Breeders, the good, the bad and the future

Question: What’s the definition of a Puppy Farmer? Answer: Anyone who breeds more litters than you do!

The problem with the Puppy Farmer label is that it’s laden with emotion and it’s a term that gets used to brand some breeders who clearly aren’t farming puppies with little regard to their welfare, socialisation or the homes they go to.

As part of our Dachshund Health Committee, we have 3 Pet Advisors. These are experienced owners who are not involved in breed club committees and who don’t show their dogs. They are all experienced owners and their role is to offer advice and support to people thinking of buying a Dachshund and to those who may be new to the breed. Needless to say, they spend lots of their time answering fairly basic questions on the numerous Facebook Dachshund Groups.

Recently, we have been discussing how we can improve the advice we give to potential owners so they can find the most reputable breeders possible. This is particularly important in the case of Mini Smooth Dachshunds where we have seen demand for the breed grow exponentially in the past 4 years. Demand far outstrips supply and, even with the growth in availability of KC Registered dogs, there is a booming market for imports which are often brought into the UK illegally. 

We have, therefore, been trying to categorise the different types of breeder so that potential buyers can look out for warning signs and make more informed decisions. We ended up with an infographic describing 4 types of breeder.

Large Commercial Breeders: They are characterised as ‘high volume; low welfare’ and would typically fit the Puppy Farmer label. Breeding puppies is purely a business. They typically have multiple breeds for sale and advertise regularly online. Bitches are bred from continually throughout their lives, producing puppies that are either sold on-site or via dog dealers. Their puppies generally do not receive adequate healthcare and most receive little human interaction or socialisation. The problem for puppy buyers is that their adverts often look highly credible to novice buyers and puppies may actually be “sold” from a network of respectable-looking premises. The recent case of more than 100 Dachshunds seized in raids across the North-West of England is a topical example of this sort of breeding operation. Hopefully, Lucy’s Law will make life more difficult for this type of breeder but it wouldn’t be surprising if they find a way round it.

Hobby Breeders: These are ‘low volume; experienced’ breeders. They have extensive knowledge of their breed and are up-to-date on the latest health and genetics information. They are likely to be involved in some type of dog activity such as showing, working or obedience. They carefully vet their potential puppy buyers and will usually provide a lifetime of support to their puppy owners. They understand how to rear puppies well and often act as mentors for newcomers to their breed who want to begin breeding. While the term Hobby Breeder may seem to imply ‘amateur’, these breeders are most certainly not amateurs and take their responsibility for their dogs and the future of their breed seriously. Since the introduction of the Dog Breeding Licensing legislation last year, many of these breeders will almost certainly not be having more than 1 or 2 litters per year in order not to require a breeding license. Recent figures from the KC suggest 81% of breeders who register puppies with the KC only breed 1 litter per year.

Professional Breeders: These are ‘experienced breeders running legitimate businesses’. Similar to hobby breeders, they breed more often, with more dogs and are, invariably, licensed by their local authority. They usually show their dogs and may have a grooming or kennel business associated with their breeding business. They may own several breeds and will be very knowledgeable about all of these. Their puppies will be well-reared and will usually have a lifetime guarantee of support. A recent comment in Our Dogs said that these breeders are often frowned upon because of the number of puppies they breed and that this is a misguided attitude. These professional breeders fill a genuine market demand for good quality puppies. Without them, that demand would invariably be filled by puppy farmers.

We struggled to come up with a suitable name for the fourth type of breeder. “Backyard Breeder” seemed too derogatory and didn’t really describe this group, so we ended up with “I’m not (really) a Breeder”. These people breed few litters and have little knowledge or experience. They may be producing puppies for the right or the wrong reasons and everyone has to start somewhere. If it’s their first litter, they may have little or no knowledge or experience of breeding but they may have the support of an experienced mentor who has helped them choose a suitable stud dog. Alternatively, they might just have used a dog down the road, with little thought. If they have bred ‘to make money’, ‘because it would be nice for Daisy to have pups” or “they have friends who have told them they should”, then buyers should think carefully before committing to buy. 

In an ideal world, we would want to encourage more Hobby Breeders because the demand for well-bred KC registered pedigree dogs outstrips supply. Existing Hobby Breeders should be encouraging their puppy buyers to get involved in KC activities, for example, training via the Good Citizen Dog Scheme, and to consider breeding from their dog when it is old enough. Discouraging them from showing or breeding (e.g. with endorsements) simply makes it more difficult for us to bring on the next generation of pedigree dog enthusiasts. Hobby Breeders and Professional Breeders should be helping the “I’m not (really) a breeder” to learn more about their breed and about breeding. Breed Councils and Clubs can do the same. That’s why the Dachshund Breed Council is developing a set of resources for potential breeders. We want to see more, better-bred Dachshunds and fewer puppy-farmed or poorly-bred ones available. It’s also why our Pet Advisors are so important in helping potential buyers decide if a Dachshund is the right breed for them and how to find a really good breeder of KC registered puppies. 

