Sunday, November 23, 2008

At Least, Don't Buy This

Friday is Buy Nothing Day.

We will be, depending on weather, cutting firewood, sighting in rifles, walking the dogs. Probably restocking our SAR packs against the likely rifle-season lost hunter deployment(s). Certainly eating leftovers.

I'd intended to leave this topic until then, but oh the bitter irony if you all read it on Saturday, still hung-over from a frenzied mall binge that included the worst possible impulse purchase that does not leave you with a case of the clap. I was goaded to post earlier by this entry over at the Pet Connection. Bring it, Gina, bring it!

Please send to your most impetuous friends and family. You know which ones.

(Notice that, of the
2835 "needs" listed by this notorious puppymill retailer, all of them are material in nature and coincidentally available for purchase on their shelves at easily double the big-box or online price, right next to the live product in the deli case. Is there someone out there with a strong enough stomach to walk into the mall with a clipboard and tote up the damage?)

'Tis the season in which puppymills make their profits. What consumers do in the next month determines whether Amos and Ada fire up the puggle factory for spring production, or cut their losses and go back to making oak furniture and rhubarb preserves. You decide whether March sees the opening of a shiny new GNC in that mall slot, or another year of shivering Yorki-poos behind glass.

The retail puppymill industry depends on two rather different kinds of consumers to keep the misery factory's gears greased. Without both, it will not survive. Without understanding both, advocates for animals -- shelter and rescue workers, ethical breeders, trainers, vets, and other professionals -- can't combat the retail puppymill's marketing strategies.

The "traditional" puppymill retail customer is the see - want - buy consumer. There's a reason the stores put the doggie in the window, and keep the price tags on the QT. (Hint: If the shop-worn, gangly, potbellied puppy has a sign on the cage promising $200 OFF, you do not want to know "off what?")

In other words, the traditional puppymill customer is ignorant, and lacks impulse control.

Ignorant of what?

First, the customer is ignorant of what a puppy is worth -- not "worth" as in "He's my best friend and I wouldn't take any money in the world for him," but the market value of a comparable pup.

One can buy an indifferently-bred Labrador with no registration papers or worthless papermill papers for about a hundred bucks in this market. "AKC registered," about $250.

One current ad in the local paper offers microchipped, health-guaranteed Lab pups from OFA'd, CERF'd parents for $400.

The recently-opened Petland in Pittsburgh has a three-month-old yellow-colored male Labrador for sale right now: $899. I called. The clerk (she sounded super-kyoot) volunteered the color, but not the gender, of the pup. (As we all know, there are three distinct breeds involved here: the blacklab, the yellowlab, and the choklitlab.) I did not ask about OFA and CERF. I can't keep a poker-face that well, even over the phone.

900 bills is a fair price for the carefully-raised offspring of two health-tested Labs proven in field trials or hunt tests. Also about the going rate for puppies from two pageant champions. Wanna bet that's what they are selling?

So the puppy-in-the-window buyer is getting robbed on a pure commodity-value basis, and he's mostly ignorant about that.

He's also ignorant about dogs in general, and the social constructs surrounding them: What kind of paperwork means something, and what kind is just another unnecessary tree death. What is and is not a "pure" breed, and what that does and does not mean for the pup's value as a companion. What a healthy, thrifty, sound, mentally stable puppy looks and acts like. What constitutes a useful "guarantee" on a pup's health. The developmental needs of puppies, and how those are met. The importance of genetics -- best observed in the physical persons of the parents -- in determining a pup's potential to be a good pet. The importance of assessing and matching temperament to the family situation.

One wrinkle on this kind of buyer is the customer who has been conditioned by relentless consumptionist propaganda to equate breed with brand. After all -- if I buy a new Honda-brand model of automobile, it's going to be cosmetically and functionally identical to any other new Honda-brand same-model automobile. That label is predictive of certain things, and both my personal experience of the label and the Consumer Reports generalization are useful guides in whether to buy one or go with another brand.

This is not true of dogs. There is no German shepherd brand dog. There is no poodle brand dog. One cannot conclude that because the neighbor's dog Gretchen was so kewl and lived to be fifteen, that a "German shepherd" puppy from the pet store will perform similarly. And just because Pierre liked to bite fingers doesn't mean they all will. Neither does a seemingly safe generalization -- "golden retrievers make great family dogs" -- mean that any golden retriever from any source is going to be an acceptable, much less "great," family dog.

Cosmetically "identical" (to the unpracticed eye) does not equate to functional similarity. Black, tan, pointy ears does not make Strongheart.

