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Building An
Ethical Framework

by Susan Thorpe-Vargas Ph.D., John Cargill MA, MBA, MS

Society's concept of canines is affected by
many factors, all of which must be considered
in a breeder's decision-making process


This four-part series on breeder ethics discusses religious, historical and legal concepts surrounding the dog and its place in modern society. With this foundation, we will examine ethical issues pertaining to breed preservation, the betterment of breeds, overpopulation and the altering of dogs, genetic disease and the purpose of breeds as well as backyard and occasional breeders. Along the way, we will take a look at American Kennel Club statistics, the showing of dogs, sportsmanship, responsibilities of puppy buyers, the need for contracts, the work of rescue groups, the presence of puppy mills and pet stores, the role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the sales/advertising of dogs, including the Internet marketplace.

As a breeder, the ethical decision-making process begins well before the first litter arrives and continues well after those dogs are placed.

Say, for example, your municipality requires a kennel or a breeding license for each dog at a cost beyond your financial means, but you know these laws are rarely enforced as long as your neighbors do not complain.

Say you find a dam or a sire prospect with several champions in its pedigree but whose genetic screenings could be more thorough. Or say you breed a litter, two of the seven puppies are stillborn, and later on, the litter becomes sick with a flu-lick disease resulting in the loss of one more puppy. What are your disclosure obligations to potential buyers?

What if after the puppies are placed the sire's dam develops cataracts and the sire's sire develops hip dysplasia? What if your sales contract specifically mentions the requirement for humane treatment, but you hear that one of the puppies is being chained year-round in an unfenced back yard by its new owner and another one frequently rides in the open bed of its owner's pick-up truck?

During the course of a breeding career, these scenarios and countless others are likely to be presented to either you or someone you know. In this four-part series, we will address these emotional and controversial quandaries and discuss ways breeders can approach these issues ethically.


There is nothing you can do with, to, or even think about dogs that does not have an ethical component. Ethical choices are not made in a vacuum, however. The history of how we perceive and treat dogs, and how attitudes have changed throughout the years, is very much related to the value systems within which ethical decisions are made in a breeding context. But history is only part of the equation. Other societal factors, including the law, religious tradition, ideological cleavages and cultural norms, must be examined to fully understand this intricate framework.

In this first article we hope to illustrate the various ways dogs are viewed and to impart an understanding of how culture, law, religion, philosophy and ethics influence owners' and breeders' decisions and dog activities.

In researching the material for these articles, we encountered no one without an opinion, and most people had more than one. We solicited input from across the internet, breeds, nations and registries. We spoke with pet owners, obedience competitors, breeders, veterinary technicians and vets.

The most important thing to remember when examining these opinions is that which is ethical is that which is consistent with the beliefs and mores of a particular group of people and their culture. Different social and religious beliefs, different laws and different cultures produce different codes of ethics. In many cases, these differences are irreconcilable. By examining the differences, we do not attempt to value or judge them (this task would be impossible). Rather, we want to illustrate how they are central, or not central, to the ethical conduct of the dog game, and how they are at work in the lives of people who own and breed dogs.


If one is scripturally oriented, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, humans' dominion over the animals comes early in the sacred texts. Genesis 1:26, for example, states, "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."

For many people, a religious sense of dominion helps to legitimize their ownership and controlled breeding of dogs. Other faiths, however, have a different perspective on animals and dominion and may view as suspect any kind of ownership based on this idea.

Dominion aside, history has certainly shown a strong partnership between canines and people. In the earliest days of humankind, the dog most certainly was a competitor when it came to scavenging the leftovers of the largest predators. Eventually, however, the canine became a partner, but why this is so is not very clear, nor is it clear whether we became the dog's hunting partner or the dog became ours.

This partnership is deeply seated in many cultures. In a wonderful American Indian folk tale, a rift opened up in Paradise separating man from the animals. The animals remained in Paradise on one side of the rift except for the dog, who leaped the rift to remain with man and to share man's fate.

