All I Want is a Pet
I don’t need to worry about finding a show breeder . . . All I want is a pet.
If this is you, could you send me a dollar? Because if I had a dollar for everyone who bought into this myth, I could retire and still support myself and my critters in luxurious style. I’m perfectly well aware that no one believes that quality makes a difference until they themselves have a bad experience – but really, it’s so much easier to learn from someone else’s experience. I might have done that myself . . . but didn't. Why not be different? Forethought is so much easier than regret.
Why does it matter where you get your puppy? Can’t you get a good pet from a pet store, from a private commercial breeder with a dozen or a hundred dogs in cages in his barn, or from that nice couple in town who let Fluffy have pups so that she’d be fulfilled as a mother?
Sure. But it takes luck. Straight-up undiluted close-your-eyes-and-jump luck. The more popular the breed, the more luck it takes. When you decide that your own special miniature schnauzer won’t have hypothyroidism, diabetes, kidney problems, juvenile cataracts, or epilepsy – all fairly common in the breed – you are really taking a gamble. The idea that it won’t happen to me because I would be really upset if it did is amazingly common, but not very reliable at actually preventing problems.
Here’re my own two personal Papillons:
The boy on the left, Lotka, the tri (looks black and white on this picture) is perfect. Well, close enough for government work, okay? The boy on the right, the red, well . . . it’s not just that he lacks ear-fringe and a tail plume. That’s trivial. It's rare to get really good ear fringe on a red Papillon anyway. In fact, he’s a fairly good-looking boy if you don’t know anything about structure (if you do, it’s almost painful to look at him – many of his problems are visible to the eye if you know what you’re looking at.) He’s pretty, and he’s not coarse and heavy-boned like so many Papillons you see, or oversized, or with legs so long he looks like he’s on stilts, or with little bitty ears like a Chihuahua, all of which I've seen in animals that were supposed to be Papillons. But his topline is terrible -- he has a very abrupt juncture between neck and back, a dip at the withers, and a wheel back. The hair hides some of this. His tail-set is awful, which indicates problems with the structure of his rear -- he carries his tail up only when he's excited. He does not look anything like as nice as the Papillons you see in the show ring, or in pictures.
Not all his problems leap out at the eye, but they all matter. He has very straight shoulders, straight upper arms, and weak pasterns. There’s even a hint that something must be wrong with his front in the way he’s sitting in this picture – compare his posture with Lotka’s. See how wide apart his front legs are and how his front feet turn out? That’s not good. He always sits this way. He also stands the same way, with wide apart and turned-out legs. Right there you know something probably isn’t right about the way he’s put together.
The straight front means that every time Volterra jumps off the couch he’s jarred all the way up to his spine. The weak pasterns make this worse.
Because of his poor construction, he overruns his front legs with his rear when he’s trotting. He compensates by swinging his rear to the side while trotting (“crabbing”). This stresses his spine and reduces his endurance. In the rear, he has slipping (popping, double-jointed) hocks, which makes him uneasy on slippery surfaces such as ordinary floor tile, and makes him arch his back as he tries to keep weight off his rear legs – again stressing his spine. He has periodic episodes of severe back pain which can last for weeks or months and require treatment with fairly serious pain killers. My understanding vet lets me keep pain killers on hand all the time, which I use whenever I see that he’s in pain, which can be fairly often if he's having a bad spell. He also frequently pulls muscles, which, since he has poor pain tolerance, causes him a lot of distress. By the way, it is not much fun to see a pet of yours in pain.
The hock problem adds stress to his knees, which is unfortunate because he has patella luxation in his left knee. He’s eight years old, not old for a Papillon, so there’s lots of time for this to turn into a serious problem. Patella luxation is a genetic problem breeders ought to be working to avoid, but I guess his breeder wasn’t paying attention, or doesn’t know how, or doesn’t care. It could have been just bad luck. But. Given all this boy’s other problems, what do you think? Luck or ignorance?
