Manson was suffering from performance anxiety.
A strapping yellow Labrador retriever, Manson seemed to be the perfect stud for Bella, our black Lab. He was long, lean, and bright-eyed. They were a handsome couple, chasing sticks into Rock Creek on their first date.
When Bella came into heat in April, we arranged a series of mating sessions–once at our place, two at his. They would whirl and twirl and do a lot of licking and nipping, but they never "locked up," as they say in the breeding business.
My three daughters and I became determined to breed Bella over the spring and summer. A three-year-old American field Lab, she was the pride of our home and a character in our Chevy Chase DC neighborhood.
We had listened to all the reasons not to breed a dog: It was too much work, too expensive, there were too many dogs already, and "backyard breeding" downgraded the breed.
The girls–Anna, 14, Rose, 12, Claire, 9–wanted to raise fluffy pups and perhaps make a profit from selling them. I wanted my Lab to experience one litter before we spayed her. All of us would get lessons in life, labor, and business.
Our puppy summer would be full of possibilities and pitfalls, but we were settled on one matter: We would not keep a puppy.
Once the uncomsummated Manson affair was over, I got more serious about breeding. Bella's mother was a chocolate Lab, and I knew that chocolates were in demand, thanks in part to Bill Clinton's choice of Buddy for his presidential pet. I also knew that Labs came in two varieties: English types, which are more stout and square-headed, and American field dogs, which tend to be lanky and longer in the face and leg. I set out to find an American chocolate boy for our girl.
I punched up "Labrador retriever" on the Internet and found breeders in Maryland and Virginia. I sent e-mails to a few and received responses. Sandy, from Belquest Kennels in Mount Airy, called and suggested I try Sterrett Kennel in Pokomoke City, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore.
Reid Sterrett answered when I called. He and his family have been breeding Labradors for two generations. I told him about Bella and my search for a chocolate field Lab.
"Alvin would be perfect," he said.
The fee would be $500, and he would cash the check only if Bella had pups. I would leave Bella at his kennel for a week.
A few days after the Manson interlude, Bella and I were cruising over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way to meet her new prospective beau, Whiskey Creek's Deep Run Al Capone–Whiskey Al or Alvin for short.
Everyone's pet is the best animal in creation, part of the fabric of the family, a soulmate. Bella was that and more for my three daughters and me.
We had gotten Bella in October 1998, the same month my wife of 15 years moved out. I hoped a puppy would divert us with doses of chaos and calm. The girls wanted a little one to cuddle; I wanted a big dog, a playmate, a guard dog. My friends said I wanted a female that would take orders and give unconditional love.
One sunny Sunday that October, I sat on my deck and scanned the classifieds. We were heading to Philadelphia that afternoon to celebrate the Jewish New Year with my family. Why not check out puppies on the way? There were Labs galore, but most were on the Eastern Shore or down south in Virginia. I called a few numbers. One was a family that had a litter in Bel Air, Maryland, a few miles off I-95, our route to Philly. We arranged to stop.
"We can't buy a puppy on impulse," I told the girls. "We have to look around."
When we reached the Bel Air exit, I made them chant: "We're not going to buy a puppy. We're not going to buy a puppy."
A half hour later, I was writing a check for the smallest black Lab left. We named her Bella, Italian for "beautiful female." The following Saturday we brought her home. I was wrestling with her in the yard when she smacked me in the mouth with her head and broke my front tooth. We bonded.
Bella hung her head out the window as we crossed the Bay Bridge and headed south toward Pokomoke City.
Reid Sterrett, a 27-year-old breeder with a gentle manner, greeted Bella and me as we pulled into his yard. He lives with his wife and three daughters in a house 50 yards from his crew of Labs.
I put Bella through her paces: fetching and fetching. Then Reid put her in a pen and brought out Whiskey Al. The dog looked majestic, his brown coat aglow in the afternoon sun. I approved. Reid and I shook hands over the match.
We talked for an hour as the sun set. Reid explained the risks of breeding and rules about sanitation and quarantining the pups, how he had lost pups to a virus called parvo, how pups had been stillborn, how bitches had suffered in the process, how finicky buyers had backed out of deals. The books say 10 to 30 percent of full-term pups don't survive.
"Don't worry too much," he said. "It'll work out."
I patted Bella and headed back to the city, wondering if we could make it through this adventure.
Reid called the next night to say whiskey Al and Bella had bred that evening.
Reid and I talked and e-mailed every day that week. The two dogs "locked up" five more times. The weather had turned wet and mean, and I worried that Bella would suffer in the outdoor kennels. Reid had already taken her inside.
Whiskey Al performed again and again. The average gestation period for dogs is 63 days. Our countdown began April 15. If Bella had conceived, she'd be due in mid-June.
When the girls and I drove down to retrieve Bella, she looked content. We camped along the Pokomoke River that night and drove home the next morning to a new chant:
"We are not keeping a puppy. We are not keeping a puppy."
