It was early December 1991, when our border collie, Patch, began to deliver her puppies just a few hours before we left the house for a long-planned commitment. Returning with great anticipation about four hours later, my daughter Polly, who could barely contain her excitement, immediately ran to the basement with her sister Susan one step behind. There Patch lay, in the huge straw-filled cardboard box we’d prepared a week ago, in a semi-circle embrace of puppies, looking up at us, her eyes filled with emotions as mixed as her small half black, half white face.
Before I got downstairs, Polly raced up the stairs, her hands gently encircling a tiny black-and-white puppy with classic markings.
“Mom, there’s five puppies now, but this one’s not breathing very good,” she said, gazing down with her brow furrowed, her expression serious. Susan stood anxiously nearby, equally concerned.
“It wasn’t breathing at all when I first picked it up, so I held its nose and started giving it little breaths in his mouth.”
I remembered the First Aid Course she’d taken in Girl Scouts and was awed by her quick response to this puppy’s distress. My heart swelled with pride then quickly contracted with alarm as my eyes watched the newborn take in a deep, shuddering gasp of breath every five to eight seconds.
“It sounds like it has fluid in its lungs,” I said as my mind searched frantically for a possible solution. Oh, the vet would know, I suddenly realized and then just as quickly remembered today was Sunday and the vet was closed. In our rural area it would take significant time to reach emergency medical care, time I didn’t believe we had.
“What can we do to get this stuff out of his lungs,” my daughter asked anxiously, her eyes on the pup, who continued to gasp intermittently.
I reached out to hold the newborn, my thoughts racing until suddenly an idea sprouted. “Let’s try to warm this little one up more—it feels cool to me. Quick, go get a small towel,” I said to my wide-eyed daughter as I strode to the large storage drawer that held the heating pad. The girls raced toward the bathroom and quickly returned to the kitchen with a hand towel, which they wrapped bunting-style around the pup.
I lay the white pad on the huge, distressed pine kitchen table and plugged the pad into the outlet just above the table, then pressed the middle button for heat as Polly lay the pup onto the pad. Transfixed, we watched wordlessly for several minutes. Gradually the puppy’s gasps became less audible, the shudders less intense, and our fears less concerted.
“This little guy seems better,” I whispered to my daughters, wondering silently to myself how long he’d had gone without oxygen and if that would be a future problem.
When the immediate crisis seemed past, Susan began to smile. Polly looked up from the pup to me and I saw her big brown eyes begin to twinkle. She reached out her hand to the heating pad and said, “So are we doing medium rare or well-done?”
Susan and I burst out laughing, the tension broken. “Medium should do it,” I replied.
The pup then made a small cry as if to affirm the decision. The girls and I smiled at each other as we kept watching. Several minutes later I tenderly unwrapped the towel to feel its body.
“Mmm, this puppy feels nice and warm now,” I said to my daughters, “and its breathing has been good and steady for quite awhile. I think we can take it downstairs soon to be with its mama; what do you think?”
After ten more minutes of observation Polly carefully carried the sleeping pup downstairs to Patch’s box, where she looked up from her straw-cushioned box with anxious, dark eyes at the pup. Gently Polly placed the pup near Patch’s soft belly among the now-six other siblings, where the puppy nuzzled her a bit, without eating, then tumbled over and went to sleep.
Several minutes later another pup was born, this one with brown and white markings. Within moments it began to cry as it tottered around searching for food, and was soon happily eating. Then the pup we’d revived began to move around and cry. Polly placed it in the right place for food but it did not begin to suck, despite repeated tries by my daughters. The puppy continued to squirm and wriggle around like the other pups yet, as we watched over the next few hours, it still had not eaten.
Then bedtime beckoned Polly and Susan on this Sunday evening and, knowing we had done the best we knew, we slowly climbed the old wooden circular stairs to their rooms.
At dawn the next morning my daughters hurried down to Patch’s nursery and found the formerly-compromised puppy learning to eat. Because we found it was not as aggressive as its siblings, every few hours one of us went down and made room for it to nurse its fair share among the other eager eaters.
By the end of forty-eight hours, this pup had become the largest puppy in the litter and would clearly survive.
Polly pronounced him a male and named him John.
Then, in the passage of a brief six-weeks, a warm farm family from the Finger Lakes region came to our farm one day, to adopt John and one of his sisters. Several weeks later the pleased new owners sent us pictures, telling us they’d kept John’s name and given the name Mary to his sister. The two pups were clearly thriving, both in each others company, as well as in the environment a Border collie is born for: a working farm with cows to herd.