Many of the earliest cave paintings discovered to date depict dogs/wolves hunting with people. LaGrotte du Lazaret, a 125,000-year-old complex of Paleolithic shelters discovered in 1969, contained wolf/dog remains suggestive of some form of human/animal relationship. Despite the concept of dominion, throughout history the dog has been viewed as a little bit different, as very special and even sacred.

For example, the dog was sacred to Anubis in Egyptian myth, revered in Babylonia, associated with Artemis of Greek mythology and Diana of roman mythology and with Astarte, the Phoenician goddess of love. To this day, some African tribes consider the dog a cultural hero, and Australian Aboriginals think of the dog as an essential companion. Native Americans viewed the dog as a guardian and protector. In Celtic and Norse myth, the dogs were associated with gods, often as messengers.

With these mythical and religious traditions, it is easy to see why the ethical treatment of dogs is such an emotional subject. Abraham Lincoln, a man not only of great practicality but also at times of great sensitivity and understanding, said about dogs, cats and religion: "I care not for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it."

Mahatma Gandhi, the great spiritual leader of India, wrote, "One can measure the size and the moral progress of a nation to how she treats her animals." We agree-- how you treat your animals says a lot about you.


Among other factors, national cultural and religious differences may account for the varying viewpoints held by the world's people about dogs. In Scandinavian countries, for example, Norse mythology traditionally held dogs as hunters with the gods. There was no immediate concept of man's dominion over an expendable commodity. Today, those areas of the world have relatively few dogs in shelters or resulting from unplanned breedings.

Given their historical background, it would be unexpected for Scandinavians to adopt the disposable pet concept, as have some Americans. To them, it just would not be ethical. In fact, Scandinavian dog people, on various internet lists, had difficulty dealing with our cavalier American morality leading to cast-off dogs and overflowing animal/euthanasia shelters.

Other countries, such as Taiwan with more than 2 million stray dogs, let them pretty much fend for themselves scavenging from garbage dumps. (1) In India, strays are captured, inoculated, neutered and returned to the streets because of ethical and religious concerns. (2)

In the Third World, the life of animals and concern for their well-being is even more tenuous. Where humans are starving about you, it is difficult to conceive of animals, even dogs, as members of the family imbued with legal rights. In some countries today, such as China and Korea, dog farms for meat and fur are an accepted practice. The slaughter of these animals is in many ways similar to our own American forms of slaughter for the highly intelligent pig. Stores abound of the common Chinese and Korean practice of skinning and butchering while the dog is still alive. (3)

China has an active economy in dog meat and pelts. In northern rural areas especially, it is not at all uncommon for a Chinese family to raise a few cats or dogs, then during the winter when the coats are best, kill the animals and take the pelts to market. Many rural villages have open-air fur markets that serve as collection points for the pelts of dogs and cats killed locally. (4)

Lest we imply this is an Eastern view of dogs, following are examples of the Western view: At one German auction, 10,000 Korean dog fur pelts were sold. A Chinese shipment to Italy was seized for a lack of proper permits. It contained 4.7 tons of dog hides. "Gae-wolf," a euphemism for dog hide, is a popular fur in Germany. Ironically, the "gae-wolf" coming out of China and Korea is typically harvested from German Shepherd Dogs. (5)

We point this out neither to offend nor disgust, but to demonstrate that not everywhere are dogs viewed as companion animals, but rather more as livestock, like chickens in both the Eastern and the Western worlds. Currently, there is a bill that has passed the U.S. Congress that would ban the sale of dog and cat fur in the United States, and now the House and Senate versions of the bill must be reconciled before final passage and enactment.


Historical factors, including the extent of industrialization, also must be considered when examining international/cultural differences regarding canines. Earlier in man's history, survival was paramount with little enthusiasm for the delicate sensitivities to which we devote much time today. Concern for any being's life and welfare, whether human or animal, is a relatively new concept. Torture, murder and ritual execution (often in the name of some deity) have been common across time and around the world.

