Don't Buy A Puppy

The first and most compelling reason not to buy a puppy, is that it creates a market for more dogs. There are already way too many dogs in the UK. The following dogs were killed due to being surplus to human requirements:

2005/06 7743 dogs
2006/07 7892 dogs
2007/08 6710 dogs
2008/09 >9000 dogs
(figures from Dogs Trust)

Most of these dogs were not euthanased because they were suffering, they were executed because there was nowhere for them to go. Most homeless dogs who get destroyed are young and healthy, and were acquired in the first place as puppies. Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether, to make a space for your puppy, you would be prepared to administer a lethal injection to a healthy dog, put it in a polythene bag, and incinerate it. Because somebody has to. The impact this has on the people who have to do this job is not often considered. On a wider note, is this a situation that's acceptable to a nation of supposed animal lovers?

On the other hand, at least these dogs don't suffer once they're dead. A much greater number end up in shelters, many of which are excellent, some who aren't. There are lots of well-meaning 'rescuers' who unfortunately damage the dogs they acquire. Either way, long term kennelling is not good for dogs- to keep them safe, warm and fed they have to have massive restrictions on their normal behaviour imposed. This is in no way meant to be a criticism of dog shelters, but to reiterate the point that there are far too many dogs!

But still 'dog lovers' breed dogs for profit, and people buy the product.

Here are some of the rationalizations used to justify getting a puppy:

“But we want to know what we're getting...”

This is an often quoted defence of buying or breeding puppies. It's false. Many of the dogs filling animal shelters across the country were acquired by someone who thought they knew what they were getting. Of course you can make some predictions based on breed and temperament of the parents, but even if you could type your prospective puppy's genome, AND guarantee every experience it had (which is impossible), there is still an unpredictable variation. The debate over nature vs nurture goes on, but there is increasing evidence for the power of 'nurture' as a factor in behaviour. This applies to dogs of all ages, training or re-training, the basic science is the same.

If it was true that training a puppy from scratch guaranteed the outcome, why would behaviour problems be the most common reason for humane destruction of dogs acquired as puppies (70% in a US study)? Not heart disease, old age, cancer or other physical ailments. This is a situation that receives little attention- firstly because in our quick-fix society there is rarely a tablet to fix a canine behaviour problem, and secondly that it threatens the status quo of what many people believe dogs to be. It's often the case that the dog is considered to be faulty. The heart of the matter is more often that human expectations of dogs are not based on what dogs actually are, but on an image built up by centuries of false rhetoric.

“But aren't 'rescue' dogs full of problems?”

The short answer is yes and no. It depends on what you define as a problem. Many will fit into your life with ease, but of those that don't, consider that almost all 'behaviour problems' stem from asking a dog to live in a way so far removed from what is normal for the species that it can't cope. This applies to any dog, wherever you get it from. In fact, persistent straying is the most common reason given for surrendering a dog to a shelter. Dogs are actually a migratory species, certainly compared to cats who are legally allowed to stray, and these needs have to be met in other ways- UK society doesn't accept free roaming dogs. Most pet dogs simply don't get these needs met, and when they react accordingly are labelled as permanently faulty.

Studies looking at the incidence of behaviours labelled as problematic find around 60% of dogs in shelters can be considered this way. This sounds like a lot, until you consider that 70-80% of all dogs have diagnosable separation anxiety before age 18 months. And this is just one label. (It's no surprise that a highly social species struggles to cope with long periods alone, although many are actually bored, under-stimulated dogs amusing themselves as best they can, rather than medically anxious).

Everything known about dog behaviour supports the fact that kennelling is more likely to increase than decrease behaviour problems. But without re-homing kennels these dogs would not have life at all. So is this a valid reason for not giving a home to a dog from a shelter? Only if you believe that behaviour can't be shaped away from that which is problematic. All the evidence suggests it can, providing it is within the parameters of reasonable expectations of normal dog behaviour. If you can't accept a dog's need to express normal behaviour, it's worth considering if getting one is the right thing to do.

Behaviour shaping is just as applicable to any dog, whether it has acquired habits or not. Most 'problem' behaviours (which are often simply normal reactions to a stimulus) will be mild and resolve quickly, especially with support. Not having the confidence to home a 'rescue' dog is not a defence of buying a puppy. Many, many dogs in shelters will be an easier option than a puppy. The principles of dog training hold for any dog, and are all too often lost among popular myths about 'loyalty' and 'dominance'.

So if you don't have the skills to train or re-train an ordinary dog, whatever its label, you certainly don't have the skills to train a new puppy.

“But I really need breed X to do job Y”

People often express regret that they would like to get a dog from a shelter, but they need it to perform a certain function- retrieving or herding for example. In fact, if someone has the ability to train a dog for these or other activities, they should certainly be capable of assessing a shelter dog for it. It usually comes back to the same argument as above- that training only works if you start from an early age. While it helps if dogs are in good hands from birth, the evidence is that all too often they aren't, and those who fall into the trap of rationalising their belief in this myth are frequently the worst offenders!

It's more common to hear people say that they simply like a certain breed, which at least is honest. If this is you, and you aren't troubled by the plight of the killed and the homeless, maybe a puppy is for you. But be well aware of the much higher incidence of disease in pedigree dogs. Even though the current fashion for 'first crosses' will improve this aspect, it won't do anything but make worse the sum total of mental health problems in Britain's dog population. And given enough time, we'll begin to see the next wave of physical health problems in these animals too.

Finally, there are some breeds of dog whose physical conformation is simply incompatible with health. This is not the same as a breed whose gene pool is too small. These are the dogs whom humans have created for their own amusement with squashed faces, deformed short legs, excess skin, overcrowded teeth, skeletal frames which are impossibly large (or small) or whatever the latest fashion is. When wild dogs became domesticated, it's lucky they couldn't be aware of what we were going to do to them. The usual justification for owning one of these poor animals is their wonderful personality- although whether this makes up for being unable to breathe, blink, walk or digest food properly is debatable. I've seen no evidence that stray dogs in shelters lack personality to the extent that it is necessary to deliberately create animals consigned to lifelong suffering instead.


“But a puppy would be a wonderful experience for my children”

There's no doubt about it, most children do like puppies. And teaching our children the responsibility of caring for a living being can be educational. But also, many parents are becoming increasingly concerned about the instant-fix, brand new (but disposable) culture we live in, and its effect on children. Maybe it's good for our kids to learn that recycling can apply to dogs too- what someone else throws out can be perfect for us. In fact many puppies are available in animal shelters too, but all the benefits to kids can be realised just as much by having an older one.