Saturday, February 14, 2015

Second Warming

It has been a snowy but pretty normal winter up until today.

I'm trying to replenish our depleted stock of firewood. We've replaced the never-satisfactory and now prematurely-dead Husqvarna chainsaw with a lighter-duty Stihl that I can actually start easily, and are working on cutting up the blown-down oak and cherry and pear trees, and the many ash trees killed by emerald ash borers in the past few years.

They say that firewood warms you three times -- first when you cut it, second when you split it, and third when you burn it. We're inefficient enough about stacking that all of ours gets in a fourth warming. I still need to finish a lean-to woodshed on the north end of the run-in shed that now houses our small stock of wood; when it's done, we won't have to go through a gate to get wood, and the livestock will have more shelter in that space. I'd like to move them back there next winter once the next run of fence is finished and they can get into the sheltered buttcrack and to the never-frozen spring in bad weather.

Today, while the northwest gale blew a whiteout, I pulled my wedges and sledgehammer down to a pile of bucked ash logs that were too big to haul up to the woodshed whole, and did my splitting on the south-facing slope of the buttcrack. Pleasant weather -- I ditched my hat and scarf for the second warming.

I use a star wedge, because it is easier, and occasionally it even produces a multiple split. Ash splits willingly and cleanly, unlike the accursed Bradford pear, which seems to have no grain at all, or the unbelievably dense hawthorn, which, I effing give up. The colder it is, the more easily a log splits; whatever residual moisture is in the wood becomes ice crystals which, as I understand the physics of it, want the wood to cleave apart along the grain. The more the mercury drops, the more fervently they desire this end.

When the wedge tip is just buried upright in the ground at the very center of the split, then you hit that sumbitch perfectly.

I got the entire trunk of the ash split and stacked in a spot where we can easily load it into the tractor's cart later. The smaller rounds from the top of the tree are in a pile nearby, to be split in-place or loaded whole.

Sorry, ash. You'll never be a Louisville Slugger.

I asked Charlie to skid the tools back up the hill for me, her first time in-harness. She was dubious at first, but willing to put her back into it. I think she'll be a handy little draft doggy in time. The two wedges and single sledgehammer felt surprisingly heavy on the sled.

Mom needs to get them oxen she keeps talking about.

As we came up the hill, we could feel shit starting to get real, weather-wise.

Also, my iPhone became a whiny little bitch and started crashing within five seconds of coming out of its inside pocket. So no more photos.

It took two hours to get all the animals battened down for the Yukon weather incursion.

Hot water for everyone. Extra grain and hay for everyone. As I carried a half-bale of alfalfa to the hoofstock, wind blasts stopped me dead and tried to rip the fodder from my arms.

Stranger, the rooster who bunks with the sheep & goats in the pole barn, had been abandoned for the warm coop by his ladies and the guineas who normally roost with him, and was huddled under a milking stand. He felt really light when I picked him up. He's locked in a stall in the barn now, with hot water and grain and sunflower seeds, and he's staying there until he's fat again. I am fond of Stranger and his feral, gentlemanly ways; a rooster can only be so tough, and he's overreached himself.

Lebowski was in the upper barn -- which the wind has shot through with snow all the way to the east wall -- and had much to say, but refused to go out into the wind. I had to grab him, stuff him in my coat, and drag his kitteh butt back to the house. (Gollum had already come in the dog door.)

Still running through my mind -- did I get everyone? Did everyone get extra food and fresh hot water? Is every last critter accounted for and out of the wind?

Instead of hibernating, a farmer gets driven out into the arctic blast many times a day. Water and fuel, fuel and water for the critters.

This is why I don't lamb or kid in mid-winter.

Wind chill is now -11, and it's going to stay that way until Monday.

The woodstove is cranking; if anything should go wrong with the furnace tonight, I want that sucker already hot.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Pozzie Sally Hemings Problem

Video from Marineland Mallorca. Play it a couple times, we'll wait ...

Here we see trainers at a corporate captivity-for-entertainment facility in Spain yelling at, kicking, and striking their captives.

The trainer's actions don't look like corrections to me. They look and sound like the angry, impatient, ineffective outbursts of men who are frustrated because they lack the skill to accomplish their goals within the constraints that have been placed on them. The trainers, grainy though they are, look like guys who are losing their shit.

The pozzie mouthpieces, including Ms. 50 Shades of Self-Promotion, who have been holding up dolphin Stockholm syndrome as the gold standard of "humane" and (shit you not, irony is dead) "minimally-invasive" training protocols -- who have convinced thousands of clicking simpletons that a wild cetacean imprisoned in a bathtub is the perfect model for living with a pet dog -- are attempting a classic distraction technique by screaming See! It's terrible if you do it to a dog, too! This is how all those cruel balanced trainers treat dogs. Where's the outrage when someone puts a collar on a dog?

Wait, I thought that it was impossible to train a dolphin with force and coercion?

