Adopting a brachycephalic dog: Adopting a dog part I’ve lost track: Special Concerns

These last two posts will hopefully finish up the “Adopting a Dog” series; the rest of the posts are here.

Some of the dogs that I think are great candidates for low-risk adoption (in other words, the breed tends to be easy to get along with and friendly with people and cats and other dogs and doesn’t need a ton of exercise) are either brachycephalic (short-nosed) or achondroplastic (short-legged).

The short-legged dogs get extra adoptability points from me because they tend to give you more bang for your buck, exercise wise. Most were bred specifically because they could do the same job as their taller compatriots but at half or a quarter of the speed; think about Bassets and Bloodhounds, Cardigans and Shepherds or Collies, Sussex Spaniels versus Springers. They have every bit as much ability and talent as the taller dogs, but a lot of generations of breeding went into making them a slower, less driven version. So they tend to be able to be mentally and physically satisfied with less exercise.

The short-faced dogs make up a large proportion of the bred-since-forever-to-be-loving-companions breeds, like Pugs and Tibetan Spaniels and Pekes and Shih Tzu and Boston Terriers et al.  They’ve been bred in great abundance by bad breeders and puppy mills, so they tend to show up in rescue reasonably often. Again, these are breeds that are designed to be undemanding (except in upkeep and grooming) and loving, so they can be great dogs to rescue.

However, since both qualities (short legs, short faces) are a) mutations and b) very visually striking, when a dog is poorly bred these aspects of their bodies can go very wrong. Bad breeders know that buyers want cute, short legs. So they’ll breed anything with cute, short legs, regardless of the potential for great harm. They know that people want short faces and big eyes, so if it has a supershort face and big eyes, it’s a prize, even if the dog is horribly impaired.

So unless you want to take on far more than just the normal (huge) responsibility associated with a dog, you’ll do yourself a big favor if you start with a structurally sound dog.

Let’s start with faces.

(I’m going to be filling these in with pictures over the next day or so, because it’s difficult to find pictures that I’m not infringing on copyrights to use. And if I can’t find pics that are royalty-free, I’ll give you links instead.)

Poorly bred brachycephalic dogs have issues with eyes, skin, nose, palate, and teeth. You can quickly assess these and know whether you’re dealing with minor or major problems.

EYES: The eyes should have CORNERS, and the body of the eye should not be bulging out of the socket. You should not see a white when the dog is relaxed. I’ve seen this the very worst in rescue Pekes and Pugs, probably because people think the goggly eyes are cute when the dogs are puppies. Many of these dogs have nothing holding the eyes in except skin; the eye is not at all seated in its socket and it actually looks like the dog is looking out of the sides of its eyes. This shallow seating of the eye means that ANY stress of the skin or ANY blow to the eye area can cause the eye to proptose, or come out of its socket. A proptosed eye can be saved if you are VERY fast and don’t panic, but even if the eye is cosmetically saved it often loses function because the muscles and nerves are stretched and damaged when they eye comes out.




Next, if this is a long-haired dog (Shih Tzu, some Lhasas, Affenpinscher or Brussels Griffon, etc.), look carefully at the eyes and the coat surrounding them. Many dogs that come into rescue have been neglected in terms of grooming, and when hair is constantly rubbing the eyes it can make the dog blind. The eye should look clear, not even a tiny bit foggy, and there should be very little tear production. That red-brown stain below the eyes is OK, though anyone who tells you it’s “normal” for these breeds is actually incorrect (the color is from a type of yeast, so changing the diet and grooming carefully will almost totally fix it). Even a tiny bit of green discharge would be normal for a rescue. But if the dog’s eyes are structurally normal, you will not see streaming from the eyes; the hair will not be wet.


Blind from neglect:

So, again: Eyes that do not bulge; little or no white; coat around the eyes should be dry; eyes should be bright and not foggy.

