Sunday, September 5, 2010

What IS "responsible breeding", anyhow?

If you've been following the dog licence debate on Twitter, you may have noticed some acrimonious exchanges between @rspcalondonse and a few dog bloggers. (I think I rather resent the comments questioning whether someone who is "only" a volunteer spokesman for a branch should be allowed to express an opinion).

Anyone who thinks companion animals should simply be eliminated by neutering them all can stop reading now. If you think we should be aiming to reduce over-production so that no animals have to be killed because they can't be placed in homes, carry on.

First of all, we need to get over our hang-ups from the days when massive numbers of puppies were put down every year as a result of unwanted litters. In the UK this simply is not happening any longer; unless there is something seriously wrong with a particular puppy it will be relatively easy to find a suitable home.

Unfortunately the downside of this is that puppies have a commercial value and it is possible for unscrupulous people to make money by keeping bitches in dreadful conditions. The primary reason why this needs to be stamped out is the cruelty suffered by the mother dogs who may be producing litter after litter in situations that are literally similar to battery farming. Keeping dogs like this would be wrong even if it had no effect at all on the number of animals ending up in rescue. Dogs are our companions—would you want your friend's mother to spend her life in a dark shed and worn out after half her normal lifespan?

In fact, of  course, this kind of breeding produces puppies who are more likely to end up in rescue (because they may be ill, have behaviour problems, or simply have been purchased by someone who would not have been sold a puppy by someone who cared about dogs). The discarded bitches will either be killed, passed on to rescue organisations, or sometimes sold to unwary purchasers who think they are getting a cheap pedigree.

Pretty well everyone involved with dogs agrees that this kind of breeder is not "responsible" (although they may still get licences from the local authority if the LA is more interested in supporting local businesses than in animal welfare).

We then move on to all the others who breed dogs and it's here that the disagreement starts, because there's not much agreement about what a "responsible" breeder would be aiming to do.

On the one hand there are the fairly large scale pedigree breeders, who are primarily aiming for success in the show ring and produce puppies for sale to the pet market as a by-product. To be successful they will be keeping their breeding dogs in good, hygienic conditions, well-fed and the dogs who compete in the show ring will necessarily receive training, which is important for their mental wellbeing. They are likely to be reasonably knowledgeable about avoiding inherited problems by suitable genetic testing (although they may be fairly pig-headed about accepting the deleterious effects of inbreeding and a small gene pool). They may also be blinkered about defects which are inherent in the standard for their particular breed. Their dogs will be valuable and are likely to be sold with clauses requiring "pet-quality" puppies to be neutered.

For me, the faintly derogatory "pet-quality" phrase is the key; these breeders may genuinely be trying to do the best for their dogs, but suitable family companions are not their primary goal. Some pedigree dogs are selected for traits which are positively deleterious to them; for example who on EARTH in their right mind would think this is normal?

Pedigree breeders aren't necessarily only interested in how the dog looks: there are Papillons and Shelties who can compete successfully against Border Collies in Obedience classes.

Finally there are "hobby breeders" which may include owners hoping to make a quick profit who neither know nor care about health checks necessary for their breed; those who simply want to be able to keep a puppy from a well-loved pet and highly knowledgeable people whose dogs are primarily companions, but also want to compete. Some breeders do so as a sideline to running boarding kennels.

Clearly some breeders are more of a problem for rescues than others. I doubt whether there are many potential Staffordshire BT adopters who buy Chihuahuas instead, but SBT breeders certainly are competing for homes with rescue dogs. Anyone breeding dogs which will almost routinely need surgery (Sharpei, British Bulldog etc.) really should be questioning what they are doing.

Finally—what kind of dogs should a responsible breeder be aiming for?

Take a look at the fascinating Family Dog Project website (thanks to Cambridge dogs for the link).

Dogs evolved as animals who specialise in understanding human behaviour!

By reducing them to quasi factory farm "products" we risk throwing away thousands of years of evolutionary development which has produced creatures who are our companions and willing assistants, not only in traditional work, but dealing with completely new challenges, such as finding the nests of bumble bees and humanely relocating hedgehogs.

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