Our challenge is to convert the “I’m not (really) a breeder” people into “Hobby Breeders” who will help secure the future of our breeds.

Canine anxiety and puppy-rearing

Earlier this year I analysed some data collected by one of our Dachshund Breed Rescues. We wanted to see whether the massive increase in popularity of Miniature Smooth Dachshunds was feeding through into a rehoming and rescue problem. Unsurprisingly, the 2 are linked and this particular rescue charity has seen a 4-fold increase in rehoming cases from 2017 to 2019. Of those, 70% were not Kennel Club registered and that figure mirrors what we know about the market for pedigree dogs. Far more are bred outside the KC registration system than within it.

The analysis of the rescue data showed that a quarter of all cases were associated with biting or aggression. That is a worryingly high proportion, especially when compared with the findings of one of our breed surveys. In 2012, our survey asked about behaviour and temperament, and just 1% of Mini Smooths were reported as being aggressive with people (5% were aggressive with other dogs).

My suspicion is that many of these rehoming cases are a result of badly bred dogs producing puppies that are badly reared and then sold to inexperienced owners who know very little about canine behaviour and can’t cope.

Last month, I wrote about the breeding recommendations in a recently published paper “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater” (Dawson et al). Firstly, the authors recommended that breeding choices and puppy-rearing processes should be based on knowledge of good practices. Secondly, they advocated that all dogs should be independently tested for suitability before being bred from. In addition to suitability from a health point of view, they suggested behavioural testing is important to check their suitability to be good companion animals. Dogs that are themselves good companions, are more likely to produce puppies that will be good companions as well.

Fearfulness and its causes

I’ve been re-reading another paper on behaviour: “Early life experiences and exercise associated with canine anxieties” published by Hannes Lohi and Katriina Tiira in 2015. It’s an Open Access paper so you can download the full version, yourself. The study collected data from a Finnish family dog population to identify environmental factors that might be associated with canine fearfulness, noise sensitivity and separation anxiety. I was particularly interested in the findings on fearfulness, in light of the aggression/biting data found in the rescue Dachshunds. The paper notes that aggressiveness is often motivated by fear and that bite injuries from human-directed aggression are an important public health concern. In 2017/18 there were just under 8000 NHS hospital admissions for dog bites and this figure has risen by almost 5% since 2015. However, a 2017 paper (Westgarth et al) suggests that the real burden of dog bites is considerably larger than those estimated from hospital records.

While fearfulness is known to have relatively high heritability, 2 major environmental factors are also known to affect this: lack of juvenile experiences and aversive learning. In the Lohi/Tiira paper, they found that a puppy’s maternal care and the amount of socialisation had the largest effects on fearfulness. Fearful dogs had received poorer maternal care and were less well socialised compared with less fearful dogs. Additionally, fearful dogs also lived in households with fewer other dogs and with more human adults. Bitches and younger dogs also tended to be more fearful. There was also a tendency for fearful dogs to get less exercise and they were more likely to live indoors, rather than spending their time indoors and outdoors.

It’s fireworks season

In our area, the firework season seems to have spread well beyond Bonfire Night and there will inevitably be another week of loud noises as we approach the New Year. Noise sensitivity was the second issue investigated by Lohi and Tiira. They found that dogs with noise sensitivity got significantly less daily exercise than dogs with no noise sensitivity. They were also more likely to have been neutered and were likely to be their owner’s first dog. The more dogs an owner had and the more dogs they had previously owned, the later the age of onset of noise sensitivity in their current dog. Overall, the evidence suggests that more socialised dogs were less likely to be noise sensitive.

I (don’t) want to be alone

Among social media discussion groups, there seem to be endless questions about Dachshunds with separation anxiety. It’s not just Dachshunds, of course. According to Dogs Trust, surveys have shown that between 13% and 18% of owners reported separation-related issues with their dogs. One study (albeit a small sample) found 85% of the sample had behavioural and psychological signs of stress when left alone.

The Lohi/Tiira study found that separation anxiety was more common in dogs that received less exercise. Other studies (Sargisson 2014) have shown that dogs tend to develop separation-related behaviour if they are male, sourced from rescues or puppy farms, and are separated from their littermates before 8 weeks. Protective factors include ensuring a wide range of experiences outside the home with other people from 5-10 months old, stable daily routines and the avoidance of punishments. 

