sábado, 17 de dezembro de 2011

A puppy for Christmas?

(This article was originally published, slightly modified, in the Portuguese pet magazine Cães e Companhia nº 175, December 2011)

Christmas is traditionally a time of peace, joy and… puppies as gifts?
Is it a good idea to offer a living being in festive times, especially when it is a surprise to the receiver? This text overviews some of the questions about getting a puppy, maybe from a somewhat less-than-common point of view.

There are breeders and then there are breeders!

We all acknowledge that doctors are not all alike; some are better and more efficient at their work than others. We also know there are good and bad mechanics, plumbers that know their work and others just “fix holes”, etc. However, in the popular mind dog breeders seem to be a “one-size-fits-all” issue. There is a tendency to think that they all want to breed as many animals as they can as cheaply as possible in order to maximize profit throughout the lives of the poor bitches. But those who breed dogs do so for a variety of reasons, which will without a doubt affect the final result.

Unquestionably there are breeders that indeed breed with the clear objective of making money, who seek to maximize the breeding life of their animals (regardless of their health, genetics or quality) and the lowest cost, so as to maximize their profit. They are breeders who do not care about the final destiny of their puppies, as long as they are sold, and who benefit the maximum from impulse buying – such as the cute little puppy as a shopping mall’s pet shop window -, preventing the potential buyer from seeing the puppies and the rest of their dogs in their usual environment. They’re the so-called “puppy mills”. In Portugal they are a minority, but the most common source from pet store puppies.

Most dogs come from “plain” people who own a breeding-age bitch, people who, although not necessarily seeking a profit, breed for a wide variety of reasons (excuses?) – because they want a puppy from their pretty bitch, because the idea that all females should have at least one litter in their life (or all males should mate at least one) still runs deep, because they have a purebred and as such they must breed it, if for nothing else then to “recover” the money they invested in her, because children should see the “miracle of birth”, because they did not control their bitch in heat and she got pregnant, etc., etc. These are normally well-meaning people, or quite on the contrary people with no care whatsoever for the reproductive management of their unsprayed females, who just get a female and a male together, with no real concern about what they are breeding or the fate or health of the puppies that are born, as long as they go to people “who promise to love them”. The puppies are often given or sold at a low price, just after weaning, while they’re still in the “cute” stage, without health care (vaccines, worming) so no money is spent on them. These breeders are usually called “backyard breeders”.

Finally, there’s also the true Breeders, those who are indeed worthy of that name, with a capital “B” – those who breed will a well defined goal, who care about improving their breed’s morphological and functional traits, who strive to reduce the occurrence of health, genetic and/or behavioral problems in the breed. They seek to learn as much as possible about their breed and specimens, looking for the best possible match to achieve their goals, even if that means using animals other than their own. Before they breed they try to assess the quality of their dogs, they do health and genetic screening to reduce the risk of transmission of problems to the progeny, they manage the breeding life of their females, respecting rest periods between litters and plan each litter beforehand. And they are people who screen potential owners for one of their puppies, in order to assess if they are a match to the breed and personality of each bred animal (and will refuse a sale if necessary), who try to follow up on the development of each dog in their new home and are available for additional support at anytime, up to, if necessary, repossessing or helping to re-home any dog they bred at any stage of their life. They may be a minority in the sea of dog producers, but these breeders are the main focus of this text.

How much does a puppy cost?

This is the most common a breeder hears. It is often the only question a breeder hears. It is a natural question, and is indeed an issue to consider when pondering getting a dog. But is it the only one? Or is it actually the most important one?
When you want to get a new car, you don’t go into the first dealer you see and say to the salesperson “I want a blue car. How much does it cost?” - do you? First you decide on the type of vehicle you need, compare the technical traits of several brands of cars within the range you want, and only after you have a notion of what you need will you compare prices in several dealers for the makes and models you pre-selected, right? However, when they intend to acquire a living being that will be a full part of their life for 10 to 15 years, most people just seem to care about the price, without seeking to know the animal’s “technical traits”. Just as breeders are not all alike, the potential of each puppy, and the care he received, varies.

