Posted by: Steph | | June 14, 2010

A question of ethics

Anyone who knows me is generally aware that I LOVE dogs. However, since my last dog Phantom (who is featured in the header of this page) passed away I simply haven’t been able to have another dog. There’s very good reasons for this – for one, my family has been moving around for the past five years or so and we’re only just recently settled into what will be our permanent residence for a long while yet. Sadly this place is not suited to a dog – we essentially live at the bottom of an incredibly steep slope, so installation of the necessary fences is just not possible at the present. Besides which, the house isn’t finished (both in terms of landscaping and in the sense that my father wishes to build another structure to the side where our “backyard” is). Furthermore, my own lifestyle simply is not suitable for a dog. Everyone in our family works long hours, and personally I’m no better, with the added trouble that I plan to travel for extensive periods of time over the coming years. Basically, it would be completely, totally and utterly irresponsible for me to own a dog for another four years at the least.
However that doesn’t stop me giving the subject some thought. It’s something I’m passionate about, because I can’t help but feel that a house is never quite the same without the wonderful slobbering companion coming out to greet you. As such, in one of my random and completely unnecessary trains of thought, I started to wonder about the ethics of dog breeding – both purebred and otherwise.

Let me begin by saying this – NEVER buy a dog from a pet store. Just do not do it, I beg you. If you already have then so be it, take care of it and give it as good of a home as you possibly can. Don’t get me wrong – SOME pet shops are responsible. I know for a fact that one of my friends got her dogs from a pet shop, and they’re wonderful dogs and she’s had no problems with them. The reality, however, is that not all of them can be trusted. Puppy mills are a huge issue, and even if you go ahead and ignore that half of them keep their dogs in incredibly cruel conditions, there’s one simple fact that I just can’t overlook. We do not NEED any more mish-mashed cross-breeds available for sale. Don’t mistake me – I’m not saying we need pure breeds (I’m getting to that), but you only have to walk into any shelter to understand what I’m getting at. I used to volunteer with the Animal Welfare League down here in SA, and it utterly breaks my heart that I used to constantly see many of the “designer” cross-breeds stuffed in pet shop windows being thrown aside into cages. My issue with it is simple; puppy mills claim to be trying to meet customer demands. The reality is that the only reason customer demand for such things exist is because the general public has never set foot into a shelter to realise the vast range of breeds, sizes and temperaments of dogs that desperately need good homes.
According to Debra Tranter, “in Australia we kill approximately 160,000 dogs every year because they are homeless, lost or abandoned. 350 unwanted dogs killed each and every day”. Supplier demand my ass.

Do you know where your puppy is coming from?

Some cross-breeds, however, are specifically bred by certain breeders. These are NOT the same thing that I’m complaining about here. Every pure breed has a range of issues specific to them, many unethical themselves (once again, getting to that), so there are some breeders that specifically cross breeds to avoid certain genetic defects. In so much as I’m concerned, if you’re responsible about it and finding responsible homes, I can understand this practice. Once again, I’d advise checking the shelters first, but if you’ve done your homework and you know the breeders are being dead set responsible about it, then go for gold. My views on this type of breeding is rather similar to my view of some pure breeds.

Which brings me to the main thing that was troubling me – is it even ethical to buy a pure breed when there are so many dogs of questionable origins needing homes? My family have long been German Shepherd lovers, and in some ways they happen to be a prime example of the issues involved with pure breeds. German Shepherds were, for a time, an excessively popular dog. As a result, indiscriminate breeding to meet supposed “demand” resulted in a huge amount of dogs with temperament and health issues. German Shepherds are often viewed as vicious or dangerous dogs, and the sad truth of it is that this isn’t necessarily a fallacy. Every German Shepherd we’ve ever owned hasn’t had this problem, but I’ve known some who have.
The issues when it comes to temperament are two-fold. Firstly the lack of careful breeding is an issue. This is the case with all dogs – responsible breeders know not to breed from shy or aggressive dogs. Either extreme is always to be avoided. Sadly this sort of goes out of the window when people start to see the dollar signs. As I said, German Shepherds have been particularly guilty of this. The second issue comes down to the owners. Most people have grown up with dogs who aren’t hugely carefully trained or exercised nearly as much as they should be and they’ve never had a problem with the dog. As such, people often aren’t even aware of what is actually necessary in training and owning certain types of dogs. This is part of the reason I’m generally not a fan of small dogs (with exceptions of course). People treat them like people, assert no dominance, and as such the dog misbehaves and no one does anything about it. The classic “yippy dog” is pretty much spawned from these scenarios. People can live happily without correcting many dogs because each dog has a different temperament to start with, and as such no one is even aware they’re doing anything wrong unless it goes so far as to produce significant behavioural problems, which is not necessarily common as it is usually only dogs at the extreme ends of the spectrum that have this problem. So how does this relate to a German Shepherd?
Well… answer me this: are you more likely to notice when a little dog who doesn’t reach  your knee jumps up on you from time to time, or are you more likely to notice when forty kilos of German Shepherd is suddenly bearing down on you?
Behavioural issues, even minor ones, are magnified in large dogs because large dogs can cause much more damage by committing what would otherwise be viewed as “small sins”. As such, many of these larger breed dogs with naturally higher energy levels (just about any dog that was bred as a “working dog” rather than a “pet”) are likely to gain bad reputations.