What's that, you say?

I'm sorry, I didn't hear that?

Wait, were you wanting to say that Marineland Mallorca is an outlier? I bet their dolphins aren't even trained, and they are a pariah in the industry, right? No legitimate kind and gentle dolphin-bathtub facility would have anything to do with such a person. And he couldn't possibly come in under the radar, because the total lack of results would mean that he had no resume as a successful porpoise-manipulator.

That must be it.

Oh bother.

ATLANTA -The Georgia Aquarium stands by the man they hired to become Vice President of Dolphin Training, despite allegations that surfaced on YouTube that he abused animals.
"We think he deserves, after 37 years in a career and no indication in our vetting that this had happened, that we should stand by him until we can prove that this kind of behavior would take place," said aquarium CEO Mike Leven.

Now, without being able to determine what it was that the men in wetsuits wanted from the dolphins they were yelling at, kicking, and striking -- I cannot make out verbal commands, and there's not enough context to guess at the point of each exercise -- I have to speculate on very little evidence.

It looks as if at least some of the "positive punishment" directed at the captives has to do with the animal horning in on other animals' sessions, and some might (again, I am reaching on thin evidence here) be elicited by the animal getting so pushy that the trainers are seeing it as a threat, or as behavior that will later become threatening.

Let's be clear here. Dolphins are powerful and potentially dangerous wild predators. They can ram, they can hold a person down underwater, they can and do bite and hold on, and they are rapists. Captive dolphins should be assumed to have neuroses and stresses that create novel pathological behavior over and above the perfectly normal aggression of their wild families.

I keep a mixed herd of medium-sized herbivores. None of my goats and sheep outweigh me, though the largest ones are close to my size. They nibble, but do not bite. They are not predators, they are both domesticated and tame, they are living a species-appropriate lifestyle in a stable social group, and so should be assumed to be sane examples of their respective kinds.

And you know what? I don't go in to the pasture with a bucket of grain without bringing a dog with me.

They really like grain, and they are perfectly happy to run me down and trample me to get it. They don't mean to flatten a person, they mean to get more grain than the next goat. Facing off against some credibly pinchy toothipegs reminds them of their manners.

A farmer who is without a useful dog will use a stock whip or an electric prod in the same circumstances. To maintain distance and respect.

I think it's possible that the kicking, yelling, hitting Marineland employees were getting a little fearful of the dolphins' pushiness and "testing" and were trying to instill respect and establish distance.

It did not appear to be working, for all that.

Now, it's very common in multiple-dog situations for one dog to try to horn in on another dog's interactions with the human -- whether those are just household interactions, affection and proximity, play, or training and work.

Most dog trainers solve this in the same way that the dolphin trainers ought to -- we train another exercise that prevents the undesired conduct. Normally, that means that one dog holds a stay, or goes to a designated place and holds a stay, while the other dog works, plays, trains or cuddles.

The stay and/or place command is taught first, then trained with consequences, proofed in the presence of high distraction, and then used at need. Animals who have not been proofed to a particular level are not expected to perform at that level during actual work.  In other words, just because my puppy can "stay" in the living room doesn't mean that I would expect her to do it 50' away while I play fetch with a different dog.

No drama, no anger, no fear, no yelling, hitting, kicking. Corrections, absolutely, fair and effective ones, for disobeying a command that the dog has demonstrated that he understands robustly.

"Withholding positive reinforcement" is not effective in circumstances when the conduct is fun in itself or the expression of a primary instinctive need. The dolphin who is horning in on two other dolphin's training session (if that is what I am seeing, and I do not know that it is) is having a good time being a pill. Or he's feeling left-out and anxious. He may well know that he will never get chummed for interrupting, but he's still going to do it. He may well know that he'll get yelled at, kicked, and hit -- but why the hell would he care, it doesn't hurt much, and he's not a fucking domesticated animal who has been genetically programmed to give a rat's ass about what a human thinks.

It's possible that if the trainers -- performers who are themselves often rather poorly-trained, are rather, conditioned by rote to follow the handbook -- had been given a wider toolbox for interacting with their prisoners, they may have had the cognitive and emotional resources to not lose their shit at animals who hadn't read that handbook.

In other words, if the official liturgy of dolphin-bothering didn't insist that the state religion of Operant Conditioning is the only lens through which the animals' actions will be "understood," and that only one corner of the Holy Quadrity shall be employed, the trainers' frustration might not have broken through in this ugly, nasty, visible way.

But to me, the kerfuffle is more than a bit like someone expressing outrage that the lonely widower Thomas Jefferson fucked one of his slaves and made babies.

Really? That's the outrageous thing?

Not that the philosopher of freedom, equality and virtue owned human beings, bought and sold them, and helped create a nation that simultaneously proclaimed liberty throughout the land and trafficked in human chattel? You don't think that is a wee tetch more troublesome? What kind of treatment would make slavery okay, then? Kind masters who never whip, but only dole out cornmeal and pig's feet to the good, hardworking servants? Soft padding on the leg irons?