This same dog has bilious vomiting syndrome, which means he sometimes throws up for no special reason. He’s periodically on medication to control this. Prior to getting it under control he was throwing up five or six times a day, and you can probably guess was no fun for either of us. I just about got him trained to go into the bathroom to vomit before we got the problem under control. This is not a training opportunity I recommend. This problem didn’t show up until he was about four years old, by the way, and it took months to figure out what was going on and get it solved.
He’s also had trouble with one of those super-annoying chronic skin allergies, which for a while was quite a problem -- again, not starting until he was about four or five. It seems to be under control now, thankfully. If I’m ever forced to do the whole allergy-testing-and-treatment shebang, I’ll have to drive eighty miles to a specialist, it’ll cost hundreds of dollars – and there’s a fair chance it won’t work. This boy also has an elongated soft palate, causing that ugly but harmless "reverse sneezing" you find in many toy dogs. It could be worse -- it could be partial trachea collapse, which would be much worse.
And, oh, yes – he was terrified of life when I got him. I mean, everything frightened this puppy: coke bottles, pairs of shoes on the floor, bicycles, fire hydrants. Rocks. Blowing leaves. Wooden bridges. (Wooden bridges were EVIL). I believe he was raised in a pen in a barn – he clearly was not exposed to ordinary life as a puppy. It took eighteen months of serious work to bring him out of it and he’s never, ever going to have the proper outgoing Papillon temperament. But at least he’s merely disinterested in strangers now, rather than frightened of them. He has the stupidest body language with other dogs you ever saw – aggressive, playful and fearful all at the same time – so he has difficulty interacting with other dogs.
Guess which dog I paid more for. Go on, guess.
Everybody learns from experience, they say. I invite you to learn from mine, rather than going though through this much unnecessary trouble and expense yourself, only to still wind up with an animal that does not come close to the ideal pet described in the breed books. I love my dog. But his is not and never will have the beauty and confidence that should be a Papillon's birthright.
What you want is not just a pet. What you want is a quality pet. You want to spend some time searching, find an excellent breeder, pay a reasonable price up front, and avoid supporting your vet’s kids through college all by yourself.
Incidentally, both of my Papillons came from show breeders – but one was a good breeder and one (obviously) was not. How can you tell the difference? Who’s out there breeding dogs and how can you tell whether they’re doing a good job?
Here are some excellent links:
And here's my own take on who's breeding what, starting with a visual aid:
Yes, this Cavalier rescued by Lucky Star (www.luckystarcavalierrescue.org/) is cute. And if you want an adult Cavalier and aren't afraid of dealing with the possible "issues" a rescue Cavalier may come with, Lucky Star is an excellent place to start looking. But no Cavalier breeder would claim that this girl, cute or not, exemplifies breed type. If you want to see beautiful Cavaliers that do fit the standard, go here, if you like -- http://www.laughingcavaliers.com/ch13.html, the book referenced at this site is also quite good and has pictures of influential Cavaliers in the breed. But you don't need to buy the book to take a peek at some beautiful Cavaliers. The blenheim bitch shown at this link is just lovely. Her head makes an informative contrast with the rescue above. Follow the site around to its Gallery of Champions for a look at some more dogs that are stunning, absolutely stunning. Then take another look at the rescue Cavalier above. Go to the Lucky Star site and check out the excellent work Lucky Star is doing, but also pay attention to the pictures. And then decide whether you want a dog that really fits the Cavalier standard, or whether "cute" is enough for you.
Everybody’s got a different definition of what a backyard breeder is, what a puppy mill is, what constitutes a good breeder. Being willing to contribute to the clutter, I’ve come up with 8 categories for people who produce puppies and here they are. I’d welcome comments if anybody thinks I missed the boat on this.