Things have developed positively for the canine in the United States and other industrialized countries, however. With urbanization, the farm dog became the yard dog, and the yard dog of the past became the house dog of the present. In turn, the house dog truly has become a member of the family, often with all rights and privileges thereunto pertain. As much as many of us attempt to keep things in perspective, our dogs tend to quickly become members of the family and receive much the same care, time and nurturing as children.

Dog people are dog people because they have a fascination with and a love for animals in general, and dogs in particular. They view dogs as more than livestock, regardless of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's classification of dogs and their legal status as personal property.

A country's perspective on the dog, however, is not only reflected in how it treats its pets but also in how it deals with dogs in general, including those without loving families. Humans have had a long and problematic history with stray semiferal dogs. Records go back thousands of years telling of wandering bands of stray dogs threatening passers-by, especially those with foodstuffs from the markets. Stray dogs surviving by eating human's garbage are not new. There is even a historical and biblical name for these dogs: "pariah."

Today, we still have a large population of unwanted or discarded dogs in many countries. How we deal with canine issues in a societal context often is dictated by ideological differences.


Ideological rifts tend to surface when dealing with canine social problems such as pet overpopulations, animal abuse or incidences of canine aggression. Obviously, ethical frameworks used in day-to-day decision-making often hinge on one's ideological bent.

Social organizations often rise up to collectively represent and advocate for certain widely held social beliefs and values. One of the founding organizations of the animal welfare movement is the British Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The RSPCA is noted for its political clout and its ability to cause legislative change. Specifically, the organization managed in the United Kingdom to get dogs banned as beasts of burden and to end the "slavery" of the spit dog, which was a small dog that ran inside a wheel for hours at a time to turn meat on a spit. (Perhaps more than legislation, however, the automobile and electricity brought an end to such forms of animal involuntary servitude.)

Recently the RSPCA has come under fire by some dog enthusiasts for its role in the passage of England's 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, which is based on a breed-specific premise. The RSPCA was reported to have advised the British Home Office on banning and control measures and various chief inspectors served as expert witnesses for the prosecution in DDA cases.

Other European nations have followed the British example, with the result that in the year 2000, there was an ongoing attempt to ban some 49 breeds in Germany, France, Poland, Luxemburg, Holland, and other nations have joined the witch hunt, further fueling pressures for increased breed-specific legislation in the United States.

The message here is that all animal-oriented special-interest groups do not have the same agenda, goals or even overall commanding ideology. Owners may agree with one organization on certain topics, but they may disagree on others. One major contemporary rift can be understood as the difference between animal rights and animal welfare.

The general distinction between these two ideologies is that those promoting animal welfare accept human's dominion over the animals and conclude there should be an ethical concern for their well-being and humane treatment, even if they are livestock destined for slaughter. Animal welfare advocates recognize animals as personal property with an understanding that you can use them as you see fit as long as you are being humane about it.

The animal right proponents generally conclude that humans do not have dominion over the animals and they should not be domesticated, slaughtered or viewed as livestock. The animal rights person opposes any medical or scientific experimentation that uses animals; whereas the animal welfare proponent views a certain amount of experimentation necessary but insists that researchers use humane procedures and minimize pain as much as possible.

One area where the rift between animal welfare and animal rights manifests is the growing movement in some countries, including the United States and many European nations, to imbue dogs and other companion animals with a special legal status that is more than property status. This, in effect, would make them legal entities in their own right.

Although such a status could help curb the mistreatment of animals, there may be other, less positive implications for breeders and owners. For example, if it is found that sledding, carting or hunting with dogs violates the animals' rights (i.e., amounts to animal exploitation), selling an animal to someone who intends to pursue these activities is suddenly on very shaky legal ground.

Owners and breeders have very much at stake in the animal welfare/animal rights debate. Their chosen activities (e.g., breeding dogs, showing dogs and, in some cases, even owning dogs) are simply not aligned with some animal rights agendas. For example, some animal rights organizations remain firmly against the breeding of any domestic animal and can be found in the background behind legislative or administrative attempts to ban or tax breeding or breeding stock.

