Thursday, September 16, 2010

Breeders Support Pet Store Puppy Sales

Is it possible? Say it ain’t so. How dare I even think – let alone suggest – that such a thing is even possible!

Just this past week a gentleman, with a couple of Golden Retrievers, contacted me to arrange for some training. As we talked, several things came to light - factors that I have run across numerous times in recent years. Dog owners, like this gentleman, are often quite well off, well educated, have done their research, know what they want, and have purchased pet store puppies...sometimes for considerably more than it would cost them for a dog from a “reputable breeder.”

Over a similar time frame, I've also become more aware of (and been uncomfortable with) certain trends I've seen evolving within the community of those who refer to themselves as “breeders.” When I put these two sets of facts together, it is possible to see a possible cause and effect relationship and thus arrive at the conclusion stated in the title of this article.

In order to more fully explore the conclusion I've come to, please carefully consider some questions which are integral to the process:

1. Should an individual have the right to purchase and own a dog?

2. Do you believe sales and purchases are (generally) subject to the laws of supply and demand?

3. Do you somehow think those laws (supply and demand) somehow get suspended when it comes to the purchase of a dog?

If a person does indeed have the right to buy and own a dog, just how complicated should that process be AND is it up to someone calling themself a breeder to decide who should be excluded from that right? I've had friends, colleagues and customers attempt to find a “good breeder” and purchase a dog. Very quickly into the process they've run into reams of roadblocks, puzzling “rules” set by individual breeders, and enough conditions on ownership to make one wonder if the dog will ever actually belong to them! I've had colleagues tell me they had to jump through more hoops trying to buy a dog than they did when going through the process of adopting a child!

I do understand the desire to find good homes for the dogs and certainly some dogs would be better suited for some owners over others. I do understand the need to do some screening and educating. Aside from the practical considerations in matching dogs and owners however, ofttimes the process has been taken over by an ideology bordering on the extreme. Wanting to uphold the ideals of what they've been persuaded to believe constitute a “responsible breeder,” I believe we are actually seeing folks responding and bending to animal rights ideology.

Let me mention a few of the “hoops” through which some breeders expect the general dog shopping public to jump:

- Trying to even find a breeder, many of whom do not believe it proper to advertise their puppies in media readily accessible to the dog shopping public.

- Lengthy, poorly thought out and intrusive questionnaires

- Excessive prying into personal life and home matters (fencing, home visits, new owner's personal life style etc.)

- The belief common amongst some breeders that they have the responsibility and right to decide who can own a dog.

- The belief that someone should be willing to wait for ridiculously long periods of time while they decide if/when they are going to have puppies again.

- The idea that they the breeder must find a “forever home” and have the right to come in at any time the owner violates one of the breeders rules/values, to take the dog back.

- A sort of vague notion that the dog will never really be theirs – even though it has been bought and paid for.

When we first began showing and breeding dogs, many ways were used to let the public know where you were and what you had to offer. Basically we advertised using a variety of mediums. Recently however, advertising has become more and more frowned upon in politically correct circles and those who do use many of the public mediums are being labelled as “puppy millers.” The prevailing attitude seems headed toward the idea one should severely limit the number of litters they produce yearly, not make any money and expect the “good prospects” to somehow find them after undergoing a long and difficult search.

Once the prospect has found them, many breeders seem to think it reasonable to insist on having a multi-page questionnaire (full of very personal information) completed. Then, in some instances, there is an insistence on home visits, requirements on property and fencing etc, before the client is asked to begin signing contracts limiting most of their rights as a purchaser. Once they have cleared all those hurdles, there is the expectation that they (new potential owner) will willingly languish on a waiting list for many months or even years. Of course if the new prospect did not pass the individual breeders scrutiny, there is an implied belief that they will simply give up on their quest to get a dog and/or if someone else sells them a dog, both buyer and seller are somehow diminished. Frankly, at some point, a responsible breeder should be promoting responsible dog ownership which includes passing on ALL the responsibilities of ownership to the new owner, offering education throughout the process and then providing reasonable access to help when requested.