May 1, Day 16. I was grilling salmon on the deck when Rose walked out with her new favorite book, Successful Dog Breeding. She started to read:
"Overabundance of vitamin A can prevent implantation of fertilized eggs. D can cause abnormalities in developing pups."
Rose looked up.
"Oh, my God," she said. "So many things can go wrong."
Rosie is the worrier in the family. Every rainstorm portends a hurricane. She likes order. When we have to make a plane, she handles the watch.
Rose is also an exuberant kid with eyes so big and round they sometimes surprise her in the mirror. She's an artist and an athlete. When I'd arrived home from work that evening, she'd greeted me in the front yard with a Wiffle ball and bat. I pitched, she whacked balls over the hedge into Mrs. J.'s yard, and Bella fetched them.
Claire heard the crack of the bat and came out to catch. Anna drifted out and took the field. We switched to softball, grabbing gloves and a metal bat.
When I'd had my third daughter, a friend had said, "Three weddings, no baseball." Not exactly. I have three softball, soccer, and lacrosse players.
Claire took the bat and hit a few grounders. She didn't want to give up the bat, as usual. A freckle-faced nine-year-old, she loves and hates her big sisters, tortures and gets tortured, as it should be. She's an A student, the willful, persistent baby-child who tries to run the place and often does. She calls me her hugging post.
Anna picked up the black metal bat I'd bought for myself but rarely got to use. Bat back, knees bent, she hit line drives over the hedge.
Anna, or AJ, is a girl becoming a beautiful young woman. Lately she's taken to admiring herself in the mirror, as if she wants to watch the changes taking place. AJ has always been wise before her time, adventurous, steady, and brave.
"Thank God there's one adult in your family," my friend Leslie says.
We'd need one in the coming weeks.
May 17, Day 32. Bella puked when I took her out for her morning walk. Our walks used to offer contemplative moments; now they were becoming exercises in paranoia: Would the pesticides applied to a neighbor's lawn cause deformed pups? Would Bella choke on a chicken bone from the alley? Was she really pregnant, or did she eat the cat food again?
Dogs, especially big ones, don't "show" until the fifth or sixth week. Bella didn't look or act pregnant, though she seemed to be filling out. The vet would be able to tell for sure. I loaded Bella into the van, picked AJ up from school, and headed downtown for the appointment with Dr. Wesley Bayles.
Bayles is a portly, jolly vet with a whitening beard and smiling eyes. He's the sole proprietor of Georgetown Veterinary Hospital, which he runs out of a brownstone on M Street. He loves Labs–he sleeps with his. When I had told Dr. Bayles a year before that I was thinking of breeding Bella, he frowned and told me it was more trouble than it was worth. He was against backyard breeding.
"I've tried to do a professional job," I told him. I produced the papers to prove it.
To breed purebred dogs responsibly, you have to avoid inbreeding and make sure you breed out bad qualities. You want to "breed up." One of the worst genetic defects associated with Labs is hip dysplasia, a condition that makes their hips collapse when they become adults. It afflicts most large breeds. To check Bella's hips, we'd had her x-rayed and the films sent to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. She got an "excellent" rating.
Bayles was pleased with Whiskey Al's paperwork, too.
Bayles and his assistant, Eddie, hoisted Bella onto the stainless-steel examining table. He checked her heart, lungs, and ears and felt her abdomen from the front, side, and back. "Better build a whelping box," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if Bella's carrying 10 to 12 puppies."
It was time to get organized.
"I'll take care of the vet stuff," Rosie said. "I've read all the books. I know what could go wrong."
She had dog-eared and highlighted all three of the breeding books. At first Anna protested that she had read the books, too, but then she volunteered to keep the finances and be the CEO of Puppy Summer Inc.
Claire volunteered to keep the records, especially when Bella delivered the pups. She'd be in charge of the puppies' weights and vital signs.
The business of raising and selling pups would encompass the basics of any business. There would be costs associated with labor and vaccinations. We'd have to market and advertise. We'd be subject to the laws of supply and demand. There would be gross profit and, we hoped, net profit.
AJ started to run the numbers. She checked the prices of Labs in the paper. They ranged from $300 to $800. We discussed it and arrived at $550 for chocolates and $450 for blacks. She projected out costs and income for eight pups and arrived at weekly salaries of $40 each for her and Rose, $20 for Claire, who would be going to day camp.
We each kicked in $3 for a puppy pool. Claire said six, Rose seven, Anna eight. I skipped nine and went for ten.
"If it's more than ten," I said, "we'll take one another out for dinner."
June 6, Day 52. about 11 Days to B-Day.
Rosie was out of school. She showed up in my office behind the house, wearing the good-luck charm I'd given her when she'd graduated from elementary school. Her blue bobby socks were down to her running shoes, her hair in tiny pigtails.
"Here's a list of medical supplies we need," she said.
If we were going to help Bella give birth to her puppies–to "whelp" them, in dog parlance–we'd have to become doggy midwives. Wolves, coyotes, and wild dogs might have the natural instincts to whelp in the woods, but our home dog would need help. Each of us had been studying.
