The irony of the champion bred vs. backyard bred

I hesitate to write this post, lest anyone think I’m championing lackadaisical backyard breeders or puppy mills. Not at ALL. This is just a weird, little personal observation…

When it comes to purebred dogs, sometimes the haphazardly bred turn out healthier than the ones from ribbon-winning breeders.

Our dogs are a case in point.

Ready to rumble
Pyrrha, February 2013.

Pyrrha came from a terrible place — this neglectful man who had a dozen shepherds in tiny cages outdoors — but she is the picture of health. She’s never had a serious health concern (knock on wood), her skin and coat are shiny and robust, and she has a better, stronger build (no exaggerated back lines or hocks). Plus, her teeth look much better than Eden’s, despite the fact that they are on the same diet and that Pyrrha is a full two years her senior.

Dogs in May
Eden, May 2014.

Eden, on the other hand, was a very expensive puppy from West German lines. (Her papers are completely in German.) Her parents are both titled schutzhund champions. And health wise, she’s been a huge pain. Thankfully, there’s nothing seriously wrong with her (yet), but she is the reason we spend a small fortune at the vet on a regular basis. Her skin is bad and she’s constantly itchy. Her teeth are already showing signs of wear and tear. Her back hocks are sadly sloped.

I mentioned this little observation to one of the vet techs, when we were back in with Eden, and she laughed and said she had the same experience. She rescues Boston terriers, and her terriers from puppy mills and backyard breeders have been quite healthy. But her most recent acquisition, an expensive puppy from a supposedly good breeder, has been a complete genetic disaster.

So. Conclusion? If you want a purebred, do your research and find a really excellent, thoughtful breeder. But also acknowledge that purebreds are just a gamble. Don’t give money to the horrible human beings who churn out puppies in miserable conditions, but also don’t think that a well-bred purebred is going to be perfectly healthy. The odds are somewhat against them.

Wednesday afternoon

We love our ladies, regardless of their issues. But my big conclusion is: Get a mixed-breed dog. This would definitely be my next move, as much as I love our purebred ladies.

What do you think? Am I totally insane? Anyone else have a similar experience with purebreds from disparate backgrounds?

Pro-rescue doesn’t have to mean anti-breeding

Lately, I have been thinking about this post on My Rotten Dogs and about the division between the pro-rescue and pro-purebred camps of dog lovers. Can they peaceably coexist?

There are purebred elitists — people who think the only dogs worth having are from registered breeders — and there are rescue elitists — people who judge the purebred elitists and think the only dogs worth having are from rescues.

I am unequivocally pro-rescue. Both of our shepherds were adopted from Southeast German Shepherd Rescue, and we served as a foster home for SGSR pups for about a year (something I’d love to start doing again one day). The beauty and mercy of rescuing a homeless dog is a matchless feeling, and that is a tie that really binds.

But I am not anti-breeding or anti-purebred dogs. Our dogs are both purebred, and I am an advocate for ethical breeders, because I have seen first-hand what irresponsible, negligent breeders can do to dogs, both physically and emotionally.

Laszlo in the evening
Laszlo, our foster puppy, a German shepherd mix.

A Pro-Rescue Person Defends People Who Purchase Purebreds

I will always have a rescue dog in my life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the serious benefits of raising a purebred puppy from Day One. I believe that Pyrrha, for instance, could have been a totally different dog if we’d met her at 10 weeks of age instead of at 1 year.

Rescue dogs, almost by definition, come with some kind of baggage, or at the very least, an element of mystery. This doesn’t mean that they are going to be screwier than a purebred, by any means, but it just means you know a lot less about their background and heritage.

Anecdotally, the most stable dogs I know are purebreds raised from puppyhood by their current owners. The dogs I know who have the most issues to work through are almost always the rescues, even those that were raised from puppyhood. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to have a purebred who is a psychopath, or that it’s impossible to have a totally sound, issue-free pound puppy: both definitely exist. But the odds of having a dog with some form of baggage to work through is greater if you’ve got a rescue pup.

Playdate with Josie
A well-bred GSD (Josie, on the left) and a poorly bred GSD (Pyrrha).

I confess that I sometimes get jealous of the people who have carefree, sound, emotionally stable purebred dogs (like Josie, Heath, and Loki). These dogs all came from responsible breeders, and the dogs are a testament of their breeders’ conscientiousness and their owners’ care. Josie, Heath, and Loki can go anywhere and do anything; they have no fear issues or reactivity; they love people, children, and other dogs. I marvel at them sometimes.

