AKC, General

The scandal of marketing purebred dogs (II)

I wrote this post just a couple of weeks before our house fire. I had no idea that the events of the next month would remove me from dogdom for an entire year. So I'm going to repost this, and re-commit to achieving the goals I made a year ago. 

Did I get your attention? I hope so. Because it's true. It really is a scandal. 

We, meaning the community of reputable breeders, have a HUGE problem with our marketing plan. As in, we don't have one. 

Here's how it usually goes-does this sound familiar? Have you maybe said this yourself?

Good breeders never have to advertise-their puppies are sold before they're born. 

Good breeders are never found in the paper or online. If you have to advertise, you're doing something wrong.

I am sure people are bristling right now at the mere thought that I would imply that they needed a marketing plan. What are we, puppy mills?

I have one question for you: Did you sell your last litter or give it away? Did you require a contract and a bill of sale? Did you interview buyers and pick the best ones? If so, you are a producer. You made, and sold, a product.

But-but-they're not products! They're our loves, our blood and sweat and tears! YES. And that is EXACTLY why we need to market, and we need to get on the stick and do it NOW. Because you know who is really, really good at marketing? The community of bad breeders, careless breeders, puppy mills, and the euphemistically titled "commercial breeders." And you know who else is really, really good at marketing? PeTA, and the HSUS. They're geniuses at it, in fact 

As is revealed in this fascinating and essential video given to beef producers, PeTA and the HSUS work hand-in-glove in an extraordinarily effective way. PeTA is the one that makes the outrageous statements. They're the ones asking that fish be redefined as "sea kittens"; they're the ones putting naked models on billboards. They are purposely outrageous, outré, over the top. Because coming right behind them is the HSUS. The HSUS seems so kind, so moderate, and isn't it a humane society? Those are the people that run shelters, right? So if there's one of the whole United States, that's pretty good. 

When governments and town councils and businesses are thoroughly freaked out by a couple hundred PeTA protestors, in comes the HSUS to say "Just give us a little bit. It's for the good of the animals. You can save so many by mandating spay/neuter at four months-your shelter populations will plummet. You can do a great thing by making sure that there are no animal hoarders in your city-nobody needs more than three dogs at once."

And communities and companies and individuals say wow, these people are so reasonable, so well-intentioned, so organized and supported by studies. We love animals. We need to protect them. This seems like a really good law, or a really good regulation, or a really good city bylaw.

And where are we, the careful and responsible breeders? We're driving our vans into school gymnasium parking lots where the city council meeting is scheduled, having been alerted by our newsgroups or the AKC that an important vote is taking place. And we all come in, all of us middle-aged women with sensible hair and skirts that still have dog hair all over them, and we line up to speak.

And the city council says, "I'm sorry, who are you?" "Bob here from the HSUS-he's the one sitting over there in a suit, talking with the mayor-has been working with us for weeks, helping us craft this policy. I'm sure you breeders are concerned about losing your livelihood, but we love animals. We have to protect them." 

And THEN, only then, do we try to explain about a hundred very complex concepts involving who the HSUS is, what its agenda is, why dogs are not our livelihood, why we're not the enemy.

So far, we've gotten away with this in a lot of towns and cities. But our days are numbered. You can bet they are. And if breeders show up at a city council meeting and there isn't a very eloquent and organized argument, if there's not someone who can systematically make and refute points, we look like idiots. Idiots who make money by breeding dogs. 

So that's one problem. We have no visibility and no identity in our communities. 

The other one is all about selling puppies. And this is where I know I'm ruffling feathers. So before you yell at me via the comments, hear me out. THEN yell at me. We – meaning the small community of reputable breeders, because we are very small compared to the community of careless breeders or commercial breeders — have done an incredibly poor job at articulating why it is a legitimate choice to purchase a well-bred purebred, but it is NOT a legitimate choice to purchase a poorly bred purebred.