It's okay, the sling is ergonomic

If you are outraged that a dolphin trainer kicked a captive, but okay with a corporation kidnapping them from their families, locking them in sensory deprivation tanks their entire lives, and throwing them frozen chum when they do tricks for the entertainment of the paying masses, then you have a Sally Hemings problem in your brain.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Drunken Pigs

The pigs went on their first and last trailer ride yesterday.

Loading pigs into a trailer is a famously difficult, dangerous, shit-spattered, squealing ball of stress. Accomplishing this when the pigs roam a half-acre of lightly-fenced pasture generally involves three or more people with sorting boards and electric prods and one or more dogs with teeth. And lots of time. And, apparently traditionally, yelling. Also, it seems to be a prime opportunity for equipment suppliers to sell lots of special fencing and gates and chutes for many thousands of dollars.

Why would an animal walk peacefully into an obvious trap? Especially when being screamed at?

The butcher's schedule this time of year is non-negotiable, and meant that I would be loading the pigs by myself in mid-afternoon.

Our "stock trailer" is just our flatbed utility trailer topped by a repurposed city bicycle locker I bought at Construction Junction and mounted on wooden skids. Two hogs just fit in there. This is good for the actual transport -- they are safer and calmer if they can't thrash around -- but makes it trickier to get them in there.

I took advice from three sources and made it happen.

At the 2013 Mother Earth News Fair, Perfesser Chaos and I sat in on a short class on pasturing pigs, and took away several priceless nuggets of advice from the experienced farmers who taught it.

One tip was to feed the pigs on the stock trailer.

Just roll it into the pasture a few weeks before butcher date, and start feeding them in there.

The instructors also started their little piglets on pasture by first housing them in the same trailer for a couple weeks. That wasn't an option for us, but I was pretty sure we could cut that corner.

We trialled this concept with the meat chickens. Rather than waiting for full dark to round up 50 or 100 birds that would have to be stuffed squawking into the trailer, I now feed them on the trailer for their last week or so.  The evening before butcher day, 85%-90% of the birds load themselves; I close the gate when more are exiting than entering, and we wait until dark to scoop up the stragglers. The stragglers are typically the smallest, fastest, canniest chickens (in a flock of meat chickens, these are not very small, very fast, or very canny at all), but with only 5-10 birds to catch in their sleep, there is minimal work and no drama.

With two pigs, we need to be sure of 100% self-loading, and it needs to work the first time. Screw it up and make them scared, and we're back to a rodeo.

Our friend Janeen had told me about her friends getting pigs drunk on vodka so that they were in a stupor when the on-farm slaughter truck arrived.

We don't have any on-farm slaughter services here, and I didn't have any of the vodka in the plastic bottle that I'd be willing to donate to porcine self-anesthesia.

But I did have about eight cans of cheap undrinkable beer that had been sitting in the basement for several years, against the day I'd need to trap slugs.

I emptied the skunky cans into the bucket about 30' from the pigs' pasture; by the time I opened the third can, they had gotten wind of the treat and were screaming for it. I poured the beer into their trough, and by the time I'd set the bucket down and grabbed my phone for a photo, there was only froth left, and they were fighting over that.

I had to spend a few minutes futzing around securing the bike locker to the trailer (I didn't strap it down earlier because the pigs will chew the straps); by the time I was finished, they were enjoying a mutual stupor in the sunshine.  I had to wake them up with a hard nudge to the butt for phase three.

Kristin Kimball, who handles a much larger herd of free-ranging pigs, including huge sows and a breeding boar, told me "I wish I loved anything as much as pigs love mooshy apples."

So I saved some of the bruised and past-it apples from Cider House Farm Market special for this day.

Showed the drunken pigs the bucket of apples.

Tossed the apples into the trailer.

Waited while the hogs stumbled up the ramp.

Closed and secured the door.


When I got to the butchers after a 40-minute drive, they were snoozing quietly. A couple more mooshy apples and they contentedly stumbled off the trailer into the holding pen.

I don't have a special pig-loading white dress like the one sported by Caroline Owens, and I didn't have anyone to document the non-ordeal with video (Cole was my standby dog for both loading and unloading, but he has trouble holding the iPhone) but I did grab one of PC's retired white dress shirts, which I wore all day, and get the butcher to take a snap when all the loading was done.

 No yelling. No boards. No electric prods. One little dog and one pointy stick on standby, not employed. No squealing, balking, biting or fear.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

That Rug Really Does Not Tie the Room Together

We can haz traction?
There are three days left to help Lebowski out of his close second-place position in the quest to replace the abused floors in the Brandywine farmhouse.

Vote here for Lebowski!

The Dude got off to a commanding start in the voting, but late last week was passed by the sullen Australian shepherd who is pictured on a shiny new-looking floor.


