I'm sitting here on the couch, the same place I sat last night as I intently stared through the clear doors of the incubator at Rooster, Lucy's little blue collar puppy who was born with a cleft palate just 2 days prior. Except now, the incubator that assisted with his breathing and was bubbling with hope is sitting quietly unplugged on the counter, sterilized with all its tubes all stored inside. The air in our living room feels as heavy as that of an emergency room filled with a family who is stunned that their loved one just didn't make it. And if you're reading this, you are a part of that family. I'm absolutely ugly crying as I try to type out the story of Rooster's short life. The rhythmic heartbeat of his snuggle puppy is still beating on the counter, and the blankets we used to keep him warm and comfortable still smell like him. We did everything we could to keep his little heart beating the same way one of his favorite things, his snuggle puppy's is - but this morning, after a long and hard fight, we had to watch Rooster take his last breath.
Rooster was born the afternoon of Friday, September 13th. He was the 8th to arrive in his litter of 11 and came into the world with a voice unlike many of the others we've birthed in the years we have been raising puppies. Our staff is always present when puppies are delivered to assist if the moms need it, and Tiffany, who handles most of our deliveries was sitting with Lucy the afternoon she gave birth. Tiffany is not only our office manager and all-around doodle extraordinaire, she is also Ralph, the father of Lucy's litter's fur mama, making her Rooster's "grandma". Lots of you probably understand how it is to feel like your dog is your child, and that's part of what gets us so attached to every litter we have - this one was just extra special for Tiffany.
She was scheduled to stay the night with Lucy post delivery, but when she realized that that little loud puppy had a cleft palate, she knew what to do. You see, we have experienced this in the past with Ox, our first cleft palate baby, who will be two years old on Saturday and is absolutely thriving. Because of the risk of aspiration, cleft puppies can't nurse with their litter mates, and must be tube fed, which means that we have to run a tube down their throats to their stomachs, and syringe feed them their formula every 2 hours. We are also responsible for stimulating them for their bathroom needs, which usually comes around an hour after their tube feeding, which makes this a round-the-clock job. While the idea of so many sleepless nights in a row, paired with the mental, emotional, and physical toll of dealing with a puppy who may not make it is a dismal thought, none of us really think twice about it.
We believe that if we are responsible for creating a life, we are also responsible for nurturing that life and doing everything in our power to ensure that that puppy's life is the absolute best it can be. It is why we take such pride in pairing our puppies with their people, and using the 8 weeks we have with them to prepare them for the world that will surround them after they leave "the nest". It doesn't matter if that puppy has a tough start, or if it needs thousands of dollars worth of surgery - it's our responsibility to take care of that puppy. We believe that each puppy deserves an amazing life, and should be able to fulfill it's purpose to bring joy and light to its family and the world around it. We would have given everything we had to be able to give Rooster that life, and although we believe that we did, losing a puppy who could have been someone's best friend never gets easier.
Tiffany spent the most time with Rooster while he was with us, and absolutely loved him more than the rest of us combined, I think. She coined his nickname, Rooster, because he had so much to say, and because she wanted to name him another animal name so he could be like a brother to Ox, our other cleft palate baby. Maybe part of naming him something like Ox gave extra hope that he would thrive as Ox has. Since he couldn't be with his litter mates, he slept in the bed with her as she kept watch on his mama an siblings during his first night on this earth. He never wanted to be very quiet, and seemed happiest while snuggled on her neck, sucking on her pinky finger, which served as a pacifier. The next morning, another of our moms, Flora went into labor and Rooster even sat with Tiffany while preparing for her labor.
He seemed strong most of the day, until around 2pm when I got a text from Seth, my husband, who was there assisting in Flora's delivery and Rooster's care that it didn't look good and that he didn't think Rooster would make it much longer. Even though I hadn't met him yet, the though of losing him killed me. My heart hurt for Tiffany, for Lucy, for all of us. I began to mentally formulate a way to let all of you, our faithful followers, know that we unfortunately lost him. However, the dreaded message that he was gone didn't come. Later I learned that during the battle for his life that afternoon, through tear-filled eyes Tiffany had promised him that if he would just survive, he could sneeze and snot in her face for the rest of his life. (Ox taught us that that's kind of what cleft puppies naturally do to assist them with breathing) After that promise, he picked up and came back to us. He must have taken Tiffany's promise seriously. That evening was my turn to watch over him, and i'll be honest - I hate dealing with puppies that are struggling. Right or wrong, I feel so responsible for everything that happens with every puppy, and while I know a lot about puppy care, it's not my greatest strength in this business. It turns me, who is normally somewhat relaxed into an anxious ball of stress until I feel like the puppy is going to be okay. By this point, we had gotten the incubator from our vet family at Southside, and were working on oxygen therapy with Rooster, which seemed to be working. However, there is nothing like watching, with baited breath, for every next rise of his chest to come. He could have stopped breathing at any second, and then i'd have had to snatch him from the incubator and revive him again. And so I intently stared through those doors from 10pm to 6am, watching the constant rise and fall of his little chest come one after another. There were times when he would talk to me and I'd think "OH! This is why she called him Rooster, he's got a lot to say! He's going to be fine - I just know it!" - and then a few minutes later, I would hear him gurgling a little and panic, extracting him from the incubator and placing him on my chest to ensure he was comfortable and safe. It's incredibly difficult to be sitting on the edge of your seat with a life hanging in the balance for such a long period.
