Selling Companion Animals: Other Corporate Opinions

As we all now know, Petland Canada is entirely opposed to my suggested ban on the sale of companion animals in Calgary pet stores.  Their objections are loud and clear.  However, they’re not the only retailers out there in the pet industry, so I thought I would peruse their competition and see what others think on the subject.  The following excepts are taken from the websites of other Calgary pet retailers.

Pet Planet

Pet Planet’s mission is to promote and aid in the proper integration of pets into their human world to reduce the number of pound surrenders due to temperament or health problems in the animals. If everyone could experience how emotionally satisfying it is to bring an animal into his family and have that animal become such an integral part of their lives, Pet Planet’s ultimate mission would be realized. The bond between a properly integrated animal and its family is a treasure.

Pet Planet advocates responsible pet acquisition and guardianship. It is important for families to research responsible breeders and their breeding practices, as well as research the adoption option when considering adding a pet to their clan. Pet Planet is also an advocate for adoption and supports many rescue foundations and societies in their efforts to foster and place unwanted animals. Pet Planet does not sell live animals in their stores and encourages the public to thoroughly research those animals sold via the retail channel.

Petcetera

The P.A.W.S (Petcetera Animal Welfare Society) Adoption Centres are dedicated to reducing animal euthanasia and promoting responsible pet ownership.

Petcetera is committed to helping reduce pet over population. That’s why none of the stores sell cats or dogs. Instead, through arrangements made with local animal shelters, Petcetera has set up a satellite cat and dog adoption centre in each store, with the proceeds of every adoption going to the local non-profit animal shelter.

As of October 2010 P.A.W.S. has successfully raised over $5,810,000.57 for the promotion of wellness and education and the adoption centres have successfully adopted out a total of over 55,187 dogs and cats

Tail Blazers (Copperfield location’s website)

We don’t support the sale of animals in stores.

Poooh Busters – Recommended Businesses

Tail Blazers is a store where pet guardians can find only wholesome food and treats, a wide variety of supplements, accessories and lots more! This is a great alternative to supporting those large, chain pet stores that sell pets and create a need for puppy mills to exist.

Especially 4 Pets

We strive to keep up-to-date and offer only the highest quality in pet foods and supplies. We do not sell pets. We do promote and support rescue organizations and adoption.  

The Cat House Inc.

All of us at The Cat House support the Meow Foundation – a foundation for the adoption of abandoned cats. This Calgary charity’s motto is Make Each One Wanted! Buddy Guy and Lesley Anne recommend adopting from the Meow Foundation if you’re looking to add a cat to your family.

PetSmart
[FAQs re purchase of Super Pet stores]

Q.  Will I still be able to adopt pets at your store?
A. Yes. This is a core part of our business. As with all of our other stores, we will continue to offer space and support and partner with local non-profit shelters and rescue organizations to find homes for homeless pets.

PetSmart Charities Canada, a registered Canada charity, provides funding and support to qualified shelters and animal welfare organizations in its mission to end euthanasia and find loving homes for homeless pets. Charities Canada has provided more than Cdn. $1 million in funding to this cause. Funds raised in Canada are distributed exclusively in Canada. The company also donates retail space in its stores and partners with more than 80 shelters and animal welfare groups to facilitate adoptions of homeless dogs and cats.

Because PetSmart wants each adoption to be a joyful experience that brings pets and Pet Parents together in loving homes, only adoption agencies that have a current non-profit status, administer initial vaccinations and health checks and spay/neuter prior to adoption may participate in PetSmart’s online adoption program. Agencies that offer spay/neuter voucher programs may also participate but must have a diligent follow-up process in place to ensure compliance.

Other Calgary Retailers that don’t sell pets, to name a few, include:

Unleashed

BowDog

Pawhaus Pet Boutique

Paws Pet Food & Accessories Ltd.

Urban Dog Market

Rascals Pet Supplies

On the other hand, in league (most likely) with Petland, would be:

Pisces Pet Emporium

Of course, a pet store would not be complete without the actual animals. We carry an excellent selection of small to medium size puppies including Lhasa Apso type, Dachshund type, Chihuahua type, Chihuahua/Miniature Pinscher, Boston Terrier type and Yorkshire Terrier type.

All of our livestock is bought locally from reputable breeders, clients, or associates. We take pride in the quality of our pets and can maintain this by dealing only with reputable referrals. In addition, all our animals are vet inspected and guaranteed.

[…] For the feline lovers, we have a huge array of kittens. Our selection usually consists of shorthair, longhair, tabby, calico, black, white, or oriental, kittens. Visit us when you are looking for a cute, friendly addition to your home.

[…] To ensure that we are reaching the highest standards of excellence for animal care, we are a proud member of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada (PIJAC Canada).

…Now I suppose you’re all disappointed that The Cat House wasn’t what you initially thought it was, now aren’t you?

A Like-Minded Torontonian

This just in: I am not alone!

While I have been barraged with folks telling me that banning the sale of companion animals in pet stores is the wrong approach, and have had little “official” support or response from city council on the subject thus far, I am happy to learn there are others out there – east of B.C., even – with similar concerns and propositions.

Which is great, because I am downright tired of being called things like “misguided”.  We all know that’s just a polite way of saying stupid.  As in, “That Glenn Beck… he’s very passionate; he’s just misguided”.

My cohort, if I can be so bold as to call a complete stranger that?  Dean Maher.

Mr. Maher has been in talks with city council members in Toronto and Mississauga in Ontario and St. John’s in Newfoundland to propose by-laws banning the sale of dogs and cats in pet stores.  His drafted by-law for Toronto can be found here.  Updates about and support for his crusade can be found on his Facebook page here.

Like yours truly, his position:

Animal shelters across Canada are full or nearly full, he argues, so why continue selling animals in retail locations?

“I don’t understand why people would buy a cat (or dog) from pet store when there are so many animals waiting for adoption,” he said.

A ban would have the additional benefits of eliminating impulse buying of animals and would be the first step in the larger goal of putting “puppy mills” out of business, he said.

[…]

He’s also under no illusions.

A person selling puppies can still advertise online or in the media, they could also move to a nearby community and start over.

Maher calls his proposal “a small but significant step towards that greater goal,” of shutting down abusive animal sales.

But it would seem his proposal already has at least one supporter in [St. John’s].

When contacted for her opinion on the matter Debbie Powers, SPCA shelter director,  was nothing but supportive of the idea for a ban.

“In a ideal world wouldn’t that be wonderful,” Powers said.

Given the approaching holiday season the issue is timely, the 35 year SPCA veteran said, given that impulse buys of cats and dogs are at their highest during holidays.

Powers brought up one example to illustrate her point.

Last Christmas two MUN students came to the SPCA asking to adopt two dogs. Given the potential for the home to be unstable the SPCA refused the request. Those same students then went to a local pet shop and purchased two puppies at considerable expense. A few months later those puppies were dropped off at the shelter because their new owners couldn’t handle them.

Stories like that are heartbreaking, Powers said.

“It’s not right … but you’re not going to stop people when they decide they want something,” she said.

Mr. Maher proposed such a ban for Toronto during his (unsuccessful) run for city council this October, saying the goal is to reduce the number of unwanted animals in Toronto and he pointing to alarming statistics that show more than 25,000 dogs and cats were euthanized by Toronto Animal Services between 2002 and 2007.  Canada-wide, roughly 400,000 animals are euthanized in shelters annually – a completely preventable occurrence.

Along with some media attention, Mr. Maher’s campaign has also garnered some support, in addition to the SPCA endorsement in St. John’s noted above.

Veterinarian Dr. Kenneth Hill (owner, Bloor Mill Veterinary Hospital) wrote a letter of support, asserting that such a ban would help reduce the number of puppy and kitten mills that often keep pet stores stocked.  Dr. Hill also pointed out that pet store employees are often poorly-trained and under-informed when it comes to properly advising prospective pet owners.  “This results in pet owners who become dissatisfied with their pet or who are unable to cope with breed-specific behaviour and health issues.  Dogs and cats are then prone to suffer neglect or in worse case scenarios show-up in veterinary offices to be euthanized.”

The Etobicoke Humane Society also officially released support for Mr. Maher, writing:

The Etobicoke Humane Society wishes to publicly voice its strong support for the recent proposal by Toronto Council Candidate Dean Maher, to ban the sale and/or giving away of cats and dogs in Toronto-area pet shops and retail venues. And we applaud the fact that this proposal would allow Humane Societies and rescue groups to continue to operate adoption programs through retail venues.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of homeless animals are euthanized in shelters across North America. Much of this tragedy is the result of inadequate, irresponsible and often last-minute decision making by well-intentioned members of the public. Responsible pet-selection and pet care – with the intent of providing a forever home – requires thoughtful decision making, based on advanced research and planning. Such elements are too often missing in the retail purchase of pets, not to mention the use of retail properties by individuals giving animals away. Animals are sentient, feeling beings whose future lives are literally put at risk by such action; .actions which strengthens the concept of animals as property – a concept that the Etobicoke Humane Society, and many other Humane Societies and rescue groups have long fought to dispel.

The Etobicoke Humane Society is thankful to have the opportunity to operate a shelter that never euthanizes any animal due to lack of space, taking in only those animals for which we have shelter and/or foster space. However, we are painfully aware of the huge loss of animal lives due to animal overpopulation and homelessness.

[…]

There are hundreds of thousands of wonderful animals, of all ages and sizes, including pure-breds, waiting in shelters and foster homes for someone to come along and adopt them and give them a proper and loving forever home. In most of these situations, individuals are carefully screened before being allowed to adopt an animal, and a great deal of related education also takes place. However, if one has determined that they want only a specific breed of cat or dog, and has made sincere but unsuccessful effort to find them in a shelter or rescue group, there are well-respected, reliable and caring breeders out there, but one should devote time and effort to finding them.

We hope that candidate Maher’s proposed ban is successful, and that related discussions serve to highlight the need for further protection of animals and the importance of responsible pet selection and care by the public.

So what do I get from this?  Well, encouragement, confidence, and motivation to continue to forge ahead.  And the idea to pester some people with louder voices and bigger circles of influence to sign on in the name of animal welfare.  Because for some sort of positive change to happen, someone’s got to be that nagging voice.  May as well be me.  Apparently, I’m pretty good at it.

Actually, this whole thing reminds me of some famous, inspiring words:

We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting – till the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions – of the world.

I don’t recall exactly who said that.  Probably Gandhi.

Freedom of Speech: Does not justify being a douche

A recent exchange of… let’s call them opinions… on my Facebook page got me thinking about the concept of free speech.

The short-form background is that I shared an article about the Salvation Army’s clear anti-gay agenda, and alluded to the fact that I will not and do not support this organization.  A Facebook… let’s say acquaintance… of mine then openly endorsed ol’ Sally Ann’s platform.  Upon clarifying this… opinion, I promptly deleted the comments.  I did not think Facebook was the appropriate forum to engage in such a debate nor did I want my profile associated with that kind of sentiment. 

Of course, my censorship of my profile was met in protest: “well, so much for freedom of speech!”

I deleted the protest, too.

Why?

