Oh they’re cute, they’re downright addicting. It was precisely this reason that when I was approached to find and photograph puppies for a book titled Puppyhood: life-size portraits of puppies at six weeks old, I immediately agreed. I indulged in selfish daydreams about all the round pink bellies I would get to nuzzle and all the miniature toes I would get to massage between my fingers. But after the haze of the impending puppy-overdose passed, I realized this book project actually offered an opportunity far more important than getting high on puppy breath.
Having worked in the pet industry for nearly a decade, I have noticed one profound divide between the thousands of dog-loving people that I’ve met. It is an unspoken imperative that if you are a “properly educated” dog lover, you must ultimately align yourself with one of two parties: camp “spay & neuter” or camp “purebred”; never the twain shall meet. At its most extreme, this “rescue” vs. “breeder” mentality dictates that good animal advocates foster and adopt shelter dogs (and would never dream of owning a purebred dog) and good breeders are single-breed fanatics who live for dog shows and look upon mixed breed “mutts” with disapproval.
It is not exaggerating to say this debate can be as controversial as religious arguments for creationism versus scientific support for evolution!
Thankfully, these extreme stereotypes are impossibly inaccurate when applied to the dog-loving population at large: many responsible breeders also operate rescue organizations and many compassionate foster families also own purebred dogs. But who hasn’t played up their affiliation with one or the other camp in order to “fit in” with friends or colleagues? This social pressure is especially odd when arguably, the motivation behind it all is simply to love and be loved by dogs.
Meanwhile, we are constantly confronted with statistics about animal shelters overflowing (with purebred dogs nonetheless) yet the stigma remains that “mongrels at the pound” are somehow damaged, dangerous or un-loveable. On the flip side, nightly-news exposés on puppy mills or backyard breeder operations have become more and more common. Around the holidays, this media-fueled fire flares up, as some families “shop” for puppies to give as Christmas gifts, a practice that both sides of the dog debate condemn equally.
The puppy-gift trend is especially troublesome as puppies are clearly not toys, and they have this pesky tendency to grow into full-size dogs. Animal advocates like Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog” star Victoria Stilwell have spoken out against this act, spreading slogans like “Adopt Don’t Shop” in order to encourage people to do their homework before putting that puppy dressed with a giant bow under the Christmas tree.
Victoria explains: “No matter how cute they may look, it’s almost always a bad idea to give a puppy as a gift. Whether it’s from a shelter, a reputable breeder or a neighbor’s fuzzy little litter, the sad statistics regarding puppies who are surrendered to shelters after being received as presents are undeniable. Instead, consider encouraging potential pet owners to foster animals from their local shelter before adopting so that they can truly understand the responsibility that comes with bringing that pup into your family.”
Even more worrying is that a large percentage of holiday surprise-puppies are purchased from pet stores. Despite the widespread consumer appreciation that buying a dog from a pet store is a bad idea, many compassionate people are inclined to rescue the pup from its horrible circumstances.
Victoria warns, “please don’t think you’re ‘saving’ the life of that puppy from the local pet store—you’re actually unknowingly sentencing countless other dogs to misery and euthanasia by supporting one of the most abhorrent practices mankind has developed: puppy mills. Essentially all (99%) of pet store pups come from backyard breeders and puppy mills, no matter what the store owner may say.”
I admire how outspoken Victoria is about the critical issues facing dogs and people today, she certainly walks her talk. But as a writer, photographer and business owner within the pet industry, I have always tried to be more like Switzerland. Gently tiptoeing from one side of the dog debate to the other, hoping to stay objective. I do of course, take every opportunity to educate those around me (often to their chagrin) about the “dog beliefs” I am passionate about: the importance of spay/neuter programs, the superiority of positive reinforcement dog training, the inadequacies of breed legislation and of course, the importance of adopting, not shopping for dogs. But I also own two purebred dogs, one impulsively adopted, one researched and purchased from a breeder. Because of this dichotomy, I have always felt like a bit of a fraud in the company of extreme members of either dog camp. Similarly, I have wondered, do I walk my talk?
When presented with the Puppyhood project I recognized an opportunity to take action, to create something beautiful to bring people together. To unite us in celebration of the miraculous creation we are so clearly obsessed with… Dog, at its most precious and pure.
I am so proud of Puppyhood for this reason: it is simple and uncluttered; it allows each puppy to shine as the wobbly, wriggly, fluffy work of art that they are. More profoundly however, my hope remains that the book is a tangible object that allows both sides of the dog debate, as well as anyone with a fondness for dogs, to just stop for a moment and cherish the bits, big and small that make all dogs worth fighting for.
One added benefit I didn’t foresee, is that Puppyhood has turned out to be an ideal substitute for an actual puppy. So, consider giving the gift of Puppyhood this holiday season, or anytime a proper puppy fix is required!
J.Nichole Smith is an author, photographer, designer and consultant specializing in the pet-industry. In 2006 she co-founded popular lifestyle brand, Dog is Good ®. Recently, Nichole packed up her dogs and re-located to London where she is currently completing her Masters in Marketing.
Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.
Photos by: J.Nichole Smith, www.dane-dane.com