Perhaps it's just that the circles I run in are more, you know, dog people?

Lebowski would like to point out that he is an apprentice dog, and as such, deserves the votes of dog people.

Floors so awful we have to stack the animals

Not just an apprentice dog, but an apprentice English shepherd. One of the more difficult sorts of dogs for a Dude born a cat to pull off. He's been working on the Family Yoga Pose.

Don't judge.

At the emergency vet on Thursday I saw a poodle/Yorkie cross that I actually thought was a cat at first. She was a very nice little dog, of mature years, and not feeling too well. She sat so quietly in the chair next to her owner's chair, and had such dignity, that I mistook her for one of the clinic cats. Easy for her. Lebowski has a more challenging task before him.

Wait, what?

The emergency vet?

What has Sophia done this time?

Nope, not Sophie. Not this time. Though it's a very Sophie sort of thing to happen.

You shoulda seen the other guy.
Rosie was helping me to teach young Charlie to swim. Mission accomplished with the help of a retriever bumper and some social modeling/competitive spirit. But Rosie knows that she can get a head start on both Charlie and Cole by launching herself with great force from a dock, while the others prefer the less flamboyant shore entry.

The other guy. Seemingly unaffected.

I'm mindful of the danger to toes and toenails posed by the gaps in the decking on docks.

Never occurred to me that an agile little dog could slip just as she launched and get a hock entrapped under the  rope cleat. And then hang there. Screaming.

I was certain her hock was broken. Things moved that are not supposed to move. I didn't diddle around after discovering that. Three wet dogs into the car and off to the emergency vet, as it was approximately four minutes after my real vet closed for the day. Since the emergency vet was Doogie Howser's prom date*, since the advice that seemed so counterintuitive when she gave it was also very wrong according to Doctor Google, since Rosie was completely tripoding and clearly in terror that something would touch her foot, and since (we later discovered) the radiograph I paid for did not cover the entire relevant section of dog, we followed up with a visit to our real vet, who corrected these deficiencies and fashioned a wondrous splint that appears to include in its engineered innards both a yogurt cup and a system of flying buttresses.

The good news is that it isn't fractured. The bad news is that it isn't fractured. Hock sprains with this kind of dramatic mechanism of injury can be a nasty business. Lots of complicated ligaments down there. Putting them right can get ugly as well as uncertain.

We will see whether conservative treatment -- rest and splinting -- gets Rosie back into fighting form. Meanwhile, we are bereft of our best and most versatile SAR dog, and hoping for no hairy deployments.

Oh, and the vet bills so far have et up what I'd scraped aside to replace the worst floor, the stinking old carpet in my office, with the cheapest vinyl planking I could get. A visitation of The Budget Gremlin.

So now we really, really need Lebowski to win us some damn floor. I'm more determined than before to get rid of the slippery laminate in the living room, too. I feel it lurking there, ready to throw a search dog into a skid and wreck a knee or ten.

And I need all who wish well to Lebowski and his adopted transpecial pack to vote for him, tell your friends to vote for him, bribe your co-workers to vote for him, harangue your Twitter followers and Facebook friends and blog readers and Yahoo groups and whatever happens on Instagram and Pinterest and MySpace and LiveJournal.

Apparently the mechanism for voting limits you to one vote per device (phone or computer or tablet). Which has been a bummer for the families we know who all use one computer.

The link:

Maybe you'll win floors yourself. Someone will. Two thousand dollars can get you some pretty nice hardwood.

Lumber Liquidators Cutest Pet, Ugliest Floor Contest. Lebowski. Certainly cuter than the sullen Aussie. The floors on which he romps certainly uglier than the shiny new one on which the Aussie is being sullen.**

The Dude will thank you.

Voting ends Thursday, July 31. Not much time left.

I shouldna have started measuring it before the contest was over. That jinxed it


*Yay! Baby-talk for both animal and owner! We love that shit. Especially from someone who is younger than some of the stuff in the back of my fridge.

** I freely admit that Lucy the puppy with the dork ears is hella-cute, and the floor on which she is lying is heinous. But Lucy is out of the running. She's the Ralph Nader of cute pets on ugly floors. Do not be distracted by the puppy with the dork ears. Lebowski is your candidate!

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Pigs are new to the farm this year.

I was warned that I would find them very charming and clever and would get attached and cry into my bacon.

So far, notsomuch, which is fine by me.

They like to eat -- like to be fed -- and are prepping to be dangerous assholes about food. So I take at least one, and usually two, dogs in with me when I'm messing with their food trough. When they try to slip by a dog while my back is to them, they always get bit. And they always try to do it, and they always scream when it works out exactly the same way it did that morning, and the night before, and yesterday morning.

Their mastery of the electric fence is similar.

Not even a turkey tests electronet a second time after the first jolt.