The answer is two-fold: (1) Because the term “freedom of speech” is not actually a legitimate cover for racist, sexist or otherwise hateful remarks; and (2) because my personal profile doesn’t apply to this concept, even if it were valid.

Trusty Wikipedia tells me that “freedom of speech” generally is “the concept of the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment”.

Well, let me tell you, had I left that comment up there much longer, punishment certainly would have ensued.  I received a handful of texts and others messages about it by the time I’d even noticed it.

On top of the blanket notion of freedom of speech, is the Canadian definition.  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees each citizen the freedom of thought, belief, expression, opinion and media.  But there’s a BUT: subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Read that last part again in case you’re not following.  “Reasonable limits prescribed by law.”

To elaborate, no, in Canada you actually are not entitled to spew any inane thing that pops into your head.  You can’t publish false information.  You can’t incite genocide.  You can’t promote hatred against other people based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnic origin. 

We do not have an absolutist, American-style, First Amendment freedom of speech where even hate speech is generally permitted.  Certain types of speech have consequences under our Criminal Code.

Of course, let us pause for the obligatory Voltaire quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Reciting this almost seems mandatory in discussions about freedom of speech does it not?  (Irony.)  However, in social situations, good sense and common courtesy should dictate that just because you can say something doesn’t always mean you should.  Lincoln is credited with saying “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

This brings me to the other almost cliché point to be made in the course of this discussion, which is that you still cannot “falsely [shout] fire in a crowded theatre”.  That’s Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., an American Supreme Court Justice who is long deceased.  On the American notion of free speech, it means there are still limits to speech that is dangerous, reckless, malicious or false, and that serves no conceivable useful purpose.  So no, you can’t incite riots below the border, either, and you can still be sued for slander and defamation.

So can you say whatever you want up here in the Great White North?  No, technically you cannot.  I imagine (hope) you can still say most of the things you want to say; we’re just asking that you keep your bigotry to yourself – talkin’ to you, Ms. Coulter.  We distinguish between discourse and discrimination.  This means that you certainly can walk around town with your unfavourable, controversial, or questionable ideas on a sandwich board if you like; you just can’t promote hatred or contempt towards others while doing so.  Given that Canadians are renowned for politeness, and tend to follow the British way of doing things, this really shouldn’t surprise anyone.

And while some of our neighbours to the south bemoan and ridicule our lack of a no-holds-barred freedom of speech policy, I can only smile as f-bombs and nudity abound on CBC on your average weeknight (warning: this may be hyperbole), while their censors block out “Goddamn”.

Do I think the Canadian fine print leaves us better off?  Hells yes.  I honestly do not believe I have missed out on any significant truths or revelations by being deprived of certain Holocaust-denying treatises and whatnot.  Yet, despite our free speech “restrictions”, I am still aware of these fringe groups and their general platforms, so obviously they’re not that restricted. 

Of course I’m not looking to silence differing opinions, but we need rational thought, discussion and discourse to be productive.  You may not (likely won’t) change anyone’s mind when debating those big-ticket, über-controversial issues, but if you stick to rational, logical arguments and information you might just learn something or teach someone.  Blind, short-sighted, shallow statements that stem from nothing but hate, prejudice and misinformation, however, can be left to the wayside.

The bottom line here?  “Freedom of speech” doesn’t actually apply the way certain folks wish/think it did, especially in Canada, so I’d really like to stop seeing the concept abused; it’s not a free pass for douchebaggery.

Additionally, the only jurisdiction my Facebook profile is under is the Law of Me, so I’ll censor as I see fit.  Being that my blog here has less of an association with my personal life and identity, I will let more things fly in the comments section, so I encourage you to test boundaries.  Unless you’re posting spam, that is – talking to you homeopathic medicine peddlers.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
-Also Voltaire

The Other Culprit: Internet Pet Sales

That puppy mills and backyard breeders exist in the first instance means someone’s got to be buying their animals.  And while I reserve concerns about commercially purchased and advertised pets, the other side of the coin is, without a doubt, internet pet sales.  This refers to those unknown posters advertising pure bred “type” pets for sale (in other words, not registered) with little more than a phone number or e-mail address for contact.  They’re usually found on high-traffic websites such as Kijiji, and upon agreeing to your purchase, you’re usually required to meet along some conspicuous back road to pick your puppy up out of the back of a van.  Fishy, no? 

And then it’s over.  You have little to no background – health or otherwise – on the animal you just purchased, and will be lucky to find they’ve received any veterinary care to date.  You’re not provided any information to contact the sellers in the future with anything such as health or behavioural concerns, whereas reputable breeders and rescue organizations always have an open door for support, and will take back dogs and cats if your situation changes and you can no longer care for them.  Heck, even Petland promises this.

And for reasons unbeknownst to me, people continue to buy dogs this way.  Is it because they are advertised as “pure bred”, but with a much smaller price tag?  Or is it because – unlike with rescues and reputable breeders – there is no extensive application process?  Who am I to know?  Even a little research into adding a new furry family member provides ample advice against these types of transactions, so I suppose public education is a major issue.  People need to know to visit the breeder, see the conditions in which their puppy is being raised, meet the dog’s parents, and just ask any question that comes to mind.  If someone is willing to give you a dog prior to the age of 8 weeks, alarm bells should be ringing.

But as we know, people are going to do what they’re going to do.  If they have their hearts set on a dog of a certain breed – and of course, prefer a puppy to an adult – and can’t find what they’re looking for at a credible organization, they will look online and likely find what they’re looking for.  A couple of cute photos later and the deal is done; sensibility is out the window.

And it turns out that Calgary is the third largest market for online puppy sales – second only to Toronto and Montreal.  Without regulations, backyard breeders and puppy mills can be quite successful here, with no laws regulating who can breed, inspections of breeding facilities, or numbers of companion animals in a home.  And the truth is, many rescues such as the Calgary Humane Society see an unusually large percentage of pure bred “type” dogs surrendered – many likely purchased online from these backyard breeders and puppy mills.

So what do we do?

It actually looks like Kijiji is already making some efforts in this direction.  For example, Kijiji will delete any ad for dogs and cats that are for sale before the age of 7 weeks.  They also do not allow ads to be posted for the sale of certain dog breeds such as Pitbulls and Presa Canarios, unless the poster is a recognized rescue organization.  While an initial reaction to this may be an accusation of breed profiling, it’s also an important step against suspecting dog fighting rings in Calgary, and making sure these animals do not end up in the wrong hands.  But there is no regulation on where they come from in the first place.

So what else can be done?

Back in 2005 a number of rescue organizations in San Francisco got together to petition Craigslist to remove its pets classified section altogether.  CEO Jim Buckmaster acknowledged that with the volume of ads “It’s physically impossible for us to monitor all the listings”.  And though the response then was that the suggestion would be considered, “considered” was as far as it got.  Though I should note similar discussion focusing on child prostitution and human trafficking led to the end of Craigslist’s “adult services” section this fall.  

Instead of an outright ban on ads, Carl Friedman, director of the San Francisco Animal Care and Control, argued for a way for breeders to register within their communities and receive an identification number that could be listed on their pet advertisements on Craigslist and elsewhere, to help identify responsible breeders.  Local animal services or humane societies would be responsible for regularly inspecting and licensing these breeders, who would then receive favourable advertising.  Reports are that the Calgary Humane Society is working with Kijiji to develop a similar solution.

eBay is the most regulated online marketplace, and it doesn’t allow pet sales at all.  And quite frankly, I think that is the right approach.  If community forums such as Kijiji and Craigslist disallowed pet advertisements altogether (except perhaps for posts from recognized rescue organizations), then the free and easy market for these backyard breeders and puppy mills would be removed altogether, thus redirecting the general public back to seeking out credible institutions.  If one isn’t interested in adopting a rescue animal, it is quite easy to locate reputable breeders with recommendations from local humane societies, SPCAs, or by contacting the Canadian (or American) Kennel Club, once the easy online purchase temptation is taken away.

While regulating breeders is certainly a good initiative, it should be mandated by law, rather than as an optional compliance, still allowing nonconforming sellers to operate and advertise.  For instance, while my pet sale ban suggestion in my letter Calgary’s Mayor and City Council has received a lot of attention from Petland, it also addresses the issue of puppy mills and backyard breeders by pin-pointing also residential pet sales, using Albuquerque, NM’s by-law as an example (Code of Ordinances, Ch. 9, Article 2):

§ 9-2-4-4   SALE OR GIFT OF AN ANIMAL.

(A) Public Property.  No Person shall display, sell, deliver, offer for sale, barter, auction, give away, or otherwise dispose of an Animal upon a street, sidewalk, public park, public right-of-way or other public property.  Adoption events approved by the Mayor, or any adoption events held by a Rescue Group or Rescue individual are exempt.

(B) Commercial Property.  No Person shall display, sell, deliver, offer for sale, barter, auction, give away, or otherwise dispose of any Animal upon commercial property including parking lots, with or without the property owner’s permission.  [Permit] Holders are limited to the property the Permit was issued for.  Adoption events approved by the Mayor are exempt.

(C) Residential Property.  No Person shall display, sell, deliver, offer for sale, barter, auction, give away, or otherwise dispose of any Companion Animal puppies or kittens upon residential property without a Litter Permit.

(D) Sales Incentives.  No Person shall offer a live Animal as an incentive to purchase merchandise or as a premium, prize, award, or novelty.

(E) Advertising.  No Person shall advertise puppies or kittens for sale in any local periodical without a valid Litter Permit number conspicuously listed in the advertisement.   No Person shall advertise any Animal for sale in the City of Albuquerque using any roadside signs, flyers, handbills or billboards.

Other exemplar legislation – but at a provincial level – includes AB 250 and SB 208 in Wisconsin, signed into law in 2009 and to take effect in June 2011.  This bill requires breeders who sell more than 25 dogs a year or operate breeding facilities, animal auctions, animal shelters, or animal control facilities to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), requires DATCP inspection of each location before issuing an initial license, provides for licensing fees, minimum age of a dog before transferring to a buyer, spaying or neutering a dog at auction, animal information at temporary dog markets and standards of care.

On a federal level, in May 2010 a bill was introduced in the US Senate (the “PUPS Act”) to regulate the commercial breeding industry, and is designed to close the loophole of online pet sales.  The proposed Act requires breeders who sell more than 50 puppies annually to be federally licensed and subject to federal inspections, and that commercial breeding facilities give their dogs at least 60 minutes of exercise each day (among many other regulations concerning care and environment).  “Small scale” breeders selling fewer than 50 dogs per year will not be affected by the legislation.  The PUPS Act is still awaiting action by the Senate.

In short, steps need to be taken locally, provincially, and perhaps even federally to effectively address the issue of puppy mills (and kitten factories), backyard breeders and their variety of sales mediums.  Above all, however, attention needs to be drawn to the issue to emphasize that it is, in fact, a priority and a concern for many in order that anything be done about it.  In other words, it’s time to start (or continue) telling your various representatives about your animal welfare concerns.

Why Ban Pet Sales?

Well the debate sure has heated up here on the Soapbox as a result of my request for the City of Calgary to implement a ban on the sale of companion pets in pet stores.  The proposed by-law amendment is similar to ones already in place in several US cities and the one recently passed in Richmond, B.C.  Richmond is the first Canadian city to introduce such a by-law, and it looks like Langley, B.C. might soon be the second.

