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Dog's Best Friend

Dr. Fran Smith checks out a forthcoming litter
Tony Nelson

Almost wordlessly, the three technicians and three doctors glide into action at the Smith Veterinary Hospital in Burnsville. It is just before noon, and the morning has already been full. A chocolate Lab lies semiconscious on the floor, wrapped in towels on a pillow. His back foot twitches and his tongue hangs to the side after an hour-long operation to remove an abscessed tooth.

The dog's right eye lolls as one of the technicians rubs the towels vigorously, strokes the animal's skull, and says, as sweetly as a human voice has ever said anything to another living thing, "Good morning."

Next to the chocolate Lab, Dr. Fran Smith and her "significant other," Dr. John Lawrence, hover over their own black Lab, Buttons, who is perched on a state-of-the-art ultrasound machine that is at the center of Smith's practice, and which separates Smith Veterinary from almost all other clinics. Buttons's face reflects the sad-sack stress of a bitch that is getting pictures taken of her nine puppies, about to be popped by C-section.

"She's achieved lots of titles, which means she's competed in a number of venues," says Smith. "We love her because of the bond that you develop in doing all that stuff with her. Our hope is to produce the great Labrador from her--meaning the one that can fulfill all of your dreams. It's about trying to achieve the ultimate. One of the hallmarks of Labradors is what they call a 'kindly expression,' so you'll be aware in your puppy selection that you have the eye shape you want so you can produce that further down the line."

The sweet-sick smell of freshly tapped rubbing alcohol begins to permeate the clinic's operating area. The doctors' pet parrot, Jackson, bobs to the sound of the soft professional bustle in the same way he bobs at home to the piano playing and singing of Dr. Smith, who once dreamed of being a professional musician. Hard to imagine, for her nose-to-the-grindstone rhetoric is that of a no-nonsense teacher, but the music world's loss has been the dog-breeding world's gain.

"It's a tremendous responsibility. It's like a piece of art, they're so exquisitely beautiful, in addition to being a healthy, happy pet. It's the ultimate creation," says the 59-year-old native of East St. Louis, Illinois. "I freeze semen here, and some very famous dogs' semen is frozen here. The sperm should be good for 25,000 years. I won't live to see it, but...."

In a back room of the clinic sit three tanks full of some 400 samples of dog semen, preserved with liquid nitrogen. The semen can be shipped anywhere in the world, to any would-be partner, anytime. Today will bear the fruits of some of that labor, as Buttons lies prone on a stainless steel pre-op table. Dr. Johnson inserts an IV into the dog's paw and wraps it with gauze. The sweet-talking technician shaves the dog's belly, careful to avoid the cluster of protruding nipples. Buttons is carried into the small operating room, and the technicians drape towels over their arms, ready for flying pups.

In a 2003 list of the top-ten worst jobs in science, Popular Science magazine dubbed "barnyard masturbator" the third worst job in the world, right behind "dysentery stool-sample analyzer" and "flatus odor judge." And while her rare status as both dog breeder and veterinarian can hardly be compared to "barnyard masturbator," Smith's job is neither distasteful nor weird, but her "quest," she says. "I'm never satisfied with where I am. I always want to be better and smarter. Rote jobs are not my bag."

As such, she is the only board-certified theriogenologist (reproduction specialist) in small-animal private practice in the United States. At the University of Minnesota, the topic of her Ph.D. was Cryo Preservation of Canine Semen Technique and Performance. She is an in-demand speaker, chairs many boards, belongs to many animal groups, and finds herself several times a week talking softly to a male dog as she jerks him off.

"In order to collect the ejaculate, you actually are stimulating the dog, masturbating the dog into an artificial vagina. Some people take great offense to doing that, and some people are uncomfortable with that," she says. "Believe me, if you're uncomfortable with that, the dog will sense your discomfort, and it is the only procedure that requires the dog's cooperation. That's why a lot of practices choose not to do it.

"The thing is, all dogs are not naturally horny. Some never are, because the dog (natural) social structure is a group structure. And the way most dogs live today is in a family with one or two dogs; they never really have an opportunity to mount another dog or to even do the behaviors that are part of just learning to be a normal dog."

Buttons lies stomach-up on the operating table. One of the technicians dabs lubricant into the dog's eyes, since, like humans, she will lose her blink reflex under anesthesia. A tube has been placed in her trachea, and now she's breathing easy, as indicated by the narcotic rhythm of the blue respirator bag that hangs at the side of the table.

A technician wheels in a tray of sterilized scissors, surgical knives, and forceps. Smith, who has changed from her business suit and smock into scarlet scrubs, chooses her instruments with confidence. In that moment, all the jokes and incredulity about her profession are another world away.

"I still am a clinical professor at the U, and I've had students say to me, 'Do you think it's morally wrong to collect dog semen?' I said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'I don't think it has any moral implications at all.' And they said, 'What about bestiality in the Bible?' I said, 'This is not even on the same page as that.' To me, this is a clinical procedure. Like collecting blood or urine. I suppose if you were perverted, you would think of it as something different."

Smith chooses a knife and makes a slow stroking motion on the dog's belly, drawing a smattering of blood, and then cuts a foot-long incision. She has done this hundreds of times, at all hours of the day and night, every day of the year, but she will tell you that no two births are the same. She dips her surgical gloves into the belly of the beauty and starts winnowing. She untangles the Y-shaped uterus and cuts two incisions to free one of the puppies. "All right, guys, are ya ready?" she says. From the corner of the room, Jackson the parrot squawks, "Clear!"

Smith pulls out the first baby, which, wrapped in its own amniotic sac, could be a large plum. She tosses it into a towel, and the technician sprints out of the room and places the pup on a second towel, pumps air into its lungs with a rubber ball syringe, and places it an incubator. The process is repeated seven more times in the span of ten minutes. Buttons breathes naturally; her babies look like rodents and mew like kittens, and appear, to the naked eye, to have the desired kindly expression of the super Lab.

"Is everybody alive?" yells Dr. Smith.

"All nine," says a technician. "Six girls and two boys."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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