Foxglove December 31 2008

I OPEN the kennel run door and the whole litter spills out into the grass paddock. Working dog pups, bred in the purple, from generations of sound and useful stock. Young as they are, as soon as they reach the pen, they have noses down and are checking the boundaries, except, that is, for those who are checking me, for they are sociable creatures.

This does not happen by accident, but is the work of a good breeder, who has put many hours into them. I study them while, in the background, I hear the crack of water against concrete, and vigorous sweeping. A pleasant tang of disinfectant hangs in the air: not too much for that would be distressing for such fine noses. Human standards and canine preferences can be very different.

Sitting comfortably on a tree stump, I am swamped in small plump velvet-furred beasties, with tiny wet noses and eagerly-wagging tails. Teeth are needle-sharp, pulling at my clothing, which is the kind where damage does not matter, for I have spent time with litters of puppies before, and dressed appropriately. I bought this coat second-hand seventeen years ago, and it is a little worn now.

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The pups would like to lick my face, an unhygienic procedure, probably for both parties, but one which I am happy to indulge. They would like to climb on to my lap, but not to rest, for, like ferrets, they seem to want to go as high as possible. As a puppy on the shoulders is not as safe as a puppy should be, I ease the latest one off and lower her gently back on to the ground.

She rolls on her back, grinning, exposing a shell-pink belly. They are like jewels, these tiny creatures which did not even exist separately a few weeks ago. Topaz, amber, ivory and jet reflect off their coats that will one day be draggled and clotted with mud, and trailing twigs and leaves. The slate-blue eyes will be brown, the short coats longer, but not too long, for these are not show-ring dogs and do not have their heaviness of coat.

There is nothing exaggerated here, nothing that does not contribute directly to work. Field work is in the warp and weft of them, nearly all weathers, nearly all land. I know their parents, knew their greats and grands back for quite a few generations.

What future for these trusting beings, who have only ever known kind hands and gentle voices? Anyone rearing puppies this good can pick and choose who will own them, but even then it can be difficult. Why breed then?

Because if you do not have responsible breeders who breed from the best stock, you are left with irresponsible ones using bad stock. The work sets the standard: only the best of the best are bred from. Looks are very much an afterthought, though in practice, a dog that works well and stays healthy will look good too.

The little ones have played themselves out, and are beginning to find places to rest. They settle in little groups, apart from one that has gone to sleep on my foot. The breeder returns, raises an eyebrow at me. I nod at the golden heap of warm plush spread across my boot.

"Thought you'd like that one." he said. "Take her now if you want."

A New Year, a new pup. At my age, too. Foolish or wise? Both, I think. The sleepy little one murmurs as I tuck her into my coat.