Thursday, August 13, 2015

Why didn't I get a rescue dog?

Aren't there supposed to be birds in here?

In these polarizing times, people feel increasingly comfortable breaking everything into simple dichotomies and attacking people, even absolute strangers, online or in person, for being on the “wrong side.” I’ve only had a few people tell me to my face that I should have gotten a rescue dog rather than my purebred Pip, but yesterday I spent time with the happy owner of a golden retriever puppy and she’s having to deal with a lot of people trying to make her feel guilty.

Rescuing dogs in trouble and giving them a loving and permanent home is a noble, rewarding, and important thing to do. My daughter and son-in-law rescued a pit bull from a shelter in New York, and put in time, hard work, and commitment to ensure that Muxy is happy and secure, and that other dogs are safe around her. That last part of the equation has been the hardest—she’s both fearful and aggressive toward other dogs—but they understand their responsibilities and have worked hard, with professional trainers and on their own, to make Muxy’s life a good one without harming anyone else.

Michael, Katie, and Muxy
The time and commitment it takes to work with a rescue dog must be taken seriously, and should never be a requirement for pet ownership. Guilting people into adopting a rescue dog can lead to horror stories. Many kind-hearted people who do adopt a dog with health or behavioral issues end up with far more than they can handle, physically, financially, and emotionally. A great many of these dogs end up being “rehomed” again and again. And many people end up with a dog they truly love but cannot manage—people with the gentle, non-dominating personality most susceptible to being guilted into getting a rescue dog in the first place are often exactly the ones who end up with a dog who needs a much more domineering owner in order to be well-adjusted and happy in a world where they’ll be encountering lots of people and dogs.

Some of us simply cannot put the necessary time, effort, and commitment into dealing with the health or behavioral issues that land puppies and dogs in rescue facilities. It's best for every person who wants a dog to be realistic from the start about our needs and capabilities. There is nothing wrong with wanting a puppy that had an ideal start, of a breed whose temperament matches our lifestyle and temperament—indeed, people who have done the research and put in the time and commitment to choosing the right breed and breeder are to be congratulated, not condemned. 

We all should be supporting ideal breeders: those who work hard to ensure the safest genetic combinations, provide the best conditions for their breeding dogs and puppies, keep the puppies for a minimum of 10 weeks to ensure they have enough time with siblings to work them through their mouthing/biting stage and enough time with their mother to get them started on housebreaking, feed their adult dogs and puppies high-nutrition food, provide socializing and enrichment experiences for the puppies, make sure they have a gentle start on necessary vaccinations, get them microchipped, and make sure they don’t have any recognizable genetic defects that are going to give them a shortened or painful lifespan. These are also the people who make sure that the people adopting their puppies are going to be good, responsible dog owners.

Breeders who don’t guarantee their puppies’ health and who don’t guarantee that they will take the puppies back for any reason at any time are not likely to be ideal breeders. But some breeders who do take puppies back without questions simply send them off to a breed rescue group to be "rehomed." This is of course not bad in and of itself, but these rescue groups may cause more harm than good if they don’t keep track of the breeders shuttling dogs off to them and work to put irresponsible ones out of business.

It’s ironic that many of the people who feel morally superior by rescuing dogs are actually supporting the very system that makes puppy mills and irresponsible breeding increasingly lucrative. Most rescue organizations charge hundreds of dollars for adoptions, and more and more humane societies and other dog rescue groups have been working WITH the worst breeders to take their unwanted dogs rather than exposing them and putting them out of business. And the people adopting these dogs get saddled with a decade or more of vet bills and the heartbreak of seeing a beloved pet suffer from painful, crippling, and life-shortening conditions.

Looking at long-term, sustainable solutions to pet overpopulation, the very first step is to end puppy mills entirely. As long as the AKC collects registration fees for every pedigreed puppy regardless of whether it comes from a responsible breeder or a puppy mill, the AKC is a serious part of the problem—and one that profits directly from puppy mills.

I was thrilled to find the Havana Silk Dog Association of America, which broke away entirely from the AKC to ensure that their breeders all take responsibility for the health of these lovely little dogs. The Havanese is an old breed, originally from Cuba and popular in Europe since the 1800s (Charles Dickens had one for his children). It wasn’t recognized by the American Kennel Club until 1996, but because of its small size, “hypo-allergenic” coat, and sweet and easy-going temperament, it quickly rose in popularity until now it’s #25 of all breeds.

That rise in popularity provided a lucrative market for puppy mills and irresponsible breeders. Several serious and life-shortening health issues are associated with some easily identifiable conditions, so the Havanese Club of America developed a system to encourage widespread participation of seven recommended tests for eye disease (CERF), congenital deafness (BAER), patella luxation, cardiac diseases, hip dysplasia, hip joint disorder (Legg-Calve-Perthes), and elbow dysplasia, and encouraged breeders to submit all their dogs’ test results to the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) program. Testing required for a Havanese to receive a CHIC certificate includes OFA BAER, OFA Hips, OFA Patellas, and annual CERF exams.

A group of breeders and the Havanese Club of America tried to make passing those tests a requirement for a dog to be registered with the AKC, but the AKC simply doesn’t allow that—their only concern is pedigree. So the Havana Silk Dog Association of America broke away. My Pip passed all those tests before she left the breeder, and has provisional registration with the HSDAA, but she won’t be fully registered until she’s a year old and has passed the tests again. The AKC should be following this or a similar procedure with all breeds, but they get far, far more paid registrations, and thus profits, from they way they do it now.

As long as the AKC gets a fee for each registered purebred without consideration of health or the conditions of kennels, they’re directly profiting from the most egregious puppy mills, where the majority of pedigreed dogs come from. The burden is on those of us who buy purebred puppies to make sure the breeder we decide on follows best practices.

But as long as rescue groups sell puppies directly or indirectly from those very puppy mills and irresponsible breeders, they’re contributing to this unconscionable practice. They justify the high price of adoption as essential for continuing their operations, but without working to put out of business those puppy mills and irresponsible breeders, this will be a never-ending cycle. People who unquestioningly get dogs from them have no justifiable claim of superiority over those who buy puppies from good breeders.

In a perfect world, every puppy would be bred by a knowledgeable and responsible breeder to be healthy and sound, get at least ten weeks of proper and enriching care inside the breeder's home with its mother and siblings, and every person would choose his or her puppy based on a firm understanding of that breed’s unique needs and temperament. In that perfect world, the only time puppies would ever need to be rescued would be when an owner had to give one up due to death, serious illness, or other unforeseeable event and something had happened to make it impossible for the breeder to take it back.

That perfect world is far from what we have today, but we must keep our eyes on the long-term goal even as we deal with short-term solutions. Everyone who adopts a puppy or dog has a responsibility to investigate where it came from. “Rescue” organizations that work with puppy mills are perpetuating the problem. Meanwhile, responsible breeding today is the only way we will be able to ensure healthy, sound dogs with predictable temperaments and abilities for the future. 


  1. Here's a great resource about the ethics of breeding.

  2. I think if you're going to accept the huge responsibility that is dog ownership, you should get whatever dog you want! Don't settle for a dog you don't really want just because you feel like you "should".

    Fred | Pet Insurance U


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