FOR PUPS' SAKE
A BREEDER'S DUTY
TO PETS AND PEOPLE
by Susan Thorpe-Vargas Ph.D., John Cargill MA, MBA, MS
From finding suitable families to
encouraging the continuation of socialization,
the breeder's impact on a puppy's life extends well
after the little one leaves the litter
The reasons for dog ownership are many and often overlapping. Most people consider dogs companions, both for themselves and for their children. Others view their dogs as adjuncts to home and personal security, especially those larger breeds from the Herding and Working Groups that excel as guard and watchdogs.
Others find great satisfaction in competing in obedience and other trials and in conformation shows. Others still use their dogs for hunting. What is common throughout dog ownership is that owners truly appreciate the company of their dogs, often to the point of considering them members of the family.
In this second part, we look at one of the major components of canine ethics, the dog owner. Here is where the rubber meets the road, if you will, and where the decisions are made about all of dogdom's numerous components, including hunting, conformation, agility and obedience competition, herding, therapy and assistance dog work, and general canine companionship.
In Part 1, "To Breed Or Not To Breed: Building An Ethical Framework" in the April 2001 issue (Dog World Magazine), we focused on trying to determine the dog's place in society, how it has been historically viewed and what place it might occupy in the grand scheme of things.
In this part, we will attempt to define responsible dog breeding and responsible dog ownership, and the ethical concerns of both. In so doing, we immediately will run directly up against some views we categorically reject. For instance, some fringe animal rights groups reject the concept of the domestication of animals. To those organizations, w hat follows in this article is based on a premise to which they are fundamentally opposed.
To some animal rights activists, carting, sledding, pulling and, of course, any and all hunting are barbaric and constitute inhumane treatment of dogs. Unfortunately, the animal rights vs. animal welfare issue is frequently misunderstood (see Part 1 of this series). We make this distinction because it is a fundamental difference in the way that animals in general should be viewed and drives the issue of what ethically may be done with them.
With this point noted, let's discuss breeders' specific duties to both their canines and the people who will own them.
RESPONSIBILITIES TO PEOPLE . . .
Ownership often comes with strings attached. Whether they own dogs, motor vehicles, firearms or real property, owners have certain responsibilities to society. How these responsibilities are enforced varies. In some cases, such as with firearms and the operation of motor vehicles, they are regulated by the government through licensing.
Some people believe that owning a dog should be licensed. There is a movement afoot in Germany requiring dog owners to receive some form of training and pass a test prior to obtaining a license for dog ownership (see " 'K-Nein' Laws Bite German Dog Owners, " by Elizabeth Crosby Simpson in the December 2000 issue of Dog World). This is similar to the requirement that citizens receive training before they operate motor vehicles, light aircraft, personal watercraft or their own firearms. Several Canadian cities are looking into similar licensing requirements, and Baltimore is considering licensing ownership for certain breeds of dogs (pit bulls).
It is very debatable whether government licensing is the best way to promote responsible ownership, but it is certain that along with the inherent benefits of dog ownership, there also are inherent dangers that must be considered. We find it appropriate to view dogs as potential risks, and dog ownership as a personal property ownership situation requiring risk assessment and risk management.
Specifically, we note that dog owners under the laws of most states are responsible for everything their dogs do. A loose dog that causes a string of traffic accidents is the proximate cause for those accidents, and generally the owner will be required to show that due diligence was exercised. In those states with strict liability, the owner will be held accountable regardless of the level of diligence exercised. Similarly, an owner has a responsibility to members of his or her family and to visitors to control the animal while it is at home, and the public at large when the dog is off-property.
Thus, if a dog has not only the capacity but also the propensity, regardless of size or breed, to attack humans, the owner has a responsibility to control the animal to prevent such attacks. Children are especially at risk, often not having been socialized around dogs and often acting in such a way as to arouse the dog's prey instincts.
We think the dog owner has a very clear responsibility toward children, and that any child permitted to be around dogs should be instructed in how to behave. It makes great sense to discuss with all children, whether they come from dog homes or not, how to act around your dog(s). We caution that a child, especially a very small child, should never be left unsupervised with any dog.
Dog bite statistics suggest that children are in the category most likely to be bitten by dogs. Forewarned and forearmed with this knowledge, it follows that there is an ethical duty to socialize all dogs to respond properly to youngsters if there is any chance canines will come in contact with them. This probably includes most dogs, especially those that will participate in dog activities.
