Does anyone have a space on the couch and live in New England?

This is a dog I would be going down to pick up if we weren’t stuck in someone else’s house. I’d go get him even if we were stuck here but I could hide the dog. Heck, even if we were stuck here, I got caught, and I could change our landlord’s mind by weeping piteously, I’d go grab him. Unfortunately, none of those are true.

Please, somebody go get this guy. He’s a Boston Terrier/Chihuahua, by the looks of him, a designer dog that somebody probably paid a lot of money for and then never bothered to try to find. Out of state adoptions are FIVE BUCKS!

His last day is today.

Boston Mix in Hartford pound


Followup on A Football Field of Dogs

I wanted to address comments specifically in a post, because I know that not everyone reads comments. I am not including identities because I want to be VERY CLEAR that I am responding to issues, not people. If I use “you,” it’s the collective you and includes myself. I am making no statements about individuals or breeders with names.

I don’t know. Your posts along these lines always give me a lot to think about, and I certainly agree on some levels. For instance, the fact that every dog that is sound, mentally fit, & healthy has a place in a breeding program if so desired. And I think it takes a trained eye to be able to tell what faults will eventually cause unsoundness. But I am nonjudgmental when someone breeds a dog that isn’t “typey” or has some glaring faults, as long as the dog is sound. I could care less about a dog having the CH in front of their name. Some of the best Cardigans in history have come out of less than stellar parents, and I think that is a lesson worth studying.

Yes, I think it really is. I suspect, however, that those “best” Cardigans were not really anomalies when you look at the whole pedigree–at least in terms of soundness. You can have a bitch with a wonky topline and still breed her wisely if you know that the bad topline is not throughout her pedigree, or if you know that the stud dog you’re considering for her reliably corrects toplines. It ends up coming down to our two tests: Does it affect her life? Yes. Will it affect and hurt future generations? If you’re fairly sure the answer is no, it’s a good and ethical decision to breed her. 

To a certain extent I think this mindset follows down to “fault judging” versus finding the virtues of a dog. Many people fault judge and will decide that so-and-so shouldn’t be bred because of xx fault. I also think that what you should consider for the whelping box is vastly different than what you should consider for the show ring.

Yes, yes, and yes. If you have a dog who is likely to produce well (and by “well” I mean my oft-repeated phrasing about a happy, healthy, long, pain-free life), it is a solid contributor to the next generation even if it is not shown, or shown heavily. Breeders SHOULD show, and I think it can’t be a low priority. As political and unfair as it is, showing makes you put your money where your mouth is. It’s a peer review activity, where you “show” the products of your breeding program. But it’s not invalid to say that the products of your breeding program don’t have to be every single dog you’ve ever kept. Many good breeders keep back animals, especially bitches, that they feel will produce well but would not necessarily be the best choices to represent them in the ring. Now you have to be very careful–there’s a fine line between keeping a dog back because it is a solid producer and keeping an unsound or nasty dog out of the show ring but thinking up ways to justify breeding it. Keeping dogs out of the ring can’t be an invitation to kennel blindness. But as a strategy, yes, it’s valid.

And, of course, the issue with trying to do only the “valid” and relevant tests is that it’s not always clear which are which. I’ve heard many arguments that hips are not a relevant test in Cardis, but having lived with an OFA “mild” who DID show symptoms (while his OFA “moderate” dam did not), it’s hard for me to accept those arguments. Like above, I don’t get judgmental of those who choose to breed borderline hips when the dog seems very sound, as long as they do so thoughtfully. But I also can’t accept that idea that we should give up on trying to improve hips just because the tools are flawed. 

For me, the question on hips again comes down to whether it hurts the individual dog and whether it hurts the next generation. In some breeds that answer is completely obvious. In ours I really think it’s not. You saw it yourself in dogs that did not follow the “rule” of severity of dysplasia equalling pain level. And the answer to the second one, hurting the next generation, seems to be VERY poorly understood. I think we can say in Cardigans that an OFA-type view has moderate–not super, but moderate–value when it comes to analyzing the health of that dog as he or she stands there. It does not seem to have a lot of value when it comes to predicting how that dog will produce the next generation. The question is not whether the tools are imperfect–the question is whether they work AT ALL.

And I also feel that because of the AR activists, we need to be very careful about differentiating ourselves in as many ways as possible from mass-market breeders. That’s a tricky line to walk.

I want to address this one more fully below, because I think it is a VERY VERY BAD IDEA to be thinking along these lines. But since it’s repeated below, let me write about it once and not twice.

Comment 2:

“EVERY DOG WHO IS REMOVED FROM THE POPULATION HURTS THAT POPULATION.” – No, I won’t go there. And then you don’t go there either as you go on to talk about eliminating dogs with unsound structure or temperament from the gene pool. However, structurally sound dogs with cosmetic problems (such as mismarked or coat length) need not be eliminated in my opinion as well. And color? Well, most know how I feel on that issue.

Removing any animal from a population hurts that population. That’s how it works. It’s not my personal agenda; it’s ecological fact. No change is neutral, no removal without cost. The question is whether the removal benefits the population more than it hurts it. 

Nature performs this task with incredible efficiency and also with incredible conservation. She never unnecessarily removes an animal; she leaves the maximum number who can survive to reproduce. Barring a bottlenecking event like a flood or a volcanic eruption or something that kills a ton of animals in an unnatural way (i.e., in a way that doesn’t prove whether or not they would have survived in their environment), populations will stay at their maximum possible, breeding as widely as possible, maintaining the richest gene pool possible. The extent to which we screw with that process is the danger we put populations in. 

