Popular dog breeding myths, debunked

"Puppy mill" is a dangerous term used to further divide the dog world

by Dr. Judi Stella, PhD - Head of Standards & Research at Good Dog

Good Dog is on a mission to build a better world for our dogs and the people who love them by educating the public and advocating for dog breeders. Our community is committed to creating a movement that educates the public so that they understand why it is so important to get their dog from a responsible source, how to identify responsible sources, and why, if we want to decrease dog abandonment in shelters and rescues and have healthier dogs, it is critical that we support and recognize responsible and ethical dog sources.

In order to accomplish our mission, the language we use must be precise and non-judgmental in order to bring dog people from across the spectrum together to create a world that is a better place for our dogs. The only way we can succeed is by uniting because we are so much stronger together. Therefore, we are committed to no longer using the term “puppy mill” in our communications and we will use all our efforts to avoid using labels (especially negative or judgmental labels), because labeling is divisive and can create an us-versus-them mentality, which is detrimental for the whole dog world and, most importantly, the dogs. The only way we will succeed is if we come together. Which is why instead of using negative labels, we will focus on examining and evaluating a breeder's practices in order to specifically assess the program, how it compares to the Community Standards we’ve established, identify which practices could use improvement, and provide support and guidance for improvement, with the hope of welcoming all who are willing to improve into our community one day.

Why are we taking this position?

What is a “puppy mill”? What do you imagine when you hear “puppy mill”? How does it make you feel?

There is no standard, formal definition of a “puppy mill.” The Oxford dictionary defines a “puppy mill” as “an establishment that breeds puppies for sale, typically on an intensive basis and in conditions regarded as inhumane” while other definitions state that “puppy mill is a term used to describe a commercial dog breeding facility that profits from selling puppies on a large scale” and yet another says a puppy mill is a facility that places "emphasis on quantity over quality, indiscriminate breeding, continuous confinement, lack of human contact and environmental enrichment, poor husbandry, and minimal to no veterinary care.” The closest we have to a legal definition is from a 1984 court case, Avenson v. Zegart, 577 F. Supp. 958, 960 (United States District Court, D. Minnesota, Sixth Division January 17, 1984), where “puppy mill” was defined as "a dog breeding operation in which the health of the dogs is disregarded in order to maintain a low overhead and maximize profits.”

This lack of a consistent, standard definition is problematic. Each of us has constructed our own criteria for what we define as a “puppy mill.” It is now a term often used as a non-specific, inflammatory, disparaging insult to describe breeding programs that are of varying quality and size, whether or not those breeding programs are in fact operating ethically or unethically.

“Puppy Mill” Myths

In conjunction with the term “puppy mill,” there are several myths related to the “tell-tale signs” a breeder is a “puppy mill” or the reasons we do not need dog breeders. These myths have been promoted by organizations opposed to dog breeding. We aim to debunk a few of them below.

Myth 1 (and it’s a big one!): There is an overpopulation of dogs in the United States.

Since the 1970’s, there has been an historical shift in the perception of dogs and cats in society as companions and family members. This has been paired with a coinciding decrease in the number of free roaming dogs and shelter intake and euthanasia rates in the US. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that in 1973, 13.5 million cats and dogs (approximately ~20% of the pet population) were euthanized. By 1985, however, that number had declined by 50% to an estimated 7.5-10 million and has continued to decline. Shelter Animals Count recently reported a 24% decrease in shelter intake (152,906 vs 115,748) and a 25% decrease in euthanasia (10,600 vs 7,950) when comparing March 2019 vs March 2020. Conflating euthanasia rates of dogs with cats further hides the progress made in reducing dog euthanasia. These two species face dramatically different population management issues, since the feral cat population remains large while the feral dog population barely exists. Combining those numbers further confuses the public’s understanding of whether or not there is a dog overpopulation problem.

The success in decreasing the number of dogs and cats being relinquished and euthanized has largely been driven by changes to shelter and veterinary practices and promotion of spay and neuter policies, differential licensing requirements and fees for intact and altered dogs, and the change in societal perceptions and uses of pets from primarily working animals to family members. As Patti Strand, the founder of the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA), explains, “we have a dog distribution problem in this country, not a dog overpopulation problem...dog overpopulation is no longer a problem in 35-38 states, and [for] all the states where dog surpluses remain, it’s declining.”

