What Is a Puppy Mill?
When I started showing dogs, there were still a good number of large kennels in many breeds, and these were strong supporters of our dog-community. This went on for the next few years, which to my mind, was the heyday of dog shows. (Of course, it is certainly possible that fond memories color that opinion.)
With almost all these breeding kennels gone, it has primarily been left to individuals to fill the void of producing healthy dogs to go on to strengthen or improve their breed. Unfortunately, we have also seen a proliferation of “designer breeds,” doodles and dogs being adopted rather than purchasing a purebred dog. (Under the proper circumstances, I have no problem with dogs being adopted — all dogs deserve loving families.)
I recently had a discussion with a couple of very good "dog people" about how many litters is the right number — whatever that means. I reached out to some significant people in our community for their input. Among the questions I asked were:
How do you describe a "puppy mill"?
Is it the number of litters produced in a specific period of time?
It has been suggested that due to the popularity of designer breeds, maybe we need to produce MORE litters so the public has more choices. What do you think?
Do you think we are pricing ourselves out of the pet market?
What do you think is the proper number of litters a "good breeder" should produce in a year?
What other factors should be considered when breeding a litter?
An astute judge – who still breeds and shows – gave me something to think about when he said, “Someone who breeds in volume for cash without careful breeding choices to preserve or advance the breed” is a puppy mill. He went on to describe a puppy mill as someone who does not screen puppy homes, and that frequent breeding of the same bitch is a characteristic. He also pointed out that one of the conclusions of the AKC High Volume Breeder study about 15 years ago suggested that maybe we need to produce more litters so the public has more choices, and that good breeders were not meeting the market need. He also does not think we are pricing ourselves out of the pet market by reminding me to check out the prices on doodles. (However, I think our prices do add to the number of families who adopt rather than go to a breeder.) He further thinks that as long as a breeder has good homes for puppies, there is no specific number of litters that matters.
A respected international judge says, "In my opinion, whoever breeds with a goal of improving the breed quality, while caring for health both clinical and genetic, showing regularly at dog shows (to compare his/her stock to others), is a reputable breeder. I don’t mind how many pups they produce per year. On the other hand, whoever breeds exclusively with a goal of earning money, I consider them ‘puppy mills,’ in spite of the number of pups bred.” She also stated that a reputable breeder spends the time necessary to provide the care — and socialization — needed for any puppy to grow up as a well-adjusted adult. She agrees that many times we are pricing ourselves out of the pet market.
Many knowledgeable breeders and judges pointed out that it depends on the breed, indicating important considerations are how many pups are in a litter and how easily good homes can be found for this breed. A breeder says, “I do not think that the answers to these questions are a blanket response. The breed of dog is the first variable that needs to come into the equation. Now, the number-one breed according to AKC registrations is the French Bulldog. I see good responsible breeders have four or five litters a year. They have a market for the pet puppies, which is good, if they are careful where they sell those puppies and protect their future. Protecting their future, in my opinion, is eliminating the ability of the owners to breed their puppy down the road. Personally, with my breed [Sighthound], there really is no pet market. And there shouldn't be! It takes a very special home to have a [Sighthound] as a pet.
“As far as the designer breeds, the public will move on to another new favorite, usually determined by a popular movie with that dog or a hoax promise of being ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘doesn't shed.’ I believe the best way to get well-bred, healthy puppies with the pet public is through education. It should start in the schools with a speaker in the classroom, like a veterinarian. Those children would go home and hopefully share their new knowledge with their parents. Breeding should be done with health testing and all for the betterment of that breed. Breed for yourself first, knowing that you are the only one who is responsible for those babies from birth until the end of their lives. Are you financially able to provide for this entire litter, come what may? Do you have the time that is required to go above and beyond the usual time for a litter, come what may? Not every litter goes smoothly, and there are heartaches along the way. Are you emotionally and physically prepared to deal with these things, come what may? The greatest joy a breeder can experience is the success of a healthy litter and mother. And as far as the description of a puppy mill, anyone who breeds dogs strictly for profit and has no regard for the welfare of the puppies and/or the mother is one.”
