Just Say No To Puppy Mills: Q&A With Rory Kress

Bark editor-in-chief Claudia Kawczynska in conversation with Rory Kress, author of The Doggie in the Window
By Claudia Kawczynska, October 2019
Kress - Doggie in the Window

We caught up with Rory Kress, author of The Doggie in the Window, a meticulously researched, page-turner of a book that shed new light on how damaging puppy mills are to both the dogs and those who buy them (including the author herself). We selected this book as the winner of Bark’s 2018 “Best Nonfiction” award, and jumped at the chance to ask her some follow-up questions.

Bark: How did puppy mills become what they are today?

Rory Kress: The rise of factory farming forever changed the face of agriculture in the United States—and, sadly, commercial dog breeding falls into the category of agriculture in this country. That was really what started my investigation into this topic: why in the world, I wondered, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for overseeing the breeding of puppies? Sure, the USDA tells us what milk is safe to drink and what meat is okay to eat. But should an agency in charge of so much dead meat really be the one to tell us that living dogs are being humanely kept?

Shockingly, dogs are considered livestock when they’re kept for the purposes of breeding. When I speak on this topic, I often bring my dog Izzie with me; she roams the room, galloping from person to person, sniffing hands and licking faces. I ask everyone gathered if this animal is livestock or a pet? No one has yet to make the argument that she’s livestock—and I expect no one ever will.

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This difference is significant; in some states, mistreatment of a companion animal is a felony, while abuse of livestock is a misdemeanor. In one court case, a judge ruled that two dogs on the same property with the same owner can have different distinctions. If one is kept for breeding, that dog is livestock. If one is kept as a pet, that dog is a companion animal. Same property, same owner, same animal. Two different treatments under the law. The dogs don’t know the difference; they have the same threshold for pain and the same need for humane treatment. Seems unfair, doesn’t it?

These distinctions have enabled breeders to treat dogs much the way they treat any other farm animal. While I should be clear that I don’t think any animal (even ones destined for your table if you choose to eat meat) should be factory-farmed or inhumanely treated, it’s even harder to accept that dogs be treated this way. Why? Because these are animals who co-evolved with us for millennia. They are emotionally bonded to us to the point that they can’t simply be released to the wild to revert to being wolves. Our bond predates the very words and languages we have to describe it.

Studies have shown that dogs often prefer human keepers to their own littermates. Other studies, which put dogs into brain scanners, found that they had a stronger response to human praise than to treats. We take this bond for granted because we see it every day—but we absolutely cannot do that when it means that dogs are put in situations to be mistreated. It’s time we honor that bond.

BK: How may puppy-mill puppies differ from those from a reputable breeder?

RK: During my investigation of commercial dog breeding, I took Izzie to one of the world’s leading animal neurobehavioral experts. She conducted a rigorous test that made it clear that my dog—born in a USDA-licensed commercial breeding operation, separated from her mother and shipped cross-country in a truck at around eight weeks old, and put into a cage for sale in a pet shop—was significantly disadvantaged emotionally and cognitively compared with a dog who perhaps had a better start.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that the USDA-licensed and -approved system of breeding and transport for sale virtually guarantees lifelong issues for the dog. So why buy into that system and just hope for the best? And why buy into the lie that a pet-shop puppy is a blank slate you can raise as you choose, and a rescue may come with unknown baggage? That’s just marketing. The pet-shop puppy is no more a clean slate than any other dog and, if it comes from a USDA-licensed commercial breeder, it could very well have more issues than a rescue.

BK: Puppy mills seem to have political support; why do you think that is?

RK: Commercial dog breeding has been taken under the mantle of agriculture in this country, unfortunately. As a result, the same lobbyists and interest groups that protect Big Ag are the ones who support puppy millers. I find this relationship disingenuous. Here’s why.

Take Missouri. The “Show Me State” is the heartland of our nation’s farming and, no surprise, has more USDA-licensed commercial dog breeders than any other state. Why would that be? As one animal welfare lobbyist there explains, over the years, small farmers have been put out of business by farming conglomerates. Where once you could be a small, mom-and-pop pig farmer in Missouri, now, Smithfield and the like have put you out of business. So what are you going to do? All you’ve ever known is farming and now you have a bunch of empty swine cages. As that lobbyist put it to me, succinctly and tragically, in Missouri, they’ve gone from hogs to dogs.

So when animal welfare groups attempt to make reforms that would improve breeding conditions, Big Ag money floods radio and television with ads to convince people to vote against them. Strange as it may seem, putting a cap on the number of dogs that can be bred at a single facility terrifies these groups; they fear it will eventually come to mean a cap on the number of chickens, pigs or cows that can be farmed.

So, these small farmers have been put out of business and pushed into being puppy millers—which itself is no great source of revenue, as the real money often goes to the brokers who ship the dogs to pet shops. To survive, smaller operations have to cozy up to the very groups that sold them out over the years. It’s sad, and there’s not a lot being done to help them find a new line of business that could be more lucrative, and more humane.