SKIN: The big issue are the wrinkles. It’s entirely possible to keep a short-faced dog’s skin clean; this is another case where people will try to tell you that it’s normal for the wrinkles to be dirty. In a rescue, especially one that has not been groomed yet, DIRT is to be expected. Major inflammation, especially if the skin smells bad or the dog is scratching elsewhere on its body or has very red paws and chest (indicating lots of licking), is a sign of allergies. People rescue these dogs thinking that it’s just that the dog hasn’t been groomed and they end up with thousands of dollars in vet bills because the dog is systemically allergic. Now I feed a raw diet and I am at the vet every other week, so for ME allergies would not be a deal breaker. I am pretty sure I could fix them.  But it’s something you need to think about if you are not as dog-obsessed as I am.

(Allergies are not because the dog is short-faced – they’re because short-faced dogs are so often exploited by bad breeders, and bad breeders don’t care about the immune system and they’ll bred whatever has its bits and pieces. So allergies are a huge problem in all popular breeds. But whereas a Lab with discharge all over the place and red staining everywhere looks obviously ill, a Shih Tzu with the same condition just looks horribly neglected. Learning to tell the difference will help you, even if you decide to take the dog home, because you’ll be mentally and emotionally prepared for what may be a lifetime of special effort for this dog.)

Staining from constant licking: (this is AFTER a groom–the dog is normally very, very red in those areas)

Irritation/infection in face wrinkles:

Good clean wrinkles:

OK, NOSE: The bad thing that happens when these breeds are not carefully bred is something called Stenotic Nares. It can also show up in well-bred dogs, but good breeders know what it is and will make sure the dog gets it fixed before there’s long-term damage.

Stenotic nares basically means that the nostrils are too narrow. When you look straight-on at a dog’s nose, each nostril looks like a comma. In a healthy dog, the comma is wide and the dog breathes easily and silently through its nose. In a dog with stenotic nares, the comma is very thin and the passage for air is very tiny. When the dog is forced to breathe through its nose it whistles or snorts.

Stenotic nares requires a simple fix – a vet actually bores a larger hole through the nostril.It needs only a few sutures and some vets do it with none. The reason you want to avoid a stenotic dog, especially an older one, is because when a dog cannot breathe through its nose, it breathes through its mouth. But the dog’s body is not designed to breathe like that constantly. Dogs pant, but most of the time when they’re relaxed their mouths are closed. It’s extra effort to keep the mouth open, and the heaving can be complicated by (or may even cause) the last and perhaps most major issue.

A spectacularly severe stenosis below (most are not this bad):

Immediately after surgery (that’s why it’s all red and you can still see the suture to the left of the nostril – this will heal and look like a normal dog nose:

PALATE: The soft palate on some (SOME, not all) short-faced dogs extends too far into the back of the mouth and the beginning of the airway. Sometimes it’s normal when the dog is born but becomes inflamed; sometimes the dog is born with it. I strongly suspect, though I am a layperson and don’t have good data on this to show you, that the mouth-breathing that dogs with stenotic nares are forced to do contributes to their palate problems. However it happens, the result is the same.

The dog can breathe, but it’s breathing past a flap of tissue. Every breath requires more effort to move the flap and let air in.

Everybody “knows” that Pugs and Pekes sound like asthmatic old men, right? WRONG. That sound, the grating or hoarse intake of each breath, is the palate. Healthy short-faced dogs do make more noise when they breathe IF THEY’RE EXCITED, but the breaths should be easy. They should NOT make noise when they’re relaxed and they should NOT have heaving sides when they breathe.

Not only is a problematic palate uncomfortable for the dog, the vastly increased effort each breath requires tires out the heart. Dogs with palate issues tend to also have heart problems, especially if the condition has gone untreated for years.

Like stenotic nares, palates can be treated fairly easily. It’s not a risky or complicated surgery. But it IS expensive and if the dog is older the damage may already be done. This is another case where I’m not telling you not to adopt the dog – just do so with expectations of substantial intervention as soon as possible. It’s not something you can let go for months after you bring the dog home; imagine what it would be like to feel like there was a piece of Saran Wrap in your throat.

So nose and breathing recap: The dog should breathe easily and silently through its nose. If the dog is excited to see you and won’t stop panting, feed him a tiny treat. That usually makes them close their mouths for a few seconds and you can hear the breathing. When the dog is excited, a little noise is OK. When the dog is just sitting around, the breathing should be quiet even if the mouth is open.