This "branding" misconception is especially dominant with fad breeds and fad mongrels that are, or are marketed as, "rare," and can override any judgment someone might ordinarily have about the pricing or provenance. "I must have a purebred Shiba Inu, and this one in the pet store is the only one I can get right now. They'll take a credit card, I can pay the $3000 over the next year!" The overhyped breed or "designer dog" becomes a panic buy, on par with a new Wii, a living Cabbage Patch doll. (Remember the shar pei bubble of the 80's?)

Third, the traditional storefront impulse buyer is ignorant about the puppymill industry. He may have vaguely heard of such things and even remember them being associated with pet stores just like the one he's standing in now. But the sign says that the puppies come from "USDA-licensed breeders." That's good, right? This puppy has a government stamp of approval, like a steak. And Tammi and Cindee, the super-kyoot clerks, seem to just looove the puppies, and it's all clean glass and chrome, with this thing on the wall that squirts cinnamon scent into the air every two minutes.

What can I say? We can only repeat, over and over again: If it is for sale in a pet store, it came from a puppymill. If it came from a puppymill (and it did, it did -- do you get this? -- it did), its genetics are highly suspect, its early environment was impoverished, it has been stressed and exposed to communicable disease before its immune system developed, it is at ultra-high risk of becoming a dog with serious, unfixable health and behavior problems, and you will get no help or sympathy from the seller when it does. You are buying an expensive heartbreak for yourself and your family. Furthermore, you -- you personally -- are perpetuating animal cruelty that would make you puke if you saw it, heard it, smelled it. You and your Visa card have sentenced this puppy's mother, father, and their now-inevitable successors in the puppy production line to continued lives of unremitting misery.

Do not believe the lies of the super-kyoot clerk. This puppy did not come from a "reputable breeder." (Except in the sense that "reputation" used to carry when my mother was in high school.) No reputable, ethical, caring, competent, knowledgeable breeder ever sells a puppy through a pet store, broker, or any third party to persons unknown. Never. Never ever. The person or corporation who owns this puppy's unfortunate mother does not give a rat's ass about his mother, the puppy, or any part of you that is not backed by Citibank.

And a clean, sanitized, concrete-and-stainless, passed-USDA-inspection "commercial kennel" is still a puppymill. (If a breeding kennel is large enough to be USDA-licensed -- it is a puppymill.) Regular use of bleach is not indicative of love for, knowledge of, or commitment to, the
production unitsbreeding animals caged there, nor for their
productspuppies or the unseen

Okay, so we combat the traditional pet-shop purchaser's big mistake by filling the gaps in his knowledge, in the not-unreasonable hopes that it will lead to impulse control when he's confronted by the puppy in the window -- and possibly the wails of the children. I don't care whether he's moved by an appeal to his humanity, or because he takes umbrage at being robbed, or because he (rightly) fears that the shivering little pup in the back corner of the cage will become a Big Liability in terms of vet bills, a decade of carpet-cleaning, or emergency room visits for the kiddies. I just wanna keep the Mastercard under wraps and stop the production line back in Missouri (Iowa, Holmes County, Lancaster, basement in Brooklyn).

One would think that exposure to all this information, all these warnings, would be enough to stop any but the most willful and precipitous "consumer" of dog-as-product. After all, any self-interested person will want to avoid getting ripped off, and any compassionate person will want to avoid causing suffering. Right?

That's where the second class of puppymill customer comes in.

These people also suffer from a failure of impulse control. But their ill-advised purchases are paradoxically motivated by knowledge of the puppymill industry's cruelty. They are the self-proclaimed "rescuers" of the doggie in the window. If you ask them, it is "compassion" that motivates them, and "self-interest" is just dirty.

The more photos of mangy emaciated bitches standing in filth this nice lady* sees, the more she hears about miserable lives of the young pups who are the industry's products, the more overwrought she becomes about the cruelty, the more danger she is in.

Because she is going to walk into Petland ("Just to get goldfish food."), see the most miserable, wretched, defective little product in the deli case, and ask to hold her.

And then she's going to start the rationalization process that she will later present to her incensed husband, her eye-rolling vet, her disapproving sister, the trainer whose head is cracking repeatedly against the wall, the neighbor who volunteers fifteen hours a week at the shelter: "I had to save her from that place. I couldn't leave her there. We bonded instantly."

Indeed, in the past five years or so, this category of puppymill customer may have become the dominant one, and further, they have become perversely empowered; while previously a woman would answer my question about "Where did you get the puppy?" with a simpering "I know it was wrong, but ..." preface to the story about the impulse buy at the mall, now it is more and more common to get a self-congratulatory "We rescued her from Petland!"

The first time I heard this, I imagined that the young lady and her boyfriend had donned black turtlenecks and rappelled down an airshaft to snatch puppies in the dead of night. Alas, no. The "rescue" was accomplished with the aid of Mastercard, in a manner so much resembling a routine and profitable-to-the-store purchase that one might be forgiven for regarding it as such.

