How Much is That Puppy on the Internet?
So you’ve decided to get a puppy. You did a bit of research, and you’ve fallen in love with the rare and wonderful Peruvian mountain dog (PMD).
Being a savvy and caring consumer, you know you shouldn’t get your PMD from a pet store. You’ve searched local papers and asked all your friends and neighbors but apparently there are no local PMD breeders.
So you hit the Internet. Googling up Peruvian mountain dogs you stumble onto a web site that looks perfect. The site is owner by a breeder who says she’s got puppies from champion bloodlines with impeccable temperament and health. They’re raised in a loving home environment. Her site features pictures of puppies cavorting through fields of clover and snuggling with perfect, smiling babies. And… she’s got PMD puppies ready to go to loving homes right now.
It’s almost too good to be true.
And maybe it is. In a disturbing number of cases, everything you’ve just seen was a lie. The perfect puppies only exist in stock photos (or pictures stolen from another breeders’ website). And their sick, un-socialized parents have never seen the inside of a house, much less a show ring.
It’s awfully easy to lie on the Internet. Because it allows us to carefully control how we communicate with others, the Internet allows dishonest people to present themselves as reputable – and it helps them expose their product to millions of potential buyers. Unscrupulous breeders have discovered they can use Internet puppy sales to present a picture of their operation that’s radically different from the one that actually exists. And through a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act, it’s perfectly legal.
Yup. You read that correctly. Internet pet retailers, even those who breed at very large scales, are not regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). While large scale breeders who to sell to pet stores are regulated by the minimal requirements of the Animal Welfare Act, a breeder could hypothetically keep thousands of breeding dogs and be exempt from its requirements if they only engage in direct sales through the Internet. This is a growing problem, and it’s happening right in our backyard.
Kathy Bauck is the owner and operator of Pick of the Litter (aka Puppies on Wheels) in New York Mills, Minnesota. Bauck’s operation was one of the largest USDA licensed commercial dog breeding and brokering operations in the country until she was convicted of animal cruelty. After her conviction last year, the USDA canceled her license to deal in dogs.
Prior to her conviction, Kathy Bauck pled guilty to practicing veterinary medicine without a license. Bauck, who is not a veterinarian, owned and operated a mobile veterinary service advertised online as “Puppies on Wheels.” She was sentenced to jail time and ordered to cease performing all surgeries.
In spite of a documented history of animal cruelty and flagrant disrespect for the law, the court allowed Bauck to keep more than a thousand dogs. And while officials at USDA have stated that they’ll keep tabs on her operation to make sure her dogs are adequately cared for, they can’t stop her from selling puppies online.
The Animal Welfare Act was passed in 1966 – before the Internet existed. At that time, legislators assumed that exempting breeders who only engaged in direct sales from the Act would allow them to focus on the large scale operations that bred dogs for profit. The idea made sense at the time, but the growing popularity of the Internet has created a loophole that now allows large scale breeding operations to avoid licensing and inspections.
Unfortunately the problem will probably get worse before it gets better. Internet retailers don’t just avoid the need to adhere to minimum care standards, they also get to increase profits by cutting out he middleman (pet shops) and selling their product directly to consumers. And it’s not a uniquely American problem.
Now before I get inundated by hate mail from the millions of breeders who sell puppies on the internet – I want to point out that not all breeders who sell on the Internet are money-grubbing, animal-abusing, mass-producers of misery. The Internet has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives, that most breeders have websites. So consumers need to educate themselves on how to tell the difference between a conscientious breeder and a retailer.
Here are some things to look out for:
A website where the focus is on things like shipping puppies, accepting credit cards and taking down payments is a site that’s probably owned by someone who’s more interested in improving their bottom line than their bloodline. Avoid this retailer.
A breeder whose emphasis is on rare or exotic sizes or colors of a breed – or worse yet – multiple breeds, is focusing primarily on producing size and color. This is not the way to create healthy, well-socialized puppies. Avoid this retailer.
Google the breeder’s phone number. If they’re selling several different breeds (or worse yet, hybrids*) of dogs and/or have lots of ads on the Internet, this is a big red flag. Good breeders typically don’t need a lot of help selling their puppies. In fact, they often have waiting lists. And since it’s extremely difficult to produce well-bred, well-socialized puppies of more than one breed, nearly all good breeders put their valuable time and effort into a single breed.
