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Lisa Nicolello

The Day My World Stood Still

Well, it's been almost four months since the worst day of my life and slowly, ever so slowly my world is beginning to turn. In 39 years I have weathered many storms, taking the good with the not-so-good and yet I was totally unprepared for what happened to me on September 25, 1993. I would like to share with you the events leading up to this fateful day.

It was the spring of 1991. I was away from home on an extended business trip (nine months) and my traveling companion, Fletcher, was feeling a little worse for the wear. Fletcher was a six-year-old Cardigan Corgi fraught with genetic defects whose days, I knew, were numbered. The fear of losing my best friend sent me in search of a new one. One who might learn from Fletcher and me the secret of unqualified love and ease the time of passing.

I knew there would not be another Corgi in my future and turned instead to my first love, a love of my childhood, an Old English Mastiff.

After talking with several breeders, I found two "dream" litters due late summer. The pedigrees offered top producing sires and grandsires, pointed dams, and all of the dogs I was currently reading or hearing about were represented. The breeder seemed to be a caring sort, someone that was more concerned about where the pups would be going and what they would be doing, rather than a quick sale. I expressed my concerns for health, citing the Corgi, who had an impeccable pedigree and was bought to show. I was assured that all parents were genetically sound and OFA certified and that these lines had been "good" for years. The puppies would come with a guarantee against hip dysplasia or other hereditary problems and pick pups would be guaranteed to finish their championship.

After spending a lot of time with the breeder and the bitches, I decided that I would take pick bitch from one litter and pick dog from the other. The big day came and the pick dog was an easy choice. The pick bitch was almost as easy, the breeder liked one and I like another, so I took them both. I reasoned that three couldn't be any harder than two.

I bought a house, moved my mother in (so the kids would have someone at home all the time), christened the brood Eli, Syd and Lil, and we set about raising this family. There was only one problem that occurred in the early days, it seemed that Lil couldn't see well at dusk and dawn. The breeder could think of no reason this would be happening and my vet said that he didn't see any problems and that we should monitor the situation. Other than that -- they grew. We attended obedience classes where all graduated with honors and began to think seriously about a show career.

Eli and I began his career in June 1993. It was the first time for both of us. We didn't know about fun matches and conformation classes, so we practiced in the back yard. I forged ahead on the knowledge that I had purchased the best bloodlines I could and that Eli had grown beautifully. We didn't know that beginners shouldn't shoot the works, so we entered obedience trials and conformation classes at shows that offered both.

Eli was a great success. He loved the applause, he loved the work, and most of all he seemed to love what we were accomplishing together. Eli finished his championship in seven shows, with one BOB and 2 BOS's. He earned his CD in four trials with an average qualifying score of 183.3. We were on top of the world. One down and two to go. The kids are now two years old and its time to get the testing and x-rays out of the way.

The appointments were set for September 25, 1993 and all of us were anxious to get this behind us and get on with the shows. I must admit -- I was addicted.

We arrived at the clinic early and the eye exams were first on the list. Lil volunteered and the first of what would be many heart breaking discoveries was made.

Lil was blind. PRA and Retinal Dysplasia. Totally blind for quite some time. Thinking back, I know when it happened, she was about six months old and suddenly didn't need the night lights to navigate the stairs. I though that whatever problem she had been having was over then, I just didn't realize to what extent.

How could I not have known that Lil was blind? I don't know the answer to that. The vet said it was because dogs adapt more readily to blindness, because they have no alternative. My mother or I are with the kids all day, every day. There were clues, we just didn't understand them. She would have been blind during obedience classes, the instructor harped that Lil wasn't watching, she didn't have to, but she never missed a beat. The guilt is almost unbearable.

Syd was next. The vet had already mentioned that since the girls are full sisters, that neither should be bred, and that the parents and all siblings should be culled. There were not signs of PRA yet, but retinal dysplasia and partial blindness was the diagnosis.

