“Come on, little man,” I pleaded, tears of exhaustion and frustration rolling down my cheeks. “Hold on! You have to live!” For what seemed like the hundredth time that night, I opened the mouth of the tiniest little morsel of a collie puppy I’d ever seen, and placed a drop of milk-replacer formula on his tongue. Too weak to nurse from his mother, the newborn puppy would only survive if I could get him to swallow the formula from a syringe, one drop at a time. Tonight, I was supposed to be celebrating the realization of a lifelong dream. Why had things gone so terribly wrong?
Since before I was born, the Moore household had always included at least one collie. I grew up reading Lad: A Dog and other stories by Albert Payson Terhune. “Lassie” was a must-watch on TV, and collie figurines filled the shelves in my room. As an adult, I’d finally been able to begin a small breeding kennel. Tonight, my first litter of puppies had been born. And now, I was watching them die.
Ten years of preparation had preceded the birth of these puppies. I pored over collie books and magazines, contacted breeders, studied pedigrees and bloodlines. My goal was to produce collies that were more than just pretty faces, athletic, intelligent dogs that could shine in the show ring one day, then run the hill at a sheepdog trial or be a child’s best friend the next. In a video from Pennsylvania’s Lochranza Kennels, I saw a dog that made me catch my breath. Lochranza’s breeding program is based on Champion Amberlyn’s Bright Tribute, a Best-in-Show winner raised on an Alaska sheep ranch. In this dog, I saw everything I hoped the dogs I bred would be. A telephone conversation with kennel owner Ron Hevener, and I knew I’d found my cornerstone. Ron was bend-over-backwards helpful with the selection of my beginning breeding stock. First came Bob, a promising mahogany sable puppy, and later Marilyn and Annie, both experienced brood matrons from Lochranza’s own breeding program. Bob grew up tall, dark and handsome. Annie is a sweet, gentle lady, outstanding in head and hair coat. Each complemented the other, and I had been eagerly awaiting the birth of their puppies.
But when Annie delivered, my dreams nearly died. Five of her ten puppies were stillborn. Two more died shortly after birth. The litter I’d waited so long for was down to two healthy females and one male no bigger than a mouse. Since he wasn’t strong enough to stay snuggled against his mother’s body for warmth, I put the puppy in a box with a heating pad, and fed him by syringe every two hours. Next morning, my veterinarian estimated the puppy’s chance of survival at next to none.
Hairless spots on his body and a generally fetal appearance suggested that he had been conceived later in Annie’s breeding cycle than his sisters, making him actually several days premature at birth. Only with the most vigilant nursing care might he have any chance at all.
That said, the battle was joined. Inside the puppy’s frail body was a huge will to live. He was a fighter, and I had to help him. Graciously, clients at my boarding / training stable took over many of my everyday tasks, so I could concentrate on my mission. As the days passed, I wondered what this little fellow would be like if he did get the chance to grow up. I knew he wouldn’t be sold. That big heart of his had taken hold of mine. Day by day, he clung to life by his tiny toenails, pulling every bit of nourishment he could from the syringe, and later from a baby bottle. At 2 1/2 weeks, when his sisters tipped the scales at three pounds each, he weighed only 15 ounces. But he was still alive! Two weeks later, when he made his first successful attempt to nurse from his mother, I picked him up and cradled him in my arms, crying unashamed tears of relief. My little man was going to live!
And he would live up to his name. When the puppies learned to play-fight, Raff, being smaller, always took a beating. If I were close by, he would crawl to me, seeking refuge from his sisters’ onslaughts. He seemed to know his limitations, quietly conserving his hard-won strength. At six weeks, the tables turned. Raff decided he’d had enough. Now when his sisters pounced on him, they found themselves facing a furry whirlwind, all snarls and snaps and flashing teeth. For the first time, Raff found he had the advantage, and he loved it. From then on, as W.R. Van Dyck wrote in describing Raff’s ancestor, Champion Honeybrook Big Parade, “He never missed a meal nor lost a fight.”
From the first time Raff saw sheep, he took to training like a duck to water. At just over a year old, he made his stockdog trial debut. The youngest dog entered in the trial, he didn’t win, but his work was full of bright shining moments, and his devil-take-the-hindmost attitude earned praise. “I’d like to have that dog on the farm,” one onlooker said. “He’ll get the job done, and not take all day doing it.” According to an old superstition, a working dog of the highest caliber will have a black mouth-roof. Raff does. I see it as a shining arrow, pointing the way to his future. A National Championship someday? We’ll see…
So my little man has grown up. Once the palm of my hand held him with room to spare. Now he’s taller, fuller-bodied and heavier-coated than his sire. There’s a strangely old-fashioned quality about Raff. In him one sees not the fleeting flame of show ring fad and fashion, but the timeless beauty of the great dogs of the past. In his eyes shines “the look of eagles,” the heart, strength and courage that made him my personal miracle. At the end of a calamitous day, when I’ve had fences down and horses loose and broken water hoses and riding lesson no-shows until I’m ready to explode, there’s one way to loosen my banjo-string nerves. All I have to do is look in Raff’s eyes. What I see there makes the cares of the day fall away, and for a little while at least, all’s right with the world.
I’ve found differing opinions among breeders on the use of heroic measures to save puppies that otherwise wouldn’t survive. Some say they will pull out all the stops to save a puppy, others let nature take its course. Had I chosen not to intervene when Raff was born, I’d have saved myself half a summer of heating puppy formula, every-four-hour-feedings, and sleepless nights. And I wouldn’t be sharing my life with the best collie I’ve ever owned. Should I have taken the easy way out and let Raff die that first terrible night? I don’t have to look far to find my answer. I see it in his eyes.
To read Meredith Moore’s “Another Yellow Brick Road”, CLICK HERE — The continuation of Raff’s story.