And why am I proposing this ban?  A couple of simple reasons.  To review:

1.  Decrease the sales of puppies bred in “puppy mills” and bring a more widespread awareness of the issue of puppy mills in the first instance.  Pet stores are the most visible sales medium for these substandard, high volume breeders.

2.  Put an end to impulse pet purchases.  The addition of a dog or cat to the family is not something to be taken lightly, but it often is, resulting in the surrender of dogs and cats to rescue organizations when unprepared purchasers will or can no longer care for them.  To ban the sale of companion animals in pet stores will decrease these impulse pet purchases, relieving some of the strain on local animal rescues.  Since the City of Albuquerque, NM, imposed a by-law banning commercial pet sales, they report animal adoptions have increased by 23% and euthanasia at city shelters has decreased by 35%. 

Of course, implementing a ban such as this has some pretty strong critics, not the least of which is Petland, as anyone following my blog knows.  I can only assume such a ban will detrimentally affect their bottom line, or they wouldn’t be so opposed to the suggestion that they instead feature pets from rescue agencies in their stores.  (I should note a Petland location in East Liberty, PA has in fact opted to do this anyway, even though the city has no such ban in place.)  The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada (PIJACC) also openly opposed the ban in Richmond. 

The critics claim a widespread acknowledgement that banning the commercial sale of pets is the wrong approach and that provincial legislation is more appropriate to put an end to puppy mills (think Prop B in Missouri).  Of course that kind of solution also has many critics (again, think Prop B in Missouri). 

First, I actually find that this “widespread acknowledgement” isn’t really there.

The BC SPCA writes “Reputable breeders do not sell to pet stores; puppy mills do.”

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies writes: “Many pet store puppies are born to suffering, malnourished dogs in puppy mills.”

The Humane Society International/Canada writes: “HSI Canada applauds Richmond (a Vancouver suburb) City Council for drafting a bylaw amendment that will ban the sale of puppies in commercial pet stores. […] Investigations have shown time and again that the vast majority of puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills, cruel mass-production facilities where the breeding dogs are often confined to small wire cages for life and often deprived of the basics of humane care, solely to produce puppies for the pet trade. HSI Canada hopes that Richmond’s actions will inspire other councils across Canada to take similar actions to combat the cruel conditions in which dogs are factory-farmed for profit, and congratulates Richmond for having the courage to be the first city in Canada to take this important step towards reducing the demand for puppy mill puppies.”

And while I certainly would support most provincial initiatives to regulate, monitor, and otherwise police high volume breeding facilities in an effort to put an end to puppy mills, the fact is that a municipality banning the sale of companion animals in pet stores is still a quick, effective, and important step to take.  Consider, for example, the City of Richmond, which found upwards of 90 pet store dogs per year were surrendered to the city-run shelter for various reasons – and Richmond only has three stores that actually sells pets (until April 2011, that is).  It is not only a burden upon the shelters who to care for and re-home these animals, but also the municipality and its taxpayers who pay for the shelter services.  Not to mention that a municipal solution is going to be the most effective, as it is more easily implemented (to the best of my knowledge, the provincial government doesn’t currently have this issue on the agenda), and it is the individual cities who regulate businesses with their respective by-laws.  And finally, while the province may regulate breeders within its borders, pet stores still often obtain dogs and cats from out-of-province, and even out-of-country, sources.  Instead, a city by-law amendment covers all these bases.

While considering this issue, I decided look back and see how Richmond determined to push through and become the first Canadian city to ban the sale of dogs and puppies in pet stores, and the following is taken from City Council Minutes.

Council Meeting, Monday, February 8, 2010

Marcie Moriarty, General Manager of Cruelty Investigations for the BC SPCA, was in favour of banning the sale of dogs in storefronts.  Ms. Moriarty spoke of concerns related to dogs being sold in stores, noting that although pet stores claim that their dogs come from loving homes, these stores often hide behind puppy brokers.  In March 2009, CBC aired a documentary that exposed Hunte Corporation, a puppy broker, and showed the conditions in which puppies are kept.

Ms. Moriarty noted that currently there are no regulations or authority that oversees dog breeders.  Thus, pet stores can claim anything on their websites.  In regards to Richmond pet stores’ claim that their dogs come from ‘licenced breeders’, she questioned who licenced them.

She commented that neither the members of the Canadian Kennel Club nor other reputable breeders sell to pet stores as they do not know where their puppy will go. […]

In response to queries from Committee, Ms. Moriarty advised the following that (i) puppy mills are only in business because they have buyers; and (ii) although some puppies from mills may be healthy, they are bred in poor conditions.

Christie Lagally, volunteer with the Richmond Animal Protection Society (RAPS), distributed materials and spoke in favour of banning the sale of dogs in storefronts.  Ms. Lagally stated that RAPS would like to see a full ban as many puppies purchased from Richmond pet stores are surrendered to RAPS within the first two years.

She spoke of figures related to surrendered or abandoned purebreds, and noted that almost every jurisdiction in BC consistently only sees 25% of purebreds surrendered or abandoned.  However, in Richmond this figure is 57%.

Ms. Lagally advised that surrender forms are included in the materials she distributed and noted that many of the forms indicate that the dogs were purchased from Richmond pet stores.  Also, she referenced a petition in favour of banning the sale of dogs in storefronts.

Ernest Ang, owner of the Richmond Pet Habitat, was opposed to the proposed ban.  He stated that Richmond pet stores comply and perhaps exceed the standards of care set out by the Canadian Veterinarian Medical Association, humane societies, and the SPCA.  He advised that Pet Habitat only receives puppies from government certified facilities.  Mr. Ang was of the opinion that the banning of puppies being sold in Richmond stores would increase unregulated ‘backyard breeding’ and would create unfair competition for Richmond pet stores.

In response to the previously referenced CBC documentary, Mr. Ang noted that the video was one-sided and as such CBC has removed the link to the video on its website.  He concluded by stating that pet stores want to be part of the solution and he invited the City to work with them. …

Discussion ensued regarding Richmond’s current dog bylaw, and in reply to a query made by Committee, Wayne Mercer, Manager, Community Bylaws, advised that only three dogs are permitted per household.  He clarified that puppies are not considered dogs until six months of age.  […]

Discussion ensued regarding the CBC documentary and in response to comments made by Committee, Mr. Ang advised that Pet Habitat is against puppy mills and he has visited Hunte Corporation breeders.  He noted that he would share more information regarding Hunte Corporation.

Sarah Henderson, representing PJ’s Pets, spoke in opposition to banning the sale of dogs in pet stores, and noted that a 2008 study conducted by Ipsos Reid indicated that only 10% of dogs owned by Canadians came from pet stores.  The remaining 90% come from other sources, therefore, selling dogs in stores is not a problem.  Ms. Henderson was of the opinion that a ban of the sale of dogs in pet stores will decrease jobs in Richmond as PJ’s Pets has a particular position that solely deals with the care and wellbeing of puppies:  Kennel Technician. …

In reply to queries from Committee, Ms. Henderson advised that (i) an employee of PJ’s Pets selects breeders; (ii) PJ’s Pets puppies come from a family-oriented environment within Canada; (iii) puppies are checked by PJ’s Pets’ veterinarian once they arrive at the store; and (iv) Kennel Technicians receive in-store training.

Cheri Simmons, former Store Manager for PJ’s Pets, was opposed to banning the sale of dogs in storefronts.  She was of the opinion that this ban would take away accountability and responsibility to find good homes for dogs.  There are no rules regulating breeders, therefore pet stores, which are regulated, are better places to purchase dogs. 

Ms. Simmons spoke of PJ’s Pets efforts to work with RAPS and indicated RAPS’ Board of Directors declined to work with them as they did not endorse the sale of animals in pet stores. 

In reply to queries from Committee, she noted that (i) better records should be kept in relation to where puppies come from; and (ii) PJ’s Pets does screen potential puppy buyers in order to match the future owner to the proper dog. […]

Gary Batt, President, Petland Surrey, spoke in opposition to banning the sale of dogs in storefronts.  Mr. Batt spoke of his involvement with the National Board of Directors of the Pet Industry in Canada and highlighted his participation during the creation and implementation of regulations related to dogs being brought into Canada.

Mr. Batt spoke of dogs being members of families, and companions. He stated that many parties are concerned with the proper breeding of any animal, and noted that his pet store attempts to regulate breeding and care as much as possible.  Mr. Batt stated that he does not support puppy mills and believed that pet stores are not the problem, but instead part of the solution.  He commented that often he sees puppies for sale on the side of the street and there are lists of puppies for sale in the classified ads of newspapers and on the internet.

Also, Mr. Batt advised that Canada does not licence or regulate the breeding of dogs, therefore there are no standards for kennels, no regulations, and no inspections.  He noted that such licences and regulations fall under the Provincial governments’ mandate.  […]

Council Meeting, October 12, 2010

For the ban:

Christie Lagally, Animal Welfare Advocacy Coalition (AWAC), spoke in support of banning the sale of dogs in storefronts.  Ms. Lagally referenced the gratitude that had been expressed to her and other animal welfare groups since the City’s proposal to change Business Licence Bylaw No. 7538 to ban the sale of dogs in pet stores.  Ms. Lagally then had all members in the audience in support of the ban raise their hands to illustrate the support to Council.

In conclusion Ms. Lagally read a statement from a City of Coquitlam Councillor who expressed her support for a province wide ban of the sale of dogs in pet stores, as well as increased sentences and fines for animal abuse and abandonment. 

Lori Chortyk, General Manager, Community Relations BC SPCA, spoke in support of banning the sale of dogs in storefronts.  Ms. Chortyk indicated that there is a perception that banning the sale of dogs in storefronts would drive the puppy mill industry underground.  She pointed out that the puppy mill industry is already underground, and that is why the industry has managed to survive.  In conclusion, she thanked Council for its consideration of this issue, noting that the BC SPCA has been inundated with feedback from people who are saying that proceeding with the ban would be a landmark decision, and that many other jurisdictions are watching this matter closely.

Helen Savkovic, Richmond Animal Protection Society, spoke in support of banning the sale of dogs in storefronts.  In an effort to create an image of the living conditions and dangers that puppy mill dogs are exposed to, Ms. Savkovic referred to a number of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Reports for various breeders’ sites and provided examples of infractions and spoke of the related dangers.

Kristin Bryson, Director, BC SPCA, spoke in support of banning the sale of dogs in storefronts.  Ms. Bryson spoke about how some US exporters of puppies being brought into the City of Richmond as well as numerous other Canadian cities, suggest that those puppies are from a licensed USDA source and that those puppies come from parents that are healthy and humanely cared for when they are not. 

Ms. Bryson made reference to the May 2010 report entitled “Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Animal Care Program Inspections of Problematic Dealers”, from the USDA Inspector General’s Office, (on file City Clerk’s Office), and advised that the Inspector General identified the following concerns: (i) the enforcement process was ineffective against problematic dealers; (ii) inspectors did not cite and document violations properly, or support enforcement actions; (iii) inspectors mis-used guidelines resulting in lower penalties for violators. 