We make a special note here: If you sell a dog, either as a puppy or as an adult, courts may construe that you have a duty to the buyer to fully inform that individual of the potential liabilities associated with ownership. If the puppy buyer or potential owner has children, you have an ethical reason to evaluate that family, to meet the children and to determine for yourself whether the dog you are selling would be suitable for that family.
If you find the family has unruly and disobedient children, you should develop an opinion as to whether their rearing of a dog would result in the same level of unruliness in the dog. You also should consider whether the children's misbehavior, if allowed to continue around the dog, could result in injury to themselves or the canine. If you decide the family probably does not have the capacity or inclination to correctly socialize the dog, you are left with the ethical question of whether it is permissible to put the children at physical risk. From both a financial liability standpoint and from a moral standpoint, we feel that the dog breeder should refuse to sell to such a family.
Buyer screening is becoming no longer an option but a necessity. You may ask why it is your responsibility to protect buyers from themselves. The straight answer is: because you can -- you have the knowledge, and case law is developing that even may legally oblige you to do so. Failure to fully inform buyers (informed purchase) is becoming like informed consent to medical procedures.
Much as bartenders in most states have a duty to refuse service to those who in their judgement would have their driving impaired with another drink, we feel that breeders have a similar and very special responsibility to refuse sales to those people who are not good candidates for dog ownership. Just because someone else will sell t hem a dog does not mean you should be the one to take the moral road with its associated risks.
... AND TO DOGS
When you choose to "adopt" a dog, we feel you do so for the life of that dog. This runs contrary to the "disposable society" of the current era. Likewise, we feel if you breed a bitch, the resulting puppies also are your responsibility. Some believe there is an ethical imperative to be responsible for those puppies for the rest of their lives, even to the extent of taking them back in the event their owners cannot care for them or no longer want them. Others feel the responsibility stops at point of sale. We tend toward the former, but most likely there is a practical ethical solution somewhere between these two poles.
It is very clear, however, that proper socialization of the puppy is critical to the proper development of the adult temperament, and that the breed-specific adult temperament is one of the controlling factors in determing how well the puppy will fit into its new family. Here the breeder has a very clear responsibility not only to future owners of the puppy but to the puppy itself. An aggressive dog is more often than not predictable, whereas a fearful dog is like a hand grenade with a loose pin rolling in the scuppers aboard ship during heavy seas. You are not sure what is going to happen, or when, but you can bet on something of note occurring in the not-too-distant future.
Puppy socialization starts with the breeder, but it must continue with the new owners after the puppy has been placed. Our experience has been that puppy kindergarten training classes are just about the best way to enhance puppy development. Puppy kindergarten training is one of the easiest ways to determine just what you are working with in terms of bravado, aggression, attention span, tractability and desire to work.
For some of the larger and more dominant breeds, puppy kindergarten before puberty is a good way to avoid butting heads with an animal that has suddenly discovered it has a mind of its own. For the Northern breeds and other notoriously stubborn breeds, puppy kindergarten is a shortcut that pays dividends the rest of the dog's life.
Dogs turned in to pounds for eventual euthanasia are most frequently relinquished because of problems, often including behavior problems with children. We tell prospective puppy buyers to give their new puppy a "life sentence" instead of a "death sentence." We tell them to take the puppy to kindergarten training.
Please understand that training is a real necessity and not just an option. Well-behaved dogs are an extreme pleasure, and most people find them wonderful, but an ill-mannered,
ill-behaved dog is something that is at best an obnoxious nuisance, and at worst an extreme liability. For most dog owners, the best way to encourage development of desired behavior traits in their new dog is to take it to a basic obedience course. Almost any city of any size has someone running obedience courses, whether for competition or for pets. We encourage owners to participate in one of these formal courses. The structure and scheduling of the training sessions tend to ensure the training actually occurs and is not continually put off until another day, which may happen if owners intend to hold their own at-home training.
We think puppy kindergarten training should be a matter for discussion in all puppy sales. In a later article in this series, we will discuss contracts with buyers and the use of rebates and other incentives. Puppy training is a good one. Breeders should consider rebating a certain amount of the purchase price for completion of various training programs. A sizeable rebate for owners who successfully complete puppy kindergarten can be more effective and less expensive than making early training a condition of the sales contract and attempting to reclaim dogs if the new owner breaches the agreement.
