Redefining the Puppy Mill

Thanks for the comment asking for a discussion on puppy mills–this is maybe a little different than you’d imagined, but I think it’s a very important thing to address.

First, give me a minute to talk about why, in my opinion, this kind of thing even exists. It’s a story that’s riddled with irony, from a show breeder’s point of view.

For most of recorded history, people owned dogs because they needed them. They owned and used whatever dogs did the job the humans could not do themselves. If you didn’t need a dog, you didn’t own one–resources were too scarce to waste on a dog for pleasure.

With the rise of an upper class, and we see this first in Asia, where the very first dogs-only-for-pleasure (Pekingese, Tibetan Spaniel, etc.) are developed, the ownership of purebred dogs (and this means, at that time, very well-bred dogs) becomes something to be desired. So a very small group of people owns true purebreds, a whole bunch own dogs that are a very good and developed “type” but are often bred to other unrelated dogs in order to refine the desired behavior–e.g., if it herds sheep it’s a herder, so even though it doesn’t look like my herding dog I’m going to breed to it–and most people do not own a dog at all.

This continues for probably a thousand years. When the AKC and the KC are founded in the latter half of the nineteenth century, that’s still how it was. Purebreds were the pleasurable hobby of the wealthy, working dogs (meaning guards, herders, hunters, hounds, terriers) were closer to established in purebred lines but were still rather fluid and still entirely governed by their ability to do their jobs correctly, and if you owned a dog purely as a pet you were either buying from one of those two groups or you owned a random-bred dog.

Flash forward to the modern age. Now there is a HUGE middle class that has a lot of disposable income and would like to own a dog purely for the pleasure of its companionship. So most of the dogs in the nation are purely pets. There’s also been the realization that this huge class of jobless dogs are very succeptible to losing their homes, so there’s been a rise in shelters and rescues and a lot of pressure to spay or neuter dogs. This, plus the fact that show dogs are now owned substantially by the middle class and not by the out-of-sight rich, has led to the GOOD idea that you should think about what kind of dog to buy, and should be buying a purebred.

Tragically, we have NOT managed to also give the general public the idea that you have to buy a purebred only from a reputable breeder, and we have done a crappy job defining what a desirable breeder is.

So now we have a VAST market (each year, millions and millions of homes look for a dog) that demands purebred dogs, with very little criteria beyond the purebred label. It is only natural that a vast production machine has risen to meet that need.

That production machine is the puppy mill.

Very kind, well-meaning attempts to help homeless and suffering dogs have done an excellent job on focusing national attention on the existence of puppy mills in the United States. However, and I think unfortunately, the result of this spotlight have been to create in the mind of the public a thing called a “puppy mill” that represents really horrible conditions and welfare, with dogs kept in chicken coops and living in their own filth.

This mental picture, which is fostered by the (again, very well meaning) televised seizures of dogs on the Animal Cop-type shows, has led to a few really tragic consequences.

1) Horrific puppy mills do exist, but they are VERY RARE. There are almost 5,000 USDA-registered commercial breeders (those who produce puppies for money) in the US, and probably an equal number that are not USDA-registered. But we hear of only a handful of large-scale seizures of abused dogs each year.

2) People are now educated enough to realize that they should not buy from a puppy mill. But since puppy mill = filth and abuse, when they walk into a clean commercial facility or the offices of a broker or buncher (more below on those two jobs), they do not identify that as a puppy mill. In fact, they may even congratulate themselves on having made a very good choice.

3) USDA-registered and -inspected breeders are allowed to exempt themselves from the puppy mill definition. They can even join the “fight”! They contrast the horrors of the chicken-coop dead-dogs-in-every-corner puppy mill to their own clean, hygenic, and humane facility, and even more people buy dogs from them.

That’s why we MUST redefine what a puppy mill is, and we MUST educate better about why you should not buy from a puppy mill.

A puppy mill is any facility where dogs are bred mainly for the purposes of profit.

Puppy mills are NOT:

– Large. A puppy mill can be somebody with two breeding bitches and a stud dog, all the way up to the facilities that exist in Arkansas and Pennsylvania where over a thousand dogs are kept in (high-tech, clean, humane) surroundings.

– Dirty. Small ones look like everyone else’s suburban home. Large ones can be pristine. One giant one that I know about in Arkansas is made from a converted pig-breeding facility; the dogs are housed in what were the pig enclosures. The whole thing is on cement, with zero waste visible; there is a very large staff that is dedicated entirely to instantly removing poop or hosing off pee. There are no flies or smell; the dogs are fed and watered, the record-keeping is precise, and they’ve passed every inspection given them both by the USDA and the AKC (somewhat to the chagrin of the AKC inspector who told this story; he didn’t like it, but every possible piece of evidence of care and proper breeding the AKC asked for was immediately given).