We feel that if you have earmarked spare cash for the occasional donation to animal welfare/animal rights organizations, it is important to carefully consider exactly which causes you want to support and which organizations are aligned with those causes.

If you want to fight breed-specific legislation, consider the Humane Society of the United States and other organizations that have a strong history in this area. Certainly, as an owner or a breeder, you should avoid providing support to animal rights organizations that wish to free animals from "domestic service," including livestock and pets of all kinds.


The law as it relates to canines is yet another lens through which to refract a society's overall view of the dog and owners' ethical choices about dog-related issues. In many cases, dog enthusiasts have made ethical decisions to disobey the law when they feel it is unsound or unfair, or if it conflicts with their personal values as owners.

One such controversial set of laws are those than ban wolves and wolf hybrids in many municipalities and counties in the United States and other countries. The interesting thing about these laws is that they seemingly fail to recognize that dogs, in fact, are gray wolves -- genetically they are the same species, Canis lupus. (6)

According to "Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference," edited by D.E.Wilson and D.A.M. Reeder, biologists now classify the domestic dog as a subset of the gray wolf. Once known as Canis familiaris, the domestic dog's scientific name is now officially Canis lupus familiaris, more explicitly linking it to other wolf species such as Canis lupus arctos (arctic wolves), Canis lupus baileyi (the Mexican wolf) and other Canis lupus members.

Research has shown us that many breeds are genetically closer to feral wolves than they are to some other breeds of dogs. It is unknown whether wolves and dogs were distinct at one time, however, because over the past tens of thousands of years, the genes have become intermixed. Some breeds distinctly have wolves as part of the foundation. For example, according to the breed's first studbooks, Germany Shepherd Dogs included wolves in the pedigree.

Insomuch as dogs and wolves have been separated in legal and popular culture despite their genetic similarities, there has been a concept that any wolf in an individual canine's immediate genetic background makes it a wolf, whereas any dog does not make a wolf hybrid a dog. The U.S. Constitution is silent on the regulation of animals; however, the USDA in no uncertain terms states, "all hybrids between domestic and wild animals, such as wolf and dog, cat and jungle cat . . . etc., are considered to be domestic animals." (7) In reality, it has fallen to the states to determine what is what. Unfortunately, this cuts no ice at the local levels of government where breed-specific legislation (including laws banning wolf hybrids) is rampant within some jurisdictions.

In author Cargill's home county of Carteret, N.C., for example, Canis lupus is specifically banned, and there is no definition of domestic dog. Thus, ownership of all dogs and wolf-dog hybrids is technically illegal.

In many local jurisdictions, however, it matters not that dogs, wolves and wolf-dog hybrids are members of the same species. Much as we find breed-specific legislation arbitrary and discriminatory, we find the banning of any Canis lupus, whether the Chihuahua version of the gray wolf or the Mastiff version or the German Shepherd Dog, ridiculous.

In most jurisdictions, it becomes more ridiculous as the determination of what is or is not a wolf or a banned breed falls to the dog warden, some local humane society official or a veterinarian, generally none of whom can even identify every breed or mixed-breed with complete accuracy.

Various counties enforce their breed ban laws based upon complaints. Many of the laws are written within a vacuum with little basis or scientific knowledge. Although such bans technically put owners outside the law, many people do not even realize it, or they choose to not follow the law because they believe it to be based on an unsound foundation. We personally feel that there is an ethical imperative on the part of dog owners to fight against these arbitrary and unscientific restrictive covenants against man's best friend.


Aside from the seemingly unbiologically based laws separating dogs from wolves, there also is a growth and proliferation of increasingly stringent liability laws for dogs. Often, the societal objective of these laws is to protect humans from dangerous dogs.

These laws have ethical implications for owners and breeders as well. While we recognize that one should not harbor a dangerous animal without exercising special control, it is now difficult to avoid exposure to liability if you own a dog of any kind. Any given dog will bite under certain circumstances.