We have done an even worse job articulating why it is that we're not the enemies of homeless dogs everywhere.

And we're invisible.

When Joe and Sally Smith decide it's time to get a dog, and they love their neighbor's Lab so they decide to get one, they are making a purchasing decision. The intent has been resolved.

Joe and Sally are savvy consumers, so they are looking to make a good decision about where to get their dog. They have heard about puppy mills and have a vague idea of wanting a high-quality puppy. Their neighbor said that he paid $500 for his dog, which sounds really high to Joe and Sally, but they want a healthy and nice dog. They turn first to the Internet.

EVERYONE TURNS FIRST TO THE INTERNET. This is an absolutely VITAL thing to realize.

Joe and Sally google "Labrador retriever puppies." Well, you know what that results page looks like. When they click on the nextdaypets or puppyfind or pets4you links, they find hundreds of results, with dogs ranging from $300 to $2000. Some are "champion sired," some "champion lined," some "champion quality," some have a "champion pedigree."

From reading through the pages, Joe and Sally get the idea that the whiter the Lab is, the higher quality it is. And the blockier the head is, the better. And it seems like people mention health a lot, and hips. But FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS for a dog? That's ridiculous!

Let's look at it from a marketing perspective. The couple has already decided to get a dog. They do not need convincing to purchase. They are confronted with many PRODUCERS and many PRODUCTS. There is zero clear differentiation between products. There is a huge price range. There is no authority, no CNET reviews or Consumer Reports. No external expert means that the decision is typically made based on LOCATION, CONVENIENCE, and PRICE, as long as a basic level of product quality is promised.

During this search and deliberation process, Sally and Joe were never made aware of the differences between products. There was no clear statement of how you distinguish between good and bad producers. There was no explanation of why prices vary so much, or what you get for your purchase price. And they had NO idea that there was a Labrador Retriever breed club that met every third Tuesday three blocks away.

I just googled "Labrador Retriever Puppies Massachusetts." Do you know where the link for the Labrador Retriever Club of Greater Boston, which is a great club that has a ton of good information, was? NOWHERE. I went out to page 23 of the search and it never showed up. 

Try it for your own state, for your own breed. I did it for about ten breeds in Massachusetts, and the only one that brought up the breed club within the top one or two listings was "corgi puppies Massachusetts," because whoever runs the Mayflower site is really, really good (seriously, it's a great site and should be a model for breed club sites everywhere).

Sally and Joe spend an hour on the Internet and receive at least two dozen "touches," which is adspeak for contacts (ads or review statements) about a particular product. NONE of them have been by reputable breeders.

No, we're in our houses sitting on hair-covered couches talking about how no good breeder should ever advertise.

The classic line of thought behind our abhorrence of advertising is that if you advertise, you must be selling to whoever responds. Only breeders who don't care about who they sell their puppies to advertise.

Think about this. We want to be more choosy about who we sell to, so we don't tell anybody we have stuff for sale. How do you think Harvard got to the point that it can reject over NINETY PERCENT of applicants? By refusing to advertise? No, Harvard spends millions of dollars a year to make just two very clear statements: We are the most selective university in the world, and a degree from Harvard is a jackpot. They don't see selectivity as a liability-they brag about it. And so the very best and the very brightest fight like the dickens to present themselves as good enough to get admitted.

Or how about Sub-Zero, or Ferrari, or any one of a hundred top companies. They don't hide and think they're diluting their brand by advertising.

They advertise precisely so that they can attract a huge pool of potential buyers, the vast majority of whom can't afford the product. But those people don't say "That car is too expensive; the manufacturer must be cheating." No, now they desperately want the car, or the fridge, or the ring, or the coffee.

We MUST do the same thing. We MUST make very clear, unequivocal statements. We MUST clearly articulate who we are as producers. We must be absolutely positive about what makes our product preferable to others.

