Do you really need to show dogs to be an ethical breeder?
Anti-breeder content is constant. This graphic making the rounds on SM has the well-worn technique of pitting breeder against breeder. Breeders turning on breeders is nothing new, and stems from breeders themselves internalizing the AR anti-purebred dog agenda, and subconsciously position themselves as “acceptable” while tossing others to the AR wolves. Of course, there are people who are just unhappy and want to vent that on others, but that is a common root cause of why breeders so often pick on their own community. This particular graphic adds a touch of class by being attributed, in a round-about way, to something called the “Pat Trotter Podcast” but without telling us if this is actually a Pat Trotter quote uttered on her own podcast, a quote from someone else on her podcast, or maybe just flat made up. Let’s assume it is a Pat Trotter quote, and if so, it’s sad because Pat Trotter is a pillar of the AKC show community. She is a breeder of legend, an author, a powerhouse judge, and universally well respected for her many accomplishments and talents. But does that mean she’s not maybe just a tad elitist? I couldn’t say, but it doesn’t really matter for speaking to the graphic.
The quote leads hard by declaring that the only ethical breeders are purists. A purist is someone who insists on the adherence to traditional rules and structure. I would argue that the AKC show world is far younger than the creation, maintenance, and usefulness of purebred dogs. Traditionally dogs were used to serve specific needs of their human caregivers, shows were nothing more than a gathering of breeders and their dogs for the purpose of finding new breeding stock, discussing traits and goals, and was a reflection of the collaboration between breeders. Only recently have shows become an industry, one that makes people lots of money on the back of the work of breeders. Tradition transcends and outdated the modern show industry. But to be clear being a purist has nothing to do with ethical behavior, just like it has nothing to do with showing dogs or the business of showing dogs.
So, if we move past the “better than thou” word choice of “purist” to the core of the matter, Ethics. Oxford defines ethical as relating to moral principles.
Whoever penned this quote wants us to believe that the modern dog show industry is the litmus test for morals. If you show dogs you have ethics – if you don’t show dogs, you don’t have ethics.
It’s not lost on me that showing dogs is hella expensive. So expensive that there are many completely viable career paths contained within the dog competition industry. From those who build and manage the websites and data systems, to the employees of the offices of the sanctioning organization and show superintendent, to the professional handlers and their employees, to the magazines and other publications that exist for no other reason than to promote a dog and get them in front of judges eyes, literally millions of dollars float around in this industry. Everyone can make money apparently, except the breeders who actually make the dogs that fuel it, they MUST never earn a dime.
But is that really what morals are? Being financially unsuccessful in an industry making millions? How rich does someone need to be to design this trap?
Are the moral principles that really define ethics about how much money you can waste on a very expensive industry? Again Oxford defines moral as holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct, it says nothing about doing that in thousand dollar outfit while holding a leash that cost a fiver, while showing a dog who has a five figure advertising budget…
As breeders we define our moral principles in terms of our actions within the breed. That we are producing healthy puppies, that our dogs cared for and happy, that our dogs enjoy excellent health, and we advocate for them for as long as they live. That they bring joy and service to their owners. Those are ethics my friend, not if your breeding program hemorrhages funds that you don’t even notice because you are wealthy enough not to care how expensive your show hobby is.
When we talk about ethical principles for breeders we find lots of common ground and goals breeders share. Things like preserving/improving a breed, using evidence-based, parent club recommended health testing to ensure breeds are healthy now and in the future, caring for our dogs in ways that protect their welfare, physical, and emotional well-being, ensuring our dogs have a lifelong advocate who will help them if ever they need help. Ensuring our dogs and breeds are protected and cared for isn’t free, in fact it is very expensive. So following the authors logic only the richest people can afford to breed dogs using only their pocket money, and those had better be deep pockets……For those of us who are not rich, we cannot afford to provide excellent care without rolling dog related income back into our budget and that apparently makes us immoral in the authors eyes. Nonsense says I.
