From the February 2019 Issue of ShowSight. Click to subscribe. Above Photo by Sosanna Folz, Szikra Vizlas
I’m a homebody—I’m very comfortable here in New Hampshire with my garden, my children, the chickens and a cheerful Vizsla or three to keep us company. It takes a National Specialty or unrelenting nagging from my dear sister (you may know her from such places as Marge the Weim, pink suits, and now well on her way to finishing up her judging license for the Sporting Group) to get me to a dog show these days. I’ve played the dog show game—not at the tippy top, but somewhere in the shiny middle—consistently in the big ribbons back in the day. I keep a toe in the ring—mostly so that I can talk someone into giving me my old lady dog (something lap-sized and with a little less joie de vivre than the Vizsla, please). Other than an occasional trip down to Springfield, where all New England dog shows seem to happen these days, I am only leaving the comfort of home under duress—and only then in flip flops and jeans so no one can talk me into taking their Winners Dog back in.
Duress arrived just about this time last year in the form of a phone call from my sister. This is usually how duress comes into my life, which will not surprise anyone that knows my sister. She suggested, nay demanded, that I had to go up to the State House to testify against a Senate Bill about dog breeders. “No way”, say I. You should know that for the first few years that I showed dogs, I would nervous puke into the trash can outside the ring before I went in. Standing up in a public forum to give a little speech is way far down on my list of fun activities. Spoiler alert, and to make a very long story short enough to print, I went so far down this legislative rabbit hole that I now have a favorite parking spot at the Capitol.
(Right – Doberman breeder/owner/handler and D.O.G.S. President, Angela Ferrari, of Allettare Dobermans.)
The specifics of the legislation aren’t particularly important here, just suffice to say that it was a Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) written bill and would have defined most hobby breeders and owners as “commercial” based on the number of intact animals they own, regardless of whether these are ever used for breeding or if you have ever sold a puppy. Once the government is showing any interest in what to do with a creature’s nether bits—be they (wo)man or beast—I am going to have to loudly disagree. To top it off, registering our tiny hobby kennel as a commercial kennel, with exciting benefits like floor drains and unannounced government inspections, did not sound like any fun.
So, I pulled a show suit out of the back corner of the closet, drafted a thoughtful, heartfelt and pointed testimony to deliver, and showed up. Very little notice was given in advance of the hearing, but thanks to very quick work on the part of our local kennel clubs, particularly the Souhegan Kennel Club, as well as the active sled dog community here in New Hampshire (some of you may know George Cook, one of the few mushers who still runs a purebred Husky team as well as competing in shows), there was a packed room ready to testify against this ridiculous, over-reaching bill. As it turned out, the Senators were not really interested in having us testify. Of the two hour hearing, the last ten minutes or so was given to the public in opposition. It was a horrific display of the worst in politics—the full time New Hampshire HSUS lobbyist took the majority of the time to speak, followed by all of the testimony organized by said lobbyist. Clearly, the sponsors of this bill were intent on ramming it through. As the sponsor of the bill was closing the session, we were saved by a longtime member and activist of our local legislative group—Dog Owners of the Granite State. In a moment that will be burned into the memory of all who witnessed it, Nancy Holmes rose to her full height, slammed her cane on the floor and, like Gandalf the Wizard holding back a tide of orcs, boomed out “Though Shalt Not Pass!”. That may not be an exact quote, but it had the same affect—the Senate Committee scheduled an additional public hearing and so started months of work on what I, sometimes not with affection, called my unpaid job.
Below – Sosanna Folz, Vizsla breeder and concerned citizen, and Angela Ferrari, President D.O.G.S., at the NH State House opposing anti-breeder legislation in 2018.
There is so much that I learned, primarily under the tutelage of two tremendously impactful figures in the dog world—Jay and Elin Phinizy. They truly are a treasure for the dog community. They have been involved for decades in State politics, know everyone, know the history of every dog law on our books and give endlessly of their time and energy. What very quickly became obvious to me is that we (dog people) are depending on a few very hard working volunteers to protect responsible breeders from bad legislation. We’ve all heard this call to action before—we have to get more involved in our local communities or we are going to lose this sport. But, for real…Here are some specific things that have me worried:
Animal rights organizations, like HSUS, are extremely well-funded, well-staffed, and well-prepared. Many animal rights organizations provide free training/support to local animal rescue organizations, animal control and police departments. They cooperate with local animal rescue organizations to craft legislation to “protect” animals.
HSUS has local full-time lobbyists. They are professional, well-paid, and well-spoken.
Local animal rescue organizations
have very little interaction with good breeders—they only see the horror stories. Breed rescues no longer have strong relationships with shelters. Consequently, breeders are no longer looked to as animal care experts or as a resource for help to the community.
Local communities have very little interaction with good breeders. Shows are more and more being consolidated to single sites with little to no attendance by the public.