I am sure you know the term “no sacred cows.” We need to make sure we’re not falling into groupthink or conventional wisdom; we have to tell the truth even if nobody else is. For some reason, breeding has become something we view almost as a necessary evil, and it’s really better to not breed. That’s how the majority of “breeders” feel, or at least how they behave. I’ve heard people brag that they’ve been in a breed for 30 years and only bred four litters in that time, and they really do think that makes them a better breeder than someone who has been producing three or five litters a year over that span. 

That is, in the words of Trollope, a damnable lie. It is utterly contrary to the way you behave if you want to produce and maintain the healthiest possible population. We need to stop thinking that the best way to be good breeders is to not breed! We need to be breeding the largest possible number of dogs to the largest possible number of dogs or our gene pool will disappear. It should be “I neuter wisely,” even more than “I breed wisely.”

I strongly agree with [the above] statement about needing to be careful in today’s political AR climate. We need to be the guardians of our breeds and do our best to raise the bar, not lower it.

Now, see, here’s where I get the major heebies.


It is utterly vital to realize that the HSUS and the more generalized animal rights agenda has absolutely nothing to do with discovering who has the healthiest puppies. If you are laboring under the delusion that we have ANY kind of defense against their agendas because we do four health tests instead of one you are VERY VERY wrong.

And, if we’re honest, no matter how careful we are we can’t guarantee health. We can’t even guarantee that the puppy we’re selling is going to live a longer or better life, or have a better temperament, than the most raddled Malti-Poo from Petland.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you know that the dog we are all foolishly and totally in love with is Ginny, a genetic nightmare of a designer dog with a mouth that can’t even close properly. If I had a houseful of Ginnys I’d be in heaven. And the worst experience I’ve ever had with a dog I owned was a purebred with a pedigree as perfect as you could ever imagine.

That’s why I think it’s a really terrible idea to even pretend we can “promise” a product, or to say that our dogs are “better” than the worst reject from a puppy mill. Owners love their dogs, and what makes dogs “better” from their standpoint has nothing to do with the way we tend to define it. We can say they are sounder, we can try to educate them about conformation, we can talk about the ability to do a job. Ninety-nine percent of that will go in one ear and out the other. And then we’ll sell them a puppy, they’ll make a hundred dumb mistakes, they’ll create a fear-biting dog, and they will be convinced that we’ve ripped them off. Promising “better” is a dead end.

What we can do is WARRANTY health, stand behind our dogs; fix problems and replace puppies. But we should be doing that just because it’s the right thing to do, not because it will decrease litigation or liability. I’m afraid that ship has already sailed, and we’re going to be in court whether we like it or not and it will have nothing to do with whether we have healthy dogs.

The HSUS and its ilk make no differentiation between responsible and irresponsible breeding; their only goal is to end breeding altogether. The HSUS is asking for lemon reports to prove that unhealthy puppies come from breeders, that breeders produce unfit animals (and they do-I don’t care how many tests breeders do, if you have more than a couple of litters you will produce puppies that die young and even horrifically, sometimes due to genetics but usually due to the fact that they’re living things and some living things die young), that breeders create animals with bad temperaments or bad behavior, and that breeders treat their animals cruelly, and therefore you should never buy from a breeder.

If we breed with the HSUS’s threat as a motivator, or with some mythical definition of perfect health as the qualification for responsible breeding, we WILL fail. Don’t forget that we’re breeding dogs with a deformity, and even though we know that their quality of life is not hurt we’re automatically viewed as sickos who like deformed dogs. In other words, if we cater to that approach we will be neatly forced into not breeding at all.

Think about this carefully: If you were taken to court and asked to prove that the puppies you’re selling are “better” than a group of ten Aussie-doodles, could you do it? Because that’s what you’re saying you can do. You’re saying that because you health-test and somehow breed only “elite” dogs, raising the bar, you’ve differentiated yourself as “better.”

The prosecutor leans over and says, “So you’re saying that none of your dogs have ever shown any kind of reactivity or aggression toward other dogs? How about kids-is every single one of the dogs you have in your house completely trustworthy with children? Will they happily approach the elderly and disabled? Has any dog you’ve ever sold bitten any other animal or human? Has any dog you’ve ever bred been diagnosed with any genetic health problem? OK, well, plainly you’re in trouble there, so let’s go on to our expert witness. Dr. Wilson, can you show us a study that establishes that the defendant’s dogs are healthier than these mixed-breed dogs? OK, well, are the defendant’s dogs able to run normally? Oh, they have a deformity, yes. Why would anyone choose to breed dogs with a deformity? Well do they have any hip dysplasia? Oh, these deformed little dogs have hips that are twice as loose as the mixed breeds’ are? So… in other words, there is a documented history of bad temperaments, bad behaviors, bad health, and they’re congenitally deformed and damaged.”

You could NOT defend yourself. You would not have a single leg to stand on. “Raising the bar” is what we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better, to tell ourselves that when someone comes knocking we’ll be safe. WRONG. This is one thing I CAN guarantee: If breeding Cardigans were put on trial according to the animal rights agenda, our breed would be shut down without hesitation.