We must become top-of-mind when Joe and Sally decide they want a puppy, and we must be so attractive that they will change their lives (install fence, hire a dog walker, sign up for training, etc.) so they will be approved for a puppy.

If you think the AKC is going to help us, think again. Whoever the geniuses are over at AKC who are panicking about the fact that registrations are down has decided that the way to fix it is to do exactly what they SHOULDN'T do. They're leaping to dilute the brand by courting commercial breeders and pet shops.

Don't believe me? http://viewer.zmags.com/showmag.php?mid=wqstdd&spid=-3#/page6/ This is a direct quote from the October AKC Gazette: "Management has been directed by the Board to aggressively pursue all dogs eligible for AKC registration. We intend to reach out, communicate and educate those in the retail sector as to why an AKC puppy is the gold standard and why they should be registered with the American Kennel Club… The AKC used to dominate the marketplace. Even places like Macy's and Gimbals sold AKC puppies. Owners who purchased their first purebred from a retail outlet… added to AKC registrations."

This has the very real potential to pit reputable breeders against the AKC. 

We've already been saying that AKC registration means nothing more than the paper it's printed on, and we should now be preparing to actively fight the perception that AKC means quality.

We have to emphasize that AKC as a registering body is a filing cabinet, nothing more. It keeps track of our pedigrees and it keeps track of our show wins, and for that favor we give them a lot of money. We are happy with the AKC's support of shows and health studies and welfare, but that doesn't mean that a white piece of paper with a seal on it means squat about the quality of the dog. Again, it all comes down to defining the producer and defining the product.

So here are my rather controversial recommendations on how to change the current situation:

Breed clubs (and I mean local as well as national) need to hire a consultant for search engine optimization. It's a relatively small expense.

Breed clubs need to have a front page oriented toward potential buyers, with market-acceptable statements (like "Labrador retrievers: the whole package") and a forward-facing (consumer-facing) series of articles. This does NOT mean that you have to "sell" the breed. Quite the contrary. When the potential buyer clicks on the "whole package" link, he or she will be brought to a market piece that emphasizes how only the most qualified and prepared buyers should be thinking about this breed, what the huge misconceptions are about the Lab and its needs, and how to distinguish between a good and bad breeder.

Breed clubs and individual breeders need to make very clear PRODUCER and PRODUCT statements. We need to differentiate between good and bad breeders. We've been reluctant to do this in the past for a variety of reasons, but it's a huge mistake. We have invited the public to perceive the entire community of dog breeders as a cohesive group, when nothing could be further from the truth. 

I would say we need to become more aligned with the community of dog rescue than anything else. Most of us are extremely involved in rescue, far more than any other group of dog professionals. We need to forge alliances (as individual breeders–I think that the clubs are already doing a really good job at this) with local rescue professionals not only for the good of the dogs but so that, when the legislation is introduced, the rescue people see us as friends and not enemies.

We need to become very visible to the community. I ranted a bit about this in my article on breed-specific legislation, but it bears repeating. I rarely if ever see an obviously show-quality dog being walked in town or down the road. We are not the visible dog lovers in our towns and cities. Clubs can get involved too-a meet the breed booth at the local "town day" (around here they're all "festivals"-Apple Festival, Blueberry Festival, Strawberry Festival, etc.) with massive distribution of pamphlets that are rescue-friendly and that do a good job at telling interested people why you never buy from a careless breeder.

As breed clubs, we need to address the issue of the puppy advertising websites. I don't think it would be out of the question to have good breeders actually participate on the sites, as long as the care in placing the puppies is not compromised, but there should at least be an effort to provide an ad that's a "front" for the breed club. Make it the MOST adorable and MOST perfect, renew it once a week, and direct people to that rescue-friendly information about how to find a good breeder and why the breed isn't for everyone. 