"We need a thermometer, petroleum jelly, dental floss, hemostat, dull scissors, latex gloves, disinfectant, stopwatch, scale, nasal aspirator," Rosie said. "What's a hemostat?"
The hemostat was to help tie off umbilical cords with the dental floss, I explained. The thermometer was for taking the temperature of Bella and her pups. The nasal aspirator was to help them breathe. We were setting up a puppy MASH unit.
But where would Bella have these pups? Rose advocated the kitchen. Anna, Claire, and I preferred the sunroom, also the girls' TV room. It was the first of many sacrifices when they emptied it out for the expected pups.
We needed a whelping box where Bella could raise her offspring for the first few weeks. My friend Ross lent us one he had built for his dog. It was a four-by-five-foot box with two-foot-high sides.
We set up supplies on the sunroom's windowsill and piled up a supply of old towels. We put Bella's favorite blanket in the whelping box and coaxed her in.
By Monday night, June 11–57 days from the breeding in Pokomoke, six days from Bella's approximate due date–we thought we were ready.
JUNE 12, DAY 58. It used to be that when I came downstairs in the morning, Bella would dance and roll over so I could pat her tummy. Now she was stretched out on the floor and didn't move–not even a flick of the ear. Her midsection was a mound stuffed with puppies.
"How are them pups?" I asked, rubbing her tummy. A puppy pushed back. The girls came down, and we played a new game: pat the puppies.
We took Bella in for a final visit with Dr. Bayles. All was normal.
Reid Sterrett suggested we administer antibiotics to Bella in case the pups got sick, and some of the books recommended we stock up on drugs to help the pups breathe.
"I don't recommend drugs unless they're necessary," Bayles said.
"You'll have to sever the umbilical cords if Bella doesn't," he said, "and by the fifth or sixth pup she might be too exhausted. Try not to cut them close to the pup, because they can get infected. Try to pull them apart rather than cut them with a sharp scissors or knife. They heal better."
Should we leave her alone or stay with her? Could she be protective and want us to stay away?
"Not this dog. Not Bella." He reached down to give her a smooch. "You need to bring her and her pups to me a day after the whelping so I can check them. You'll do fine."
June 15, Day 61. The day dawned hot and humid. Bella seemed to be panting nonstop. We couldn't figure out whether it was the heat or whether she was starting the first stage of labor.
The most reliable indication of when a dog will whelp is a drop in body temperature. We'd been taking Bella's temperature for a week. The day before, it had dropped a degree to 99.7. This morning her temperature was holding at 99.4. She would disappear under the steps to the deck and root around–a sign of nesting–and she began to hang out in the whelping box without being coaxed.
"She's ready," Rosie said.
After lunch, Anna and I took Bella for a walk. She seemed to be straining, and a clear fluid came from between her hind legs. I figured her temperature would have to drop another degree, though I did tell Anna that I thought her water had broken.
Claire was at school. Anna, Rose, and I were getting in the car to run a few errands, retrieve a cell phone, and pick up a scale.
Anna said, "I think I'd better stay."
Rose and I started the ten-minute drive to pick up the phone at their mother's house.
After we left, Anna brought Bella into the whelping room. The dog was leaking a clear fluid. Bella kept on squatting, but nothing came out. She couldn't find a comfortable position. She'd lie down in the box and then get up.
Anna thought she saw part of a tiny face peeking out of Bella's vagina: a tongue, a mouth, a snout.
"Could that be a puppy?" she wondered.
Her first impulse was to surprise us by doing the birth herself. That lasted about 15 seconds. She left a message at her mother's: "A puppy's being born. I can see the head."
We raced back. Bella was walking in the living room. Rose thought it was a false alarm. She grabbed Bella's tail and inspected.
"Nothing here," she said.
"Look closely," I said.
"Oh, my God," she said. "I can see the tongue."
We got Bella in to the whelping room, but she didn't get into the box; she lay out on the mattress. The puppy was half out, half in. Its face was wrinkled and pushed in, its tiny front feet moving, but the little thing was stuck. I stroked Bella's stomach, starting at the first rib and rubbing toward her tail.
"Push," we said over and over, but Bella looked bewildered about what was squirming around her rear end.
By now this puppy had been in the birth process for at least 15 minutes, and it didn't seem to be breathing. In fact, it seemed to be slipping back in, as if it had tested the world and decided against it. How long should we wait before we helped? My instinct and book learning led me to hold back and allow Bella to push. Pulling a pup could damage bones and soft tissue.
"It's not breathing," Anna said. "I'm going to pull it out." She reached for the pup.
"Keep your hands off," I said.
I stroked Bella's belly. The contractions rippled gently down her flank. Still, the pup wouldn't budge.
Anna said, "I'm pulling it out."
