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cropping, docking, and dewclaws, oh my, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership

Cropping and docking are going away. Which side of history will your breed be on?

Some years ago a fellow came to my office and insisted that he needed to dock the tail of his dog. I asked, “How will your dog be better when it doesn’t have a tail?” He replied, “Well, that’s the standard of gundog owners associations around the world.” I said, “Who cares?”

(Alan Ashton, veterinarian, New South Wales, Hansard, April 06, 2004)

I have a sixteen-year-old daughter who is just about to breed her first litter. She is entering the dog fancy at the very end of two hundred years of show-breeding-based cosmetic surgery in the United States.

By the time she is the age I am now, most of the states in the US will have passed cropping and docking bans. The few states that remain without laws on the books will have no vets who perform the procedures, effectively ending the practice of cropping. A few breeders will still dock at home, but most pet owners will consider the sight of a cropped or docked dog to be unusual, and many will consider it repulsive.

When Honour goes to dog shows with me in 2015, surrounding her are hundreds of cropped and docked dogs. In 2040, assuming she is still in the fancy, there will be few or none.

I can feel you gearing up for an argument about your breed, its history, what’s allowable and what freedom means.

Shut your mouths.

We are beyond arguing about whether cropping or docking are ethical for breeders to do. The argument has already been settled. The veterinary leadership took the position that cosmetic cropping and docking was wrong in the 1970s.1 Since then, its position has only strengthened.2 The rejection of cropping/docking is not confined to the veterinary profession, either – it has moved into the philosophical,3 legal,4 and public perception.5

The veterinary community had a general feeling in the 70s, but science had progressed enough by the 1990s to make researchers certain that dogs did feel pain from both procedures. Again, if you’re taking a breath to say that baby puppies don’t feel pain when they’re docked, you are completely and totally wrong. 6 It’s also false that it’s less painful to dock during puppyhood than amputate in adulthood.7 And if you insist on either one of these things, you are not only perpetuating a falsehood,8 you just make us look even more stupid.9

By 2008, not only was it certain that the procedures caused pain, it was certain that they did not provide anything close to a compensatory benefit. Undocked dogs have very few tail injuries. 10 Cropping does not prevent ear infections.11 The implementation of cropping/docking on “working breeds” is so inconsistent as to be laughable.12 The jig is up; nobody believes you when you say it’s for a working purpose.13

So in 2009, the AVMA released a new policy, one that did not just advise against cropping and docking but condemned it. This policy change was not initiated by any communication with the animal rights lobby;14 it was the result of a genuine groundswell of opinion among the veterinary community.

The show-breeding community is the only group that still wants dogs to be docked or cropped, and we’ve effectively moved (in veterinary perception) from an institution that is somewhat quaint and set in its ways to a source of active cruelty. 15

When I bought my first Great Dane, there were vets in almost every state who would do a decent show crop. An extensive network of home croppers was general knowledge in the community. Fifteen years later, breeders are traveling across half the country to find one of the few vets who will still do a show crop.

This is not a coincidence.

The vets who support breeders’ desire to crop are older; a huge number of them have retired in the last couple of decades. In the next twenty years, virtually all of the remaining show-cropping vets will retire or die. They will not be replaced. And home cropping is now so universally condemned in vet schools that the story of a show cropper who wants assistance to crop at home is used as a test case in veterinary ethics textbooks.16

No matter how much you may try to deny it, the facts are inescapable. No matter how you feel about docking and cropping, they are no longer going to be an option very soon.

So what are you going to do now – as breeders, as parent clubs, as ambassadors of your breed?

Here’s what is NOT going to work:

1) The “Then I’ll take my ball and go home” solution: If we’re not allowed to dock or crop, threaten to stop breeding.

All this would do is confirm to the entire world that the right to be able to cut off pieces of your dogs is more important to you than the dogs themselves. It would be a very public admission of an extremely unattractive attitude, and would turn the public against show breeders with great efficiency.

2) The “Throw lobbying money at it” solution: Insist that this is just “AR nonsense” and that if you give enough money to the NAIA or push the AKC hard enough this will all go away. 

First, the move toward banning docking and cropping is not “Animal rights nonsense.” Not only is it not the result of animal rights lobbying, it is not nonsense. What IS nonsense is saying that cropping and docking don’t hurt dogs. Throwing money at perpetuating nonsense is doomed to failure over the long term, and it should be.

Second, by trying to push this as a legislative agenda, you are positioning show breeders AGAINST the world’s veterinarians and AGAINST the world’s legal ethicists. Is that really a place we want to put ourselves? Or are we dooming ourselves to look abusive and blind when history looks back and considers this question?

Here’s what you SHOULD be doing:

1) Rewrite your standards now, not when you’re forced to. 

Parent clubs have a VERY limited window of time in which to represent a standard change as their own idea and not something rammed down their throats.

2) Publicize your club’s decision.

You have the opportunity to gain a huge amount of goodwill among the decision-makers of the veterinary community, the legislature, and pet owners if you are perceived as being ahead of the curve on this topic. This well of goodwill is getting shallower by the year. Do it now and do it very loudly.

3) Stop making excuses, pull your head out of the sand, wake up and smell the coffee, or whatever cliché makes you change your rhetoric.

There is no rational justification for cosmetic docking and cropping and there never has been. The only situation that made it so easy to perpetuate was a lack of absolute certainty about the causing of pain both immediate and long-term. That era is over.

4) Spend the goodwill and the publicity you gained in step 2 to educate vets and the public on something that’s both defensible AND pro-dog.

“We’re glad to get our breed in the news for this wonderful reason. We want to invite everyone to come out to the shows and see how dedicated our breeders are to the welfare of their breeds.”

“We hope this decision encourages more people to get involved in our wonderful breed; if you’re interested in becoming a responsible breeder, visit our website.”

“We hope this decision affirms our dedication to providing the very best care for all dogs. If you’d like to learn more about evidence-based breeding, including what veterinary interventions we support and which ones we don’t, check out our homepage.”

The bottom line: Now is the time to act. Being truthful, humane, and proactive will, in the public’s eyes, earn us the right to continue to have a voice in the national dialog about dogs. If we reject any of those three principles, we’re proclaiming ourselves to be unreliable, and we will be treated as such when it comes to vital dog arguments in the decades to come.