Of course, there are also rescues who are essentially bombproof (Roland and Zoe come to mind, of the dogs I know). They do exist. But when a dog-loving person buys a purebred puppy, I put aside my rescue righteousness and think, “I get it. I really do.”

I was talking with Carolyn, Josie’s mom, about this very issue during our recent play-date. Her first German shepherd, Maya, was a rescue, and Maya had some fear issues and reactivity issues with other dogs, among other things. Josie, however, came from a highly respected working-line German shepherd breeder and entered Carolyn’s household as a puppy. Josie is unfazed by most things and is a very smart, stable dog; she was the most laid-back dog at the play-date.

“Maya was my heart dog,” Carolyn said, “and I would never say anything against her, but my life with Josie is so much easier. I almost feel like I have more joy in my relationship with Josie, simply because she has fewer issues.”

That struck a chord with me. I would never trade Pyrrha or Eden for the world, and anxious Pyr is my heart dog, too, but I sometimes dream of a life with less anxious, high-strung dogs.

Support Each Other

If you’re in the rescue camp, support ethical, responsible breeders. I believe people are always going to want purebred dogs, so if we accept that as truth, we should support great breeders. Champion breeders who do their research, who produce the best possible version of a breed, and who care about the mental and physical health of their dogs. The world needs more breeders like this. If you have friends looking for purebred puppies, point them in the right direction to such breeders as these (and not to pet shops or backyard breeders).

If you’re in the purebred camp, support smart, proactive shelters and rescues. Share your knowledge of a particular breed with a breed-specific rescue (like where our girls came from). Volunteer as a foster home or as a dog walker at your local shelter. Get to know your local rescue organizations and learn about their missions and their needs.

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, I am still a person who would tell people to rescue before they bought a purebred puppy, but I will never judge anyone for the decision they make, as only that person knows what kind of dog is best for their family and lifestyle. Even though I think I’ll always have rescues, I still dream about choosing that “perfect” purebred puppy.

When you acquire as much knowledge about a subject as we* have, it’s hard to stop ourselves from becoming unbearably opinionated and judgmental. (*I say “we” because if you’re reading this blog, you probably have a deep, abiding interest in dogs, dog culture, and canine behavior, more than the average person.)

But let’s stop judging each other for our decisions. You bought a purebred puppy from a great, responsible breeder? Good for you! You adopted a mix-breed dog from a shelter? Good for you! Either way, good tidings and blessings in your adventures in dog raising.

Sweet Heath
Heath, a purebred golden retriever.

Do you ever find yourself having to withhold judgment, on one side of the rescue/breeding camp or the other? How do you think rescues and breeders can do a better job supporting each other?

Related Reading:

Review: Dog’s Best Friend

Dog's Best Friend, Mark Derr

Dog’s Best Friend is perhaps the first “academic” dog book I’ve read (it was actually published by the University of Chicago Press, first in 1997, with the second edition coming out in 2004). The book is a hefty survey of the historical relationship between dogs and humans, spanning from the dawn of time to the present day. I picked it up from the library, because I recognized the author’s name from a 2006 piece he published in the New York Times, lambasting Cesar Millan for the incredible damage he has done to Americans’ perceptions of dogs and dog training.

The title seems to be a bit of a joke, for if anything, this book highlights how poorly we often treat dogs. Although humans are responsible for the incredible evolutionary success of the dog as a species, modern people have not done very well by the domestic dog.

As an example of humankind’s mistreatment of the dog, Derr devotes an entire chapter to the atrocities of the AKC and purebred breeders. He explores the genetic and behavioral problems we have introduced to dogs through vigorous inbreeding, purely for the sake of creating an animal that pleases the eye or tickles our fancy. Derr also writes extensively about the shady and often elitist practices of the AKC and other breed registry clubs, who are inclined to consider dog shows a “sport” for the wealthy to create dogs with no regard for the dog’s physical or mental well being.

Derr himself has two Catahoula leopard dogs and his preference for “primitive” or unregistered dog breeds is apparent throughout the book. I enjoyed reading about his adventures in the American wilderness–often in the South–with people who still bred and raised dogs for distinct purposes, but did so without any regard for bloodline or breed purity. If the dog can hunt, it is a hunting dog, regardless of its parentage, and so forth. It’s a world that seems very far removed from my own, and yet I often see many of these types of dogs (often indistinguishable hound crosses) at our local SPCA.

