Convincing Consumers To Shop The Shelter
The sight of dogs for sale at U.S. pet stores used to be ubiquitous, with adorable puppies playing in pens that lined the windows. However, such cute imagery belied the cruel, exploitative network of commercial breeders or “puppy mills” that often supplied animals to these stores.
Puppy mills originated on farms after World War II, when the USDA urged farmers to convert some of their operations to breeding dogs amid crop failures. Puppy sales supplied an added revenue stream to supplement unpredictable farm incomes. Given this history, it is perhaps unsurprising that conditions for the dogs often resemble industrialized laying hen facilities. Dogs may be placed in stacked cages, and many suffer from unsanitary conditions and health problems. The emphasis is on producing a high quantity of puppies, as reliably and quickly as possible.
The Evolution Of Breeding And Puppy Sales
Over the years, animal advocates have worked tirelessly to make people aware of this reality. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) claims that its puppy mill campaign features nationwide education, investigations, legal reform, and direct rescues, and is supported by 11 million U.S. stakeholders. According to the HSUS, the number of stores selling puppies fell from 900 in 2016 to 600 in 2022.
Indeed, since 2010, more than 440 cities, towns, and states in the U.S. have passed laws prohibiting the retail sale of dogs. Instead, many stores work with shelters and other animal rescue organizations to adopt out animals inside their stores. Retail giant Petco, for example, offers local rescues the opportunity to showcase adoptable companion animals in some of their locations.
Other anti-puppy mill campaigns have focused on curbing the worst abuses at these facilities. Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Ohio all passed laws mandating incremental improvements in breeding facility conditions. These have been just enough to reduce the number of breeding dogs.
In some cases, operators have simply left the business. In 2008, the number of USDA-licensed breeders in the wholesale companion animal trade totaled 4,604. In 2022, that number was 2,916. Furthermore, according to the HSUS, the average licensed breeding facility held 57 dogs in 2022 (down from 87 dogs a decade ago) — they cite policy changes as partially responsible for this. Unfortunately, small breeders and those who only sell in person aren’t always affected by pet store legislation.
While fewer puppies are sold in stores, puppy mills are increasingly turning to marketing online. Demand is high for certain popular breeds, and this creates an enticing opportunity for unscrupulous breeders. It is now quite common for breeders to put up a website with pictures of cute, affordable puppies to lure in consumers who may not suspect anything is amiss.
In other cases, people who want a purebred dog have been encouraged to find a “reputable breeder,” usually characterized as those who screen their dogs for specific health problems and don’t breed dogs with known issues. Through such breeders, guardians can learn about the puppy’s parentage and hopefully see the facility in-person. This, along with guarantees of good health, ongoing help, and the option of returning the dog at any time, make some people feel better about purchasing their dog. However, buying from breeders — reputable or not — contributes to shelter overcrowding and dog overpopulation.
The Harms Of Buying A Purebred
In 1973, there were an estimated 35 million dogs in the United States. Of those, 20%, or seven million dogs were euthanized in shelters. According to Shelter Animals Count, U.S. shelters euthanized 119,431 dogs in 2022. This decline is even more impressive given that 65.1 million U.S. households have a companion dog today. Despite the tremendous progress, millions of dogs are still brought into shelters annually. While it’s difficult to pinpoint how many shelter dogs come from puppy mills, the HSUS notes that 25% of shelter dogs are purebred — presumably a portion of these came directly from inhumane breeding operations.
When people consider acquiring a dog, they seem to look at a complete profile and make tradeoffs based on their most prioritized traits. That said, the preference for purebred dogs is still strong. The concept of “purebred dogs” developed in Britain during the Victorian period. Before that, dogs were classified by their function, but their appearances varied. Once breeds became established, form took over as the primary classifier. Dog shows drove more breeds to be created and standardized. According to one scholar, dogs became a status marker — for example, people sought out trendy breeds as a way to show off their wealth.
At the same time, our modern understanding of genetics has allowed for increasingly selective breeding, leading to extreme physical traits. When dog shows reward boxers with deep wrinkles or dachshunds with abnormally long backs, these traits become trendy and fashionable, and dogs are bred to meet these standards. Dogs bred for extreme traits may suffer from a variety of health problems, causing untold misery for the animals and huge veterinary costs for their guardians. In 2022, for example, the most popular breed in the U.S. was the French bulldog — a brachycephalic (or flat-faced) breed that can experience severe breathing problems.
Even with these potential drawbacks, there is still a demand for purebred dogs. Indeed, in 2019, 34% of dogs came from breeders, while just 24% were adopted through shelters. Beyond “consumer choice,” the alleged benefits of getting a purebred dog include being eligible for competitions, having access to a breeder for support, and being able to train a puppy early on.
Making Dog Adoption The Norm
Amid the popularity of purebred dogs, many animals remain in shelters waiting to be adopted.
Today, about 3,500 brick-and-mortar shelters and 10,000 rescue groups exist across the United States. In 2022, an estimated 1.4 million dogs entered shelter care, down from 2.03 million in 2018. Of those, 758,972 were adopted into new homes and 257,781 were returned to their guardians. Some rescue groups focus on specific breeds, while other groups try to help any dogs in need of a home.
So, if there is indeed a surplus of adoptable dogs in shelters, why do so many of them fail to find homes? Faunalytics published a blog about this very question in 2017 and identified several possible factors:
- People surrendering their dog to a shelter may not be entirely forthcoming about their companion’s behavioral problems. From there, shelters may struggle to match the dog with potential guardians who can handle the animal’s behavioral needs.
- A lack of human contact may reduce dogs’ apparent friendliness. This, in turn, might make certain dogs appear less “adoptable.”
- People don’t think they will find the “right” dog at a shelter. Indeed, 42% of respondents in one survey said they would not consider adopting from a shelter, often for this reason.
- The “pit bull effect” may be coming into play. It suggests that dogs who look like pit bulls (even though “pit bull” isn’t an AKC-recognized breed) may face higher rates of confiscation and euthanasia because they’re perceived as dangerous or unadoptable.
To overcome some of these roadblocks, shelters should consider using evidence-based behavioral tests to match each dog with the best possible guardian. They can also enact programs to socialize dogs — especially more fearful ones — so they become more comfortable around humans. Finally, they can launch educational and media campaigns discouraging the public from choosing dogs based on appearance or reputation.
That’s not to say that taking in a shelter dog is risk-free. Adopting any dog certainly comes with a fear of the unknown, especially young puppies. However, there are also potential benefits that adopters should be made aware of. According to the HSUS, these include having a wider range of dogs to choose from; having access to shelter staff who can provide advice about matching with the right dog; affordability, as rescuing a dog is often more affordable than purchasing from a breeder; and fighting back against puppy mills. Adopting from a shelter also frees up space that the facility can use to take in another dog.
Animal advocates have made enormous strides in educating the public about puppy mills and pet store puppies. Fewer dogs are entering shelters, and still fewer adoptable dogs are euthanized each year. But purebred dogs still have an appeal for many guardians — and this can be difficult for rescue dogs to live up to. We still have a ways to go to convince the public to shop the shelter first, but it’s promising to see the progress on this front.