Read into all of this and find that we emphatically believe training is essential, not only for having a safe and manageable dog but also for bonding between the dog and its owner/family. Dogs seem to feel important when they are doing something. Training events and dog shows become fun and many dogs seem to thrive on them.
We have used dogs in sledding, carting, obedience, assistance, therapy, weight pulls, lure coursing, herding, etc. The dogs enjoyed it immensely, and part of our pleasure in these activities is derived from seeing the canine enthusiasm and obvious relish for such events. One of the joys of dog ownership is joining your dog in something it likes to do. Some dogs love agility training. Others excel in obedience or herding. Others look forward to visiting people as therapy dogs.
While on the subject of doggie events, there is an ethical concern for safe, comfortable transportation arrangements for the dogs. Both authors are currently residing in North Carolina, one in the mountains and the other on the coast. Both of us frequently see loose dogs in the backs of pick-up trucks. We consider this a potential hazard to not only the dog, but also to the other drivers on the road.
It's not only the loose dogs in the backs of pick-ups that are a problem but also loose dogs allowed to move about inside vehicles. Some enthusiasts feel crating the dog when transporting it is safest; others put dogs in the back of the vehicle behind a wire screen; still others feel that buckling the canine in a dog harness works well. It is important to note that wire barriers can come loose and become unsafe both to the dog and to the driver in the event of an accident. In any event, a loose dog, especially an active one bouncing around in a car, can be a hazard. It is important for breeders to educate new owners on safe transportation practices, to keep abreast of the latest safety trends and to pass that information along.
Instead of traveling from one event to another, some dogs are relegated to the back yard to spend much of their time alone. One of the saddest sights in dogdom is t he pooch abandoned to the back yard, isolated from social contact with its family. All that had to be done was to find some activity that could be shared.
In our article on puppy socialization (Social Security: Shaping A Well-Rounded Pup" in the March 2001 issue), we pointed out that dogs are social animals and that they have a very real need for being with other beings, whether canine or human. To deprive a dog of this contact we feel is unethical and akin to locking a social being up in solitary confinement. We conclude that there is an ethical issue involving abandoning social creatures to back yard isolation, as is done in so many pet homes.
To prevent this, breeders should carefully screen all prospective buyers to determine what conditions the dog will be kept in. Breeders should not be afraid to ask questions about the dog's accommodations (e.g., where will the dog sleep and spend most of its time?), the dog's primary caretaker, and the frequency and duration of incidences wherein the dog will be left alone. In this way, breeders will be able to form a clearer picture about the dog's potential place in a particular home.
A common example we have noticed is the case in which the 12-year-old boy or girl is given a puppy. They bond, become close friends and share many tender moments together. As the child matures and leaves home, the dog may be relegated to the same category as the forgotten teddy bear in a childhood toy box.
When young people leave home, there often is no room or opportunity for them to take their dogs. Most universities cast a dim eye on dogs in dormitories! Many apartment building owners catering to younger tenants view dogs in the same way. Thus, the childhood dog is left with parents, who may or may not wish to invest time, effort and money in the dog.
Breeders can head these situations off by asking questions and being observant during the screening process. When parents and children both have input into the dog purchase decision, and when they both will be sharing the daily responsibilities of caring for the dog, it is more likely that when the children leave the nest, the canine still will have a cherished place in the family pack.
Screening potential buyers also affords breeders the opportunity to have frank discussions with new owners about what to do in the event of unforeseen circumstances that make dog ownership improper, impossible or otherwise not feasible.
One of those scenarios is divorce. When couples split, what happens to the dog? In the case of divorce, often the dog goes with one partner or the other and likely suffers some stress due to a separation from a pack member or members, moving anxiety, etc.
Many divorced persons, in essence, are starting over again in life and have several new constraints on their time and money. Sometimes a dog provides that extra measure of companionship that helps ease the pain of divorce; sometimes the dog is just a reminder of happier days and becomes a costly burden, both emotionally and financially.