This pet store buyer does not respond to appeals to either emotion or reason. Self-interest does not serve, because the buyer is wrapped up in her imagined role as the dog's savior -- so the more messed-up the dog is, the higher the medical bills, the wackier and more destructive the behavior, the happier the "rescuer" is -- the more validated she is in her elevated status. And one of the more self-indulgent delusions of her manufactured reality is validated: "No one else would have given this puppy a good home. Everyone but me who walks into a pet store and buys a puppy is a bad, selfish person doing it for terrible reasons, and they would have all been mean to her."

This buyer also maintains a divided consciousness, or is cognitively unable to supersede a concrete experience (cute puppy in my arms) with an intangible reality (my actions perpetuate the systematic abuse of her mother, father, and their now-inevitable replacements on the production line, guarantee that her retail cage will be filled tomorrow by another victim, and reward their abusers handsomely). This puppy, right here, needs me to "rescue" her; those "other" dogs somewhere else are not real, they are just theoretical dogs that I can't touch and can't look at me to beg for help.

Of course, much of this is emotionally dishonest, guilty cover for an underlying see - want -buy impulse. Nobody walks into a puppy retailer honestly believing that she will not see any puppies; one can buy every kind of pet supply at non-puppy-selling outlets nowadays, and cheaper, too. And it's remarkable how often the puppy that she asks to hold just happens to be of a
brandbreed or designer mix she has been coveting, one perhaps not readily available in appealing eight-week-old form at the local shelter. What were the chances that they'd have a cavi-poo right there in the window?! Indeed.

It took me a while in my work as a dog trainer to realize that this second kind of puppymill buyer existed -- that those of us who know dogs and want the best for them and their humans are not combating simple ignorance or uncomplicated callousness. I've long encountered unproductive savior-complex emotions in the owners of dogs that came from pounds, shelters, or (real or imagined) bad previous owners; for the dogs' sakes, I try to wean these owners from dependence on a self-image as a selfless rescuer, and a version of the dog as a lifetime helpless victim. But it was a surprise to find these same destructive personal stories behind the failing relationships that started with a very expensive retail credit card transaction.

It took me quite a bit longer to realize that the puppymill industry is aware of these buyers, understands their emotional motivations, knows that it depends on them, and markets accordingly. Holy shit, Batman!

Well duh. All it takes is a savvy corporate marketing director to stand in a busy store for an hour in December and listen to the family conversations. Petland had this figured out years before Thicky O'Thickson the Dog Trainer grokked it. And it has as much to do with competing with their own suppliers' internet direct sales as it does with grabbing market share from both shelters and decent breeders.

Because the direct-sales from internet puppymills cannot benefit from the immediacy of a (perceived to be) suffering little pup. Internet puppymillers have to pretend to be ethical breeders (and some are getting pretty good at aping the forms) because nobody in Miami Paypals a grand for a NKC-registered Sheltie that is in a wire cage in Nebraska in order to "save her."

The Petland marketers know that they are walking a fairly thin line. They must be clean and pleasant enough that people will walk in. But clinical and "mean-looking" enough that the pups project pathos. The deli case hits that note perfectly. Cold glass, steel, aqua fiberglass -- and maybe one little colorful squeaky toy in there with the morkie pup, a sort of garnish on his desolation. Perfect.

Here's another thing the Petland marketers know about the "rescue" buyers: they are the ones who will buy the sick, overaged, shopworn pups that are "marked down" -- without the markdown being big enough to make the transaction unprofitable.

And the final thing that Petland marketers know about these Martyr Mommies: They are recidivist buyers. While an ignorant buyer will only return for a second pet-store puppy if he is extremely lucky (gets that really good 'un the first time -- and they do exist) and/or exceedingly dull, callous, and incurious (Paris Hilton, say), the buyer with the well-developed Savior Complex will do it again, no matter how much heartbreak she bought the first (second, third) time. It's not the dog she's buying -- it's her self-perception as a wonderful human who helps poor little animals (and just happens to help poor little animals that are currently trendy and exactly the color she likes best.)

How do those of us who care about animals, understand the systemic nature of their commercial abuse, and work with the owners of all kinds of dogs combat this powerful psychological drive to buy?

First, I try to wean owners from a dependence on "poor-baby" emotions directed towards their dogs, from whatever source. No matter how broken the beast, he's more mature, more capable, and possesses more potential for dignity than this owner wants to allow. I do this mostly by showing how well the dog learns and responds in the absence of coddling. I show them their dog's capacity for achievement.

I also lightly talk up, and heavily demonstrate, the pleasures of owning an animal that comes with no "issues," and the wonderful relationships one can develop with a thoughtful breeder who is there for the life of his or her dogs.