Notes on the footnotes: None of the sources are from animal rights publications or from the research arm of any animal-rights-oriented institution. They are from mainstream peer-reviewed journals and AVMA publications. The AVMA is not an animal-rights-friendly organization; it actively supports ownership rather than guardianship language, disbudding and dehorning, the use of animals in research, and so on. 

My statements on state cropping/docking bans are based on the rapidly accelerating pace of docking/cropping lawmaking and proposed bans. Test-case laws are being proposed virtually every year, and (as with most sea changes in public perceptions) are likely to succeed in one or more of the New England states, California, or Oregon within the next few years. Vermont already has a sort-of ban, as of 2006 (Vermont didn’t have any vets who would crop, so the ban did not have any teeth, but it was enacted). Once a true ban is enacted, a half-dozen other states will follow quickly, and then the court of public opinion will create a sweep. 

I am leaving the comments open but cautiously. Please do not comment that puppies do not feel pain or are not affected by docking/cropping; I’ve already posted the studies that establish that they do. Any statement of fact in a comment must be backed up by a cite, and the strength of the cites must be high.

  4. “Two recent cases have opened the door to successful animal cruelty prosecutions for ear cropping and tail docking. First, in Hammer v. American Kennel Club, a dog owner brought a discrimination suit against the AKC alleging that a docked tail standard effectively excluded his dog from participating in competitions, as the owner believed tail docking to be a form of animal cruelty. Although the court dismissed the action on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted, and this case had no effect on the previous decision in Rogers , the court did specifically state that the anti-cruelty law could be construed to prohibit tail docking for cosmetic purposes as unjustifiable mutilation. Additionally, in a pointed dissent, N.Y. Supreme Court (Appellate Division) Justice Ellerin states, “Assuming arguendo that the protection of hunting dogs against tail injuries justifies docking the tails of hunting dogs, it is not a justification for docking the tails of non-hunting dogs . . . for the purposes of AKC competitions.”
  5. From a very lay-oriented article in WSJ: “Some dogs growl before biting and some don’t; the canine body speaks louder than the voice. That is why dogs whose tails are docked or ears cropped lose some of their linguistic fluency.”
  6. Noonan G, Rand J, Blackshaw J, et al. Behavioural observations of puppies undergoing tail docking. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1996;4: 335-342. Also Fitzgerald M. (1994). – The neurobiology of fetal and neonatal pain. In A textbook of pain (P.D. Wall & R. Melzack, eds), 3rd Ed. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 153-163
  7. “It has also been suggested that accidental tail trauma to the adult dog causes more suffering than amputation early in life. However, puppies are rarely provided analgesia when their tails are docked and the short-and long-term effects of painful procedures in neonates of many species are well documented.” LaPrarie JL, Murphy AZ. Long Term Impact of Neonatal Injury in Male and Female Rats: Sex Differences, Mechanisms and Clinical Implications. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 2010;31:193-202.
  8. “A survey conducted in Australia in 1996 found that 76% of veterinarians surveyed believed that tail docking causes significant to severe pain, with none believing that no pain is experienced. In contrast, 82% of dog breeders believed that docked puppies experience no, or only mild pain.” Bennett and Perini, “Tail docking in dogs: a review of the issues,” Australian Veterinary Journal, April 2003, vol. 81, no. 4, p. 209.
  9. “Indeed, whereas most veterinarians state that tail docking causes significant or severe pain and should not be continued (despite its potential as a source of income), most breeders believe that docking is not painful or causes little pain, and want it to continue. It is reasonable to assume that veterinarians, being in closer contact with animals that are suffering through being ill or wounded, are better informed on tail damage than breeders. Moreover, veterinarians are trained to recognise typical pain behaviour, and this recognition significantly increases the ability to distinguish between painful and less painful treatments, for instance in rats (44). Such divided opinions raise questions about the vested interests of the breeders, the breed societies which set the breed standards and the information which they distribute to their members and elsewhere.”
  10. “These justifications for docking working dogs’ tails lack substantial scientific support. In the largest study to date on tail injuries in dogs the incidence was 0.23% and it was calculated that approximately 500 dogs need to be docked to prevent one tail injury.”   Diesel G, Pfeiffer D, Crispin S, et al. Risk factors for tail injuries in dogs in Great Britain. Vet Rec 2010;166:812-817.
  11. “Otitis externa incidence, however, is most closely associated with particular breeds within each group (whether ears are hanging or erect), and is especially prevalent in Cocker Spaniels, Poodles, and German Shepherd Dogs. … (But) no group deems a high incidence of otitis externa a valid reason for advocating routine cropping of the ears of Cocker Spaniels or Poodles. … Breeds such as Cocker Spaniels seem to be predisposed to otitis externa due to a greater density of apocrine glands and a predisposition to proliferative ceruminous gland hyperplasia (i.e., proliferation of cells) and ectasia (i.e., dilation or distension). This clustering of risk factors suggests the risk of otitis externa in pedigreed dogs must be considered on a breed-by-breed basis, and that grouping study samples by ear shape (e.g., pendulous or erect) may not be justified”
  12. “Differences between breeds that are docked and those that are not are often minor.  For example among the very similar Pointer, German Longhaired Pointer and German Shorthaired Pointer, only the German Shorthaired Pointer is traditionally docked.”
  13. “Based on current knowledge and ethical considerations, authors of many previous articles, as well as official veterinary associations, have concluded that tail docking cannot be considered as a prophylactic measure to prevent damage caused by practices such as hunting. From an ethical point of view, these articles and opinions examine which item carries most weight: the suffering of the whole newborn population of traditionally docked breeds or the pain felt by the few individuals possibly requiring an amputation in adulthood.”
  14. “How it came about: The AVMA position on Ear Cropping and Tail Docking of Dogs, most recently approved in 1999, was up for evaluation by the Animal Welfare Committee as part regular reviews of all AVMA policies by their oversight councils and committees. “The reason this came up is because of the review requirement. We were not approached by the HSUS; we were not approached by PETA; nor did anyone else call to ask us to change the policy,” Dr. Golab said.
  15. “I think we can all agree that snipping off puppies ears and tails serves no purpose other than to satisfy some archaic notion of how a dog should look by an out-of-touch institution.”
  16. “A local schnauzer breeder with whom you have worked for the last five years wants to buy a bottle of Innovar-vet…”
raising your puppy, Responsible Ownership

How much should puppies be exercised?