She also advised that at this time there are only 99 inspection officers employed by the USDA and that they are responsible for inspections of dog breeders as well as other animal facilities such as zoos and labs.  Ms. Bryson further noted that when violations were actually recorded, enforcement action beyond an official warning was only given in 4% of the cases.

Rae Goodridge, Manager, Richmond BC SPCA, spoke in support of banning the sale of puppies in storefronts, and described her experience when purchasing a puppy from a breeder.  Ms. Goodridge advised that she had to go through an intense approval process which included a three page application form.  She noted that this breeder had allowed the dogs to live in her home and play in her yard.  She commented that animals that are shipped to pet stores are usually treated as livestock rather than pets.  She also noted that the SPCA provides information on reputable breeders for anyone searching for pure bred puppies that may otherwise be difficult to find in rescue shelters.

Don Clintoff, Richmond resident, spoke as a taxpayer, stating that he financially supported the animal shelters and that he did not see any shortage of animals for adoption in Richmond.  He expressed his belief that the pet stores do not have a strong argument against the ban on the sale of dogs in storefronts as they sell other products.  He remarked that unless there is a very large mark-up on pets, the marginal impact associated with the proposed ban  should be minimal to the pet stores.  In closing, Mr. Clintoff stated that the shelters are subsidized by taxpayers funding to collect and store animals, and that something had to be done to protect the taxpayers from expenditures that should not be happening.

Naz Gamadia, Richmond resident, stated that when searching for a puppy for herself, she researched breeders, shelters, and pet stores for approximately one year.  Ms. Gamadia stated that she found that most of the employees of the numerous pet stores she visited in Vancouver and Richmond did not have much knowledge about the dogs that were for sale in the stores.  She noted that the breeders and rescue shelters were able to provide far more information regarding different breeds and best care practices.  She also stated that pet stores do not take puppies back after seven days, whereas the rescue shelters will always take the animals back if the owner is no longer able to provide proper care.

Against the ban:

Roger Somm, National Director, Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada (PIJAC), spoke in opposition to the banning of dogs in storefronts, and spoke of his involvement in the development of the Province of Manitoba’s Animal Care Act (on file City Clerk’s Office).  He also spoke about some of the regulations within the Act, including: (i) mandatory reporting of suspected abuse; (ii) increased fines for animal abuse; and (iii) licensing of pets stores, breeders, and shelters across Manitoba.

In answer to queries, Mr. Somm advised that it took approximately a year and a half to implement the new regulations in Manitoba, and that he had not made contact with the provincial government in BC to start a process similar to the one in Manitoba.

Robert Church, National Director, Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada, advocate for responsible pet ownership, and pet store owner, provided an overview of the work he has done in the pet industry for the past 25 years.  He spoke in opposition to banning the sale of dogs in storefronts, and requested Council to take a leadership role in abolishing substandard breeding operations across BC by encouraging, lobbying, and demanding that the provincial government establish an animal care act that licenses, regulates and inspects all breeders, pet stores and animal shelters.  Mr. Church questioned the rationale of the proposed ban which would “shut down” the only visible source of puppies that the public, the City, and animal protection officers are able to monitor.

Margaret Schmitky, Sr. Field Representative, Pet Land Canada, spoke in opposition to the banning of dogs in storefronts, and stated that Pet Land Canada was one of the largest full line pet stores in Canada, and that their 400 employees across Canada loved pets.  She advised that Pet Land has been regulating itself in accordance with PJAC guidelines and the Canadian Code of Kennel Practices.  She further advised that every Pet Land location has one or more companion animal purchaser and that their job is to actively investigate and inspect every puppy breeder before purchasing pets.

Ms. Schmitky stated that she personally believed that the proposed bylaw to ban the sale of dogs in storefronts had been brought forward with good intentions and emotion, but lacked futuristic and logical thinking.  She expressed her belief that the proposed ban would leave the public with little choice but to purchase puppies outside of their jurisdictions or directly from puppy breeders.  In conclusion, she stated that the only viable option to eradicate puppy mills is by implementing provincial legislation for regulation and licensing of breeders.

Gary Batt, owner, Petland Surrey, and formerly a representative of the PIJAC, spoke against the banning of dogs for sale in storefronts.  He stated that the pet industry was nationally setting standards to find a real solution to deal with the issue of puppy mills.  Mr. Batt stated that the provincial government should bring in strong licensing and regulation requirements. He expressed his belief that the City of Richmond’s proposed action was wrong and attacked the only publicly visible source of puppies in Richmond.

In conclusion Mr. Batt advised that he operates his pet store in the highest standards and has a willingness to work with City Council.  He urged Council to table the proposed ban and refer the matter back to staff for further investigation.  He encouraged the City to approach the province to regulate puppy breeding, and to join together with the Richmond Animal Protection Society (RAPS) and the BC SPCA to resolve the puppy mill problem in BC.  He also stated that pet stores behave much more responsibly than many believe.

Tim Hansen, Assistant Store Manager, PJs Pets, spoke in opposition to banning the sale of dogs in storefronts, stating that the City was about to make a huge mistake by driving the supply of dogs even further underground, which would result in uncontrolled and unregulated sale of dogs.  Mr. Hansen stated that pet stores represent a known reputable source for the community to purchase pets.  He suggested that the City undertake more regulatory measures to deal with the matter and questioned where people would get their pets once the reputable sources have been eliminated. 

Mr. Hansen advised that an online poll indicated that the majority of residents were opposed to such a ban.  He also provided information related to the number of dogs for sale in Richmond pet stores in comparison to internet sites such as Kijiji.  In conclusion, Mr. Hansen stated that if the City of Richmond approached the provincial government regarding regulation of dog breeding operations, it would have the pet industry’s support. 

Ernest Ang, owner of the Richmond Pet Habitat, spoke in opposition to banning the sale of dogs in storefronts, and expressed his frustration, stating that he had been a proud member of Richmond’s business community until the issue of puppy mills and cruelty to animals had emerged.  He stated that his store attracts business into Richmond because a portion of his customers are from other jurisdictions.  Mr. Ang concluded by stating that he would like to work with the BC SPCA and RAPS, and advised that he has suggested that they work together to market and find good homes for unwanted pets in Richmond’s rescue shelters. 

Josef Demcak, Richmond Resident, spoke against the banning of dogs in storefronts, expressing his belief that his rights were shrinking.  He stated that every time a group decided to speak up, the City implemented a new bylaw and the City’s residents were stripped of their basic rights.  He expressed frustration that the proposed ban would take away the right to go to a neighbourhood pet store to buy a puppy.  Mr. Demcak stated that people needed education on this matter rather than a bylaw. 

Bob Harrison, Richmond resident, spoke in opposition to the banning of dogs in storefronts, expressing his belief that such a ban would drive the sellers underground.  He noted that pet stores are the only controlled source of puppies.  Mr. Harrison stated that responsible laws to outlaw puppy mills and abuse of animals are required and urged City Council to think seriously about maintaining control over the industry and solving the problem rather than banning dogs from the pet stores. 

The End

Even the inattentive should notice that the debate that took place last month in Richmond is the same as the one going in my little blog.  Even some of the cast is making an encore appearance, and the arguments and objections sound very familiar.

Will such a ban completely solve the puppy mill problem?  No, unfortunately it will not.  As long as there are irresponsible people out there purchasing puppy mill dogs, they will remain in business.  But we should do what we can – and what will be effective – in the meantime.

And, finally, to those who may think puppy mills are an American phenomenon, and need not be a pressing concern for Calgarians or Canadians: you are absolutely incorrect.  Here are some select examples of puppy mills discovered in our midst:
Abbotsford, B.C., September 2010
Southern Alberta, February 2010
Edmonton, Alberta, October 2009
Winnipeg, Manitoba, March 2008
Langley, B.C., December 2007
Bruce County, Ontario, December 2003
Toronto, Ontario, August 2001

Dogs and Guns

Alright, this may get a little depressing and ranty, but I would really like to know wtf is up with dogs getting shot.  Seriously.

Think back to September of this year.  Calgary police shot a Rottweiler that was on the loose in the NE.  The media reported the dog was “aggressive”, citing that it had bitten one woman, and was subsequently shot when it began to “charge” at the attending officer.  The Calgary Sun – god love ‘em – reported the dog was “rampaging”.  It was shot three times.  It did not die right away, so the officer was then forced to chase the retreating dog for a couple of blocks and shoot it again. 

That incident took place the same month police shot a dog at amidst a crowd at the Adams Morgan festival in D.C.  The media, of course, did not hesitate to mention the dog appeared to be a “pit bull mix”, and there is a strong disagreement between the owner of the dog and the police as to what happened.  The dog’s owner (and one witness) believes he had the dog under control when the police took over and subsequently fatally shot the dog, while the police (and another witness) maintain the dog was certainly dangerous.

And this brings me to the latest, when on November 7 a two year old Newfoundland was shot four times by police in Washington state.  The dog (“Rosie”) had escaped from her yard and someone notified police of the loose dog.  According to the statements to the press, when police located and tried to approach the dog, she growled, barked, showed her teeth, and “charged”.  Initially, an officer deployed a taser, which caused the dog to yelp and run away.  The dog cornered itself in a residential yard where the officers determined lethal force was necessary.

Rosie the Newfoundland

So I will return to my original question:  wtf?  Do the officers involved really believe that shooting these dogs was the only or best solution?  If so, that illustrates a significant problem.  And why wasn’t animal control called in any of these situations?

Yes, police officers are faced with a tough job that puts them in close contact with a wide variety of unsavoury characters.  It’s a thankless career, no question.  And alongside encountering dangerous people, they will also encounter dangerous animals.  It comes with the territory.  And police officers do not draw their guns to wound.  Ever.  If an officer feels an individual is a threat, they will be shot. 

Dogs, however, are not people.  Actually, they’re technically property in the eyes of the law.  But instead of spiralling down into the abyss of legal technicalities and semantics, I want you to consider any time a moose or other wild animal gets loose in Calgary’s downtown core.  It does not get fatally shot; it gets tranquilized and removed.  So what’s with all the gunfire?

I suggest there are far better ways the police could deal with these sorts of situations that involve potentially dangerous dogs.

Consider the Newfoundland Rosie, for instance.  She was trapped in a back yard when she was shot.  How about instead of shooting her, they leave her there until animal services can assess and retrieve her?  Or until the owners can pick her up?  The homeowner of the residence where Rosie was shot told the media she’d have definitely preferred that sort of solution.  And then the authorities could have followed up with some dog-at-large fines for the dog’s owners, and any other penalties associated with animals on the loose.  They could have had animal services do a behaviour assessment, and designate her a “dangerous animal” if necessary.  But I would argue that shooting her four times was not the best solution.  Not even top 5.  Rosie was just someone’s pet who had actually not done any harm whatsoever to a human being.

I have the same criticism with the pit bull story: shooting was not the best route to take.  And in this case, the owner was right there.  Rather than taking his dog from him – and then shooting it – have the owner restrain the dog, remove it from the crowded premises, and then go through the necessary procedures with local animal services.  Deem it an officially “aggressive dog” if you must, but to kill it on-sight – really?