OK, last but not least: TEETH. Bad breeders don’t care if their dogs have teeth coming up in the dogs’ ears as long as the dog has a functional reproductive system and makes cute puppies. For that reason, many of the poorly bred ones have SERIOUSLY bad teeth, both in bite (how the teeth meet in the mouth) and in health. I will do bite checks myself, but if you’re not experienced with dogs you should ask the foster home or animal control officer or shelter volunteer to show you this. You can make it very non-threatening if you ask them to show you how to brush the dog’s teeth once you get him home.

The teeth should be reasonably white in front, though they are often stained in back. Brown or tan staining is normal for a dog over three or four years old but is not normal for a puppy and would indicate something is going wrong. The teeth should be ivory/tan at worst; NOT grey. The gums surrounding the back teeth should not be red or puffy. When the dog eats a soft treat, he shouldn’t drop it or act like chewing hurts. The front teeth should be somewhere close to each other – an overbite or underbite of a quarter-inch never hurt anyone, but an overbite of a full inch makes the mouth very subfunctional. That, by the way, is what Ginny (our “designer dog” who probably cost someone a few thousand bucks) has; her lower jaw is so much smaller than her upper that it fits both behind and inside her upper jaw and her teeth do not meet anywhere except at the final molars. Similarly, a very exaggerated underbite (where the bottom teeth are in front of the top ones) makes it more difficult for the dog to eat and leads to malpositioning of the teeth and the potential for more decay.

Chloe obviously gets some traffic related to her overbite:

Pretty severe underbite:

Tomorrow: The achondroplastic dog.

How much does a puppy cost? Purchase price, adoption fees, discounts, expensive puppies, cheap puppies, and a bunch of other words.

This goes out to all the people who say “Fifteen hundred dollars for a DOG? You have GOT to be kidding me!” I want to warn you that this is not a warm-fuzzy approach. I am going to tell you how we as breeders try to come up with a dollar amount for a puppy and how rescues do the same.

I am definitely not making a statement about how much we do or don’t love or dogs, or how we would or wouldn’t see them as valuable members of our families. Ginny cost a grand total of $5 to adopt; I would put a second mortgage on the house to save her if she were sick. What I am going to write is not about love; it’s about how we try to balance many considerations as we price our puppies and rescues, and how to tell if you’re getting what you are paying for.

Before we start, I want to explore a little bit of the idea of what a dog is “worth.” It’s not something that’s easy to put a finger on. Much of what we buy, when we purchase or adopt a puppy, is companionship. Dogs don’t generally bring in any income (at least they shouldn’t), so there’s not a lot of production value. You could argue that because there are a lot of dogs out there that need homes, there’s very little scarcity and so the intrinsic value of the dog is very low. And all of that is true.

I would like to invite you to consider value on two levels: first, what has been directly spent ON the dog to the point at which you are buying or adopting it; and, second, the “intellectual property,” warranty, and customer support that you are buying as intangibles when you write your check.

Those aspects we can actually quantify, and they should give you a decent idea of when you’re getting your “money’s worth” in a puppy or adult dog and when you’re getting taken for a ride.

First, the money that goes into a litter.

These are figures that I put together to describe a “typical” Dane litter that I bred. Some of mine have been more expensive, a couple MUCH more expensive. I tried to make this an expression of an average experience.

Health testing dam (Penn Hip and OFA, thyroid, echocardiogram): $950ish
Health testing sire (repeating thyroid and echo): $650 (this was his second litter, so he didn’t need his hips done–if I had been doing him from scratch it would have been $950 like the bitch)
Progesterone testing, LH testing, brucellosis, etc. (pre-breeding): $475
Whelping supplies and box: $500 ish
C-section: $1100
Puppy vetting: $400 (Any buyer should INSIST that any puppy has been seen by the vet and cleared for heart murmurs, and has a first shot – it is actually illegal in most states for breeders to sell a puppy without this check, but many will try to get away without it because it’s so expensive.)

Those were the big chunks; I also showed the sire that year ($1500 total), fed both dogs ($750), routine vet costs, and of course the puppy feeding (easily $1000).

