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Work with Breeders? What, Are You Crazy?

Well, maybe not, says a former shelter employee who now works on federal legislation to make life better for dogs in commercial breeding facilities. Reputable breeders can help educate pet owners about responsible care, and, just as importantly, they can be a great ally in the fight against puppy mills, pet stores, and backyard breeders.

Well, maybe not, says a former shelter employee who now works on federal legislation to make life better for dogs in commercial breeding facilities. Reputable breeders can help educate pet owners about responsible care, and, just as importantly, they can be a great ally in the fight against puppy mills, pet stores, and backyard breeders.

© Charles Schober

As heartwarming as this image is to the general public, the sight of purebred puppies still makes Stephanie Shain's blood pressure rise. But she now recognizes that the people who breed dogs like these aren't necessarily the enemy; responsible breeders can be critical allies in the fight against puppy mills and other inhumane operations.

I admit it, I have a breed bias. That is, I am biased against all breeds. It’s not something I’m proud of, and I’m trying to be less judgmental, but it’s a struggle. My heart lies firmly with the mixed-breed dog (the only exception being the Lhasa apso, and that’s thanks to a friend’s cranky old-lady Lhasa who had such a sassy attitude even I couldn’t resist adoring her). It’s not because of the dogs themselves; it’s just the knowledge that they were purposefully brought into this world. I see a purebred dog coming towards me and I feel my blood pressure rise. And a purebred puppy? Forget it—it’s a small miracle if I can keep myself from launching into a “where’d you get that dog?” accusatory speech.

Occasionally when I do inquire as to the dog’s origins (with as much diplomacy as I can muster), the response from the person behind the pooch is refreshing—“Oh, I got him from the shelter/breed rescue”—and I am instantly ashamed and thrilled. I find myself gushing at these strangers about how wonderful they are for adopting, and then I allow myself to fall all over their furry pal with the usual mutterings of a crazy animal person. Perhaps I’m showing my age (and I’m not that old), but when I worked in a shelter we almost never had a purebred dog come through our doors. And if we did it was usually the pair of Samoyeds whose electric fence had once again proven no match for their desire for mud baths. Times have changed since then; these days, about one out of every four dogs in shelters nationwide is a purebred.

I know why I suffer from a predilection for the unpedigreed; it’s because of my years in that shelter watching wonderful mixed-breed dogs waiting for homes that too often didn’t come. My thoughts were something like: “Damn those people who buy dogs, damn those who get them from their neighbor or cousin or whomever, damn every single person who doesn’t come to a shelter for their next dog, cat, rabbit, or goldfish. They are all part of the problem.” Pity the poor family who proudly walked their golden retriever, their German shorthaired pointer, or their darling little corgi in the park. Dirty looks and comments about overpopulation were all they’d get from me. And breeders? Heaven help them if I found out what they were doing! (Thirteen years ago I was thrilled to find a bumper sticker for my car that read “Dog Breeders Are Pimps.”)

So why am I telling you all of this? Because I want you to understand my feelings on the subject and to know that I understand the shock some of you will feel when you read what I’m about to suggest: I think it’s time to start working with breeders.

Now that you’ve picked yourselves up off the floor ... let me try to explain. I don’t advocate breeding animals. With the millions who lose their lives or who languish on the streets or on backyard chains, how could I? But I’ve learned to be more realistic, and I’ve learned that not everyone thinks like I do. I’ve come to accept that for some people, no matter what I say or do, no matter how many pictures I show of great dogs in the shelter, they just aren’t going to adopt. Not that I’ll ever stop trying to persuade them to see things my way, of course, but perhaps I can try to meet them somewhere in the middle and try and find ways they can help me help animals.

Keeping Them Out of Pet Stores

Here’s a typical call we get at The HSUS: “I’m looking for a Norwegian elkhound (or Akita or cocker spaniel, etc.), and I know I’m not supposed to go to the pet store. Can you tell me where to buy one?”

As we all know, too often people want a certain breed of dog based on looks, or on one positive experience they had with the breed, or on—my personal favorite—a movie. And we know that most people want a dog mainly for friendship. So at The HSUS, we start by discussing with them the many benefits of mixed-breed dogs. Then we get them thinking about the type of dog they are looking for (e.g., a high-energy dog to go running with, or a more sedate dog to lounge on the couch with), and we give them the number and address of their local shelter. While we remind them to look for desired characteristics in individual mixed-breed dogs rather than just a specific breed, we’re always sure to mention that they’ll likely find purebreds at the shelter, too.

We’ve found that sometimes we can help callers realize they really don’t need a purebred dog. For those who still think they do—and who have not found their dream dog after checking in with local shelter staff—we recommend a purebred rescue/placement group. I’ve found these groups to be wonderful—even for people who have their heart set on a young puppy—because they seem to be able to “get away with” more than we often can in a shelter. People seem to see these groups as private breed experts and not as a public service that “owes” an animal to everyone who walks in the door, so the groups command respect—and generally do a terrific job of either helping people see that 1) they really don’t want this breed of dog or 2) they really don’t want a young puppy.