1. Commercial breeders. These people are defined by motivation, always a tricky way to define a category. Even so, here’s my try at doing just that. Commercial breeders produce puppies primarily or solely for the money they expect to make. They arrange their breeding facilities so as to maximize their own profit. They do not do health testing and do not know which genetic problems are prevalent in their breeds or how to recognize those problems. They are probably perfectly happy to breed a lame animal, or one showing neurological problems, or one that is epileptic. They may be willing to use a male Cocker Spaniel on a Cavalier bitch and sell the puppies as Cavaliers (stolen papers or faked pedigrees are not that hard to come by, so the puppies may even be registered -- I have personally seen quite a few "purebred" animals that did not even faintly resemble their putative breeds). Commercial breeders know nothing about genetics. They probably don’t keep their dogs in the house, because the animals are not considered pets but livestock. The number of dogs they have and the physical health of those dogs are not important to this definition. Amish producers, puppy mills, and private individuals with a couple of breeding bitches in a shed out back can all fit this category. So can show breeders who depend on making money from puppies to pay for their show expenses. This was Volterra’s breeder, by her own admission (I was too eager for a puppy to recognize what I was hearing when she said this). The dogs produced by commercial breeders rarely closely resemble the breed standard. They may be cute, but they do not really represent the look the breed is supposed to have.
2. Puppy mills. This is a subset of Category 1. These are the commercial breeders who also neglect the health of their dogs or actively abuse the animals. The number of dogs they have is not important. If someone produces puppies for money and neglects or abuses his dogs, IMHO, he’s running a puppy mill.
3. Backyard breeders. I’m defining these people as separate from commercial breeders, although they may hope to make a little money from selling their puppies. Their primary motivation is not to make money, but to “let Fluffy fulfill herself as a mother.” Or “let the kids watch the miracle of birth.” Or “get a puppy just like Fluffy, she’s so sweet.” They probably breed just one litter or at most two. They probably own just one or at most a couple of dogs, which they usually treat as pets and love dearly. They frequently advertise in newspaper ads – rare for knowledgeable, serious breeders. They know nothing about genetics or about the prevalent genetic diseases for their breeds. They do not know anything about health testing and certainly do not test their dogs. They probably cannot recognize a textbook case of syringomyelia or patella luxation when they see one. Structural and genetic health are problematic. Their puppies are well socialized, but more than likely are not good physical representations of their breed. If the pets being bred came from a show breeder, though, the puppies may be fairly nice.
4. Performance breeders. These people breed dogs to perform whatever kind of work the breed was initially developed for. They breed herding dogs or hunting dogs. They may breed little-known dogs like Blackmouth Curs or Catahoula Leopard Dogs, or they may breed well-known breeds like Beagles or Labradors. They probably don’t show in the Conformation ring, although a few do, maybe in the UKC or rare-breed shows because their breeds may not be AKC-recognized. They are at least as likely to be contemptuous of show breeders and show dogs. They either work their dogs or show them at hunt trials or in other performance venues. Their dogs are often “too much dog” for most people to handle – too energetic, too driven, too obsessed by working instincts. Their dogs, bred to a working standard, frequently do not look much like show dogs, but they are likely to be structurally sound. Performance breeders run the whole gamut, from pretty ignorant to very knowledgeable indeed. For a really good look at the difference between working dogs and show dogs, you might go here: http://www.workingpitbull.com/amstaffpit.htm. This is one of the really fine dog-related sites on the web, I think, and worth exploring while you're there. The relevant section is on how to identify a "pit bull" and discusses the difference between show dogs and performance dogs.
5. Casual hobby show breeders. Casual hobbyists have a nice-ish dog or two and show very casually, a few times a year, for the pleasure of it, maybe not caring much whether their dogs win. They have plenty of non-dog hobbies and aren’t interested in knowing the finer points of canine structure or movement, much less genetics. They probably cannot tell a mediocre animal from an exceptional one. They breed a litter or two of decent-quality puppies but aren’t really interested in being serious breeders. Their emphasis is on what the breed can do for them (be fun) rather than what they might be able to do for the breed (improve health or whatever).
6. Mid-level show breeders. This is a very large category. Mary Roslin Williams seriously influenced my picture of this kind of breeder with her book Reaching for the Stars. Mid-level breeders are serious about showing and breeding and are trying to be responsible, good breeders. This doesn’t mean they’re especially knowledgeable and usually they’re not (or they wouldn’t be mid-level). They show all the time, but don’t do all that much winning, a tendency they blame on “politics.” They don’t pay much attention to the finer points of structure or movement, although they do recognize glaring faults. They are more likely to recognize faults than positive virtues.
