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An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey
April 15, 2008
Dear Ms. Winfrey:
Would I be correct in assuming that you're planning a special report on the status of blacks in America, basing your show on information provided by the KKK and inviting the Imperial Wizard to appear with you?
No? Gee, I'm surprised, because such a show would be just like the one on April 4th about 'puppy mills,' based on information from HSUS, with CEO Wayne Pacelle as your main guest.
The problem with both of these show ideas is that the information is so deeply wrong and so fundamentally biased as to be basically hate speech. Having ignorant hate speech about breeders of dogs distributed by one of America's genuine icons to millions of people who trust her implicitly is ... well, 'sickening' isn't too strong a word.
Most importantly this sort of thing is bad for the dogs.
I am sorry this is so long. But even a summary of the incorrect information in a one hour show that was almost entirely off base, has to be long.
First, 'overpopulation' of dogs (too many whelped for the number of available homes, causing healthy puppies to be euthanized) is now a strictly local problem, chiefly in rural areas and almost entirely in the south. For every ten dogs put down in animal shelters in the 1970's only about one is so today, and the total is continuing to fall as a result of more pet dogs being spayed or neutered and increasing efforts to get good dogs adopted.
The U.S. now imports around 300,000 dogs per year from other countries (U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate) and the number grows annually. Some animal shelters are importing from the streets of other nations in order to have adoptable animals available. If we truly have 'pet overpopulation,' why would this be?
While we all celebrate the steadily falling number of unwanted litters, there's also a decline in planned breeding. Small-scale home breeding is being steadily reduced due to increasing costs, unfavorable zoning, pet limits, expensive and punitive licensing of home breeders, and (in some areas) harassment of breeders by activists.
Since there are fewer accidental and homebred litters, demand is increasing for commercially bred dogs. Describing all for-profit breeding as 'puppy mills' adds fuel to efforts to ban commercial breeding as a full-time business. Such a law has just been passed in Virginia, is being considered in Vermont, and is likely to be proposed in several other states soon. Banning commercial breeding because of violations by a few makes exactly as much sense as banning automobiles to stop drunk driving or outlawing marriage because of spousal abuse.
Commercial breeders who sell to pet shops are federally regulated and inspected. The AKC inspects breeders who use its registry. All breeders, like all other dog owners, are required by law to provide good care. Anyone who sees mistreatment should report it to animal control.
If 'oops' litters and home breeding continue to decline, and legal commercial breeding of dogs is ended, where will they come from? The answer is illegal commercial breeding and even greater numbers of imports. Should that happen, animal mistreatment and 'puppy lemon' issues will be far worse than what we see today.
The pressure on all forms of pet dog breeding is far and away the most important problem of pets. It reduces quality, increases prices, makes more difficult the proper matching of puppy to family, and interferes with the post-purchase support of the puppy's new owners that is normal for good breeders. All of these mean more dogs winding up in shelters.
These issues were not even mentioned on your show, indeed, I'd be surprised if any of your guests would acknowledge them. They were committed and articulate, but they gave a seriously misleading picture of the status and future of our country's dogs.
Turning to the advice given to your viewers, shelter adoptions are commendable and often do work out well. However by far the most important way to help shelter animals is to see that they aren't given up in the first place, by helping families that want to get a dog make good decisions. Although many reasons are given for turning in a dog at the shelter, the translation is often "We shouldn't have gotten this dog." There is no appropriate 'one size fits all' advice on where to get a dog, let alone which dog to get.
The various breeds and mixes are not generic dogs in various kinds of fur suits; they have very different characteristics. Families who want a dog must think about size, activity level, how it will be confined, temperament, amount of mess, ease of training, need for discipline, age that would work best, and grooming requirements, as these often spell the difference between success and failure. No new dog requires less than an hour per day for care and attention; puppies and problem dogs may need several times as much. Does the family have enough time?
Mixed breeds can be wonderful, but an important reason for getting a purebred dog is predictability in physical attributes and temperament. Contrary to what was stated on the program, shelter dogs are rarely purebreds in a meaningful sense. The 1/3 fraction stated reflects appearance-based guesses by (often, hopes of) shelter workers who are seldom experienced with purebred dogs. At most shelters offering purebreds, only a handful of breeds are common and these are rarely the ones most suitable as family pets. The popular small breeds and mixes are uncommon to rare.
In addition, shelter dogs are the most likely to have behavioral and/or health issues. While most problems can be solved, the average shelter dog will need more skill and time than the average dog of the same age from a quality breeder. Shelter dogs are thus best suited to the family with more than average flexibility and some prior dog experience. Encouraging all families to adopt from shelters is setting many dogs and owners up for failure.
Rescue organizations that take dogs from shelters and other sources, foster them for a month or more with someone experienced with the breed, evaluate health and behavioral issues and begin any needed corrective action, are often excellent sources. They offer the best of all worlds, both helping a dog in need and minimizing risks. Reliable rescue groups can often be located via the AKC parent club for the breed.
Hobby and other home breeders generally supply puppies with the least chance of unpleasant surprises. Hobbyists give varying amounts of support, ranging from about the same as a pet shop, to "You'll be a member of our extended family, we have e-mail lists for our owners, and there's an annual reunion." However, since most have only an occasional litter, they're often very choosy about buyers. Not all breeds are available in a convenient time period, and again, the popular toy and small breeds are often in shortage.
Commercial breeders and pet shops try to keep popular breeds in stock; many can order almost any desired breed within a few days. Buyers should pay close attention to the registry used. AKC registration generally is the most reliable indicator of true purebred status but there are other sound registries, particularly among the rare breeds. When buying from a pet shop, post-sale help is generally quite limited.
Many excellent breeders advertise on the Internet and their web sites are a good place to begin research. But it is important for anyone unfamiliar with a breed to meet owners and spend time with the dogs. Committing to buy a dog sight unseen is risky at best.
Puppy buyers should carefully read the guarantee offered. Many states have 'puppy lemon' laws requiring sellers to make specific guarantees. All new puppies and dogs should be taken to a veterinarian for a 'new pet' exam and consultation after the family has had a couple of days to begin getting acquainted.
I believe the Oprah Winfrey show can play a valuable role in reaching the public with information that will help dogs and their families be happier together while further reducing euthanasia of shelter dogs. The show of April 4th presented the views of well-known activist organizations; I hope that in the future you'll revisit these subjects with qualified experts as guests.
Some possible guests would be: Patti Stand of the National Animal Interest Alliance, Nathan Winograd of the 'No Kill Solutions' organization, David Frei the lead announcer for the Westminster Dog Show and spokesman for the Westminster Kennel Club, Karen Strange of the Missouri Federation of Dog Breeders, and Gary Patronek DVM, probably the leading U.S. expert on dog and cat population matters.