Avoid breeders who use registries that cater to high-volume breeders and producers of trendy hybrid dogs** – but remember that a pedigree isn’t a guarantee. AKC papers and “champion bloodlines” are no guarantee of quality.
Avoid a breeder that promises you that he has never produced a puppy with any kind of health problem because he’s either a liar or not following up on the health of the puppies he produces. Dogs, like people, are not born perfect. Some degree of inherited health problems is inevitable in any population of animals. A good breeder is aware of the limitations of his dogs and breeds with them in mind.
If you want a happy, healthy puppy you should look for:
A breeder that invites you to visit her home. If the breeder insists on shipping you a puppy sight-unseen or on meeting you at a different location – she’s got something to hide. Good breeders are proud of their dogs and their dirty houses.
A breeder who involved with, or at least a member of, their breed club. The breed club, whether an AKC parent club or breed-specific registry, is a valuable network to share health information and find new breeding stock. A good breeder takes advantage of those benefits.
A breeder that does appropriate health screening tests and publishes the results of those tests – even when they fail. Breed clubs publish lists of recommended health screening tests on their websites. If the club or registry that your breeder is a member of doesn’t recommend any of these tests – go elsewhere. If the breeder isn’t doing recommended testing – don’t accept his excuses. Go elsewhere.
A breeder who produces working dogs, and can prove it. It’s easy to say you breed dogs who become service dogs, search and rescue dogs, stock dogs, agility dogs or obedience champions. The person whose puppies really go on to achieve these things will be happy to put you in touch with the people who bought them. Don’t fall for vague assurances or photos of working dogs. Remember – it’s easy to lie on the Internet.
Internet sales are a growing problem and I’m not sure how it should be solved. Most of the proposed dog breeding legislation I’ve seen was poorly written. These laws typically use the number of dogs a person keeps or sells as a trigger to require a set of strict specifications for husbandry. One problem with this is that dog breeds vary so much that standards that are appropriate for one breed can be wildly inappropriate for another (think malamutes and xoloitzcuintli).
Another problem is that, even when the trigger is a number that represents just a couple of litters a year, standards are typically written for puppies raised in a kennel environment. Nearly all the good breeders I know raise puppies in their houses. Houses that, understandably, don’t meet commercial kennel requirements. So, unless you’re willing to live in a concrete and steel building with floor drains – raising a litter in your kitchen could become a thing of the past.
Some of these problems arise because most of this legislation is promoted by animal rights groups. Groups that not only don’t understand dog breeding but who also – in some cases – want to end all dog breeding. It makes no sense to let people who want to end a business to legislate it, but – given the problems that exist in commercial breeding and internet pet sales – if breeders, registries, and kennel clubs don’t step up to the plate soon to offer better alternatives we may as well resign ourselves to putting up with what they propose.
* I don’t believe that all breeders of hybrid, or purposefully mixed breed, dogs are evil. There are good reasons to cross-breed or out-cross dogs; but unfortunately the people who are doing this well and conscientiously appear to represent less than 1% of the people actually doing it. If the breeder promises you that the hybrid you’re buying inherits only the best and most wonderful qualities of both the parent breeds – run, don’t walk – away. If the breeder isn’t doing health screening tests on his purebred stock, he’s capitalizing on a trend, not breeding healthy puppies. If he produces more than one kind of hybrid – he’s running a commercial operation. Don’t support it.
** These include, but are not limited to, America’s Pet Registry, Inc. (APRI), Continental Kennel Club (CKC), American Canine Association (ACA), America’s Pet Registry (APR), Animal Registry Unlimited (ARU), Dog Registry of America (DRA), Canine Registration and Certification Services (CRCS), Federation of International Canines (FIC), The International Progressive Dog Breeders’ Alliance (IPDBA), National Kennel Club (NKC), North American Purebred Dog Registry (NAPDR), United All Breed Regsitry (UABR), Universal Kennel Club International (UKCI), World Kennel Club International (WKC) and World Wide Kennel Club (WWKC).