America has an atrocious pet overpopulation problem. In the southeast where I live it is the worst of the worst. It is common here for dogs found as a stray or surrendered by owners to be given 3 days to find an adopted home before they are euthanized, and some dogs are immediately euthanized based on their projected adoptability. These dogs are given an identification number and an execution date upon admission. Bully breeds or pitbulls are often immediately euthanized, as are seniors, the chronically ill and large black dogs, who, for some reason, are the least likely to be adopted. This is not an exercise in cruelty but simply a matter of desperate need for kennel availability. These shelters have kennel runs with 4-6 dogs cramped inside, small kennels stacked ceiling high and are so understaffed and underfunded that there is literally no option but to opt for mass euthanasia in order to give the adoptable dogs the best chance at finding new homes. Some shelters can no longer afford to spay/neuter the dogs adopted out and require no proof that they are upon adoption, and dogs with health problems like heartworm positive or ear infections often go untreated by the staff doctors. Most of these dogs are healthy and happy and purely victims of circumstance. Many have behavioral issues that led them to be abandoned or surrendered, but the majority of these issues are easily fixed with a knowledgeable handler and some simple training. To add to the problem is the baffling new trend of importing Southeastern European shelter and street dogs, whose sad stories and exotic appearance increases their chance of adoption. There are also “no-kill shelters” where dogs are not euthanized, but still so overpopulated and understaffed that the dogs can live years in a kennel with few to no chance to exercise or play. This leads to dogs going insane and displaying neurotic behaviors like chewing on limbs, incessant spinning or pacing, and ultimately creates such a disaster that they are then completely unadoptable, and if they show any aggression, then despite the “no kill” label, they are euthanized. Private rescues are the best option dogs have, as they are typically foster-based meaning the dogs for adoption live in a home rather than kennels, but the scarcity of foster homes means that only a tiny fraction of homeless dogs get the chance for that kind of comfort and freedom. It is from this wholly unnecessary and irresponsible overpopulation that has arisen a social movement known as “Adopt don’t Shop” in which animal welfare advocates encourage the adoption of homeless pets instead of the purchase from a breeder.
While in theory adopt don’t shop sounds like an obvious solution, in practice it is not as seamless as it sounds. This is because many dogs that are surrendered to a shelter have behavioral issues of some sort. Most of these issues can be easily resolved with simple and committed training, but the average dog owner is oblivious to this and instead returns the dog when the behavior becomes unmanageable. Dogs in shelters are also often the result of backyard breeders and thus are more susceptible to health problems which can become a costly and overwhelming reality for the average dog owners. These things are BY NO MEANS a guarantee, as there are countless dogs in shelters that are perfectly happy and healthy, but quite a few are not and it creates a revolving door where dogs skip from home to home. A first-time dog owner is the most likely to seek out a shelter dog wanting to give one a good home, but a novice dog handler is going to have no clue how to handle a dog with any kind of issue, and have little to no guidance or support from the shelter, furthering the chances that it is surrendered again. A good breeder on the other hand is a 24/7 resource for a dog owner for the lifetime of the dog and so a new owner is never without the guidance and instruction on how to bypass issues that someone without experience will encounter at some point and it will always be my suggestion for newbies to seek out said ethical breeder rather than adopting from a shelter. A recommendation that will have you flayed alive if mentioned in a public forum, but there it is.
There is a spectrum of dog breeders, on one end there is the “back yard breeders” who intentionally breed dogs wholly genetically inappropriate to be bred in order to make money. These are the dogs you see advertised on craigslist, flea markets or newspaper classifieds.These dogs receive no health or temperament testing, no care of ancestral soundness, no pedigrees with which to study previous generation’s physical and mental fitness, and no credentials other than the irrelevant letters “AKC”, which, by the way, means absolutely nothing as to the quality of the dog and only that it is purebred (sometimes, as anybody can claim their dogs are AKC registered). Having “papers” means absolutely nothing as far as the health and temperament of the dog being bred or bought, but this is not common knowledge. So people naively purchase these dogs and the breeder brings in the bucks. The dams rarely receive prenatal screening or care, and the owners often have very little experience or understanding on proper whelping practices. Many of the pups have terrible congenital issues, genetic temperament issues like aggression or neurosis, problems with digestion, tumors, organ dysfunction or any number of issues that make life very difficult with this animal when a family purchased an AKC puppy expecting it to be healthy and sound. When these dogs become unmanageable either by behavior or health issues (both can be very expensive and life-disruptive to manage), the dogs are surrendered to shelters, and thus, because the vast majority of dogs purchased are from these breeders, overpopulation ensues.