Pure breeding has other issues though, many of which relate to health. Larger dogs are prone to a huge amount of health issues simply due to their size alone, but it’s not just size that is a concern. Certain dogs, such as the pug or bull dog, suffer from huge amounts of respiratory issues due to their distinctive barrel chests and flat faces.

I may not be able to breathe, but damn if I ain't stunning

Obviously these breeds aren’t the only offenders. Almost every pure breed is highly prone to certain health issues. However, health isn’t the only problem. As I mentioned previously, temperament is a big concern. So many dogs originally bred for fighting are now illegal in certain states and countries. Who doesn’t hear the word “pit bull” and almost immediately associate it with something fierce and dangerous? Many of these dogs, in the right hands, can be amiable and good pets, but the sad fact is that many governments have decided it’s just not worth the risk, and in many ways I can see their point, regardless of how much it saddens me. It’s not just aggression that’s the problem. It’s that, at the end of the day, every dog no matter what breed can be provoked into violence, and sadly fighting dogs are simply genetically engineered to be far more dangerous if that’s triggered. They don’t let go and they don’t back down.

Me? Dangerous? Nah I might just lick your face off 😀

Or I might eat your face of. Either or.

Some breeds, sadly, were just created for all the wrong reasons.

Fortunately, many lovers of certain breeds are incredibly responsible people. More and more often, breeders are carefully selecting dogs to breed based on health and temperament rather than top show-dog conformation. Some even go above and beyond simply selling their dogs. For example, Bernese Mountain Dog breeders here in SA not only carefully pick their dogs to avoid the classic issues of dysplasia, but also seek to educate their buyers on such concerns. Many breeders are very selective about who they give their dogs to and spend a great deal of time preaching the importance of training, exercise, socialisation, desexing and so forth. The same applies to the cross breeders I mentioned earlier.

So what have I actually concluded from all this unnecessary thought?

Simple. If you’re willing to do a huge amount of homework, have lengthy conversations with breeders and learn all the right questions to ask, then by all means look into a specific breed or cross breed, especially if you’re looking for a dog with very specific traits. And for goodness sake, don’t just pick it because it’s pretty – working dogs in particular are often just not suited to urban life as their purpose is elsewhere.
If, however, you’re either not that picky or don’t have the time or money to deal with such specificities, go adopt from a shelter. In fact, check shelters for pure and cross breeds too – you’d be genuinely shocked by how often dogs worth thousands end up in there. The one that most shocked me was a pure bred Maremma Sheepdog named Goliath, who was not only beautiful but had the most wonderful temperament I’d ever encountered – especially surprising since Maremmas are meant for farming purposes and rarely make good pets in an urban environment. If you just want a companion, shelters are above and beyond the best choice, regardless of whether you’re looking for a puppy or an older dog.

Yep I'm pretty, but unless you're a herd of sheep I'm probably not going to be a big fan of YOU

Me? Well that depends. If in four/five years time I still find myself wanting the same things and being suited to the same things, I plan to hunt me down a relatively submissive male bernese mountain dog.

Yes, we're RIDICULOUSLY beautiful we know. But that's not why.

My reasons are pretty simple. I’m more than likely going to be living alone. I want a larger dog, but one that falls more into the “gentle giant” sort of persuasion. I love German Shepherds, and it is possible that I could source one of an appropriate nature, however my chances of it with a Bernese are a bit higher. They’re not guard dogs – they’re watch dogs. They rarely bark, and even rarer will they attack even to protect an owner. This works in my favour in terms of training and controlling. And even if maybe they wouldn’t protect me, imagine you’re a potential attacker – are you going to jump the woman with a fifty kilo dog in toe or are you just not going to risk your extremities? Having them visible in the yard is great too. Back when we had Phantom (our long haired German Shepherd), we had the backyard set up as such that you could see into the backyard from the front. Phantom was one of the calmest dogs I’ve ever seen, and he rarely barked at strangers, yet many commented on the fact that they would never have even tried to get in just seeing him sitting there watching them. Indeed we never got robbed or vandalised until he passed away. Bernese work as a similar deterrent. Furthermore they’re very company oriented dogs. They like to be near to you, so it’s pretty much a necessity that they be allowed indoors. If I’m living alone, such company is very welcome to me. They’re intelligent, they’re docile and they love to be a part of things.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s many downsides. They’re big, so they’re expensive. And let us not forget that big dogs eat more, and what goes in must come out. They have long fur which requires regular grooming, and I dare say in the summer months you’d probably need to invest in clipping them or at the very least keep them indoors during the day and walk them only in the early mornings and late at night. As big dogs, they require a LOT of exercise, but to me that’s sort of a plus as it means it’ll get me off the couch. The initial cost is high, and vet costs will make your head spin (pet insurance = totally necessary). Basically, in some ways they’re high maintenance. But if it’s just me living alone, then having to spend a lot of time on my best pal is hardly a concern for me.

Behold the future!

Of course, I’ll be checking the shelters first to see if some little scamp can steal my heart first 😉

Bear in mind that I’m no expert. All of this is just things I’ve gathered over the years, and at the end of the day it’s just my opinion. Think of this post as me thinking out loud rather than pointing fingers.
All I really ask is that next time you go to get a puppy, think really really carefully about it – and always check the shelters first.

Speaking of, if you’ve got a bit of extra cash this week, consider donating to the AWL by clicking HERE. They do good work, and they could always use the extra help 🙂


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