So for that year alone I had big-chunk expenses of $7500 for those two dogs (I also had other dogs taking up money and not giving me any puppies). I had six puppies in that litter and sold four for $1200, kept one (later gave her away to a great home for the cost of her spay) and sold one for $800.

Total intake, therefore, was minus $2500 for that litter. That’s pretty typical; I think I actually made money, about $1200, on one litter in six or seven years of breeding.

When breeders price puppies, we know roughly what to expect in terms of outgo. We know that there’s no way we can make that up in puppy sales unless we financially soak our puppy buyers. So most of us prepare to take a bath on the litter and just try to take into account the prevailing price across the US for our breed (for Danes, this is somewhere north of $1500 right now; for Cardigans it’s hovering near $1000 with a rather wide bell curve around that point). We also, believe it or not, look at what pet stores are selling puppies for. This is NOT because we want to align ourselves with pet stores – heavens no – but because we know the way the human brain works. If someone sees a Dane puppy for $1800 in a pet store but the breeders are asking $900, they will often conclude, ironically, that the pet store puppy is more valuable.

So that’s the first thing to pay attention to when you’re considering buying a puppy. What did the breeder invest in this litter that justifies asking a particular price?

Second, you look at what intangibles come with the puppy. To put it more colloquially, if you’re a manager or a professor or some kind of an expert in something, ask yourself what a complete newbie would have to pay you for permission to call you any time of the day or night and keep you on the phone for hours at a time – for the next twelve or fifteen years.

That’s what I, or any other good breeders, “sell” when we sell a puppy. We know that you probably don’t know too much about our breed. You’re going to have training questions, health questions, socialization questions. You’re going to want to know what to do when your dog barks too much, or throws up on the carpet, or doesn’t like Aunt Suzy. You’re going to need someone at the end of the phone at three in the morning when your dog bloats and needs emergency surgery, and you’re going to need that person to stay on the line until five a.m. when your dog comes out of the OR, and you’re going to need someone to talk to the vet for you if you’re crying too hard to do it. I’ve done all these things, and consider it an absolute requirement for good breeders to do.

We also “sell” a warranty, usually in the form of a written contract. The warranty usually offers a replacement puppy (and does NOT require you to return your original puppy–watch out for these, because it’s a big cheat) if your dog suffers a substantial reduction in quality of life because of a genetic disorder, and it applies for a reasonable length of time (usually two to five years). For example, if your dog develops hip dysplasia and is crippled by it, I owe you a puppy. On the other hand, if your fifteen-year-old dog has a back problem, I don’t. It’s pretty much like any warranty on a fridge or camera or wristwatch – if it’s my fault, I stand behind my “manufacture.”

You should accept nothing less than this if you are considering buying a puppy from a breeder. If the breeder you’re considering does not invest in her litters (showing, health testing, good vet care, excellent food, shots, etc.), if she does not offer constant support, if she does not stand behind her puppies, you should walk away from the purchase.

A puppy that comes with those investments and intangibles will range from $700 or $800 for the least expensive breeds to $3500 or more for the most expensive. The less-expensive breeds are lower in price because they’re easier to breed (fewer required health tests, fewer c-sections, etc.) or because the market is just lower for those breeds. The more expensive breeds generally reflect higher breeding costs and, for some breeders, a desire to weed out bargain-hunters (among the popular breeds, this is a real problem).

One VERY important thing to realize is that the reverse is also true. If someone is offering you a cheap puppy, one you know is far less expensive than the prevailing good-breeder price, you should take a step back and look at it very carefully.

One puppy is not just like the other. There’s no “brand” to rely on. One Havanese is not the same as every other Havanese. So a cheap one isn’t a good idea, because it usually means that the breeder cut corners somewhere, or is going to stop returning your phone calls as soon as your check is cashed. Be very, very cautious when you see a puppy that is appreciably cheaper than the others you’ve been considering.

How about rescue?

There’s a temptation to say “Well, the dog is homeless, it isn’t worth anything.” And people get seriously ticked when a rescue asks $350 for a homeless dog. I understand this impulse, but you need to look at the price you’re paying in just the same way as you do a well-bred dog.

The reason that rescues (these are the organizations that concentrate on one or two breeds, or that pull dogs from shelters to find homes for them) are so much more expensive than the typical shelter, which is in turn more expensive than the typical animal control or pound, is all about investment and support. It’s the same equation.