No surprises!

It probably comes as no surprise that the largest explanatory factors associated with fearfulness were maternal care and the amount of early socialisation (up to 3 months old). However, it is important to note that comments on maternal care in the Lohi/Tiira paper were made by the owners, not the breeders. This reflects their recollection of what they had seen when they visited the breeder before taking the puppy home. The importance of the “See Mum” message cannot be overstated and, in practice, buyers should aim to see the puppies interacting with their mother at least once before the day they take their puppy home. It’s also worth reading the Puppy Plan (Kennel Club and Dogs Trust www.thepuppyplan.com) as a week-by-week checklist of experiences that well-reared puppies should have been exposed to. 

The findings on exercise also come as no surprise to me. Our dogs love to sniff when they are out, off the lead. This is an important aspect of their mental stimulation as well as them getting physical exercise. So many of the cases of separation anxiety and destructive behaviour that I read on social media are, I’m convinced, due to the dogs simply not getting enough exercise. The authors note that exercise may work as stress resilience, particularly as the resilient effect of exercise on anxiety and depression has been recognised in people. It is known that exercise increases serotonin production in animals and people, and this acts as an antidepressant. Interestingly, the study also found that dogs with less daily exercise were more aggressive to other dogs. The amount of daily exercise may be an indicator of the overall quality of dog management. 

In conclusion, I think buyers need to be much more aware of how their potential puppy has been socialised. They also need to be much clearer on their responsibilities for socialisation and exercise. Breeders probably need to exaggerate when explaining the amount of exercise a dog will need. Otherwise, we will continue to see dogs suffering from anxiety in their new homes and growing demand for rescue and rehoming services.

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Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Last month, I commented on the potential unintended consequences of breeders endorsing their puppies because “that’s what responsible breeders do”. There aren’t enough well-bred, KC registered puppies to meet demand and an estimated 70% of pedigree puppies are not KC registered. If someone has bought an endorsed puppy (dog or bitch) and is determined to breed from it, they are more likely to look for an unregistered mate and produce a litter of yet more unregistered puppies. They are unlikely to go back to their puppy’s breeder for advice or to understand what health tests may be required. It is debatable how much knowledge they will have about canine husbandry, how to care for a pregnant bitch or how to rear and socialise puppies.

Not only might this result in more pedigree dogs being bred outside the KC registration system but it probably also increases the chances of the puppies growing up with temperament and developmental issues.

A quick trawl through any of the online puppy sales sites shows just how many unregistered dogs are being bred and advertised. Many of the puppies (certainly in my breed) look rather untypical specimens and seem to command virtually the same prices as KC registered ones.

More “responsible owner” fallacies?

In this country, many new owners are encouraged by their vet to neuter their dogs. The BVA’s policy on neutering states:

“Neutering helps to reduce the number of unwanted litters. BVA strongly supports the practice of neutering cats (castration of tom cats and spaying of queens) and dogs (castration of dogs and spaying of bitches) for preventing the birth of unwanted kittens and puppies and the perpetuation of genetic defects. Such surgical intervention removes the problems associated with finding homes or increasing the stray population.”

The 2018 Dogs Trust survey said there were 56,000 stray dogs across the UK, which is the lowest level reported by councils for 21 years. That’s about half a percent of the UK dog population and hardly seems the best evidence for neutering. About 10,000 of those strays ended up in welfare organisations. The Dogs Trust report also estimated that 130,000 dogs come into rehoming charities every year.

A recent paper (Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water: Could Widespread Neutering of Companion Dogs Cause Problems at a Population Level? – Dawson et al) starts by saying “In many countries, ‘responsible dog ownership’ also involves spaying and castration”. In the USA, Australia and New Zealand, neutering is normal practice now and, in some cases, puppies are neutered at a very young age, before they go to their new homes. In contrast, in several European and Scandinavian countries, routine neutering is not the norm and is considered to be mutilation, similar to ear-cropping or tail-docking. In those countries, it is illegal. Here, just over half of all dogs are neutered as part of so-called responsible dog ownership.

More than health impacts

There have been numerous studies on the association between neutering and dog health. These cover large breeds where there are links with musculoskeletal conditions such as hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament disease, and also with osteosarcoma and diabetes. In my own breed, our 2015 and 2018 breed surveys identified an association between neutering and an increased risk of back disease. A VetCompass study published this year showed that spaying of bitches increased the risk of urinary incontinence.

The information on the effects of neutering on behaviour is more mixed, with some studies suggesting it increases the risk of nervous aggression and others saying it reduces dog-dog aggression.