I liked the book and yet it was very unsettling to me. I found myself very swayed by Derr’s arguments about the absurdity of the AKC and the ridiculous promulgation of breeds who would, if left to nature, quickly die out (for example, bulldogs, other brachycephalic breeds, and most toy dogs, who would not last if not artificially sustained by humans). The main point that I got from this book was that we should not seek dogs who are on either extreme of the size spectrum. Both Great Danes and chihuahuas are bred to an unhealthy extreme of size. Dogs should not only be able to live six or seven years, because their hearts cannot sustain their enormous size. Likewise, dogs should not be bred so small that they develop severe anxiety issues and cannot protect themselves from the weather.

Derr’s point, again and again, is that we need to be called to a higher standard with how we raise and breed dogs. Have some respect for the dog’s well being, lifespan, and genetic soundness. Don’t breed dogs just because you think they look funny or pretty if that breeding makes them unable to live a long and healthy life. This argument is why Derr himself has repeatedly turned to “unregistered” and largely unrecognizable local dog breeds; the dogs are purportedly healthier and saved from the reaches of the breed enthusiasts. Essentially, Dog’s Best Friend raises a lot of the difficult ethical questions that we must face if we are people who, like myself, are inclined to desire purebreds.

Review: The Perfect Match

The Perfect Match, by Chris Walkowicz

I think this was another book that I read when I was a child, trying to decide what kind of dog my family should get. The book was written by former breeder and dog show judge Chris Walkowicz in 1992. I picked it up again because I saw it at the library and wanted something to thumb through while we were at the beach.

The Perfect Match delivers breed-by-breed profiles within each AKC category, providing a brief description of temperament and basic facts about the breed’s average size, lifespan, health issues, and shedding potential. Honestly, I didn’t really learn anything new from this book, but I think it would be helpful to someone who wasn’t at all familiar with the AKC-recognized breeds.

What I do like about the book is that Walkowicz seems to have done her research with the different breeds listed here. For instance, she doesn’t just say the same thing about all of the terrier breeds; “they tend to be snappy and independent; they have lots of energy and tend to bark a lot.” Rather, the book makes an effort to differentiate between breed temperaments. The descriptions of life with each breed is relatively brief. The Perfect Match may be a good starting place for someone who doesn’t know much at all about purebreds and the generalized differences between them.

Review: The Puppy Report

The Puppy Report, by Larry Shook

I picked up this somewhat unknown little book at our local library because it sounded interesting and it was very short. It is now out of print and you can buy it on Amazon for a penny, but I think it was worth reading, even if its information is now somewhat out of date.

Shook opens with a tragic story about his misguided attempt to buy a purebred Irish terrier for his family. Those in the dog world would have seen red flags going up on all sides when he picked this puppy out (it was the most dominant in the litter; the breeder wouldn’t let him meet the mother because she was “unfriendly;” this particular breed is known for its tenacity and for not being excellent with young children). His puppy turned out to be no small terror. Despite Shook’s repeated attempts to train his dog–including an unfortunate and cringe-inducing visit to a dominance-oriented trainer who tackles the aggressive terrier to the ground and puts him in a choke hold–nothing could be done for this ill-fated puppy. The dog was eventually euthanized for its overwhelming aggression toward people.

Shook set out to write this book in an attempt to figure out what had gone wrong with his Irish terrier. His conclusion is that the purebred dog industry in America is deeply flawed. Citing examples of the rampant spread of puppy mills and the misguided rules of the American Kennel Club, Shook prevents shocking and disturbing evidence of careless breeders and the thousands of structurally and behaviorally unsound dogs they produce.

Australian Shepherds are my favorite breed, and so I was particularly interested in his brief account of the fight between Australian Shepherd breeders and the AKC. At the time Shook was writing, in 1991, the Australian Shepherd was not an AKC recognized breed and the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) wanted it to remain that way. As Shook puts it, the ASCA knew that the purity of the breed would deteriorate as soon as Aussies became a part of the AKC. Breeders would start breeding for looks only and the working and temperament characteristics would start to fall by the wayside. The AKC pulled some very shady political moves to lay claim to the Australian Shepherd and, to Shook’s and the ASCA’s apparent dismay, the breed was officially recognized by the AKC in 1992.

Overall, the book is worth reading for anyone who is considering a purebred puppy. The Puppy Report will convince you never to buy a puppy from a pet store or a puppy mill and will arm you with a series of helpful questions for any prospective breeder. A good rule of thumb is that a reputable, respected breeder will ask you just as many questions as you will ask him or her. A good breeder will also be up front about the breed’s known health and temperament issues and provide you with any necessary health documentation.

I’d recommend this book, even though it is hard to find, to anyone who is interested in a brief but important history of the decline of the purebred dog in the United States. The Puppy Report is a succinct warning for overeager people who just want that cute, glossy puppy they’ve seen in the magazines. Take it from Shook: You might be getting a whole lot more than you bargained for.