Sunday, June 15, 2014

What's missing in the fight against puppy mills

Another day, another puppy-mill outlet.

I was distressed to learn yesterday that Naperville, Illinois - the next town over from where I used to live, and in most aspects a very progressive community - is allowing yet another puppy-mill-sourced pet store to open within its limits. Some residents of this wealthy Chicago suburb are rising up in predictable - and entirely justifiable - outrage (the blog post I just linked to is headlined "Naperville: The puppy mill outlet capital of America").

The blogger says she isn't trying to shut down pet stores; she just wants them to "go switch to an adoption model with rescue dogs instead of continuing to sell puppies at the expense of the parent dogs left behind in puppy mills...breeding litter after litter."

[My favorite pound puppies]
I get that. I got my own little dogs through a rescue group many years ago. Tiggy the mini-schnauzer mix was a young mother whose previous owners surrendered her, very pregnant, to the pound because, they said, they had "too many dogs." Muffin the toy poodle mix (and empress of the universe) was running wild in one of Chicago's meaner streets when animal control picked her up. The dogs are now at least 13 years old, and I love them dearly. I am a big fan of rescue groups and of the people who work tirelessly so animals will have better lives.

But something important is missing from nearly every call to shut down puppy mills. Folks, we've got to look at why puppy mills exist in the first place. It isn't just so the people who run them can make money. It's because lots of people want puppies.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine that every puppy mill in the U.S. was shut down, and every dog owner made sure their dog was spayed or neutered, and every pet store worked with shelters and rescue groups to re-home rescued dogs. A lot fewer dogs would be discarded, to be sure, and a lot more discarded dogs would quickly find homes, and that would be wonderful.

But very quickly all the available puppies would be gone, along with all the bright and attractive young-adult dogs, and the only dogs left would be the old ones, the ugly ones, the dangerous ones - the very dogs that are so hard to place right now.

And then where would people go to get puppies?

Good breeders, you say? Have you ever tried to find one?

The Humane Society publishes an excellent document called "How to find a responsible dog breeder." If you're looking for a puppy, you should read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it. But it has two problems, if we really want to solve the nationwide puppy-mill problem. First, such a breeder tends toward very small-scale operations and "doesn't always have puppies available." More realistically, such a breeder tends to have puppies available once every year or so, and the waiting list may be extremely long.

The second problem is that such a breeder requires you to "sign a contract that you will spay or neuter the dog unless you will be actively showing him or her." The aim, of course, is to cut down on unwanted puppies. The result, however - if all breeders followed the Humane Society's guidelines (this is a thought experiment, right?) - would be that the only available dogs would be potential show dogs.This could lead to genetic problems with the whole dog nation. It would certainly lead to extremely high prices for puppies. And there would be no more havanoodles and schnorkies and goldendoodles.

What's missing in the fight against puppy mills is a long-term solution. Shutting down the mills, adopting rescued dogs, spaying and neutering pets--good as these things are, they are all interim solutions. We need to come up with new ways to provide healthy, happy (but not necessarily purebred) pups at a reasonable price to families who can't afford potential show dogs, and whose children want a dog now and not three years in the future when their name finally comes up on the responsible breeder's waiting list.

One way to accomplish this would be strict regulation (with frequent inspection and adequate enforcement) of all pet breeders nationwide. I'm guessing this won't happen: it would cost money, and taxpayers who aren't willing to fix the ten percent of American bridges in urgent need of repair probably aren't going to open their wallets to help puppies.

So what's the solution? I wish I knew. One thing I never read about: large-scale (or even back-yard) puppy breeders who take good care of their dogs. Do these people exist? If so, could we learn more about them? Could we hold them up as examples?

Shaming cruel puppy mills is important, but it hasn't shut many of them down. Offering practical alternatives might be more effective. Can we do both?

What ideas do you have about better ways to connect puppies with the people who want them? Please comment!


Anonymous said...

Well, if you did just a little research, and looked for a dog by breed, and asked kennel ownersm dig trainers, and groomers, that would be 1 good way to find an ethical hobby breeder. Thing is---most dogs in shelters/pounds/rescues come from neither puppy mills nor hobby breeders---but the BACKYARD breeders whom nobody considers breeders! That's right!While all the rescue volunteers keep bad mouthing BREEDERS---they are ignoring the people with 1 or 2 dogs who are filling our shelters. How do I know this? From grooming dogs for over 40 + years and talking to shelter managers.

LaVonne Neff said...

That's interesting. I wonder if anyone has done a study of where the shelter dogs are coming from, and in what percentages. I assumed a lot of them were puppy mill dogs who were past their prime, and puppy mill puppies that people bought and then didn't keep. But I could be wrong.

I'd like to know more about how to find ethical hobby breeders. In the past I've done a lot of online research, actually, trying to find such breeders - and I didn't find many that looked trustworthy (except, of course, for show dog breeders who didn't have any available pups). I suspect that if ethical hobby breeders were easy to find - and easy to distinguish from puppy mills and backyard breeders - a lot of people would prefer to go to them rather than to pet shops. I once got a Sheltie from a breeder that probably fell in that category. I thought my Maltese came from such a breeder too, but in retrospect I'm not sure.