Do more people go to shelters now than ten years ago? Absolutely. Are there more purebred dogs in the U.S. now than ever before—and are their numbers rising? Yes. While we’ve persuaded more people to visit their shelter, we haven’t persuaded enough of them to stop getting purebred dogs. It’s naive to think that we, as people who care about and work to help animals, can simply continue to say “you don’t need that kind of dog”—and expect people to listen every single time.

So, if a family is interested only in getting an eight-week-old Norwegian elkhound come hell or high water—and has already tried to find a homeless one to adopt—I would like them to at least buy that puppy from someone who keeps their dogs as part of the family, who is well-versed in the physical challenges and psychological needs of the breed, and who may breed a dog once every other year. Turning my back at that point and providing no guidance whatsoever only pushes them toward a pet store, or to some website that looks great but may be masking a horrible puppy mill, or to the newspaper where they will easily find columns and columns of dogs available for purchase from backyard breeders who may only know that “the parents have papers” and who will happily sell them a dog no questions asked. (Plus, they think they’ve done the right thing—they didn’t go to a pet store, right?)

The Story of Mim the Breeder

There are people out there who are going to buy a purebred puppy no matter what we say. And we’d rather help those people identify a reputable breeder than leave them to their own devices to find the progeny of two pet store dogs kept by backyard breeders and accompanied by “registry” papers—or worse. To that end, The HSUS has put together criteria that will help people identify the characteristics of a “reputable breeder.” It wasn’t an easy decision, but we think it’s the right thing to do. After all, truly reputable and caring breeders can not only help educate pet owners about responsible pet care; they can and should be one of our greatest allies. Which brings me to Mim.

I’ll never forget her—her name was Miriam, but everyone called her Mim, and she was a bichon breeder. She was a client at the veterinary hospital I worked for. She was amazing. If I had wanted a dog from her she probably would not have sold me one. My life was busy: I was single, and I had a human kid, two jobs, and a houseful of animals already. Mim’s standards were high, and every puppy she sold went with the understanding that she had a right and an expectation to be involved in that dog’s life forever. She was one of a very few breeders I didn’t loathe—partially because she was a tough lady and would tell it like it was no matter who you were or how important you thought you were. But she wasn’t perfect in my eyes; she was, after all, a breeder. Even so, as I think of her now, I know that I’d send someone intent on getting a bichon puppy to her in a heartbeat. A referral to Mim would keep the person out of the pet stores, which are happy to fill the demand for dogs of the bichon persuasion. And I know that Mim would tell it to them straight—and probably send most of them on their way without a puppy but with the understanding that they’d be just as happy with the nice little two-year-old poodle mix from the shelter.

But breeders like Mim are needed for more than a referral you can feel good about. Good breeders will work with shelters to increase license fees for unaltered dogs, they’ll help staff and volunteers tell people at the local fair that breeding dogs is not a money-maker and that it’s more work than they could ever imagine, and they’ll donate to animal protection organizations because they believe in the work we do. But we can’t harness their energy if we don’t talk to them (or if we call them “pimps,” as I have since learned).

Making a Powerful Friend

I worked hard on federal legislation last year that would have closed down the worst of the puppy mills and that tried to make life just a bit better for the poor dogs who spend their lives in cages serving as puppy factories. That legislation was killed largely by small breeders who were lied to by some large breeding advocacy groups. Unaware of the real story—that we were trying only to make life better for dogs in commercial breeding facilities—they were frightened by the scare tactics and wrote me letters that were full of inaccuracies. And no matter what I said, no matter how many times I explained to them that they were not the ones being targeted by the legislation, and no matter how many copies of the actual language I sent them, they still didn’t believe me. I had no credibility with them; I was the enemy, even though I had talked to breeders when we crafted the legislation. I had talked to Mim and others who’d said “any half-decent breeder would support this,” “you should do more,” “it’s too weak,” “get rid of those puppy mills.” But Mim and the others knew and trusted me, and in hindsight I realized that was something I needed with more breeders. If I had worked on building those relationships years before, I would have been able to get the correct information out. But I didn’t, and I couldn’t, and the animals suffered for it.

We may differ on some things, but a good breeder loves her dogs, and we should use that love to work together. So if you haven’t already, reach out, meet some breeders in your community, call the local dog clubs. Tell them what you’re thinking, and see if they’re interested in talking. And then maybe, just maybe, the next time you can’t persuade someone to get her dog from you, you’ll at least keep her from supporting pet stores, puppy mills, and backyard breeders who don’t know a thing about dogs. And you’ll have made a powerful friend along the way.

Stephanie Shain is the director of outreach for The HSUS’s Companion Animals section.


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