Data show that the percentage of dog-owning households has remained stable (~38%) for the last 4 decades, however the number of households in the US has increased from 88 million in 1986 to 128 million in 2020. The total number of dogs in the US is currently estimated to be 76-78 million. While we should continue our efforts to further reduce the number of dogs in shelters, these numbers show that dog overpopulation in this country is no longer the problem it was several decades ago, and highlights the need for responsibly bred dogs from dog breeders to meet the current and future demand.

Myth 2: Breeders who don’t allow visitors are “puppy mills.”

Some say that if a breeder does not allow a buyer on their property then they must have something to hide and are not caring for their dogs appropriately. Although transparency should always be a key attribute of a responsible breeding program, biosecurity is equally important in keeping dogs, and especially puppies, healthy. Responsible breeders often limit visitors to their home or kennel for this reason. Until puppies are fully immunized against infections and potentially life threatening diseases such as parvovirus, limiting visitations is a wise decision by breeders.

Breeders may also be concerned about safety for themselves, their family and their dogs. Unfortunately, some breeders have been targeted and threatened (both verbally and physically) by people who oppose dog breeding. This makes breeders uncomfortable opening their homes or kennels to any potential buyers.

If a buyer is looking for a puppy, the potential puppy owner should speak with the breeder and discuss their desire to see the puppy’s parents and their housing environment. Responsible breeders will be open to discussing their visitor policy and will do everything possible to be sure a puppy buyer is confident that they are acquiring a puppy from a good source.

Many breeders today offer “puppycams,” which are live webcams that follow their pups and moms as they grow. This is a great way for buyers to see how puppies are being raised and dogs cared for while still allowing the breeder and pups to be safe.

Myth 3: Only “puppy mills” sell dogs online.

Buyers are searching for puppies online. You have probably visited gooddog.com in search of information, a breeder or a puppy. The internet is an integral part of all businesses, including dog breeding, in this day and age. Showcasing a breeding program online does not mean a breeder is irresponsible.

Websites can be used to facilitate connections between breeders and potential puppy buyers. However, the internet should typically only be a starting place. Responsible breeders often have a screening process for potential dog owners and may ask potential buyers to complete an application, have a lengthy interview, and/or might call a potential buyer’s veterinarian or other references. Responsible breeders will likely have a contract that states both parties’ obligations to ensure the puppy will be provided with a forever home. That said, websites that look like online stores where you can choose a puppy, place the puppy in your shopping cart, and the dog is shipped to you in a few days are likely not good sources. Potential buyers should be sure to choose a breeder that has a screening process that makes them feel comfortable.

Myth 4: Only “puppy mills” breed dogs back to back and have multiple litters.

Historically, the veterinary community believed that female dogs needed a break between litters. Thus, anyone who bred a female in consecutive heat cycles (twice in a year) was an irresponsible breeder. However, cutting-edge canine science shows there is no reason to skip a heat cycle if the bitch is in good physical condition.

According to Dr. Bob Hutchison, one of the leading reproductive veterinary specialists and founder and co-director of the Animal Clinic Northview, bitches are actually healthier when they are bred on a heat cycle than if it is skipped. Multiple breedings in a row do no harm to a healthy bitch. The American College of Theriogenologists and Society for Theriogenology (experts in reproduction) in their Position Statement on the Welfare of Breeding Dogs state, “Bitches may be bred on consecutive estrous cycles if they maintain or regain their breed appropriate body condition and are deemed healthy on the basis of veterinarian examination prior to the onset of the next proestrus.”

Myth 5: All commercial breeding facilities are “puppy mills.”

There are approximately 2,200 dog breeders licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that are inspected annually and must meet the requirements as detailed in the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which includes provision of veterinary care, food, water, shelter, and social interactions. A legitimate argument can be made that the AWA’s minimum requirements are not as rigorous as most people would like them to be, but dogs in many commercial breeding facilities are maintained in far superior conditions then is often depicted by the media and animal welfare groups. In fact, many commercial breeding facilities are committed to ensuring their dogs have good welfare and that the dogs’ standard of living far exceeds the AWA’s minimum requirements by providing exercise yards, indoor/outdoor access, enrichment, socialization, including early neurological stimulation (ENS) and puppy activity centers, and comprehensive veterinary care including preventative care for periodontal disease.

