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Lessons learned from a runt

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

Meet, Starlet! I want to share Starlet's story to bring awareness to a few things. We are learning so much from her and we are grateful for her. She is a happy little thing that is bringing a lot of joy to so many people.

poodle puppy runt tiny small miniature toy standard black female renal dysplasia kidney failure
Starlet pictured at 9.5 months

Starlet was the runt of her litter.

Now, we don't use the word runt often. A "runt" is a puppy who is not only extremely small in comparison to litter mates, but a puppy that needs a significant amount of extra support in order to survive and thrive, or a puppy that simply doesn't meet normal developmental milestones.

Starlet was a runt.

poodle puppy runt tiny small miniature toy standard black female renal dysplasia kidney failure
Starlet sitting next to one of her sisters

She was and still is half the size of her siblings. We did experience a few very minor health grievances with her during her first 8 weeks, but in no way did she require extreme measures from us to survive. She thrived in her own little way, and we couldn't see anything "wrong" with her other than her size. She was different, but these "differences" have been identified in hindsight, and during the time that we had her we didn't have any reasons to believe that she was anything but simply small.

Starlet was placed with a friend who has experience raising and caring for special needs dogs.

We placed Starlet with the hopes that she was a normal, healthy pup, just very small. However, we placed her with the understanding that we didn't know why she was small, and that we didn't know what her future held.

I'm grateful to this friend, who had the discernment to bring Starlet to the vet on several occasions, as Starlet began to exhibit some odd symptoms as she grew. And I'm grateful to this friend for communicating with me about Starlet without being asked to.

After some frustration with managing Starlet's odd symptoms and several expensive tests, Starlet was diagnosed with renal dysplasia. She was immediately placed on a prescription diet and her "odd symptoms" completely disappeared in a relatively short period of time.

I'm so grateful to her previous owner for supporting her through this.

We decided, as a team (her previous owner, and my own team/support system) to place Starlet with a new, permanent foster in order to allow her to live her very best life, however long that may be. Renal dysplasia is not curable or "treatable," we can only manage the symptoms that accompany the condition.

Right now, Starlet eats a prescription diet and is a happy, joyful, boisterous pup. You would never know that she is sick just by looking at her. She doesn't feel sick, either. She is not in pain, and is not uncomfortable.

When we begin to see even the slightest decline in her quality of life, I will bring her to my trusted local vet for humane euthanasia. Once quality of life begins to decline, it will continue to decline until the condition kills her. This is a condition that works quickly and doesn't give you time to be indecisive. I do not condone the decision to allow an animal to suffer because I am too selfish to end it's suffering early. I will personally sit by Starlet's side and be with her while she leaves this life and enters a new one.

We have had to make some difficult decisions within our breeding program.

We have done what we feel to be reasonable in order to avoid producing puppies with this condition in the future. We have no family history of dogs having this problem, and we have never produced a puppy with this problem. However, we don't take it lightly that this condition occurred within our program.

This experience has been heartbreaking for us on many different levels. But we use these trials to learn and to grow.

I am sharing all of this to educate.

It is humiliating to share, let alone know, that you produced a puppy with an incurable, deadly condition. However, I don't think that these things are talked about enough within the dog breeding community. I have felt, for many years, for many different reasons, like a failure because of some of the things I have experienced as a breeder, because other breeders are unwilling to share their mistakes and heartaches. I don't want to be that way.

So I am working very hard to wear my heart on my sleeve. I want to learn from things like this, and grow as a breeder and as a human. I want to help other breeders learn and grow, and I don't want them to feel alone anymore.

So, what do we have to learn from Starlet?

1. Runts are sought after. In the past year alone, I have received four emails from families intentionally seeking out "runts" for one of two reasons. They either want a dog that will be

smaller than normal for the breed, or they want a discounted or free puppy.

First of all, I am very offended when I receive requests for runts. Asking a breeder for a runt, keeping in mind the true definition of a runt as discussed in this blog post, and keeping in mind that those who ask for runts are most likely looking for a discounted puppy, is like asking a breeder for their scraps. Their rejects. Their throwaways.

We don't have those here.

We don't have puppies that are less valuable than others. Ever. For any reason.

In my 8+ years of breeding I have only had one true runt, and her name is Starlet. And I can tell you, a true runt doesn't come without some form of heartache.

