To Breed or Not to Breed?

Shelter dog

I started my professional dog career as a shelter volunteer, then as a shelter staff member.  For many years, my mantra has always been to rescue dogs.  All of the dogs I’ve had as an adult have been rescued from one source or another as adults (or in one case, at five months).   For many in the dog world, adopting a dog from a breeder – even a responsible breeder – is looked down on as a betrayal of our commitment and responsibility to save the lives of dogs and protect them from harm.  Breeders have been vilified for a long time – and there is often good reason for this.

But, more and more lately, I’ve been questioning the idea that rescuing is THE answer.

When I see…

…dogs in a kennel at a shelter and look into their faces, watch them barking and throwing themselves at the kennel door in an attempt to get my attention…

…dogs returned to a shelter, sometimes 2 or 3 times, each time making them harder to place…

…dogs in a constant state of stress, always on high alert, scanning their environment, shaking, trembling, drooling with fear, lunging at every person, dog, car they see…

…families in tears because they have to choose between spending potentially thousands of dollars they cannot afford and giving up the dog that is part of their family and who has changed their lives for the better in so many ways…

…people break down and beat themselves up for their decision to euthanize a dog that keeps threatening or biting them, despite their best efforts to address the problem…

…people put their lives on hold or turn their lives upside down, divide their homes in two, give up on visiting family for the holidays, walk on eggshells around their dog and live in a state of chronic stress, all so they can keep a dog with serious problems…

I think – this is not enough.  There has to be more that we can do.

Sad dog

I am constantly telling my clients that prevention is so much more effective than treatment.  But, by focusing all or most of our effort on rescuing dogs, are we really doing all we can to focus on the prevention of behavior problems?

Many years ago, I attended a panel discussion at an Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) conference with Trish King and Sue Sternberg, among others (I apologize for not naming names, it was many years ago and I don’t remember all of the details).  The discussion centered around the idea that we might be breeding out our good dogs by automatically spaying and neutering all dogs from shelters.  Basically, this leaves two main groups breeding dogs: 1) responsible breeders that are breeding primarily for conformation and/or performance and 2) irresponsible breeders.  This makes it difficult for people to find family dogs.  (I want to interject here to point out that this was a long time ago (10 years or so) and I am reporting my memory of the discussion as I remember it. I am not quoting the panel members at all and it’s possible my memory is flawed.) Nursing litter sled dog

The panel discussion that day, so many years ago, has never left me.

To address the issue, the panelists raised the possibility of starting a pet breeding program, where dogs were bred to be family pets, first and foremost.  We talked about different traits family dogs should have – medium size, easy to care for coats, friendly, low – moderate energy levels, etc.

I can’t get this idea out of my head.  It seems like such a brilliant idea.  I mean, in an ideal world – wouldn’t all dogs be bred by responsible breeders?  Wouldn’t all families that are looking for a new dog get a dog that’s well matched for their family?  If a family gets a dog that’s the right match for their family in the first place, that fits in well and doesn’t create a lot of additional stress – they will be more likely to keep that dog for life and less likely to put the dog into the rescue world in the first place.  Families love labs, but honestly, most labs I see – even those from good breeders – are not ideally suited for family life.  They require tremendous amounts of exercise and when they don’t get it (which is in about every home I’ve ever worked with) they are often hyper, mouthy and difficult to manage, at least for the first several years.  At least in our area, most of the dogs that end up in shelters are adolescents that are too unruly to manage – not puppies.  And many of them come into the shelters with problems, which means adopters are more likely to end up with a dog with issues.

Nervous dog with baby

What if we bred dogs that had the easy going personality of labs, but were less energetic and less mouthy?  Maybe even a little bit smaller.  And what if we established an organization to help monitor such breeders and register them as being knowledgeable about things like genetics, canine health and early social, emotional and behavioral development in dogs?  What if we had a registry that focused on pet dogs, rather than working and conformation dogs?  What if we had some kind of forum for linking up people who are already breeding high quality pet dogs with people interested in getting started?

Puppy cute mix

Nothing I am saying here is new – these are all points I remember being brought up at the APDT panel discussion.  I do not know the answers to these questions.  It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that there are already people and groups working toward this end.  I know there are certainly good, responsible breeders out there that do breed dogs primarily as family companions. Really, I am posting this to generate a discussion about these issues and to give those of us who might be interested in discussing this further a chance to connect with each other.  I’m very interested to see what others think.  Please feel free to respond here or contact me privately at info@smartdogtrainingandbehavior.com.

Some additional, random points:

  • I am not suggesting that all rescued dogs have behavior problems or that they are “bad” dogs. But, many of them do have issues and many adopters struggle with these issues.
  • I know that many trainers and other professionals do focus on prevention, through puppy and beginner training classes and education at the time of adoption. But, I wonder if this is enough if people are already coming to us with rescued dogs that are likely to suffer from bad breeding, poor upbringing, trauma and chronic stress.  Or with dogs bred for conformation and work rather than family life.
  • I am not suggesting that we no longer adopt dogs. Simply that, perhaps, to maximize our impact on the welfare of dogs (and their families), we need a broader based approach.
  • I am not saying that there is anything wrong with breeding dogs for conformation or breeding working/sport dogs. I am simply saying that, for many families, such dogs are often not the ideal match.  I am also not saying that dogs bred for such purposes cannot make good family dogs, but in my experience, many families struggle with purebred dogs for a variety of reasons.
  • My opinion is not set in stone. I bring these thoughts and observations up here in the hopes of generating a discussion that will, in the long run, result in better quality of life for dogs.

Thoughtful BandW face

Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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