But these two porceinsteins had to check it each for himself with a wet, snotty nose, about every three feet along its length, and scream in indignation every time it did exactly what it had done five seconds earlier.

I'm trying to learn about pig behavior generally, and finding it a bit of a conundrum.

I totally get predators. A dog's mind makes intuitive sense to me. I grok why the kitten stalks moths and plays games in which he puffs up into a GIANT MONSTER GONNA GETCHA.

And I've learned a lot about what makes the hoofstock tick, how they see the world and how to manipulate them into cooperating with my plans.

The hogs are neither fish nor fowl. It makes total sense to me that swine aren't kosher. They are in a really confusing space that isn't really even "in-between" the carnivore mind and the grazer's quiet consciousness. They are their own thing, and that thing is kind of weird.

Ken Ham, the smaller pig, will lose his opportunity to eat in order to stick his head right next to the larger Francis Bacon's at the trough, or when they were smaller, into FB's bowl while his own bowl sat untouched.

Then FB will just beat the shit out of KH between bites, finish what he has, and take KH's portion too. KH is not going to catch up with FB on growth by following this brilliant diet plan. The bigger the difference in their sizes, the more he's going to get beat up.

But if one were to separate them for feeding, neither would eat.

They were cohabiting with Buck Rodgers, the goat herdsire, and his companion wether for a couple weeks.

At first the two species seemed to ignore one another while sharing a pasture and shed, and that seemed fine.

Then I noticed that the damn pigs -- commercial crossbreeds, definitely not the droids I was looking for  -- were following the goats around the pasture and apparently learning to forage from them. That was better than fine.

Then I saw Rodgers bite Francis Bacon's ear and realized he'd learned this uncaprine martial art from the pigs -- not so fine.

The next day I observed Rodgers, coming into the rut rather early, teaching an uncooperative Ken Ham to squeal like a pig.

No, it was not a dominance thing. I moved the goats to new pasture the next morning. I accept that barnyard animals will comport themselves like barnyard animals, but there is a limit.

Tuesday, when it was hot, I dumped out a couple of extra water troughs behind their shed, creating a glorious mud mire for their entertainment. This seemed to get them excited in a way I'd never seen before.

Francis Bacon was biting off (inedible, or in any event, never-eaten) weed stalks and shaking them in as doglike a way as a pig might do, even carrying them around.

And Ken Ham was nuzzling Francis Bacon and then performing a ritualized jaw gape.

I seriously have no idea.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Banish the Ghosts of (Other People's) Pets Past

Meet Lebowski.

He's the new assistant "barn cat," by which we mean, cat whose food bowl is on top of the fridge in the barn well out of scamming dog range and who has whatever house privileges he chooses to avail himself of.

As he's currently snack-sized and naive, he lives in protective custody in the house, mostly occupying whatever keyboard I'm trying to use, until he has enough mass to start apprenticing with Gollum.

But we've already put him to work. He wants to live in the farmhouse, by gum he needs to contribute.

Currently his only talent is absurd cuteness. As it happens, there was an opening for someone with his exact qualifications.

And The Dude has qualified as a finalist!

Voting runs from today to July 31.

One random voter will also win $2K worth of flooring*

The ugly floor in the photo?

Not the farmhouse's worst floor. Not even third-worst. I'm currently de-booking my office so that I can remove the carpet that resurrects the spirit of some previous house owners' incontinent pets whenever the ambient humidity goes over the stank threshold. I'd assumed that there was an old pine floor under it, but have found only a particleboard subfloor. So this is not going to be addressed with a rented sander and a can of floor paint.

Then there's the hallway, and the aged bordello-red carpet in the bedroom. And the cheap-azz slippery laminate in the living room that I worry will cause a dog to skid out and blow a knee one day.

Every time I start fixin to do something about these floors, the Budget Gremlin knocks a hole in something that is supposed to be waterproof, or in the bottom of the well, or in a Subaru transmission, and No floor for you!

If you feel moved to allow Momma to floor her office in something other than the cheapest vinyl planks that fall off the back of a truck and end up at Ollie's, you can do so at the link:

Do it for the search dogs' kneecaps. Do it to cleanse the lingering spirits of someone else's pets. Do it to erase the interior design crimes perpetrated against this 116-year-old house's dignity in the past 30 years. Do it for the chance to win your own new floors.

Do it for The Dude.

* But Houlie, sez you, I dunna haz a house! Or I haz a house, but it is outfitted with floors already!

Dude, donate that shit to Habitat for Humanity. Or your local equivalent. 2K Karma points.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Field Guide to Ethical Breeders

First published in the August 2013 Whole Dog Journal.

Why, you ask, are all the subheads huge and a weird color, and also there are some errors in line spacing?

Because Blogger says so, and swears that there is no extra strange code in there to make it like that. And I'm sick of messing with it.

Why no cute puppy pictures in a post about puppies?

Because Blogger is also being a douche about pictures.