She reached over, wrapped her hands around the puppy's body, and eased it out of the birth canal. She placed it in front of Bella's nose, hoping the mother would cut the cord, but she didn't. The pup was squeaking and moving its tongue. It started to kick, but it wasn't breathing well. I tied off the umbilical cord with floss and used my nails to sever the cord from the placenta.
Anna put the puppy in front of its mother again. At first, Bella didn't lick it. Then her instincts kicked in, and her licking started to rouse the pup. It began to move more and take breaths, but it was struggling. Its tongue was turning blue.
"Do something, Dad," Rose said.
The books described a method of resuscitating a pup or just helping it start to breathe. You wrap the puppy in a small towel with its head up, cradle it in your hands, and gently swing it between your legs, as if shooting a foul shot underhand. I swung it once and checked. No breath. I swung it a few more times, stopping at the front of the arc to let the fluids clear its lungs. It was starting to breathe better. I swung it again and rubbed its chest, and its breathing became regular. I put it in front of Bella. She licked it a few more times, and it crawled toward her nipples.
Chocolate female. One down.
Claire had come home from school, so we were all there for the first birth.
Puppy two came sliding out still wrapped in its clear fetal sac, its tiny paws pushed up against its face. It wasn't moving, still floating in that blissful sleep. This time Anna didn't hesitate. She pulled open the membrane and placed the wet pup in front of Bella, who licked it into its new world.
A black male.
Number three got stuck. Anna gently pulled it out.
"You're a midwife," I said.
Bella's motherly instincts were going strong. It was clear her licking did more than clean the pups. It roused them to life, like the spanking applied to a newborn's behind.
Bella, the girls, and I became a whelping crew. If Bella couldn't squeeze out the pup, AJ helped. If Bella couldn't chew off the cord, I tied it. If a pup couldn't breathe, I swung it between my legs. Rosie made sure the newborns were nursing and breathing. Claire recorded the color, sex, and time of birth. Pups kept coming every half hour. Black male, chocolate female, black female. Bella quietly nursed them.
"I can't believe this is happening to me," Rose said. "To us."
Bella whelped number seven around 6 PM.
"She's done," I said.
"I don't think so," Anna said. "Feel this."
Her abdomen still felt taut and full.
At 6:30, number eight arrived. Nice round number, I thought.
Dr. Bayles doesn't make house calls, but he happened to be in the neighborhood and stopped by to examine Bella.
"There's one more in there for sure and perhaps one in the birth canal," he said. "If Bella doesn't have another puppy by eight, take her to Friendship."
The 24-hour Friendship Hospital for Animals was our emergency room–we'd taken Bella there when she'd stuck her snout in a beehive. It was 15 minutes away.
Claire and I were off getting takeout for dinner when the cell phone rang.
"Number nine," Rosie said.
After dinner we called Bayles to report on Bella's progress. He advised us to take her to Friendship for an x-ray, just to make sure there were no pups in her canal. I called ahead to make sure they knew to expect a mother and nine newborns.
We loaded Bella into the back of our van and the pups in a box and headed over. We were ushered into an examination room, and Bella was taken for the x-ray. Five minutes later, Dr. Laura Betts came out.
"Well," she said, "there's another pup in there."
I figured they'd give Bella a shot of oxytocin to stimulate contractions, and if that didn't work, they'd perform a cesar-ean section.
"Take her home, give her some vanilla ice cream, and wait," the vet said. The sweet treat might stimulate contractions.
"How long?" I asked.
On the TV that now resided in the former dining room next to the sunroom that now housed Bella and her pups, the Los Angeles Lakers were administering the last licking of the NBA championship series to my Philadelphia 76ers. A loyal Philadelphia fan, I'd indoctrinated my daughters to root for the Sixers, the Eagles, the Phillies.
Anna emerged from the whelping room with a black puppy resting on her chest.
"I named him Dikembe," she said, as in Dikembe Mutombo, the 76ers' center. "He's very happy."
It was nearing midnight. I was falling asleep. The girls were in the birthing room. The Sixers had lost.
"She's having contractions!" AJ said. "Here comes the puppy!"
All hands were on the newborn. It slipped out, still in its sac. I dug my fingernails into the membrane, and it broke open to a very wet, black Labrador. Bella chewed the cord, tossed the pup with her tongue, let it struggle for the nipple.
Number ten. Five black, five chocolate. Six boys, four girls.
Rose and Claire were already up the stairs. Anna said, "Can I go to sleep?" and followed them.
I watched the wet pups. They were all sleeping. I did the first of many counts of the ten and then took Bella out for a walk. I flipped over the mattress and slept with Bella and her pups.
The next morning, Anna walked out of the puppy room with a black one cupped in her hand. It looked like a blind, deaf gerbil, its face pushed in, barely moving. This was day one of their lives. We needed to mark them, weigh them, name them.
"This is Allen Iverson," she said. AJ has a thing for the little star of the 76ers, a cute, bad-boy basketball player who was voted the NBA's most valuable player and led his team to the championship series.
