Mea culpa. Awhile back I hastily posted a Here Here! on Facebook about the new USDA regulations targeting internet sales of dogs. The regulations narrow the definition of “retail pet stores” in order to regulate the sales of animals sold “sight unseen,” an increasingly common situation given the vast reach of the internet, and the increase in the number of puppies purchased by buyers who have no idea how they were raised. The responses to my FB post came in fast and furious and can be summarized by the following examples:
“Oh, Trisha, it makes me so sad that you think that is what they have done. Please educate yourself further. This is not a step forward for the reputable breeding community.”
“Yes and by doing so, they are requiring everyone with 4 intact females to raise their puppies in a kennel building with no furniture, a floor drain, sprinkler system, etc. So they are ensuring the only place you can buy puppies from IS FROM PUPPY MILLS!”
I should have known how controversial this issue would be; I attended a hearing about a similar bill in Wisconsin and heard the testimony of a great many small breeders who were extremely worried that they themselves would be put out of business, while the larger ‘mill’ type of operations would get away unscathed. The only good thing that I can say about my posting hastily and somewhat thoughtlessly (ouch) is that it motivated me to look into this issue in depth. I’ll go into the details below, but here’s the bottom line:
Are the proposed federal regulations perfect? No, absolutely not. Are they going to shut down puppy mills and end all suffering of dogs living in misery? Nope, not that either. Are they going to prevent some suffering in helpless dogs? Yes, all the evidence suggests that they will improve things for some dogs. Are they going to ruin the lives of responsible breeders and force them out of business? No, I truly don’t believe they will, although they might make life a bit more difficult for a very small number of breeders, but only ones who have 5 or more breeding females and only ones who want to sell puppies sight unseen to pet homes. Will home breeders have to move their beloved dogs out of the home into sterile rooms with cement floors and drains? Not a chance.
Let me start by first talking about my own state of Wisconsin’s decision to require some people who sell dogs to be licensed and regulated. The laws differ to some extent, but the same concerns that are being raised about the USDA regulations were raised here several years ago. What’s helpful about Wisconsin is that the licensing is now in it’s second year, so we have had enough time to gauge it’s effects. In some ways, the Wisconsin regulations are stricter than those proposed by the Feds: Anyone “selling at least 25 dogs a year, from more than 3 litters that they have bred” must obtain a license, as must shelters and rescue groups who shelter or foster at least 25 dogs a year. (Versus the USDA, whose proposed regulations are only relevant if one has over 4 breeding bitches. If the dog is to be sold as a pet, and if the new owner is unable to see the dog in person.)
When these regulations were first proposed in Wisconsin, I remember a tremendous amount of fear and in many cases, anger, about how these restrictions would impact well-meaning breeders, shelters and rescue groups. Curious about how this law has actually impacted dogs and breeders of all kinds, I recently talked at length with the person in charge of administering the licensing program, Dr. Yvonne M Bellay, DVM, MS, the Animal Welfare Programs Manager and Epidemiologist for the State of Wisconsin. I asked her whether she felt the licensing program was overall a good step, and whether people’s fears were or were not justified. (Obviously, this is from her perspective; I’ll report what some breeders have to say a little later.)
Her answer was definitive: “The law has done a world of good.” Dr. Bellay wishes that people could see what she has seen–some “shelters” with dogs held in deplorable conditions, some breeders with dozens of breeding bitches living in squalor (some of who call themselves rescues), and cases of needless suffering that may or may not be called a “puppy mills” by the rest of us. Out of sight of most of us, whether we like it or not, lots of people breed dogs, and without any regulations at all, too many dogs suffered terribly because of it. After the law was passed, Dr. Bellay reports that her inspectors have seen some wonderful improvements in terms of housing and enrichment, and sometimes come to her with reports of huge changes for the better in terms of living conditions for the dogs, both in terms of health, socialization and in enriched environments.
Do these laws create a situation in which all breeders breed super responsibly, all breeding dogs live an ideal life and all puppies are happy, healthy and perfectly placed? Of course not, but in her opinion, the costs, in time and money, to responsible breeders are small, and well worth the improvements that have resulted in kennels that have historically been, well, less than responsible. However, because of all the suffering she has seen over the years, Dr. Bellay fought tooth and nail for this bill for years, and one might argue that she is not an objective source. What about the perspective of the breeders? The ones we would call responsible breeders, who breed carefully and selectively, whose dogs live better than 95% of the people in the world, and whose puppies are all but guaranteed to go to good homes. How has the law effected them?
I spoke to several Wisconsin breeders, who each said that the regulations weren’t burdensome in any way. One said “If you are a good breeder and care about your dogs, there is simply no problem at all.” The inspectors were courteous, and there were no requirements that caused anything but minor problems. In one case the inspector explained that the working Labradors in one kennel needed chew toys in their kennels, even though the dogs run on 35 acres 4 times a day, are trained every evening for field trials and spend a lot of time in the house. The owner explained to me (and the inspector) that finding toys the labs wouldn’t destroy in minutes wasn’t easy, (and I personally would argue are unnecessary) but still feels that otherwise the regulations are clearly designed to improve the welfare of dogs, and are not a burden to people who truly care about their dogs.
In other words, all the disastrous consequences and fears expressed years ago when the licensing bill was being debated in Wisconsin don’t seem to have come to pass. The regulations are not perfect, and do not turn every breeder into one as responsible as you and I would wish, but the fact is, thousands of dogs in Wisconsin are better off for it. Although the laws don’t make everyone a responsible breeder, or encourage adoptions from good shelters and rescues, they have forced many a sloppy breeding operation into cleaning up their acts (and yes, put a few out of business who had no intention of housing dogs in anything but nightmarish conditions). The impact on responsible breeders has been minimal, and surely is a small price to pay for improving the living conditions of thousands of dogs.