So forget the animal rights organizations-they do not respect you, they do not make ANY differentiation between you and the guy who has a thousand dogs in rabbit cages full of filth. They will work just as hard to destroy you as they work to destroy him.

You breed for the BREED. For the DOGS. Not because somebody has a carrot or a stick. You find out the truth-about genetics, heterozygosity, soundness, movement, health, testing, all of it-and you breed to hand off the best and best-prepared population to the next generation of breeders.

Being a guardian of the breed needs to be something you take very seriously, and that means understanding and owning your decisions and working to understand the situation and the actions that will benefit the entire breed.
We’ve GOT to stop defining it as “doing more health testing than my neighbor does.” Even if that were a positive, it’s about five percent of what makes a healthy population. What about disease resistance, heterozygosity, population dynamics and geographical diversity, founding members, 200-year projections, growth rates, fecundity, fertility, lifespan, survival rates, biomechanical fitness, and the hundreds of other topics that we know about PINE TREES, for crying out loud, that every property manager has to know about his CLUB MOSS but we conveniently ignore in dogs because ooo, we’re such great breeders because we x-ray hips?

The long-term health of this precious, precious population, this endangered species, this cup of wine so close to spilling, think of it however you want. Bringing it from |here| to |there| demands every single bit of us; it demands tearing down the sacred cows and looking at the truth. It demands actions that are defensible scientifically and morally. It demands seeing the whole picture. That is the ONLY motivation; nothing else will stand the test of time and nothing else is fair to the dogs.


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.

The implications of the KC decision on Pekingese; Pedigree Dogs Exposed, part 2

If you haven’t already, read part 1 first.

So what is wrong with what the Kennel Club is doing? Why is it such a bad decision?

I want to answer this in two parts: First, why Pedigree Dogs Exposed was incorrect, totally and fantastically and horrifyingly wrong, in its conclusions. Second, what this means to the community of UK breeders and, because the world of registered dogs is in fact very small, to breeders around the world.

Let’s examine the assertions of the Pedigree Dogs Exposed program, one by one. I’m going to leave out the Pekingese stuff for now, because I want to examine that breed in particular in Part 3.

1. Purebred dogs have radically changed in the last 100 years.

The pictures the documentary uses to supposedly “expose” the changes in purebred dogs are totally false. You cannot make statements about a dog based on a photo of a POOR EXAMPLE of the breed! I can go find you a poorly bred long-legged Basset right now in 2008; doesn’t mean that the breed has changed.

From 1931. See the front legs?

1928 bassetThis Time cover is from 1928. This adorable puppy doesn’t yet have a chest that fills in the crook in his front legs, but he is without question a basset. The ear set, length of ear, bone, etc. are very comparable to the modern type.

From 1950

For more show Bassets from the 1950s and 60s, start here. Exploring the Lyn Mar Acres pedigrees will keep you busy for hours.

Oh, and just because I promised, here’s a 2008 Basset (found this one on one of the Internet puppy finder sites, which means that now I have to take a shower to wash the skeeze off):

Moving on: The bulldog they say is the historic one absolutely isn’t. That’s a PIT bull dog, not a bull-baiting dog.

What they actually looked like in 1850 (look at how short the face is):





Bulldogs: (1950s):

Modern (2007): This is a show Bulldog (a Polish boy). Look at the angle from his nose to his lower jaw. You can see that his upper teeth would be only slightly inside his lower teeth. Note that he’s actually more moderate than the dog from the 1950s!

This is the exact skull the program said was representative of the English Bulldog:

This is not only an incorrect skull but a grossly malformed one. The dog would have had serious trouble eating or living anything close to a normal life.

By the way, this is a skull sold by a medical research company, which would, of course, have nothing to do with determining the normative Bulldog skull. And it’s on the first page of a google images search for “bulldog skull”– the research done for this program was incredibly shallow and irresponsible.

This is the actual Bulldog skull, as described by the illustrated standard–in other words, this is the skull that is seen as the highest achievement of deliberate breeding:

It is absolutely obvious that show breeders do NOT want the unhealthy skull, would immediately reject the unhealthy skull, and would be horrified by any animal in that condition.

2. How about the Bull Terrier! They’ve totally changed! You can see how the skulls have changed through the decades!

Answer: This is the skull series they animated to supposedly show changes (found, yes, in a google images search):

It’s irresponsible of anyone to use that skull series to show that bull terriers used to look like X and now look like Y. That skull series shows exactly what the study says it does, which is that dogs have an extremely plastic phenotype and you can cause rapid changes in a short period of time.

In order to say that bull terriers looked like X in year 0 and look like Y in year 30, you have to show far more than one skull per year and you have to find the NORMATIVE skulls. There’s a huge variation in type according to deliberate breeding (or the opposite, careless breeding) and I could find you identical skulls to every single one of those, all labeled AKC-registered Bull Terriers, in 2008.

Check it:

The “1890s” skull:

The “1950s” skull:

The “unhealthy overexaggerated skull”:

The “hey, that’s pretty moderate, why don’t breeders do THAT” skull:

ALL of those are BTs, ALL are from the late 2000s, and the one who is a champion, the head they want? Yep, #4.

Here’s another example, a top-winning Bull Terrier from the 70s: still think the breed is in rapid flux?

3. Rhodesian Ridgebacks have a ridge, which is a form of spina bifida, and because of the ridge they have horrible painful dermoid sinus formations. If they would just breed the ridgeless dogs, they wouldn’t have this problem!