You are a conscientious and skeptical consumer. Whenever you have a choice, you buy quality products that are made to last by manufacturers who take good care of their workers and the environment, who are mindful of safety, who stand behind their products, and generally follow best practices to produce them sustainably and ethically. Since you invest more in each purchase, you also invest more in caring for that purchase, whether it is maintaining a pricey hand-crafted tool or carefully cooking that expensive local grass-fed steak. You know that by taking extra care, you not only meet high ethical standards, you get a better product for you. Who wants a bunch of shiny junk that will break and end up in a landfill, with the seller gone as soon as your payment clears? Not you.

You also know that there are costs to being conscientious. You will pay more up-front, sometimes a lot more. You have to put in a lot more effort to get the product; it isn’t waiting for you on the shelf at Walmart 24 hours a day. You have to research and weigh values against one another. You may have to wait a long time to get just the product you want. And you must hone your radar for advertising claims that mean nothing (cholesterol-free apples?) and scrutinize various allegedly independent seals of approval that serve as marketing smokescreens for sellers who want to exploit your conscientiousness.

Here’s a challenge, though: Can you apply that smart, honed, skeptical consumer consciousness to the next dog or puppy that you buy or adopt? Can you resist the first adorable puppy that is plopped into your arms, or the desperate sad story on a Petfinder entry?

 Not only can it be done, it must be done, if you are deeply involved with your own dogs and care a great deal about the welfare and future of dogs in general. This is the acquisition that most demands a restrained, educated, skeptical approach that serves your own self-interest as well as supporting practices that are good for dogs. For no other purchase does intelligent self-interest mesh so closely with good social ethics, whether you are buying a purpose-bred puppy or selecting the best-for-you “used” dog from a shelter or rescue.

Here’s how to identify an ethical breeder – one whose concern for the welfare of her dogs and devotion to the future of her breed extends to the well-being of those dogs’ owners. In a followup post, I’ll describe how to identify legitimate, top-quality rescues, and avoid those that apply more sentiment than expertise, as well as frank swindlers who prey on animals and kind-hearted people.

Finding Ethical Breeders

It can be difficult to give useful generic advice about many aspects of buying a purpose-bred puppy. The husbandry practices, selection criteria, and to some extent the attitudes that make a great Bichon breeder would be anathema to someone breeding Belgian Malinois. Different breeds have different cultures. I can’t tell you the fair price for a puppy – what is highway robbery and what is alarmingly cheap. I don’t know what health conditions beset the breed of your choice. I don’t know whether the breed club offers transparent guidance or is purely a marketing smokescreen. (I can tell you with reasonable certainty that the search terms “ puppies for sale” or “ puppies ” will bring you almost exclusively the new marketing-savvy Internet-based puppymillers, who now know how to work search engine optimization.) I don’t know which Yahoo list or Facebook group offers the best discussion and the most honest direction. You are going to have to find out the specifics for the kind of dog you seek; I recommend that you find guides and mentors who know the breed well and have nothing to sell you. 

That said, some field marks of the ethical breeder are general in nature. Her opposite number is the puppymilling profiteer. Both self-interest and social responsibility depend on you avoiding that puppymiller. Here are some feathers and crests to look for as you winnow through the information overload:


I mean, other than make puppies with them. She’s part of a community of dog-lovers, hobbyists, and professionals who compete or perform service with their own dogs. Their dogs are seen and assessed by other experts, and there are thresholds – a working title or certificate, a conformation championship, breed-survey rating, temperament tests, qualifying in a trial – that dogs achieve before being bred.

Veteran French Bulldog breeder and rescuer Carol Gravestock and I come from radically different tribes of the dog nation (that’s why I asked her for input). For the two working breeds that I own, a conformation (show ring) championship is a clear signal to avoid the dog’s progeny and the breeder, because of health, temperament, and breed conservation considerations. In Carol’s world, with a breed designed from the outset purely as house pets, “You have to show. It’s how you earn the right to breed a litter.”

As you scrutinize the performance claims about the breeder’s sires and dams, though, beware of “champion lines.” How many of those champions – or obedience-titled dogs, police canines, hunt-tested retrievers, etc. – are or were owned by the seller? Do the pup’s parents number among them? Alas, it is not difficult to buy the grandson of champions to spruce up the ol’ pedigree charts on the website. Your questions about a pup’s ancestry should be guided by the principle, “What have you done for me lately?”


She’s nosy. All up in your underwear drawer. Seems judgmental. Probably has an application that you must fill out, sometimes before she will talk to you or correspond at any length. You feel a bit violated. Like you have to prove to her that you are worthy of one of her pups. Because you do. (Please refrain from snorting, “This is worse than adopting a child!”
 People who have adopted a human child, or who have tried to adopt and been unable to do so, don’t find it a bit funny.)