At the several freed ads websites, it is common to find puppies on sale for ridiculously low prices. When you ask a serious breeder the cost of a puppy of the same breed, you will get a much higher price. Why the difference? Is there a reason to buy a more expensive puppy when you can find cheaper ones? Yes! And the reasons run on the short and on the long range. Adequately raising a puppy, in order to give him the best possible start in life, is not cheap. You need to think of high quality food, adequate for the mother’s and puppies’ physiological state, supplementation (vitamins, minerals) when needed, regular and frequent worming to each of the puppies and their mother, vaccination, toys for physical and mental stimulation… and that’s not considering the time the breeder spends making sure the whelping goes for the best, the puppies nurse adequately, socializing them and getting them used to future situations they may encounter later in life, etc.
Of course you can easily find here several ways to save money and sell cheaper dogs – with low quality food that does not fully cover the animals’ special needs at this stage, by not doing vaccinations and worming, by selling the puppies immediately after weaning so no money is spent on feeding them, etc… This has, of course, an impact on the puppy’s current and future health. While he is nursing, the puppy receives antibodies from his mother through her milk, but upon weaning that protection ends and is only recovered by means of adequate vaccination. If the puppy changes family just after wearning, that will occur at a time his defenses are down, so there is an increased risk of catching diseases at his new home, a new environment with potentially hazardous risks that didn’t exist at his birth place. Some diseases acquired at this age are fatal or with life-long consequences!
On the long run, it is also a behavioral risk to acquire a puppy at such an early age. Throughout a puppy’s growth, he goes through several phases of development both physical and psychological. Between 3 and 12 weeks of age, there is the “socialization period”, during which he learns behavioral rules, first with other dogs then with other animals and people. If a puppy leaves his mother and siblings too soon he will not have the opportunity to learn canine communication and etiquette, and therefore has an increased risk of future problems in his relationships with other dogs and people.

A serious breeder will refuse the sale of a puppy before 2-3 months of age. This way he will be able to start an adequate plan of worming and vaccination, trying to ensure that when the puppy leaves he already has the necessary defenses to withstand the “aggressions” of his new environment (but it is crucial that the new owner completes the plan for an adequate protection). This period spent with the breeder will also allow the puppy to acquire the basic elements of social interaction with other dogs and people and begin socializing with several types of situations, which the new owner must continue.

There is more than just the price

If you are reading this text then a priori you have an interest on dogs above the population average and will try your best to be a good owner of the dog you acquire. With basic notions of what it takes to have a dog, or past experience, it is natural that your main concern when you get your dog is its price. But the breeder you contact does not know you! When he is contacted and the only question asked is the price, the idea that gets through is that you are just looking for the cheapest dog you can find, which is quite discouraging when he’s trying to find the best possible home for his dogs.
In any case, there are more issues to consider when acquiring a dog, leaving the purchase price as a secondary factor in the overall balance.

For example, you can (and should!) ask about diseases the breed may have, and what the breeder is doing to try to reduce their incidence. When you buy a puppy whose parents have been tested for the main diseases in the breed, even if that’s not an assurance that the puppy will not suffer from them, at least it gives you a notion of the real risk of being or not affected; a puppy from unscreened parents is always “a shot in the dark”, a lottery in which you don’t know what you are acquiring.

You should ask to see the puppies and the dam (sometimes the father does not belong to the breeder, so he may not be present) and try to assess if the puppies seem to be in good physical and behavioral conditions – with shinny coat, clear eyes, active and playful, etc. If the breeder refuses, beware and enquire; if indeed in very young puppies there may be some health risks in being handled by strangers, after the puppies are properly vaccinated that risk is minimal.

Ask the breeder whatever goes through your mind that may be relevant; a serious breeder will be available to answer and educate potentially interested people. Be prepared for the breeder to ask you questions in return, in order to assess if the breed and a specific individual is a good fit for you. After all, a 70 kg St. Bernard may not be the ideal choice for our frail 70 year-old grandmother; a Pug will certainly not be adequate for the dynamic youngster who likes to jog 20 km everyday with his dog; a digging terrier will not be perfect if you like a spotless garden.

And, very importantly, visit several breeders before making a decision! Talk with them, ask questions and answer questions, make up your mind and decide based on information. Remember the price you will pay for your puppy includes not only its cost on the moment, but also all the support the breeder will provide along the animal’s life.

Do you have puppies available?

This is usually the 2nd most common question the breeder gets asked, when we get to the 2nd question. Also for obvious reasons. The person knows he wants to add a 4-legged companion to his life, so he wants to do it as soon as he decides so. However, that is not necessarily the best way!
A breeder doesn’t always have puppies available; he will have them when he thinks he found a combination of parents that will take him one step closer to his goals. If he has several animals, he may be able to manage his bitches in such a way that he will indeed be able to have several litters throughout the year, if he so desires and has an adequate demand. However, if he has few specimens, he will have greater intervals between litters, there will be times when he will not have youngsters available.

If you are interested in a popular breed, there may be enough responsible breeders for you to, with some research, find a breeder you like with available puppies. However, in the case of rarer breeds, with few breeders, odds are you will not find available puppies exactly you decided you want one. In this case, the ideal is enrolling in the breeder’s waiting list, waiting for an available pup. This will give you a greater chance of getting your puppy, especially because many breeders only breed when they have good homes for their puppies already lined up.

