We had a soft coated wheaten terrier for a couple of years. What a doll. Even the name sounds cute, right? “Soft coated wheaten” — just saying the name is like falling into a pile of comforters. Well, the name was nothing compared to the dog.
He was about the size of a golden retriever, with melting brown eyes, silky fur and a sweet, helpless disposition. He was always up for a game, and he was willing to play patsy to our two Westies, who bossed him around mercilessly in the house and tussled with him endlessly in the back yard. He had a sense of humor, too. People who train wheatens refer to a trait called “the wheaten bounce,” which is the breed’s propensity for suddenly rocketing straight up in the air and coming back down with an expression that can only be described as a grin. They are also given to charging madly about the yard for no particular reason — it’s just something they do. I have fond memories of the first snowfall after we got the wheaten: as soon as he felt the snowflakes coming down and saw the white stuff all over the ground, he erupted into a blaze of motion. Even the Westies, who were usually able to zero in on him without too much trouble, just stood by dumbfounded as the toffee-colored blur whooshed past.
But something happened to that dog after about the first year. He’d always been nervous around strangers, but suddenly he was unable to stay in the house when anybody came to visit, and when we let him out he’d cower in the back of the yard and drive the neighbors crazy barking at the house. Sometimes he refused to go on walks; when he did go, he would often freeze in terror at the site of a garbage can, or a bit of litter in the roadway. On more than one occasion, what started as a walk ended with me carrying the dog home, his body tense and trembling under all that soft fur.
His behavior problems built to the point that he was already more trouble than a newborn baby, and after our first child was born, the dog graduated from nuisance to liability. What if his eccentricities started making him hostile? How could we trust him around a small child? We realized we would have to get rid of him, and quickly, lest our new child fall in love with him — what kid wouldn’t want to grow up with a walking teddy bear? — which would make getting rid of him all the harder. Leaving him at the county shelter was out of the question: he was so cute that he would be adopted almost immediately, but so much trouble that his new owner would instantly regret the decision. I hated to think of the dog being abused or even abandoned by his new owner.
If you’re an experienced dog owner, you’ve probably already guessed that our wheaten was the product of a puppy mill — an operation in which dogs are overbred (females forced to bear two litters a year from the moment they’re capable of getting pregnant) and kept caged in squalid, unsanitary conditions that can generate lifelong health problems. Pet shops buy dogs from puppy mills under the guise of acting as “brokers,” but what they’re actually doing is conniving in an inhumane business. Buying dogs directly from a reputable breeder is the way to go, but that can take time, and people who want a puppy or a cat immediately are what keep pet stores, and puppy mills, in business.
All of this is on my mind now because of this Star-Ledger story about how some of the Amish farmers of Lancaster County, just outside of Philadelphia, have become some of the most notorious puppy-mill operators in the country. We sure have come a long way since the 1985 movie Witness made the Amish seem, if not cool, then at least weirdly glamorous in their rustic way. Since then, we’ve learned about drug trafficking rings and other scandals that have taken some of the quaint polish off those black buggies. This story isn’t going to help the Amish image, but it should help you remember what to do when the urge to get a pet comes over you.
Our story ends (sort of) happily. After some research, we tracked down a wheaten rescue network. Most clubs devoted to dog breeds have rescue operations in which people who want to adopt a purebred dog can put their names on a waiting list. I drove our wheaten out to Allentown, Pa., and left him in the care of a nice lady who boarded dogs that were in line for adoption. (While she stroked his ears, she got him to open his mouth and gasped at the sight of his snaggly teeth, one of the hallmarks of a badly bred dog.) He was later adopted by a woman with two other wheatens and a bunch of cats — a pretty sweet deal, all told.
Originally published in The Opinion Mill.Powered by Sidelines