They don’t know anything about genetics, although they may think they do and come out with wrong assertions about the subject (“hip dysplasia can’t be genetic because it skips generations”). They may or may not do all that much health testing and will probably be defensive about it if they don’t. If they test, they almost certainly don’t know how to best utilize the results of testing in their breeding programs. Most likely they do not track pet puppies they sell, but they will usually take back a dog if the buyer can't or doesn't want to keep it. They may not have been breeding dogs for more than six or eight years, frequently less (although sometimes more – sometimes a lot more). They probably produce nice but not remarkable dogs, dogs that pretty well fit the standard and look nice, if not exceptional.
Someone looking for a “good” breeder may well go to a mid-level breeder, on the theory that any serious show breeder must be “good” and because there are lots of them out there. There are certainly worse places to go. My wonder-dog Lotka came from this kind of breeder and I consider myself lucky to have him.
7. Top show breeders. These people do know all about the finer points of canine structure and movement and can debate for hours about the exact degree of shoulder layback that’s really ideal in their breeds. They also know type and breed beautiful show dogs, sometimes with that extra flair, and they do a lot of winning. They often, but not always, care a lot about the health of their dogs and do health testing, but although definitely responsible they still may not know how to best utilize the results of those tests in their breeding programs (a typical wrong statement would be something like, “Had to spay her, she was carrying van Willebrand’s disease, it was a real shame because she’s an exceptional bitch.”). Other top show breeders may dismiss concerns about health quite casually, "Oh, that problem is overblown -- it's not that common, all breeds have defects, and besides, it's probably nutritional." But they take responsibility for the dogs they produce and will certainly take back any dog they ever sold if the buyer can't keep it. They’ve probably been their breeds for a while and are widely respected and acknowledged as top breeders. There aren’t enough of these breeders. They have waiting lists for their puppies.
8. Really knowledgeable show breeders. These people are somewhere in the mid-level to top-breeder categories; to be really knowledgeable they must understand structure and type; but also they are accomplished amateur geneticists. They’re the ones who do know how to handle both simple and complicated genetic traits and diseases in a breeding program and they care passionately about the health of their dogs. They try to track the health of every puppy they produce. They may even overemphasize the results of tests, forgetting that all dogs are carrying for something even if there’s not a test for everything and treating a fairly trivial problem as though it is very serious. However, if they dismiss beauty and type as completely unimportant compared to health, they fall out of this category because they cease to be show breeders and turn more into performance breeders. If they’re top show breeders as well as really knowledgeable, then they have figured out how to balance type, beauty, temperament, and health. If you can find a breeder like this, it would be worth your while to get on her waiting list. There obviously aren’t enough of them, either. In order to distinguish between these breeders and other show breeders, you must know something about genetics yourself, preferably applied genetics – or, how to use genetics in a breeding program. Go here for a look a practical, applied genetics.
Wouldn’t it be simpler just to go to the local humane society and get a mutt?
Yes, it would. You can also find purebred dogs in shelters and humane societies, although nearly 100% of them will have been produced by a commercial breeder.
Aren’t mixed-breed dogs usually healthier than purebred dogs?
No. Or more precisely: nobody knows, and which purebred dogs did you have in mind? The odds for a mixed-breed are probably better than for a badly-bred purebred dog from a commercial breeder. People get the idea that mixed-breeds are healthier than purebreds because there are so many badly-bred purebreds out there. I’ve seen lots and lots of Cocker Spaniels, for example. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good one except at a conformation show, agility trial, obedience trial, or other formal event. Not ever. By good I mean good looking and healthy and with an excellent temperament. A well-bred purebred dog is probably about as likely to be healthy as a mixed-breed dog. There may be exceptions for some breeds, and for those, you are well advised to find the very best breeder you can if you want a dog of that breed. I humbly suggest that Cavaliers are among those breeds that take extra care.