The Dawson paper considers the possible effects of widespread neutering on the breeding of dogs and their success as human companions. The authors describe 3 types of breeder:

  • Hobby breeders – who are often very experienced in a breed and often also participate in canine activities such as showing, obedience or agility. These people breed for their hobby/sport primarily, rather than to supply the pet market.
  • Commercial breeders – who breed primarily to make a living (profit) and specifically target the pet market, with higher volumes of puppies.
  • The general public – who have a dog and decide to breed from it, possibly without much experience of husbandry, whelping or puppy-rearing. They may be described as “backyard breeders” and probably know very little about health testing or genetics. They possibly breed because “it would be nice for Daisy to have puppies” or “to make a bit of money”.

No doubt breeders in all 3 groups would describe themselves as “responsible” but, Dawson et al go on to explain the changes they feel are needed if dogs and owners are not to be exploited.

Firstly, breeding choices and puppy-rearing processes should be based on knowledge of good practices. Clearly, schemes such as the Assured Breeder Scheme and the Dog Breeding Standard can help here. The free resources for breeders on the KC Academy is another useful starting point.

Secondly, they advocate that all dogs should be independently tested for suitability before being bred from. In addition to suitability from a health point of view, they believe behavioural testing is important to check their suitability to be good companion animals. There are several canine mentality/behaviour tests available, but programmes such as the KC’s Good Citizen Dog Scheme is another option. Dogs that are themselves good companions, are more likely to produce puppies that will be as well.

Thirdly, experienced breeders should be helping their puppy buyers who may be interested in having a litter so that these people don’t become “backyard breeders”. It would be relatively easy to include advice on breeding in the puppy pack that is given to new owners. Advising them not to neuter could also be beneficial from a genetic diversity perspective by keeping breeding options open. Widespread neutering excludes thousands of ideal companions from the gene pool. This includes dogs neutered by their breeder before sale or those who are sold with a contract stipulating they should be neutered or not bred from.

The paper concludes by saying: “Over the long term, a more considered approach to the breeding of companion dogs would help lessen the gap between owner expectations and the dogs available to them. However, this is only possible if attitudes toward neutering are addressed and “responsible ownership” is broadened to include a dynamic partnership between owners and breeders to produce dogs most suited for life as companions.

If we don’t change our thinking on what is meant by “responsible breeding” and take a population-wide view, we risk continuing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. More and more unregistered puppies will be bred by inexperienced people and the gene pools of our closed stud books will get even smaller.

The Great British Puppy Survey

GB Puppy SurveyI’ve recently finished reading The Great British Puppy Survey 2016 which was organised by a group of independent dog and animal welfare campaigners. They are Canine Action UK, CARIAD, Hidden-in-sight, The Karlton Index, Naturewatch Foundation and Pup Aid.

This group wanted to examine the behaviours and attitudes of UK puppy buyers to provide data that might inform future campaigns and policy-making, with the overall aim of improving welfare outcomes for dogs.

The online survey ran for a year (January 2015 – January 2016) and received 4303 responses, of which 3670 were described as “complete”. The responses comprise both quantitative and qualitative data, from a mixture of multiple choice/ranking questions and free text questions.

The first question you have to ask is to what extent that sample size is statistically significant. If it’s not, then any conclusions and, more importantly, any recommendations may be flawed.

Virtually all the puppies (97%) were purchased by survey respondents between 2010 and 2015 (6 years), a period when a reasonable estimate of total UK puppies bought would be 750,000 per year. Given that population, a quick test shows that a sample of 4000 responses would lead to a Confidence Interval of +/- 1.55 at the 95% Confidence Level. In other words, we can consider this to be a big enough sample upon which to draw statistically significant conclusions. We do, however, also have to consider the potential biases in the sample and their responses.

70% of people had bought a pedigree dog and many of those who had bought a crossbred had chosen a so-called Designer Breed, such as a Cockapoo or Cavachon. Interestingly, 80% of people had previous experience of owning a dog, so this does introduce a particular bias to the results. You would assume that the buying attitudes and behaviours of people with previous dog-owning experience would be somewhat different to those who had never owned a dog.

Unfortunately, the data presented in the report has not been analysed in this way, but it would be very easy to do this. I would be really interested to see if new owners were less rigorous in their research and decision-making process than experienced owners, or if they ended up with puppies that had more health and welfare problems. This could be important to help determine whether communications to the two groups should be different. There has been some interesting evidence published, based on Government (HMRC) “nudge” communications. Using language that is tailored to the audience has improved compliance rates in letters about tax returns. For example, “9 out of 10 small business owners like you have already submitted their Tax Return” gets a better response than “your Tax Return is overdue”. A similar approach could perhaps be used with puppy buyers to help them in their decision-making.

