Searching for the Questing Beast
...In which the goal is find "the right dog"...
And have you seen said beast, my lady?" asked Lancelot.
"Well not precisely," stammered Elayne. "But if father says it is there well, it must be. Simply must."
4The Once and Future King,
by T.H. White, in which Lancelot asks the daughter of King Pelinore if she has actually seen the beast her father has spent a lifetime searching for.
How do you find the "right" dog from a "good breeder"?
Heck if I know, but I think it's a good question. For what it's worth, here's my most recent experience looking for "the perfect dog" -- in this case the perfect hunting terrier.
Having owned terriers, in one form or another, for more than 30 years, I decided the time was ripe to get a hole dog for hunting purposes -- a small dog capable of going to ground on groundhogs, raccoon and fox.
The breed I had in mind was a Jack Russell Terrier.
I started by writing down what I wanted from a dog. Above all else, I was looking for a "hole dog" for hunting. I grouped my preferences into three categories:
1) MUST HAVE (very small female out of solid hunt stock);
2) SHOULD HAVE (smooth or very lightly broken coat), and;
3) WOULD LIKE to have (a dog with color and strong markings).
The first question I had to face: How small should a good "hole dog" be?
This was harder to get a handle on than I thought. Most of the people I knew who hunted their dogs used mini-doxies as "hole dogs." Most of the border and jack russell terriers I had seen in the field were too big to get past the first turn or two in a groundhog den. I would need a SMALL dog -- smaller than normally found in the show ring, for sure.
I found the best definitive source on terrier size to be Ken James' book on working terriers in North America. He boils it down to this: get a dog with a chest span of under 14" chest.
This proved harder than it sounded.
I began my search by combing through the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America's (JRTCA) breeder directory and assembling a list of e-mail contacts from the surrounding seven states. Then I wrote a very nice pitch letter knowing I would get ONE chance to sell myself to a good breeder. I contacted every breeder I could that looked like they raised small terriers, detailing my yard set up (pretty close to perfect), the fact that I had raised dogs for a long time, that I was not a breeder, that I was looking for a hole dog for hunting groundhog, that I had never lost a dog to a car accident, etc.
I also stressed what I was looking for: a small hole dog with a chest of under 14 inches, a smooth or lightly broken coat, and female (my border is male and I wanted to avoid conflict, but most of all I wanted a small dog which meant female).
The results were interesting. All the breeders were very nice and most mailed back a response very quickly. None had a dog that fit my description. A few breeders said they thought I was in for a long wait as getting a small, smooth, well-balanced female was like hitting the Trifecta or the lottery.
A couple of folks told me they had dogs that were "going to be small" but when I started asking about dam and sire size (both shoulder height and chest span) they were either vague or quoted numbers too large.
Lesson one: "Small" is in the eye of the beholder.
A 13" dog is bigger than what I wanted, but is considered "perfect" by show standards. A lot of people -- even the very best breeders -- had no idea how large their dogs were around the chest.
A lot of people were breeding 13 inch tall dogs to 13 inch tall bitches and saying they expected the pup to be "under 12 inches." Perhaps, but not likely and I needed better odds than not likely.
I steeled myself against all temptation, persuasion and fatigue. This was going to be a long push. I didn't need a cute dog, I needed a hole dog.
One of the top JRT breeders (and a judge!) said she had a litter of pups on the ground I should come out and take a look at -- they were going to be very small. When I drove out to look at the litter, I found 4 enormous puppies with putty-colored noses and pastel eyes. I bit my tongue, thanked her for the coffee, and moved on. No harm, no foul, buyer beware. Caveat emptor.
I attended JRTCA shows. All the dogs were too big.
I finally spied one dog that might have been possible. As luck would have it, the mating that produced her was being repeated (the dam was already pregnant). I talked up the owner (a vet) and waited 8 weeks. When the pups were born, I drove 270 miles out to see the pups, but took a pass on the two bitches that were in the litter -- too big. This was a hard decision to make at 3 weeks of age and after 3 hours of driving in a car, but I felt I was right then and I KNOW it was right now.