In contrast, says Gravestock, “With puppymills, the dogs are their job, and they work that job. That means answering the phone and returning emails in 30 seconds flat, and being charming. They have a product to sell; their product is a puppy, and they are salesmen. 

“Ethical breeders work to support their dogs; their dogs do not support them,” says Gravestock. They may not get back to you the day you call, and they will not be charming and aggressive in their eagerness to sell you a puppy, because that breeder’s number one goal is to ensure that every puppy goes to a lifetime excellent home, not getting every puppy paid for and out the door the moment he is weaned.

“Good breeders are paranoid – we are downright afraid of you, puppy buyers of the universe! Those of us who do rescue have seen the worst-case scenarios.”

The benefit to you of cultivating a relationship with someone this cautious? A breeder who is very careful about where her puppies go is the same breeder who is there for the life of the dog, to answer your questions, help you with any problems, cheer you on in your endeavors, and take away the worry of what would happen if you could no longer keep your dog. Every one of her puppy-buyers is a dog-in-law.

 What to Look For 


You provide personal and veterinary references, and she calls those people and grills them about you, your character, your experience as an animal owner, and even your personality. She may also insist on visiting your home, or sending someone she designates who is near you. Note that puppymills are increasingly sophisticated about aping the surface plumage of good breeders. Many now have applications on their “click & buy” websites, and some of those applications ask for references. But they will not actually call the references you provide. When you provide references to a breeder, let those people know you have done so (that’s just polite), and ask them to call you after they speak to the breeder so you can find out what the conversation was about. I’ve found conversations with personal references to be extremely valuable in matching pups to new families.


Call and question the breeder’s references! For example: “Would you buy another puppy from this breeder? Why?” I always advise puppy-buyers, and dog owners looking for a trainer, to ask for references. In 20 years of professional training and nine years of breeding, I have never had anyone ask me for a reference.

Not one person.


Review the contract. What does the “health guarantee” cover? Puppymillers have discovered that written contracts not only make them look legit, they can be used to weasel out of obligations that would otherwise be presumptive under law.

Carol Gravestock cautions buyers to look for the “dead dog clause” in any health guarantee. If the breeder requires you to return the puppy to her in order to receive anything back, she is using the “health guarantee” to guarantee that you will not invoke the contract and she can keep your money. Who would send back his beloved ill pet to a breeder who will have the dog put down, and then accept another puppy from the same person as “replacement?” Not you, right? The profiteering puppymiller is counting on that.

Also, if you live in Florida and have the pup shipped from Missouri, you won’t be able to return the pup with parvo to the seller because no vet will sign a travel health certificate for him. Catch-22.

Good breeders' contracts are well-meaning, if not always well-written. (If you are a lawyer, paralegal, or just good with contracts, do your new dog-in-law a kindness and offer to help her with her puppy contract. There is a 98% probability that hers is vague, unenforceable, and generally terrible, concealing rather than advancing her best intentions. In contract law, the thought does not count.)

Talk with the breeder about the terms of the contract, and what is guaranteed by the breeder, as well as the obligations you take on. The best breeders will want you to agree to provide good husbandry to the pup, to accept limits on the circumstances under which the pup might be bred, to perform specific health tests, and share the health test results when the pup is of the appropriate age. And every ethical breeder obliges herself to take back your puppy if you ever cannot keep him, often requiring that you give her the right of first refusal before the dog ever changes hands. If the contract does not include an RTB – a “return to breeder” clause – walk away. It is your dog’s ultimate safety net, and the surest field mark of a breeder who puts dogs before her own profit and convenience. 

If every dog breeder enforced an RTB, there would be no followup post on ethical rescue groups and shelters.


Your poor brain will throb as the breeder spins out a story of ancestors and relatives in a pedigree that you cannot hope to parse; this is a sign that the breeder is more concerned with the character of her dogs than with the perishable marketability of a puppy. In contrast, a puppymill’s website will almost invariably consist of pages of individual mugshot photos of each freshly bathed, shell-shocked pup, showing color and markings, with a draped background or sofa cushions, and often with adorable props. There may be a payment button next to each photo. Adult dogs, if present at all, are relegated to the background of the marketing efforts. (Betsy and Ranger had eight darling puppies, ready for adoption just in time for Christmas!) When you speak to this breeder, she will have a lot to say about the pups that she currently has for sale, but little that is insightful about their parents, older siblings, ancestors, uncles, and aunts.


Don’t fall for claims that the pups are “health tested” and “DNA verified.” So? What health tests? Some puppymillers market pups as “health tested” because they have the federally required health certificate for shipping before they board the airplane! (We have now entered the realm of certified low-sodium broccoli.) And yes, all animals have DNA; I can verify that for you right now. And what of the results? A breeder who has her dogs’ hips radiographed and rated by OFA or PennHIP, and then breeds each dog regardless of the results of the test, is not performing due diligence. (The good hip scores become marketing fodder, while the bad ones are buried in silence and denial.)