The girls kept naming them for jocks. Rosie walked out with his teammate, Dikembe Mutombo. Claire presented me with a chocolate female, Miahamm–one word. There was Charles Barkley. Venus and Serena Williams. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a big chocolate. Rosie's friend Emma stopped by and named the last one Frederick, the only nonathlete.
"Check out Donovan McNabb," Rosie said. He's the Philadelphia Eagles' star quarterback.
I marveled at the success of my Philly indoctrination.
We needed a way to tell the pups apart. The books suggested painting toenails. The girls brought down a rainbow of colors and did it. For some reason, they gave Iverson a white daub on his head, like his namesake's trademark tattoos.
Bella eased into the routine of feeding and cleaning her ten pups. Some bitches die in whelping, some abandon their pups, others won't nurse, a few kill the newborns. Bella was the perfect mom. But I was aware of the dangers that faced Bella and her litter.
"The first week is the toughest," Reid Sterrett had warned. "They're most vulnerable to infections, viruses, dehydration. You have to keep them warm."
All four of us knew that averages were against all ten living, that two or three might not survive, so we dedicated ourselves to saving them all. We maintained a routine of cleaning out the whelping box, making sure the temperature in the room stayed around 80 and all the pups got their turn at Bella's milk.
We had front-row seats to watch the perpetual scrum for Bella's eight nipples. With ten pups, there was always a rumble. The pups burrowed in from front and rear and straight on at the eight sources of milk. Their back legs pushed for traction, their tiny front paws kneaded and stroked, their heads bobbed back and forth. The top ones rotated under, and little ones that couldn't hang on were ejected, squealing and unfulfilled. Some burrowed back in, some slept.
"Bruisers can fend for themselves," Sterrett had said. "You have to pull off the bruisers and put on the weaklings."
Like Allen Iverson. He was a pipsqueak compared with JJK–Jackie Joyner-Kersee–who could swat him off with one stroke. So we started to play God, pulling fat pups off and hooking up wee ones, so everyone could get a fair crack at life.
By the end of their first week, all ten seemed to be healthy. Bella started hanging out in the adjoining room with us as I watched the Phillies contend for first place in their division. My daughters had other games in mind.
Rose came downstairs with a box of doll clothes. She disappeared into the puppy room and emerged with a black puppy in a Laura Ashley pinafore.
"How do you like Allen's new clothes?" she asked.
Claire came out with Miahamm in a blue jumper. Anna put one in a brown calico dress.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"Dikembe," she said.
Three days later, Anna checked the pups and came running into mystudio.
"Allen's having a hard time breathing," she said. "There's stuff coming out of his nose."
I ran back to the house. The little guy had a rattle in his chest, he was limp in my hands, and his tongue had turned blue-gray. Four other pups were wheezing, but Allen was in serious trouble.
I couldn't get a vet on the phone, so I called Reid Sterrett.
"It could be a million and one things," he said. "Could be too much milk or not enough."
I mentioned that Allen didn't seem to be interested in feeding.
"That's real trouble," he said. "Once they stop feeding, there's not much you can do."
Bella was lying on the living-room floor. I scooped up Allen and tried to get him to suckle, but he seemed to be dead in my palm. His little head sagged between my thumb and my forefinger. I put his nose up to Bella's full, rear nipple. He showed no interest. I couldn't figure out if he was sleeping or dying.
"C'mon, Allen," I said, "you're a fighter."
I shook him, stroked his neck, and shoved him into the nipple. He opened his mouth, took a few sucks, and dropped off. I kept at it, and Allen started to suckle in earnest for a few minutes. I placed him back in the box in a ray of sunlight to keep him warm.
An hour later we tried again. I cradled him in my hands and held him up to the nipple. This time he drank with more gusto. His tiny paws kneaded my fingers. His tongue was getting pink again. He dropped off to sleep.
We loaded all ten pups into banana boxes and took them in to Friendship Hospital. The veterinarian said Allen's temperature was 102.5 and he was dehydrated. She injected fluid under his skin and prescribed an antibiotic and a nasal spray.
"The biggest problem is if he sucked milk into his lungs," she said. "He might get pneumonia, and there's not much we can do about that."
*Pups with colds are like infants with colds: They sniffle and don't know why. They whine and have the hardest time nursing because they can't get much air up their noses. I've doctored infants with colds, one at a time. Now we were vetting ten pups.
At nursing time, I'd grab a pup and put it up to my ear to see if it was wheezing. I'd pass it over to Anna. She'd ID it and record its condition. We did this ten times. Now eight pups had the sniffles. We were administering liquid antibiotics to the five worst cases three times a day with a little plunger gizmo. At feeding time, we gave antibiotics to Allen Iverson, Venus, Mutombo, Frederick, and Raja. They couldn't wait to get back to the nipple.
Over the course of the next week, they seemed to be on the mend, but Allen couldn't shake the rattle in his chest.
A week later, most of the crew seemed okay. At just over two weeks old, they squealed and tried to bark, but they still wobbled around like blind and deaf drunks. A few were wheezing, which sent me back to the vet for more antibiotics.