Seth took over at 6am, and he seemed to be doing fairly well at that point. I went to bed optimistic about Rooster's state. When I woke up that afternoon, my nerves made me wait a little while, then I held my breath and texted Seth to check on our little guy.
"Is Rooster ok?"
"He didn't make it."
Stunned, tears immediately filled my eyes and began to soak my pillowcase. How? He was okay just a few hours before. When I was able to get up, I went to check on Seth, who was just sitting at the kitchen table, staring down, looking tired, puffy-eyed, and heavy hearted. He had fought the hard battle that morning alongside Rooster. Seth had to be the one there when his state went from bad to worse. He had to be the one to watch him fade, and come back, and then fade again. He'd had to be the one to make the decision to keep working on him, suctioning out his lungs and keeping his heart going, or to let him slip away peacefully. He'd had to be the one to hold him close to his chest, even after he was gone, to make sure there was no chance that he could come back to us. With pursed lips and tears welling in his eyes, he outlined the events of Rooster's last hours to me this morning. Both Rooster and Seth fought hard to save Rooster's innocent life, but the life that he could have led had to stop all too short. He had already let Tiffany know the gut-wrenching news, for which I was relieved. I just didn't know if I could bear to tell her without a total breakdown. I knew how attached she was, and that if Rooster had been able to stick with us longer, just like Ox, he would have never left the core JLDD team. Tiffany, her husband Mark, and his doggie dad, Ralph would have made good on their promise to happily let him snort in their faces for the rest of his life. Tiffany texted me tonight a few photos of Rooster, with his two favorite things - his paci and his snuggle puppy, which are below. I asked her if there was anything she'd like for me to include on this blog, which serves as his memory, and her response was below.
"He was just already such a little sweetie, and wanted to be a best friend. As long as we were making any kind of contact with him, he would be happy, but he really wanted to be a big boy and sleep in the human bed just like his dad. He seemed the most at peace nestled into my neck and nursing on my pinky. He was named Rooster because I wanted an animal to go with Ox, but he had the loudest, strongest voice as soon as he was born. despite having a lot to say, he was already pretty easy going and the easiest puppy to tube feed. I know that seems like a lot to put on a brand new pup, but he just seemed special."
Rooster didn't seem as young as he was. He was so strong, and so brave even in the few days he had with us. Seth, who has dealt with many of our puppies who are struggling, said he'd never seen a puppy fight so hard to stay alive during his last hour. How does a baby who has been with us such a short time take such a toll on us, and take such a huge chunk of our hearts with his last breath? Maybe it's because we know what he could have been. We knew his parents, and his grandparents, and we feel like we knew him, and the lives that he could have changed. It's days like these, when our hearts feel like they've absolutely been ripped out and stomped on that can make us question our profession as breeders. When our heads are pounding from trying to solve problems that don't have solutions, our pillowcases are soaked in tears, and our backs are breaking from sitting on the floor bent over a sick puppy for hours that the thought crosses our minds "is it worth it?". Sometimes, its just too hard. We don't know what went wrong, or how to prevent it from happening again. In fact, it will happen again, its just a matter of when. Can we handle this happening...again?
While it's easy to remember heartbreak of the ones who didn't make it, we have to remember all the puppies who DID make it, the ones who are thriving, and who have changed the lives of the families they now are members of. If you have one of our puppies, or any puppy, you know the incomparable love that a dog can give. Every single puppy we produce has made an impact for the better on someone's life. Rooster could have done the same, but we hope his story will hit the heart of someone who needed to hear it, in some way. A breeder friend of mine called tonight to say she heard about Rooster, and though I couldn't actually formulate words, she gave me such encouragement in saying that our heart for our puppies are bigger than so many other breeders' put together. I'm not saying that to downplay other breeders and they way they make decisions - i'm almost jealous that that lots of others don't go through the heartbreak that we do here at JLDD. I wish there was a way to skip that part. I know people use this expression all the time, but I cannot express the support and appreciation that we have felt from our community over the last few days as we have worked with Rooster. Your encouragement and stories about your experience with your JLDD has been uplifting in during these dark couple of days. We can't say "thank you" enough for trusting us to raise your puppies and provide you with the best furry family members. Although it's absolutely heart-wrenching to do our job sometimes, its been heart-warming to see the difference our puppies have made in the lives of their new parents.
We know this isn't the end of Rooster's legacy, but for now, I'll leave you with Tiffany's last message about her would-have-been baby boy.
"I'm so sad that his life couldn't have been longer or better, but I find comfort in knowing that he was loved harder and by more people (our team, but also our extended doodle family) than a lot of dogs ever are."
While we have always considered our puppy families to be a part of our extended JLDD family, we never realized how much we are also a part of your respective families, and for that, we are so thankful. Thanks to each of you for your prayers, thoughts, and love during this time. They were so felt.
Jenna and the JLDD Team