Answer: That statement was just categorically untrue. The ridge is NOT a form of spina bifida; it’s a cowlick. Ridgeless dogs do NOT have a lesser chance of having dermoid sinus formations. They are two separate issues. Dermoid sinus, by the way, is actively battled and bred against by good Ridgeback breeders.

4. Horrible Ridgeback breeders cull puppies without ridges!

Yes, some do. And I want to explain why. It’s not because they’re evil. It’s because ridgeless dogs don’t look like Ridgebacks. They look like a hound-pit bull mix. They are very rarely picked up as Ridgebacks when they come into rescue, so they’re not valued and are not turned over to purebred rescue. Ridgeless dogs are very likely to be put to sleep, assumed to be a dangerous cross-bred. Many end up as bait dogs in dog-fighting rings.

The fate of a ridgeless dog is far less than certain if the first and original owner does not act responsibly, and every breeder knows that you can’t always trust owners to act responsibly.

So, as a breeder, if you know that a certain percentage of your ridgeless puppies are going to end up living horrible lives of pain and confusion and loneliness and then be put to death, even if it’s only one percent, you have a decision to make. You can send them out there, trying hard not to think about that one percent, or you can make sure that their lives are short and painless and they never know fear or hunger or fighting. It is an individual decision that no breeder makes lightly. We LOVE our puppies. We ADORE our dogs. Every single time we lose one it is a personal tragedy. So while I may have certain convictions about what I would do, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who make a decision that is different.

5. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are unhealthy because uncaring breeders (who, it is pretty explicitly implied, enjoy causing dogs pain) are trying to produce a tiny skull that doesn’t leave enough room for their brains.

Answer: Nobody knows exactly why syringomyelia is a problem in CKCS. The round head type is not appreciably different from many other small dogs, including the English Toy Spaniel, the Shih Tzu, the Maltese, etc. Across the world, good breeders are horrified and are doing something about it. I would bet money that almost every health issue that the documentary pounced on was uncovered by good breeders, the research paid for by good breeders, and the population of good breeders is freaking out and trying to fix.

Note here: (<– linky)

Look at the summary of DNA research. Every single study is being paid for by the breed clubs of various countries, meaning that every penny is coming from the pockets of the breeders themselves.

No one is sure, yet, how to get rid of syringomyelia in CKCS. My sister-in-law owns two Cavaliers, a mom and son, who were given to her by a breeder who MRId the mom and found very mild signs of the disease (the dog is pain-free). That particular breeder was completely clearing out (finding good homes for and never breeding again) every single dog who had any signs of the disorder. The mom dog was imported from England, did well in the shows here, the breeder spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on health testing, and then gave the dog away. That’s the kind of response good breeders are giving to these horrific diseases.

Right now the Cardigan people are tackling IVDD (disc disease). You know who has worked to describe the disease? breeders. Who is donating thousands of dollars to DNA research? Breeders. Who is pushing everybody to do cheek swabs, bringing the swabs to shows, pressuring every owner they can think of? Breeders.

There is no body of individuals more dedicated to stamping out canine genetic disease than the ethical purebred breeders. Every year, the purebred clubs donate literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund studies to identify genes, they are 90% of the customer base for the genetic testing companies, they are the ones pushing for health registries, they rigidly police their own ranks and disavow anyone who is knowingly breeding unhealthy dogs. I’ve never met a single cross-breeding breeder who will volunteer their dogs for studies, but it’s commonplace in the show world. I have a friend who has driven her Danes hundreds of miles, twice a year, on her own nickel, for years now, just so the researchers can do serial ultrasounds on a related family of dogs. When the call goes out for cheek swabs and blood tests and x-rays and echocardiograms, show breeders consider it their duty to respond–never seen a Puggle breeder do anything of the kind.

The idea that breeders are sinister in this is absolutely untrue. There ARE bad apples. Of course. But when you look at the entire body of responsible breeders, it’s an overwhelmingly concerned and careful group of people.

6. It’s a symptom of how terrible CKCS breeders are that they continue to breed affected dogs.

Answer: is an absolute required read to understand this issue. It is a fact that if no Cavalier with any form of indent in the skull is ever bred, the breed will cease to exist. This seems to be a skull formation that exists throughout the breed (and is NOT, and NEVER HAS BEEN, the result of breeders trying to get a smaller and smaller skull regardless of the consequences). The goal of the protocol is to minimize symptoms and the expression of the actual disease, and to move toward a breed that has no skull indentation. Within this protocol, it is acceptable to breed dogs that have the skull indentation but are asymptomatic, as long as you are breeding them to dogs that do not have the indentation.

7. There are a few good breeders, but most of them are in it only for the ribbons and don’t care about health.

Answer: This really isn’t true. The reason that doesn’t work too well to ignore health if you’re a breeder is that it’s very difficult to exist on your own. You have to buy puppies, use other people’s stud dogs, and hopefully other people will ask to use yours. Since there is a huge, HUGE amount of peer pressure within the group to never lose sight of health testing, you will not be welcome. Puppies will not be sold to you; you will not be able to use stud dogs. Your own stud dogs will not be in demand. So you will not succeed consistently or at all.