And finally, the Calgary case.  Of course, I was not there, so I will have to take the newspaper reports as accurate, but something did raise my eyebrows: the woman who was bit suffered injuries to her hand but “did not need to be taken to hospital”.  That means the injuries weren’t even worthy of stitches.  Perhaps I am treading in dangerous waters suggesting this, but in the event a large dog is really “aggressive” and truly determined to do harm, it’s going to send you to the hospital if you don’t properly fend off the attack.  The officer was certain the dog was aggressive, and this one had actually injured a person, but I’m still not willing to concede that gunfire was the right approach. 

All dog shootings seem to follow a similar pattern, wherein the attending officer encounters the dog, immediately perceives aggression or danger, and makes a quick decision to use lethal force. 

In contrast to this, as the Newfoundland Club of Seattle points out in its official response to the Rosie incident, “there are notably few incidents where trained animal control officers make the decision escalate a situation to the use lethal force”.  [Emphasis mine.]

What does this mean?  Well, it means more or better training is required for the front-line police officers who are likely to encounter these types of situations.  [Allow a pause for the collective taxpayer groan.]

If the officers in the cases noted above – and the several other dog shootings out there I have not mentioned – had even remedial training in dog behaviour and body language, these situations would have been handled differently.  Likely without shots fired.

Back to the Newfoundland Club of Seattle:

Implementing a training program for the police force would take a minimal effort, but could pay dividends to the force and community. The framework for such a program has already been implemented by the City of Oakland.  Responding to public outcry from a police shooting of a family dog, the Oakland police chief adopted a policy requiring that all of its police officers to receive training in animal behavior and proper methods for containing loose dogs. The program will be paid for by a partnership with a local humane organization. A similar program can and should be put in place in Des Moines and cities and counties throughout Washington. And after seeing the outpouring of support for Rosie and her family, we would venture to guess that there are droves of qualified dog behaviorists and trainers willing to take time to train police officers.

So how about it, Calgary?  Clearly our officers could use a dog behaviour primer.

On November 15, 2010 a vigil was held for Rosie. (Photo: Keith Daige, The Highland Times)

 

And, just as an aside in case you were curious, yes, the average citizen will be charged with aggravated animal cruelty if they shoot a dog.

Spay/Neuter: When, not Why

In typical fashion, I am going to start with a caveat:  unless you are planning to breed your dog, yes, you should absolutely have him or her neutered/spayed.  It’s simply the responsible thing to do in order to help curb the population of unwanted pets and “oopsie” litters; we should leave the breeding up to responsible, educated breeders.  And with initiatives such as Calgary’s new no-cost spay/neuter program, there are fewer and fewer excuses to be made.

In fact, since we have decided to officially abandon our breeding aspirations for Moses (and end his unfruitful show career), at 2 ½ years old he’s going in for the ol’ snip-snip in a couple of days (with breeder consent, of course).

So the question is not if you should get your dog (or cat) fixed – Bob Barker had that right the whole time.  But there is a considerable debate about when: as young and soon as possible?  At 6 months?  After a year?  For females, after her first heat?  For males, a month after they start to lift their legs to pee?  Personally, I was always told that, especially for males, the larger the breed, the longer you should wait (18 months, barring any serious behavioural challenges); is that actually beneficial?

The traditional vet recommendation was always 6-9 months, but as it turns out, there is actually no scientific or medical reasoning for this figure aside from the fact that it’s generally just before the age of sexual maturity.  And, these days, early spaying and neutering is becoming more and more common.  And that’s what I want to discuss.

Early/Pediatric/Prepubertal Neutering

Means: spaying or neutering between 7 and 16 weeks old (provided the animal weighs more than two pounds and, for males, both testicles have dropped).

The Good

The number one benefit to early spaying and neutering is clearly population control.  While vets and commercial pets stores seem to be just getting into this trend, rescue agencies have been performing pediatric spaying and neutering much longer.  Because the compliance with post-adoption spay/neuter schedules and contracts for rescue animals is often lower than 40%, upwards of 60% of rescue adoptions never get fixed.  And no matter how watchful an owner may be, an accidental litter is always a possibility with an intact dog.  So, to prevent this, many rescues spay and neuter all pets before adopting them out.  This is simply pragmatic from a rescue point of view, and it is unreasonable to expect shelters to house animals until they reach 6 months/one year/18 months/whatever in order to fix them and then adopt them out.  Simply put, prepubertal neutering is a useful and effective way to prevent pet overpopulation.

In addition, early spaying and neutering may come with some physical and mental benefits.

Anaesthesia recovery in young animals is usually more rapid, with fewer complications.  Surgical complications are statically lowest for puppies neutered by 16 weeks.

Spaying females before the first heat nearly eliminates the risk of mammary (breast) cancer.  (However, I should note that another study suggests this risk is reduced as long as the spay is before the dog is 2.5 years old.) 

In addition, prepubertal spaying of female dogs prevents ovarian or uterine tumors.

A 2004 AVMA study showed that prepubertal spaying and neutering seems to play a role in reducing obesity – while all spayed/neutered pets as a whole are more overweight compared to their intact counterparts, the study shows that those spayed and neutered early were less so.

Other behavioural benefits include reduced separation anxiety, escaping behaviours, and inappropriate elimination (i.e. when frightened) in dogs that underwent pediatric spaying and neutering.

And generally, it is believed that for best behavioural results, it’s best not to wait past a year of age to neuter males, and many sources say early neutering of males is ideal to prevent potential aggressive and sexual behaviours.  This is because once a hormone-triggered behaviour has continued long enough, you can be dealing with a firmly entrenched habit that will not fade even after neutering (scent marking, for example).  Frequently, though, neutering at any age still helps with other types of behaviour problems often associated with intact males, and this behaviour result applies simply to neutering before sexual maturity, not within the 7-16 month period at issue.

The Bad

A handful of studies have shown that the traditional spay/neuter age of 6 months, as well as the modern practice of pediatric spay/neuter, appear to predispose dogs to health risks that could otherwise be avoided by waiting until the dog is physically mature, or perhaps in the case of many male dogs, foregoing it altogether unless medically necessary. 

AVMA researchers in June 2010 advised waiting until after 3 to 4 months of age to spay female dogs, finding more incidence of infectious disease in dogs neutered early as compared to dogs neutered at a traditional 6 month age.  Interestingly enough, they found no increased risk of disease or other health problems in cats neutered early.

Several studies have showed increased urinary incontinence/urinary tract infections in females spayed early, resulting in a similar recommendation to wait until at least 3 months of age to spay.  This is thought to be because females spayed before the onset of puberty are more likely to have a juvenile or recessed vulva.  Another study on this issue found that the risk increases the earlier the procedure is carried out, also recommending that female dogs be spayed no earlier than 3 to 4 months old.  I should note that a later study compared female dogs spayed between 4 to 6 months and after 6 months, and showed no increased risk between those two groups.  Incontinence, however, is often a major concern in most studies because it can be a lifelong condition requiring ongoing treatment.  The study even went so far as to say that this concern “may be particularly prudent for a shelter that does not have an excess of puppies and is focused on reducing medical and behavioural conditions that could lead to relinquishment of adolescent and adult dogs.  Conversely, for shelters with excess puppies, the advantages of [prepubertal spaying/neutering] of all dogs before adoption may outweigh the risk of urinary incontinence.”

A larger number of studies have shown early neutering (as early as 6 weeks) can lead to the growth of slightly longer legs and less “masculine” muscle development.  A 1991 study found that bitches spayed at 7 weeks grew significantly taller than those spayed at 7 months.  This is because sex hormones promote the closure of the growth plates at puberty, so the bones of dogs neutered or spayed before puberty continue to grow.  Therefore, dogs that have been spayed or neutered well before puberty can frequently be identified by their longer limbs, lighter bone structure, narrow chests and narrow skulls.

A small number of uncontrolled studies have shown a link with early neuters (for these researchers, that meant before 14 months of age) and some forms of cancer and joint problems, with one citing that dogs neutered before one year old have a significantly increased risk (3 to 4 times more likely) of bone cancer, which is common in larger breed dogs.  According to one study, which combined the high breed risk with the increased early spay/neuter risk, Rottweilers spayed/neutered before one year old have a 28.4% (males) and 25.1% (females) risk of developing bone cancer.  This research suggests a cause-and-effect relationship, as sex hormones are known to influence the maintenance of skeletal structure and mass, and also because their findings showed an inverse relationship between time of exposure to sex hormones and risk of bone cancer.

In a study of beagles, surgical removal of the ovaries (as happens in spaying) caused an increase in the rate of remodelling of the pelvic bone, suggesting an increased risk of hip dysplasia with spaying.  Other studies have found that spaying/neutering before 5 ½ months of age is associated with a 70% increased aged-adjusted risk of hip dysplasia compared to dogs spayed/neutered after 5 ½ months of age, though there were some indications that the former may have had a lower severity manifestation of the disease.  It is suggested that neutering a giant breed male dog early (6 months for example), rather than at 18 months to two years, can almost ensure the dog will have structural or joint problems fully manifested by age six or seven years.  Yet another study has showed the incidence of hip dysplasia increased to 6.7% for dogs neutered before 5 ½ months compared to 4.7% for dogs neutered after 5 ½ months.

Spaying was also found to cause a net loss of bone mass in the spine.  Because the spay/neuter of immature dogs delays the closure of the growth plates in bones that are still growing, those bones end up significantly longer than those in intact dogs or those who are spayed/neutered after maturity.  Since the growth plates in various bones close at different times, spaying and neutering that is done after some growth plates have closed, but before other growth plates have closed, may result in a dog with unnatural proportions, possibly impacting performance and long term durability of the joints.

In terms of behaviour, one study found aggression towards family members actually more frequent among male dogs neutered before 5 ½ months, and prepubertal neutering was associated with higher rates of barking or growling at visitors and excessive barking that bothered household members. However, for dogs in the study that were not determined to have any aggression issues, there was no association between the ages of neutering and excessive barking.

It should also be noted that many dog professionals suggest that beyond the age of three is when the most trouble occurs in a non-neutered male. The high testosterone levels and hormonal changes in the male dog at three years of age often builds up, causing territorial and aggressive traits, so for behavioural concerns, this should be the longest one should wait.

The Possible

There are a number of unfounded claims out there that neutering a male dog before 2 years old will affect his “working ability”.  Though there seems to be nothing to actually prove this, and no reasoning I could find behind it, many sources still recommended that for “working” or “athletic” dogs to hold off spaying or neutering until about 14 months old.

My best guess is that this has to do with testosterone, which is the hormone responsible for the different physical and mental (and sexual) characteristics males tend to have in abundance (and females less so).  It promotes sex drive, fat loss, helps with gaining and maintaining lean muscle mass and bone density, most of which can be important physical considerations for the owners of working dogs.

Some trainers and behaviourists also have concerns about mental development of dogs that are spayed or neutered to early, in that they do not psychologically or behaviourally mature, and retain many puppy behaviours.  However, these seemed to be mostly based on personal experiences and hypotheses, with no actual studies performed or cited.

The Pitfalls

When researching this subject I found that while there seemed to be many sources, it turned out that people were just quoting the same handful of studies – often verbatim.  This signalled to me that no position is solidified when it comes to health benefits and concerns regarding prepubertal spaying and neutering.  Basically, more (and more long-term) research should be done.

