JUST A PET…
We’ve all said it. We don’t mean it to be denigrating but, let’s be honest, it rarely carries a glowing connotation. What’s that about and how does it impact our effectiveness at keeping breeding in the hands of responsible breeders
I recently read an article by Patricia McConnell, PHD entitled “ Pet Peeves – Let’s Hear it for the Family Dog” ( Bark magazine March/April 2007) in which she explores society’s ambivalence about the value of the family pet. She noted that definitions of the word pet include “spoiled”, “fondled” and “indulged”. She added that it is often used disparagingly i.e. “teacher’s pet”. Interestingly, she speculated that our discomfort comes in large measure from the emotions that pets evoke in us. Ms. McConnell comments:
“Dogs make us vulnerable, pure and simple. That’s fine with some of us, but it may make others uncomfortable and motivate them to downplay the importance of the family dog. Thus, it’s at least understandable that the value of companion dogs is often demeaned by society in general. However, it’s people in the dog fancy itself who surprise me -…”
I have some thoughts ( you knew I would!) about the squeamish relationship the dog fancy has to the whole “pet” thing.
THE “P” WORD
There is no greater insult in the world of dog fanciers than to be called a pet breeder – as in “Mary just breeds pets” or “Fido is just a pet”. While this is understood in the world of breeders, it comes as quite a surprise to owners of family pets and sends a confusing message. Aren’t we, they wonder, all about breeding pets? Let’s explore…
Hobby breeders dread being tainted with the moniker of “puppy mill”. In an effort to separate ourselves from the exploitative, irresponsible practices of mass producers, we are loathe to identify as the breeders of pets. Although we take great care with the pets we produce ( it’s not unusual for 90% of a litter to be slated for pet homes), we are always wary of being perceived as dedicated solely to pet breeding, lest we appear to be “milling”. We are so conflicted about our roles as pet breeders, that the mark of a “good breeder” has, paradoxically, become minimal breeding. We actually one up each other with the number of litters we DON’T breed!
This “not a pet breeder” ethos, though well intentioned, frequently sends a confusing message to potential puppy buyers. Stories abound of clients baffled by the prickly, defensive and reticent attitudes of breeders they feel they have to beg for a dog from. Some breeders simply don’t have good social skills, but I believe many are not sure how to fully inhabit their roles as providers of “just a pet”. This can be a tricky dance in a culture that provides validation and accolades primarily for dog show wins. We don’t yet have a structure in place to recognize and reward exemplary work in the breeding of pets.
Helping a discouraged friend recently, in her search for a dog, I was dismayed by how difficult it was to track down responsible breeders on the internet. And I supposedly know my way around the dog world! Club web sites are often not optimized to appear first in Web searches and once they are found, the befuddled potential pet owner must wade through club business and show schedules in order to find a frequently un-clickable membership list.( Sometimes an email to the club secretary is required in order to simply receive the membership list!)
Breeder’s websites are frequently devoted to the display of show dog triumphs and pious, confusing assertions that they are “not interested in breeding pets”. Easier to find and navigate were the websites of legions of less reputable breeders. My friend threw up her hands in frustration exclaiming “Forget it! It’s easier to go to a pet store!”. When we alienate puppy buyers, we leave them no option but to pursue their quest for a puppy elsewhere.
PETS AS A FOCUS
In order to take back the pet market from puppy mills, we must embrace our roles as expert producers of ideal pets. We use the term “hobby” breeder to differentiate ourselves from commercial breeders. We must re-imagine ourselves not as hobbyists but as professionals; showing dogs our hobby and breeding pets our primary focus. This is a stretch for most of us, allergic as we are to the idea of breeding pets in any deliberate way. Historically hesitant to market ourselves as professionals in the area of pet breeding, we fear being seen as “ in it just for the money”. Stepping away from our responsibility is not a principled answer. Although we cringe at the very suggestion that we focus our breeding programs on the pet market, we must. We owe it to the dogs. They deserve to be born and raised in capable, humane hands.
Being a professional does not mean we lose our ethics nor that we ditch our day jobs and start pumping out puppies full time. We are understandably leery of anything that smacks of commercialism, but when we undersell ourselves we leave the market wide open to the unscrupulous and uninformed. I’m certainly not of the mind that breeders should breed more than is comfortable for them or beneficial to their dogs, nor that puppies be mass produced – only that committed, caring breeders SHOULD be the ones supplying pets to the general public. And we should be proud of it…