When I started writing Part One of this subject I had no intention of needing a Part Two. And when I finished part two I felt relieved that I was finished – I didn’t like the pressure of people waiting for me to publish the next segment.
But as I started trying to write about responsible breeders vs puppy producers I realized that really, the whole topic is just a continuation of part one and two and I should write it like that. So here’s part three, and it looks like there’s going to be a part four. Get your reading glasses out!
Part Three – Puppy Producers
In part one I spent a little time going over the landscape of dogs in the US. In recent years there are fewer dogs coming from AKC breeders, fewer dogs in shelters overall, and eighty- three percent of dogs in the United States are spayed or neutered*. Which begs the question, where are the new dogs in the US coming from? Dogs have an average lifespan of 8-10 years. Once the dogs that are currently alive pass away, where does the new generation come from?
According to 2011 Mintel Pet Ownership information:
- 30% of dog owners got their pet from a shelter or rescue.
- 28% of dog owners got them from a friend or relative
- 15% of dog owners got their pet from a breeder
- 9% of dog owners got them from a pet store
So at this point, a good percentage of people are getting their dog from a shelter or rescue and the next largest group are getting their dogs from a friend or relative. That leaves 15% who are buying their dog from a breeder. The pet store puppies are a very small percent, more than likely because pet store puppy sales are relegated to certain pockets of the country where people are still “unenlightened” and legislation still hasn’t been passed prohibiting it.
The Mintel information uses the word breeder with zero qualification. I’m assuming they are using the term to describe anyone who owned a female dog, allowed her to become pregnant (intentionally or not) and sold the puppies. This could include the “oops” litter from the next door neighbors, the “yorkipoo” off craigslist, the show breeder who health tests and sells pups on a strict companion contract and everything in between.
So let’s talk about breeders.
I’ve touched a bit on the argument that dogs in shelters are the result of breeders creating more dogs. Yes, dogs being born creates more dogs, no that doesn’t cause them to end up in shelters. If you’ve made it past part one and two, chances are you don’t completely disagree with my logic.
To reiterate, irresponsible owners are the main reason we have the shelter epidemic we do. Puppy producers absolutely contribute to the problem, but not necessarily in the way we would imagine. It’s not the act of creating more dogs that really is the problem. It’s the way it’s done.
Generally, these types of posts end up in a discussion of “responsible breeder” vs “irresponsible breeder” and everyone has an opinion of what “responsible” is. There’s usually a list of requirements that a breeder must meet to be considered responsible (according to the poster) and if the puppy seller doesn’t meet those requirements, they’re labeled “irresponsible”.
What makes the list of “Responsible” requirements varies wildly from person to person. For instance, to someone who breeds purebred AKC registered show dogs, the list could include “Must be part of the breed parent club” “Puppies must be AKC registered” and “Breeder must actively compete in AKC conformation” as non-negotiable for being considered “responsible”
Someone who breeds their dogs as working ranch dogs might not give two shakes if the dog is AKC registered or purebred. All they care about is whether the dog is healthy and if it can move livestock. So their list of requirements will be completely different.
There some basic things that many people agree on. For instance, the dogs should be adequately cared for, the conditions should be sanitary, elderly or very young dogs should not be bred, and puppies should not be sold younger than eight weeks old. These are bare minimum requirements and in my opinion shouldn’t even need mentioning -but they do.
The problem with this current system of everyone doing what is right in their own eyes, is that we have a large number of people who consider themselves to be “responsible breeders” but who are still contributing to the irresponsible owner epidemic in our country.
Let’s take a step back for a moment and think of other types of people who produce something to sell. Imagine a zip tie manufacturer. Zip ties are amazing little things! They’ve saved my bacon countless times, especially when I lose the clips that come with plastic crates.
But once the manufacturer has created the zip tie and sold it, they’re not really giving a second thought to what someone may do with it down the road. It doesn’t really affect them if someone uses the zip tie to tie their shoes, fix a crate, or you know…. kidnap someone and hold them for ransom. They produced it, they’re not responsible for what someone does with it. They don’t sell zip ties with little booklets telling you that it’s wrong to use their product for kidnapping. Telling people kidnapping is wrong isn’t really the zip tie company’s responsibility…people should probably have learned that from their parents or at school.