The End

Despite the potential for concern, the American Animal Hospital Association takes an official position in support of “the concept of neutering cats and dogs as young as 8 weeks of age in order to help reduce the overpopulation problems in companion animals”.

And quite frankly, for many the overarching concern of unwanted pets and rescue animals is simply enough to promote early spaying and neutering in animals.  I do not disagree with this sentiment.

However, for individual owners of commercially purchased or breeder bought pets, I encourage them to look into the issue and decide for themselves based on their dog, its breed, its lineage and health history, and any vet recommendations.

Personally, as the owner of a giant-breed dog that is already at a decent risk of joint issues and hip dysplasia, I will not get my dog (or future dogs, I suppose) spayed or neutered early – and probably not until the 18 month mark at the earliest (barring any exceptional health or behavioural issue).  Even a slight increased risk in bone or joint issues is enough to deter me, and I would recommend the same for any other large- or giant-breed dog owners who ask.

In the end, I came across this conclusion which I think sums up my official position quite perfectly:

Animals housed at humane societies [and other rescue organizations] should be treated as a population.  Societal benefit resulting from [prepubertal spaying and neutering] of unowned dogs and cats … outweighs all other concerns.  Male and female dogs and cats should be spayed or castrated before being offered for adoption by humane organizations.

Pets should be considered individually, with the understanding that for these pets, population control is a less important concern than is health of each animal.  Dogs and cats should be maintained as household pets.  Responsible owners should ensure that their pets are provided appropriate and regularly scheduled veterinary care.

Sources, References, and Further Reading

http://www.cesarsway.com/askthevet/basicadvice/best-age-to-neuter-or-spay

http://www.caninesports.com/SpayNeuter.html

Responsible Dog Ownership: Spaying and Neutering http://www.suite101.com/content/the-responsibility-of-dog-ownershi-a7325#ixzz15NXXNtYt 

Long Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay/Neuter in Dogs: http://www.naiaonline.org/pdfs/longtermhealtheffectsofspayneuterindogs.pdf

The Controversy is Over: Prepubertal Neutering is the Surgery of Choice: http://www.spayusa.org/media/pdfs/prepubal_neutering.pdf

Long-term risks and benefits of early-age gonadectomy in dogs: http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/spay_neuter/javma_224_3_380.pdf

Determining the optimal age for gonadectomy of dogs and cats: http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/spay_neuter/javma_231_11_1665.pdf

In Response to Petland

Well it appears that my letter to Mayor Nenshi and Calgary’s City Council has garnered a little bit of attention – much to my own delight!

At the time of writing, six Petland employees have addressed my concerns in the comments section.  Six!  This is great!  Because while I didn’t actually mean for my letter to be any form of attack on Petland specifically, as the sellers of companion animals they are obviously on the other side of the issue.  And I’m honestly thrilled to have both sides represented.  I mean, mostly I want people to seriously consider these issues, and then if they agree with me, all the better!

Field Trip

In order to formulate my response, I thought perhaps a field trip was in order.  A little sleuthing, If you will (once a Nancy Drew fan, always a Nancy Drew fan, I guess).  So I went to my neighbourhood Petland.  I mean, I hadn’t been to a Petland in quite some time, so I thought I should make an updated assessment of the place.

And you know what?  In one respect at least, I was pleasantly surprised.  I’m talking about their nutrition aisles.  Recalling my last visit to Petland (over a year ago, for sure), I remember shelves mostly stocked with several big-name brand dog and cat foods, which I think we all know aren’t great, and a very small selection of quality, grain-free options such as Origin.  And, of course, while you can still find poor quality foods in Petland, the quantity and selection of quality foods has increased quite a bit, which I was happy to see.  I didn’t see any raw food options, but I suppose they could’ve been there and I just didn’t find the freezer.

I was also impressed with the openness and patience of the staff.  I asked a lot of questions, and even obtained a tour of the area behind the kennels (I didn’t even have to ask, but apparently anyone who asks can get one).

On the other hand, there was certainly still room for improvement in several areas:

1.  Obviously, I’d prefer a complete elimination of poor quality kibbles and other foods for cats and dogs, as well as detrimental treats such as rawhide.  Several other pet store chains focus specifically on high-quality pet foods, so I don’t think this is an unreasonable request.  I mean, if Petland is all about the best for pets, this is a pretty key component of that.

2.  The “child soup”, or in other words, the public playpen, where puppies are put into an x-pen in the middle of the store to socialize with people and play.  My main complaint is that these pens are unsupervised (by staff; inattentive parents who are just glad their children are occupied don’t count) and there didn’t seem to be any sort of time or population limit.  For two puppies, I counted 9 children tugging and playing and screeching in the small space.  Socialization is good, but that strikes me as uncontrolled and overwhelming.  Not to mention, just anyone who requests can ask to hold/meet a puppy that’s on display in a kennel.  Perhaps that’s where the screening process should start.

3.  Which brings me to my next point: I’m pretty sure I could’ve walked out with an impulse puppy purchase in about an hour.  I didn’t even have to ask to see the puppy I was looking at; he was brought out to me because I seemed interested.  And impulse pet purchases, as we know, are a main concern of mine.  I was walking around with a cat water dish and had a cute yellow lab puppy in my hands in no time.  And while I didn’t go as far to actually fill out any paper work, obtained and reviwed it all, and I’m certain that if I was so inclined they would have sold him to me.  I got no indicators from the staff that maybe I should think about it more, research it more, etc.  And during my tour in the back, I noticed an announcement for a staff competition, where each person is encouraged to earn points.  Pet adoptions, of course, earn you the most points.  Petland talks a lot about matching pets and “guests”, but they’re still a company trying to make sales.  Fun fact: I learned the average puppy is sold in about 10 days, but being sold upon day of arrival is not unheard of.

4.  During my inquiries, I asked about how old puppies are when they arrive at Petland.  The response I received was that they don’t arrive at the store before 8 weeks old.  Well, most of the time.  Because they receive pets at the end of the week, sometimes the puppies arrive a couple of days short of 8 weeks.  I’m sorry, but I don’t care for the grey area.  Especially if it’s a day or two of travel from a breeder in Saskatchewan.  8 weeks of age removal from the mother and littermates should be an absolute minimum, and I’d prefer Petland be absolutely stringent on this policy.  What could the harm be in waiting until the next week, when instead of just under 8 weeks old, they’re just over?

5.  I’m sure it’s an issue with FIOPP, but if so, maybe the breeders should just agree to have their organizations disclosed, because if you buy a puppy from Petland you’re not actually provided with any breeder information.  You get some parent information, yes.  I mention this because I would personally not be comfortable buying a dog from a completely unknown source, no matter how rigorous Petland’s checks may be.

6.  Petland has an extensive flexi leash selection.  I note this, of course, because it is a personal pet peeve of mine; I don’t think they’re quality or useful pet tools.  Not to mention they contravene Calgary’s by-laws.

7.  The sale of particular training tools to just anyone.  I’m uncomfortable with the thought that just anyone can go and purchase a prong or choke collar (or even have one recommended) without having to seek proper training to use such a serious tool.  In the wrong hands, or used on the wrong dog, these training accessories can actually severely aggravate the problem.

8.  While I was there, my attention was drawn to a cute bulldog puppy.  He was 9 weeks old, had been purchased already and was returned.  And he was neutered already.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for the promotion of responsible spaying and neutering of pets, which is a huge factor in unwanted and rescue pets.  However, already neutered at 9 weeks didn’t sit well with me.  Too early.  I am of the particular school of thought that males should not be fixed before at least 10 months old and females should be spayed after their first heat (barring some sort of specific issue that dictates otherwise).  The delay is to benefit proper psychological and physical growth, and these standards are supported by PAACT, the Professional Association of Applied Canine Trainers, among many other independent dog associations.  And while I’m certain the bulldog puppy was neutered too early, I also have concerns about Petland’s general spay and neuter policy/incentive: if you buy a pet from them, and get that pet fixed within 5 months, you are refunded a $50 deposit upon showing the receipt.  This will mean that most Petland puppies are fixed before 7 months of age.

9.  While in Petland’s care, I’d like to see the puppies fed better quality food.  I will try to leave the kennel condition criticisms to others, but I would prefer to see the puppies (if you’re selling them) fed something grain-free and better than Nutrience.  They deserve the best right?

10.  Actually, what I would really like – and what I think is a great idea – is for pet stores to showcase rescue animals.   Since a couple of the employees below hint to a working relationship with local humane societies, it would be much better if rescue animals were featured.  Potential owners would of course still have to go through the rescue agency for adoption, but it would ease the burden on the rescue organization and provide more exposure.

And while those are my standing concerns, I’m also going to take a moment to address the comments individually – and thanks again to each for taking the time to reply.  It’s clear that each is proud of their company and their careers.

Sherry Wasdal, Training Coordinator

Your post has actually provided me with a lot of follow-up questions.  I’ll fire away.

How often does a breeder get investigated?  What is the process for investigating the suppliers of local “accidental” litters?  What exactly happens when you come across a sub-standard facility?  Have you seen any shut down?  What exactly serves as “corrective action”?  Are you in collaboration with local humane societies or SPCAs to shut down and bring attention to these vendors?  Can we see an example of your checklist?  Do you have any statistics on Petland’s charge against puppy mills – exactly and specifically how it has helped?

Speaking of statistics, do you have any on having to re-home your animals?  How often is your “Pets for a Lifetime” policy acted upon?  What happens if you receive an adult animal and cannot re-sell it?  Or does that even happen?  Are the adults treated and housed in the same fashion as puppies?  Do they get walked daily, or just play-pen time?  How do you deal with returned animals who have behavioural issues?  How do you determine a price point for a returned adult animal?  Do you actually canvass rescues for Petland surrenders?  How often?

I honestly do not think that Petland is the only organization checking into high volume breeders, but I welcome evidence that suggests otherwise.

And, of course, the obvious question is that if pets are such a burden to the bottom line, then wouldn’t no longer selling them actually create more profit?  Stores that do not sell pets do not have to invest in the same types of costs, so of course you pay more.  Another fun fact:  I asked when I was at the store today: the bulldog puppy was going for over $3,300, and Petland paid the breeder $1,800 for him.

Trish

My solution helps.  Since implementing this type of ban in Albuquerque, NM, animal adoptions have increased 23 percent and euthanasia at city shelters has decreased by 35 percent.  These are significant numbers.

Stronger regulation of breeders is a much more contentious issue than you think.  Consider Prop B in Missouri, which is being touted as a victory against puppy mills; it’s not quite that black and white.  In fact, Prop B reiterates many of the regulations already in place in the state, and if they weren’t enforced before, why should people think they will be now?  But perhaps the biggest problem with solutions like Prop B is the serious ramifications it can have for livestock farmers, and the suggestion that it can be used as an “in” for the HSUS to more strictly regulate that industry is legitimate.  Companion animals (unfortunately or not) are governed differently, and the solution I have devised here does not impact the livelihood of farmers and our food producers.  Prop B is a potentially slippery slope and I’m not willing to see where it leads.