Not happy with just excluding those with working class incomes from breeding, the author also wants us to believe that only the wealthy breeder “lives for his dogs” and the rest of us just “live off our dogs” as if the typical breeder cannot love their dogs, or provide excellent care, or steward their breed. This is just more elitist nonsense -being wealthy and showing dogs doesn’t give anyone a corner on love, care, or breed stewardship. If it did, we would have very few purebred dogs indeed, given how many were developed, and brought along by working class people. I propose instead that it’s the quality of the care that really matters. Dog’s don’t care where the money came from they only know when they are loved, safe, and provided for.
The author then goes on to tell us what types of enjoyments are acceptable for the “Purist Ethical Dog Breeder”. We can feel morally clean if we enjoy our “End Product” as “accolades in the show ring” (no surprise here…) or maybe just for the Sheer Pleasure of looking at your dog trotting effortlessly….But be clear NONE of those are for you unless you are losing money hand over fist on your breeding hobby even as you drop six figures on your show “hobby”.
And I’ll add, just the insight that the dogs produced are the “end product” speaks volumes as to what these dogs are valued for. Add to that winning and accolades, and it adds up to someone who will say, while they don’t value money because they have an abundance of it, what they do value is competition and attention. They value winning and status in the show industry. Don’t be fooled by their propaganda that they are the only breeders who are ethical. Dogs don’t care about shows or ribbons and they don’t need them to be happy. So this isn’t really about the dogs at all…
One thing we can agree on is that dogs are vitally important, to the entire world. Dogs make the world better because they make people happy, they help us, and in turn we should make them happy and help them.
We should never believe that we need fewer wanted dogs, and I don’t know about you, but I know for sure that there are not enough ethically bred dogs to meet society’s need for them.
There are far fewer “show breeders” than there used to be, The Fancy has distilled and we have more breeds in danger of extinction now than ever. So, if society thinks this tiny group of breeders, those whose End Product is destined for show homes and the show ring, will have enough “not show quality” puppies to satisfy the worlds need for wanted dogs they are flat wrong. This group of breeders has proven to us they cannot even breed enough to keep their breed populations up. Show breeders are often out of touch with just how much demand there is for ethically bred dogs, because they have very little contact with typical pet dog owners. This is why they continue to chafe at the success of doodles.
I will repeat, showing dogs is expensive, especially if we are talking about showing a string of dogs. Handlers fees, travel expenses, advertising expenses, the list of expenses an exhibitor must pay for is long and never ending. This is a million dollar industry built on the back of the work of breeders, who they want to convince don’t deserve any financial success. If we want to say that this small group of people are the only people who can ethically breed, we are excluding from the dog world too many breeders – good breeders, talented breeders, that in many ways are very much like the founders of our breeds. Working people, often women, whose lives are intertwined with the breed and dogs they love.
And ultimately here is the deal. Ethical principles are a set of behaviors that people either do, or don’t do. When we buy a puppy, what we care about is the behavior of the breeder, because our heart tells us that’s what’s important. Do they care about their breed, their dogs, those who buy their dogs? Are those things important or are they just part of the End Product system they have for making more show dogs? Are the needs of all these different stake holders of equal value to their desire for accolades? What about their ethics? Do they even have them to begin with? It’s not like there is any type of ethics test for those who show dogs. You can have crap ethics and still show dogs, and win!
Ethical behavior is an act of love. Love for a breed, for dogs, and for those whose lives they impact through them. That’s really all there is to it.
Look beyond stupid quotes, look beyond the prejudice of one group towards another, and cut to the heart of what really matters, and that is care and respect for dogs and those who share their lives with them. Being financially successful in a million dollar industry that encompasses vast numbers of professions, from your local vet office, to the pet store down the road, to the small business owner, should never be something to be ashamed of. Being good at what you do and ending a year in the black instead of the red doesn’t make a breeder immoral, anymore than being wealthy enough to spend thousands on a hobby makes you moral. Moral is what you do, today, not what you spent yesterday.