I know I'm going to receive messages from dog owners who adopted the "runt," and it was the healthiest, best dog they ever had! You are the exception, not the rule. And I suspect your puppy just happened to be a little smaller than the rest, and probably wasn't a true runt.

2. Breeders need to step up. Starlet was given to a trusted friend at no cost, since we had no idea what her future held. Starlet's ownership was signed over and we had no further legal obligations related to her care or well being.

I've already stated how grateful I am to this friend for doing her absolute best in caring for Starlet while she had her under her care. I am also grateful to this friend for admitting that as Starlet was maturing, she did not think that her home was appropriate for a larger puppy (though Starlet is smaller than normal, she is still a Standard Poodle) with a lot of energy. This person's other special needs dogs couldn't handle Starlet's enthusiasm. It doesn't help anyone to keep a dog in a home that is not right for the dog or the person.

As a breeder, it's my job to step up in a crisis that involves one of my puppies or dogs. I've taken in puppies and dogs in the past that haven't been good fits for families. This is how ethical breeders keep their dogs out of shelters and rescues. Through those experiences, I learned a lot about matching puppies to families, and about navigating the process of a puppy or dog changing homes. I take on the expenses and the labor. It isn't easy, but it's something that is necessary.

I'm not insinuating, in any way, that I feel it is my moral obligation to assist puppy and dog owners with things that are their responsibility as dog owners. I believe that once a family purchases a puppy, that puppy and everything that comes with it is their lifelong responsibility, not mine. I am, however, committed to assisting (if I can, and how I am able to) during a time of crisis.

As it turns out, Starlet's stud's owner offered to step up in my place. This stud owner/breeder is passionate about his dog and the puppies that his dog produces, and he understands the importance of stepping up. Starlet will live out her days with her poodle dad and her human dad. How amazing! I have set aside funds for Starlet's continued special diet, which is extremely expensive. Starlet's previous owner has also provided funds for future use for her care.

standard poodle black runt stud fishing swimming water
Otis (left) and Starlet (right) fishing for Koi

I wish all special needs puppies and dogs had a happy ending like this. I wish all puppies and dogs had a support system like this. Imagine where our shelters and rescues would be if all breeders provided a solid support system to their customers.

I get at least one email every single week from someone who needs to rehome their puppy or dog and does not have any support whatsoever from their breeder. They've notified their breeder that the puppy or dog is not working out for them, or that they have extenuating circumstances and cannot keep the puppy or dog, and the breeder either ignores them or tells them to figure it out on their own.

Those breeders just don't care. And the puppy/dog owner reaches out to me in a desperate attempt to get help, to protect their puppy/dog from someone dangerous adopting them.

Why don't more people have a support system from their breeders?

3. Health (and behavior) problems need to be reported and recorded. I feel lucky that Starlet's condition was reported to me. This allows me to better my program for the future, and learn from a trial that will help me gain knowledge and experience as a professional. This knowledge and experience will help me make better breeding choices in the future, and better care for my dogs and program overall.

How many health and behavior conditions go unreported? How many puppies are still being produced that are inheriting health problems, or continuing to pass health problems on to their future offspring, because the issues are never reported to breeders by buyers?

How many health and behavior conditions are reported to breeders, and the breeders ignore this information? Many health conditions are considered to be inherited, however, they can't be proven to be genetic conditions via our current options in health testing. Kind of like Starlet's condition. I know dogs from Starlet's lineage three, four, and five generations back. There is no family history that has been reported of this disorder in her lineage. Both of Starlet's parents have been extensively health tested.

What else has gone unreported due to a lack of breeder/customer communication?

As a newer breeder, when a health or behavior problem was reported to me, I had a tendency of blaming the owner. Or assuming that their vet was not competent. My dogs, the parents of their puppy, were/are healthy and have amazing temperaments. Why was there a problem with their puppy? It certainly had to be their fault.

That's not how genetics work. Diseases creep in and out of existence within a gene pool. Genes are turned on and off like light switches depending on many factors that we can control, but so many more that we can't.

Breeders need to be taking each and every piece of constructive criticism to heart. Grievances need to be recorded and studied in order for breeders to make better breeding decisions each year.