Many courts, especially those states with "strict liability" laws, have held injured persons not responsible for their own actions even if they provoke dogs and are subsequently bitten. A strict liability statute imposes liability upon a dog owner without exception should the dog damage property or injure someone.

With strict liability in such states as California, no matter what anyone does to provoke the dog, the burden of proof will be on the owner to show it was not a vicious dog. Liability laws such as this are a clear indication of how the legal system views dogs as opposed to humans.

The majority of dog-bite victims today are children. Many bites occur because little ones are not being raised around dogs and are not familiar with how dogs might react. We feel there is a moral obligation on the part of owners to socialize their dogs properly, but also a moral responsibility on the part of parents to educate their children about dogs and to keep them away from dogs if the child does not act appropriately. We have become convinced that many of the several hundred thousand dog bites occurring each year could be prevented if parents educated their children and held these children responsible for their actions around dogs.

Additionally, we feel there is a moral imperative, given the ability of any dog to bite, for breeders to "hold school" on puppy buyers to ensure they recognize the inherent risks of dog ownership. This becomes even more of a moral issue for puppies going to homes with children. Make sure they understand what they are getting into and that they must "dog proof" their children and their children's playmates.

In further attempts to protect humans from dogs, leash laws have become common. Also, in most locations, licensing laws with mandatory inoculation against rabies are in force; i.e., licensing is compulsory when the animal is vaccinated. Some estimates indicate that as many as 50 percent of all dogs and 75 percent or more of all cats are unlicensed and not inoculated against rabies. In some areas, these licensing laws have been challenged because they have been viewed as a financial deterrent to inoculation.

Further restricting dogs are zoning laws that limit the number of dogs a person may have or which may be kept on a particular property. Interestingly, these zoning laws very tremendously around the nation. On Oahu, Hawaii, a person may have 10 dogs per tax parcel. In San Diego County, Calif., only six dogs may be kept per tax parcel, and only six dogs total if tax parcels are adjoining. Thus, if two 100-acre tax parcels touched each other, only six dogs total may be kept on both of them. Fortunately, other municipal and county jurisdictions are less restrictive. Oddly enough, in San Diego County, where the number of dogs that may be kept on a given tax parcel regardless of its size is limited, one may keep horses in any number!

Of course, such laws have implications for breeders. For example, if your zoning says you can have only two dogs and you have three bitches and rent studs, you have broken the law. Just because the action is illegal, however, does not necessarily make it unethical. For dog people, the ethics of this scenario most likely do not involve the broken zoning law but are more concerned with making sure the accommodations for the animals are adequate and that they are treated humanely. We will deal with these later in the series.

Along with zoning and licensing laws, we find that many jurisdictions are attempting to address the excess pet population with breeding bans or breeding licenses. In the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles county, for example, unaltered animals, if registered now, require a $100 per year per dog unaltered dog permit and a $200 breeding permit per intact animal per year. Failure to register an intact animal can result in a $500 fine,(8) and there is a county policy of encouraging citizens to report neighbors who are breeding dogs without licensing. Risking the possible penalty, many owners have nonetheless decided to not register their dogs because they cannot afford it and do not agree with the registration fee.


Fines and breeding licenses aren't the only financial hardships owners may face. Many jurisdictions worldwide tax dogs. These taxes range from a minimal fee to outright confiscatory levels.

During the current wave of breed bans in Germany it has been found that tremendous numbers of dogs are not licensed, much the same as is the case in the United States. This isn't surprising given the highest registration or dog tax fees we have been able to find are in Pinneberg, Scheswig-Holstein, Germany, where the annual tax on the Bull Terrier, Tosa Inu, Mastiff and several other breeds is DM2,400 for the first dog and DM3,600 for the second dog. Thus two Bull Terriers will cost you DM6,000 annually (about $2,600).

