Dogs Are Not Merchandise

Too small to travel alone

Cali at 9 weeks: Too small to travel alone

The USDA recently revised its definition of a “pet store” to target breeders, primarily puppy mills, that sell dogs online. In a nutshell, people who sell large numbers of pets must now sell them in a place (retail store, home, public space) where the buyers can see the animals before purchase. (Read the new rules and find out more here and here.) Previously, anyone who sold pets directly to pet owners could identify his or her business as a “retail pet store” and be exempt from licensing and inspection requirements that apply to commercial animal breeders but not to pet stores. This loophole was exploited by large-scale breeders, who called themselves retail pet stores because they sold pets directly to customers online. Thus puppy mills could escape any kind of oversight or regulation. (Large-scale breeders who sell only to pet stores are a whole different category and, unfortunately, are not affected by these regulations.) There is a list of exceptions, notably most shelters and rescue groups, working dog breeders, and people with fewer than five breeding animals. 

A Facebook group of service dog trainers that I participate in has been discussing these changes. Many participants in this Facebook discussion are furious about the new rules, claiming they are an attack on small breeders. I’ve read the regulations, though, and from my reading, it’s clear that the regulations don’t apply to anyone with fewer than five breeding females or to service dog breeders.

It seems to me that requiring people to meet the buyer / seller of a dog makes sense. I also think that having some oversight of people breeding large numbers of dogs is a good thing — though I do not for a moment believe that government regulation will solve all problems and make puppy mills disappear. I think that consumers have to make that happen simply by not buying from irresponsible breeders or pet stores. The worst fallout that I can see is that some medium-sized breeders might have to get licensed under these new rules, but if they treat their animals well and run a clean, safe operation, they should have nothing to worry about.

If you see something in these rules that I am missing, please post your comments here. The more people who care and who talk about issues of responsible dog breeding and sales, the better. But, right now, the new rules seem like a good start to me.

In the discussion, someone pointed out that the AKC opposes the rule change. I commented that that was not surprising; purebred puppy mill puppies are the AKC’s largest revenue source. One poster called this statement inflammatory and the farthest thing from the truth.

While I cannot pinpoint how many AKC-registered dogs and puppies come from puppy mills, certainly anyone who’s ever been active in dog rescue knows that there are an awful lot of them, compared with relatively small numbers of dogs from quality breeders. And puppy and dog registrations are by far the largest source of AKC revenue, earning the AKC more than $25 million in 2012.

I did not mean my statement to be inflammatory, either. I merely meant to point out that an organization with a huge financial stake in the sale of puppies naturally opposes any restriction of those sales. Therefore, the AKC might not be the best judge of whether the rules are desirable.

Critical thinking is needed when we think about how dogs are bred, bought and sold. While I don’t think that the AKC is evil, I certainly don’t think that it always places dogs’ best interests above its own financial interests. It is a business. A business that makes a lot of money from registering puppies.

The AKC has a long and sordid (and well-documented) history of willingness to register any purebred puppy, regardless of health. (Read some of Donald McCaig’s work if you’re interested in finding out more — for example, “The Dog Wars,” chronicling the opposition of many border collie breeders and breed enthusiasts to having the breed become an AKC breed.)

Some breed clubs, mostly in Europe, will register an animal for breeding only if the dog passes certain health clearances. The AKC does not take this logical step. The AKC is a large, influential organization. It could do a lot to improve the health and welfare of purebred dogs. In many instances, it chooses not to.

While many breeders are ethical people who truly love their dogs, for others, dog breeding is just a business. Hence puppy mills. And unscrupulous breeders who will breed from a champion dog that has known genetic issues — issues that could easily be eradicated simply by not breeding dogs who carry the genes. All of this, apparently, is fine with the AKC, which registers these puppies and collects its fees. This alone is enough to thoroughly discredit the AKC in my mind.

Despite what many dog owners believe, the mere fact that a dog is purebred does not mean that the dog is healthy or well-bred. It does not mean that the dog has a good temperament. It does not mean that the puppy did not start life in horrible, cruel circumstances. All it means is that the dog’s parents were registered (by the AKC, for a fee) as purebred. And their parents were, and so on.

While many things about purebred dog breeding make me somewhat uneasy, I do understand the allure of purebred dogs. I have done a lot of work with service dogs. Being able to (somewhat) predict a dog’s temperament and aptitudes based on the dog’s breed and pedigree is definitely helpful. I do understand the need for some breeding of purebred dogs and for a registry of those dogs.

But I don’t think that requiring breeders to follow minimal rules to ensure that their dogs are bred humanely, kept healthy and treated well is unreasonable. I don’t think that forbidding most sales of dogs via the Internet, between strangers, is unreasonable. And I don’t think that the AKC should get to write or influence the rules.

A dog is not merchandise, like books or a pair of shoes, that can reasonably be bought and sold online and shipped to buyers. Acquiring a dog is acquiring a family member. Ordering an unseen dog from strangers (who could be lying about any and every detail of their operation) is a terrible idea. Sending small puppies on long plane flights in crates, terrified and alone, is a terrible idea. (Pet stores are horrific places to buy or sell puppies too, and, unfortunately, this law does not tackle that issue.) But there are hundreds, maybe thousands of breeders who breed and sell puppies simply to make money. They do not think about the dogs as living, thinking, feeling beings. They do not care whether the buyer will treat the puppy well or whether the plane flight will traumatize the puppy. They think of the puppies — and treat them — as merchandise. Like a pair of shoes or a book. I find that reprehensible.

A responsible breeder would not sell a puppy to a total stranger. A responsible breeder would not pack a puppy into a crate and drive him to the airport and send the crate as cargo for a stranger to pick up at the other end. A responsible breeder makes sure that the adopters are the right people for that puppy and they will take proper care of the puppy — starting with picking up the puppy in person or sending a trustworthy emissary. A responsible breeder will take back any puppy that is not a good match for the adopting family. These breeders are not the target of this law. Even if they have more than four breeding dogs and now need a license, they should have nothing to fear, since a responsible breeder no doubt keeps her dogs in humane, clean conditions.

This new regulations are not ideal. They are not without problems. They certainly don’t solve the problem of puppy mills. But, to me, they seem like a good start. If we dog people want to make life better for dogs, we should save our anger for the many worthy targets. And use our passion and our energy to educate dog owners about where to — and not to — buy puppies.