 The appropriate health tests vary widely by breed; this is why you must research the breed or type of dog thoroughly before contacting breeders. A Saluki breeder who doesn’t check hips is normal, because Salukis do not have an issue with poor hips in their gene pool; it would be an expensive diagnostic test performed for no purpose. But a Labrador breeder who skips this test “because my dogs have never had a problem,” or who spins a tale about how it’s all feeding them right and keeping them off slippery floors, is selling snake oil.

If a breeder doesn’t health test, doesn’t share the results, won’t give you documentation unless you buy a puppy or put down a deposit, or is any way cagey, walk away. Most health tests do not guarantee that your pup will be unaffected by the problem that the test evaluates. Only a few tests for simple genetic mutations can determine that. However, good test results increase your odds of getting a pup who is free of that issue – and you support someone who follows best practices. Once you have the results of the parents’ health data (and, ideally, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and any older siblings if applicable), you should ask someone who is an expert in the breed and has nothing to sell you to explain them, ideally without letting on who the dogs or breeder are. This is likely not your veterinarian – unless she owns that breed and has an interest in breeding and genetics. Another breeder, or a trainer, dog sports competitor, or other professional who has a lot of experience with the breed, is often your best source for disinterested information. And no matter how many Good Housekeeping Seals a pup’s parents can present, you still need to inquire pointedly about overall health in his family. Who cares if the parents have fantastic hips, eyes, elbows, knees, and cardiac function if all four grandparents died of cancer by age six, Dad has epilepsy, and Mom has a running bar tab at the vet?


It takes years to become an expert in just one breed of dog; a breeder may own one or two dogs of other breeds, but she’s a specialist in just one. Puppymillers know that buyers will encounter this advice, so they now separate the websites of their different breeds. Google is your friend; check phone numbers, business names, individual names, and any other keywords you can glean for signs that the breeder has multiple websites for different breeds of dog. Hiding these parallel websites is a sign that there is something to hide.


No puppies having puppies. That means, at minimum, that each dog is two years old before being bred. Older is better, especially in slow-maturing breeds. Males, in particular, may be quite mature before siring puppies. If your pup’s parents are mature, ask about their reproductive history. If Momma, or any other bitch the breeder owns, is on her fourth litter at age five, you have your answer. If the breeder is cagey about answering, walk away.


Puppies take a lot of care, and it’s not just constant feeding and cleaning. A good breeder spends hours every day observing and interacting with the pups to learn as much as possible about each one and to socialize them thoroughly. They have puppy socialization parties with friends, take the tykes on field trips, and lose countless hours to puppy reverie. Even a house full of highly disciplined home-schooled children can’t properly socialize, much less assess, 20 or 30 pups at a time. And there is no way that a breeder can effectively screen potential homes with diligence with so many pups at once. Ethical breeders all report being drained and exhausted after raising a litter, mostly due to the hours spent screening potential buyers and agonizing over puppy matches. Puppymillers like to produce in big batches for efficiency. Occasionally a breeder plans two litters in a year for compelling reasons, and her bitches synchronize so that the only way to manage it is to have them close together. But the breeder should present this as an exception without prompting. Most who try it once swear “never again” while lying in a dark room with a cold compress on their foreheads.


(This is always where the puppies and their mother live, by the way.)

Preferably, you visit before picking up the puppy – perhaps even before pups are born or conceived. This can vary depending on how common the breed is and how far you have to go, but you are always welcome to visit with polite notice at a mutually convenient time. If the breeder offers to meet you somewhere off-site “to save you driving time” or to deliver the puppy to you, proceed with great caution. Sometimes these offers are sincere; say, the breeder is traveling for a dog show to your area anyway. Tell her that you’d rather come to her and meet the pup’s mother and other relatives. If she is resistant, walk away. If you get as far as visiting the breeder’s home and the pups or adult dogs are dirty, crowded, stinky, isolated, caged, scary, fearful or in any way not what you would wish for every puppy, everywhere, walk away. If you can’t meet the adult dogs, walk away. If you would not wish to own the puppies’ dam, walk away


 Ethical breeders do not produce enough puppies to require this licensure.


You can be sure that the dogs’ dependent is making compromises about the dogs’ welfare: whether to breed that bitch who had a litter six months ago, what brand of dog food to buy, does this pup really need to see a vet? And if you find that you must return your puppy a year or 10 after bringing him home, you will also find that that charming aw shucks farm lady who just loved all her li’l puppies to death when they were ripe and shiny and for sale is not returning your calls; if you catch her, you can expect, at best, a referral to a breed rescue.

An ethical breeder, a great breeder, doesn’t just take her own puppies back at any age, for any reason, she supports breed rescue and other animal welfare causes. She may pull, evaluate, transport, and foster dogs that puppymillers forgot about the minute the check cleared. She might sit on the board, fundraise, or just cut a check at Christmas. She helps salvage the mess created by those “other” breeders.