauty of the whelping box, which makes breeders feel this overarching responsibility. And sometimes our varying demands compete with one another, much to our frustration: We want our dogs to be beautiful, and also healthy and have good temperaments, too — the whole package. We want to retain the physical and behavioral trappings of our breed’s original function — which is why the breed evolved to begin with — but we want them to be compatible with our increasingly space- and time-squeezed society. We want to share just how special our dogs are, but we don’t want them to become too popular.
Every generation leads the next. Photo: Theresa M. Lyons
We acutely understand that just one rogue dog or irresponsible breeder or inaccurate media portrayal can have a devastating impact on the whole breed. And so our responsibility widens even more: We support breed rescue, participate in getting-to-know-you events like Meet the Breeds, join campaigns against breed-specific legislation, contribute to research initiatives to find genetic markers, and redouble our dedication to health testing and breeder education.
Breeders of “new” breeds feel their responsibility especially heavily. Though dogs like the Sloughi and Cirneco dell’Etna and Nederlandse Kooikerhondje have existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, they are relatively new to our shores. So their pioneering American breeders take great pains to make a proper introduction — going far beyond the immediate challenge of how to pronounce their names.
And then there are the breeders of rare breeds, whose responsibility is to tend a flickering flame that is constantly beset by the whistling winds of low numbers, tiny gene pools, and scant demand. If they fail in their responsibility, the result is extinction. There’s a reason why many purebred breeders have embraced the term “heritage dogs”: Every breed is the living embodiment of a place and time that in many cases now exists only in history books and long-faded memories.
“To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes,” the fox explained in “The Little Prince.” “But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . . ”
Good breeders ensure their puppies are well socialized. Photo by Denise Flaim.
And in the end, that’s where the motivation for stewarding our breed lies. Yes, all dogs are special, and every life precious, but for reasons that are as difficult to articulate as why one falls in love with one person and not another, a particular breed has simply stolen our hearts. Actually, we gave those hearts willingly. As the fox said so eloquently, our breeds are unique to us in all the world –- nothing else can replicate the feel of their coats beneath our hands, their lively eyes reflecting back our love and affection, their presence echoing dogs that have come before, and hinting at those still to come.
And so we are gladly, contentedly, and unequivocally responsible.
Denise Flaim is a professional journalist, Rhodesian Ridgeback breeder, and AKC judge based in Long Island, N.Y.