– Secretive. They’re not hidden in some back field; they’re not icky farm-like facilities. I have seen the facilities of several puppy mills around here and they are typically quite lovely, well-advertised, almost tourist attractions. One is in a lovely gambrel-roof barn with “puppy showrooms” that demonstrate a budget I certainly don’t have. Another is set up almost like a little park, with a pretty building that works as the reception area and a series of big pens for the dogs to run in. Again, blows my little “kennel” and my fenced yard away.

So if they’re not dirty, not large, don’t abuse the dogs, why shouldn’t we buy from one of these clean and pretty puppy mills?

The reason comes down to exactly what separates them from reputable breeders: the money.

We know, in this country, how to produce goods and services at maximum profit. We do it very, very well. Breeding dogs for profit follows the EXACT same process. Here’s how you do it:

1) Figure out your market and meet it. In dogs, this means small dogs, fluffy dogs, short-nosed breeds, shock-value dogs (biggest, hairiest, weirdest markings, ugliest, newest or most in fashion), and they tend to be household-name dogs. So you don’t breed Saluki (too large, but also not large enough, not enough hair, kinda odd looking). You DO breed a heck of a lot of Shih Tzu, Poodles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, English Bulldogs, Pugs, etc. People want those, and so you breed to the market. You do NOT tell people that they shouldn’t own a particular breed or own a dog at all–heavens no. Does the fridge salesmen tell you that this one doesn’t fit in your kitchen, or that the other (cheaper) model does a better job chilling lettuce? Your job is to provide what the market demands.

2) Minimize raw materials costs. You should use the cheapest dog that will fulfill your needs. Many don’t use AKC-registered dogs for this reason (though of course AKC registration is no guarantee of quality, never has been never will be). So if a no-brand long-haired grey dog can be an APRA-registered Lhasa in the time it takes to fill out the paperwork (which is true), then it’s foolish to spend more money on an AKC-registered one. And if your puppy buyers are fine with any purebred, and will pay an identical amount for a cheaply produced one as they’d pay for an expensively produced one, then it is pure stupidity (from the point of view of profit) to start off with a group of $1500 dogs instead of a group of $300 dogs.

3) Minimize overhead. Some expenses are necessary to bring in customers. A nice facility, pretty plexiglass “showrooms,” well-designed website, “vet checks,” and dog shampoo more than pay for themselves. What DOESN’T pay (doesn’t increase market or raise price) is health testing, showing, rejecting dogs that are unsound or unhealthy, or carefully selecting the right match for each dog. None of those make any difference in purchase price and they cost a heck of a lot of money, so much money that if you do them you end up spending money instead of making it.

4) Get product out the door. You have to hold puppies until 8 weeks in most states, and every day after that costs you money. If you can get every puppy out the door in your own facility, great. If not, find a broker ASAP and sell him the entire litter; he’ll either bring it to his own facility or sell the puppies one more step up the line to the giant broker/transporters like Hunte Corporation. Hunte supplies most of the pet stores. However you do it, you’ve got a very small window. People want to buy a small, cute purebred puppy. So you discount at 12 weeks and you discount further at 16 weeks and you drop the puppies off at some small pet store yourself if they aren’t gone pretty soon thereafter. And, because that’s a sign that you don’t know your market, you go back to step 1 to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

So that’s why you don’t buy from these breeders. Each of these steps takes you further away from what you wanted and thought you were getting, namely a dog who would look and act and live like a purebred whatever is supposed to look and act and live, and it takes you further from the kind of person whose efforts you want to support. You are, in effect, buying a counterfeit purebred. It has the right label and paperwork and markings, but there’s very little chance that it will perform in any way close to the way a well-bred purebred will. And, ironically, you’ve paid the exact same price for it.

Buzzwords to look out for if you think you may be looking at a puppy mill:

– “professional breeder” (good breeders call themselves hobby breeders or show breeders, not professionals)

– “registered breeder” or “inspected breeder” (these usually mean USDA, which means commercial breeder)

– puppies to order; lots of breeds available

– any evidence that the “breeder” location is actually getting puppies from other breeders or facilities

– discounts as the puppies age, or any kind of salesmanship (“I have someone else looking at her, so if you want her I need a check today”)

Now, a special word on designer dogs. Designer dogs are a post-modern purebred. The idea is that we’re so cool and individualistic that even our dogs have to be something that’s never been made before. And mutts aren’t unique. But if we breed something that nobody else has ever seen, and we give it a breed name (remember from above, we know we’re supposed to own purebreds), that’s somehow even better than an actual purebred.

And WOW do puppy mills love this. It allows them to use the absolute cheapest raw materials (there’s pretty much nothing cheaper than a purebred-no-papers beagle or Lab, and a similar pug or poodle is almost as cheap) and then charge fifteen times as much for the offspring. Even those who go so far as to use AKC-registered parents (those are the ones that call themselves elite designer dog breeders) will at least triple the investment when they sell the offspring. It’s like a money machine.

