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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The Coming Shelter Dog Shortage

It is becoming more and more obvious that supply and demand for shelter dogs in the United States is coming into balance. For example, the entire state of Colorado had a live release rate for dogs of 92% for 2013, and that was with over 17,000 dogs imported from kill shelters in other states. Dog transports have become big business, with dogs being moved from areas where they are not getting adopted to areas where they go out the door quickly. Generally speaking, New England and parts of the northeast, upper midwest, and Pacific northwest now have shortages of shelter dogs. With the spectacular progress that No Kill is making in places like Jacksonville, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, and other cities and counties in the southeast, the sending shelters may not be needing to send dogs for much longer.

If these trends continue – and it certainly seems like they will – we will have a shortage of shelter dogs for people wanting to adopt. What happens then? If the usual laws of supply and demand apply, commercial breeders will step up the number of dogs they breed to take advantage of the shelters who no longer have enough dogs to challenge them for market share. (Note: I’m talking about commercial, for-profit breeders here, not show breeders. Show dogs have their own set of problems, but most show breeders take reasonably good care of their breeder dogs and puppies and many of them do an outstanding job, including helping with rescue.)

So is there anything wrong with commercial breeders increasing their output? After all, the United States was built on commerce. I think commercial breeding is bad, though, for several reasons. First, dogs are not widgets. Commercial breeding has long been associated with puppy mills, where breeder dogs (who often have heritable health problems) are kept in terrible conditions and puppies are poorly socialized. The puppies are shipped, sometimes for long distances, to pet stores where they are kept in less than ideal conditions, which makes them more vulnerable to illness and trauma. They are then sold by people who may make little or no effort to match puppy temperament to the temperament of the purchaser. The puppies will likely be sold intact. Then, after the sale, there will be little or no follow-up to make sure the puppy is settling in with no problems.

No Kill shelters offer better veterinary care, more attention to housing and enrichment, spaying and neutering before placement, more care at placement, and better follow up than pet stores. They provide a lifetime safety net for the animals they place. So from the point of view of both the dog and the owner, a No Kill shelter is a far better place for acquisition of a dog than a pet store.

Another reason that shelters losing market share to breeders would be a bad thing is that No Kill shelters thrive on community engagement. The more people in the community who are involved with the shelter, the stronger the shelter will be. If people get their dogs from pet stores, they will be less likely to be familiar with and involved with the shelter, and community engagement will suffer.

And if commercial breeders increase their market share due to a shortage of dogs in shelters, then the breeder dogs who spend their lives producing puppies will continue to suffer. The negative publicity about puppy mills has hurt the industry badly, and cut their market. But there is probably a limit to how much can be accomplished by telling people about the horrors of puppy mills. After all, people have heard a lot about the horrors of factory farms, and yet they continue to eat meat. Not everyone is going to resist buying a puppy at a pet store, even if they know on some level that they are supporting a cruel business.

Although the puppy mill industry has been its own worst enemy in the past, recently some leaders of the industry have been indicating a desire to clean up their image. I wonder if they are planning to do so by simply taking what they are doing out of the public eye. The thing that has hurt the commercial dog breeding business in the past more than anything else is the photographs of miserable, matted, cherry-eyed, terrified dogs stuffed into cages. A simple way for the industry to fix this without having to actually change their ways would be to consolidate and move their operations into big warehouses like the ones currently used for laying hens. They could have a few model buildings to take the press through and simply not allow access to the rest. That way they could keep their operations completely out of the public view. No more photos made public of wretched, mistreated dogs living their lives in tiny cages. Keeping the dogs out of the public eye would not only make the public more willing to buy from pet stores, it would also help to ward off legislation to regulate puppy mills. There would be no ongoing proof of cruelty, and fewer people pushing for regulation.

The ideal thing would be for No Kill to find some way to co-opt the industry – to make sure there is a big enough supply of shelter dogs for community No Kill shelters to be able to maximize their market share. The most obvious way to do this would be to start importing homeless dogs from overseas. This would not be a permanent solution, because foreign countries are beginning to use TNR for street dogs, which will eventually drop their populations to sustainable levels. But until that happens, foreign countries would be a good source of supply for shelter dogs. We would be helping the shelter system in the United States while saving huge numbers of street dogs overseas.

Another way to tackle the problem would be for volunteers to breed litters which would then be donated to their local shelter for placement. This would have many advantages. The volunteers could provide great homes for the parents and intensive socialization of the puppies. The volunteers would have no incentive to inbreed, or to breed brachycephalic dogs. Only dogs with good health and good temperament would be bred. The volunteers could adjust the type and size of dogs bred to the local demand. The puppies would have all recommended veterinary care and be spayed or neutered before they were adopted. Shelter workers who have a lot of experience in matching dogs to adopters could make sure that every placement has a good chance for success, and could follow up to catch any problems early.

People who work in dog rescue and sheltering may think this is a completely crazy idea, because everyone has (rightly) always been concerned with decreasing breeding, not increasing it. But something similar is already being done in some contexts, such as service dogs. Dog breeding does not always have to stem from monetary or selfish reasons. And imagine how much it would help shelters with maintaining and increasing market share and community engagement if they always had healthy puppies available for adoption. People will get dogs from somewhere, and it might as well be shelters.

The usual objection to shelters bringing dogs in from outside, whether the dogs are adults or puppies, is that shelters should be placing all of the healthy and treatable dogs in the community before importing dogs. I have heard from shelter directors, though, who found that shelter traffic goes up when the shelter has a variety of dogs to choose from, which helps all the dogs get adopted. Other people think that shelters should not only place all the healthy and treatable dogs, but also all the sanctuary and hospice dogs before bringing in dogs from outside the community. For example, I have heard people object to transports of dogs into Colorado even though Colorado has a 92% live release rate for dogs. We can do transports at the same time we do hospice and sanctuary, though, because the two goals are not mutually exclusive. Dogs transported in are going to the regular market. Sanctuary and hospice dogs require special facilities that are not part of normal shelter marketing and must be separate programs.

For now, our current transport system is working well, and as far as I can tell we are not quite to the point where there is more demand than supply nationwide for shelter dogs. But that time is coming, and it would be a good thing for No Kill to begin to think about what we will do when that day arrives. My suggestion would be to start now with establishing lines of supply with foreign countries. Some rescues have been doing that and have been criticized for it, but perhaps we should be supporting those endeavors instead. It also might be a good idea for a shelter in an area of established dog shortage, such as New England, to try a pilot program of volunteer breeding just to test the feasibility of the approach.


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