We urge all persons contemplating divorce to agree on what to do with their dogs, and make this a mater of immediate concern rather than an afterthought to the property settlement being negotiated. The ethics of marriage and divorce are beyond the scope of this article, but the question of what to do with the dog is not. We feel there is a great moral imperative to do right by the dogs and make sure the pet lives with the family member who wants the dog and is the best equipped to care for it.
The breeder also can have a role in ensuring the dog's welfare by having a contractual agreement with the buyer giving the breeder the option of taking back the dog if neither divorcing party wants or can keep it. Additionally, if the breeder can't keep the dog permanently or isn't able to take the dog in at all, he or she should be willing to use his or her contacts to help rehome the dog.
Another scenario owners and breeders should consider is the fact that animals can outlive their owners. When children have left home and retirement years seem empty, many aging couples will purchase a dog. These animals tend to be indoor dogs and closely embraced as members of the family.
Old age can be a lonely time, and depression is frequently associated with the elderly. There is a growing understanding among people working with the elderly that their lives can be significantly enriched through having a pet, and ownership even may extend their period of relative good health and ability to live unassisted.
Nonetheless, careful consideration should be given to the elderly person's ability to care for the animal and the need to make arrangements for the animal should the person have to move to an assisted-living or other care facility that does not allow pets. This is a difficult question: What is to become of Granny's dog? Often seniors will become so attached to their dogs that these animals occupy a position of central focus in their lives. Consequently, they are heartbroken when they are parted from their dogs.
Breeders can help guard the dog's well-being in these circumstances by explaining to buyers that they should have someone willing to take care of the dog in the event they are incapacitated. A Contractual agreement giving breeders the option of taking a dog back in these situations also could be considered and may give an older owner some peace of mind, too.
Eventually most dogs will become old and subject to ailments and the general infirmities of old age. Although reputable breeders will sell puppies with health guarantees for a certain period of time after the sale, we feel that if you adopt a dog or the guarantee has expired, you should be responsible for the animal's veterinary care and should provide for it when it becomes ill. The problem is often that of cost.
Now that veterinary procedures mirror human medical procedures, the cost differential is lessening, i.e. state-of-the-art veterinary care is getting more expensive. When an animal becomes sick, the issue always arises whether to put it down or to treat it. The choice is not a simple one. We grow fond of our animals and wish them to remain with us as long as possible. This makes sense only as long as they are not suffering, have a joy for living and the care is affordable.
The question of whether care is affordable is relative. Can you afford it? If it is likely that you cannot pay for the care of a possibly short-lived animal, it may be time to take the difficult steps of considering euthanasia. It may be the case that this is the best and most humane choice for the animal as well. (Some of the toughest choices of ownership revolve around the question of when it is time for euthanasia. Our collective experience has been that when the dog no longer exhibits a strong will to live and its existence is becoming a life of pain and more pain, it is time to let go.)
On the other hand, if the care needed is affordable and has a good chance of increasing not only the duration but also the quality of the pet's life, we feel that the owner should be willing to pay for these expenses. Carefully balancing the welfare of the dog and the economics of the situation is part of the obligation one undertakes when deciding to own a pet.
With the advent of pet health insurance, we feel the commitment to your dog's health is reasonably affordable and should be considered. Several pet health insurance companies have made it possible for owners to afford veterinary care for animals that otherwise would have been put down. When breeders sell puppies, we feel it is important to let puppy buyers know about pet health insurance and to guide them in that direction. Although self-insurance is less expensive in the immediate short run, it often can become pricey in the midterm or long-term. For elderly persons who may not be able to keep a pet, whether the dog has health insurance in effect can be a deciding factor in placing it. An insured dog can give its owner a great sense of comfort knowing the canine companion will be cared for.
In this second article on ethics, we have just scratched the surface of what it means to be a responsible dog owner and what breeders can do to ensure their dogs are placed with one. An important element to this is breeder-buyer communication.
Breeders should encourage their buyers to keep in touch and to continue throughout the life of the puppy/dog. This is not just a moral issue, but also a financial one -- author Cargill has sold many dogs because a potential buyer heard of the ongoing contact he maintained with a previous puppy buyer. Everyone wins when breeder and buyer keep an open line of communication long after the puppy has been sold.
Another factor in the long-term welfare of pups is their physical health and breeders have a major role to play here as well. In the third installment, we will look into the study of genetics and its impact on ethical breeding practices.