Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dog Breeding Losing Popular Support

Where do dogs come from?

You think you know, but like so many other things in agriculture, the reality doesn’t live up to the story you usually hear. Dogs are, for the most part, born into unbelievable poverty and squalor, are killed by the millions at an early age if they have the wrong stripes or get minor illnesses, and if they live long enough to get into the stores, they are at risk of catching illnesses and dying there.

Dog breeding, it turns out, is a cut-throat business, literally, where killing second-rate puppies is an everyday task, but where even that degree of ruthlessness doesn’t guarantee a profit.

One of the saving graces of the recession is that puppy sales have plummeted, and with a smaller market to sell into, breeders are breeding and killing far fewer puppies.

But it is not just that people are buying fewer dogs. The popular support for dog breeding is starting to fade. Evidence of this is a ballot measure, expected to pass in Missouri next week, that would limit dog breeders to 50 breeding (adult) dogs. This comes close to shutting down the state’s breeding industry, as a typical dog breeding operation may have more than a thousand dogs and still barely get by financially. With a limit of 50 dogs, dog breeding effectively becomes a part-time job.

Meanwhile, the city council in Richmond, British Columbia, is considering a measure to ban the sale of puppies in pet stores. The bylaw is expected to pass unanimously when it comes up for a final vote. The city of 175,000 is struggling with the cost of about 500 dogs a year abandoned by city residents, and thinks the puppy ban will reduce its stray-dog costs. At the same time, council members believe instituting the ban means it’s doing its part to address the dog breeding problem. At a recent meeting, one pet store owner showed up to speak against the proposal. But another pet store in town has already stopped selling puppies, as demand for them evaporated in the economic slowdown.

Opponents of measures such as these like to talk about the difference between “legitimate breeders” and “puppy mills,” but people in the dog business have assured me there really is no such distinction. Every breeder will tell you that they are legitimate and it’s the other breeders who are operating puppy mills. Some breeding operations may be cleaner than others, but no for-profit breeder could possibly provide a pet-quality lifestyle for its dogs, and national breeding organizations virtually require breeders, “legitimate” or not, to kill non-conforming puppies.

Ultimately, pet stores don’t actually need the dog breeders. That’s because more than enough puppies are born into dog-owning households to provide a dog for everyone who wants to have one. These household puppies get better care and tend to be healthier and better adjusted than the puppies from breeders. A small number of pet shops have stopped buying dogs from breeders and instead are offering dogs that come from animal shelters in the local community. This is the story, for example, of Pet Rush, a Los Angeles-area pet store that made the switch in June. The store owner says that obtaining dogs from local shelters has made things simpler not just for himself, but also for his customers.

It costs animal shelters a fortune to take care of stray and unwanted dogs. The new OK Go video, “White Knuckles,” which is serving as a fundraiser for ASPCA animal shelters, could also work as an advertisement for rescue dogs. The dogs are actually the more lively performers in the video, and as the band notes, “Most of the dogs in the White Knuckles video are rescues.”