We make the point that the authority to tax dogs is in effect the authority to confiscate or prohibit dogs except for owners who are very rich. Similarly, the authority to tax real estate upon which dogs are kept is an ability to prevent or eliminate dogs in that tax jurisdiction.

Those persons who wish to avoid these taxes do not register their dogs. Unfortunately, dog people with high visibility, i.e., those who hunt, show or enter various trials, often cannot avoid these taxes because they fear being caught. Thus only the "law-abiding" are taxed.

In some jurisdictions, there is an ongoing attempt to tax dogs of different sizes and different breeds at different rates. It matters not that the breed many times cannot accurately be determined. The most commonly banned or specially taxed dog is the "it bull," although exact definitions of this vary. In one U.S. jurisdiction, we found pit bulls defined as "any short-legged, flat-skulled, short-coated dog." We would hate to hazard a guess as to what might constitute a pit bull cross, also banned in some jurisdictions.

We found strange laws all around the nation covering dog licensing, breed bans, insurance requirements by breed, breeding permits, etc. Each set of laws is predicated upon some belief structure about dogs, tempered with the reality of who can be made to pay. For example, a large majority of the dogs going into the pound are unregistered. Yet, license fees are used for animal control. Most of the backyard/occasional breeding done is without kennel or breeding licenses in jurisdictions that require them. Those serious dog fanciers who license their dogs and who obtain kennel or breeding licenses pay for the animal control efforts of those who don't. We feel this unequal treatment may have an ethical component and that dog fanciers should actively campaign against such selective treatment by local authorities.

We have looked at the dog from several perspectives: religious, cultural, ideological, genetic and legal. With this common ground, and hopefully understanding, we will be able to address in detail the ethical concepts associated with breeder ethics. That is, what does it take to be an ethical or responsible breeder?

We are going to challenge many of the common practices found among dog owners, breeders and in the show and trial rings. We ask not that you subscribe to our views, just that you hear us out and base your actions as a breeder or dog owner on thoughtful and careful consideration of the ethics involved.

Susan Thorpe-Vargas has a doctorate in immunology and has an extensive chemistry and lab background. She has been involved in numerous Environmental Protection Agency cleanup sites. Susan also raises and shows Samoyeds. She may be reached by e-mail at

John C. Cargill, retired Officer of Marines, statistician and science writer, grew up with Airedale Terriers and American Foxhounds but now lives in Smyrna, N.C., with his 6-year-old male Akita, Ch. Kimdamar’s Jambalaya Jazz (call name "JJ"). He may be reached by e-mail at

Susan and John won the Dog Writers Association of America’s Maxwell Medallion and the IAMS® Eukanuba® Canine Health Award for their series of articles on canine genetics that appeared in DOG WORLD. Last year they won the Eukanuba award again for a recent DOG WORLD article on acupuncture, and they were awarded another Maxwell Medallion for their DOG WORLD series on the geriatric dog.


(1) Taipei Abandoned Animal Rescue Foundation,
(2) Personal conversation with Dr. Abdul Rahman, Dean Bangalore Veterinary School, Bangalore, India
(4) Ibid
(5) Ibid
(6) Kaoru Tsuda, Yoshiaki Kikkawa, Hiromichi Yonikawa, and Yuichi Tanabe, "Extensive interbreeding occurred amont multiple matriarchal ancestors during the domstication of the dog: Evidence from inter- and intraspecies polymorphisms in the D-Loop region of mitrochondrial DNA between dogs and wolves. In conclusion, our findings contain strong experimental evidence that dogs and wolves are members of the same species." From Genes and Genetic Systems, Vol. 72, 1997, pp.229-238
(7) Clarification of Animal Hybrid Crosses, USDA Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service memo dated February 21, 1985, and signed by R.L. Rissler, assistant director, Animal Health Programs Services
(8); CNN "LA Pet owners may face choice: spay or pay," September 21, 1999,

Our sincere thanks to the authors for allowing us to present this ©copyright work on the Mastiff Breeder Web Site.