A pound or animal control has invested only electricity, mortgage, and food in the dogs it releases for adoption. It generally asks you to cover that cost plus (sad, but true) the cost of housing and euthanizing the dogs it does not adopt out. The dog comes with little or no health information, a vague guess on age, and you won’t be calling the animal control officer at three in the morning. So $5-$75 would be typical. But you should never count on this being a “cheap” dog: you’re on the hook for vet costs, spay/neuter, training, etc. The weekend that we adopted Wilson and Sparky from the pound, on Friday they cost $10 for the two of them. By Monday we’d spent $800, and that didn’t count Sparky’s neuter.

A shelter adds a spay or neuter and shots, and sometimes a behavioral evaluation. Any time you get a spayed or neutered dog you are coming out ahead money-wise; spays are CRAZY expensive. We just paid $275 for Ginny, and our last Dane spay was $600. Shots are generally about $60-75 at your vet’s office. So the shelter can be assumed to invest several hundred dollars per dog but (unless it’s a very rare type of shelter) you are not going to get a lot of behavioral support after adoption; adoption fees are typically $100-300.

Rescues are a HUGE step up in terms of investment and support. A rescue typically puts dogs in foster homes, often invests in behavioral consultation and training, intervenes to cure any health issue, gets the dog in top shape, spays or neuters, and then adopts the dog out. A single behavioral consult is $200 or so – I’ve paid them, so I know – training is another few hundred, spay/neuter, several hundred in vet costs per dog if it has any issue. And rescues are usually run by very knowledgeable individuals, often breeders or trainers themselves. A rescue offers behavioral assistance for the life of the dog and also guarantees the dog a home for life (if anything changes, they’ll take it back from you). The typical rescue fee – $350-$500 – is a bargain when you look at what you get for it.

So – and you know it’s going to come back to me – how much am I going to charge for Clue’s litter? Well, I’ve not made a final decision. My instinct is to provide a bundled price, something I’ve been contemplating for a few years now. What I would like to do is ask a certain amount, and have that include the two things that I think are the most important keys to your success with this puppy: training and sterilization. So (and this is just picking a number out of the air) a purchase price of $1200, and I rebate you $100 when you complete puppy kindergarten and another $100 when you provide proof of spay/neuter.

There are actually a bunch of things I’d like to include with the puppy purchase: A membership in the Yankee Cardigan Welsh Corgi Club, microchipping, a crate, a pad, etc. But now I have to do the fancy dance of mathematics, trying to keep my puppy price reasonable and not end up tens of thousands of dollars in the hole.

If I get any big inspirations, I’ll let you know!

The scandal of marketing purebred dogs

Did I get your attention? I hope so.

Because it’s true. It really is a scandal. We, meaning the community of reputable breeders, have a HUGE problem with our marketing plan.

As in, we don’t have one.

Here’s how it usually goes-does this sound familiar? Have you maybe said this yourself?

Good breeders never have to advertise-their puppies are sold before they’re born.

Good breeders are never found in the paper or online.

If you have to advertise, you’re doing something wrong.

I am sure people are bristling right now at the mere thought that I would imply that they needed a marketing plan. What are we, puppy mills?

I have one question for you: Did you sell your last litter or give it away?

Did you require a contract and a bill of sale?

Did you interview buyers and pick the best ones?

If so, you are a producer. You made, and sold, a product.

But-but-they’re not products! They’re our loves, our blood and sweat and tears!

YES. And that is EXACTLY why we need to market, and we need to get on the stick and do it NOW.

Because you know who is really, really good at marketing? The community of bad breeders, careless breeders, puppy mills, and the euphemistically titled “commercial breeders.” And you know who else is really, really good at marketing? PeTA, and the HSUS. They’re geniuses at it, in fact.