As far as breeders, I have not – and do not – suggest that some sort of purchased “certification” is good enough.  Instead, each person considering a new pet should do some research, make a visit, and ask as many questions as possible.  Reputable breeders will then have an extensive application process themselves, ensuring their puppies are going to good homes.  And many good breeders – like where I got my dog, for example – do provide warranties and return policies.  Not to mention information on the parents, an open door for advice, and even pet sitting if necessary.  I am also calling for every prospective pet owner to spend some time investigating and researching as much of the history and habitat of any potential pet as possible.

Yes, internet sales are already a problem.  And perhaps like Craigslist has shut down the “personals” section, maybe it and Kijiji should no longer have a pets section.  I’d be all for that.  In the meantime, public education is key, and I stress that no one should ever buy a pet online.

Martina Frensemeier, Companion Animal Warranties, Manager, Behaviour Consultant

While the warranty seems well-intentioned, I’m curious on how often it’s called upon – do you have any statistics?  I also cannot resist the temptation to point out that $1,000 is not that much, and I hope Petland still promotes pet insurance.  Actually, is Petland affiliated with any pet insurance companies? Maybe they should be.  That could be a worthwhile collaboration.

Also, if you are selling top-health animals, would it be too tongue-in-cheek to suggest they shouldn’t need a warranty?  Or that a year is often too short for many potential hereditary or congenial problems to appear before it has expired? 

I had the opportunity to read Petland’s warranty today and it was exactly as you said, and though it sounds good and you’re all clearly proud of it, I can’t decide if it’s unnecessary or insufficient.

Jennifer Brown, Director of Animal Care and Kennel Operations

Thank you for your comments.  I would like more specific details regarding your breeder and puppy selections and investigations, because my concern is that it is all easier said than done.  And while I am aware American Petlands are not associated with Canadian ones, the name association is unfortunate.  The American Petlands made the same promises, but it turned out not to be exactly the case.  I’m looking for more/better reassurance that Petland is as diligent as you all say.

As for impulse purchases, they still happen.  I nearly made one today.  And people with glazed-over puppy eyes can easily say what it takes to get adoption approval in a quick interview.  And in addition, the print and television advertising of Petland certainly promotes impulse pet purchases.

Of course, and as I’ve said, I do not, in any circumstance, promote getting a pet online.

As to your warranty, many reputable breeders now cover pet insurance to a certain age (i.e., 3 months, 6 months, 1 year), so you’ve got some stiff competition in the warranty area.  All good breeders will take a pet back.  In the case of a hereditary or congenial disease, some will even replace your pet from the next litter at no cost in the event it dies from the ailment.  That’s pretty extensive!

Janine Saurette, Kennel Operations Supervisor

Your post provides me with more questions.

You say you do not accept puppies that fail inspection upon arrival.  How often does this happen?  Do they get returned to the breeder?  In all cases?  Do you have statistics?  I assume a returned puppy means you will cease using that breeder and explain why to the necessary people?

I was told today that sometimes puppies are sold the day they arrive – I suppose this means they miss their day 2 vet check-up or are sometimes sold without a complete health assessment?

I’ve heard complaints about the grates in the kennels, that they’re hard on the feet.  The response I received today was that the grate was only half of the floor, but in all cases I saw today, the other half of the kennel was mostly covered up by a dog bed, and not often walked on by the puppies.  What about the concern about too much lighting?  Or that the minimum kennel standards are just that – minimums?  If Petland is going for the best, I expect a great exceeding of minimum standards.

And of course, I would like specific examples and information on how Petland helps prevent sub-standard breeding and care facilities.

Margaret Schmidtke

I would like to be clear: my personal agenda is to bring attention to the issue, prevent “puppy mill” sales and impulse pet purchases.  I am not a PETA member, and am very wary of any association thereto.  As a dog and cat owner, I certainly do want people to be able to have pets, but I also want those pets to always be treated ethically, from the sale throughout the duration of their lives. 

Your proposed provincial solution – higher regulation of breeders – is similar to Prop B in Missouri that I mention in my reply to Trish above.  I also mention my concerns with such a solution, which would actually be the more favoured solutions for institutions to the HSUS, as they open the door to all other sorts of regulations.  So I actually find a contradiction here, in your strongly anti-HSUS post, as they were proponents of Prop B.

And while I see you’re passionate in your stance against the HSUS, I am concerned about stores here, upon which they have no jurisdiction.  But since you brought it up, in my discussion in person with Petland staff today, they completely acknowledged the tarnished past of American Petlands, regardless of the HSUS’s ultimate agenda.  American Petlands were found to be selling many puppy mill puppies, and as much as you are critiquing the HSUS, you are not saying much about that study or its findings.

And on a side note, when you mention Manitoba, my first thought is actually to Winnipeg’s breed ban on pit bulls, which is legislation I am not at all in favour of.

I’ve been to Petland, and while you accuse the HSUS of “manipulating people’s emotions”, I would argue that your advertising does the same, with the result being impulse purchasing.  Putting a cute puppy in my hands today – well, the little guy practically sells himself!

The End

I am truly enjoying this thorough discussion of the issue and I thank all of the above for their responses, and I am looking forward to even more follow-up.  Clearly, I’m not convinced yet, and I hope my (several) questions get answered and I am met with more specifics, details, and numbers.

It’s clear that these Petland employees believe in their company, and also that this isn’t their first rodeo, so-to-speak.

And though Petland has many assurances, the Humane Society of Canada still advises that if you’re going to obtain a new pet “don’t buy a pet from a pet store”.  The Alberta SPCA and Calgary Humane Society of course also promote rescue adoptions as favourable alternatives.

And, of course, my proposed by-law amendment will not solely affect Petland, but all sellers and advertisers of companion animals on public, commercial, and residential properties.

In Defence of Cesar

This Sunday I had the opportunity to briefly meet and attend a seminar by the Grand Poobah of Dog Training.  The Almighty Alpha.  The Crusader of Calm-Assertive.  The King of Canine Rehabilitation.  His Highness of Hounds.  The Sultan of “Shhhht”.  The Emperor of Energy.  The Patriarch of Pack Leaders.

You get the point – who doesn’t love some hyperbole and alliteration?

I, of course, am referring to the one and only Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, who was in town on his Pack Leader Tour.

My review of the seminar is brief: the guy can entertain.  Enthusiastic and motivating are the descriptors that come to mind first.  Cesar did a good job of highlighting his notion of calm/assertive and illustrating what it means to be pack leader/guardian/resource controller for your dog.  He’s very charismatic on stage and it was interesting to see him in action live in real-time, rather than on TV.

However, and as I’m sure you know, not everyone has a postivie opinion of Mr. Millan.

Shocking, right? It shouldn’t be.

In fact, some of his critics charge Cesar with some pretty serious accusations, and I am going to take this opportunity to discuss some.

There is no such thing as Alpha, and to teach otherwise is ridiculous

Frankly, I somewhat disagree, and I think it has a lot to do with semantics.  The average person doesn’t know about canine biology or behaviour – they just know they had a dog when they were a kid and they have one now.  Domestic dogs are so commonplace that, to their detriment, the average person doesn’t feel the need to do a lot of research.  

So whether or not Cesar literally means “alpha”, the important part is what is heard when he says that. And the average layman listener doesn’t hear facts about wolves. What they think is about responsibility and leadership (I hope). Arguments about alpha and the potential responsibilities of anything like a dog parent, guardian, or “pack leader” is an industry-specific semantic debate which detracts from the pragmatic uses of such terms when it comes to our relationship with our dogs and actually trying to teach them something. People in the pet industry can get all riled up debating the specifics of these terms, but the general, TV-watching public is actually in the dark here, and I think the term might actually retain some valuable use when teaching average dog owners how to interact with their pets.

I interpret that Cesar’s main point is about leadership; “calm and assertive leadership”, as you’ve heard, and I actually don’t think there is anything wrong with that on the face of it. When the focus is relationship-building, bonding, and trust, you build a good foundation in any training regimen. And when he repeats “calm” over and over, I sincerely hope it teaches people not to be angry, but patient, when working through challenges with their dogs.

No, our dogs aren’t furry little soldiers hell bent on world domination, but they will test the boundaries of your household rules and they will not pay attention or respond to cues if you haven’t given them a good reason to trust you or focus on you.  And by “rules”, I mean things as simple as not chewing on shoes, sitting before meals, not jumping on you when you’re all dressed up, and not pulling on the leash during walks.

Basically, you can rant, rave, lecture and roll eyes when someone talks about “alpha”, or you can recognise that it has a meaning and definition that may just convey something useful – especially if you decide to take ownership of these terms rather than blacklist them. Because if it’s just the word you are opposed to, those using it can simply bait-and-switch until your fight is now against the word “guardian”, or whatever else disguises the actual meaning and action you are against.

Cesar’s methods are dangerous

Since Cesar was coming to town, our local news organizations decided to perform their due diligence and interviewed some local critics on this very issue.  One example is Ms. Kirsten Rose, who was quoted by CTV saying the following: “you know a child flipping a dog on its back is going to get nipped.”

For Ms. Rose’s sake, I certainly hope this was a sound bite taken completely out of context, because this accusation is – I’m sorry – outrageous.  Who in his or her right mind would teach a child to “alpha roll” a dog?  Any dog?  Well, hopefully no one. I mean, c’mon. When critics take arguments in that direction I have trouble taking them seriously.

It’s one thing to draw legitimate complaints, but it’s another to build up an exaggerated straw man to get a news interview.  And it’s hard to legitimately consider a position when the message isn’t logical.  A lot of people out there really like Cesar, and I suspect these kinds of messages just outright alienate rather than educate.  

Have we seen Cesar “alpha-roll” before? You bet. In fact, his latest book, Cesar’s Rules, surveyed Dog Whisperer episodes and showed that in 27% of episodes Cesar has “pinned” a dog.  So approximately 1 in 4. It’s not the end-all tool for dog whispering, but it does happen often enough. It is something he does himself, but you also don’t see him look at the camera, smile with his pearly whites, and tell us “feel free to try this at home, folks”. 

Those working with dogs in any capacity recognize that potentially getting bit can be a hazard of the job (ask the groomers about this one). Sure, measures are taken to avoid such an occurrence, but it can still happen. As Cesar said in his seminar on the weekend, a dog who bites a human is actually a dog who is “correcting” that human.  He’s not wrong, and close observation of the dog’s actions and body language are the best preventative measures. But things still happen – and they make for “good TV”, thus, if it happens you can bet we will see it on The Dog Whisperer.

And despite putting himself in varying degrees of danger from time to time, Cesar does not advocate attempting these types of techniques at home on your own.  Simple common sense dictates that if you’re dealing with a potentially dangerous dog issue, you should seek professional assistance. 

But you know what they say: common sense isn’t. I’d just have trouble blaming Rachael Ray if I burnt down my house in a horrible flambé accident, that’s all.

Cesar sets the world of dog training back several decades

This brings me to a statement made in the Calgary Herald by Barbara Walmer, head of the behavior department at the Calgary Humane Society, wherein she describes Cesar’s methods as “punishment-based”, as opposed to the training programs at the Humane Society that focus on “positive reinforcement”.  This is when the critics call Cesar “old-fashioned”, subscribing to a “traditional” form of training.

