Pituitary dwarfism affects dogs in much the same way as humans. Close the dwarves don't really look like infant German Shepherds-more like a Corgi crossed with a raccoon.
Tiger and owner John Coleman. Image by the author.
I first met John Coleman on my way home from work. He was standing outside Sydney's Erskineville train station with two German Shepherds: a large adult with a shiny chestnut coat and a much smaller creature with huge triangular ears and fluffy hair. "Oh my goodness," I squealed, as I walked towards the dogs. "How old is your puppy?" John smiled and sighed slightly, and pulled the dogs' leashes back towards his body. "I wouldn't pat him," he replied. "He's not a puppy. He's three years old and he has dwarfism."
Pituitary dwarfism affects dogs in much the same way as humans. It's a genetic disorder predominately found in purebred German Shepherds that reduces the production of growth hormones. This means the dogs stop growing at an early age, and live out their time as almost entirely proportionate bonsai. The result is undeniably adorable and puppy-like, although up close the dwarves don't really look like infant German Shepherds-more like a Corgi crossed with a raccoon.
Cuteness aside, German Shepherd dwarves come with various health issues. They face infertility, a shortened life span, and problems with growing skin, teeth and adult fur. They can also become overtly anxious or aggressive. It's pretty hard to sell a puppy destined for health issues and small man syndrome, so most breeders just euthanize the dwarves a few weeks after birth. This is the fate that Darien Northcote's vet recommended after her pedigree dog gave birth to six puppies in 2011.
Tiger as a puppy. Image by John Coleman.
"There was no indication at birth that anything was wrong, but I was suspicious after a few weeks," said Darien to VICE. By the time she took her litter to be microchipped at 10 weeks, the dwarfism was obvious. "Three puppies were normal and three were tiny." In a way, Darien and her partner Ken-hobby breeders who only birth one litter a year-had accidentally stumbled into a very rare genetic lottery. "We'd put so much into them. Why would we put them down? I'm not that sort of breeder," she says. "The were perfectly healthy. Just little."
And so the Northcotes kept the three puppies, even though they were totally unexpected. "We've been breeding since 1989, and never anticipated we'd get a dwarf," says Darien. That's because pituitary dwarfism is a recessive genetic disorder-both parents have to be DNA 'carriers' to result in affected offspring. Darien was surprised to learn that her beautiful bitch was a carrier. She was also "hacked off" to discover they'd paid to breed her with a compromised male - an award-winning sire from Germany with pedigree credentials.
In fact, the champion sire was so preferred among competitive breeders, that it's said to have fathered about 100 litters. This means Australia's relatively restricted German Shepherd gene pool is now probably rife was dwarf carriers-although few like to admit to birthing the strange dogs. After her litter was born, Darien talked to others who'd used the same sire. Two admitted to having dwarves and a few to euthanized runts with "odd" issues. "The owners of the sire must have known. It was out there in secrecy," she concludes.
Tiger today. Image by the author.
After they got over the initial shock, the Northcotes approached their old friends - the Colemans - with an unusual playmate for their female German Shepherd, Lydia. "We're soft. It was a favour. Ken and Darien are our friends and they asked nicely," said John Coleman to VICE. The Coleman's new dog was called Tiger and he weighed less than 3kg. "He was thin and sparse. I could carry him around on my forearm," says John. "He was a timid little bloke. Very timid and not that much different to Aunty Lydia."
Shortly after they got him, the Northcotes took Tiger to their trusty local vet, Dr Bas Hagreis. "When they brought him in, my main concern was that they had a good idea of what the condition entailed and that they were committed," said Dr Bas to VICE. "It's about a quality of life. Sometimes to persist would not be in the best interests of the animal." He put his new patient on a daily dose of fish oil tablets and the growth hormone thyroxine, and de-sexed him later than usual to boost his natural testosterone. "I reckon that's why Tiger's a bit sturdier than other dwarf dogs," says John.
As the months progressed, the Coleman's new family member slowly gained weight and even grew a half-decent amount of puppy fur. "He bonded very closely with both of us and his Aunty Lydia, and oddly enough with Mikey the cat, who puts up with him mostly," says John. By six months of age, Tiger started to emerge as an assertive and confident adult dog. That's also when he developed "the attack" -a personality trait that now keeps him on a very short leash, especially around children.
Tiger with John's other German Sheperd Lydia. Image by author.
"He once bit my poor sister and my mother-in-law, and then my wife's aunt," says John. "I didn't get the blame as it's technically her dog." When I visited the Coleman's house, Tiger erupted into a high-pitched hysteria before lunging for my legs with his small jaw manically snapping. He was quickly muzzled and finally subdued on John's lap. The matriarchal Lydia simply looked on from the couch with a sleepy look in her eyes. "German Shepherds are usually a charismatic breed. They're big and intelligent," said John. "And they're lazy."
John says they've learned to protect people from Tiger, especially on the two dogs' daily walks around Erskineville. He's now become a bit of a local celebrity. "I can only distinctly remember one person asking me straight away if Tiger is a dwarf-and he was a vet student," says John. "Generally, people stop and ask 'how old is your puppy?' and I reply 'he's not a puppy'. He brightens up people's smiles when I tell them. He's everybody's favourite dwarf, except for with the man who delivers our newspapers. Tiger had a shot at him once."
Sometimes, Tiger literally stops traffic. "I was once walking along Ross St near the university. Tiger was in a carry bag and his head was poking out, and a young man yelled out from his car 'sick dog, dude!' Other people pull over their cars to have a look at him," says John. Tiger's biggest fan is a burly bikie. "He loves the little fella. Whenever we bump into him on our walks, he'll stop in his tracks and say loudly to all of his bikie mates: 'do you know how old this bloke is? He's three years old!'"
Tiger with his dwarf siblings Rocky and Arnie. Image by author.
Tiger is now approaching his fourth birthday. German Shepherd dwarves aren't expected to live past five, although the Colemans reckon he'll live a bit longer. "It will definitely affect us when he goes," says John. "At home with us, Tiger is the most affectionate and playful creature you could imagine. He's a perpetual puppy." With any luck, Tiger will celebrate a few more joint birthdays in the park with his two dwarf siblings. They're still with the Northcotes, who named them Rocky and Arnie.
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