Those of you who are Facebook friends know that puppy exercise has been a bee buzzing around my bonnet for a while now.

Recently, there has been a flurry of “shares” for a few puppy exercise recommendations. All of them suggest restricting puppy exercise rather dramatically. Advice is given to calculate a certain number of minutes per day based on how old the puppy is (five minutes per month, for example) or to restrict walks to a few hundred feet or play dates to fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. The strong implication is that you will hurt (injure, even destroy the joints of) your puppy if you do not follow this advice.

My Facebook discussions showed that when I expressed horror and disbelief gentle doubt about these recommendations, the immediate assumption was that I was criticizing the person or people who put them together. Since that’s the last thing I want – I don’t personally know any of them, and they are probably amazing humans – I am not going to go piece by piece through the recommendations and explain or rebut. I’m just going to offer a chart of my own, based on the way we raise our puppies and on the advice we give to our puppy buyers. Clicking on the image will download the graphic as a PDF, which you are welcome to distribute at will.

If I can have you take anything away from my personal feelings on exercise, please let it be this: Puppies do best when they exercise all day long. They really are, biologically, wolves. That means that aside from breeds whose face shapes necessitate more caution – obviously, you know your breed best – once they are past the infant stage they should be hard, fast little rubber bands, who can easily move from a day-long play date to a run by the ocean or a child-paced hike up a mountain. If they cannot make those transitions, they need MORE exercise, not less. A well-exercised puppy is a protected puppy. Soft, underexercised babies who are asked to be weekend warriors (when they are used to barely moving during the week) are the ones who are injured. The only “bad” exercise is forced exercise. Never force, never jump, and never roadwork a puppy. Aside from those rules, the more the better.


Puppy exercise poster

buying a puppy, Responsible Ownership

The “signs of a backyard breeder” that are completely and utterly wrong


Our potential puppy buyers pass the pages around. New breeders, enthusiastic about their membership with the “good guys,” share them too. They are printed and re-printed and gathered by online dog magazines, shelters, even breed clubs.

And they are fatally, horribly wrong.

Let’s take a look at the ten worst “signs of a backyard breeder.”

1. Beware if the breeder doesn’t show their dogs in conformation shows.


Good breeders know the value of peer review, and they seek out ways to prove their dogs and to “take their temperature” as breeders. However, saying that the only definition of good breeding is breeding for the conformation ring ignores a vast and extremely valuable network of performance and working breeders.

Good conformation is important to ALL dogs. No matter what they do. But it’s nothing but hubris to say that the conformation ring is the only place good breeders evaluate their dogs. Remember that the original point of the conformation ring was to judge working dogs against each other. The working came first.

If your breed is one with a working history, the ability to do its historic job should ALWAYS be the boundaries that shape your breeding efforts. If the conformation ring is the best and most demanding place to test whether you’ve done a good job as a breeder, then you should go there. If it’s not – if the best and most demanding test for how well you’re doing as a breeder is the sheep pen or the field trial or the performance ring – then that’s where you should be. And nobody should ever even hint that you’re someone to beware of.

2. Beware if the breeder doesn’t allow you to see the parents. A responsible breeder should be more than willing to allow you to meet the parents of your future puppy.


For the vast majority of good breedings, both parents will not be on site. You may be able to meet mom, but dad is quite unlikely. As a matter of fact, it’s a bigger red flag if all the dads are on site (meaning the person breeds only to her own dogs and never seeks out a good match elsewhere).

It’s also a huge generalization to say that I should be “more than willing” to have you meet the mom dog. That depends entirely on how old the puppies are, how she’s feeling about strangers touching them, and whether she’s in shape to be seen (you know what I mean – there is going to be a time when mom is a naked rat with skin and backbone showing, and maybe I’m not ready to have you, oh sweet puppy buyer, Instagram her all over the world). Mom dogs are individuals, just like humans. It’s not a bad sign, or a signal that she’s not a good dog or that her puppies won’t be good dogs, if she doesn’t like seeing complete strangers mauling her kids.

3. Beware if the breeder doesn’t allow you to visit. It is vital to see where the puppies are being raised.


I used to believe this too – until I began reading the news. I also realized that in every other area of our lives, we take sensible and normal precautions about who comes in the house. But for puppy buyers, it was “Can you type my e-mail address? Then sure, come on over.” I was giving an incredible amount of access to my home, my dogs and puppies, my young daughters, and myself without ever having met the people who were walking in.

So now, if you ask to come over, the answer is no. Instead, we do group visits at set times. My husband and I make sure that multiple adults we know and trust are there for the visits, so we can welcome you – but welcome you wisely. If you cannot come for one of the group visits, I will meet a potential buyer anywhere convenient for them, and we usually turn it into a group get-together with all the buyers and friends from that area. It’s a great system. And it makes me feel much more secure about what’s coming in my front door.

4. Beware if the breeder breeds several types of dogs. The purpose of a responsible breeder is to better the breed. How are they able to do that if they are focusing on different breeds?


New breeders usually have only one breed in the house. However, one of the truly pleasurable rewards of maturing in your breed is realizing that you have the time and energy and structure to indulge in a breed that you’ve always loved.

(For some reason, this seems to be Frenchies, like, ALL THE TIME. You Frenchie breeders are creating the “big bowl of ice cream for breakfast” of the dog breeder world, I swear.)

Some breeders who have always had big go small. Others have fun with a coated breed when they had wash and wear coats, or vice versa. Sometimes they’ve got kids or grandkids who want a different breed. There’s no “right” reason to get into a second breed, except that you love them and you want to. And the breeders who have a second breed (or a third breed) usually do just as fantastic a job with them as they’re doing with their first breed.

5. Beware if the breeder doesn’t issue a spay/neuter contract. Very few people are qualified to breed. A responsible breeder will issue a limited registration contract and require that you fix your dog by a certain age.