I know the Dane world better than I know the Cardigan world, yet. So I can tell you that in the community of blue/black breeders, which is maybe 30-40 active and inactive kennels across the US, there’s a set of four or five “show” breeders that do not health-test consistently, or they do health test but they don’t make decisions based on those results. Everybody knows it and nobody will touch them with a ten-foot pole. The non-testing breeders all stick together and they breed to dogs owned by the other members of that group. They are not respected by their peers, nobody sends puppy people to them, and if we can warn puppy people away from them we try. They’re so shunned that most of the other breeders won’t even breed to something with those kennel names in the pedigree–those non-tested dogs as parents or grandparents taint even otherwise excellent breeding prospects, even if the offspring dog has finished its championship, even if the dog itself has health testing. Those non-testing breeders have effectively totally shot themselves in the feet.

So no, I don’t think that there are many more non-testing breeders than there are testing breeders. The dog show world is intensely political, it’s not really “fair” in many ways. It’s far from perfect. But the pressure to consistently health-test, in every breed I’ve seriously investigated or been involved in, is SERIOUS AND REAL.

8. The show ring is the real evil; because it only looks for beauty, breeders only care about looks.

Answer: The community of good breeders knows that the show ring is purely a place where the conformation of the dog is evaluated. Conformation is only one piece of the puzzle. We think that shows are VERY important, and goodness knows we love the gorgeous dogs who are the top winners, but if you are savvy and watch the dogs actually being bred, you’ll find that some of the top-winning dogs of all time have very, very few offspring. That’s because within their breed, even though the breeders recognized the beauty of the dog, it was not a suitable stud dog or brood bitch because of some health, temperament, or ability shortfall.

That’s where the real question of responsibility comes in. Breeding only for looks is, for obvious reasons (that’s what they see on TV), what everybody thinks we do. But it’s far more often that I hear “I’ve got this lovely bitch at home and there is literally not a male in the country I want to breed her to” than the opposite. It would be EASY to breed for looks and nothing else. But you bankrupt yourself ethically and you do a huge disservice to your dogs if you do.

The one place where I think that the program had some leverage with me was with the rears on German Shepherd Dogs. I happen to be a person who thinks that GSD rears are in terrible shape right now–but what they don’t tell you on the video is that the majority of everybody in the show dog community who are not GSD breeders thinks GSD rears are crazy. “My gosh, I can’t even look at them; they look crippled” is the most common show-ring comment. I HOPE that someday they get their heads out of their armpits and realize that it’s nuts, but I will say that even with the enormous change in preferred style, they’re STILL OFAing their dogs. They’re still testing and still breeding carefully. And not every dog is that extreme–I’ve seen the ones that wobble and I hate it, but I’ve also seen dogs winning that are, yes, overangulated and yes, too far down in the rear, but they can stand normally.

In any other breed, a dog who stood like that in the rear would go to the back of the line. Dog shows are NOT about health; they are about soundness. So you could have a dog with lymphoma win Best in Show as long as he looked sound and muscular and his gait was perfect. That’s why you always insist, as a breeder, and why you must insist as a puppy buyer, on health testing as well as show participation.

How about temperament? Any registered dog on full registration (as opposed to limited, which means that the breeder doesn’t want the dog shown or bred) who is not spayed or neutered can be entered in a dog show and can walk in the ring. That means there are absolutely dogs with poor temperaments in the ring. Again, this is one of the reasons that you sometimes see those top winners with very few offspring. If the handler is good enough to keep the dog from biting the judge, it can and will win. If it does bite, it will be excused and/or disqualified and after 3 DQs you’re done; you can’t ever show the dog again. Dogs that attack other dogs and do harm will sometimes be immediately banned, sometimes not. That’s why you never, as a breeder, breed to a dog without either getting your hands on him yourself or getting the opinion of someone you trust who HAS had their hands on him.

I would honestly invite anyone who is interested in this subject to attend a dog show. I strongly suspect that you’d not find a crazy freak show full of unhealthy dogs. I’ve said this before and I’ll offer again–if someone in the New England area wants to attend a show (to look at the different breeds, to see whether show dogs are abused, to see if this documentary is correct, etc.) and I can get there, I’ll walk around with you and show you what’s going on and what happens with the different breeds.

9. Mixed-breed dogs are healthier and have better temperaments than purebreds because they have hybrid vigor.

Answer: Here’s the way it usually works: Mixed-breed comes into vet. Vet says “I’m so sorry; your dog has osteosarcoma. These things just happen sometimes.” Boxer comes into vet. Vet says “I’m so sorry; your dog has osteosarcoma. It’s because he’s a Boxer.” Labeling plays a HUGE part in our perception of purebred health.

The other thing that happens is that people’s experience with purebreds-and this includes VETS’ experience with purebreds-tends to be almost exclusively with poorly bred ones. How many actively showing, health-tested, hunt-tested Labs have you ever met? How many World Sieger Shepherds? If all you’ve ever met are badly bred purebreds, of COURSE you think they’re all unhealthy and squirrely–they probably are, because they’ve been bred for nothing more than an certificate of registration, and with no more care than you’d use in choosing a pair of socks. An UNTESTED purebred is a very poor health risk, because if you’ve got two dogs on the street at least they have to be strong and sound enough to get tab A into slot B. Purebreds have no such restriction; a bad breeder will find some way to get the bitch pregnant.

There is absolutely no such thing as hybrid vigor in dogs. Hybrid vigor is a term that means that when you breed two TOTALLY unrelated breeds, or even two species, the resulting babies are bigger, taller, stronger, healthier than either parent. So Brahma-Limousin cows, for example, are heartier than either Brahma or Limousin purebreds. In order to take advantage of hybrid vigor, you have to keep breeding the originals–in other words, you don’t keep breeding the Brahmousin to each other or they become just another purebred with no advantages; you’re constantly producing new ones using the two unrelated breeds.