Everything is Easy When You Don’t Know What’s Involved.
Another well intentioned, but clueless, meme is making the rounds on SM and so again I’m going to try to address what this person got right, and wrong, when they made this and why before we share things we need to think critically about the message before we hit that Share button. There is no reason to perpetuate ignorance when we breeders should know better.
Let’s start with what the author got right. Yes, it’s common knowledge that behavioral tendencies are inherited and that size, coat, and color, are as well. That’s it, that’s all. Now, it’s a just a few words so I guess I should not expect wisdom, but because it is presented and shared as if it does contain something more than readily available information, let’s examine what was relevant but not included.
While it’s true that behavioral tendencies are inherited, and is a often studied area of science. Unlike many diseases there isn’t a DNA test for “good” behavior and “bad” behavior that breeders can use to help them make breeding choices. For the most part other than knowing that “behavior” is inherited, and access to observations of behavior from themselves (first hand knowledge of a dog) or others (second hand knowledge) there is very little for breeders to use to make breeding choices other than perform a pedigree analysis for a particular expressed behavior. Indeed even those who study this subject refrain from making broad claims about the accuracy and usefulness of their findings, and teasing apart environmental influences on the expression of behavioral traits.
So while changing traits can see with our own eyes (aka pedigree analysis) is a long standing traditional skill used by experienced breeders since the domestication of animals began, it’s not easy or quick. Sadly, the skill of pedigree analysis and breeding tests have largely been lost in todays sea of novice breeders trained by novice breeders. The number of breeders skilled in using pedigree analysis is not what it should be and is an area of legitimate improvement that could be made. To imply that it is something a person can just intuitively understand, or perform, simply because they want a puppy or by doing some “bloodline study” is ridiculous.
When it comes to the “breeder’s toolbox” of skills, observation and manipulation of phenotype (traits you can directly observe and select for ) is one of the least satisfying ways to change traits, or the expression of traits, and it can take a long time, a very long time, in some cases hundreds of years. The reason being that when what we see with our eyes can be seen a hundred different ways by a hundred different people from a hundred different times, or influenced by a hundred different things, our eyes can deceive us, and those that came before us. Further, because many of these traits can be “hidden” from view by how they are inherited (for example, a sable German Shepherd who carries the solid black gene hidden) a trait can be completely invisible to observation but still be present and able to be passed on. Many behavioral traits are triggered by environmental, health, even nutrition factors both before and after birth, so they may not be visible in one population at all, just to show up in another set of factors. In this manner many traits that are inherited can pass silently and invisible through pedigrees just to pop up unexpectedly generations down the road. On the other hand traits can be loud and obvious and not be inherited in that form at all. Other traits may have been desirable, even just a few decades ago, and so breeders may have been selecting FOR and not AGAINST a trait or group of traits while the modern breeder has completely different considerations to make. To further complicate matters, even within breeders of the same generation there may not be agreement on what traits to increase, or decrease in intensity or propensity.
Much of this information can only be accessed by those who are highly experienced in a breed, who can observe and glean what is happening with the breed worldwide and on a meta scale, just as much as what is happening in their own micro observations in their own breeding program. This is not something you can learn from bloodline study (whatever that means) even if you are one of the small percentage of people within a breed who are actually qualified to make an informed study of a particular pedigree. FURTHER, most breeders in any given breed have surprisingly little firsthand information about behavioral traits at all. The overall animosity directed at breeders has driven many of our most experienced out of breeding, it has created walls of self protection around breeders so the sharing of information between them is stunted and incomplete, it has created a generation of novice breeders who don’t even know how novice they are, in a void of experienced mentors. So in this day of an abundance of information breeders are often making decisions with less collaborative information than ever before. This is exacerbated even more by the number of new breeds and new mixes being created with even less information available to those breeders than any purebred breeder has available to them.