Dikembe Mutombo was the first to walk. He got up on his wobbly legs, steadied himself, took a few steps, slipped on the newspaper, and rolled over on his back, paws to the sky.
One day Rosie walked out of the puppy den holding a black one. "Dad, Dad!" she said. "Venus opened her eyes!"
I ran in expecting to see a bright-eyed pup, but at this stage their eyes open as little slits, and their orbs are cloudy and gray. There was some contention among the girls as to which pup had opened its eyes first. Claire swore it was Donovan McNabb.
Rose was not without bias. She had bonded with Venus, and I saw the first of the attachment problems that would only get worse. Neighboring kids came by the next day to see the pups. They focused on Venus and went home intending to spend the next month wearing down their father to let them buy this pup. Rosie came over in a pout.
"I don't want them to take Venus," she said.
I still worried about loosing Allen, even though he was gaining strength. I became less concerned when I saw how AI, short for Allen Iverson, lived up to his namesake.
He was the nudge of the litter. He got in his brothers' and sisters' faces. He stirred them up, taught them how to chew an ear. He was fearless. He eyed JJK, the fattest of them. He took her measure, reared back on his little legs, and rushed her. He dug in his front paws just before he crashed into her nose. The force of his fake made her rear back and roll over. AI straddled her head and lorded over her, took an ear in his teeth, and shook his head, like a lion over his prey.
A wheezing lion until he reached three weeks, his chest cleared, and we de-clared victory.
*Bella was loosing her willingness to nurse ten pups. We had to drag her into the puppy room. She quit lying down and sat up. She gave us dirty looks.
"No wonder," Claire said one day, carrying Miahamm into my office. "Take a look at these."
She pulled back the pup's lips to reveal a row of sharp canines.
The pups were almost a month old, and it was time to start weaning them. For the next three weeks we served bowls of warm puppy gruel–soaked puppy chow softened and made soupy in a blender. At first, the puppies stepped in the soup. Then they wound up with it all over their muzzles and licked it off one another. It began to look like a mud-wrestling match for ten.
When they'd had enough, we took away the dishes and put the pups in the whelping box. We brought in Bella, who tossed us a look before she finished off the meal.
*As they started to be weaned, we began taking the pups out for their first adventures in the backyard. We piled them in two banana boxes. They were about three pounds each, so each box weighed 15 pounds or so, and they were getting heavier by the day. Rosie had set up the portable pen in the shade of the willow tree, by the shed. We hauled them through the kitchen, across the deck, and down the stairs into the great beyond. Donovan McNabb was up on all fours first, sniffing and exploring. They lay with the cool grass on their tummies for the first time.
They romped around for three minutes, then started to fall asleep like good pups–all except for Mutombo, who wouldn't stop squealing. Anna scooped him out and put him on her stomach while she reclined on my office couch and read. Rosie was in the pen with the pups.
"Dad," AJ said, "we have to keep one. How can you resist?"
"He can't," Rosie said. "Just leave him alone for now."
The pups were entering the irresistibly cute stage. They had sad, droopy eyes that took up half their faces. They were getting those big, floppy Lab ears. They were starting to assume the Lab pose that I love so much, lying prone like little sphynxes. They still stumbled around, but they were starting to play puppy games of gnawing on one another and roughhousing for a few minutes before falling asleep in a pile.
They're cute, I told myself, but we have a dog.
*The girls were getting tired of hauling the pups in and out of the house. So they invented a better way.
July 12 was a cool afternoon, clouds hanging in a blue sky. I was trying to write in my office. From my window I could see the yard and the back of the house. I looked out and saw a bucket sliding down a wire from the window in the puppy room that used to be the TV room. The wire was attached to a post Rosie had been hammering into the yard, about 20 feet away. As the bucket came closer, I saw a brown head appear, then a pair of eyes. It appeared to be JJK.
I ran out.
"Check this out, Dad," Rosie said.
For three days the girls had been stringing wire from Rosie's second-floor window to the fort under the willow tree, a span of about 50 feet. They attached a basket and started ferrying dolls and other things.
"No pups," I said.
"Don't worry," they said.
A day later I saw them hooking up a short haul from the first-floor puppy den.
"Okay, puppies," Rosie said. "Let's send them down. Over and out."
Claire made the puppy stew and brought it out to the pens. Then she and Anna loaded the pups into a basket and sent them whizzing down.
"Puppy tram," they said. "Wheeeeeeee!"
A feat of engineering and ingenuity, or a dangerous way of playing with animals? After seeing it work ten times, I conclued that it was a darn good way of getting the dogs back and forth.
I felt I should put up a surgeon-general-type warning on our door:
Bevare. Incredibly cute puppies inside. Parents with children are warned to stay away unless they want to take a puppy home.
*The puppies were nearly five weeks old. We hadn't even tried to find homes for them, but they were already in demand.
Manson's family wanted Serena Williams. A friend in Stafford, Virginia, picked out a big brown male. Neighbors fell for JJK. One of Anna's friends wanted Miahamm.