Below – Angela Ferrari, President D.O.G.S., and Kathy Farley, Treasurer D.O.G.S., attend the Sled Dog Trade Fair in Hopkington, NH to share knowledge of responsible dog ownership and how poor legislation hurts us all.
Taken as a whole, it is understandable why we are seeing more and more “anti-breeder” legislation. But there is good news—here in New Hampshire, we defeated this legislation. It didn’t die easy and it took an awful lot of work by an awful lot of people, but (cue music) together, we did it. Here are some lessons learned along the way that I hope might help you on your own path to civic engagement:
It’s not scary to call your legislator:
There is nothing I hate more than cold calling. It is especially intimidating when you are picking up the phone to call someone with a fancy title like “Senator” or “Chairman”. Turns out you will almost always talk to an aide, they are very used to talking to flustered people like me, and are very nice about it. And, it makes a difference.
Pony Express It:
Emails are so convenient, but they just get added to the stack. So few people send paper anymore—it just might get your legislators attention. And make it personal—add a picture of your happy dog doing happy things. Try to stay away from form letters, although you can use them as a starting point.
Get bodies in the room:
Even if you are not comfortable speaking, it makes a difference to show up and sign in to public hearings. This just requires a few hours of your time over the year and it is incredibly impactful for legislators to see their constituents show up. Make sure that your club has an AKC legislative liaison who is passing on critical action items to membership. We struggled to get the word out initially. Facebook groups are a
tremendous help in keeping people updated and mobilized—just keep it private and mind who is joining.
Below – Stickers created to show opposition of anti-breeder legislation in 2018.
Dog people clean up nice:
But, they don’t always think it is important. If you are going to show up somewhere to represent your community, please dress the part, even if you just ran up here in between cleaning kennels and blowing out Bichons. You don’t have to put on a St. John—think Thursday all breed.
It’s politics, people fight dirty:
There were definitely shenanigans from the other side. At the first hearing, HSUS was physically leaning against the door to the hearing room so that the angry swarm of dog people could not get in. Look for it, call it out when you see it, and have a thick skin.
Be polite, always:
Be firm, be righteous, be outspoken, but never be rude (at least where other people can hear you). So many of the people you come across are also volunteering their time—in particular our State legislators—here in NH our Senators earn a whopping $100/year. Also, remember that this is a bipartisan issue for our community.
Don’t be a hot mess:
The first few hearings we made some mistakes. We weren’t coordinated. There was some testimony from our team that didn’t help us. Most hearings you have just a couple of minutes to testify and you won’t know who is going to be called. Make sure you prepare your statement, collaborate with others and plan ahead of time to make sure our team is hitting all the critical points. Public testimony should in no way resemble late night karaoke at the hotel bar—hit hard with well prepared, factual statements.
Data, data, data:
Dog people take a lot of things for granted—like assuming that someone would know how canine reproduction works. It was critical to our success that we took time to educate legislators about this: how old a dog typically is before they are fertile, how often and how long in a year they are fertile, the differences in litter sizes between breeds, health impact of spay/neuter, etc. Show them the scientific studies. Make charts—seriously, charts are great. Any point that you are making, back it up with the evidence.
Below – Flyer showing that with hard work, D.O.G.S. and NH Breeders and pet owners worked with the House Environment & Agriculture Committee to amend the anti-breeder bill to be a fair and supportable piece of Legislation.
Love thy neighbor:
Get to know your local Representative. We defeated this bill in the House —it had already passed the Senate. Representatives are more accessible than Senators and they are open to and appreciative for input from well-informed stakeholders (see above: data!)
You’ll have fun:
Yes, it was hard work. Yes, it was a time commitment. But on the flip side, I met so many fantastic dog people. Together we laughed, we cried, we swore like sailors (only where other people couldn’t hear) and we
became friends. Our village of dog people grew bigger and closer—and that’s a great thing.
All that aside, the most essential thing we can do to secure a future for this sport—a future that is not smothered by restrictions and regulatory oversight—is to be present in our communities. We are going to have to dig in and do the work to create opportunities to tell our good stories. If you haven’t already made a New Year’s Resolution, how about starting with a promise to make one scary phone call when you get that legislative alert? I’ll volunteer to come sing Schoolhouse Rock in
On behalf of Dog Owners of the Granite State (D.O.G.S.), a non-profit organization established in 1991 to watch legislation and protect the rights of pet owners, a huge thank you to everyone who took time out of their busy schedules last year to stand up for our sport. The fight is not over and here in New Hampshire we are already seeing new legislation being proposed for 2019. Angela Ferrari, President of D.O.G.S., asks for your support yet again so we can stand together in honor of hobby breeders and our sport, but also for the pet-loving public who don’t understand the impact this type of legislation has on their choices, the health of the dogs available to them, and so much more.
For more information about getting involved, contact your local kennel club or visit the AKC Government Relations page: https://www.akc.org/clubs-delegates/government-relations/federations/.