And also elitist. Before we even get into the spay/neuter, any statement like “very few people are qualified to breed” will lead to a polite invitation from me to go soak your head. Breeding well takes commitment and sacrifice and money and incredibly hard work, but it does NOT take some kind of educational or income level and it is not granted along with a silver spoon. Anyone willing to put in the effort deserves to try.

Now – the real issue: NO, good breeders do not always insist on a spay/neuter contract and do NOT require that you neuter or spay at a certain age. The health-consequences pendulum has completely swung on this, and any breeder still insisting on an early spay/neuter needs to get educated fast. It is BAD for your bitch to be spayed young, and it’s arguably BAD for your male dog to be neutered ever in his life.

A good breeder will generally insist that you not BREED a non-breed-worthy dog, but they should not be insisting on a spay/neuter contract.

6. Beware if the breeder often has puppies available. Most responsible breeders will create a wait list of people who are interested in their puppies and will only breed when they have enough people to adopt the majority of the litter.


This is one of the incredibly pervasive lies that get passed around, even to the point that many good breeders nod when they hear it. It’s also a really fast way to completely torpedo a breeding program.

As a breeder, you are breeding for YOURSELF. You are not breeding for the demand of buyers, to impress your peers, to do a favor to the stud dog owner, or anything else. You are putting seven or eight or ten puppies on the earth because YOU believe that YOUR breeding program will be brought forward by this breeding. You are responsible to the dogs and to yourself. Nobody else.

“Only breed when you have enough people” makes it sound like it’s a tap you can just turn on and off – oh, there’s my fourth reservation! DING! Quick, go out there and impregnate Molly!

Dogs do not work that way. The windows your bitch gives you to breed her are going to be few and short. The stud dogs ideal for her are going to be far away and difficult to get. If you can do a breeding that moves your program forward, for heaven’s sake, DO IT. Do it and be thrilled that you had the opportunity.

7. Beware if the breeder isn’t active in breed specific clubs. Membership to any of these clubs shows the breeder is willing to continue learning to help the improve the breed.


This is pretty personal for me, because I am not a member of our national club. I am not a member because I and the entire body of dog-related science believe that the club’s Code of Ethics is bad for the breed. So science and I got together and agreed that we weren’t going to breed that way, which means no membership for me.

For other people, there are any number of other reasons that they are not members of a club. What’s really going on – the root of the matter – is that the IDEA of an AKC parent club is great. The way it is supposed to function and the goals it’s supposed to have are incredibly valuable to good breeders.

If your club has managed to maintain a reality that is close to the idea, then that is awesome and you should be a member. If your club makes you scream at the computer all the time and you can’t go to the annual general meetings because you know you’ll start screaming at real people, then maybe it’s not such a great requirement.

8. Good breeders line up qualified buyers in advance of birth of a litter and rarely ever advertise.

FALSE. Oh my goodness, so dang false. (Links to an old article of mine that is likely to have some broken links and old data, but the point is still valid.) Again, SO SUPER DUPER FALSE.

9. Beware if the breeder offers to ship their dogs to new owners without meeting them first—a responsible breeder meets the new parents before she sends her pups home with them.


Before I get going, my puppy owners are not “parents.” They bought a puppy from me; they are owners.

Now, on to shipping: Shipping is one of the greatest forces for good in the dog world that you can possibly imagine. Before shipping was easy and safe, the regions of the country were islands. There were “West Coast” and “East Coast” styles of the same breed. If you were a breeder, you either bred your girls to the same few boys in your area or you put your bitch on a train and hoped she would be OK when she got off in a week.

Shipping is also an enormous boon for puppy buyers – yes, even pet buyers – because they can seek out many more breeders who are a good match for their needs and their households. As a result, many breeders ship out half or even more of each litter, and they do it to families that they’ve never met in person.

The question is NOT whether a breeder has met a buyer. The question is whether the breeder has done enough homework to determine if this is going to be a good home – whether it is ten minutes away or a ten-hour plane ride away. Shipping has nothing to do with an owner being a good match or a poor one.

10. Beware if the breeder does not reject high-risk buyers: (renters, young people, those with poor track records, low income, other pets, dogs kept outdoors)


The “poor track record” and “dogs kept outside” (for most breeds) are OK. The other stuff – this attitude is why people say “they tried to get a puppy from a good breeder and couldn’t, so they felt like they had to go to a bad one.” This INEXCUSABLE attitude.

Every breeder knows her breed best. Some breeds have very specific requirements from buyers, and tend to not do well in average homes. Rigorous screening is the responsibility of every breeder. But NO BREED requires a list of arrogant garbage like the above. And if you find yourself screening buyers based on qualifications that have nothing to do with your breed’s needs and are just excuses for being a d-bag, STOP. Young broke renters who have scraped together the money for a good puppy and are committed to feeding and vetting it well should be welcomed with open arms.

BONUS: Bad breeders breed their bitches on every season.


That’s how much I hate this one.

It’s completely false. In fact, you may just be a better breeder if you breed every season.

Hey, Joanna, did you steal these? Are you a blatant list stealer?

Yessir, sure did. I am quoting them verbatim so you can see that these are REAL lists.

Sources (not coincidentally, these are the entire first page of a search for “signs of a backyard breeder”): (this is the hall of fame one where most of my top ten came from)


Responsible Ownership

Why do puppies cost so much?

Despite breeders having explained over and over and over why they price their puppies a certain way, and despite us trying to think of ways to say that our puppies are free, or that this is not a “job” for us or a way to make any money, the comments still have a marked note of disbelief. “They cost HOW much?” “I saw the prices and I just about fainted!” and “I can’t pay crazy prices for a puppy.”

I’m not going to try to add up again how much it costs breeders to make puppies, because I don’t think it works. And I’ve come to believe that the reason it doesn’t work is that people who see themselves as “normal” buyers think the whole thing must be rigged somehow. Those huge prices we pay for breeding and showing aren’t a reflection of objective reality; they’re something weird we do that we don’t really need to do. The buyers don’t think we’re lying, exactly, when we say that we put tens of thousands of dollars into breeding, but in the back of their mind is definitely “Well, just because YOU are crazy doesn’t mean I have to be.”