Eli was last for the eye exam, could it get any worse? Beautiful eyes, no signs of any problems, Eli could move to the next step.

As the girls were moving to the surgical ward for spaying, Eli was having his x-rays. The orthopedic doctor came into the waiting room and said that we needed to talk. My heart sank, I could see by the look on her face that the news was not good. Eli is bilaterally dysplastic. I screamed that I wanted other opinions, that there must be a conspiracy, that there must be some mistake. But the evidence was before me, four sets of pictures that all told the same story. The doctors were very understanding and explained that given the earlier events they had repositioned Eli several times to get the best possible pictures, but the best radiographs are only as good as the hips on the table.

Just when you think it couldn't possibly get worse, the surgeon comes in to say that while preparing Syd for spay they detected a heart problem and would like a cardiac consult before proceeding. The diagnosis is a congenital heart valve defect. No problem at this time, but a condition that should be watched.

So there you have it. In one short day two years of work and dreams were gone. Stolen as surely as if a thief had come under cover of darkness. I cry still, not for ribbons or glory, but for my kids who are blind and crippled and who will not have the quality of life they so much deserve.

The breeder responded: How could this be? There haven't been any problems before. All of our dogs are fine. The owner of Eli's sire responded: "I just don't understand. There may have been one problem with hips, some time ago. We aren't into the 'eye-thing' yet. You may want to breed him and see what happens".

I left a message at the owner of Lil and Syd's sire and have not heard anything, as yet. I didn't know what to say. These were not problems that I had caused.

I called the breeder one time after that, they are going to breed Eli's sister and said they would send a pup. This was about two weeks after the clinic appointment and I haven't heard since. Not one question about the welfare of my kids. Was I going to keep them? Would I take care of them? No one seemed to care.

I hope that this letter will impact all who read it. To every breeder, I hope it gives pause. Evaluate your present stock -- honestly. If there are problems, remove the questionable dogs from breeding. Keep track of your litters and evaluate the offspring. If a problem occurs, don't wait to see if it will happen again, make the necessary changes immediately. Test for as many genetic problems as possible. Require that all offspring be tested and keep track of the results. Use every means at your disposal to make responsible, ethical breeding choices.

To prospective buyers, I hope it won't keep you from buying a Mastiff. A greater dog you will never know. Whether looking for a pet, show or obedience prospect look closely. Ask to see the OFA certifications. All certifications are not equal and you have a right to know. Make sure the eyes have been CERF'd, the VWD and thyroid tests are negative. I took the breeder's word for the above information, but I won't do that again. ASK TO SEE THE TEST RESULTS AND CERTIFICATIONS. Please have your puppy tested, even if "it's only a pet" and provide the results to the breeder and to the genetic data collection coordinator for the MCOA.

As for all of us -- we are surviving. There are many adjustments to make when you live with someone that is blind. The biggest is watching an otherwise healthy, beautiful bitch cringe because she can't identify the source of some strange smell or sound. There probably won't be any more obedience work. Eli's hips aren't up to the jumping and the girls can't see. I am trying to find a new puppy, unfortunately the search isn't easy. There are more breeders that do not test or x-ray, than do. Do I want a puppy out of Eli's sister? I don't think so. What of replacements for the girls? I don't know, the breeder hasn't mentioned it. Would I buy any of these dogs as pets? No, even a pet should be sound.

As for the future of my kids, don't worry. I will do anything and everything to make them as comfortable and happy as they can be, for whatever time we have left together.

Respectfully submitted,

Laura Parker  Treowe Mastiffs
3911 E. 32nd Street
Des Moines, IA  50317
(515) 263-1658

P.S. November 29, 1994

Many things have happened in the months since I wrote "The Day My World Stood Still" and I'm sad to say that not all of them were good.

One of the requirements of the hip guarantee I received for Eli was that the hips must fail OFA certification. No problem. I requested the clinic to send Eli's x-rays to OFA in January of 1994, fully expecting that the OFA vets' conclusion would be radiographic evidence of joint deterioration and dysplasia.