Breeders need to begin to realize that in the scheme of things, they are simply a very small part of the supply side of the “supply and demand” formula. Yes, they get to decide who gets one of their dogs but they do not get to decide who gets to own a dog. Certainly the Animal Rights groups understand the supply side role breeders play (often better than the breeders themselves do) and they have been quite successful in starting to pinch off that source of supply. Their goal is to stop all breeding and in addition to some full frontal assaults on breeding, showing and competing, they have subtly proposed many ideas that breeders have gradually bought into which, in the long run, can have the same desired effect – cut off supply.

So the new dog owner (representing the demand side of the equation) seeing the quagmire that has become “buying from a breeder” finds another source to meet his demand – is it any wonder? More importantly (to my mind) what role might this be playing in the overall trends we see evolving within the dog fancy? Like most concerns, there is often more than one cause or contributing factor and this is just one piece of that puzzle ... but it's worth asking ... “Might breeders be inadvertently contributing to the demise of their own registries and all the attendant activities?”

Registries, Shows, Standards and Performance Events

In the discussion thus far, I have simply focused on where individuals are likely to get their puppy. I'd now like to look at some other possible consequences and associated trends which I find quite alarming.

Traditionally, most breeders of pure-bred dogs promoted the concept of breed improvement through thoughtful selective breeding practices, independent judging of breeding prospects and screening to eliminate known genetic problems within their breeds gene pool. Based on a concern for the continued improvement and viability of their breed, the slogan, “Buy from a breeder” was actively promoted. The foundation of (what was sometimes referred to as) “the dog fancy” was formed by breeders and supporters who shared these values. The pure-bred puppies that were produced were “papered” and here in Canada they were registered by a national registry. Most of the new members of the dog fancy (the life blood of any organization) were first introduced to it by their breeder. It was in this environment, rich in priceless experience and knowledge, that they would begin to learn the importance of breed standards, training, performance standards and critical evaluation. Not only were members of the public strongly discouraged from buying their dog from pet stores, but most breed sponsored clubs specified their members were not to sell their puppies through pet stores. All this was to help improve the lives and quality of the dogs while encouraging direct breeder to public contact for all of the educational and support issues already noted. While this system was not perfect and had/has it's critics, it still held up standards and ideals that were superior to anything else available – then or now.

Possibly you are one of those who still believes in those principles I've just outlined. If that is indeed the case, the odds are that you were born prior to 1965. In recent years it is starting to appear as if the dog fancy in general and dog shows in particular are in decline. In looking at those participating at the shows and holding to the ideals, clearly the population is ageing and very few young people are getting involved as the value of community is becoming lost. Not only is this the case but it also appears that breed registries and competitions are being rendered as largely irrelevant.

In recent years we began to see more and more of the so called, “designer breeds.” These mix-breed mongrels were often a poodle mix but more recently designers have been working overtime coming up with cute names for a whole variety of mixes involving two or more pure bred ancestors. These mutts are often sold for as much (or more) than pure-bred puppies. Those producing these mutts are being held to absolutely no standards – None, Zero, Zip, Nadda. Their design and production represents almost pure profit with absolutely no responsibility.

Traditionally these sorts of questionable practices could not gain a foothold because of strong national registries supported by breeders and the dog fancy. These mixed breed puppies could not be registered and could not be represented as pure-bred. At first, the way around this obstacle for such nefarious puppy producers was to make numerous false claims such as, “a new breed” or “in the process of kennel club recognition” and this one, “soon to be registered.” Some enterprising folks even began making the claims of “purpose-bred” for their doodle mixes; claiming the dogs were being developed as more desirable for service work. Such claims were, of course, never demonstrated to have any substance. While there was a niche market for such mixed breed puppies, typically it was very small and the puppies were often sold at barely more than cost.

The need to utilize many of these false claims essentially ended when a “registry” was formed in the southern United States to exploit this shady money making opportunity and began to offer (for a price) “papers” to these mutts. Taking on the same acronym as a national dog registry in Canada, this outfit sought to further gain the appearance of legitimacy by seeking to partner with established dog focused groups such as the IACP (International Association of Canine Professionals).