All purebred dogs are about 150-200 years old, and they all came from the same place (Europe). Aside from a few primitive breeds like the Chow, genetic testing has proven that even the breeds that look old are modern European creations (much to the chagrin of the Ibizan hound people). Until 200 years ago, there was no notion of a closed stud book, so while you had some lines that were relatively pure, the fact is that if it could herd and looked mostly like a corgi it WAS a corgi, and the same dog in another part of England would possibly have been labeled as desirable Shetland Sheepdog breeding stock.

So when you breed a Labrador and a Poodle, for example, you’re not accessing any “hybrid vigor.” You’re putting back together two breeds that were probably freely exchanging genes no more than a couple hundred years ago. The hip dysplasia in Poodles is the same hip dysplasia as is in Labs. The genes for thyroid disorders in Dobermans are the same as the genes for thyroid disorders in Rottweilers. You’re right that the genes have to meet to be expressed–and they’re quite as likely to meet when you cross-breed as when you breed two purebreds, except in the relatively few breeds that have genuine issues with a few cancers.

I have four dogs in the house, all of which I love dearly. The Cardigans represent the best lines in the US. They have strong, enduring structure, their backs are not too long or too short (won’t break down under stress); their teeth have a perfect bite so they’ll always be able to eat, even in old age; their front feet turn out no more than 30%, so they won’t get arthritis. They’ve been genetically tested for PRA, heart, hips; I know exactly how long their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and gg-grandparents lived and what they died of (actually, thanks to the great good health of Cardis, most of those dogs are still alive). I have an accidental cross rescue, a dachshund/Jack Russell Terrier. He’s also achondroplastic, like the Cardigans, but in his case there’s been no care to make sure his feet don’t turn out too much or that his back is level and strong. His elbows do not touch his body, so he can’t run as fast or corner as quickly as they can. His feet turn out and are flat, so he doesn’t have the tendon system he needs to keep his feet from hurting when he gets older. I have no way of knowing whether he’ll suffer from eye, heart, hip, or spinal problems as he ages. I also have a “designer dog,” a deliberately crossbred Papillon-Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She has cherry eye, a congenitally deformed jaw, and bowed front legs, and for her whole life I’ll have to watch out for glaucoma, epilepsy, spinal disorders, brain disorders, etc., because none of those have ever been tested for, as far as I know, in her generations of puppy-mill ancestors. So from my point of view this is not even close to an argument.

10. The dog on the program was so congenitally deformed that he had to sit on an “ice pillow” so he wouldn’t die!

Danny, the Peke pictured, was on a cool bed, which is an extremly common tool used in the show ring to keep the dogs comfortable so they won’t pant. It’s got a gel inside that is at room temperature but helps transfer heat, and it feels pleasant to the dog, like lying on a tile floor. Some exhibitors will put an ice pack under the bed to cool it off. We don’t want them to pant because an open mouth makes a bad picture. Judges can’t see the profile of the dog’s head properly if the dog is panting; the dog can’t show an alert or pretty expression when it is panting. We like to have a nice photograph, too; it’s important to us as breeders that photos show our dogs at their best. Danny was in no danger of overheating. It had been a very long day for everyone; Danny was going to need to have his picture taken hundreds or thousands of times and was under hundreds of lights. That made him pant, so his handler wisely let him lie down on a cool bed. No dog would ever lie down on an actual ice pack, any more than you’d lie down on a block of ice.

11. Purebreds are so deformed that they have to be bred by AI and have c-sections!

There’s a huge difference between “have to be” and “usually are.”

Good breeders typically get one or two or three litters from each female. Every single litter is extremely precious and represents the investment of years of effort and thousands and thousands of dollars, and we LOVE our breeding bitches. That means that we have a very low tolerance for the risks associated with breeding.

So a large proportion of ALL breeders, across ALL breeds, preferentially use AI (either “fresh,” where the male is collected right there and the bitch immediately inseminated, or surgical). They don’t want to risk infection, injury (I’ve had a male injured during breeding, so I know this happens), or the possibility that either dog won’t get the job done.

Pekingese CAN breed normally, but their breeders are very worried about the possibility of injury when the two dogs involved are short and heavy, so they do AIs. As I said, this is true across the spectrum of breeds including those very “natural” in shape and size.

There are SO many reasons that dogs end up with sections, and some are a “weakness” and others are not. The c-sections we had with the Danes were on a mother and daughter; the mom’s section was because she had dead puppies inside that had set up a huge infection; she delivered five live and five dead puppies and I sectioned her for the last (live) puppy. Her daughter’s labor stalled out, and when the vet opened her up she found the puppies “shrink wrapped” in an extraordinarily tight uterus (she actually had to be spayed to get the puppies out). For each, if I had let the labor progress she would eventually have delivered. But we would have had what I considered, at the time, exhausted and terrified, too high a chance of losing puppies or mom. Objectively, looking back, I don’t know.

Neither bitch could be bred again, obviously (massive infection and scarring, mandatory spay), but even though this was in mom and daughter I don’t think I would have called it a genetic weakness.