So if you’ve made it to the end of this substantial missive, please take home this one huge message: GOOD BREEDERS DO NOT DO IT FOR MONEY. THEY DO NOT MAKE MONEY. THEY LOSE MONEY. IF SOMEONE ISN’T LOSING MONEY, THEY’RE CUTTING CORNERS. Enough caps lock for you? You should always have the courage to ask any breeder you’re considering if they make any money on this. You should hear incredulous laughter and a tale of exactly how many tens of thousands they’ve lost. If they say yeah, sure, we try to keep our accountant happy, RUN.

5 thoughts on “Redefining the Puppy Mill

  1. Wow. I wonder if you realize that what you are *promoting* here is COUNTERPRODUCTIVE to the efforts we have ALL been forced to engage in to keep the ARISTAs at bay?
    “A puppy mill is any facility where dogs are bred mainly for the purposes of profit.”
    I’m sorry, but that is YOUR OPINION. That is *not* a fact. IMO ‘puppy mill” is a nasty name that *has* no adequate definition, and one that is far too often used as a pejorative towards anyone in competition with us. As in, for many, the definition of ‘puppy mill’ is “anyone who has more puppies than me.” (Insert rolling eyes here.)

    You are welcome to tell me I am wrong, but again this will be your OPINION not fact. Arrogant and egotistical as I am, I am not about to say that my opinion on these matters rises to the level of Truth Incarnate.

    I rather imagine I’ve bred at least as many Champions and titled dogs as you have, over the last thirty years, so don’t approach scolding me from the position of knowing more because I am not a ‘breeder.’ Nor will you have the luxury of accosting me as a ‘puppy mill’ myself by your standards, at least not as set forth in here, because I don’t have enough puppies, nor do I make anything off of them by the time you subtract my expenses. In fact, I lose money, which would seem to put me in your ‘good guys’ category. HOWEVER, I categorically disagree with you about what constitutes a puppy mill, AND I think this article is not only NOT helpful to our best interests as animal owners and breeders, but will simply serve to muddy to waters further for the poor confused majority of the pet owning public, while continuing to give the ARISTAs a handy pejorative which, I will remind you, they happily hang on us ALL.

    Please explain for me, if you would be so kind, just *why* it is that in order to be a Reputable Person, a dog BREEDER must do so as a pauper??! It seems to be OK for a TRAINER to use his skills to make money, no shame attached to that. It seems to be OK for a GROOMER to make money off of dogs, perfectly acceptable. It seems to be just fine for a VETERINARIAN to make his living off of dogs, that’s fine and dandy. It seems to be OK for a PROFESSIONAL HANDLER to take my produce and turn a HEFTY profit, in fact he is lauded as a judicious businessman. But if we, the breeders who make all this possible, who hold the futures of our breeds in our hands; if we *dare* to turn a profit from our sleepless nights and our endless pedigree research, if we dare to get a return on our investment in health certifications and the best vetting money can buy, if we dare to make a dime after all our personal sacrifices in the pursuit of our dream, why! WE are the scum of the earth; we are a “puppy mill.”
    Insert rolling eyes AGAIN.

    That is so very, very wrong that I can’t even address how wrong it is. I think you maybe need to think this out again. While you are doing so, ponder why it is that breeders must never expect to turn their life’s ambition into a living. To my mind, I would think that was the best of both worlds. Can you explain what it is, exactly, that is inherently evil in producing healthy, happy, well-socialized puppies for discerning and carefully scrutinized homes… and actually being good enough at it that your following makes it possible to turn this into a profitable side enterprise? Please explain why this is a ‘bad thing.’ Seriously.
    Respectfully, believe it or not, submitted,
    Lenna S. Hanna-O’Neill

  2. Pingback: Yay! Comment time is here again. (Part 1: puppy mills) « Ruffly Speaking: Railing against idiocy since 2004

  3. I just found this blog, and love it.
    It seems to me like everything you say is fairly true except the bottom line.
    If someone makes money, they may not be puppy mills. If someone is breeding only for the money, then we have a problem.
    It seems to me like there is one litmus test I use to see if I am looking at a “good” or “bad” breeder. That test is: “good” breeders rescue. As a part of that, “good” breeders make sure none of their pups ever, EVER end up as one of the dogs in a shelter, and ALWAYS, no matter the age or situation, take their puppies back if needed.
    I agree with titling their dogs and I would prefer to see both conformation and working titles, but rescue seems to be the major exclusionary principle for me.

  4. Pingback: Ruffly Speaking = Blacksheep Cardigans » Yay! Comment time is here again. (Part 1: puppy mills)

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