These days it is not at all unusual to have a new dog owner explain that their puppy is a “Malti-poo” for which they paid many hundreds of dollars. The unsuspecting public is frequently being tricked into believing these mutts – with their papers – are or will become the next wave of pure-bred dogs. In the past the dog fancy along with the legitimate registries were able to challenge such claims and prevent such practices from gaining a wide spread foothold. Unfortunately, these days, in their greatly weakened state, the once vibrant pure-bred dog culture seems unable to take an effective stand against them and instead is faced (in some instances) with a struggle for their own survival.

Along with the obliteration of almost all dog-fancy standards, there has been a corresponding change in what constitutes a dog professional for both conformation and performance purposes. While far from perfect, pure-breed dogs do have a conformation standard for each breed and can be judged against that standard – this is the basis for dog shows. Breeds were originally designed for both a purpose (to perform some task) and a look. Breed judges are supposed to hold these facts in mind as they judge the dogs before them. Judges must qualify for their position and meet certain standards within the profession. No similar standards exist for mixed breeds or “designer dogs” and pet store dogs can be whatever someone claims they are.

On the performance side of the equation the same is unfortunately true. Within the world of dogs, there are/were measurable standards for whatever work or activity the dog was expected to perform. From hunting to herding to leading the blind, if the dog was trained to perform the task, there are standards against which the dog and the training can be judged. Many such “trials” are held by national registries (either breed registries or working registries) and aside from the competition aspect; there is also a very practical value in holding to national standards.

Such is the case for companion animals as well. No job is more important than that of the family companion and for a great many years the training standards established by the various Kennel Clubs were the standards most training programs used as the basis for their training curriculum. Aside from the competitive aspect, there remains a well recognized measurable set of standards in place to judge the training of any dog presented for assessment. Most all-breed shows held obedience trials in conjunction with their conformation classes (some still do) and titles based on performance (not simply competition) could/can be earned. In keeping with this fact is the original stated purpose of obedience trials.

The Canadian Kennel Club states:

“The purpose of obedience trials is to demonstrate the usefulness of the purebred dog as a companion of man, not merely the dog's ability to follow specified routines in the obedience ring. The basic objective of obedience trials is to produce dogs that have been trained to behave in the home, in public places, and in the presence of other dogs, in a manner that reflects credit on the sport of obedience.”

Other Kennel Clubs that sanction obedience trials are on record with similar statements.

This is not to diminish the role or importance of the individual trainer who has made their primary purpose that of addressing certain specific behaviours or problems. However, a well-balanced training program utilizing the standards I've just referred to, will go a long way toward preventing or solving a great many problems. These recognized national testing standards suffered a major hit unfortunately, with the emergence of so called, “Pet Dog Training” which has succeeded in largely marginalizing and ignoring those measurable standards and replaced them with no recognized standards at all. These days we see far too many so called professionals who can only lay claim to such vague qualifications as, “I've been around dogs most of my life” or, “I've always loved dogs and got along well with them.” Many of the training associations like the APDT (and various national 'APDT' incarnations), the previously mentioned IACP plus various other “training and behaviour” groups are replete with members who have never actually achieved any nationally recognized standard nor demonstrated the ability to do so. Yet despite this fact, many of these same individuals want to set themselves up as “experts” and be seen as the “go to” people when it comes to defining what training is and how it should be governed. Kind of like an individual who has never passed a literacy test (let alone shown an ability to read) insisting on being the one to dictate how reading is to be taught in the schools.

So what's at stake? As we see the dog fancy overtaken by breeders who have bought into the emotionally laden pseudo-logic pap which has been encouraged by an animal-rights mentality, we observe a culture in decline. As we watch the abandonment of breed standards in favour of “cute” or the sacrifice of training standards to whatever the current trainer says they are, we must ask if dog ownership itself is ultimately on the line. Certainly a dog's place in our society is becoming more and more at issue. Take a moment and look at your dog. Now ask yourself if there might not be a time coming when you could not own this animal or keep him at your side. Is it possible? And you wonder about my concern for where I believe the current trends are taking us?