If You Call Yourself an Ethical Breeder, You Better Back It Up

Some people tout the "ethical breeder" tag to simply sell more dogs -- or to make themselves feel good. There's much more to it than that.

Last Updated on June 2, 2015 by

Editor’s Note: On Dogster we often run first-person accounts from people involved in different aspects of the dog “business” — owners, trainers, groomers, vets, rescuers — often without an editor’s commentary, in the interest of starting a conversation. A few weeks back, we ran one such piece from Josh Brown, a German Shepherd breeder who considers himself ethical (his words, not ours) and the post started a passionate debate on *what* exactly it means to be an ethical breeder, and whether this particular breeder qualifies. Longtime community member Lucy Ohannessian, who has been an active champion of ethical breeders (breeders she holds to a rigorous standard) and dog rescue in our forums, offered to pen a response to Brown’s piece. We are running it below, and we hope you will comment and let us know where you stand on this very important issue. —Janine Kahn, EIC


Recently Dogster ran an article written by a self-professed ethical breeder. What I saw instead was someone entering the world of breeding dogs in a rush, going in less than two years from buying his first breeding program puppy to planning multiple litters in the fall. His claims of OFA certifying stock proved premature, with the organization having no record of his kennel name upon a recent check — which is always a red flag. And the statement he made about his “real reason” for breeding being the service German Shepherds provide to the community was undermined by the fact that he has yet to experience titling or fully developing a German Shepherd of service himself.

The purebred dog fancy has long known the toll less-discriminating breeders have upon its population. Compounded with a sensitivity towards the shelter crisis, we hear now more than ever a call for breeders to justify why they are breeding: whether it is simply to produce more dogs, or trying to better or preserve the breed with exemplary individuals. Aren’t there enough “nice dogs” looking for homes already? Shelter advocates would surely say so. Yes, some prefer breeder puppies, but on what basis is breeding “ethical” when puppies are available from those more entrenched within their breed community, with proven stock, health tested, and offering lifelong expert guidance? I don’t see where going to someone who falls short of this description ever makes sense.

On a personal note, let me say this: One day I plan to pursue breeding a performance line of American Cocker Spaniels, but that will be a long time in the future after an extended learning process. In the meantime, I have wonderful breeding mentors and two breeder-purchased Cockers to experience (one going on 14 years old). I also involve myself in rescue work as the codirector of a transport-based organization. Be it through my breeder mentors or rescue, where carelessly bred Cockers abound (and yes, I have pulled and placed many), I am constantly reminded of the heavy responsibilities of breeding — the bounty that comes alongside doing it right, and the tragedy that accompanies doing it wrong.

My Cocker obsession is predated by a fascination with German protection breeds. One of my first was indeed the German Shepherd, partnering my Doberman at the time. Doubtless, my experiences (my first struggling with various health problems for all his eight years, my second requiring a $6,000 surgery to address a paralyzing ruptured disc when barely two years old) are one reason my ire got struck by this particular breeder’s testimonial.

I know the breed to be one in turmoil. It doesn’t need more breeders, but better ones. In the years since I have experienced my German breed love through the less-troubled Giant Schnauzer, while remaining in touch with my beloved GSD community.

Sophia Kaluzniacki, a judge and breeder who also is a veterinarian, came up with a list of points to define an ethical breeder. Building awareness is key, for on the Internet today, breeders can be masterful posers. They can claim to health test when they don’t, have “noble” reasons why they don’t title their dogs, or breed against the standard (with pocket or giant sizes, “rare” colors, and so on).

They might have spay/neuter contracts in place for ethical reasons or simply because they are a “thing to say.” Backyard breeders know what to say in order to pass muster. It is equally worth noting that a “backyard breeder” does not have to mean someone up to no good. They can be well-intentioned people who do not understand the complexities inherent to the art of breeding purebred dogs ethically.

At a base level, breeders should be able to present health certifications and have some manner by which to grade their breeding stock (titles, which can range from a “TT” for temperament test on up through conformation or performance, or some working function, such as therapy or SAR). This is in addition to all the other norms of well-cared-for dogs: spay/neuter contracts, take-back clauses, application processes, etc. Are there contractual repercussions for failure to spay/neuter? Contractual obligations that the breeder takes the dog back? These things are worth exploring.

Breed clubs state what health tests should be done, and for this there is an ethical obligation for breeders to comply if they are to be considered responsible. Saying they do so is pretty worthless; fortunately for us, there are databases for such key organizations as OFA, CERF, CHIC. If you have the dog’s full name, you can check for yourself. You can search more generally by the kennel name as well.

It also bears noting that when considering a breeder pup, some people look at titles as fluff, which they don’t really care about. I believe titles have more substance than that, indicating an earnestness in breeders to qualify the quality of their stock in front of an objective observer. This can require tremendous investment on their part. Contrast this to a breeder who does not put in these efforts and asserts the quality of his animals himself. There is a term for the fallout of this in the dog fancy — “kennel blindness” — referencing people’s propensity to look upon dogs they love through rose-colored glasses.

All of this heads us into an ultimate question: When does a breeder purchase truly take away the life of a shelter pup? When it is a backyard breeder, that’s when. Backyard breeder pups typically aren’t the best examples standard-wise, nor do they usually come from parents health screened or proven. They are much like shelter pups. And yet backyard breeders claim buyers are more assured of quality.

On what basis? The head needs to come before the heart in these instances. If you are passing over shelter pups for the potential benefits of health testing, quality of the parents, and lifelong breeder support, you need to establish that is indeed what you are getting before you fall in love with a puppy from a breeder.

Shelter dogs have awesome pet potential, and while they cannot replicate the more palpable assurance to be found in a breeder pup, they offer the uniqueness of that special bond — and of being a one in a million. It feels awesome to save a life. And it feels awesome to be a part of someone who has totally dedicated themselves to their breed with a discerning level of expertness as well. There is no other ground for us, to do this responsibly. It’s one dog at a time. No matter our choice, I absolutely think we need to do it right.

About the Author: I have been a passionate animal welfarist since age six with an interest in many animal issues. I share my life with three breeder-purchased dogs, a Giant Schnauzer and two American Cocker Spaniels, and I’m never without foster dogs in my pack. I have maintained an active presence in rescue for the past 17 years and am co-director of the transport based rescue Southpaws Express. I also share my life with a feral born cat, Cheza, who is sassy enough to live among them all.

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