Over the years, as I've gained experience, I've made the decision to retire many breeding dogs for many different reasons. Some were retired before ever siring or birthing a litter, and some were retired after having a litter or two. It's just part of breeding. Well, it's part of breeding for me, and a lot of other breeders that I'm close to that I consider ethical.

Unfortunately, many health problems in dogs either go unreported to breeders, or worse, they are reported to breeders and the breeders do nothing. They continue breeding their stock, knowing that they're potentially continuing to create puppies with problems.

4. Finally, we need more teamwork. I could have avoided so many mistakes in my breeding career early on if I had been working under a good mentor. I couldn't ever find a mentor when I decided I wanted to breed. I reached out to so many different breeders, and each one would either ignore me, respectfully decline, or most commonly, berate me and discourage me from getting into breeding in the first place. Established breeders didn't want competition.

Any successful business person knows that healthy competition is necessary, because consumers like having choices, and they need choices. What if you don't have what a customer wants (puppy), and there isn't a comparable option available to them? They're going to run to the closest puppy mill or pet store to find what they want--and you better believe that the pet store is going to have what they want. Pet stores, who get their puppies from puppy mills, keep up with what is "trending" in the puppy market. It would be better if breeders were willing to network together and help each other out, in order to encourage customers to support more ethical businesses. We see this networking within some very tight knit breeding communities, but we don't see it enough.

Any successful business person also knows that someone new entering the industry isn't a threat if your business is sustainable and has been built on a solid foundation. So the idea that a new breeder entering the industry is a threat exposes the instability of so many breeders' programs. Of course, I didn't understand this at the time. I just thought, "What a bunch of nasty, rude people!" And I threw myself into the business with no experience and no inhibitions.

This is really a topic for a different blog post, but we need more mentors in this business, or at least more breeders willing to share information and work as a team.

What does "needing teamwork" have to do with Starlet and her story? Well, what if Starlet didn't have a team? Let me lay out what Starlet's story could have been like had things in her story been more "typical" in terms of what is considered normal in the breeding world...

Let's assume Starlet came from our industry's "typical" professional breeder (simply defined as a breeder who is earning an income by selling puppies, which is not inherently bad). Not a puppy mill, not a backyard breeder, but also not a breeder that is overflowing with integrity. Starlet, as a runt, would have probably been sold to a family at a discounted price, without a health warranty.

She probably would have been sold to the average "pet family," a family that simply wants a household pet to enjoy as a companion. Most of these families are not financially or emotionally prepared to handle special needs dogs (especially if they are seeking out "discounted" puppies). So, once Starlet began exhibiting her odd symptoms, it is very likely that her final diagnosis would have been more drawn out. This could have led to her premature (and painful) death due to improper and delayed management of her condition. Once a diagnosis was made, it is likely the family would have reached out to the breeder. The breeder would have likely reminded the family that Starlet was sold to them without a health warranty, and that all sales are final. Furthermore, they don't have room at their facility to accept Starlet back as an owner surrender with their new batch of pups coming in. So now the family is stuck with a puppy that they are not capable of caring for. Most likely, Starlet ends up in the foster system, or worse, a local shelter. She continues to be pawned off onto the next family willing to foster her, until her condition eventually kills her. She passes away with a family she isn't bonded to, in a home that isn't a home to her. This is sad, and this is typical.

Sure, this is all hypothetical. But it isn't outlandish or unlikely. In fact, this is the story of most special needs dogs that were originally purchased from breeders. As mentioned before, I get emails every week from pet owners who need help and who are not receiving breeder support. They weren't treated fairly when they purchased their puppy, and now that they've realized they made the wrong purchase, they're not able to find assistance in ensuring that they can place their puppy or dog in a new home where it will be loved, safe, and cared for.

This is unacceptable. I'm pleading with people who buy dogs from breeders--please support ethical breeders.

Starlet has a team.

Me (her breeder), her stud's owner (her other breeder and current foster), her previous owner, and our veterinarians. We are her team. And mark my words, Starlet is continuing to build a team as she is toted around Boerne, TX making friends and wooing fans! She has a support system that will ensure that she is cared for properly, and kept out of harm's way.

You can be a part of Starlet's fan club by following @johnsonpoodles on Instagram.

While we are unsure of what Starlet's future looks like, we are definitely sure that she is going to be living her best life throughout her whole life. That is what matters most to us.

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