And that, really, is the root cause of the disbelief. It’s not that people are ill-meaning. It’s that they believe that there’s a real price for real dogs versus a vastly inflated price for vastly un-real dogs. They are on board with the fact that “we breeders” will pay thousands of dollars for a few of the best and most rare or beautiful dogs, because we are going to go on to show and breed them. But for regular people, aren’t there regular dogs who are born in regular homes and designed to go home with regular owners and for regular prices – let’s say no more than a few hundred dollars?

The answer – and if you’re a regular owner, you need to hear me and BELIEVE me – is NO. Not anymore.

Stop looking for a “regular dog for regular people.”

I grew up with a long and undistinguished series of “regular dogs.” They were all born within twenty minutes of our house; we’d find a puppy listing in the local supermarket or somebody would pass the word around at the 4-H meetings. They were all raised in a house, underfoot. They cost thirty, fifty, seventy dollars, “Just to make enough to spay their mom.” Some were almost purebred; many were mixtures for many generations. Some were great dogs; others were very definitely not. But they were all part of something that really did exist twenty and thirty years ago, which is a vast number of “regular dogs.”

That does not exist anymore. The way we think about dogs has taken a very abrupt turn, and we no longer believe that having puppies is part of what happens when you have dogs. The “middle class” of puppy producer, the ones who had a few litters every time they got a new female dog until they got around to spaying her, is gone. The statistics of breeding, euthanization, and rescue are very clear. The puppies that exist now are all either planned by breeders or are the result of genuine carelessness or, worse, uncaring.

The fact that the regular family puppy producer is gone is a good thing. It really is. Yes, the fact that they existed meant that it was easy to find a puppy whenever you wanted one, but that surplus of supply also meant that millions upon millions of dogs died every year. When the supermarket ad didn’t work and you had five four-month-old puppies pooping in your house, you dropped the litter at the shelter. Ten days later the shelter put them down, and the next day they put down another couple of litters, and the next day they put down some more. “Puppy season” used to be as torturous as kitten season, and just as deadly. So we should all be very glad that the bad old days are gone.

Now that they are gone, we’ve got the situation that I introduced earlier: The puppies that exist now are all either planned by breeders or are the result of genuine carelessness or, worse, uncaring. 

I’m going to leave off the uncaring producers for the sake of the “how much do puppies cost” question, because those breeders are the ones who are still filling the rescues. The websites and ads that “regular owners who want regular prices on real dogs” are seeing are all by deliberate breeders, those who produced puppies on purpose and with the goal of selling them as pets. Sometimes the goal of selling is the primary one – the reason the puppies were born – and sometimes the goal of selling is a secondary one, after the best puppies in the litter are retained for working or showing or breeding. But either way, those puppies were made on purpose.

So what do you do now?

Let’s catch up: You’re a regular person looking for a regular dog of the breed of your choice. You’ve realized that the vast group of middling-bred dogs that populated your childhood is gone. You decide you want a Cocker Spaniel, which you loved as a kid, and you go out to get one. You know that buying from a pet store is wrong. So you don’t even go there. You go to find a “reputable breeder.” What you see, when you start your research (online, of course) is a vast array of possibilities. All the puppies are adorable. You see cute purebred puppies with “champion lines” for $400, cute purebred puppies with “champion lines” for $800, and cute purebred puppies with “champion lines” for $1200. Those are the ones with prices visible. There are also a lot of websites that are obviously made by show breeders, and those don’t have any prices at all. When you inquire from one or two, you’re told that their puppies are $1200, $1600, and $2,000.

The temptation – and many would say logical conclusion – here is to say that the puppies for $400 are the ones to get.

However, I’d challenge you to think of it a different way.

Pretend you’re buying a phone.

When you go in to a wireless store and sign up for the first of what will likely be an endless series of two-year contracts, you are given a choice of six phones. Two of them are free with your plan, two are $99, and two are $199.

I would predict, and I think I’d be close to correct, that almost NOBODY is going to walk out with the free phone. If you can possibly, possibly make it work, even if it hurts, you’re going to leave with the $199 phone. If you can’t, you’ll walk out with the $99 phone – but you’ll gaze wistfully at the $199 one you’re leaving behind, and every time your phone frustrates you over the next two years you’ll say “If only I had stretched and gotten the more expensive one.”

Pretend you’re buying a car.

Stand in the middle of the Toyota lot and look around. You want a Prius. In front of you is one for $4,500, one for $12,000, one for $17,000, and one for $22,000. You qualify for all of them; the terms are all the same. Which one do you drive home?

Virtually nobody is going to drive home the cheapest car, and most are not going to go for the twelve grand one either. I can predict with a high degree of certainty that one of the most expensive two is going to be in your driveway by the end of the day.

Now WHY have you made those two decisions – about the phone and the car?

The answer is: We know how much a reliable phone and car cost, and when a price is substantially lower we we regard it with suspicion, not happiness.

Furthermore, we’re CORRECT to regard it with suspicion. A car that you spent $4500 on is going to incur a major repair bill within the next month or two. The free-with-plan phone is going to make you curse and throw it at the wall within a few weeks. And with both of them, because they were so cheap, you can bet your sweet bippy you are on your own. Welcome to the land of repair bills.

So why – WHY – do we not learn the same lesson about dogs?

Well-bred puppies are not “expensive.” They simply are what they are.

Generally the cost of a well-bred puppy is between one and three thousand dollars, which is what you should expect to pay. For that, you should expect to receive a well-bred, well-raised, well-socialized puppy, and you should (I’m going to go ahead and say MUST) get the equivalent of the 12 years/12,000 miles warranty. You should expect that if this “phone” catches on fire – if the puppy ends up with a major, unforeseen problem – you are going to be taken care of. You should also expect a lifetime of support and help for all the things that come up in the normal daily life of the dog. Think of it as lifetime technical support. If you’ve got a limp or a training problem or something is worrying you, you should have a breeder helping you figure it out. If your potential breeder isn’t obvious about what support comes with the dog, ASK HER. The answer should be quick and complete.

If the puppy costs less than is normal, assume that it comes with no promises, no predictability, and no support.