A knowledgeable judge and breed-advocate has many significant questions for us to consider. “Since the times have changed, and gone are the days of the breeding kennels, do you breed for what the market can support or to advance your breed? Now we have more hobbyist breeders and many only breed when they want a puppy, not to necessarily develop or maintain a line. Should breeders only breed a litter if they have homes for all the puppies, knowing they already have homes to go to?” As for her last question, the breeder should have future homes ready or be willing — and able — to maintain the litter until all pups have good forever homes.
As with many others, she sees the purpose of the breeding to be important, and if the only or primary reason for the breeding is financial then this falls into the realm of a puppy mill. “I think the number of litters produced depends on too many factors to put a number on how many, and to label an individual a puppy mill. Sometimes, it is necessary to breed multiple litters if you are trying to maintain a line or have a bitch aging out.”
She does not believe puppy-mill breeders run health clearances or care about physical and mental socialization. She also correctly shares responsibility with the owner of the stud dog. “As a stud owner, do you breed to an inferior bitch or stand by your principles of only breeding for quality — both health and conformation? Do you put a limit on how many times a stud dog is used or is the consideration the quality of the bitch and breeding line?”
A Sporting-breed breeder points to the focus of the breeding. “Is one doing it for the right reasons (i.e., breeding the next generation of good-quality, healthy dogs adding to the future of a particular breed)?” She says puppy mills will produce as many puppies as the market will bear without concern for the qualifications of prospective owners, or health concerns. She does agree that sometimes it is difficult for true pet owners to get a good dog from a “reputable” breeder, but points out that many breeders have older (retired) dogs who could use a good home. She agrees that we may be pricing ourselves out of the pet market, but that if someone is willing — and able — to pay that, it is an indication that the puppy will be well taken care of.
Another talked about how many litters is the “right” number. “This shouldn't even be an issue or consideration. Some bitches have puppies easily and remain healthy. No one should say you cannot breed a healthy, free-whelping girl. Some don't do a great job, or have a hard time, and possibly those shouldn't be bred again. But to set an arbitrary number is just that: arbitrary.
“Decades ago, kennels would produce numerous puppies, and while there were still some substandard breeders, they were filling a need, and there were NO Hunt Corporations or other large-scale commercial breeding companies. So it's quite possible that we've bought in to the animal-rights mantra and shot ourselves in the foot. People will pay an exorbitant amount for a mixed-breed mutt, Doodle DuJour, without so much as an eye clearance. We just do a poor job of educating the public on getting what you pay for. A dog with stifle issues will be $6,000 to $7,000 for surgery/rehab. Getting a well-bred dog that shouldn't have those issues actually saves them not only money, but heartbreak. If breeders were not meant to feel like they are bad for having a few litters every year, we may not have the crazy importation of purebred dogs being bred overseas, then sold to America as ‘rescues,’ Golden Retrievers coming from Turkey being a prime example. There aren't hordes of Goldens running wild and breeding in Turkey needing rescue — some people were smart over there and recognized that Americans have a want to rescue, but they still want a purebred dog. They easily filled that need. What if American breeders simply filled those homes?”
A long-time breeder adds that a puppy mill is an “unhealthy environment where sire and dam are not health tested, puppies are not socialized or cared for properly. Further, it is a place where anyone with money can leave with a dog — no questions asked. Breeding and raising healthy, well-socialized puppies takes time, effort and money. If you are able to raise multiple litters, good for you! One key element is whether or not you can always take back any dog you bred at any time for any reason. Life throws people unexpected challenges, and they need to know that as a breeder you will step up and take a dog back. Same goes for stud-dog owners. If you allow your dog to be bred, you should be ready to step up and take responsibility for the get of that dog — especially if the owner of the litter has died and is no longer a resource. I abhor people who own stud dogs and don't think they have any responsibility about dogs sired by their dog.”
I agree completely. Those heart-wrenching ads to adopt a dog aren’t for purebred dogs from good American breeders. For the most part, our breeders make it a point to make sure their puppies are put in forever homes. Sometimes, due to unusual circumstances — such as the death of an owner or another devastating situation — the dog can no longer stay in that home. Legitimate breeders will take these dogs back or find another good home for them. We take care of our own, and value quality over quantity. A true breeder cares more about her puppies living long, happy lives with their forever homes rather than the number of ribbons won.
What do you think?