Commercial Breeders—Not What You Think

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For the past three years, I have reserved the last week in September for a convention in Shipshewana, Indiana. It’s not a judges’ seminar, nor a dog show. It’s not a Field Trial or Performance event, or a Rotary Convention. It’s a convention for breeders—mostly commercial breeders, though they welcome any breeder who wants to attend. Just one condition—check your judgment at the door, and arrive with an open mind.

This year I brought a team of groomers to the conference. The AKC, who has a prominent booth with tons of information and breed expertise, invited us to be an exhibitor. I jumped at the opportunity. This was my third ICAW (Indiana Council for Animal Welfare) conference, and I was so impressed with the first two I attended that I was more than excited to be more than a spectator for this one. The AKC asked us to demonstrate proper ear cleaning, teeth cleaning and nail trims. They wanted us to explain how important these three simple procedures are for the maintenance of healthy dogs. Then they gave us an hour to demonstrate some basic pet grooming to show the breeders how breed-specific pet trims can both enhance the appearance of their dogs, and give them some time to one-on-one socialize, bond and health check all of their dogs. They lined up some dogs for us to groom, and assured us the dogs would all be bathed and brushed. We also brought grooming supplies to offer for sale. I reviewed and modified two grooming packages supplied by a grooming wholesaler, and we offered a basic and level 2 grooming kit for breeders to purchase. I ordered some grooming tables, toothpaste, toothbrushes, books and tooth polishers to sell. We also brought some of our logo aprons and towels to give away.

Preparing for the show was not easy. The AKC breeder representative, Stacy Mason, was pretty clear about what she was looking for, but my two groomers could not have been less interested or engaged. They didn’t want to go. They didn’t know why an AKC breeder/groomer would want to go.

They didn’t understand what we were going to do, and they saw it as an enormous waste of three days. Both of them became quite adept at avoiding me or working on the preparation for the event, so most of the preparation work fell to me, and this was clearly not within my range of expertise. I ordered the supplies, aprons and towels, made sure our Cedar Creek Pet Resort display booth was ready to set up, printed business cards for us, set prices on the items we had for sale, then told my groomers that attendance was not optional. I totally forgot about bringing a cash box or credit card reader, though I did make up some order forms for the items we were offering in our kits. Retail has never been my thing, but I’m learning fast!

I also informed my two groomers that they would be going on the “farm tour” the day before the event. My daughter, Andrea suddenly had a half dozen things she needed to do with her boys on that day, and Jordan said he couldn’t miss any more work time because being gone for Montgomery County shows was going to cost him a lot of grooming income. Again, I informed them that this was not optional, and I agreed to pay them both for the days we were in Indiana—and I volunteered the boys’ grandpa, Tom, to help out with their after-school activities. I may not be good at retail, but I can organize a road trip with dogs!

The “farm tour” was actually a tour of commercial kennels in the area. It was this type of tour two years earlier that opened my eyes to the new realities of commercial breeding, and I knew my two groomers needed this introduction before they would be willing to buy into the concept of assisting commercial breeders. It worked. We toured five family operations. We met the breeders and played with the puppies. We saw the amazing exercise paddocks, the spotless kennels, and the beautiful whelping areas. We saw the toys and play equipment in the yards. We heard about plans to update and modify, and we talked about what it might take to compete with their dogs in AKC shows one day.

My primary observation was the remarkable improvement in the confirmation of the dogs I was seeing this year. They were exponentially better than the dogs I saw just two years ago. The Cavaliers, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Pekingese, Miniature Schnauzers, Poodles and Bichons were lovely and structurally sound. I knew the kennels would be beautiful based upon past observations, but I had no idea the quality of the dogs could improve that quickly.

One conversation with a breeder was so refreshing that I wish I had taped it. Jordan asked why he saw so many Blue Bulldogs and French bulldogs. The breeder said they bred them because there was a huge demand for those colors. So I started talking to her about why old-time AKC breeders did not breed for those colors,
explaining that a lot of health issues are color-linked. The elimination of those dogs from gene pools had more to do with health than it did with esthetics. The general public does not understand that some things are rare because they are not valuable or healthy, and only view it as a snobby breeder who doesn’t like a certain color because it won’t win at a dog show. They think the rare colors make the dog “special,” and therefore more valuable. The breeder did not disagree with that assessment but said that her puppies were all healthy when they left. When I suggested that those healthy puppies may not all become healthy adults, her eyes got wide, and she said she had not thought about that. Typically, the only adults these breeders keep are the ones they breed. They don’t see puppies after they leave the kennel, so they don’t know how the puppies grow up. They do the best they can with their puppies, but they are missing the feedback loop most AKC breeders have with their pet buyers. These breeders were supplying a demanded color without understanding why the color became an AKC disqualification. They work in a supply-and-demand world. For the most part, it is a rational world unencumbered by politics and personal biases. They do not view the education of the public as their responsibility, though that may change if they know why AKC standards are written
the way they are. These breeders take great pride in raising healthy, well-
socialized puppies.

The actual convention was at an exposition hall on Friday and Saturday. More than 800 breeders attended. There were seminars and demonstrations on everything from whelping tools to obedience and rally training. Our ears, teeth and nail seminars were well-attended and very popular. We had between 50 and 100 spectators for all or part of each of our presentations, and many people stayed after to talk about breed-specific pet trims. The dogs we worked on had been bathed and brushed, though not up to our professional standards, so I knew we had a lot of work to do to do in the area of grooming. These breeders were used to using a 10 or 40 blade and stripping off all of the coat. Dematting was a skill none of them possessed. The grooming may have been less than we hoped for, but the soundness of the dogs we groomed was a pleasant surprise. As pet groomers, we were used to working on the endless parade of retail-rescue dogs with multiple health, temperament and structural problems. The dogs we had at this conference were sound with good temperaments. All of them would make wonderful pets.

By the end of the conference we were sold out of almost all of the supplies we brought, and we took orders for more. The breeders asked a lot of intelligent questions, and most planned to work regular grooming into their care routines. A couple of breeders asked if we thought any of their dogs were good enough to be shown, and we assured them they could be shown if they had good consistent coat maintenance. My two groomers were exhausted but excited to be working with such professional breeders. Yes, many of the breeders were also producing mixed breed puppies because the market for them was still strong, but they were also keeping strong lines of purebred dogs. The mixed breed puppies were not the result of accidental breedings but planned pairings that would produce cute and healthy puppies. This was a remarkable look into breeding dogs in a rational world governed by the rules of supply-and-demand rather than the emotional world of rescues and adoptions.

It became clear to me that the long-term survival of purebred dogs depended on the work of these breeders. AKC hobby breeders could never produce enough dogs to satisfy the demand for pets. Rather than the existential threat posed to us by the rescue groups, these commercial breeders are our partners in producing purpose-bred dogs. By working together and learning from each other we are guaranteeing that our breeds will survive. The next step will be to work with them to create demand for some of the rarest breeds destined to become extinct if a market for them doesn’t grow.

I understand this is an entirely new way of looking at the world of commercial breeders. We are so conditioned to view them as the enemy that we have lost sight of how important they are in our battle against the very real threat of retail-rescue. There is a huge movement within the world of commercial breeders to get better at what they do, and they are looking toward the AKC for guidance. It makes sense for us to embrace their world and work with them to produce quality purebred dogs. Our future depends on how well we cooperate. It is that simple. 

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