I understood the attraction. I liked to pick them up, hold them to my nose, stare into their tiny puppy eyes–a bit cross-eyed at the proximity–and wait for them to lick my nose.
I knew this would happen. I just didn't want the girls to see me start to give in. But they knew. AJ brought Allen into my office one afternoon.
"How can you give this pup away?" she asked. "Look at this face. This is a face you cannot live without."
Rosie broke in. "Of course they're cute now, but they're going to grow up to be big like Bella. Then we'll have two big dogs."
I pictured my car pulling up to a lake. I get out and open the back hatch, and two strapping Labs hop out. I liked it.
Rose interrupted my reverie. "I would rather have one dog we can give all our love and attention to," she said. "We love Bella. She loves us. Why make that more complicated?"
I pictured myself on a freezing February night, walking two Labs, waiting for both to relieve themselves.
"Yeah," I said, "and who'll walk them and pick up their poop?"
"Me," Anna said.
*I came home from work the day the pups turned five weeks old and found that Claire had made the ultimate sacrifice. She'd given the pups her Barbie dolls.
We'd known for days the pups needed chew toys, but I couldn't seem to remember to buy a pack of rawhide tubes, so the girls improvised. I watched as the pups ripped apart Barbie dolls. Donovan McNabb had wrestled a brunette Barbie from Miahamm. Mia refused to let go of Barbie's foot. McNabb snarled and shook, and Barbie's head snapped off.
By the end of the day, Barbie and Ken body parts were strewn across the puppy run, like a scene on a battlefield.
"They were already in pretty bad shape," Claire said.
*When the pups were born, the four-by-five-foot whelping box seemed very big under their tiny bodies. They would pile up in a corner and leave the rest open territory. Now they were four-pound behemoths, and when they were sleeping in the box, we could barely see the newspaper on the floor.
It was time to move to the country house in the yard.
We have a ten-by-ten shed next to my office. In it you can find four bicycles, cans of paint, soccer balls, gardening tools. I spent an unusually chilly Saturday removing everything from the shed, putting up a shelf for the paint and other things, stapling a layer of plastic to the floor, building a puppy-size gate, rigging up a fan, and laying down fresh newspapers.
By 6 PM, I had finished the new puppy palace. I lifted the gate and sat down in the middle. The puppies rambled in and attacked with their tongues and cold noses. Allen Iverson climbed on my lap and went for my left earlobe. He nipped and tickled. Three went for my shoelaces and pulled them apart. Miahamm clambered up my chest and started licking my nose.
I lay on my back and let the puppies work me over until they tired of the games and fell asleep. I went for a cold one.
*Late that night Anna called from her mom's house. She sounded on the verge of tears.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
She burst out crying. I tried to make out what she was saying.
"Rachel's coming tomorrow to pick a puppy, and she wants Mia. Dad, I think we should keep her."
"But Rachel's your best friend, and you'd get to see Mia."
"I helped Bella birth these puppies. I've picked up their poop for weeks; I've blended their soggy food and taken their temperatures. That was extremely unpleasant. How is it fair that now someone gets to have them for the rest of their lives? That's the fun part.
"I wish we had never done this," she said. "Why did we do it?"
I thought about the contract we had made and our promise not to keep a puppy. I wanted to fix it for her. Dads fix things. This one I couldn't fix because I really didn't want to keep a pup. So I listened. I said I understood how she felt and was starting to feel the same way.
"I'll think about it tonight, and we'll talk about it in the morning."
*MORNINGS ARE TIME FOR FARMING chores. As anyone knows who has raised animals–cows, horses, dogs–it boils down to feeding and cleaning up. With ten dogs, that's a lot of poop. At first we turned it into a game. Then it became a chore.
Claire had the job of rolling our red wagon around the neighborhood to collect newspaper. My job was cleaning up the night's deposits and putting down a fresh layer of paper.
Inside the puppy-palace shed, it was hot, it smelled, the chores seemed relentless. But once it was clean, I let the crew back into the shed so they could jump me, as a reward.
*We still lived in fear of infections. Until the puppies turned six weeks old, when they'd get their first shots, they were susceptible to viruses and other diseases. As soon as they reached six weeks, on July 27, we piled them into the banana boxes in the rear of the van and drove to see Dr. Bayles.
We rolled down Wisconsin Avenue. Raja escaped and wound up in my lap. Allen was draped over Anna's shoulders like a fur stole.
At the vet, we got a line going. Rosie brought them into the examining room. Dr. Bayles checked them, weighed them, gave them shots. Anna monitored them. Claire brought them back to the waiting room.
Frederick, who had started out the smallest, was the heavyweight at 10 pounds. JJK came in at 9 pounds, 13 ounces. Allen was the smallest at 8.
Claire asked what the shots were for. Bayles explained.
"We're in the clear, right?" I asked.
"Not exactly," he replied. "Not until their shots at nine weeks."