Dr. Candace Croney, Director of the Center for Animal Welfare Science and Professor of Animal Behavior and Well-Being at Purdue University and one of Good Dog’s advisors, has created a nationwide certification program, Canine Care Certified, that establishes rigorous standards, guidelines and a third-party auditing system for commercial dog breeders that focuses on behavioral and physical health of breeding dogs and their puppies. The breeders certified by Canine Care Certified far exceed the minimum requirements of USDA licensing in ensuring their dogs have good welfare - demonstrating that facility size is not indicative of the quality of a breeding program or the ability to guarantee the health and welfare of the dogs. In a recent interview with Good Dog, Dr. Croney said that commercial breeders participating in Canine Care Certified and those working toward certification have demonstrated high interest in learning and applying animal welfare principles to their kennels. Dr. Croney believes that many such commercial kennels have made impressive strides in a fairly short period of time, particularly in regard to supporting the behavioral and mental well-being needs of their dogs. Ms. Strand agrees that such improvements have been made not only in the facilities, themselves, but also in the understanding of socialization that dogs need to have with each other and with people. Not only have major enhancements been made to kennel design and the frequency and quality of human-dog interactions in these commercial kennels, but genetic screening and selection and health care programs have also been improved. Perhaps most importantly, dogs are being set up for success outside of the kennel as commercial breeders work to retire and humanely rehome dogs at young ages. Dr. Croney believes these attitudes and behaviors of commercial kennel owners entirely contradict those implied by the term “puppy mill.”

Legislation and Ballot Initiatives

The term “puppy mill” is often intentionally used to elicit an emotional response from the public in order to garner support for anti-breeder legislation by conflating irresponsible and responsible dog breeders, and to bias the public against dog breeders. This legislation is purportedly intended to make the world better for our dogs, but it is often overreaching, has a negative effect on the dog breeders who are making responsible choices, conveys to the public that responsible dog breeders (including many responsible commercial breeders) and unethical producers are one and the same, and creates a breeding ground for irresponsible sources to continue to take advantage of the misinformed public.

One notable example of this kind of legislation is Colorado’s proposed House Bill 20-1084, known as the “Humane Pet Act,” which meant to place restrictions on dog breeders. The written proposal included four pages of justification for why the Bill was needed, much of which includes overreaching claims and interchangeably used the words “dog breeder,” “commercial breeder,” and “puppy mill.”

The NAIA, led by Patti Strand, is an association of business, agricultural, scientific, and recreational interests dedicated to promoting animal welfare, supporting responsible animal use and strengthening the bond between humans and animals. The NAIA, which has fought against misdirected legislation for decades and has worked with the Colorado Federation of Dog Clubs, submitted a letter in opposition to Colorado’s proposed Bill that said the legislative declarations, “At best...are distortions and half-truths. At worst they represent a systematic misrepresentation of the source of animal-welfare problems in Colorado.” The NAIA worried that Colorado’s proposed Bill, if implemented, could harm Colorado’s animals and pet buyers and undermine the trajectory of animal welfare progress in the state. Colorado’s proposal went so far as to reference a “nationwide epidemic of the sale and purchase of dogs and cats that come from high-volume commercial breeding establishments, commonly referred to as ‘puppy mills’ and ‘kitten mills,’” making it seem to the public that all commercial breeding establishments are equivalent to disreputable sources.

The proposal went on to accuse commercial breeding establishments of “abuses endemic to puppy and kitten mills [including] overbreeding; inbreeding; minimal veterinary care; lack of adequate and uncontaminated food and water; lack of socialization, exercise, and enrichment; poor sanitation; confinement in cramped, unsanitary cages; and exposure to extreme temperatures,” again painting a picture in the public’s mind that there is no substantive difference between USDA licensed and compliant commercial breeding facilities and unethical sources.

The Bill ultimately failed in the House Committee. However, the language included in the proposed Bill inflicted damage to the dog community - it grouped all dog breeders together, penalizing the responsible sources for the behaviors of a few bad actors, and prompted copycat legislation all over the United States.