I cast about looking for another litter from the same stud dog -- a 12-inch tall prepotent JRTCA bronze medallion hunt champion that stamps his pups like the Millers Forge tool company.
I drove to see another set of his pups -- only one female -- and took a pass here too -- the head seemed too weak. I called Ken James and talked to him. Did he have a female pup by any chance, or know of someone who might? Nope. His very last bitch pup was promised to a very nice lady whom I happened to know. This dog was going to a GREAT home, and I was out of luck.
By now, four months had gone by. I e-mailed all the breeders again, letting them know I was still looking for a small smooth bitch. Once again, I was told there was very little chance I would find the dog I wanted.
After five months of DAILY activity, I had yet to find a pup that could make the grade. Frustrated, I began combing through the JRTCA breeder registry looking for small smooth-coated bitches that did well in conformation. I talked to a breeder in a western state who said she had a good dog and she emailed me a picture of a very nice looking pup. The breeding line was good -- a breeding to a hunt dog famous for having a small chest. I asked for the pedigree and I got all five generations. I combed through it and decided there were simply too many big dogs just one and two generations back.
I had ONE chance to get a "hole dog", and I was not going to blow it. I passed. Ditto for another dog in California. I contacted more breeders, and got more lectures that the dog I wanted was VERY rare. I was told almost no one bred dogs as small as I was looking for, since they were "all caesarian" and the most the breeder could hope for was 2 pups after all those medical expenses -- a real financial bath for the breeder. Yep. I got that. But these dogs DO exist. I waited.
Then I got a call from a lady in Virginia who said she said she might know of a pup for me. The dam was one of her bitches which was now owned by a vet living along the Virginia-Tennessee border. She was a small broken bitch out of a line that consistently threw small pups. The stud dog was the very same 12" prepotent hunt champ whose pups I had been looking at earlier. There had been four pups in the litter (not a caesarian), and she had been down to see them. The pups were almost four months old now, and SMALL. She guaranteed they were going to be hole dog-sized.
I emailed the vet with the pups, and she sent back a picture which really DID look like a female puppy version of the stud dog. Her email also said the pup was catching moles on a daily basis at just 14 weeks of age. It could be a come-on story, but what the hell. What's a 7 hour car trip?
At the end of the week I loaded myself into the car and drove down to the Tennessee border.
The short story is that I picked up the pup and it was exactly what I wanted. The pup was hunting moles when I arrived. This little Jack is now 14 months old, stands just under 11 inches at the shoulder, and has a 12.75 inch chest. She looks very much like her sire which is a very good thing in my eyes. A sweet dog that will curl in your lap like a cat, she began formal earth hunting the day she turned 10 months old. I am, in short, a very happy camper!
What did I learn from all this?
1) You need to know what it is you want out of a dog;
2) You need to stick to your guns on what it is you want;
3) You need to learn to read a pedigree;
4) You need to realize that many breeders are very optimistic -- they really "hope" you get what you want in a dog, but it's YOUR JOB to make sure that happens and to not "be nice" by taking an animal that is less than what you want;
5) Some people will overtly lie to you while others will simply "fail to mention" things if you don't ask -- caveat emptor always applies, and;
6) People will respect you for knowing what it is you want and waiting for it.
In the end, I think it was the sixth point that got me my dog. Over the seven months that I very actively searched for my dog (I was a canine stalker) I proved myself "worthy" among those that actually had very small dogs in their own breeding lines. Because I was not willing to compromise, I got points with this community. Because I was persistent they remembered me when the right dog finally did show up.
On Saturday, we're going hunting in Maryland.
Sailor, a happy dog, in the field.
Now somewhat grizzled, and a veteran of more
than 300 digs, she continues to work everything
she can find in a hole.