If you have a whole bunch of related dogs who are all ending up with primary inertia–yup, I’m willing to call that a genetic problem. But the number of times I’ve actually seen that isn’t high. Most of the times when you have a high incidence of c-sections it’s for slow labors, which IS something I’d love to have erradicated in purebreds, but the reason they’re sections is that it’s a nervous breeder who sections quickly and for any reason that could possibly lead to puppy death (ummm, guilty as charged).

And of course a true dystocia you’ve got to section or everybody dies.

I’m honestly not sure there’s ANY data about c-section frequency in dogs. I’ve certainly never seen a study or seen a study referred to. You have to understand that c-sections in dogs are run entirely by breeder judgment; except for the very rare complete dystocia, these are ALL breeders making the decisions. So rates are heavily, probably almost completely, influenced by personal comfort levels and not necessarily by any kind of medical reality.

Let me give you an example: I have a friend, a GREAT breeder, who breeds Mastiffs. She sections every bitch, every time. They do not get a trial of labor, nothing. For her, losing a puppy is absolutely unacceptable. She also needs the predictability of being able to take two weeks off work for each litter. So she progestone tests, knows the day of ovulation, schedules the section for the exact day when delivery should occur (this is actually OK in dogs–there’s not a wide range like there is in human women), and sections every bitch.

So she’s got multiple generations getting multiple c-sections. But *could* those bitches have free-whelped? Quite possibly. She could, in fact, have the freest of free-whelping Mastiffs in the entire country, but the stats would not reflect that.

I have another friend, a Bull Terrier breeder, who NEVER sections except for a complete dystocia/malpresentation. She wants the bitch to whelp no matter what. She’s lost large proportions of entire litters during the whelping process; almost every litter has at least one or two stillborns. So are her dogs statistically complete free-whelpers? Absolutely. Would they be free-whelpers if they lived in my house? VERY doubtful.

Pekingese (and bulldogs and pugs and so on) CAN free-whelp. But they will lose puppies if they do, and these are already breeds who cost a huge amount (not just in money) to get pregnant and who have small litters. A single stillborn represents half the litter, often. When canine c-sections are relatively safe and ensure that you get every puppy out alive, for many breeders (across ALL breeds) and or many repro vets, this decision is absolutely understandable.

Breeds you should know: The Hungarian Pumi

From time to time, I want to highlight a relatively rare breed that has a lot to offer, and that I think is flying under the radar when it comes time for people to make breed choices. I also want to have something to say to people who are gravitating toward the mixed-breed “designer dog” market, because they think that the existing breeds don’t fulfill their needs (for example, non-shedding but doesn’t look like a poodle). I suspect that when people think of “existing breeds” they’re actually aware of only about thirty or forty, when there are hundreds.

I am tempted to make a statement like the “compare to” labels that are on all the store brands, or to do something manipulative like put “Free Terri-Poo Puppies!” in the title bar, but that would be unfair to this unique and quite startling breed. It has enough pizazz all by itself.

Now seriously. Are they not absolutely beautiful? This is the epitome of a NATURAL BREED. It does its job, it puts its money where its mouth is, with very little embellishment. The coat, which could be quite exaggerated, is properly kept in a clip that would be easy for any family to maintain. The body is square, spare, honest, and strong. They’re under 20 inches at the shoulder, not big not small. Nothing about this dog is exaggerated or sculpted.

So what on earth IS this?

Pumis are a Hungarian breed, and if there’s anything the Hungarians like on their dogs, it’s hair. That country is the birthplace of the Puli, Komondor, Kuvasz, Mudi, and several other breeds that have hair that curls or ropes or cords or sticks out in all directions.

Hungary’s dogs are strongly influenced by ancient trade routes. When the Magyars came over the mountains into Europe, they brought with them Very Useful Herding Dogs that we now call Tibetan Terriers (which has to be the worst job of breed naming EVER, since they are not terriers in any way).

When the Hungarian shepherds saw these Very Useful Herding Dogs, they bought/begged/borrowed/stole them to breed with their existing shepherding breeds. And because they’re fans of coat, they selected from the resulting puppies those that had coats that were more like raw silk and less like satin.

Coats that are fine, matte in texture, slightly curly, and long mat very easily if you don’t brush them obsessively. And they tend to mat in a surprisingly predictable and organized way. They cord.

And so the shepherds ended up with a Very Useful Little Herding Dog that we know as the Puli.

The Puli was and is a fantastically successful herding dog. But some shepherds, still on the lookout for even better results, were still watching the trade routes. And from the other direction, further into Western Europe, came shepherds using very unique, tough Very Useful Herding Dogs. These dogs never backed down; they could handle the toughest job and were never intimidated. These dogs have been lost in the intervening centuries, but they probably looked like one or all of these guys:

Whatever dog came into Hungary from the West was a herding TERRIER, fast and competent and fearless. And, again, the shepherds began to imagine what would happen if this Very Useful Herding Terrier were bred into their Very Useful Herding Puli lines. And they determined to find out, and the result is this.

The Pumi is just what you’d expect, given its origins. It is intense, driven, incredibly smart, active, tenacious, and somewhat suspicious of strangers (good socialization and training can mitigate this a great deal). It rarely sheds, and the coat will grow quite long, but the coat lies in natural locks rather than in cords like the Puli’s, is much less prone to matting, and it can be hand-stripped like a wire-haired terrier or clippered every two or three months. (By the way, after the grooming is done the dog should be wet down again and the hair lightly tapped or scrunched to go back into its natural curly pieces; that’s what will keep the dog looking like a Pumi and not like a poodle.)

