The terms “ethical breeder” and “responsible breeder” are used a lot in the purebred dog world. But what exactly constitutes an ethical breeder of dogs? From what I have witnessed in my 27 years in the dogs, breeders who develop expertise in their breed, and who always take the high road in all of their dealings in dogs, rise to the top. Successful, ethical breeders are a credit to the sport of purebred dog exhibition.
Superb quality and ethics go hand-in-hand. To become a successful and truly professional breeder you must care about the welfare of each dog individually, and be meticulous about your dogs’ care and about the facilities where they are kept. You also must behave ethically with your purchasers and fellow breeders, as well as with your veterinarian and the public at large.
The first step in being ethical is being honest with yourself. Take a good, long, hard look at the dogs in your breeding program. This is the time to be critical and brutally honest. Each dog should be evaluated and a decision must be made as to the genetic contribution and quality of every individual dog in your program. The dogs themselves will be your ticket to success. Study the conformation, structure, movement, and type of each dog against the standard. Consult with others, if you need to, but the ultimate opinion and definition of your dogs should lie with you.
Friends will find it hard to criticize your dogs for fear of offending you. So, you need to study your line until you have the equivalency of a Ph.D regarding your kennel. You need to be able to look at your dogs with objectivity if you are to avoid kennel blindness—which is the enemy and has been the downfall of both ethics and breeders.
An ethical breeder’s number one goal should be to improve the breed. These kind of people breed for the love of the dogs because they want to see the breed flourish. That translates into only breeding those dogs that have traits of value to the breed and to never knowingly use dogs that will create undesirable traits in their progeny. In plain English, don’t breed dogs with genetic defects. The goal is for each successive generation is to be an improvement on the previous one.
So, what can we dog breeders do? How can we do what is ethical in terms of our breeding program? How can we agree on a common code of ethics when the rights and interests of the parties are so diverse and polarizing?
I don’t think that we can—unless we unite on one common principle, and that is to do what is right for the breed. From my perspective, a reputable breeder’s top priority is to make sure that their dogs and puppies are free of genetic diseases that are common and dangerous to that specific breed.
Think about it for a second. Let us all put the welfare of our individual breeds first and foremost. This does not mean doing what we want, and packaging it up to appear as if we are putting the welfare of the breed first. It actually means that we brainstorm together, as a group, decide what we, the stewards of each breed, should do on every serious issue that poses a threat to the health of the breed.
Breeders may not be able to agree on everything, but if people shelved their personal agendas, focused on the progress of their individual breed, allowed the majority to rule, there will be a solution that benefits the dogs.
Why don’t we do it? Because we are afraid of the struggle between what is right for the breed and individual rights. Rights are issues that divide people, as well as unite people. People are willing to fight for rights. Others are willing to die for rights. Rights are the well-established pillars of any democratic society. Yet, you cannot have a discussion of rights and ethics without acknowledging that between the opposing forces is struggle. Struggle, sadly, can sometimes even turn into a battle.
Yes, there will be a struggle, but encouraging people, particularly novices, to turn a blind eye, and sometimes even to lie, intimidating them into silence by use of threats, is not ethical. It is not ethical to attack and ridicule those who exhibit the moral courage to be open/public about hereditary disease.
Another huge stumbling block between some breeders, and ethical practices, has been money. When you sit down and think about who we dog breeders are as a group, you see that individually we run the gamut of A-Z. For many, dog breeding is a passion and a hobby. Some breeders have a litter once every few years. Others make their living from the sale of dogs and stud services. One cannot deny, of course, that there is also a business aspect to the sport. You cannot keep every puppy that you produce. What you do with the surplus puppies turns us all of us into business people—whether we like it or not.
I intend to deal with the Code of Ethics for breed clubs in a future column. What I will say now is that if breeders are compelled, via a Code of Ethics, or even via pressure from other breeders, to spay/neuter dogs affected by, and known producers of, serious genetic illnesses, it will hit them in the wallet. That may not scare the hobby breeder, but it can be very scary for the breeders who make their living off of their dogs.
Regardless, to be ethical, you must bravely face the challenges of mastering dog breeding without compromising your principles—while being steadfast stewards of the breed. Never forget that your reputation is priceless. Compromises in life are routine, but I don’t think that compromising your ethics is acting with integrity.
These are some things that I have learned about being an ethical breeder in my 27 years in dogs:
- Ethical breeders make the decisions about which bitch should be bred to which dog, and should have the intention of producing puppies that are better than the sire and dam. Dogs with hereditary diseases, regardless of type, structure, movement or intelligence, are not improvements.
- Ethical breeders understand that if it is unethical to breed them, it is unethical to sell them. They do not use foreign markets as a dumping ground for substandard dogs.
- Ethical breeders don’t sell dogs to newcomers, or novices, who don’t have the experience, or knowledge, to understand the complexity of the problems within the breed. They first educate novices to become ethical by leading by example. They don’t indoctrinate them in shoddy breeding practices so that they will have company in numbers.
- Ethical breeders not only don’t breed to a dog that they know has a serious disease/condition; they also understand that its parents, offspring, and other close relatives should be bred only with great caution—especially when specific carrier types cannot be identified.
- Ethical breeders treat others with respect and integrity.
- Ethical breeders live in reality. Just because there is no test for certain diseases, they don’t pretend that they don’t exist. If they see signs of a problem, they deal with it.
- Ethical breeders communicate openly. Failure to disclose hereditary conditions is just as unethical as lying.
- Ethical breeders care as much about the dogs after the check as been cashed as they do before the check is cashed.
- Ethical breeders make every effort to keep track of all puppies they produce, whether pet or show, to know how their breeding program is working.
- Ethical breeders have no tolerance for not only lies but also for omissions, cover-ups, and silence in the face of deception. They refuse to be complicit in subterfuge.
- Ethical breeders can walk away from unethical offers—regardless of the size of the check.
- Ethical breeders stand behind their dogs 100%.
- Ethical breeders have compassion and empathy for others.
- Ethical breeders understand that the lines between being honest and self-promotion can become blurred, if you are not always vigilant.
Ethics is not an easy subject to navigate. It can be divisive. Some people will get upset and others will be marginalized. Letting these issues sit and fester for years is not helping. It harms any breed. Things left to drift—drift downwards.
Nothing in life that is worthwhile is ever easy. Don’t allow yourself to sell yourself, your dogs, or your breed, short. Lay the correct foundation in terms of health, conformation, structure, and type. Then lead with your conscience; let ethics and integrity be your guide.
Nothing in life that is worthwhile is ever easy. Don’t allow yourself to sell yourself, your dogs, or your breed, short.
This way, you will not only be successful and respected by both peers and judges, but you will also sleep well at night—knowing that you acted with integrity in the wonderful sport of purebred dog exhibition.
Until next time…
(A version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of TNT.)
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