That is a producer. They produced the thing for money. The thing was produced, they got their money. Rinse and repeat.
So in my mind, you have Puppy Producers and Responsible Breeders. I did not coin those terms, but I’m going to use the heck out of them in an attempt to take back the conversation. The mentality behind puppy producers is the same as the zip tie manufacturer. The dogs may be AKC registered, they may be purebred, the parents may even be health tested! But if the driving force is “producing puppies for money” then they are not a responsible breeder.
To me the landscape of dog breeding is not black and white like the picture below:
It’s a bit of a gradient:
On the far left we have people who are producing puppies for money with no thought to the dogs’ safety or well being. These types of producers are often referred to as “puppy mills”. You’ve all seen the news stories. People hoarding 30 matted, little dogs in their garage in disgusting cages and selling puppies non stop. The thing is, generally speaking, this type of environment is not really sustainable from a practical standpoint. Turn over is high, often puppy buyers come back because the pups have health or behavior problems, neighbors complain etc. It’s just not good business. Plus, if you have any compassion for animals at all, it’s not something you can stomach.
In my experience, the majority of puppy producers/dog breeders in the US are somewhere in the middle. There are three main groups of producers out there. You have the “puppy mills”, high volume commercial producers, and producers who breed their pets.
You’ll notice, that I listed puppy mills and high volume commercial producers separately. Many people lump them together, but when I say “puppy mill” I am referring to a producer who keeps the animals in abusive/neglectful conditions. The photo below is what pops into my mind. These animals are being kept in physically and mentally harmful conditions for the sole purpose of creating puppies to sell.
Just like the puppy mills, high volume commercial breeders are still keeping dogs for the sole purpose of creating puppies to sell, but the conditions are generally better. I’m not saying they’re ideal – I’m not saying I condone the practice. I’m just pointing out that the conditions are a bit better. Which from a business stand point, makes more sense. Better conditions means healthier dogs, which means they can produce more puppies.
Many of these high volume commercial producers are USDA certified, which means that the USDA inspects the kennels periodically and they must maintain a certain quality of life for the animals. That’s not saying much, and depending on the area, the inspections could be cursory or even non existent. Just because a producer is USDA Certified, does not mean the conditions are better, or that they are a responsible breeder.
The picture directly above shows conditions that are better than the puppy mill picture, but it’s still not great. If I was a dog and I had to pick one, I would pick this picture for sure- but again we’re still in the darker shades of grey on the Producer to Breeder spectrum.
Now this picture, is also a USDA Certified high volume puppy producer, but these conditions are markedly better. The dogs are still not in a home as part of a family, but they’re clean, they have room to run, and access to the outdoors. If I were a puppy, I would absolutely choose this picture over the other two. So now, we’re still in the producer area, but as far as the dog’s health and quality of life, we’re still in the grey, but it’s getting lighter.
That brings me to the term “backyard breeder”. I have a love/hate relationship with this term. To me, it really illustrates the concept of some random person who has a girl dog, tossing a boy dog into their back yard and making puppies. Generally their reasons range from “My Sophie is such a sweet dog I just want more like her” to “If she has 10 puppies and I sell each one for $200 I can make $2000!”.
The reason I don’t like this term is that many people think that any one who has a backyard and produces puppies is a “backyard breeder” including passionate, educated hobby breeders who are the backbone of responsible breeders. The term “backyard breeder” gets a lot of harmful legislation passed. I plan to do a whole blog post dedicated to harmful anti-breeder legislation, but for now, let’s just touch on it briefly.
When terms like “backyard breeder” and “puppy mill” are used hand in hand, it is easy for both the public and politicians to think of anyone who breeds a dog at home as being irresponsible. So legislation gets passed banning people from breeding dogs in their home. They claim that the only way to know if a breeder is responsible or not is if their facilities are held to certain requirements are subject to regular inspections. The problem with this is a) as we saw above, USDA Certified and Inspected does not guarantee the animals are in great conditions and b) most responsible breeders do not have “facilities”. Their dogs are part of their family and the whelping box is in their living room. They may have one or two litters a year, and they hand raise those dogs with intent and love. They don’t have the funds or the inclination to have a huge heated kennel with runs and exercise areas. They may only own a total of three or four dogs. So a lot of well meaning legislation ends up banning the people who do the most good for the dogs and rewarding the high volume commercial producers.
