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Can We Shut Down Puppy Mills Without Running Responsible Breeders Out of Business?

A Phoenix law prohibits pet stores from selling dogs from any professional breeder. Is that the right answer to a complex problem?

Chris Hall  |  Sep 18th 2015


Last month, an Arizona district court made a ruling that a lot of dog lovers, including myself, cheered as a victory. Judge David Campbell issued a decision upholding the City of Phoenix’s ordinance banning stores from selling any dogs who hadn’t come straight from shelters or rescue organizations. In response to the ordinance, Frank and Vickie Mineo, owners of a local pet store called Puppies ‘N Love, sued the city, alleging that the ordinance was unconstitutional and would cause them to go out of business.

In the weeks since I first wrote up the news item about Campbell’s decision, I’ve thought about it a little more, and some of my initial uncertainty has grown. One of the problems is that, unlike a lot of the stories that I write for Dogster, there isn’t really any villain in the Mineos’ lawsuit against the ordinance. Campbell himself wrote in his opinion that “Puppies ‘N Love appears to be an exemplary pet store. The store avoids buying from puppy mills and works hard to ensure that its puppies have been raised in a humane and caring environment. No doubt, the burden of the Ordinance will fall hard on the Puppies ‘N Love store in Phoenix.”

I want to encourage as many people as possible to go to shelters for their dogs; in fact, I want to go further than that. I want to encourage you to take a look at the ones who aren’t conventionally cute: the older dogs, the disabled dogs, the breeds who are stigmatized, such as Pit Bulls.

But despite that, I wonder if dog lovers sometimes go too far in drawing a direct line between professional breeders and puppy mills. Can we keep space for ethical professional breeders while also protecting the rights of dogs to humane treatment?

I don’t mean that to be the kind of leading question that hackneyed pundits scribble when writing think pieces in which the conclusion is predictable from the very first word. It’s something that I’m actually thinking about — and haven’t answered clearly for myself, yet.

There are, of course, many legitimate objections to the practice of breeding itself. Extended attempts to make purebred dogs often have drastic consequences for the resulting dogs, such as reduced genetic diversity and anatomical deformities (the Bulldog’s legendary problems with breathing and hip dysplasia, for example).

This is what a genuine puppy mill looks like. (Image via Shutterstock)

Puppy mill by Shutterstock.

But despite that, slamming breeders with the twin hammers of stigma and law has its own consequences. Typically, the further we push an industry to the margins, the less room it has for those who want to be ethical and respectable. If anything, we risk pushing responsible breeders out of the industry entirely, leaving only those whose sole ethic is based on the quarterly profit.

I know there are some who look at that last sentence’s use of “responsible breeders” as if I’d typed some bizarre oxymoron, but the idea is one that we may do better to acknowledge. When Dogster published a list of “Five Things We Believe at Dogster” in 2012, the third point was “We champion adoption. And we support responsible breeders.” Founding Editor of Dogster Janine Kahn herself wrote about finding her beloved dog through a responsible breeder:

My own dog, Mr. Moxie, is from a wonderful hobby breeder named Kim who carefully picks Italian Greyhounds for her breeding program once every few years, mainly for her own love of the breed and for her own small stable of show dogs. (Read: Profit was never her sole goal.) It was sheer luck on my part that one puppy wound up being too large to show and ended up in my hands. But it was a long road from Point A — getting approval from our landlord to add a dog to our household — to Point B, sitting in Kim’s living room fending off puppy kisses. So for those of you looking for a dog of a specific breed and exploring your options, here’s my own tale of how I found a great breeder I still exchange emails with years later.

The question of what qualifies as a “responsible breeder” is a big, complex mess, however, and making the wrong choice can have severe consequences for both dogs and owners. Lucy Ohannessian wrote a piece on finding responsible dog breeders that may not settle the issue, but it does at least light a candle or two to pierce the murk and darkness surrounding it. She provides a solid attempt to wrestle with complicated questions about ethics and practicality:

Good research provides individuals with checkpoints to ensure they are getting a dog from such a source, but sadly it is easy to err in the process, resulting in a puppy lacking these benefits from a breeder of repute. Bad breeders do not educate or support their puppy buyers, and they prove disinterested after the point of sale. Mistakes may be discovered through personal experience (an unhealthy or unstable dog, for instance), or simply learning after the fact that a breeder didn’t conform to standards the pet owner now better understands.

I have learned through the years that these concepts are not simplistic enough to be readily grasped, they can be easily misinterpreted (or manipulated by commercial sellers), or even ignored for their consequences not being understood. Empowering people with the knowledge of what to look for when evaluating potential breeders, on the other hand, seems to make them far less open to errors in judgment and also more passionate about the classic checkpoints themselves.

So the question remains in my mind: Did we cheer for the right side in the Arizona case? Do laws like the Phoenix one do more to feed our sense of righteousness than to create more humane realities for our canine friends? And whatever the answers, how do we encourage more responsible breeders like the ones that Janine wrote about while still coming down on the predators who run puppy mills?

It may make this a singularly unsatisfying commentary that I don’t have any real answers for any of those questions. If anything, there may be more questions in my mind than when I started. I would love to hear whatever answers you have in the comments.

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