In general, mixed breeds could develop any of the 400+ genetic problems that are known to afflict domestic dogs (this is not a dog thing; there are more than 4000 known genetic problems that affect humans). But mixed breed dogs are not all that likely to develop any given problem. You can often make guesses: German Shepherd-Golden Retriever crossbreeds are probably more likely to suffer from bone cancer and hip dysplasia than toy poodle-schnauzer crossbreeds, while the latter are probably more likely to suffer from epilepsy or skin problems, for example. But with a Heinz 57 type of mixed breed, you really have no idea what risk he might be running for anything.
And in general, a purebred dog is going to be far more at risk for one or a few genetic problems than other dogs would be, rather less at risk for most other genetic diseases, and highly unlikely to suffer from a handful that are simply uncommon for the breed. Cavaliers are highly likely to suffer from mitral valve disease – but highly unlikely to suffer from hypothyroidism, for example. If you decide to get a purebred dog, you have to decide which risks you are willing to run.
People also buy into the common Mixed-Breeds-Are-Better idea because there are many studies of the genetic diseases of purebred dogs, but no studies of genetic diseases in mixed breeds; and also because purebreds get checked for genetic problems more frequently than mixed breeds. If you own a Golden Retriever or German Shepherd Dog and it starts to limp, your mind (and your vet’s) ought to fly to the possibility of hip dysplasia, and you’d take it in and have its hips x-rayed. But old Bowser? I guess the poor old guy has arthritis – he’s getting on, you know. Too bad. No reason to x-ray his hips, and most of the time, nobody does. A friend of mine has a dog – maybe a pointer-cattle dog-greyhound mix, although who knows? This dog, at the vigorous young age of five, was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. She’s suffering enough that she wound up at the vet getting her hips x-rayed, and she will never again be able to fully participate in her favorite activity (chasing and fetching balls). If she was a Golden, she’d be a statistic. Since she’s a mixed breed dog, no one will ever count her when they’re assessing rates of hip dysplasia in dogs.
I’m not saying you ought to get a purebred dog or that mixed-breeds are inferior dogs. I am saying that buying a purebred gives you the advantage of predictability. With a purebred dog from a responsible, knowledgeable breeder, you know about how big it will get, what kind of coat it will have, what its basic temperament will be like. You also have a good guess as to which health problems are most likely to occur (and which are not), just how likely these problems are to affect your particular dog, how serious each problem is, how to recognize them, what the treatment options are, how the breeder will compensate you if they do occur . . . everything.
This is a real plus. It beats the alternative, which is being completely clueless.
I really have known people to get a Lab-mix puppy because they wanted a basically Lab-type dog . . . and find out as it grew up that it was a Lab-Dachshund mix and wasn’t going to be anything like they’d thought (I saw this dog as a puppy and I swear you couldn’t tell it was part Dachshund). I’ve also seen the worst case of patella luxation ever – in a mixed-breed of unknown parentage. A forty-pound dog, too, not a little guy. The surgery (both legs were affected) was very expensive.
This doesn’t have to be you.
If you read a good breed book or two, learn about the characteristics and typical genetic problems for the breeds you’re interested in, take your time to find a breeder, and wait patiently on a waiting list if necessary, you’re very likely to find the dog of your dreams. And if you answer a newspaper ad for a guy out in the country who breeds Miniature Schnauzers, Pomeranians, Toy Poodles, Shi Tzu, Chihuahuas, Miniature Dachshunds, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, you very likely won’t. But that’s up to you.
Incidentally, if you’re still looking, the breed books I like best are:
The Perfect Match – Walkowitz – a good balance between complete, accurate, and fun to read.
Paws to Consider – Kilcommons and Wilson – fun to read, but less complete.
Your Purebred Puppy – Welton – complete, but less fun to read.
Some personal web sites produced by really outstanding breeders or others are also listed below. You may not want a Labrador or a Miniature Schnauzer, but you’ll learn something from these really excellent web sites, anyway. Sites with some heft, they’re a lot more than pretty pictures.
http://www.premiercavaliersite.net/ -- of course, first a Cavalier site.
http://www.katewerk.com/minuteman.html -- this is a great Miniature Schnauzer site.
http://www.labbies.com/ -- Labradors, of course, by a dual-purpose breeder.
http://www.workingpitbull.com/ -- a really outstanding site, one of the best breed sites on the web.