I always try to direct the impulse to "save" towards dogs in pounds, shelters, and rescues -- especially those that I know will screen appropriately and try to make a good match.

And finally, I cut them off.


It would be callous of me to deny education and behavioral help to a puppymill puppy and his overwhelmed owner. I absolutely do work with pet-shop products both privately and in group classes (after the pup is no longer at elevated risk of passing on puppymill diseases to the group).

I even have some special written material for clients that addresses the specific behavior issues that beset puppymill pups -- housetraining, socialization issues, genetic shyness, etc.

I do this once.

The training handout on Your Puppymill Puppy ends with this paragraph:
If, in the future, you choose to purchase another puppy from a pet store or puppymiller, First Friend will not provide private training or classes for you. We will not be associated with any financial support of this cruel and exploitive industry. When the time comes, we are happy to help you select another puppy or dog from a source that does not profit from misery, whether you choose to buy from an ethical breeder or adopt from a shelter or rescue.
I have had many clients consult me first for behavior issues presented by a puppymill puppy; years later, they are the most likely to call me for help selecting another dog, and I've had the pleasure of training many second or successor pups that came from shelters or ethical breeders.

I have no way of knowing how many puppymill pup owners became pet store recidivists and never called me up or tried to enroll in class because they remembered this warning. Not many, I think. At some level, I don't care. I am not their dog trainer.

Now, what if every trainer, every veterinarian, every groomer, every boarding kennel operator -- every professional who cleans up after the messes caused by Petland, Hunte, Lambriar and their suppliers -- did the same?

You get one free pass for ignorance. Now I have educated you. If you choose to ignore reality, or not to care about suffering you can't see, I choose not to help you.

What if there were no vets who would work for puppymill owners -- no health certificates for flying pups?

How long before the puppymills shut down then?

* I have no doubt that there are men who buy from pet stores with this exact motivation. I don't remember ever meeting one. It is primarily a chick thing.


  1. I'm not sure what it will take to make it common knowledge that pet store puppies come from puppy mills. Maybe if Oprah did a show every day on the subject. We seem to be losing the battle.

  2. Heather,
    May I have permission to post this in full on my blog at

    I'm overdue for an animal rescue/pet post and this is PERFECT, what with the holidays upon us.


  3. Yup --
    it's Munchausen's by Purchase.

  4. Any chance of getting a copy of that handout, or an outline of what it covers? I promise not to steal it, but I'd like to have a similar one and want to make sure I don't miss any major topics? (The main thing I can think of is the tendency towards crate soiling, but I KNOW there is more. Thankfully, I don't see TOO many pet store pups, but instead they've been replaed by the flea market puppies sold direct by the same puppy mills at Canton.)

  5. What an absolutely *fantastic* piece! It shows exactly why we must make it socially unacceptable to get your pet from a store.

    All the while we bite our tongues and allow friends and family the excuse of ignorance, or the cover of being 'too compassionate for their own good', puppies will continue to be churned through the system.

    As Gina at Pet Connection said;
    If you’re one of these buyers, shame on you.

  6. Another excellent post. May I link it on my website (I have warnings there about puppymill pups, but yours is much more persuasive), and Facebook page?

    Pooch Professor, Atlanta

  7. Great post, Heather. I'll be linking it later on today.

    Unfortunately, a lot of private rescue operations are also suffering from a martyr complex. You know them - the ones who only take dogs that are blind, deaf, suffering from cancer, have aggression issues, etc. Many also buy pups at USDA auctions and resell them (yes, it's a sale) to people who know about the pet shop/internet thing but have been told that rescues are all wonderful. Even some SPCAs are charging more for some dogs (mostly trendy little mutts) than others.

    I think there are several problems here, in addition to the ones you so beautifully explained.

    1. Dogs are much more popular overall than they used to be, so many naive people are getting them and getting the wrong kinds.

    2. Due to their naivete, they are sitting ducks for the marketeers you describe.

    3. A lot of people own dogs but many of them are not dog people. That's a huge difference. They aren't told how much it costs on average to maintain a dog even assuming they escape major health events. They don't understand that having a dog has to be very high on the commitment list - kind of like having a four-year-old who never gets any older. And so on.

    4. Thanks for the breed/brand comparison. It's so true because again, there's a complete lack of constructive material out there in media and other places where a passive audience could get the info they need. That's why even many people who own dogs believe that some breeds (or more correctly shapes) of dogs are dangerous, others are friendly, etc.

    The thing is, stores like Petland and their ilk are certainly not going to provide this information because if most of their customers (who are the bottom rung of dog owners in terms of info and experience) had the real story, sales would decrease.

  8. Great Post. I've linked in from my recent post on the same subject.



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