Breeders: the good, the bad, and the ugly

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When it comes to finding good breeders, people need considerable help to sort the good from the bad and the ugly…

I spent 20 years working in animal behaviour and welfare professionally in the UK. During that time, I was fortunate to be part of thousands of dogs’ lives. Some of those dogs were my own companions, some belonged to clients, some to students. Many of those dogs were being sheltered in the hope of adoption. The majority of dogs I’ve worked with have been pure-breed dogs and, while I’ve never purchased a dog, for myself, from a breeder, I have done so on behalf of clients.

I have also adopted a pure-breed dog through a breed rescue directly from breeder. I want to share with you what my own experiences with pure-breed dogs, breeders, training, behaviour, and animal welfare have taught me about how pure-breeds fit into families and communities, and the repercussions of bad breeding.

I’ll start with my personal experience of adopting a rescued pedigree dog, of Champion bloodlines. I will not mention the breed to protect people’s identities. I decided I wanted experience as the owner of a particular breed. As all of my dogs were adopted, I contacted a number of breed rescues, recommended by the Kennel Club. They put me in 
touch with a breeder, who had a six-year-old bitch looking for a home. We hopped in the car and drove to meet her.

Nothing they could have said would have prepared us for what they led into the living room 10 minutes later

The breeders lived in a vast property, which can only be described as a mansion. They greeted us at the door of their gorgeous, immaculate home, with two dogs from a breed different to the one I had hoped to adopt. They explained that they kept this breed as pets and the others for show. The breed kept for show were all kennelled.

I’d researched these breeders and they were highly regarded within their breed community. They were Championship show judges and were considered extremely responsible with waiting lists for their puppies. Everyone I spoke to in the breed spoke of them highly, so I didn’t have many concerns and was excited to be adopting a dog from such fantastic breeders.

We were not given the opportunity to see the kennels, but the breeders apologetically told us that the dog we were there to see was ‘a bit’ overweight. They explained that she had ‘ghost’ seasons and had been unable to produce puppies. After all this time, they felt it was best to adopt her out to a good home. They said that she had put on weight because they were spoiling her, as they felt sorry for her having lived in their kennels for her whole life.

Nothing they could have said would have prepared us for what they led into the living room 10 minutes later. The dog was morbidly obese. Her stomach was touching the floor. She was covered in weeping sores and smelled septic. I didn’t wait a single second. I didn’t care what she was like or whether I liked her or not. I knew I had to get her out of there. I asked them if they had any vaccination records for her and their response still rings in my memory.

“She’s never seen the vet.”

We put her in the car, got her home, bathed her as best we could and arranged to take her to the vet the following morning. They were, of course, horrified. It turns out that she had been living with a chronic uterine infection, possibly for years. In fact, when she was spayed, the vet said her uterus fell apart in their hands. She lived out her life with us joyfully and we loved her dearly until she died two years later from health problems related to breeding.

When we’d contact the breeders ourselves, we were usually met with hostility, the breeder refusing to take any responsibility for medical or temperament issues

This is when I fully understood the resistance of the dog breeding community to any sort of regulation or oversight. The dog world protects its own and does not want scrutiny because so many of them wouldn’t pass muster. Within my animal welfare work, whenever purebred dogs came to us for rehoming, sometimes as puppies, we would do our best to trace the breeders. This was before microchipping became compulsory, but often we were still able to, as the owners would provide us with the dog’s pedigree papers.

We would always ask the owners if they’d contacted the breeder and what the breeder had said. It was invariably the same story. They would tell us the breeder told them that they would take the dog back, but couldn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t put it down. That’s why these people would choose to go to a rehoming organisation that had a non-destruction policy.

When we’d contact the breeders ourselves, we were usually met with hostility, the breeder refusing to take any responsibility for medical or temperament issues, which we could patently see could have been prevented by better breeding and husbandry practices, and never offering to help supplement the cost of caring for the dog until a suitable home could be found.

Breeders need to step up

I must add that there were rare occasions, when we dealt with truly responsible breeders, who were terribly upset that one of their dogs had come into our care and they would work with us, either taking the dog back themselves, or getting it into an appropriate breed rescue programme.

As a puppy trainer and behaviour consultant, over 95 per cent of my clients were purebred dogs. The majority of my puppy class clients were affluent and were able to acquire a puppy, of their breed of choice, with the breeder providing no checks on their suitability beyond cursory questioning and no legitimate aftercare or support.

There were two breeder sales practices, in particular, that we dreaded seeing the outcome of. One was selling unsocialised puppies at an advanced age because they had been holding on to them to see how they developed (or, even though they would tell our client that was the case, we would later discover the puppy had been returned by a previous purchaser due to temperament problems).

There are great breeders and those are not the breeders that this article is focusing on; they are the breeders from whom I have learned so much about what makes a good breeder

The other practice that always set owners up for failure was selling littermates ‘so they could keep each other company’. We would often ask the owners what the breeder bred for, specifically, as a matter of interest and never once were we told ‘as companions’, and yet that was what the majority of the puppies would end up being. It can’t be surprising that dogs bred solely for extreme conformation features, or working ability, would fail in normal family homes.

Fortunately, our clients had a lot of support and we, as a team with their veterinary practices, could help them overcome some of these issues. Unfortunately, not every owner has this sort of support. A good breeder, of course, would have known this and either not sold them a puppy, or helped them create one. There are not a lot of good breeders.