Just like phones, just like cars. You should regard a low price with deep suspicion, and with the assumption that it is an unwise purchase. If someone comes to you and says they’re going to buy a dog for a low price, your reaction should be the same as if they told you they found a car for two grand and they’re sure it is going to be great. You don’t have to be that tiresome uncle who has the stats of every make and model since the 80s at the tip of his tongue, but you should certainly pull out a “Hey, dude, are you sure that’s smart?”

Now go forth, and find puppies, and be awesome.

Both of them down for the count.

Both of them down for the count.

buying a puppy

Dear Puppy Buyers: I do not care

If you ever get a point.

If you ever get a title.

If you ever get a Grand.

If one of my bitches ever gets an ROM.

If I ever have a Bulletin ad or a dog who is ranked or a kennel name with recognition or pedigrees that go on.

I hope, now that a bunch of you have been here and seen my (ahem) “modest” house and met my dogs and my puppies, you really do know that I mean that. It’s not sour grapes; it’s that those kind of things make it to about a point-five on my scale of What Is Important. I lose track of how many points my own dogs have all the time, let alone how many my dogs’ babies have. I show because I must, because right now that’s what you need to do to be a reputable breeder, not because I’ve ever enjoyed it or felt it meant very much.

That’s why I don’t sell show puppies to anyone who I don’t know; it’s why I am over the moon that I have local buyers this time. I am excruciatingly sentimental, always keep the wrong puppies, usually breed the wrong dogs. Please don’t ever send anyone to me who wants the best show dog; good heavens. I love and believe in my dogs but I look forward to being a flaming failure as a show breeder my entire life.

What I DO care about, what I DO want to hear about, what I DO treasure and print out and pass along and laugh about, is whether you have a good dog, a happy dog, a healthy dog, a funny dog, a fulfilled and silly dog, a working dog, a tired dog.

If you ever e-mail me and apologize that you didn’t get points or a Q this weekend, I WILL SMACK YOU.

Now send me pictures and puppy e-mails and keep me happy.

That is all. Back to your regularly scheduled programming, and I need to get back to video editing so I can show those of you who did not cram into my little house what the evals looked like. So far the scene where six people are looking for Oberon’s testicles is my favorite (and I rather suspect his as well).

buying a puppy, General, Responsible Breeding

10 Questions you must ask your breeder – AFTER you know she’s responsible

There are a thousand web pages out there that will give you a list of questions to ask a breeder. They’re almost all oriented toward helping you find a person who’s above a certain level of responsibility – does she attempt to preserve or improve a breed, does she health test, stuff like that.

And those are good lists. I am always glad when I get a puppy buyer who is reading off what is obviously a laboriously collected set of questions. It’s a great sign that they’re doing their homework and research.

What you may not know is that your work isn’t done yet – not if you’re really serious about this. If you stop now, if you get the answers you need and then buy yourself a puppy, you WILL get a well-bred puppy. You’ve done that basic, extremely important job. But what you have NOT done is found out very much about whether you’re going to be happy with this breeder for the next (hopefully) fifteen years.

I’ve often spoken of dogs in terms of brands – because I think that the best way for most people to think of the way purebreds are produced is to put it in terms of the real thing or counterfeits. You always fall in love with the real thing – nobody ever finds a picture of a “Couch” purse and says “Wow, I like that better than the $300 version!” You WANT the real one. You get suckered into paying for the fake one because you convince yourself that it’s enough like the genuine article that you’re actually smarter to get the knock-off.

We all knows what happens to the knock-offs, though. You wear them for a few days and then the finish begins to wear off the Leather-Like (R) surface or the Tiffanee ring leaves a green stain on your finger, and they end up in the back of the closet. On the other hand, the ring you killed yourself to pay for at the real counter is a signature piece that you wear every day for the rest of your life and leave to your grandkids.

Those basic questions for the breeder, the ones you ask first, establish whether you’re buying the real brand or a counterfeit. The questions I’m going to suggest you ask next are the ones that tell you what kind of “store” you’re buying from.

Please, please understand that THERE ARE NO RIGHT OR WRONG ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS. They define certain aspects of the relationship you’re going to have, and my ideal answer is going to be different from yours. In fact, it may be radically different. If you ask me these questions, my answers may tell you that in fact you’d be quite unhappy buying from me, but thrilled with the experience of buying from someone else. That wouldn’t hurt my feelings – in fact, I want it.

I want you to think about them because I have seen so much good come from lifelong friendships that are formed when people who are on the same wavelength are involved in a dog transaction (some of my most wonderful friends are people I’ve either bought dogs from or used a stud dog or whatever), and I’ve seen so much personal hurt and misunderstanding come from two people who are both terribly well intentioned but who have completely different ideas of how the breeder-owner relationship should be.

So here they are:

1) Why did you personally get involved in this breed?

2) What do you consider a successful breeding?

3) Have you ever had a real disaster of a litter?

4) Why did you choose these particular two dogs?

5) Do you often get fluffs and mismarks? (Substitute whatever the biggies are in your breed – whites in boxers, for example, or long-coats in Shepherds; do enough research to know what they are.)

6) What kind of owners tend to do best with your dogs?

7) What do you feed your dogs and what would you like buyers to feed?

8) What’s one thing people often don’t know about this breed that you wish they did?

9) If there was one thing you could wave your wand and fix in your breed, what would it be?

10) If I buy a puppy from you, do you call me or should I call you?

See what I mean that there are not right or wrong answers to these? What they’re going to do is let you know what the priorities of the breeder are, how he or she perceives himself or herself in the grand scheme of the breed, reveal attachments they have with other breeders or owners, and (perhaps most important) tell you whether this breeder wants you in bed with them or at arm’s length. There are some breeders who want (and should get) weekly updates for the first year. There are others who don’t mind if you never call them again. Will the first drive you batty or make you feel loved? Will the second give you the freedom you crave or does that scream “uncaring”? Your job is making sure your breeder is close to you on the spectrum, or that you can meet his or her expectations without strain.

If I ask these ten questions questions and the answer to the “successful” and “disaster” litter questions are two sides of a single coin, I know what the top priority is for that breeder. If they center on show success, conformation, or absence of faults, that’s likely to be a breeder that I’d go to for a “flyer” show dog. If they instead dwell on how happy or unsatisfying the placements turned out to be, that’s a breeder who cares a lot about relationships. If I hear a lot about health – or personality or herding success or therapy success or fill in the blank – I can tell if this breeder and I have the same definition of an A-plus job.