BK: What role do licensing organizations like the AKC play in the ongoing existence of puppy mills, and how can/should they change?

RK: The AKC should be considered complicit in giving credibility to puppy mills. When a puppy mill can show the same stamp of approval as a reputable breeder, it’s unfair to the consumer and it’s unfair to the responsible breeders, who can’t prove they’re any better. I’ve spoken with reputable breeders who expressed this frustration themselves.

I challenge the AKC to take an active role in promoting better breeding standards and reforming the Animal Welfare Act, which the USDA follows to regulate these facilities. According to the HSUS, the AKC often fights legislation that would improve conditions for breeding dogs. Why? Wouldn’t these laws be in their best interest as well? This even as the AKC’s own “Breeders of Merit” have pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges on several occasions over the years.

Beyond the group’s political involvement in protecting breeders and their profits over the dogs’ well-being, I see a deeper issue. The AKC is responsible for promoting and marketing the perceived value of the purebred dog. Every year, the winning breed of the nationally televised dog show sees a spike in desirability from would-be pet purchasers. Again, why?

As Americans, we are born-and-bred consumers. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. We see dog breeds as we see brands. We buy a Ford the way we’d buy a Golden Retriever: they’re reliable, they’re all-American and they’re classic. We buy a vintage sports car the way we’d buy an English Bulldog: they’re not practical and they may not last long, but we like their looks and what they say about us. We need to recognize these behaviors in ourselves. The dogs aren’t changing but we, the consumers, can.

BK: If someone is intent on a purebred, how should they go about finding one?

RK: I’m a major proponent of common sense when it comes to acquiring a dog. Of course, first, you should adopt instead of shop. Until the shelters are clear, we should all be adopting—too many dogs are euthanized every day. But I’m also a realist in the sense that I know people will always want to buy. So to them, here’s my advice: visit the breeder in person. Even if that breeder is far away, travel to them. If you can’t make that commitment, then reconsider getting a dog. Ideally, this is a 10- to 20-year commitment for you, and a lifelong one for the dog.

If a breeder will not allow you on their property, don’t buy. Breeders who will only meet you in a neutral location (a shopping-center parking lot, for example) or who offer to come to your home or who will even ship a dog via airplane without a human accompanying it: they are often working to make sure you’re not able to verify the condition of their operation.

What should you look for when you go to a breeder’s property, assuming they allow you in? It should be very obvious what is good and humane. I visited a breeder when I was working on The Doggie in the Window. When I asked to see where they kept their dogs, they laughed and asked if I wanted to see their bedroom. (That’s an unusual example.) At other responsible breeders, you’ll see that they house dogs in spacious facilities where they are free to roam and engage in typical dog behaviors, both indoors and outdoors.

You’ll also know a puppy mill when you see it: stacked cages, dogs without human interaction, factory-farm conditions. Trust yourself—don’t trust anyone else to tell you unless you see it in person. I believe that if more consumers could visit these bad actors themselves, they’d march right out and consider a rescue with a lot more seriousness than before.

Buying dogs via the internet is another issue. The internet has made it easier than ever to dupe consumers and feed the click-to-purchase whim we’ve all gotten so comfortable using for other goods. But these are not tee-shirts or sneakers—these are living animals that deserve our respect.

I interviewed several people who purchased dogs online from what seemed to be reputable breeders only to find that they were sorely mistaken. Every one of them regrets their decision—even though they love their dogs unconditionally.

BK: What role do puppy brokers like the Hunte Corporation play in the whole bringing-dogs-to-market model? Some consider the large brokers to actually be good for dogs, because their business plans should be concerned with providing “good and reliable products” (pups) to stores. According to this line of thinking, they would only work with “reputable” commercial breeders. What’s your take on this argument?

RK: Puppy brokers further impede the transparency that could bring much-needed change to this industry. Some are companies that physically ship puppies from farms in the heartland to high-priced pet shops in cities on the coasts. Others are websites that claim to aggregate the finest dogs from the most reputable breeders so consumers can rest easy that they’re getting a humanely bred dog shipped straight to their door.

However, I have yet to see a puppy transporter/broker or website that is willing to share exactly how it decides which breeders are reputable. What they’re doing instead is filling an important role in the breeding process that disadvantages the consumer from seeing the truth. A dog might not sell for much in rural Missouri, but could fetch thousands of dollars in a Manhattan pet shop.

How do you close that gap? If the breeder has no way to sell their dogs, they will be forced to find a different line of work. But thanks to brokers and websites that do the selling for them, they are able to ship off their supply and continue operating. Brokers and websites are often making out far better financially than the breeders; they buy low and sell high.

I wish there were a company that could vet the industry and reliably tell consumers which breeders are reputable and which are not—especially in the absence of USDA transparency, although this is the role the agency was intended to play. However, no such company currently exists.

This is why, if you’re intent on purchasing and are not willing to adopt, you must meet the breeder in person at their facility. That’s the only way to really know who you’re dealing with.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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