Responsible Breeder: Fact or Fiction?
Yesterday, we talked about the various categories of pet adoption politics, as this author sees them. While politically I can be described as a bleeding heart liberal, when it comes to adoption options, I am a passionate moderate.
This wasn't always the case. There was a time when I would have identified as an adoption left winger. My experience as a trainer and as a dog mom have converted me to my current moderate status. Also, losing a dog to a birth defect at a young age and seeing him degrade quickly and painfully was a very strong positive punisher for me and taught me a quick lesson on the devastating effects of faulty breeding.
Before I go into the topic, I will admit that, unfortunately, truly responsible breeders (as I identify them) might only make up about 1% of the total population of people breeding dogs.
As a behavior professional, it's practically impossible to overestimate the wonders a truly responsible breeder. A truly responsible breeder would no sooner have a dog they bred take up space in a shelter than they would turn their human child over to an orphanage. They provide pet owners with a great gift - an appropriate and extensive head start on socialization and positive training. Quite possibly, this is the ultimate way to prevent aggression and reactivity in adult stages of life.
Dogs go through 10 Developmental Life Stages. Each of these stages carries its own unique training concerns and obligations. 7 of these 10 life stages may very well happen before you even bring your new puppy home. Coincidentally, these life stages, those that happen before four months of age, are the most critical in a dog's emotional and behavioral development. During these stages, dogs are knowledge sponges - they will learn things, both good (sit, play nicely with others, crate training, etc.) and bad (unacceptable toileting habits, reactivity, aggression, separation anxiety, nipping, biting, and barking for attention, resource guarding, etc.), more quickly during these times than at any other stage in their development.
This is a lot of responsibility to leave to an unknown. If a breeder is really doing her socialization homework, I actually like to see a puppy with her litter for twelve or more weeks. If the breeder is irresponsible or the puppies were born into a feral living situation, I like to see the puppy in a forever home at seven or eight weeks, giving the adopters as much critical socialization time to make up for existing deficits as possible.
As a trainer, my expectations of "extensive and appropriate" socialization are pretty darned lofty. For me, the Early Learning Program from Puppy Prodigies should be a socialization model for all breeders. The Puppy Prodigy program specializes in raising puppies for service work, but if you are planning on adopting an obedience, agility, or tracking prospect, you can simply replace the service task training with introducing your new puppy to various behaviors and obstacles, scents and experiences.
On this page, you will see videos of the Puppy Prodigy training in progress. These puppies begin learning to control their movement before they can even open their eyes. By two weeks of age, the puppies are learning "sit," "turn," "follow," and "up." By four weeks, they learn "sit," "shake," "down," "turn," "up," "lap," "push," "target" (easy button), "roll," "touch," "under," "tug." By eleven weeks, they learn: basket retrieve, laundry retrieve, kleenex retrieve, tugging off sock, simulated counter transaction, child handler (sit, shake, speak), and targeting with the clicker (bell, handicapped door button, target stick).
Is this irresponsible dog care? If so, I would be interested in a definition of responsible dog care that somehow is an improvement over these puppy handling and training techniques.
These puppies are being bred for service work. As adults, they will help law enforcement keep communities safe, and disabled individuals live fuller and more complete lives. Service dogs need this early and intensive training to thrive in their careers. Really, pet dogs could benefit from this type of extensive, appropriate, and early intervention as well. Many responsible breeders introduce their dogs to various agility obstacles at four or five weeks of age. They practice controlled separation, crate training, teaching the dogs to be gentle with their teeth, friendly with cats, hamster, horses, sheep, or children when the dog is still imprinting during critical socialization periods.
While it is true that a great number of mixed breeds and shelter dogs also work as service dogs, in many cases asking a dog without requisite genetic health testing (which cannot be done until two years of age in many cases) to perform duties such as bracework can be crippling and dangerous for the dog. Because the training of a service dog often costs tens of thousands of dollars, it is difficult for service dog organizations to make a $15000 training investment only to find out that when the dog turns 2, it was all for naught as he is physically unsuited to the task at hand.
Do responsible breeders contribute to the pet overpopulation problem? Let's examine the question more carefully.
The number one reason that dogs are turned in to shelters and rescues or is euthanized for non-medical purposes is because of behavior problems. A dog pees on the rug, or barks when the mailman comes daily. A dog digs holes in the garden, or chases the family cat. A dog howls in his crate all night, or exhibits signs of separation anxiety. A dog urinates whenever he hears thunder or fireworks. A fearful dog nips at children. A dog fights with other dogs. Perhaps a dog screams when approached by a tall man with boots and a beard.
What do all of these behavior problems have in common? The vast majority of them could be prevented by a diligent, responsible breeder who socialized and trained the healthy puppies well before sending them home, providing adoptive parents with the tools needed to continue their puppy's education into adolescence and adulthood.
Unfortunately, this category of breeder is a small minority and their work is overshadowed by a vicious majority which only values a puppy for the profit it can bring, uncaring as to what happens once the check is signed.
Certainly, this is only my view of the topic. Behaviorist Patricia McConnell recently had some great blogs on the topic offering her own perspective. I hope you enjoy her thoughts as much as I did!