Breeding for the Pet Market
If I hear one more breeder brag about how rarely they breed I think I'll explode … I'm not sure why it's taken so long for the simple truth — that we all need to breed more dogs — to get into my head, but it's cold comfort that many other dog people obviously still think the way I used to for many years. Sure, if you absolutely can't stand dealing with the pet public you are probably doing everyone a favor by not exposing innocent people to your lack of patience and understanding … but please don't consider it a virtue, like I did, that you only breed maybe a litter every other year or so. If we all maintain such restrictive breeding programs, where will the pet public go when they want a puppy of a particular breed, except to commercial kennels, puppy mills or even pet shops? And that isn't what we want, is it?
Sure, planning every litter carefully is important, but so is trying to accomodate a pet public that genuinely wants a puppy of your breed as a family companion. It's not just altruism either, but the basic fact that we want the sport of purebred dogs and dog shows to survive: It is from the general dog-loving public that future dog show enthusiasts will come, and if we cut ourselves off from the pet owners we're not going to get a whole lot of new blood coming into this activity that we all care so much for.
Why did I change my mind? There are several reasons. One was an experience a while ago with a couple who owned one breed. We knew them a little, so when they became passionately interested in a "new" breed we gave them contact details for some breeders. They were given the cold shoulder time after time when they tried diligently to locate a puppy of that breed. Perhaps there was something wrong with these people as prospective puppy buyers, but I don't think so: they had well-kept and well-behaved dogs and were offering a loving, permanent home. Still, the responses they got from show breeders were variations of the same theme: No, we aren't planning on breeding until next year. No, there already is a long waiting list and probably won't be any puppy available. No, we really don't want anyone new in our breed … (The last reason was not expressed openly, of course, but it was pretty clear that was the case.) The breed in question is very much a minority breed — like they say about Dandie Dinmont or Sealyam Terriers, it's "rarer than the Panda," and its very existence is threatened by its rarity. You would think that the few who devote their lives to this breed would welcome a newcomer with open arms. But no, that's not the case.
Another reason for my change of mind are the emails I keep getting on a regular basis from people who are trying to find a puppy of my breed (the Whippet), but don't get any response, or a negative response, or even a rude response, from breeders who are obviously not interested in "just a pet" home. That's regardless of the fact that pretty much all those who contacted me seemed to be pleasant, sincere people who were able to provide excellent references, a fenced yard, a loving environment, etc., etc. I felt frankly embarrassed that these people were treated so badly by several of my fellow breed fanciers. (The few that I was able to help find a puppy made it worthwhile, however. It's nice to know there ARE a few breeders who welcome pet buyers, even if they are in a minority.)
You may ask why I didn't breed a few more litters myself if I feel so strongly about this. That's a valid question. The fact is that I bred my first litter in 1961, so age alone is an obstacle, and although I now wish I had bred more when I was able to do so, it's a bit too late to change now. I bred what was probably my last litter in 2011, fifty years after the first one.
What made me see the light most clearly, however, was one of the Pure Dog Talks podcasts with Laura Reeves that I listened to in the car. These podcasts are not replacing printed publications, of course, but they sure are interesting. Laura, who in her "other" life is a professional handler and a breeder of German Wirehaired Pointers, has interviewed dozens of the dog sports greats (and near-greats). There is a round-table discussion with Andy Linton, Bill McFadden and Valerie Nunes-Atkinson about winning BIS at Westminster that I found fascinating; there is one with Bill Shelton about "How To Create a Family of Dogs," there are interviews with accomplished people like Pat Trotter, Betty-Anne Stenmark, Edd Bivin and Jim Reynolds. They are all wonderful, but for this purpose the episode that hit home most deeply was a conversation Laura had with a gentleman named Craig Curry. He spoke for an organization in Indiana that I was not familiar with, Protect The Harvest; it works to "protect your right to hunt, fish, farm, eat meat and own pets." I don't necessarily agree with everything Mr. Curry said or that "Protect The Harvest" stands for, but a few figures that were mentioned stand out and merited, I felt, further study.
• All sources agree that there are approximately 85 million pet-owning households in the U.S. The number of households that have dogs goes from 43.3 million (American Veterinary Medical Association) to 56.7 million (American Pet Products Association).
• The number of "replacement dogs" purchased by U.S. households every year reportedly varies from a low 4.5 million to a high 9 million. These figures are impossible to verify, of course, but since the American Kennel Club probably registers fewer than 500,000 puppies per year it's easy to see there's a huge discrepancy: Even if every puppy buyer would want an AKC registered puppy there are not even close to enough of them. (The qualification "probably" above is necessary, because AKC has not made its annual registration figures public for several years. The last available total is from 2010, when 563,611 individual dogs/puppies were registered; that figure was down from over a million a decade earlier and continued to fall for several years, although reportedly the trend has turned again recently.)
NOT ENOUGH AKC REGISTRATIONS
So, if the American dog-owning public buys several million puppies every year, and AKC registers perhaps less than half a million … where are the rest of these "replacement" puppies going to come from? Forget for the moment, if you can, that a high percentage of the people who buy a pet puppy may not be able to offer the absolute best living conditions for a dog, and may not be knowledgeable enough or even suitable dog owners at all. Also forget, if you can (I know it's pretty much impossible) that most likely a certain percentage of all the puppies that are purchased will end up being discarded, resold or living in a shelter. The hard fact is that the U.S. public WILL buy several million puppies in the next year — and while it's perhaps natural that some of us prefer to pretend that none of the unsavory conditions exist, we aren't really doing the dogs any favor that way, are we? Aren't we "show breeders" better able to educate the puppy buyers in how to bring up baby than a "commercial breeder"? Don't we have better rescue networks through breed clubs and concerned lovers of that particular breed than the average pet breeder or, Heaven forbid, puppy mill?
Of course there would be a lot more work to produce at least three or four litters per year than just a single. Of course not all breeds have a ready pet market, although that certainly seems to be changing. Of course it's still extremely vital to plan your litters carefully with regards to health, temperament and conformation, and to vet potential homes as closely as possible. But we could all start by not labeling our fellow show breeders as "puppy mills" if they happen to breed more than we do.