I raised puppies for 15 years with my family. Corgis were our first love, but then half of us developed an allergy to their hair. We eventually switched to French Bulldogs and breathed much easier.
At the height of our breeding program, there were as many as eight adult dogs, but I preferred to keep the number closer to four or five for sanity’s sake. If we could get two to three litters of puppies per year, I was very happy. We could have had twice that many, as there was always a waiting list of potential owners, but I was selective in our breeding and chose to keep our girls healthy rather than tax them with too many litters in a lifetime. At this time, sadly, we’re done raising puppies unless our only male, Louie, figures out how to become a dad.
The fact that I was a dog breeder is not something I readily share. I try to learn where a person stands in the adoption vs. buying-from-a-breeder debate before deciding whether to divulge this information. What started as a deep love of dogs and wanting to experience puppies had grown into a business for us. Along with that growth came the awareness that this was something I shouldn’t tell the general public.
I learned early on that many in the adopt-only camp have negative feelings toward breeders, ranging from mild irritation to outright hatred. Many think breeders are responsible for populating the world with unwanted dogs, and should be stopped. This didn’t make me feel comfortable sharing what I did. In fact, I envisioned people grabbing pitchforks and torches if I told them I raised puppies.
Before I go on, I want to be clear that I am pro-adoption. In fact, we recently adopted a dog. I think all dogs deserve to have happy and loving homes. As a breeder, I interviewed all potential owners and made it my personal goal to get each puppy their forever home. We never sold to pet shops, nor did we sell through brokers.
I not only struggled with divulging to others what we did, but struggled to justify my job. It’s a difficult thing to defend yourself to someone who has pre-judged you and is not willing to listen with an open mind. Being a monster in the minds of others is something I just learned to live with.
I also struggled to understand why dog breeding is thought to be such a horrible thing. Loving dogs enough to make your living with them should be commended by animal welfare activists, right? Yet, I was a bad person for removing dogs from my breeding program if they showed temperament flaws or genetic defects that could (and would) be passed onto puppies. Somehow, it’s considered a bad thing to make a better breed of dog with fewer health problems and better personalities.
The dogs we retired were spayed and placed in personally selected homes suited to each dog’s temperament and personality. I didn’t euthanize dogs when they were no longer able to have puppies, as many assume all breeders do. I once spent nearly a thousand dollars for a C-section on a dog who managed to birth half her litter naturally but needed help with the second half. Her milk never came in, so I bottle fed the puppies for weeks while caring for the mama in her recovery.
My vet and I decided that a spay was that mama’s best option, but we waited until she had recovered to do the second surgery. Upon hearing that the dog would no longer breed, an acquaintance was horrified, thinking I would just heartlessly euthanize the dog. She had heard that’s what breeders do, and even knowing that we loved and cared for our dogs, she simply believed it to be true.
Our dogs are part of our family and have always lived in our home, even when we were raising puppies. Despite knowing that the dogs were also a business, I got attached anyway. It was a painful thing to keep a dog for a few years only to discover that she had difficulties getting pregnant or birthing puppies, or he didn’t pass a genetic health screening. (Dogs can’t be tested for hereditary genetic flaws until they’re 2 years old.) Finding these dogs new homes was heart wrenching, and the ache felt sometimes far outweighed the money invested in the dogs up to that point.
Responsible breeding is, sadly, not a profitable business. It sounds so good in theory, being able to charge good money for purebred puppies, multiplied by a large number of puppies in a litter. It was the extras and hidden costs that nobody informed us about, and they often drained the bank account. I’ve joked that the vet’s office should have a wing named after me. I was on a first-name basis with the entire vet staff. I had the clinic on my online bill-pay roster. (I’m not kidding.) The vet’s number wasn’t on speed dial; it was memorized so well that I could unconsciously dial it after a week’s worth of sleep deprivation, at 3 a.m., when a puppy was struggling to hold onto life.