Firsthand observations of behavior can only be made when a breeder lives with a dog for years and years, even it’s entire lifetime, repeated generation after generation. This is the most valuable information a breeder can use to make phenotype based decisions, though it can still be inaccurate. Firsthand information is the most scarce but the most valuable a breeder can have at their disposal.
Secondhand information about behavior can be gleaned from others, but those people need to have lived with the dog for years and years themselves, this information can be useful or useless, depending on who provides it, their knowledge and observational skills, and willingness to share. Secondhand information has value, especially in bulk, but should be taken with a grain of salt.
Rumor or gossip about a dog comes from those whose experience with a dog is incomplete, or their ability to understand it is lacking, it’s of little to zero value in a phenotype model. It can be of value when the same observation is made by many different people, unconnected to each other, and not influenced by others. Relying on rumor and gossip about a dog or line is fraught with pitfalls and it should be only occasionally be considered at all.
It is absurd to even suggest that a “puppy buyer” or hell, even a dog professional, and some breeders can predict with pinpoint accuracy the behavior of an adult dog based on “bloodline study”. Most people cannot even read a pedigree, yet alone have in their brain enough knowledge and information to make accurate predictions and observations based on studying a pedigree.
Of course the suggestion, and the cause of my ire, is that while I know taking a graphic like that to heart is pointless and silly, there are people who are sharing this around and implying that there is something of value in it. I fear that it imparts blame on those who have purchased a dog only to have it’s behavior become problematic. They may feel it’s “their fault” because they didn’t do any “bloodline study” and that’s truly a shame because it will NOT help anything and it may be false.
I fear it will lead to further hatred and ignorant animosity being leveled at breeders, the implication being that only a BAD breeder would produce a puppy that develops behavior problems. But of course that also helps NOTHING, may be false and it widens the rift between breeders further as they rush to judge each other as social signaling that they are “very good” breeders who never have bad outcomes. Stupid, allowing outsiders to pit breeders against each other is part of the rot that has weakened our community.
Yes breeders should be deliberate in how they select for behavioral traits, just as deliberate in how they select for health and structural traits. To do this we need open communication, opportunities to collaborate and learn together, and the transparency that only comes when people feel safe.
Yes, puppy seekers should invest some time in choosing a respectable and ethical breeder who cares about them, and their dogs. To do this puppy seekers need basic information, open communities where finding a breeder referral is easy, and breeders who value them.
What nobody needs is the ignorant implication that things are easy and simple and sending puppy seekers down the wrong pathway doesn’t help anything, no matter how frustrated we are in the choices that some puppy buyers make. Everyone makes mistakes, puppy buyers are impulsive and often don’t put enough thought into their purchases and that will never change. Puppy Buyers become overwhelmed by the information avalanche that occurs when they start researching how to find a breeder, they shut down and settle and I for one don’t blame them, it’s very hard to find reliable information in an actionable form when you are not a professional or hobbyist.
Breeders make mistakes too, even with the best of information, intent, and ethics not every litter, breeding decision, or dog is going to result in a Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, that is how reality works and blaming breeders is just as pointless as blaming God or Mother Nature.
Worse, blaming breeders creates fearful breeders and arrogant breeders. Fearful breeders become so traumatized by bad outcomes that they start making even more, and greater mistakes, create walls between themselves and others, or worse, they cease breeding all together. Arrogant breeders occur when novice breeders who have not experienced (yet) a slap from Mother Nature start attacking, judging, or bullying other breeders who are struggling because they believe that bad things only happen to bad breeders. This behavior rots trust, transparency, and collaboration between breeders as defenses go up, and that only weakens our community and our breeding program, and breeds.
It’s important that we talk freely, share freely, and collaborate freely. To reach that we simply must educate and understand when others seek to undermine our work and goals. Everyone needs to have the freedom to make a mistake and recover from that experience as a better version of themselves, to do that we need to make darn sure we make room for mistakes because they are inevitable and they have great value.
Would you like some actually useful information on finding a reputable breeder? We have those in abundance, including an entire free course on how to find and interview a breeder, just visit our Education Page for all the links!