The haves and have nots: to me, this epitomizes the dichotomy of being American.
I began liking dogs when I was really little. In particular I fell in love with German Shepherds. The man who owned the dry cleaners my mother frequented had one in the corner of the store by the register. Sally never moved when customers were around. Her stoic expression was, as my mother phrased it, "like steel." She had two jobs: protect the register and the store's owner. An Auschwitz survivor, the store owner had every reason to be distrustful of people.
Not knowing any better and being a child full of love, one day I went to Sally and sat in front of her. I must have been four years old or so. My mother cautioned me not to get too close. "Sarah, Sally isn't wagging her tail. Move away."
I didn't listen. I inched closer. My mother was very, very scared. I could sense her fear and so I am certain Sally could as well. I inched closer and moved suddenly toward her. I wrapped my arms around Sally and gave her the biggest hug she'd probably ever had.
It all happened so quickly. I don't think any of us had a chance to react. Before I knew it, I was on the floor and Sally was on top of me, licking my face one second and flopping over on her back the next, "Rub my belly!" Sally was saying to me.
Each time I saw Sally after that, no matter how stoic she was with the other customers, she always gave me her belly and licked my face. Either I didn't know enough to be fearful or I developed a relationship with her. As a grownup 46 years later, I think it was both.
Of course like all dogs, she grew up, old and eventually Sally died. The dry cleaning store owner retired after that. "There will never be another Sally," he told me.
Eventually I grew up, got married and we moved to Puerto Rico where we bought a farm deep in the country.
The house and farm to our left is vacant while the owners figure out what they're doing with it. All but one of the six owners—inheritors of the people who bought it—want to sell. And so there it sits. The laws are such here that the house sits until all inheritors agree to sell.
The house to our right, hey, it has the same situation going on. This isn't uncommon around here and it's what happens when parents want better for their kids and feel farm life isn't the most practical way to live and they push their kids to go to school. Farms become abandoned and nobody can agree what to do with the property.
Our next closest neighbors on either side are a mile away. It's not so bad, we love the seclusion. But with seclusion comes a slightly unsettled feeling. With nobody living next door, if something happens to us, who'll hear us screaming, fighting for our lives?
We don't anticipate anything will happen to us, we know everyone around us for miles and in the eight years we've lived here, we've not heard of one incident that suggests our lives are in danger. We are well-liked but all the same, it's practical for us to have dogs. And truth be told, when we got Gigi and Yum Yum in November 2008, I fell in love with them. We didn't just get them for practical and safety reasons.
Prior to living with Gigi and Yum Yum (and subsequently Héctor, Marcos, Zaina and Sumi, I'd only ever had cats. I knew I loved dogs but had only lived with cats. I often say about the two very different species, "I used to think I was being loved by cats until I got dogs and realized I've been ignored the most of my life."
All too quickly, Gigi and Yum Yum grew and were no longer the fuzzy, pudgy and adorable looking bears we adopted when they were four months old, and one day they became the strong and intimidating dogs we've come to associate with German Shepherds. German Shepherds have a well-earned reputation and like Sally, they're also lovable, sweet and loyal. They also have known health problems.
Enter Stage Left: The Dichotomy of Being American
Thanks to overbreeding and selective breeding, GSDs are prone to a few major problems: hip dysplasia, digestive, inflammation of the cornea, eczema and other skin problems. In our case, Yum Yum had hip dysplasia and both girls suffer from multiple skin conditions.
We see images like this one and because it's the "look" the dog show people are after, we assume it epitomizes what a healthy German Shepherd should emulate. As it happens, this picture is the perfect example of a GSD who's been bred to death and the victim if selective breeding to "select" for this trait. The poor dog in this photo will most certainly be in horrific pain, thanks to hip dysplasia. Despite knowing this about all the traits they look for to describe the "perfect" breed, dog and cat show promotors continue to exploit these animals, as do their handlers.
But not all GSDs and other large breed dogs who develop hip dysplasia present with the classic lower hind quarters. Yum Yum and Gigi don't look like the "classic" German Shepherd and clearly in this photo Yum Yum didn't have a slope. Her back has always been fairly straight.
In July 2016 we had our vet operate on Yum Yum to correct her hip dysplasia. Having just turned eight, with or without the surgery, Yum Yum will never be the bad ass she once was. Lifespan for German Shepherd is between nine and 13 years. This June our girls will be nine. While they could certainly live longer (and apart from their skin issues, they're both very healthy), but they'll never be the protectors they once were.
And so we decided this was the year we'd get two more GSD puppies. We're both stuck on the German Shepherd. They have the perfect combination of being security-minded, great temperament, intelligence and sweetness that work well with our lifestyle.
We also can't ignore their inherent health problems. We don't want another GSD to develop hip dysplasia. It's been very painful for Yum Yum. Nobody wants to knowingly put their dogs through that. And we thought we were safe because as you can see from the photo of her above, she didn't look like she'd develop it.
Before we set out to find a new GSD, I consulted with other GSD owners (most of them in the U.S.) in a group on Facebook devoted to German Shepherd owners. Several suggested Paul and I do one of two things:
- Only buy from a breeder in the U.S.
- Do genetic testing on the parents to rule out a pre-disposition to hip dysplasia
Well the first one assumes that Puerto Ricans don't know what they're doing. This is a common assumption I run into with American dog owners. I am not even going to address this when what I had been asking for were tips to ask sellers.
The second one presents a very interesting situation. If I understand genetic testing correctly, I could have both mom and dad (bitch and sire) tested to determine what's in their respective bloodlines and make decisions: go with this bitch and sire or move on to a pair that can all but assure me the traits humans selectively bred for aren't present in either of them.
Apart from this seeming very grotesque to me (testing for problems resulting directly from selective breeding), I can't help but think of the irony of the situation. At a time when Americans in the mainland and two of its colonies (Guam and Puerto Rico) continue fighting whether all citizens should be offered some form of universal healthcare, I can have my future dog genetically tested so I can be assured of having a perfectly healthy puppy.
Knowing that millions of Americans may lose their health insurance—including me— because of preexisting health conditions and/or affordability, it seems so perverse that I can just pay for a test (costing between $60 and $150 per dog) to be guaranteed healthy puppy. I can't guarantee I'll have health insurance, thanks to newly elected Donald Trump, but for a fee, I can ensure I'll have a perfectly healthy dog.
This is the dichotomy of being American. I am not sure where we'll get Diego from (what we've already decided to name our next German Shepherd) but I can assure you, we won't be going the genetic testing route. We don't have to get one from a backyard breeder or spend $1500 and get one from a so-called reputable breeder. In fact, for all we know he'll come from a shelter (which is our preference at this point) but we know for certain there will be no genetic testing done to get our Diego.