As is revealed in this fascinating and essential video given to beef producers, PeTA and the HSUS work hand-in-glove in an extraordinarily effective way. PeTA is the one that makes the outrageous statements. They’re the ones asking that fish be redefined as “sea kittens”; they’re the ones putting naked models on billboards. They are purposely outrageous, outré, over the top. Because coming right behind them is the HSUS. The HSUS seems so kind, so moderate, and isn’t it a humane society? Those are the people that run shelters, right? So if there’s one of the whole United States, that’s pretty good. When governments and town councils and businesses are thoroughly freaked out by a couple hundred PeTA protestors, in comes the HSUS to say “Just give us a little bit. It’s for the good of the animals. You can save so many by mandating spay/neuter at four months-your shelter populations will plummet. You can do a great thing by making sure that there are no animal hoarders in your city-nobody needs more than three dogs at once.”

And communities and companies and individuals say wow, these people are so reasonable, so well-intentioned, so organized and supported by studies. We love animals. We need to protect them. This seems like a really good law, or a really good regulation, or a really good city bylaw.

And where are we, the careful and responsible breeders? We’re driving our vans into school gymnasium parking lots where the city council meeting is scheduled, having been alerted by our newsgroups or the AKC that an important vote is taking place.

And we all come in, all of us middle-aged women with sensible hair and skirts that still have dog hair all over them, and we line up to speak.

And the city council says, “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“Bob here from the HSUS-he’s the one sitting over there in a suit, talking with the mayor-has been working with us for weeks, helping us craft this policy. I’m sure you breeders are concerned about losing your livelihood, but we love animals. We have to protect them.”

And THEN, only then, do we try to explain about a hundred very complex concepts involving who the HSUS is, what its agenda is, why dogs are not our livelihood, why we’re not the enemy.

So far, we’ve gotten away with this in a lot of towns and cities. But our days are numbered. You can bet they are. And if breeders show up at a city council meeting and there isn’t a very eloquent and organized argument, if there’s not someone who can systematically make and refute points, we look like idiots. Idiots who make money by breeding dogs.

So that’s one problem. We have no visibility and no identity in our communities.

The other one is all about selling puppies.

And this is where I know I’m ruffling feathers. So before you yell at me via the comments, hear me out. THEN yell at me.

We – meaning the small community of reputable breeders, because we are very small compared to the community of careless breeders or commercial breeders — have done an incredibly poor job at articulating why it is a legitimate choice to purchase a well-bred purebred, but it is NOT a legitimate choice to purchase a poorly bred purebred. We have done an even worse job articulating why it is that we’re not the enemies of homeless dogs everywhere. And we’re invisible.

When Joe and Sally Smith decide it’s time to get a dog, and they love their neighbor’s Lab so they decide to get one, they are making a purchasing decision. The intent has been resolved. Joe and Sally are savvy consumers, so they are looking to make a good decision about where to get their dog. They have heard about puppy mills and have a vague idea of wanting a high-quality puppy. Their neighbor said that he paid $500 for his dog, which sounds really high to Joe and Sally, but they want a healthy and nice dog. They turn first to the Internet. EVERYONE TURNS FIRST TO THE INTERNET. This is an absolutely VITAL thing to realize.

Joe and Sally google “Labrador retriever puppies.” Well, you know what that results page looks like. When they click on the nextdaypets or puppyfind or pets4you links, they find hundreds of results, with dogs ranging from $300 to $2000. Some are “champion sired,” some “champion lined,” some “champion quality,” some have a “champion pedigree.” From reading through the pages, Joe and Sally get the idea that the whiter the Lab is, the higher quality it is. And the blockier the head is, the better. And it seems like people mention health a lot, and hips. But FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS for a dog? That’s ridiculous!

Let’s look at it from a marketing perspective.

The couple has already decided to get a dog. They do not need convincing to purchase.

They are confronted with many PRODUCERS and many PRODUCTS. There is zero clear differentiation between products. There is a huge price range. There is no authority, no CNET reviews or Consumer Reports. No external expert means that the decision is typically made based on LOCATION, CONVENIENCE, and PRICE, as long as a basic level of product quality is promised.

During this search and deliberation process, Sally and Joe were never made aware of the differences between products. There was no clear statement of how you distinguish between good and bad producers. There was no explanation of why prices vary so much, or what you get for your purchase price. And they had NO idea that there was a Labrador Retriever breed club that met every third Tuesday three blocks away.