Pre-purchase Research

Half the respondents researched both “responsible dog ownership” and ”different breeds” via books, magazines and the Internet before buying their dog and 1 in 8 consulted the KC for advice. 15% asked their vet for advice, which I suspect is a reflection of the number of existing/previous owners in the sample. I’d be surprised if a first-time buyer would consult a vet. Perhaps surprisingly, 15% also visited dog shows to find out about their preferred breed. This is obviously encouraging and a good reason to make shows welcoming to visitors. Only 2% of these respondents did no research, which again suggests to me that many of the responses are slightly skewed by the 80% who had previously owned dogs.

Online classified websites were the main source of adverts, with Pets4Homes being used by about a third of buyers. Having found a breeder (or seller), nearly one-third did an online search for that person’s name. That, I think is interesting and positive as it is more likely to throw up articles on puppy farmers and welfare issues that have made it into the public domain.

Puppy sellers

There appears to be significant confusion among the puppy-buying public about licensing, KC Registration and accreditation (e.g. ABS membership). Half the respondents did not know the difference between people who were selling KC Registered puppies and those who were ABS members. In another question, buyers ranked “the seller was licensed” at number 7 in importance to their buying decision, compared with “able to see mum” and “right breed, sex, temperament” which were ranked first and second. It would appear that “licensing” or accreditation are not high in the priorities of buyers and, given the numerous puppy farm TV programmes where premises are licensed, there is probably still a big credibility gap to bridge. I wonder if the tarnished reputation of Local Authority licensing is carried over into scepticism over the value of the ABS. Surely, UKAS accreditation is the factor that differentiates the two.

In this survey, 80% of buyers saw the puppy’s mother when they bought their puppy. That leaves a shocking one-fifth who didn’t and suggests the “See Mum” message has much more work to do. Add to that the evidence that dealers and other less reputable sellers are setting up “fake Mum” situations to hoodwink buyers and it’s clear that “see Mum” might be overly simplistic as a single message to buyers.

Post-purchase experiences

One in five buyers reported problems with their puppy that required veterinary treatment. Of those, just over a third developed symptoms within the first week of ownership, with 1 in 20 facing vet bills of over £3000.

It’s probably not surprising that so many issues emerged in the first week of ownership as it can be a stressful transition for any puppy, however well-reared, as it moves to its new home. However, there is plenty of research evidence that the temperaments of poorly-reared puppies are worse than those from a good welfare background and you would assume that well-reared puppies will have a less traumatic transition. This also raises a strong argument for puppies to have only one transition; that is from their breeder to their new home. Transport between commercial breeders and retailers, via dealers, and time spent in pet shops cannot be good for the welfare of any puppy.

Puppy owners in this survey also appear to have been either unaware or unclear where they could complain if their puppy had problems. 72% took no action, while others typically complained to the KC, Local Authority, Trading Standards or the RSPCA. With this range of reporting, it would probably be very difficult to identify recurring issues from particular sellers. More than half the owners who had problems found their seller to be “very helpful” and only 6% said they were “completely unhelpful”.

Did these buyers learn any lessons?

More than half the buyers claimed they would do nothing differently and it would be really useful to know how this differed, if at all, between new owners and those who had previously owned a dog.

Surprisingly, nearly one third said that, next time, they would rehome from a rescue centre. This perhaps suggests they are looking for some degree of certainty about who the seller is, but they may not have considered why a dog might be in rescue in the first place. It’s certainly debatable whether there are sufficient dogs in rescue to meet this potential level of demand.

The other main lessons learnt were: visit the puppy at least twice before purchase, see the puppy interact with its mother, request health test results, ask more questions and do an online search for the seller’s name. It strikes me that if we could achieve this combination of buying behaviours it could make a significant difference to the puppy-buying process and would make it significantly more difficult for high-volume, poor-welfare breeders to continue their trade.

Next steps: See Mum Twice!

The report suggests that further analysis of the responses will be carried out and acknowledges that more data is needed on the behaviours and experiences of first-time puppy buyers. Both of these will, I’m sure, be helpful.

The current licensing and inspection system is clearly flawed and failing, but the chances of politicians addressing this anytime soon seem remote.

I’ve said before “if you wait for the perfect set of data, you’ll wait a very long time” and there are certainly some actions that can be taken quickly to help nudge buyers in the right direction and to make it more difficult for low-welfare sellers to get away with it. “See Mum twice” could be a key message that has the potential to make a big difference.

Download The Great British Puppy Survey 2016

 

[Originally published in Our Dogs: Author Ian J Seath]