We need to recognize the power of the lowest-common-denominator sites-craigslist is the flagship. I would advise AGAINST advertising actual dogs on craigslist, but the breed club should have a constant presence. If the club posted two messages a day: "NEED TO FIND A NEW HOME FOR YOUR LHASA? WE'RE HERE TO HELP" and "LOOKING FOR A LHASA PUPPY? DON'T GET SCAMMED! CLICK HERE" a great deal of good information could be given out. 

Here's what I'll be doing personally (so hold me to this, Internets!): I'm writing to our state Extension office about leading a dog 4-H club. Goodness knows I am bossy enough. I was heavily involved in 4-H growing up, it's a good program, and it teaches kids personal responsibility and self-efficacy. That makes it a really good fit with dogs.

I'm writing to my local shelters and rescues offering three things: 1) that I will foster/get into national rescue any rare breeds and definitely any corgis. I will almost certainly get no nibbles on that, because the Northeast has the opposite of a problem with homeless rare- or small-breed dogs, but it has to be done. 2) I'll offer health-information or breed-specific help. Good breeders basically have PhDs in "Dog"-I've spent the last ten or fifteen years gathering information and doing research. If I can be of use, I'll try. 3) I'll offer free baths and grooming to dogs being surrendered. I have a boatload of expensive grooming equipment, and while I am not a great groomer I can at least get a dog clean and de-matted and do a 4f strip with the clippers.

I'm talking to my library about offering a reading-to-dogs program. This is the most long-term goal, because generally dogs should be certified therapy dogs before they get into this program. So the first step is to get the Cardigans' championships finished so I can get them back into training, second is to enroll them and Ginny in a TDI class, third is to get them actually certified. The great thing about this is that I'll also be able to take the dogs to hospitals and so on once I am not drowning under little kids here at the house. I'm going to do a pretty big re-design of my website (not this blog, the Blacksheep website) to conform to some of the above ideas on giving information to potential buyers. I don't get a lot of traffic there but I have to practice what I preach. I'll let you all know when I'm done.

And-yes-I'm going to get out there on the roads with the Cardigans. I know why we don't do this, believe me. Most good breeders have enormous fenced yards and at least somewhat enormous bottoms from sitting all day in front of the whelping box. But the community needs to know that I exist, that the Cardis exist, and that the real enemy is not good breeders. I'm going to be in West Springfield this coming weekend, all four days. I renew my offer to walk any dog show newbies around and show you what a dog show means, and I welcome any discussion (or verbal beat-down) from other breeders. Come find me–I am the one with the gorgeous fit Cardigans and the beautiful children and the sensible hair and enormous bottom :).

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  • Reply Jinnie January 9, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Won't get a beat down from me on this one.  I feel that "we" need to advertising so that the buyers can see the good vs thebad.  I use the blog/facebook etc as a tool and as well as my website.  As for the pet selling sites I'll use them in the future when I have a litter, I listed my last litter on the AKC puppy search site even though I really didn't have anything to sell, I wanted people to ask questions.

  • Reply Paula Ballak April 16, 2012 at 12:50 am

    Thank you for this post/blog.
    I could blog a response to you – but suffice it to say, I wish more people – including breed clubs and kennel clubs shared your opinions!!
    Again, thanks. Sharing on FB on my page. I’m enjoying reading all your posts.
    I’ll be back.

  • Reply ZORAN April 22, 2015 at 5:42 am

    Well that’s just great, you’re all reputable “breeders” and not running puppy mills.
    But when you answer emails from inquiring customers in regards to purchasing a puppy, yes, I said “purchasing”… you’re in business, just like a puppy mill is in “business”. You’re not giving them away, your’e selling them, so don’t get all hoity tidy with me with the condescending emails belittling me with your inquisition as to why I want to buy a dog. If I wanted to buy just any old dog, there’s plenty of then at shelters, and on craigslist for less than $150 “re homing fee”. Do you really think I’d spend $1,200-$1,500 on a disposable pet?
    yawl need to get off your high horses and get real.

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