I just googled “Labrador Retriever Puppies Massachusetts.” Do you know where the link for the Labrador Retriever Club of Greater Boston, which is a great club that has a ton of good information, was? NOWHERE. I went out to page 23 of the search and it never showed up.

Try it for your own state, for your own breed. I did it for about ten breeds in Massachusetts, and the only one that brought up the breed club within the top one or two listings was “corgi puppies Massachusetts,” because whoever runs the Mayflower site is really, really good (seriously, it’s a great site and should be a model for breed club sites everywhere).

Sally and Joe spend an hour on the Internet and receive at least two dozen “touches,” which is adspeak for contacts (ads or review statements) about a particular product. NONE of them have been by reputable breeders. No, we’re in our houses sitting on hair-covered couches talking about how no good breeder should ever advertise.

The classic line of thought behind our abhorrence of advertising is that if you advertise, you must be selling to whoever responds. Only breeders who don’t care about who they sell their puppies to advertise.

Think about this. We want to be more choosy about who we sell to, so we don’t tell anybody we have stuff for sale.

How do you think Harvard got to the point that it can reject over NINETY PERCENT of applicants? By refusing to advertise? No, Harvard spends millions of dollars a year to make just two very clear statements: We are the most selective university in the world, and a degree from Harvard is a jackpot. They don’t see selectivity as a liability-they brag about it. And so the very best and the very brightest fight like the dickens to present themselves as good enough to get admitted.

Or how about Sub-Zero, or Ferrari, or any one of a hundred top companies. They don’t hide and think they’re diluting their brand by advertising. They advertise precisely so that they can attract a huge pool of potential buyers, the vast majority of whom can’t afford the product. But those people don’t say “That car is too expensive; the manufacturer must be cheating.” No, now they desperately want the car, or the fridge, or the ring, or the coffee.

We MUST do the same thing. We MUST make very clear, unequivocal statements. We MUST clearly articulate who we are as producers. We must be absolutely positive about what makes our product preferable to others. We must become top-of-mind when Joe and Sally decide they want a puppy, and we must be so attractive that they will change their lives (install fence, hire a dog walker, sign up for training, etc.) so they will be approved for a puppy.

If you think the AKC is going to help us, think again. Whoever the geniuses are over at AKC who are panicking about the fact that registrations are down has decided that the way to fix it is to do exactly what they SHOULDN’T do. They’re leaping to dilute the brand by courting commercial breeders and pet shops. Don’t believe me?

This is a direct quote from the October AKC Gazette: “Management has been directed by the Board to aggressively pursue all dogs eligible for AKC registration. We intend to reach out, communicate and educate those in the retail sector as to why an AKC puppy is the gold standard and why they should be registered with the American Kennel Club… The AKC used to dominate the marketplace. Even places like Macy’s and Gimbals sold AKC puppies. Owners who purchased their first purebred from a retail outlet… added to AKC registrations.”

This has the very real potential to pit reputable breeders against the AKC. We’ve already been saying that AKC registration means nothing more than the paper it’s printed on, and we should now be preparing to actively fight the perception that AKC means quality. We have to emphasize that AKC as a registering body is a filing cabinet, nothing more. It keeps track of our pedigrees and it keeps track of our show wins, and for that favor we give them a lot of money. We are happy with the AKC’s support of shows and health studies and welfare, but that doesn’t mean that a white piece of paper with a seal on it means squat about the quality of the dog. Again, it all comes down to defining the producer and defining the product.

So here are my rather controversial recommendations on how to change the current situation:

Breed clubs (and I mean local as well as national) need to hire a consultant for search engine optimization. It’s a relatively small expense.

Breed clubs need to have a front page oriented toward potential buyers, with market-acceptable statements (like “Labrador retrievers: the whole package”) and a forward-facing (consumer-facing) series of articles. This does NOT mean that you have to “sell” the breed. Quite the contrary. When the potential buyer clicks on the “whole package” link, he or she will be brought to a market piece that emphasizes how only the most qualified and prepared buyers should be thinking about this breed, what the huge misconceptions are about the Lab and its needs, and how to distinguish between a good and bad breeder.