I personally think it’s very revealing to explore the idea of those cosmetic faults that tend to be show ring DQs or such big no-nos that they’re in effect DQs. A breeder who says “Oh my goodness, I would never EVER do a breeding that would make fluffs – it’s my job to make as many dogs who could be shown as possible!” is a very different person than one who says “I adore fluffs and have kept several; I never worry about them in my breeding.” Neither one is right or wrong, but if you’re looking for a very reliable pedigree with zero coat in it you’re going to be happier with the first. If you would rather have a breeder who’s a bit more loosey-goosey (and maybe likes “cute” even more than she likes “correct”!), the second breeder is likely to be your gal.

Now that magic wand question is a bit of a subtle one – I love to ask it because there’s an answer I want to hear and if I do I am thrilled. But I’d honestly ask it even if I didn’t have something in mind, because the answer is going to tell you something about that breeder’s long-term plans and big-picture goals. “Group placements” is a different answer than “Temperament.” “Longevity” is a different answer than “No dogs in rescue.” They’re all GOOD goals. But one type of breeder is going to be your better fit.

Number 8, the one thing people don’t know about the breed, is the one I want to address last, because it’s the one thing on there that could cause you to not just walk away from a breeder but walk away from a breed entirely. It’s a very simple question with some very high stakes.

For example, if I told you that the one thing I wish people knew about Great Danes is that they are NOT big brave dogs but in fact are very soft and sensitive and a huge minority of them have fear issues – that we usually DON’T get the TV version of the breed, that they’re not suited to dog parks, that they can be sharp with other dogs and do a lot of damage even when behaving normally – if you’re honest with yourself you might realize that the picture in your head that you had of your life with this dog is no longer correct.

At that point the huge temptation will be to say “Well, none of the books I read say that, and I am sure she’s wrong – or I am sure the puppy I get won’t have that issue.” But I’m going to honestly BEG you to trust her when she says whatever it is she says. It doesn’t mean you don’t get the dog, but it might mean you need to put down the phone and have a very serious conversation with your spouse or your roommate or you obedience trainer.

One final hint – ask these in the course of a normal relaxed conversation, or your breeder is going to think she’s stumbled into the Spanish Inquisition! It’s great to ask up front if this is a good time to have a breed discussion – if I hear that, I chase my kids outside and know I’m not going anywhere for an hour. Long phone conversations, or long ringside conversations, or twelve-page e-mails, are normal for breeders. We all expect it. And you’ll get some major brownie points for asking and understanding good questions. But try to avoid asking them as somebody’s got a dog on the table getting nails trimmed!

Off I go – to trim nails, natch. And Clue needs some midnight soup; she was breathing hard when she came up the stairs tonight because all of a sudden she’s dragging a load of golf balls with her. So I’ll end this here – but if you are a breeder, or you are an owner who wants to add to this list, PLEASE comment. I never mind being told that I forgot something, and a good list is power for both breeders and owners.

puppy mills

Facebook ads for puppies and kennels

I’m seeing a rather discouraging trend lately – lots of facebook sidebar ads for puppy mills and for-profit breeders.

As much as I’d love for facebook ads to have the same commenting feature as the rest of facebook (because wow, a few choice words would be nice), the best way to get rid of these advertisers is the one you probably aren’t doing.


Facebook ads from small businesses (like breeders) are usually billed per-click. The person who placed the ad has allocated a certain amount of money per day to facebook. Each click from a real person costs them between fifty cents and two dollars. Once the number of clicks on the ad reaches the maximum per-day limit set by the advertiser, facebook pulls the ad for the day.

So if you faithfully click on those bad ads, you’re actually taking a dollar from the bad breeder every single time. The advertiser is going to get many fewer legitimate views and the advertising will have a lower return on their investment – hopefully low enough that he or she will stop advertising on facebook entirely.

So close your eyes, back-button really fast, but click-click-click!

Responsible Ownership

Do dog ethics affect your wallet?

Help me out with a problem, my friends.

Doug and I are trying to slowly transition our buying habits to support local small producers. When we’ve got $20 left in the account until next week we’re still stuck with the mart of the wall, but when we have a little extra or when we’re buying gifts or unique items we try to choose local families, etsy, small farms, etc.

Here’s the problem:

I think most of us know that when you see a puppy or kitten for sale in a pet “supply” store, you turn your little boots around and walk out, no matter what. No ifs, ands, or buts.

So what happens when, say, your lovely dish towel is produced by someone who is also a backyard breeder of chihuahuas, or you know the guy who sells fair-trade chocolate has a chocolate lab on a chain behind his house? Do I purchase the photographic product from the woman who says on her blog that her new puppy is never allowed inside? Do I hand a check to the lady in the farmer’s market stall who just told the customer before me that she “studs out” her “Old English Renaissance Blue-Nosed Bull Doggue”?

I actually WISH the above examples were exaggerations; they’re not. And there are tens or hundreds more.

So lay it on me, Internets: How far into your economics do dog issues reach?

buying a puppy

The tragic myth of being “chosen” by a puppy

Some of the worst decisions in all of dogdom are justified by this line – “He chose me.”

I am tempted to make this post about why this is the case, why we want to make the acquisition of a dog a wholly emotional decision, and (further) why we want it to not just be emotional but an inexorable decision BY THE DOG in the face of which we are hopeless – because it’s ridiculous. Are we somehow thrilled by dogs who are stalkers?

But what I really want to make it about is this gorgeous bunch of Australian Shepherds thundering toward me.

I took this photo about a second and a half before that lead puppy made it to my face. This was the last photo I could take for several minutes, in fact, while I held the camera above my head and laughed helplessly as six babies chewed my ears, sucked on my hair, licked my nose, and wiggled gleefully into my coat.

Once they had all been gently detached from my person, they went running all over the place, except for one.

This dude was on top of me, biting my face, tugging my pants leg, generally making himself a glorious nuisance the entire time. When I put my hands down he ran to them; when I smiled he grinned. I talked to him and he stared into my face as though I was the only person on earth.