It’s a breed that you should be thinking of if you need a dog that can go all day long–if you are getting serious about agility or flyball or herding or tracking or disc–but need a nonshedding coat. It’s a breed you should definitely consider if you want to get serious about ALL those things, because it’s great at multitasking and it’s a true all-purpose dog. It’s a breed you should be thinking of if you’re included toward a Cattle Dog or an Australian Shepherd (and know what you’re getting into with those breeds) but need a smaller size. And it remains supremely good at herding, with the vast majority passing herding tests, so it’s a great choice if you need a serious, unspoiled herding dog to move your sheep or goats or even cattle.

It’s also a dog to look at if you’re nervous about finding a good breeder. Because the Pumi is so rare in the US, there’s very little bad breeding and no puppy mill market. Generally speaking, you should be able to  trust the breeders recommended by the national breed club.

It is NOT a dog for a household that needs a couch ornament or that has neighbors who hate dogs. This is a dog who barks, and barks a lot. It is NOT a dog to buy for looks. It’s NOT a dog who can tolerate sitting at home while you’re gone all day. It’s just as intense about human companionship as it is about everything else.

So if you’re looking for a serious canine partner, with many advantages in terms of size and coat and health and good breeding, the Pumi is a breed you should know.

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.

Is there such a thing as a responsible breeder of designer dogs?

In terms of whether reputable mixed-breed breeders exist, the answer is that there’s no reason they can’t; they just seem to be extremely rare and, in the companion breeds, close to nonexistent.

What? But don’t all responsible breeders HATE the idea of designer dogs?

No, and if they do, they shouldn’t.

And I think if you pushed them they’d have to admit it–if you said, “Well then are the people who breed Angus cattle to Herefords irresponsible?” And the answer is of course not. The huge difference is that those breeders are doing those crosses for a legitimate reason (and that reason is not “a cuter cow than you own”).

The same is true of dog breeders.

There are, for example, good breeders doing staffy-border crosses for flyball, or border-border crosses; the bear and lion dog people cross a bunch of breeds; seeing eye crosses Labs and Goldens. Those are all legitimate and driven by health and function.

Unfortunately, most or all of the companion-dog market seems to be driven only by saleability and cute puppies (as opposed to attractive adult dogs; puggles being a case in point–oh, and while I’m on that subject, the original “creator” of puggles was recently raided and a thousand dogs removed from his filthy and abusive care). But I suppose somebody might exist.

The requirements to be a good mixed-breed breeder would be:
1) Breeding BOTH breeds as purebreds long enough to know their lines and their pedigrees. Both parents should be show-quality, preferably actively shown and finished, representatives of their breeds.
2) Steady and consistent activity in some kind of dogsport (conformation, field, agility, etc.). If the breeder does performance and not conformation, replace “finished” above with “titled.”
3) Some reason for crossing the two breeds besides making cuter puppies than usual. Some job, in other words, that the mixed-breed could do better than either parent.
4) All breeding dogs health-tested.
5) An extensive interview process (I would add that good breeders generally can tell you about families they refused to sell to; you can’t just have interviews but say yes to everybody)
6) Written contract with puppy-back clause.

Since those are the bottom of the barrel qualifications for good breeders of registered dogs, with many breeders adding much more on top of that, I don’t see why people can’t require the same of mixed-breed breeders. As a show breeder, I personally don’t care if people breed Aussies to Orangutans; I just want them responsible for their dogs and committed to producing a healthy and sound pet (that’s where showing and/or trialing come in; opening yourself to peer review is the only way to prove that you’re consistently making sound dogs).

The next comment is usually “But good breeders are so snobby; they won’t let us use their dogs to create zanadoodles!”

I think that there would be lots of breeders willing to go out on a limb if there was a legitimate reason to do so. Like the border/staffie crosses for flyball; those are sound, decently bred dogs. So if, for example, somebody figured out that Doberman/corgi crosses were better search-and-rescue dogs than anyone had ever seen, and there was a group of trainers who were having a lot of success and were committed to placing the dogs in S&R homes, and all the offspring were sold on speuter contracts, I can certainly imagine good breeders agreeing to be involved.

The other option, of course, is that you go long enough as a breeder of both breeds that you’ve got your own breeding stock to work with. However, that rarely happens because the more involved you get in breeding the more you realize that it’s HARD to breed well and you’re fighting against the tide with every generation, and the LESS inclined you are to introduce a whole slew of new health problems or temperament issues or whatever is associated with the second breed.

And I think that’s worth repeating–mixed-breed breeders aren’t forced to look problems in the eye because they have no responsibility to the next generation. They are creating perpetual first-generation or at the most second-generation dogs. A breeder like that doesn’t end up with ten years of experience; she has one year of experience ten times. That’s why I would personally insist that she be a responsible and successful breeder of a single breed before I’d be willing to call her a responsible breeder of a mixed breed.

And, again, those niche breeders (flyball, bear, sled, etc.) do follow that rule. They usually get into one breed and end up branching out to fulfill specific needs, but they have the humility of someone who has worked to gain experience in pedigrees and genetics and growth and performance before they bring in different stuff. And they’re breeding with the goal of continuing the generations to refine a dog who can do a job (i.e., they have actual standards against which they are measuring their efforts), not with the goal of creating endless first-generation crosses and “success” means a cute puppy.