Breed clubs and individual breeders need to make very clear PRODUCER and PRODUCT statements. We need to differentiate between good and bad breeders. We’ve been reluctant to do this in the past for a variety of reasons, but it’s a huge mistake. We have invited the public to perceive the entire community of dog breeders as a cohesive group, when nothing could be further from the truth.

I would say we need to become more aligned with the community of dog rescue than anything else. Most of us are extremely involved in rescue, far more than any other group of dog professionals. We need to forge alliances (as individual breeders–I think that the clubs are already doing a really good job at this) with local rescue professionals not only for the good of the dogs but so that, when the legislation is introduced, the rescue people see us as friends and not enemies.

We need to become very visible to the community. I ranted a bit about this in my article on breed-specific legislation, but it bears repeating. I rarely if ever see an obviously show-quality dog being walked in town or down the road. We are not the visible dog lovers in our towns and cities. Clubs can get involved too-a meet the breed booth at the local “town day” (around here they’re all “festivals”-Apple Festival, Blueberry Festival, Strawberry Festival, etc.) with massive distribution of pamphlets that are rescue-friendly and that do a good job at telling interested people why you never buy from a careless breeder.

As breed clubs, we need to address the issue of the puppy advertising websites. I don’t think it would be out of the question to have good breeders actually participate on the sites, as long as the care in placing the puppies is not compromised, but there should at least be an effort to provide an ad that’s a “front” for the breed club. Make it the MOST adorable and MOST perfect, renew it once a week, and direct people to that rescue-friendly information about how to find a good breeder and why the breed isn’t for everyone.

We need to recognize the power of the lowest-common-denominator sites-craigslist is the flagship. I would advise AGAINST advertising actual dogs on craigslist, but the breed club should have a constant presence. If the club posted two messages a day: “NEED TO FIND A NEW HOME FOR YOUR LHASA? WE’RE HERE TO HELP” and “LOOKING FOR A LHASA PUPPY? DON’T GET SCAMMED! CLICK HERE” a great deal of good information could be given out.

Here’s what I’ll be doing personally (so hold me to this, Internets!):

I’m writing to our state Extension office about leading a dog 4-H club. Goodness knows I am bossy enough. I was heavily involved in 4-H growing up, it’s a good program, and it teaches kids personal responsibility and self-efficacy. That makes it a really good fit with dogs.

I’m writing to my local shelters and rescues offering three things: 1) that I will foster/get into national rescue any rare breeds and definitely any corgis. I will almost certainly get no nibbles on that, because the Northeast has the opposite of a problem with homeless rare- or small-breed dogs, but it has to be done. 2) I’ll offer health-information or breed-specific help. Good breeders basically have PhDs in “Dog”-I’ve spent the last ten or fifteen years gathering information and doing research. If I can be of use, I’ll try. 3) I’ll offer free baths and grooming to dogs being surrendered. I have a boatload of expensive grooming equipment, and while I am not a great groomer I can at least get a dog clean and de-matted and do a 4f strip with the clippers.

I’m talking to my library about offering a reading-to-dogs program. This is the most long-term goal, because generally dogs should be certified therapy dogs before they get into this program. So the first step is to get the Cardigans’ championships finished so I can get them back into training, second is to enroll them and Ginny in a TDI class, third is to get them actually certified. The great thing about this is that I’ll also be able to take the dogs to hospitals and so on once I am not drowning under little kids here at the house.

I’m going to do a pretty big re-design of my website (not this blog, the Blacksheep website) to conform to some of the above ideas on giving information to potential buyers. I don’t get a lot of traffic there but I have to practice what I preach. I’ll let you all know when I’m done.

And-yes-I’m going to get out there on the roads with the Cardigans. I know why we don’t do this, believe me. Most good breeders have enormous fenced yards and at least somewhat enormous bottoms from sitting all day in front of the whelping box. But the community needs to know that I exist, that the Cardis exist, and that the real enemy is not good breeders.

I’m going to be in West Springfield this coming weekend, all four days. I renew my offer to walk any dog show newbies around and show you what a dog show means, and I welcome any discussion (or verbal beat-down) from other breeders. Come find me–I am the one with the gorgeous fit Cardigans and the beautiful children and the sensible hair and enormous bottom :).