"I'm hoping they're all sold by then," I said.
We started selling them in earnest the next day.
Anna had put together a marketing package for each pup with Bella's American Kennel Club certificate, the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals hip certification, a photo of Whiskey Al and his documents, and records of its first shots.
Our ad in the paper was one of 17 for Labrador retrievers that weekend, and they all looked as good as Bella's. I started to wonder if we would find homes for them.
On the way back from Georgetown, Anna asked if we had to tell people the pups had been sick. That led to a debate on truth in advertising.
"We don't have to tell people," I said, "but if they ask, we should explain what happened."
"As long as we're honest," Rosie said.
At the end of the first weekend, seven pups had been spoken for. We were fortunate to have found people who wanted a Lab puppy and had plenty of room for them to run. A few even lived near water, perfect for these water dogs. Three would have homes close enough to visit.
We found ourselves in a whipsaw of emotions: excited about the sales, the fruits of our summer family business; in mourning because the girls and I had become attached to the pups. They were used to waking to ten fluff balls, rubbing their eyes, clapping their hands, and calling, "Pup-pup-puppies!"
The puppy tram was no longer in operation, but the girls had a new way to play puppy games. They established "the squad" of smart pups that would follow them around the neighborhood. They would take them up to the corner store and let them play in the Lafayette schoolyard.
I still thought I was immune to the siren call of pups until a friend called one day to say she'd found someone interested in Allen.
"Uh-uh, not Allen," I said. "He may not be for sale."
Did I say that?
That afternoon on the ride home from work, I was trying to sort through the new dilemma.
We had never gotten into breeding Bella to add a dog to our household. We already had one dog, two cats, a few dozen guppies and goldfish in the pond, and wild birds at the feeder.
The cell phone rang. It was AJ.
"Dad, we have to keep Allen. He's just so special. If not for us, he wouldn't be alive. We saved his life. How can we let him go?"
I didn't have an answer.
*THE NEXT WEEKEND, THE PUPS WERE seven weeks old, and three of them–Serena, Raja, and Charles Barkley–went to their new owners. Each got a file of papers and a bag of food. We snapped a picture. Off they went.
Anna started to do the accounting. All the pups were selling at full price. Our expenses were about $2,000, including stud fees, vet costs, food, and equipment. We were in the black, and the girls stood to make a net profit of nearly $3,000.
The second week of August, the girls left for two weeks of vacation with their mother. They were resigned to parting with all the pups.
"When I come home, I want them all gone," Anna said. "I don't want to have to go through seeing one here and selling it after we get back."
The third week of August, Miahamm went to Anna's friend, and Donovan McNabb's new owners packed him up to central Maryland.
And then there were two: Frederick and Allen.
Why was Allen still with us?
He wasn't as popular as the chocolates, all of whom went first. But he was just as big, energetic, and smart as the two black males who had gone before him, Donovan and Charles Barkley.
The girls had put signs up in the neighborhood before they left town, and two families called. It would be perfect if Allen found a home nearby.
The first family came early Sunday morning, August 12, and picked Frederick, a plump and affectionate pooch. Then a sweet woman who had just had a bad experience with an unruly Chesapeake Bay retriever came over, with her son's puppy in tow. She was joined by her daughter. I left them alone with Allen. They bonded. She agreed to buy him and planned to pick him up later in the week.
I was feeling free. And empty.
The girls had gone west. Bella and I would be leaving for vacation in Vermont. All the pups had good homes.
Tuesday afternoon, the neighbor who wanted Allen called and left a message. "My son's puppy is a handful," she said. "I realize I can't take Allen. Sorry."
I called her back and sweetened the deal. She was a teacher. I offered our backyard as a place to drop Allen on days when she had to attend late meetings. She warmed to the idea. Wednesday morning I turned the screw.
"I'll help train Allen," I told her. "My daughters will even come up and walk him, if necessary."
She said this sounded good, but she never closed the deal.
That afternoon, I was packing to leave for Vermont. On the way I planned to stop in Philadelphia to visit my mother, who was battling lung cancer. A vibrant woman with enough energy to run a small town, she had been mistaken for a woman in her seventies a year ago. Now she was acting her age, 87, and beginning to suffer. A devoted mama's boy, I was still running from the inevitable.
At 5 PM, I hung up the phone with my brother in Philadelphia and looked out the window to the backyard. Bella and Allen were lying next to each other on their backs, wriggling to the same doggy beat. Allen righted himself and pounced on Bella. She threw him off with a flick of her head. They pawed each other and gnawed on each other's ears. They rolled over together and looked at the sky.
And it hit me. Bella and Allen were mother and son. It was a direct connection, unconditional love. Anna's words came back to me: "We saved his life. How can we let him go?"
Allen had been in danger; now he was well and with his mother. They were pals in perfect harmony.
I phoned my neighbor.
"You waited too long," I said. "I've decided to keep Allen."
I hung up and thought, what kind of a name is Allen for a dog that will grow into an 80-pound black Lab?
That's another story.