Skating on the Edge

–similar versions published in the Whippet News and Perspectives

Nothing makes a breeder’s blood run cold faster than a kennel seizure involving a judge, a respected breeder or other member of the fancy. Every month or so, a story of a kennel seizure zips through the Internet like a Border collie through weave poles.

In nearly every case the press throws around phrases like “puppy mill” and “deplorable conditions” and someone announces that it’s “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

We ask each other,
“Did you know her?”
“Was his place really that had?”

We look at our own set-ups and dogs.
“Is she too thin?”
“Would that rusty pen out back get me in trouble even if there are no dogs in it?”
“What about that old shed where I store the grooming table and equipment?”
“Could it happen to me if they caught me on a bad day, say, when the yard was muddy and I hadn’t cleaned it yet?”

Some of the seizures doubtless are justified, but others are not. Many times the charges are dropped, but the dogs are gone forever, reputations are ruined, friends lost, the breeder’s costs run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and the animal rights fanatics have collected another “evil dog breeder” story. They love to refer to “AKC registered breeders” and no one can seem to get it across that AKC registers dogs, not breeders!

So how do these things happen to good people? By the time you’ve heard a dozen or so stories from close up—talked to the people, seen some of the homes or kennels– you start to see patterns. A number of things, while not violations of the law or harmful to animals, bring the breeder to the attention of corrupt or ignorant authorities and give those authorities both reason and opportunity to ruin the owner. Following are some of the things we’ve seen get breeders in serious trouble.

1. Failure to take first-rate care of your dogs.

Most dogs are tolerant of imperfect conditions but animal authorities may not see this as you and your dogs do. Fleas, worms, fur matting, and bad teeth have all been called cruelty recently. Suffering isn’t required, only a condition that could be considered to need better care. Keeping good (organized!) health records for your dogs so you can show what care is being provided can be very helpful.

2. Actual violations of state and/or local law.

If you¹re over the dog limit or can’t meet requirements for a kennel license, either get in compliance, work to have the law changed, or move. You really can’t fight charges if you¹re guilty, and having to place well-loved dogs in a rush (assuming they’re not seized on the spot) is devastating. Keep veterinary records and dog licenses up to date, especially rabies certificates. It¹s a good idea to keep these records near the door where you can find them quickly.

3. Lack of contingency plans.

We all have personal limits and these can change with no warning. Do you have backup care plans in case you break an ankle? Suppose there’s a foot of snow on the ground and your electricity is off? What if you were to lose your job?

What if you learn you are about to be raided? Do you have an evacuation plan? Do you have duplicate records off site, including backup copies of records on your computer? Raiders often seize records and computers and once they’re gone, you may never get them back.

Is your breeding program ‘hardened’ by having intact dogs of your line in other places so that you’d have a chance to restart after a loss?

You don’t need to plan for a tsunami, but anything that has happened in your area in the last few years ought to be covered. Please don’t think it can’t happen to you. Completely unjustified raids with no chance of winning in court are everywhere these days.

4. Dogs that annoy the neighbors.

This only starts with keeping things reasonably quiet and clean (and both odor and fly-free) for your setting — obviously the standards are more demanding on a 1/4 acre suburban lot than in the middle of 15 acres in Hooterville. Fair or not, let one neighbor start calling animal control or zoning every time he thinks he hears or smells your dogs and your breeding program is in serious danger.

Many neighborhoods have a jerk just standing by to work up a feud, and anyone with dogs is a prime opportunity unless you make him a friend first. Perhaps there are dog breeders who win neighborhood feuds but there are very few of them. It’s much more likely that the zoning commission will meet and decide you really should not be breeding dogs in Hooterville. In fact, you shouldn’t have more than four. So get along with your neighbors if at all possible. Reach out, cooperate, help out when you can. Ask if there are problems with your dogs, and if so, don’t get defensive–fix them!

5. Yard or house dirty or in disrepair

Junk in your front yard, an unused rusty crate, one that’s covered with feces you hven’t cleaned out, a carpet soaked by doggy substances beyond the capabilities of OdoBan, a dog yard that hasn’t been cleaned for a few days or longer, a bucket full of stuff (whatever!) on your front porch are “kick me!” signs. Such things probably don’t hurt your animals but that won’t matter if you are inspected. If something on your property could be a photo op for a breeder-hating inspector then do something about it.