So when it comes to “backyard breeders” there’s not always an obvious difference between a responsible breeder following a breeding program and a backyard breeder producing puppies irresponsibly.
Now let’s go back to our gradient:
On the far left we have the first photo. Dirty cages, unhealthy animals, breeding solely for profit. A little to the left we have the second photo. Still breeding solely for money, conditions are slightly improved – emphasis on “slightly”. Then we have picture number three. Now, being the realist that I am, I’m convinced that the third photo is a staged photo-op. That facility may exist for the sole purpose of convincing people that high volume commercial producers are not puppy mills. Realistically, high volume breeders are probably a range in the middle.
For argument’s sake, let’s suspend our critical thinking skills for a moment and imagine that the photo-op photo is real. In fact, let’s get wild and imagine that most USDA high volume commercial producers look like these photos below:
The areas look clean and according to the Real Animal Welfare Group, the floors are heated, classical music is piped in, and the animals are all clean, bathed and happy. Would this be considered a producer or a responsible breeder? Ask yourself, what is the purpose of breeding these dogs? You guessed it. Making money.
Often times, these facilities are not selling directly to puppy buyers. They have brokers who sell the pups to pet stores, puppy buyers and even to ” retail rescues” (more on that in another post).
So far, all we’ve discussed is the physical aspects of these producers. Are they clean and healthy? Do the dogs get to play outside? Are they well groomed and well fed?
The next consideration is genetic. If you’re breeding for money, it doesn’t make any sense to phase healthy, young dogs out of your kennel. And one or two males can service dozens of females. So in a producer setting, say you have ten female Toy Poodles who each produce one or two litters a year and each time it is with the same male. The gene pool for Toy Poodles is now flooded with those same dogs’ DNA. Say each litter averages five puppies and each female produces one litter a year for four years – this is a very conservative estimate. That’s two hundred Toy Poodles who are all related to each other. Now, males can continue to breed far longer than females, so say the producer rotates those ten Toy Poodles and replaces them with ten more. So in four more years, we have another two hundred Toy Poodles who are still related.
This is not an improvement on the breed. If that male has any genetic issues, say eye problems (common in poodles) guess who just inherited eye problems? Yep, four hundred Toy Poodles. It’s also just producing the same thing over and over again. There is no forward motion in the breed’s genetics. This is a major problem in producers, whether they’re producing ten puppies a year or a thousand puppies a year. They’re flooding the breed with the same genetic material.
Because this post just isn’t quite long enough, and I know you’re dying to spend all day staring at your screen, let’s talk about how producers contribute to the shelter problem.
Producers are producing puppies for profit. Once the puppy has gone to it’s owner the dog is no longer their responsibility. There have been instances where puppy owners have come back to the producer with complaints and they’ve gotten their money back, but those are pretty far and few between. Once you buy that dog, it’s yours. And if you decide you don’t want the dog any more, or she ends up in the shelter, that’s between you, your dog and your conscience.
The conscientious producers may offer a health guarantee or even hand out free booklets on responsible ownership, but they place the ultimate responsibility for the dog on the new owners shoulders.It is not in their best interest to ensure that the new owners understand that the breed has very specific grooming needs or that maybe buying their seventeen year old daughter a Scottish Terrier may not be the best choice since she’s never owned a dog before and she’s leaving for college in a year.
If the family decides on a Tuesday morning that they want a dog, puppy producers will gladly sell them a puppy on Tuesday afternoon.
And that is how puppy producers contribute to our shelter dog problem. Puppy producers sell to anyone willing to hand them money for a dog. And it is abundantly clear that not everyone who has the money to buy a dog is in a position to be a responsible dog owner.
Right now, we have shelters, rescues and puppy producers who are adopting/selling dogs to people who could potentially be irresponsible owners. Responsibility for the dog still rests on the shoulders of the adults who decided to get a pet, but handing dogs out to anyone willing to pay is not helping the problem.
To transcend from puppy producer to responsible breeder, the goal has to be more than just producing a product to make money. So, if the goal in producing puppies isn’t to make money, what is it?
We’ll talk about that in Part Four – Responsible Breeders.
*The featured photo for this blog post is a painting titled “Senior Wranglers” by Maud Earl