Spend this time talking with the breeder, posing all your doubts and questions you can think of and easily and quietly preparing the arrival of your new companion. Use this period also to ponder seriously if this is the right time to acquire a living being that will require constant care and attention for the next 10 or more years. We live in a society of immediate consumption and gratification, in which we buy goods without seriously considering if we need them and what we will do with them in the future. An animal is not a teddy bear or a playstation we can put on a shelf when we get bored with it!

A puppy as a gift?

Christmas is traditionally a time when there is more demand for puppies. There are those who think they are ideal gifts, who want to offer a pet to their spouse, to a relative or even a friend. It is also common that people want to offer a puppy to their child, because he has been nagging for months for one, or because he had good grades at school, or to “teach him responsibility”… However, for a serious breeder, Christmas is one of the most complicated seasons! It’s a time when it is harder to distinguish between good and bad prospective clients. Because offering a puppy as a surprise to someone is usually a very bad idea. Acquiring a living being should be a well pondered act, in which all involved must agree on the decision. Otherwise there is the serious risk that they will not have time or will to properly take care of the animal, loose interest in the “novelty”, etc., which leads to a raise in the relinquishment rate shortly after Christmas.

A classical example is buying a dog so “the child becomes responsible”. In principle that’s all very nice, but what happens when the youngster goes back to school and no longer has time available for the dog? Or when the novelty wears off and the puppy grows and the child looses interest in the dog, as often happens with young children (or teenagers who suddenly find other interests in life)? If the parents did not agree previously that the final responsibility for taking care of the animal is theirs, sooner or later it is probable that he will be relinquished. What responsibility are you then teaching your youngsters? That when you lose interest in them, it’s ok to abandon a living being?

Also from the point of view of the puppy himself, Christmas holidays are not the best to change homes. The dog is already going through the shock of suddenly losing all that was familiar to him and finding himself in a strange environment -at a place where traditionally at this time there is great commotion, with school holidays, family and friends staying over, etc., when what he needs is peace to get adjusted to his new home and develop properly. And when he finally starts getting used to his new life, suddenly it all changes again – holidays are over, children go back to school, adults go back to work and the environment changes again. It is better to wait for the post-holidays period to welcome the puppy, so he has a smooth transition to the normal yearly rhythm of his new family.

If you indeed decide that it is appropriate to offer a puppy for Christmas, if the decision is made responsibly, with everyone involved and the the breeder agreeing on it, instead of subjecting the puppy to this confusing time, why not arrange with the breeder a sort of “welcome package” to whoever will receive the puppy for Christmas, instead of the dog himself, as a preparation to go pick him up later, at a better time?

Adopt, don’t buy?

As Christmas is a time when the acquisition of dogs is traditionally higher, campaigns for the responsible adoption of abandoned animals are also more visible. Frequently their chosen motto is something in the lines of “adopt, don’t buy” or “each dog bough is a pound dog that gets killed”. But isn’t this somewhat of emotional blackmail?

Often, the type of people who seek a purebred at a breeder is different from that who adopts from a shelter. While the later “just” (with any prejudice intended) want a loyal companion, those who seek a purebred often do so because they desire a certain amount of physical and behavioral traits which are easier to find in a purebred than in a mutt, due to the selection exerted which  leads to traits being substantially more predictably in a purebred puppy. (1)

Anyway, even if a bought puppy might potentially mean, on the very short term, that a stray dog is not adopted, on the long run the consequences may be different. When you buy a puppy from a serious breeder, you are simultaneously ensuring a life-long support, the breeder will be available to help the owner whenever and wherever possible, inclusively to retake or rehome the dog if necessary. Therefore the risk of this dog being relinquished later on is seriously reduced. The greater the proportion of dogs bought from responsible breeders, as opposed to from puppy mills or backyard breeders, the smaller the odds they end up in a shelter.

Do your homework!

Some years ago it might have been difficult, for those not in the fancy, to know how to find a breeder for a given breed and what to look for in a puppy. Nowadays, with the major role the internet plays in our lives, with specialized media available to the public, this task is considerably easier. Spend some time researching the breed of your choice (and be objective as to the source of the information!!), visit several breeders and talk with them, even if you’re not planning on getting a dog right now – it is crucial to know if your choice fits your lifestyle and personality, it is important to find a breeder in whom you can trust and feel supported whenever you need to, throughout your dog’s life. Basically, use your common sense and critical judging and don’t fall into the trap of immediate gratification. Having an animal in our life is a great responsibility, he demands time and dedication for many years and will not remain a small cuddly puppy for long. This is probably one of the most important decisions you will make in your life! You will surely want to do it with as much information as possible, right?

And by the way, after you get your puppy, do try to keep a regular contact with the breeder. He leaves a little bit of himself in every puppy he hands over, and would also like to hear from him, to know that he is growing well (or not) and that he and his family are happy!

(1) In Portugal, breed rescues (groups dedicated to rescuing and rehoming dogs of a particular breed or group of breeds) are not yet common

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