Editor’s Note on 6/19/13: This piece started an intense debate among Dogster readers about what it means to be an ethical breeder, and also sparked a passionate follow-up rebuttal post by respected community member Lucy Ohannessian, which we absolutely recommend considering after you’ve read this piece.
A few years ago, my fiancée, Theresa, and I started a German Shepherd kennel. It began when I adopted a beautiful long-haired girl named Hazel. She was a dream come true. I had always wanted to own a German Shepherd, but one bit my sister when we were growing up, so my family had Golden Retrievers and Labs. They were great dogs, but my itch for a Shepherd never went away.
After we had Hazel for a few months, Theresa and I found that she needed a playmate (or maybe it was that I needed another German Shepherd), so we started seeking out breeders with reputations for ethics and quality. We found a breeder in Tennessee who had what we thought was a perfect puppy for us. Looking back, I know we were right. We named him Blue, and these days he is my closest companion.
We had Hazel and Blue for a while before we started seriously talking about breeding. We read loads of articles, books, and opinion pieces about breeding — for as well as against. I’m not sure that there are any viewpoints on the issue that we didn’t read about.
There are certainly those who believe that “ethical breeder” is a misnomer. We know that some groups believe that breeding is unethical at its core, and we read their arguments. I am not going to convert anyone, nor am I going to try.
One thing stuck with us as we discussed our plans: If we did become breeders, we promised each other that we would always put ethics at the forefront. This isn’t just something we practice in our business; it is the way we live.
I’d like to think we’re different than a lot of breeders. All of our dogs eat, sleep, and hang out with us in the house. On a day-to-day basis, I run a dog pack, not a business. In our household, I am at the top of the pack — and much like a family, my dogs are my children. Like parents to their children, we always put the needs of our dogs in front of our business. We would never put money before one of our dogs.
We live in Alaska, and, believe me, it is a place where you simply cannot breed dogs for the money. Frankly, there is no amount of money that is going to pull me out of bed at 3 a.m. to take a puppy outside when it is minus-30 degrees.
One thing we’re often asked (and something we’ve often asked ourselves) is: If we love dogs so much, how can we breed them, knowing full well that there are countless dogs in shelters?
The simple answer is that Theresa and I breeding dogs has no effect on the number of dogs in shelters. People seek out breeders because they want a healthy dog and desire to know the dog’s history. People are aware that the animal shelter is there. They know that there are dogs in the pound.
Good breeders screen and test their dogs for diseases before they breed them. If Theresa and I stopped breeding tomorrow, those people would just go find a different breeder — and perhaps one not as ethical.
But the real reason we breed high-quality German Shepherds is because they can benefit society. German Shepherds excel at police work, search and rescue, therapy, and many other roles.
We encourage every person who buys a puppy from us to find a line of work for their dog that benefits their community. We know that not everyone will do this, and we’re okay with that. To us it’s acceptable to give people amazing companions that will bring them joy throughout their lives.
We haven’t been in this business long, and we’ve already been tested, when we discovered one of our younger dogs, Charcoal, had cryptorchidism — meaning he had a retained testicle that did not fall into place. We had a choice: We could have had the retained testicle removed and tried to breed him, or we could have had him neutered.
But an unneutered dog with cryptorchidism has a very high risk of getting cancer. Moreover, it is a genetic flaw that could be passed on to his puppies.
I am certain there are plenty of breeders out there who would readily breed the dog. But we chose the most ethical path possible. Even though we had invested a significant amount of money and effort into Charcoal, we had him neutered.
I believe that being an ethical breeder goes further than just making sure to produce healthy litters. For us, just because Charcoal cannot breed, it does not mean he will leave our pack. Many breeders “retire” their dogs — we simply don’t believe in this. Something I didn’t mention earlier was that Hazel can’t breed, either. She, like Char Char, is no less a member of our pack for it. Like I said, we run a pack, not a business.
Our promise to stay at the forefront of ethical breeding is no longer just between Theresa and I; we have shared it with you, too. And we have found other breeders who think much like us. If you have any questions about life as a breeder, I’d be happy to answer them in the comments below.
On a side note: We heard it was spring in the lower 48. Would you mind sending some of that up to us?
Read more Dogster articles about breeders and German Shepherds: