Ask Me Anything: Breeding Edition

I get a lot of questions and comments about animals on a wide variety of topics and I try to answer each and every one. When they have wider appeal, I’ll post my response. (If you would like to ask me anything, you can do so in the comments of my Facebook page or through the No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization.)

Recently, I received an email from someone who said she was supportive of my efforts to end shelter killing, but “not supportive of your efforts to force businesses to acquire pets only from shelters and rescues.” She went on to write that,

Someone who wants a soft coated wheaten terrier because it doesn’t shed and is good with children isn’t going to want a pit bull, which is what most shelters have in abundance…

There is and always will be a demand for the predictability of purebred dogs. Hobby breeders will never breed enough dogs to satisfy the demand. Commercial breeders can meet that demand. Commercial breeders are not evil. There are people who should not be breeders. Laws that require minimum standards of humane care are essential as is robust enforcement. PA has good laws in place, laws that actually forced many substandard breeders out of business.

Here’s my response: While I welcome regulation of commercial breeders (in fact, I welcome prohibition of commercial breeding), the overall assertions about dog predictability, adoption demand, consumer preference, shelter dog supply, and need for breeding are wrong for several reasons.

First, it is not true that commercially-bred, purebred animals are better behaved than shelter animals. The literature clearly shows that shelter dogs are more predictable than dogs bred in puppy mills across a wide range of health and temperament issues. In fact, a recent study adds to a growing body of literature that should put to rest, once and for all, the false notion that dogs in shelters are in shelters because there is something wrong with them: “Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter (and are not screened out based on history or behavior at intake or shortly thereafter) are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general.”

Given that far less than 1% of pet dogs bite people, the conclusion is inescapable: shelter dogs are not dangerous. In fact, looking at bite rates that require hospitalization, only 0.01% of dogs (or roughly 1 in 10,000) bite with enough force to cause an injury.

These studies mirror the findings of the most progressive and successful municipal shelters (and those running “open admission” shelters under contract): those saving 99% of dogs. Doug Rae, the director of the Humane Society of Fremont County in Colorado, is instructive. The Fremont Humane Society runs the animal control shelter for seven cities under contract. Rae also previously ran a private shelter in Rhode Island and “open admission”/municipal shelters in Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, including those taking in as many as 30,000 animals per year:

Over the years, I have rarely seen a truly ‘aggressive’ dog. The vast majority are simply scared. I was speaking with a Board member for a shelter on the West Coast last week and she said that her shelter saves 96-97% of the animals and that 3 or 4% are dogs who are aggressive and need to be killed. In my experience, the percentage of truly aggressive dogs I have seen in small to very large shelters is well under one quarter of 1%.

Ironically, research into dogs from commercial breeders shows the opposite: these dogs have deep psychological scarring as a result of the trauma they experience at the facilities. Compared to shelter dogs, commercially-bred dogs exhibited more fear, nervousness, health problems, compulsive behaviors, house soiling, and sensitivity to touch. In some cases, significantly more. Many of these dogs experience “regular and often persistent fear or anxiety, even after years in their adoptive households” as a result of stress-induced psychopathology and inadequate socialization. These dogs have been psychologically damaged. And their offspring may also suffer:

Offspring of pregnant animals exposed to [these kinds of..] stressors have been documented with neurohormonal dysfunction: impaired ability to cope with stress; exaggerated distress responses to adverse events; impaired learning; abnormal social behaviour; increased emotionality and fear-related behaviour; and fearful behaviours that increase with increasing age; increased susceptibility to pathophysiological outcomes when further adversity occurs during adulthood; and behavioural deficits and molecular changes in the offspring similar to those in schizophrenic humans. (Citations omitted.)

A subsequent review of the literature compared the behavior of dogs obtained from pet stores and/or born in breeding establishments and compared them with dogs from other sources to determination causes of behavior problems that occur disproportionately in pet store dogs. It found “that dogs sold through pet stores and/or born in high-volume, commercial breeding establishments (CBE) show an increased number of problem behaviors as adults.”

The findings included:

  • Aggression to people was more than twice as likely in dogs acquired from pet stores compared to those acquired from shelters;
  • Dogs acquired from pet stores were more likely to develop social fears (of strangers, children, and other dogs) than from all other sources;
  • Dogs acquired from pet stores were more likely to be separated from their mothers at a young age and these dogs had a four-fold increase in destructive behaviors;
  • Dogs acquired from pet stores were more excitable, less trainable, had increased separation-related behaviors, escape behavior, and sensitivity to being touched; and,
  • Dogs acquired from pet stores were more likely to house-soil.

In layman’s terms, commercial breeding establishments engage in systematic neglect and abuse toward animals, causing severe emotional scars on the victims. The former breeding dogs living with those scars are a testament to that fact. Not only do one in four have significant health problems, many of them are psychologically and emotionally shut down, compulsively staring at nothing.