There is absolutely no regulation on dog breeding in America like there is in many other industrialized nations. Some European countries require a dog to be titled in some form of sport which shows a soundness of temperament and physiological wellness before they are able to breed. These countries often have so few homeless pets that families that want to adopt have to import dogs from other countries in Eastern and Southern Europe where homeless dogs are plentiful, but Americans are quite fixated on the idea of “freedom at any cost”, as is so evident in the debate of gun control related to mass murders or anti-vaccine advocates and the resurgence of terrible preventable disease, that such regulation would never be tolerated. Too many Americans advocate limited government, which I won’t get into in general but to say that when it comes to dogs, ownership and breeding is seen as a god-given right and not as a luxury as it truly is. It is this mentality that has led to total ignorance and greed with the breeding of pet dogs.
However, on the other end of the dog breeding spectrum are the responsible and ethical breeders who carefully select breeding stock based upon dogs health tested to be free of genetic disease, temperament tested to prevent neuroses, aggression or other such problems, and are active in competitions that further test the mental and physical fitness of breeding stock like agility, obedience, conformation, schutzhund and more. If a litter shows any genetic faults, these dogs are then no longer bred. These breeders produce 1-2 litters a year and typically have a waiting list of people ready to purchase a puppy. The people who seek out these sorts of breeders are also typically well versed in the care of dogs, have a good understanding of the breed characteristics and thus are prepared to work with any issues that may arise. These breeders usually require a spay/neuter agreement if the dog is not to be bred, and only a select type of puppy from a litter is deemed eligible to breed based upon its physical and mental fitness to ensure future litters are as healthy as possible. Additionally, any reputable breeder is insistent that if the family is no longer able to keep their dog, that it is returned to the breeder rather than put in a shelter or private rescue. These breeders DO NOT contribute to overpopulation. The very few litters produced, and the unlikelihood of a family being unable to keep the animals as well as the insistence that the dog is not put into a shelter if they cannot, means that these breeders are doing a great service to the dog world by ensuring the genetic best of the best are available.
Despite the miracle of reputable breeders, the “Adopt Don’t Shop” movement insists on shaming and banning all breeders. They spread false information that shame perspective dog owners by saying things like for every dog purchased, 10 dogs are killed. It is even a recent rule on Facebook, a platform frequently used by excellent breeders to stay in contact with buyers, advertise litters and give information on their breeding stock and dog husbandry, that pages or groups promoting animal sales will be closed. This is a huge problem because although they think this is going to help overpopulation by discouraging breeding, it in fact forces people to seek out backyard breeders who do not advertise on facebook, actually contributing to the problem. The reality is that if everyone who wanted a dog went to a reputable breeder instead of a backyard breeder, the overpopulation would end. Good breeders are very selective of their perspective puppy owners and educating them is a huge focus of ethical practices. The dog owners would need to wait for puppy availability rather than making impulse purchases at pet stores or from craigslist ads, and the dogs in the public who are accidentally bred will be ensured to have healthy and sound puppies that can then be rehomed. The people who want to adopt a homeless dog would do so, and slowly but surely the population of these shelters would dwindle and very few dogs would be left homeless.
This is a bit of a utopian dream, and the reality is that it would never be that clean cut, but my point is that rather than abolishing all breeders, there needs to be 1. Strict regulation on who can breed and the breeding stock eligible, and 2. Rather than discouraging purchasing from a breeder as a broad social movement, calling out backyard breeders and encouraging ethical breeders is the most effective solution. This is where we get to the issue of “freedom at any cost”. The backlash that such regulation would produce would be an irreconsilible force. The reality is that Americans are so fixated on the idea of limited government and regulation = fascism, that such a law is no where near able to be in effect. It is in this light that Adopt Don’t Shop is a very important movement. That is because these advocates are committed to showing the atrocities of backyard breeding, puppy mills, and the mass euthanasia in overpopulated shelters. This movement is making huge headway and has really made a difference as far as public education, which is the only realistic solution in a country bent on repealing regulations. It is in this light that I think Adopt Don’t Shop is a very important and positive movement, and although it works as a roadblock to responsible breeders, it is also necessarily raising awareness that they are the only ethical option if one wants to purchase a well-bred dog.
IN CONCLUSION, on this very long and some-what ranting article, adopting a dog is a wonderful thing, especially if the alternative would be seeking out a craigslist breeder. But for those who want the assurance of a healthy and sound dog, and the lifetime support of a breeder who devotes their time and money to producing excellent dogs (because they sure as hell aren’t making profit for it), then that is the way to go, and don’t for a second feel like going to a committed and ethical breeder is foregoing the life of a shelter dog, because that is absolutely not the case, despite what Adopt Don’t Shop-ers may tell you.