Confident in my veterinary practitioners and in my decision not to breed genetically defective dogs, I continued my search for a new puppy. I also tried to have conversation with the owner of Syd and Lil's sire and with the breeder about the eye and heart conditions affecting the girls. The owners of Syd and Lil's sire have never called, and the breeder has chosen to ignore the girls' problems to concentrate on Eli. The breeder wastes no time telling all who will listen that I have done a grave disservice to the breed. I have neutered a limited edition, champion/companion dog.

This so called disservice, as the breeder perceives it, was discovered in February when I received Eli's OFA certification. The OFA rated Eli's hips as GOOD, no evidence of dysplasia noted. You think you're surprised. I immediately called my vet and asked for an explanation. How could they have been so wrong? I was told that this phenomenon was merely a difference of opinion; nothing more, nothing less. Not satisfied, I called the OFA and was told there was no possibility of an incorrect certification and that the OFA would stand by its rating.

Could they both be right? The consensus opinion of people I have spoken to is that Eli is either dysplastic or he is not. I agree with this opinion and believe that the chasm that separates good hips from dysplasia cannot be attributed to a difference of opinion. Perhaps a lack of breed specific experience on the part of my veterinary clinic led to an incorrect diagnosis, but wouldn't they have known this? Why would they suggest he be removed from the breeding population? Why not defer to the more experienced OFA? I wish I knew the answer to these questions and the myriad of others that keep cropping up. I should add, at this point, that the clinic I chose was a teaching institution, up to date and, according to them, experienced in all breeds.

Eli remains happy and we are almost ready to begin competing for our CDX. We have started utility work, and are just beginning draft training. Tracking classes start soon and I hope to add agility to our repertoire, this spring. Working Eli is one of the highlights of my life. He is very enthusiastic about everything and is not exhibiting any signs of hip problems. Syd and Lil are content. I still work them in basic obedience because they enjoy it and I feel that a working dog's life should have meaning. It also helps me ensure that everybody gets my undivided attention on a regular basis.

Our family has grown by one very large, willful brindle puppy. Winnie came to us in June of this year and is our new hopeful. She is 10 months old, has garnered three points and is about to try for her CD. Winnie caused us one very panic filled weekend when she developed Cherry Eye.

Once again I feared the worst, not to mention that looking at Cherry Eye is very disconcerting. Determined to make an informed decision, I talked to breeders and owners of various breeds, including mastiffs, and the response was the same. Have the eye fixed and don't tell anyone, many even suggested that I should also correct Winnie's Ectropion. This from people presumed have the best interests of any breed at heart? Having learned that research and knowledge are valuable decision tools, I contacted the AKC and discovered that Cherry Eye can be corrected without consequence and Ectropion cannot. So, after in-depth conversations with our new vet, I had the offending gland returned to its rightful place. Her recovery was immediate, and she looks just like she did before the surgery. I have no desire to conceal or change Winnie's appearance because I believe that she may have a great deal to offer the mastiff gene pool, just as she is. Winnie has a wonderful disposition, is a willing worker and appears to be maturing into a big, beautiful bitch. Her preliminary OFA report shows good hip joint conformation and clear elbows, so we will continue to show and hope that all future testing brings favorable results.

I would be very interested in receiving information about your experiences with Cherry Eye or Ectropion, their relationship and any successes or failures you have had in eliminating it from your breeding programs. I would also like your opinions about the validity of OFA certification. I am thinking about a new pup next year and would like very much to recreate most of Eli's pedigree; I just don't know ...

I am sharing this information with you, not as sour grapes, but in hopes that we might learn from my experience. It is extremely difficult, especially for a novice, to gather enough knowledge about every situation to make informed, intelligent decisions. I am in hopes that open, honest communication between us might help strengthen and preserve this truly magnificent breed.

Many thanks to all of you who have called to offer support and information.

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