There are great breeders and those are not the breeders that this article is focusing on, although those are the breeders already doing things that are important, and they are the breeders from whom I have learned so much about what makes a good breeder. Clients would often enlist my services to help them find the best breed and breeder for them, assess and select the best pup from the litter. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to work with some incredible breeders as a result.

breeders
Image by the Kennel Club

According to a 2017 study on pet ownership demographics among veterinary clients in the UK, over 80 per cent of dogs owned are pure breed. So, it may come as no surprise that when I did a quick survey of the nearly 300 dogs available for adoption in one of the large UK animal rehoming charities that approximately 65 per cent of the dogs in need of a new home were purebred dogs. If most of these dogs had been bred and placed in homes responsibly, it would not be falling to animal charities to take on the burden of their care.

Breeders are placing the financial burden of their bad decisions on the shoulders of the general public, who support animal rehoming organisations with their donations. Over half of the dogs in their care are coming from the pedigree community and while there are some very hard-working, well-organised and caring breed rescues, they clearly do not have sufficient resources from their own community. If they did, there would be far fewer dogs in rehoming centres around the country.

The dog breeding community should be supporting and paying for the fallout caused by their own bad practices, not the general public. Commercial breeding of pedigree – and now, a variety of purpose crossbreed – puppies has always been of concern to those who care about dogs.

Those who care about the welfare of dogs have been trying for decades to encourage the dog-breeding world to self-police effectively. They just won’t do it.

There has been a well-documented upsurge in dog ownership across the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic. Purebred dogs have been produced in huge numbers by puppy farms both in the UK and abroad to meet the demand. Puppy farms are not the only problem, though; in fact, all breeders have some responsibility for the number of puppies being bought from puppy farmers.

Those who care about the welfare of dogs have been trying for decades to encourage the dog-breeding world to self-police effectively. They just won’t do it. Those among them who do, find it a constant struggle and are always in conflict with those who oppose high standards because, of course, if you ask any dog breeder, they will always tell you that they are responsible and follow the highest standards.

There are only a few reasons for breeding pedigree dogs. Some do it for huge profits and those are the puppy farmers. No one who cares about dogs likes them or wants them to operate. The other reasons people breed purebred dogs are for show, or, as some claim, ‘to preserve the breed’, and others for specific working roles. So, who, exactly, is breeding dogs specifically for the purpose of being companions?

Cross breeders, loathed by pure breeders, are finding great success because they are doing exactly that. Like the pure-breed community, there are not many responsible breeders, but the popularity of the dogs they are producing is proof that the dogs they are breeding are in demand. You see, while health testing must be a priority for anyone breeding dogs if they want to be considered responsible, it’s temperament that leads dogs to fail in their new homes.

When you combine selling a dog with an unsuitable temperament as a companion, without carefully screening the home, adequately socialising the puppy, and providing little, or ineffective aftercare, the chances of a puppy ending up needing a new home dramatically increase. There’s a new idea that’s come to fruition and I like it.

Since the dog world will not self-police, nor will they band together to support legal enforcement that would eliminate irresponsible breeding and puppy farming, the only option left is to educate consumers and encourage them to wield their power.

But, what do we mean by ‘doing it right’? Well, this is when we get to the nitty gritty

After all, whenever a puppy fails in a new home, in my experience the breeder will invariably blame the new owners. So, let’s give the new owners a different playbook and direct them to the breeders who are doing it right. It’s called Tailwise. I am excited by the quality of breeders I’m already seeing signing up and looking forward to seeing the public learn that there is a way to identify quality, and it’s not, sadly, through the Kennel Club.

But, what do we mean by ‘doing it right’? Well, this is when we get to the nitty gritty. As someone with a broad view of how puppies impact society, whether by becoming heroes who work with disabled people, sniff out drugs, provide love and companionship, or, on the flip side, leave families in tatters, with children needing cosmetic surgery, family decisions about rehoming or euthanasia, I know how important dogs are to us all.

So, I will share, from a welfare and behaviour perspective, what I hope Tailwise will help owners think about when they look for a breeder of a companion dog. For the sake of succinctness, I will leave out health testing simply because I know that this will be a priority and it’s not my area of expertise. So, let’s assume that any breeder I am talking about is already doing all recommended and available health tests related to the breed.

breeder sentenced after selling poorly GSD puppies
Image by Angeles Balaguer on Pixabay

Question time

  • Why is the breeder breeding? If it’s for show (or to improve the breed), what are the characteristics other than conformation and health that they are selecting for?
  • If temperament, what type of temperament are they selecting for? What is the breeder doing to ensure that the temperament they are selecting for matches potential puppy buyers?
  • Is the breeder asking buyers for any professional references, such as from vets, trainers and pet sitters relating to previous pets, or, if a first-time dog owner, how are they ensuring that you will provide the puppy with a suitable home? What other types of matching and checking are they doing?
  • What qualifications and ongoing training does the breeder undertake? Have they done courses in genetics, animal welfare/ethics, canine health, behaviour etc?
  • Do they participate in continued professional development? If not, what sort of expert support in these fields do they receive and rely upon?
  • How do they refer to themselves as a breeder and do their activities represent that?
  • How do they keep their dogs? In their home? In kennels? Are you able to visit the dogs in the location where they live? If not, are you able to send a representative to do so?
  • How would they feel about you hiring a professional to advise you on your puppy selection? If they object, what is their reasoning?
  • What kind of socialisation and habituation programme do they have in place for their puppies? Will they allow you visit or speak to other people who have purchased their puppies?
  • What has happened to previous puppies if things haven’t worked out in the new home? What is their policy and is it in the contract? What kind of aftercare and support do they provide once you have purchased your puppy and how long will that continue?
  • If there are medical or temperament problems that clearly stem from the breeder’s practices, are they insured to compensate new owners?

There certainly are so many more things that potential puppy owners can and should look for and while I and other trainers and behaviour consultants have provided a service to assist puppy buyers with the process, there certainly is room for a service that has centralised breed-specific information, access to a wealth of knowledge, and a list of breeders keen to raise the bar.

This piece was written by Colette Kase and published on Dogs Today’s March 2021 issue.

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