Second, it is not the job of rescue groups to ensure that the public has a wide variety of dogs to choose from when adopting; that is an inversion of the mission. Genuine rescue groups should view the public as a tool to help them save at-risk lives irrespective of breed and not as a consumer whose wants they are somehow obligated to fulfill. That said, despite the claim that the choice of dogs in shelters is “mostly pit bulls,” not only is that inaccurate, but many dogs labeled as “pit bulls,” in shelters are, in fact, not. Indeed, studies show that shelters misidentify breed more often than they get it right (one group right calls it “a catch-all term used to describe a continually expanding incoherent group of dogs, including purebred dogs and mixed-breed dogs. A ‘Pit Bull’ is any dog an animal control officer, shelter worker, dog trainer, politician, dog owner, police officer, newspaper reporter or anyone else says is a ‘Pit Bull'”). But perhaps even more to the point, so what if the dogs are Pit Bulls? It’s never been easier to adopt out dogs classified as Pit Bulls, except perhaps to Baby Boomers. Why?

Baby Boomers were shaped by years of anti-Pit Bull propaganda and may not make Pit Bull adoption their first choice. Millennials were not and often do and we can expect the rising, animal-loving post-Millennials (Gen Z) to do the same. But even as to the Boomers, that’s changed from just a few years ago because good science-based information about these dogs is replacing the long-peddled scare tactics about them. One need only look at the dogs in the tony Oakland Hills/Piedmont area — home to Pixar executives, Google techies, and other urban professionals — to see how Golden Retrievers have in large part been replaced by Pit Bulls, Pit-mixes, and rescue mutts.

In short, rescue groups can do a better job of marketing the ethics and benefits of adopting young adult, adult, and mature mixed-breed animals to change community preferences, rather than enabling commercial breeding. While the vast majority of dogs entering shelters are young (the average age is two years old), social/friendly, and healthy, even those who arrive in shelters with health or temperament issues are finding homes in those cities were the shelter has embraced a culture of lifesaving that includes rehabilitative care. Given the increasing success of the No Kill movement, the cliché that no one will adopt out certain breeds, adults, or animals with behavior/medical challenges has been thoroughly debunked.

Third, despite more widespread and affordable sterilization, the claim that rescuers are somehow compelled to meet the demand for puppies is also not only misguided as to the mission, but as to the ready supply of puppies, as well. Puppies are in no danger of disappearing. Puppies in high intake jurisdictions who are being killed could and should be transferred to higher demand jurisdictions, including from U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Once we have saved all of those dogs, we can get puppies from countries on or near our borders who are still dying or suffering. In short, we’re nowhere near concluding that breeding is required to meet public “demand” for dogs as there is no existing or coming dog shortage.

Lastly, but no less importantly, even if we accept the argument — which I do not — that there is a difference between “puppy mills” and “responsible commercial breeders” as is often claimed, dogs and puppies are not commodities. At the very least, they shouldn’t be. Not only because the trade in sentient beings is unethical, but because even if we can show that some breeders are “humane,” there’s a further supply chain that can never fully be. When there is a profit to be made on the backs of dogs, those backs are strained and often broken.

As such, we must continue to expand our efforts to educate the public about puppy — and kitten, rabbit, bird, rodent, and other — mills, the physical deformities or defects that result from inbreeding, the immorality of commodifying animals, the unscientific nature of discriminating against animals on the basis of how they look, the false view of “shelter” animals as damaged goods, the equally false view that purposely-bred animals are more “predictable” and make “better” family pets, and the infatuation with maintaining breed lines.

We must continue to pass bans on the retail sale of commercially-bred animals in pet stores (not just for dogs, but also for cats, rabbits, hamsters, fish, and other animals). We must end the internet trade in commercially-bred animals. We must regulate commercially breeding — setting limits on the number of breeding females they can have, creating dog-generous housing, care, veterinary, exercise, and socialization standards, ensuring cruelty laws apply to them and are robustly enforced, including one-strike rules for serious offenses — and eventually ban them.

While some may argue that a complete ban on commercial (and I would add hobby) breeding is pie in the sky, I believe experience proves otherwise. The late Roger Caras, a former CEO of the ASPCA and Vice-President of HSUS, once said No Kill was so impossible, it “was not worthy of a passing daydream.” Given the immense success of the movement, shelter-killing apologists cannot say those things anymore, and the future looks brighter than ever.

In fact, I am optimistic that when Millennials — who will soon take over as the single largest voting block away from the more regressively-inclined, anti-government Baby Boomers (not all Boomers mind you; but certainly a governing majority) — have their say, we will witness a profound sea change in our civic life, with problems that appeared to prior generations as insurmountable being aggressively, comprehensively, and yes, finally solved.

More progressive attitudes about rescue vs. buying, a rejection of breed-based discrimination, and an embrace of the means and tools necessary to achieve real and lasting change in shelters as well — government accountability, a reinvestment and faith in public institutions as a force for public good, and shelter regulation — will result in younger generations creating a more compassionate and just world for their most beloved dogs, cats, and other animal companions.

And if we do all that — when we do all that — and then we arrive at this mythic place where there aren’t enough dogs for the people who want them — when all 50 U.S. states are No Kill, when its districts and territories are No Kill, and when its neighboring and then not so neighboring countries are No Kill (and I mean truly No Kill, not the Best Friends’ dishonest “90%” variety that allows for the killing of 10%, excludes owner requested killing, deaths in kennel/foster, killing of late-term animals in utero, and also excludes U.S. reservations) — well, then, we can have the discussion about how to ethically respond to demand outstripping supply. But as long as animals are dying in shelters (or lack homes and would benefit from them as some community dogs would), regardless of why they are dying or where they are dying, adoption and rescue remain ethical imperatives — and they should be legal mandates, too.


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