So why did I not re-mortgage my house and come home with him? Didn’t he choose me? Isn’t it inevitable? Hasn’t my heart spoken to his, and his spoken back?

Well, for one thing it’s because he’s Leslie’s keeper puppy and I don’t have that much courage in the entire world. But mostly it’s because of this:

Same set of puppies.

There’s “my” puppy, and there’s all that love.

Why? Because he’s that kind of puppy. In fact, a TON of puppies are that kind of puppy. If I went to see a litter of Tervs or Danes or Chihuahuas or Kerry Blues, there would be a puppy “choosing” me in each litter. That puppy would, in fact, “choose” every human to walk into the room, and try to choose the piano and a space heater. Sparkly, pushy puppies are geniuses at it.

Bringing home an Australian Shepherd puppy is the wrong – WRONG – choice for most families. Bringing home a Kerry Blue is wrong for even more of them. Bringing home a puppy of any breed from a pet store or from a bad breeder is even worse. You must choose. YOU must be the one who selects and who takes responsibility and makes sure that the breed and the puppy is a wise and considered choice, and IGNORES the fact that one puppy thinks you’re the bob-omb.

adopting a rescue dog

Why the dog bed next to Mommy’s computer is now empty

This is Meriwether, come to tell you all the reason for the above title.

When we first went to pick up Sprocket from the shelter, I took him onto my lap for the duration of the ride home. He was clingy and wriggly and nervous-panting. He licked my face and rubbed his nasty scent all over me.

That night I gave him a bath. He acted no different from any of the other dogs when they got baths–cooperative, albeit unhappy. I have never met a dog that enjoys baths. When I got him out and toweled him off, he ran around the bathroom wagging his tail–something I have rarely seen a dog do after getting a bath. I reached down to pick him up and carry him out of the bathroom, and he snarled. Before I could touch him, he whipped around and started trying to kill his tail. A second later he was all happy again, sniffed my hand and licked it.

“All right,” I told him, “so you’re a tail chaser and you don’t like to be picked up. That’s fine.” And I let him make his own merry way out of the bathroom.

Sprocket proceeded to make Bramble extremely jealous over the next couple of days. He would hop up on the couch next to me and curl up exactly as Bramble usually did and wait for me to rub his belly. He sat down next to the table at dinner and waited for us to feed him scraps.

Then he went into what Mommy thought was the customary grieving stage. He retreated into himself, stopped begging, stopped jumping onto the couch. He came upstairs one night, to my room, where I was watching a movie with the two little kids. I reached down to pet him, and he growled. He started chasing his tail when he was stressed.

All Friday night he ignored my invitation to come on the bed, and he growled if one of us tried to pet him. In the end he left his place at my feet and lay down in the bedroom doorway. He would not let me touch him.

The next morning it had gone away, and I could pet him again. He ran around the yard, played with the other dogs, body-slammed Bramble. In the evening, when he came in, he lay down at Mommy’s feet and stayed there. I tried to pet him, and he snarled at me. I told Mommy that it was like this the other night. We all thought it was just a stage. When Mommy went to bed, he went with her and wouldn’t leave the bedroom. And wouldn’t let me pet him. And continued to hate his tail.

On Sunday I was sweeping the living room, and Honour was trying to pet Sprocket, giving him turkey and talking. He would not let her touch him. In the end, I stuck the broom between them and told Sprocket to stop. Honour went upstairs with the little kids, and I finished sweeping and sat down next to Sprocket. I stayed there for half an hour.

I went up to Mommy an hour later. “What do dogs look like when they have seizures?”

I told her how, while I sat next to him, Sprocket had curled in on himself and started shaking. When Mommy tried to pet Sprocket, he growled. She had to put a towel over him so he wouldn’t bite her and lifted him onto the couch. I went upstairs. I decided I had been silly thinking he was sick, and went upstairs.

I came down a while later. Mommy told me I was right. Sprocket had had a seizure. His rear end wouldn’t work anymore.

Mommy made him a dog bed and gave him food, which he wouldn’t eat. I went down to visit him when everyone was asleep and sat next to him reading until he relaxed and let me pet him. I put a leash on him, and he didn’t growl at me.

When I got up to go to bed he looked up at me, with those sad dog eyes. I started crying.

The next morning, Mommy told me that Sprocket had pooped a lot of blood. She scheduled a vet appointment. Everyone cried around Sprocket and called him a poor baby. He still wouldn’t let anyone pet him. He was too weak to hate his tail.

Mommy took him to the vet. The vet looked at Sprocket, looked at Mommy and said, “No.”

Mommy left Sprocket at the vet’s office. They were going to take care of him until he was put down. I was reading when she came home, and everyone went to talk to her on the porch except me. I looked at my book and listened to them talking. “No,” Mommy said, when everyone was asking her the same question. “They had to put him down. The vet thought it might be distemper, or maybe a whole bunch of things all at once, but definitely something with his brain.”

I keep on remembering how, that first night when we brought him home, Sprocket wouldn’t let any of us kids sleep. He was walking all over us, kissing us, annoying Ginny, and curling up right where I wanted to sleep. In the end, Ginny stopped growling at him.

I know that dog is in a special place in Heaven tonight. And I still can’t say anything to anyone without ending, “This stinks. It totally, totally stinks.” Mommy says to tell you that she’s not going to post for a while so we can all remember for a few days.

I’m so glad that we had the privilege of knowing this muppet dog.

(Small clarification from Joanna: He went downhill really hard last night after the seizure. I stayed with him but he was obviously in pain and miserable. No relaxation in his eyes anymore. He got his back end under him again by this morning but was tremoring and throwing up and had bloody diarrhea. He couldn’t be touched at all, under any conditions, without panicking. He spent a couple of hours hiding in the corner before we could get him to the vet; it was obvious by the time we got him to the office that things were dire. My vet, who is wonderful, immediately said “You know what you need to do.” She says there’s no way to tell what it is for sure unless we wanted to put him through days of testing, but agreed with me that neurological distemper was a strong possibility. Our other dogs are not in danger; I boostered the adults who had not been vaccinated in a few years as a precaution. And yes, this sucks.)