Yes, many of us think we know the horrors of puppy mills—we’ve seen the videos that capture the sorrowful plight of the breeder dogs, and scanned the news stories. But until I read Rory Kress’s monumental new book, The Doggie in the Window, I truly didn’t know the enormity of the issue. There have been other books that have looked into this subject but none have reached the level Kress does in explaining to readers just how governmental policy can shape and protect this insidious industry.
I admit that when this book first appeared on my desk back in March, I put off reading it. It wasn’t the subject matter, per se, but rather, the idea behind it: after Kress bought a puppy in a pet store, she was inspired to learn how a Missouri-bred dog wound up in a Long Island, N.Y., pet shop window. In full high-horse attitude, I thought to myself that most people, even first-time dog owners, should know better than to buy a puppy from a pet store.
As it turns out, Kress is the perfect person to take on this important investigative project and give it its just due for exactly that reason. A news producer with an impressive journalistic background, she was working at the Today Show when she and her boyfriend (now husband) made the momentous decision to purchase their Izzie, a gangly Wheaten Terrier pup.
As she admits in her opening line, “I love my dog Izzie, but I hate that she exists.” Luckily for us, her embarrassment about being taken in by the pet shop’s sales pitch—that the adorable puppy came from a “USDA-licensed breeder”— spurred her to think there might be a story to be investigated, and to commit, wholeheartedly, to the project. As she quickly learns, saying that a dog comes from a “USDA-licensed breeder” is really like saying a pork chop comes from a USDA-approved and inspected factory hog farm: of very little definitive value.
Kress covers a lot of ground in this book, interviewing many government officials, breeders, humane organizations, veterinarians and researchers (see the excerpt below), and animal welfare advocates. She wants answers to what should be easy questions, among them, the definition of “standard care” mandated by the Animal Welfare Act. Eventually, she gets an answer, and it’s shocking how that definition falls so abysmally short.
As she explains in great and engrossing detail, the government —both state and federal—can be held responsible for not just the creation of puppy mills, but also, for creating the enabling legislation that ensures their business-as-usual will continue. Throw in breed registry organizations like the AKC, UKC and CKC, all of which profit from accrediting purebred puppies, and you have the perfect recipe for a nonstop supply of puppies and buyers eager to purchase them. While many local jurisdictions have outlawed the sale of dogs (and cats) in pet stores, online sales are booming, and the demand is not diminishing. In fact, as Kress notes, of the more than two million puppies sold each year by breeders (from individual kennels to commercial operations), one million of them come from the 2,000 USDA-licensed facilities!
In one of her many eye-opening chapters, “When Big Breeders Have Big Friends,” we find out just how convoluted oversight of breeders is. Two agencies are involved, the USDA and each state’s version of a Department of Agriculture, and their respective inspection reports —even those done on the same day—can differ significantly in how violations are reported, or overlooked. That is, of course, if you can even access those records. Few states post them online, and most require a long, drawn-out FOIA request to view. States with the highest number of puppy mills seem to have the least transparency when it comes to animal welfare issues. Also surprising is how conservative Christian and family-values groups and farm bureaus cooperate to oppose any legislation that would shutter puppy mills.
In this meticulously researched, unbiased book, Kress makes a compelling case and exposes the two main problems with commercial dog breeding in our country: the utter inadequacy of federal laws and regulations related to this activity, and the equally inadequate enforcement of even those weak laws. Sadly, a USDA stamp of “approval” falls well short of indicating what it should—that puppies from approved sources have been carefully bred and humanely cared for before appearing in the pet-store window.
Luckily for us, in this book, Kress has opened the curtains and let in a very bright light on a governmental, bureaucratic and political failure that all who love and honor dogs have the capacity to change, if only we will. The more we know about how the system works; who is in charge; and, most importantly, who has put them in charge, the more we can effect change at the voting booth. And we can thank Rory Kress for explaining that to us.
I urge everyone to read this book. Even those who aren’t policy wonks will find it to be a stunning and compelling page-turner. If Kress’s mission was to inform, educate and inspire us, she most definitely achieves her goal.
In the following excerpt Rory Kress has taken her dog, Izzie, to Dr. Karen Overall’s lab so that cognitive testing can be performed on her dog. She is doing this to better understand her dog better and Overall’s behavioral/ cognitive assessment analyses.
I explain to Overall that many people end up purchasing a puppy from a pet store or online instead of adopting an adult dog because they feel a puppy is a blank slate. They worry that a rescue dog comes with emotional and psychological baggage acquired over years of its life. Puppies, however, seem free of that concern. They’re young and, therefore, are worth the investment of a purchase, because they will be easier to train and mold to a family’s lifestyle even if they do come from an ugly birthplace. I ask if her research confirms this assumption or upends it. She points to Izzie.
“Well, you’re seeing it with every single thing she does: Where’s that umph?”
I ask what that means—what would Izzie look like if she had been bred responsibly?
“You would see a dog that is more willing to try stuff,” she says. “Learning to fail successfully is the single biggest skill we could give any social animal.”
“And that can be disrupted in the first eight weeks of life even?”
“Absolutely,” she says. “They freeze. They stop doing stuff. They get no feedback, and when you get no reinforcement, you stop offering behavior. She offers very few behaviors in cognitive situations.”
“So the notion that if you get a puppy from a [pet shop], it’s not damaged—”
“That is probably completely wrong,” she says.
From The Doggie in the Window by Rory Kress copyright © 2018. Published by Sourcebooks. Used with permission.