Before you get excited (more excited?), I’m not about to say Cesar doesn’t use punishment. He sure does. Sometimes. Sometimes he teaches dogs that certain actions have negative consequences. Dogs teach each other this very thing with body language, barking, growling, nipping, and even escalate to biting if the situation requires.

However, I feel that calling Cesar Millan (in particular) “punishment-based” pigeon-holes him unnecessarily.  And perhaps unfairly. 

If we look at the aforementioned Dog Whisperer episode statistics, Cesar advocates leadership in 98% of Dog Whisperer episodes, and uses positive reinforcement in 67% of episodes. (See pages 93-94 of Cesar’s Rules.)  Remember the episode with Jody, the feces-eating dog?  He redirected that behaviour by enticing her with bananas. No alpha rolls whatsoever. Cesar’s even been known to use a clicker if he thinks it’s the appropriate tool.

Cesar uses a variety of techniques, acknowledging that one thing isn’t going to work on every dog or for every owner. It’s case-by-case, and he uses the method he deems necessary for that particular dog and environment.  His latest publication also does a good job of detailing how he prefers to take a “balanced approach”, redirecting and interrupting undesired behaviour and rewarding good behaviour.  And his most-used interruption?  The “shhht”, of course, is found in 57% of Dog Whisperer episodes.

For Cesar, reward doesn’t simply mean providing dog treats, either. Especially considering the case of severely stressed or focused dogs, where the nose and appetite are not engaged and a treat – no matter how delicious – will not be enough to get the dog’s attention. Instead, rewards can be in the form of food certainly, but Cesar also uses affection (petting, massage), toys, activities the dog enjoys (play time), or even something as simple as reduced pressure in terms of a more relaxed body language (taking away something they don’t like or that is uncomfortable – “negative reward (R-)” for those in-the-know).

In fact, one of the best things I took from his seminar here was the sentiment “be the cookie”.  Allow me to explain.  Upon spending time exercising and working with your dog, you are building a bond of leadership, trust, respect, and affection.  As your dog bonds with you, time spent with you (working, walking, and just hanging out or receiving affection) becomes a reward in itself.  So the idea is to “be the cookie”, or become the reward ourselves.

So no, I suppose I am not one of those “postive-only” people. In fact, I hazard a guess that while “positive trainers” proudly tout that label and use food treats or clickers regularly, I sincerely doubt they’ve never used any form of punishment – ever.  

Confession time:  I work with my dog using both punishment and reward.  And by punishment I don’t mean brutal beatings or alpha rolls.  I mean a stern verbal “No!” or increased body pressure or ignoring them.  And yes, a leash correction on a martingale collar – though I admit I don’t remember the last time I needed to use one, because they are just not required anymore. Those are punishments because my dog doesn’t like them. And by reward I don’t mean treats (usually); I mean praise in the form of petting or massage most of the time, and occassionally toys and play time, as well.

Perpetuating a dictomy of “punishment” vs. “positive” is unhelpful to the average, confused dog owner who just wants to train his or her dog to come when called, and is devisive and determintal to the training community as a whole, in my opinion.   Are there awful people out there who punish and hurt their dogs? Sure. And they should be reported and punished themselves.  But I don’t see Cesar Millan beating dogs or sticking up for those who do.

Cesar puts dogs in extremely stressful situations

Often cited examples for this argument are the episodes of the Great Dane who was afraid of shiny floors and the St. Bernard who was afraid of going up the stairs. Both dogs had pretty serious phobias, and Cesar was called in to help them get over it.

So what did he do?  Well, effectively he performed exposure therapy on the dogs; he forced them to face their fears.  Did he make them do something they didn’t want to? Yep. Left to their own devices, both dogs would have avoided those obstacles indefinitely, maintaining – or possibly even escalating – their phobia.  Instead, Cesar lead the Dane onto the kitchen floor and the St. Bernard up the stairs. Did they want to go? Nope. They both exhibited many signs of anxiety, and put on the breaks.  But you know what?  It was something like 12 minutes of exposure to stairs and the St. Bernard learned that going up and down the stairs was not a fatal enterprise, and was able to do it on his own without any hesitation.  Problem solved.  Similar results for the Great Dane.  Sure, there was some short-term stress, but the elimination of a phobia and the long-term benefit makes it worth it for both the dog and the owners (in my humble opinion).

This is where the subject of “flooding” comes in.  Flooding is overwhelming the dog with that which it is afraid of, causing undue stress and physical and psychological harm in the process  Instead of flooding, the appropriate technique is to gradually build up exposure to the fear.  Did Cesar use flooding with the Dane and the St. Bernard – pushing them too far too fast?  Many say yes.  Because both of these dogs discussed – yes, while very stressed – overcame their fears in a short amount of time and did not “shut down” (the St. Bernard was going up and down the stairs on his own, stress-free after 12 minutes), I would say neither of these dogs in particular were flooded.  Cesar forced the Great Dane to face its fear of the shiny floor, and once the Dane realised the sky would not fall, the dog was fine. 

Is there a danger that the exact same exercise could flood a different dog?  Absolutely.  Which is why you seek professional help if your dog has a phobia to work through, and who can gauge the appropriate technique to try.

The “don’t try this at home” warning at the beginning of each episode of The Dog Whisperer is telling of both the dangers posed to the people and the dogs when using these methods

That this is a legitimate criticism – posed by many, actually – is both hilarious and ridiculous.  Even minivan commercials have disclaimers about professional drivers on closed courses, so the existence of a TV warning is indicative of nothing but the thoroughness of Cesar’s legal team and the litigiousness of the American public.  I mean, does Windex really need to tell us not to spray it in the eyes?  Does the chainsaw really need to warn you not to stop the chain with your hand?  But you just know that if they didn’t, someone would try to sue for crazy damages from a freak accident/moment of severe stupidity.

And while Cesar is definitely trying to reduce the amount of times he’s named as a defendant because someone thought they could “dog whisper” to a reactive canine, the effect of Cesar’s warning should also be to encourage people to consult a professional when seeking help with their dogs.  

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: common sense isn’t.  It’s hard to blame one person for the stupid actions of others – especially those he’s never even met. 

That’s not to say some have inappropriately or incorrectly interpreted or copied the Dog Whisperer; there are all kinds out there.  And I’m sure Cesar himself would be mortified to see them.

Cesar is “aggressive”

I’m sure you could take a screen shot of every televised dog trainer and put an outrageous caption on it.  I won’t, but check out this Victoria Stilwell clip “Socializing Stains”, where I see leash tension and corrections, physical force, and body pressure all being used – in addition to treats.  Some of those images could also be taken out of context and plastered online.  (I’m just sayin’ – I’m a Victoria Stilwell fan, too, and wish Animal Planet in Canada aired her show.)

Cesar’s version of leadership is all about being calm, deliberate, and confident.  It is not about being physically dominant, intimidating, or aggressive towards dogs, and Cesar emphasizes a calm state of mind whenever possible – keeping yourself from getting nervous, anxious, or angry when working with your dog, and sending the clearest message possible about our rules and expectations of our dogs. This is not bad advice.

The Positive Impact for Pooches

And while I’ve just spent some time defending Cesar (and doubtlessly enraging people), if you’re still with me I’d now like to fill even more space pointing out the aspects of his philosophy and methodology that should be viewed as positive by any dog lover.  Because while fans of the Dog Whisperer believe he does great things for dogs and the dog community, I think there are specific aspects of his work that anyone can and should appreciate.  And I think the “two camp” training dichotomy specifically neglects these points that benefit the dog owning community as a whole.  There are some bonuses to the success of The Dog Whisperer.

1.  He focuses on the people; Cesar draws attention to the human source of a lot of dog behaviours and insecurities.  As he says in every episode, he rehabilitates dogs and trains people. This is accurate and obvious. Anyone with experience helping people with their dogs knows success is directly related to the dedication of the human owners, both in terms of time and mental commitments, as well as their consistency.

2.  He emphasizes that dogs are dogs, not furry little humans. Dogs are animals we’ve brought into our homes, and to treat them as such – as they actually are – is to respect them for what they actually are. As we all know, this is forgotten or ignored by many dog owners, often to the detriment of their canine companions.

3.  Not only are dogs dogs, Cesar also points out that breed is not a good way to characterize or stereotype any individual dog.  He speaks out against the bad, inaccurate reputations of breeds such as Rottweilers and pitbulls, and argues against breed-specific legislation since it is misguided and ineffective.  He is completely correct and is a champion of pitbulls (and to read more on why BSL is wrong and ineffective, check this out: To Ban the Breed?).

4.  He emphasizes the importance of exercise.  This is key, since so many urban dogs are both under-exercised and overweight.  All dogs, regardless of breed, need to be walked daily.  As dog owners, this is our responsibility. 

5.  Cesar will help any dog – any size, any age, any breed. The large-scale acknowledgement that any dog with any “problem” can be helped, and at any stage of life, is great for people who may believe it’s too late for them and their dog.  To encourage these types of cases to seek professional assistance can both salvage a relationship and help keep a dog from being surrendered to a rescue organization – or worse.

6.  In addition to giving optimism to previously hopeless cases, the popularity of the Dog Whisperer has also created a new mainstream interest in seeking training and being a more conscious dog owner. Dogs (or perhaps dog owners) do need training to help them become well-behaved members of our families and representatives of the pet community.

7.  He talks about giving dogs jobs. The variety of dog breeds out there is a result of our selective breeding over the centuries to create dogs best suited certain jobs. Even if it’s just a daily walk, Cesar emphasizes the importance of giving every dog a job to perform to fulfill both his or her physical needs and instincts.  If you spend time training for activities such as agility, tracking, herding, or drafting with your dog, all the better.

8.  He promotes responsible spaying and neutering.  This issue is self-explanatory considering the populations of rescue dogs out there and the number of domestic dogs euthanized each year in Canada and the US.

9.  He promotes rescue organizations, and a proper, thorough consideration of breed, temperament, and energy levels before adding a new dog to the family.  He also deters fans from buying animals from pet stores and other potential puppy mill sources.

10.  He promotes better pet nutrition.  In fact, his current tour is sponsored by Red Moon Custom Petfood, a brand that is grain-, rice-, gluten-, wheat-, and soy-free.  To bring a more main-stream focus on proper pet nutrition for both dogs and cats is great!

So, in conclusion, yes, I’ll say it: On the whole, I’m a Cesar fan. 

While I loathe the idea that anyone can watch the Dog Whisperer and think they can train their dog, I do like the attention it has given to more conscious and responsible dog ownership and training.  If the weekend Dog Whisperer marathons on National Geographic can prompt more people to get training (of any kind) for their canine companions, great! 

I think Cesar’s fame is beneficial to both dogs and owners alike.  And I also think may of his opponents have built up a straw-man version of Cesar to critique, and don’t take a thorough look before crying wolf in many respects.  Or they take a one-dimension take on a season one episode and don’t give the man any opportunity to learn and grow – as everyone does throughout their careers.  

I’m not convinced by those reciting the same old complaints, or those who go so far as to incite physical harm on the guy; though I doubt they are at all swayed by what I’ve just written, either.  But I know angry vitriol doesn’t often change minds or attract people to a position, so I’d really like to see less dichotomy on the issue.

But, really, if I can spur thought-provoking debate, I’m happy.