The money I spent on dog food nearly rivaled our grocery bill in the months I had a nursing mama and her litter began to eat. (We are a family of seven humans. Our grocery bill isn’t small.) Registration fees, yearly genetic screenings, advertising, Internet and phone bills, vet bills, supplies, vaccines and dewormers, training equipment, licenses, stud fees, and grooming all added up. Having a dog is expensive. Having a kennel full of dogs was even more so. I kept thinking, “this will be the year that I make money with the dogs.” I never made much of a profit.
There were other downfalls to raising dogs. When I was looking to add another puppy to the breeding program, I wasn’t at liberty to choose the cutest in the litter, with the floppy ear or the wobbly gait. My heart always gravitated toward those quirky traits, but I had to remember that I strove for perfection, and that meant choosing the best puppy in the litter. Often times, the dog was a color that wouldn’t be my first choice if I were getting a pet.
I also had to research bloodlines for generations back, looking for things like genetic health issues, temperament flaws, and whether or not the line of females had been able to give birth naturally or had C-sections. Buying a puppy for a breeding program is more of a science than a fun adventure. It was time consuming, exhausting, and often not fun for me. In addition, the best puppies were usually far more expensive than the pet-quality puppies.
Often, the puppies needed to be bottle fed. While this sounds adorably cute, it’s a stressful and life-altering endeavor. I lost more sleep bottle feeding puppies than I ever did with my own children. Puppies need to eat every two to three hours or their blood sugar levels will drop low enough to cause hypoglcemic shock. Setting alarms every 90 minutes, night and day for two weeks, took a toll. Extreme exhaustion taxed my body, and often I ended up on antibiotics because I didn’t have the strength to fight off an illness. I once told the ER doctor that he had to prescribe me different meds for bronchitis because I couldn’t be drowsy. Puppies were depending on me to keep them alive.
Bottle-fed puppies don’t thrive as well as nursed puppies, and the stress of losing one was real. My vet cried with me on several occasions over puppies I’d brought to the clinic. He was keenly aware of the struggle to keep the puppies alive; sometimes I would visit the clinic daily for two weeks, only to lose a puppy in the end. The constant stress of keeping puppies alive, especially if the litter was bottle fed or there were health complications, was exhausting for me — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Puppies also aren’t housebroken, neither are they aware of social manners, such as not barking in the house. Our kids were often embarrassed to have friends over, and they had become immune to the charms of puppies, knowing that with the cute wrinkles and sweet breath came midnight howling and a house that smelled like a barnyard.
In other words, the sheer amount of time and energy involved in raising puppies was a full-time job for me. It was far more than just having babies in the house for eight weeks. It started with intensive research to find quality dogs to breed with, and it included lifelong follow-up for every puppy I sold. Which means that my job is still not done, even though I’ve stopped breeding.
I offer support to their owners in diet, house training, and any other questions they have. I also made it clear to every buyer that if a dog doesn’t work out in their home, for whatever reason, I am always willing to take them back. Support is an ongoing, lifelong friendship with and responsibility toward the owners of my puppies.
Also, all the paperwork required by the American Kennel Club, the state of Pennsylvania, my veterinarian, and for my own records was staggering. I sometimes joked that I needed a secretary when I had a litter of puppies, so that I could free up time to snuggle those babies. It was my responsibility to evaluate each puppy to determine if they should be sold with a spay-neuter contract or if they could be bred or shown.
Despite all this, I loved having puppies. It was a passion of mine to nurture those newborns into healthy babies who found amazing forever homes. The happiest days were when families adopted my puppies. The joy I was able to give others was infectious. It kept me going. I still struggle to understand what is so wrong with what I did, and why I was a bad person for raising purebred puppies. If all breeders were stopped, as some extreme activists wish, there would be no more purebred dogs left in 20 years’ time. That would be a sad, sad world indeed.
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About the author: Karen Dibert is a wife, mom, and dog lover living in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. She has five kids, three French Bulldogs, and a flock of useless chickens. Karen authors a pet column for her local newspaper, advocates for her son with Down syndrome, manages Louie the French Dog’s Instagram accounts, compulsively photographs everything, and lives in the sewing room, filling orders for her Etsy shops, The French Dog, The French Dog Home, and Collar The Dog. A snapshot of her life can be seen on Facebook.