Sunday, October 16, 2011

Where Do Puppies Come From?

Hancock County Animal Shelter
I'm not a huge fan of writing on thin lines and slippery slopes but I won't hesitate when I know that the message is important. The purpose of this post is not to attempt to tell you where to get your next dog and it is not to make you feel guilty about any choices from the past. However, if you do end up feeling some guilt, know that I'm right there with you as a human being who has made uneducated choices myself. We are born knowing almost nothing and unfortunately, the fairest and most concise answers hardly ever lie on the surface.

Daviess County Animal Shelter
There is a particular line (or any of its variations) that makes me cringe every time I hear it: "I've been breeding [type of dog] for 287 years, I know what I'm doing!" For some reason there are people in the world who think that it takes a lot of knowledge to put two dogs together and convince them to procreate. While the mechanics can get complex, I'm sure that just keeping unaltered dogs together eventually accomplishes this goal. At any rate, the person who supervises this effort is dubbed a breeder. Depending on your standards, they may or may not be a good one. When making up your mind as to whether or not a potential breeder is worth supporting, consider these things:

  •  Does the breeder sell to pet stores? Would you buy a puppy from a pet store yourself knowing that in such an environment they don't receive the socialization, interaction, and care that is vital to them growing into a well adjusted adult dog? Pet store puppies spend most of their time in a small kennel so close to their own mess that they lose the instinct that would normally keep them from wanting to defecate or urinate near their sleeping place. Pet store puppies can hang around like this for months, well past the window of time when it is easiest (not to mention, critical) to socialize them with many other dogs/people and prevent serious problems such as extreme fear and aggression. Why would a breeder want to subject his/her pups to this?
  • How old are the puppies before the breeder will let them go to new homes? This is a HUGE red flag. When working in a large chain pet store there were far too many instances when I saw people come in with tiny puppies who were way too young to be away from their mothers. I'm talking about puppies who were 4-5 weeks old and very obviously ill. Puppies should be with their mothers and siblings for at least seven weeks; many recommend eight.  Again, this is vital to their development and makes a huge difference in how they grow up. During this time they learn valuable life lessons such as bite inhibition.
  • Does the breeder seem a little too focused on how big/small the dog might get? The significance of this question really varies on the breed that you're looking for, but generally someone who wants either the biggest dog or the smallest dog in the world is not really looking out for the best interests of the dog/breed itself. For example, "teacup" is not a real or recognized size as far as breed standards go. If someone is trying to sell you a teacup variety of any pet, go the other direction fast. Health issues run rampant in dogs from one extreme or the other. Yes, some breeds are meant to be small (or large) but please become accustomed with the actual standard for your breed of choice. There are limits to each end of the spectrum.
  • Registration isn't everything! Owning a registered dog can be an attractive idea, but it is important to know that just because your dog is registered does not mean that it is ready for the show ring. "Backyard breeders" are notorious for producing dogs of poor quality as they do not know how (or have any desire) to breed dogs that will maintain or improve the breed as a whole. Even if you have no interest in showing your dog (most of us just want a loyal pet) it is important to note that this type of careless breeding often leads to terrible and costly health issues for your pet. A responsible breeder will do whatever it takes to keep his/her breeding lines healthy and free of disease. In addition to this, please know that it isn't as simple as "CKC is bad" or "AKC is good." Unfortunately, it is extremely common for backyard breeders to register their dogs with either organization.
  • Breeding for profit: A responsible breeder often spends more money than they make or is lucky just to break even. If there is any indication that your potential breeder is in it for the money, you should probably look elsewhere.
  • Health Testing? I've mentioned health issues in pure-bred puppies already so I want to point out that there are ways that a responsible breeder avoids these. Their breeding stock should be health tested (not just a checkup with the vet but rigorous and specific health testing; especially when it comes to problems common with a breed such as hip issues in German Shepherds). The breeder should be very up front about this and most reputable breeders will proudly provide proof. 
  • Environment: This should be a no-brainer but often by the time you get to the breeder's home and see the puppies it's very difficult to walk away. However, if conditions are not sanitary and/or you see unhealthy animals on the premises do you really want to go through with supporting such an operation? A good breeder will often allow you to visit his/her home well before the puppies are ready to go to their new home so this is a great time to walk away with a level head if need be.
  • What about designer breeds? I've had about zero luck convincing most people that doodles and 'chons (designer dogs) are not real breeds so let me just put it this way: They have been around forever. A designer puppy is created when two (usually small and fluffy) dogs are allowed to have puppies together. The results are either mind-numbingly cute (because all puppies are cute) or so ugly that they're still incredibly cute. You have two options: 1) Go pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for one and support someone who probably really believes that they've created a brand new breed in a matter of months or 2) Go to a local shelter or rescue and adopt one for less than what it would cost you to have a new puppy fully vetted yourself. I'm a big fan of mutts but not so much a fan of people who purposely create them for profit.
  • Puppy Mills: Puppy mills usually supply pet stores with a steady of stream of pure-bred (or designer type) dogs. Their dogs are bred as often as possible with little to no consideration given to health, cleanliness, or overall quality of life. If you stay mindful of the cautions  listed above (specifically, no pet store puppy purchases) you'll have successfully avoided buying a puppy from a mill. 
Shelter Dogs come in all shapes, ages, sizes, and breeds. Purebred dogs end up in shelters all across the country for reasons as simple as "it got too big" or "I had to move." Unless you are looking for a show dog or one with lineage specific to some other particular task, you can find what you want in a shelter or rescue. If you find yourself trying to decide between an irresponsible breeder and a shelter/rescue, please keep in mind that most of the dogs in that shelter started off with a breeder like this. Many of those animals never make it out alive.

Owensboro Humane Society
I may have been a little less mellow about this subject than I intended to be but that is prone to happen when I speak about a mistake that I have personal experience with. When I was a teenager, my parents bought me a little Shih Tzu puppy from a backyard breeder and most of the red flags were there. She came home too early (and grew up to be neurotically clingy). She was a terrible, albeit adorable, specimen of her breed (one of the jokes I made to friends was that her eyes had three settings: out, super out, and "almost in"). Of course, she was also the light of my life and my best friend for well over a decade. No one acquires a dog like that with ill intentions, it happens before we learn better. That's the case with most mistakes in pet care; we are fed so many terrible "answers." Most of us receive our information in bits and pieces and usually only half of it contains even a fraction of truth. In order to change this, weed out the myths, and begin to make a difference, we must share what we've learned from actual experiences and from digging deep.

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