One example of such copycat legislation is Cobb County (Georgia) Commission's proposal to make changes to Cobb County’s County Code. The proposed code changes attempted to restrict breeders and force them to conduct all sales only on the premises where the dogs were bred and reared, which are often breeders’ private homes, placing the safety of those breeders at risk of assault, theft, and other crimes. Those proposed code changes were not passed, thanks in part to the efforts of Good Dog’s very own Good Breeder Sonia Lopez. Good Dog worked with Ms. Lopez to distribute educational information about the proposed code changes and their implications through social media and contacted the Cobb County Board of Commissioners. Ms. Lopez bravely represented herself and all dog breeders at the public hearing, and spoke frankly about how legislation like this could push the good sources out of the dog world.

In order to make real, meaningful change, legislation, like that proposed in Cobb County and Colorado, is not the answer. Instead, we must encourage proposed legislation that directly addresses the truly problematic activities that put dogs’ health and well-being at risk. We must educate the public on how to identify a responsible source when getting a dog and why it is important to fight against overreaching regulations. We must mobilize the public, together with the good forces in the dog world, and create a movement to defeat dangerous legislative proposals that do more harm than good by effectively pushing out responsible dog breeders and owners. And we must stop using the vague, undefined term “puppy mill,” which only serves to bias the public against responsible sources, thereby pushing them out.

One Last Myth: “Puppy mill” (and anti-breeder) legislation doesn’t affect anyone but dog breeders.

Remember our debunked Myth #1? Data shows that dog overpopulation in this country is no longer the problem it once was due to the efforts of humane organizations and veterinarians across the country. The numbers show that if the demand for dogs remains stable at its current rate, there is a real risk that all of the households in this country that wish to have a dog in the future will not be able to welcome one into their homes. This highlights the need for responsibly bred dogs, while continuing to work toward emptying the shelters, to meet current and future demand – it highlights a need to support responsible sources, including responsible dog breeders.

“Puppy mill” (and anti-breeder) legislation affects everyone in the dog world. If we want to guarantee that everyone who wants a dog is able to have one, then we need to recognize the need for responsible dog breeders, including responsible commercial kennels. If not, potential dog owners will be pushed to import dogs from other countries and potentially introduce canine infectious diseases into the country, or they may look to unethical sources. We must appreciate the real damage that ill-informed legislation that groups all dog breeders together has on all of us. Dog breeders, dog owners, and dog lovers must unite and work together to prevent such legislation from becoming a reality and threatening our chance to have a future with healthy dogs.

Good Dog’s Mission

Good Dog is committed to no longer using the term “puppy mill” in our communications. The term “puppy mill” is divisive - it pits those who care about animal welfare against the good sources in the dog world. Good Dog advocates for the use of non-judgemental, precise language in all communications regarding breeding, and especially in legislation and ballot initiatives. Good Dog supports shifting the focus from legislative proposals that are not effective, towards educating the public so they can make informed decisions when getting a dog, supporting the responsible sources in the dog world, and helping all willing sources in the dog world improve the standard and welfare of their dogs.

Good Dog is on a mission to educate the public, and provides a Learning Center for all potential puppy owners, with articles that address topics like Why Working With a Responsible Breeder is so Critical. We are committed to transparency and helping prospective dog owners connect with responsible dog breeders, while also understanding what goes into responsible breeding programs. We want to shine a light on all that dog breeders do for their dogs – the financial costs, time, money, love, and education that responsible sources pour into their dogs and puppy buyers. Good Dog is also committed to sharing evidence-based resources with the public in order to encourage them to support the good sources in the dog world and fight against any ill-informed legislation that threatens those responsible sources.

A hugely important part of Good Dog’s mission is to help breeders who may not be doing adequate health testing, socialization or other best practices to improve, thereby cultivating more good sources in the dog world. This was a major consideration for Good Dog when developing our health test levels. We hope to accept these breeders into our Good Breeder community at a lower testing level and encourage them to incorporate changes to improve the health and welfare of their dogs. We believe being in a community of fellow responsible breeders will allow mentoring opportunities and a path for breeders to continue improving their programs. By supporting and educating those sources that want to be better, instead of shaming them through the use of derogatory terms like “puppy mill,” we can work together to improve the health and welfare of our dogs for generations to come.

All of us in the dog world, whether we are breeders, dog owners or just dog lovers, should recognize that we are so much stronger together. It is our hope that the public, the dog world, and society will move away from using language like “puppy mill,” that lumps responsible dog breeders together with bad actors, in order to support responsible breeders, make positive, lasting change in the dog world, and focus on what really matters - the dogs. We hope you’ll join us.

Does our mission resonate with you? Apply to join our Good Breeder community today.