Even beyond obvious kick-me’s, keep your house and property as attractive as possible. A zoning commission can cause nightmares even in rural areas if they decide your operation is an ‘”eyesore.”

6. Dogs visible from the street.

Not only are dogs quieter if they can’t see the street, but if people can¹t see how many dogs you have, they are less likely to complain that you have too many! This applies doubly to old, sick, or skinny dogs. People have no way of knowing you are paying thousands for chemotherapy for that old girl, and you don’t want to be in the position of having to prove it to animal control and then go on to convince them that she shouldn’t be put down instead.

If you have a breed with unusual characteristics that might be misinterpreted, keep a copy of the standard and some magazines showing the breed near the door. Examples would be thin dogs (whippets, greyhounds), hairless dogs, (Chinese Crested,  Xoloitzcuintli) and matted dogs (Puli, Komondor, Bergamasco)  Most animal control officers will never have seen these breeds and it will be on you to convince them your dogs ar healthy representatives of their breed.

7. Unhappy puppy buyers and prospective buyers.

An unhappy puppy buyer who feels slighted can cause major problems with just a phone call. Do not get in the situation where you cannot take a dog back and refund a purchase price immediately. If you sense that a buyer is unhappy, then offer (without attitude!) to take the dog back and give a refund. Do this even if doing so would go beyond your guarantee. Most people will immediately calm down once you make the offer and you can then try to work with them on the problems. The few that take your offer should get your full and polite cooperation.

You say you can’t afford it? What you really cannot afford is having to hire a lawyer to fight the storm that one upset buyer can create.

Satisfied people who have bought your puppies are loyal if trouble arises. They know how you keep your dogs. Treat them gently, even when they make mistakes. Stay in touch with them and be sure they know you care about all the dogs you have bred. Be polite and professional with inquiries too: Even prospective buyers can give you major heartache.

8. Co-ownerships.

You¹d be amazed at the number of calls made to animal control officers (as well as lawyers!) by co-owners, many of whom were formerly close friends. There can be reasons to co-own but do it as rarely as possible and only for good reason. “Keeping control over what I breed” is rarely a good enough reason considering the risk such relationships carry. Times have changed, society is litigious, and animal rights activists stand by to take control of our animals at any opportunity. Remember, a great many of them consider any breeding at all to be “cruel and irresponsible.”

9. Allowing unscreened visitors in your kennel or home.

Talk to pet buyers on the phone before inviting them to visit and make sure, as far as possible, that they are legitimate. People who say they might be interested in buying a puppy should be asked to send an application first either as a web form or by mail. Then Google the name and “animal rights,” then name and “HSUS,” then name and ”PeTA,” then name and any local radical AR group you know about. They really do send undercover volunteers to breeders¹ homes. Be suspicious of someone who asks how many litters you breed, how many dogs you have, etc. Don¹t put your street address on your website; get a P.O. box for correspondence. Use a cell number for phone contacts.

10. Going it alone.

The breeders who get clobbered the most easily are often people living alone and without a support network. You cannot have too many teammates in this hobby.

Friends — Particularly those who would give non-judgmental and discreet help if you had an accident or became ill or got over your head for another reason. Of course you should be prepared to give the same if needed.

Animal control — Most AC officers are perfectly reasonable people and if you’re already on good terms with them, you have a strong first line of defense if there’s a complaint or out-of-area authorities try to come after you. The most common advance warning of AR-generated legal trouble is from someone at local animal control who knows you’re okay and hears that a raid is being put together. Your instinct may be to try to stay under their radar, but that can make you look suspicious.

Shelter staff – Can you help your local shelter by donating equipment you don’t need, or grooming or training time? Having people from the shelter appear before a judge for you is invaluable.

Local officials and state legislators — If you are unfairly treated by government employees, a state senator who knows you and has perhaps discussed pet legislation with you can sometimes work wonders.

Media — Local news people who already know you may be extremely helpful in telling your side of the story.

Organizations — The Cavalry Group specializes in protecting the rights of its members to own and breed animals. Check out the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA), AKC Government Relations, your breed parent club, and your all-breed club to find out if they have positions on assisting fanciers unjustly caught in the animal rights machine. Join the Federation! If you suspect trouble in the future, let these organizations know.

Someone once said that we are all just one broken hip away from losing our dogs. Skating too close to the edge — too many dogs, not enough money, bad relations with neighbors, no friends who will help — is more than risky behavior in today’s climate. It is downright dangerous.

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