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The Dog Breeder Dilemma
Posted on 08/08/2014 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel
doglaw@ukcdogs.com

I’m sure most of you have seen, or at least heard about, the HBO Real Sports piece called “Unnatural Selection” that featured UKC President Wayne Cavanaugh and highlighted some serious health issues that have resulted from breeding dogs for extremes in conformation. Regardless of how you feel about the show, it demonstrated that problems with dog breeding are newsworthy and directly affect the public. These problems are often lumped in with the issues of “puppy mills” and hoarders and unethical breeders, and this distrust of breeders manifests in legislation aimed at regulating breeders and creating consequences for unhealthy dogs.

Laws seeking to regulate and license large scale breeders continue to crop up across the country. I have been working on one such law in Michigan. We have, for years, followed the logic that any laws affecting dog ownership or breeding are a step towards the end of dog ownership, but in reality are we also sticking our heads in the sand when we blindly defend and speak out against any and all legislation?

One thing I have witnessed in the wake of the HBO Real Sports special is a great deal of the “you’re either with us or against us” attitude. I’ve seen it come up in the past, but such a mainstream TV piece really magnified and fueled it more than I’ve seen before. It is truly pervasive in the dog fancy as a whole. If one criticizes anything about dog breeding, that person is now labeled as an animal rights proponent, which is absolutely ridiculous. How absurd do you think that sounds to those outside the dog fancy?

I find it very upsetting that we cannot realistically examine and criticize ourselves from within. Nothing is going to improve or change if the dog fancy cannot recognize that legitimate problems exist and find solutions. This attitude of all or nothing not only divides us in the dog fancy, but it is inexplicable to the general public and pet owners who want healthy dogs and responsible breeders who take care of their dogs.

Even beyond and more generalized than the problems of breeding for extremes, there are bad breeders out there. There are people who breed dogs solely for profit, with complete disregard for pedigrees, health, titles, form, or function. There are those with complete disregard for even basic care and conditions. They give the whole anti-breeding movement strong ammunition and are indefensible. Bad breeders are not the majority, but could be if we continue legislating the good breeders out of business.

This great and polarizing divide between breeders and the rescue faction we have going has, in my opinion, helped grow the market for the garbage internet breeders that have precipitated the USDA/APHIS changes. How so? Well, breeders have been given this tarnished image overall by the animal rights movement through the overpopulation myth and the begrudgingly genius coining of the term “puppy mills”. The dog show fancy has contributed to the perpetuation of this image through so many breeds losing all function and purpose in favor of cosmetics and some to the point of becoming unhealthy caricatures of what they once were. In reality, pet owners don’t care about show champions, they want healthy companions.

The myth of overpopulation and the misconception that hybrids are so much healthier, combined with the attention drawn to the decline in health of many breeds of dogs, has pushed more pet seekers to rescue and shelters. Rescue and adoption have become popularized to the point that it’s the in vogue way to obtain a dog. As breeders have been demonized and come under attack from this whole movement, they’ve become more reclusive and, in doing so, have become increasingly restrictive and selective in who may purchase puppies. Fewer litters are being bred overall, and there are less quality purebred puppies available to the public from reputable breeders these days. Despite the push for a rescue dog, many people still want purebred dogs and have turned to other sources, such as internet sellers. Where do so many of the puppies on these websites come from? They come from the commercial/large scale/high volume breeders, or “puppy mills,” that no reputable breeder wants to be affiliated with.

Yet we continue to chant the mantra that “it’s about quality, not quantity.” Is it really? Are we really okay with dogs being farmed? They are not cows or chickens. They need so much more than simply basic conditions, such as socialization and exercise. I find it hard to believe that these high volume kennels can properly socialize puppies to prepare them to go into the pet homes they are destined for. Studies have shown that it’s quite common for dogs that originate from these situations to later have major behavioral issues that most pet owners are not prepared to deal with.

Not only that, but there is no personal relationship and line of communication as exists between a breeder and puppy buyer, which can be vital in assisting new owners with any issues that may arise and ensuring a permanent home. The facilities might be state of the art and clean, but there are no tests of instinct, function, or performance when dogs are kept strictly for breeding. There’s certainly no way for buyers to meet the parents of the pups.

On the flip side, however, it’s not fair to place all the blame and responsibility on dog breeders as a whole. There used to exist a principle in law called caveat emptor, which means “let the buyer beware.” That somewhat harsh principle has been modified substantially through statutes, particularly in the Uniform Commercial Code that most states have adopted. I wrote about this in regards to horse sales for my legal thesis in law school and suggested we need more of a return to that when it comes to purchasing a horse, instead of so many protections for the buyer.

I think the same applies a bit to the sale of dogs. More onus should be on the buyer to do their homework and research before making a purchase. Someone who makes a spontaneous decision to buy a puppy at a store should not later get to cry foul and lay all the blame on the puppy mill. This pervasive mentality of instant gratification in our society results in on-the-spot instant purchases with no research or serious thought whatsoever. In this day and age of available information, anyone could run a Google search on getting a puppy and learn in less than five minutes that there are many issues associated with pet shop dogs. Ignorance is no defense in law. Dog buyers should share some of the culpability in these transactions. Clearly, more education is needed.

Do I have an easy answer? I don’t think there is an easy answer. But if we want to continue forward with our purebred dogs, some things will have to change. UKC is by no means perfect, but at least UKC has acknowledged and recognized that some serious problems exist, and is trying to take steps to change them through breed standard changes, the Total Dog program, and judge education seminars.

UKC recommends that pup buyers meet the parents and not purchase from a pet shop. Are these changes a complete solution that will fix everything? No, but it’s a step in the right direction. I heard the great Temple Grandin speak at a conference a few years ago, and she showed how the agricultural industry had taken great strides on a path of “cleaning house” through recognizing problems and changing shady practices so they can open their doors to the public with nothing to hide. It’s time for the dog fancy to do the same.