How does the Wisconsin law compare to the proposed USDA licensing? Wisconsin’s law requires licensing of anyone selling over 25 puppies from four or more litters a year. The proposed federal license relates less to the number of dogs sold and more to the number of breeding females on the premises (I’d argue that’s a regrettable change… just because a female is intact doesn’t mean she is producing puppies). Only breeders who satisfy all of the following three conditions are subject to licensing: Owning 5 or more breeding bitches, selling any dogs sight unseen, and selling the dogs as pets. The intent is to catch up with the change in how many puppies are purchased now–on line versus in a retail store. The feds are not worried about high quality breeders who treat their dogs like family, provide high level health care and carefully screen buyers; they are trying to stop the tsunami of irresponsible breeders who have dozens or hundreds of dogs who sell unhealthy and poorly bred puppies, sight unseen, over the internet. The biggest impact that I can see on responsible breeders is the case of a breeder who has lengthy contact with a potential buyer–phone calls, videos of the parents and the pups, etc, and on occasion will ship a pup across the country without the buyers every having seen the pup in person. These regulations, IF the breeder has over 5 breeding bitches (I’m not clear yet on how that is defined), AND if the pup is being sold as a pet rather than a performance dog or a breeding potential, would make those breeders have to get a license. The cost of the license depends on the income derived from the sales. For example, if the gross sales are between $1,000 or $4,000, the license costs $70. All dogs must wear ID tags and the feds estimate approximately 10 hours of paperwork and record keeping a year. I can well understand a sigh from an affected breeder: good breeders want to spend their time and money taking care of their dogs. But overall, the law appears to be designed to do good things and will affect a very small number of breeders while trying to clean up some of the worst abuses in states where there are virtually no other regulations. That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing to me. Are the regs the ones I would write if I were queen? Not at all. Are they going to devastate the lives of responsible breeders? No. And so, after careful consideration and many of hours of research, I repeat myself: “Here Here!”
[Added 10-24-13] Just announced: USDA Animal Care announced today that they will host a series of webinars on the new Retail Pet Store Rule this November and December. You are invited to participate in any or all of these webinars to speak directly with USDA about how the rule may or may not affect you as a small/hobby breeder.
Webinars will be held Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. EST for a four-week period. The schedule of topics for the webinars is as follows:
▪ November 7 – Am I regulated under USDA’s Retail Pet Store Rule?
▪ November 14 – How will USDA implement the Retail Pet Store Rule?
▪ November 21 – What is USDA’s inspection process in a home?
▪ December 5 – How will USDA enforce the Retail Pet Store Rule?
For more information and to sign up for these webinars, visit the USDA Animal Care website below.
MEANWHILE back on the farm: Willie and I spent most of three days at a sheep dog clinic with Patrick Shannahan. Truth in posting: If I could retire right now and just work dogs on sheep, that’s what I’d do. We learned so much, and had so much fun, it’s hard to come back inside and work on a computer. (I expect just about everyone who works their dog in any way will understand.) Primarily we worked on Willie using his eye rather than his body to move the sheep; it seems like a fine point but actually it is the difference between having total control versus “off and on control” that gets the farm work done but won’t get you through a trial course. It’s also much more fun for the dogs, because they learn that they can keep control of the sheep at every moment, rather than working a kind of prevent defense all the time. It is also tiring for the dogs… think of maintaining total focus and intense presence at every single moment while you’re working. One might think that this comes naturally to dogs… we all know about the “Border Collie Eye,” but the dogs actually have to learn how to use it correctly, and are prone to taking the easy way out and using just their bodies to manage the sheep. (It’s the difference between “Go Here” and “Don’t Go there! Don’t Go There! Don’t Go There!) When I say “using their bodies,” I of course don’t mean they come in contact with the sheep, but manage the sheep by placing their bodies where they don’t want the sheep to go, rather than maintaining a kind of mental connection from farther back that says, with laser intensity “This Way is the Only Way.” I hope that makes sense! Maybe I can get a video of Willie using each method to show you exactly what I mean.
Willie’s shoulder did indeed begin to bother him the night of the second day, so we worked very little on Sunday, but nonetheless made great strides. By the way, all trainers will understand this: On Saturday, while we were working on Willie using a different method to move the sheep (his eyes versus his body), Willie began to drop his head and truly control the sheep with his eye and intensity… and when doing so, virtually everything else went to hell in a handbasket. At one point he stopped at the top of an outrun and wouldn’t move. He just sat there (yes, he was actually sitting at that point) and wouldn’t walk up on the sheep, but wouldn’t come back to me. A rain/sleet storm was starting, but I think it was more about “I have no idea what “right” is anymore, so I’m just going to sit here so that I don’t do anything wrong.” Luckily, Patrick knows dogs and knows training really well, and said “Don’t worry about it for a minute, you are right to work on just one thing at a time.”
I didn’t get any good photos of Willie working, but here’s one of my favorite friends, the lovely little Shae, owned by my good friend and Border collie buddy, Donna. Shae, of course, was watching another dog working sheep. I loved sitting in a line of chairs in a gorgeous field, with all the dogs sitting quietly and watching another dog work the sheep. I do wonder what the dogs are thinking while they are watching.
Here’s where we were working, too bad it’s not pretty or anything, hey? Actually, those beautiful cloud formations turned into sleet/rain while Willie and I worked right after I took the photo, but most of the time the weather was cold but relatively dry, and the surroundings could not have been more colorful. Thank you Laura for hosting the clinic!