Let Slip the Dogs of Quarantine
COVID-19 has brought with it many unintended consequences, most of them unpleasant. But there has been a silver lining to the dark cloud. Pet adoptions are way, way up. It makes a lot of sense – what better time to welcome a furry new member to the family than when you’re off work and have plenty of time for the transition?
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Because we were actually looking for a dog BC (before Corona) and we couldn’t for the life of us find one.
We had a dog. Her name was Emma and she was the best.
Unlike many people who have dogs for companionship, we actually needed a dog because we live in an enormously rural area and are surrounded, for reals surrounded, by wild animals. We got a dog primarily to deter the coyotes (and badgers, and weasels, and eagles) from stopping by for a chicken, or more likely a kitty cat, dinner. We even had concerns about the children, particularly our youngest, playing alone outside, because there are so many cheeky and overly familiar coyotes around. But sadly, Emma, despite being a big and formidable dog, a Maremma, a breed from the Alps who was originally developed to fight wolves and even fought fascists during WWII, disappeared from our yard one day when we had gone to town to run some errands. There had been sightings of a cougar in the area, but it was also hunting season and so we don’t know if the culprit was of the two or four legged variety (that’s the other reason we legitimately need a dog, because we’re the only house out here and we’re a beacon to weird dudes driving around with guns).
So my husband set about erecting a new and improved fence and the hunt for a new dog, or preferably two, began. And while we were indeed looking for a particular kind of dog – big, but trustworthy around the children, and able to coexist with smaller animals – we soon discovered something strange. There were very few dogs available. Not only the type of dog we preferred, but ANY dogs.
The dogs that were available tended to fall into three camps. First, there were the rescue groups who refused to give dogs to people with kids/cats, who frowned on letting a dog be outside without constant supervision, and who actually wanted to come inspect our home before approving us – something my husband adamantly refused. Rescue dogs, of course, potentially come with behavioral issues or unknown health problems as well. So that was a dead end, even though we would have loved to get an older dog to start patrolling right away. Then there were dog breeders who charged a prohibitive amount of money per dog, who also may come with behavioral issues*. Another no, just not in our budget. And then there were the puppy mills, which seemed focused on turning out pit bulls and Rottweilers and wolf hybrids, dogs that were decidedly not safe around chickens, cats, and children. The only people who seemed to be selling affordable dogs were sketchy folks breeding scary dogs for scary people, and we didn’t want to go there. Strike three.
There were NO regular old dogs for regular old families. No sweet little oopsie-daisies being handed out at the grocery store. No nice family who had a litter of puppies they needed to get rid of.
Now, you may think this is as it should be. You may think that people like us don’t deserve dogs, because something unfortunate happened to our last dog. You may think that dogs should have a perfectly uneventful life laying on the couch and not being expected to do anything. You may think that breeders charging $2000-3000 per dog prevents people like me from getting my hands on them, and you may think that is a good thing. But the truth is, many breeds were bred to help humans. Many dogs WANT to work, and that is why they destroy your apartment when your back is turned. Emma was a very happy, very loved, and very spoiled dog who had a wonderful life, probably a far better life than a dog cooped up 23 hours a day indoors nervously chewing couch cushions while high on Xanax.
What’s more, it was the life she had been bred for many generations to lead, and we were ready, willing and able to give other dogs the same kind of life. The life of a farm dog, the type of life that’s been good enough for most dogs throughout time. There was no legitimate reason why we should not be have been able to find a couple of dogs fairly easily (and indeed, if we’d had a few extra thou laying around it would have been a done deal). But we couldn’t.
As the months passed we started to wonder what was going on in the world where a family couldn’t find a dog to buy for anything short of a small fortune. After some thought it occurred to me that our inability to procure a pooch was probably a result of the law of unintended consequences. Controlling animal overpopulation is a cause I fully believe in, and I completely agree that animals should not be in the hands of people who would mistreat them. But it appeared to me that maybe these good intentions were having some unwanted side effects that culminated in us being unable to find a dog or two to join our family, where they would have room to roam, ample exercise, love, and lots of dog treats. Could it be that by trying to do a good thing – protect innocent animals from maltreatment – had ended up causing side effects that no one had foreseen? Could trying to do a good thing have inadvertently empowered some of the world’s jerks to greater jerkdom?
Zealots, most would agree, tend to be jerks. And there are few zealots more overzealous than the zealots of animal rescue. (not you, of course, dear animal-loving reader, but you know who I’m talking about.) It seems to be a part of human nature to design codes of ethics that are so onerous, so incredibly detailed, so impossibly lofty that no mere mortal can actually live up to them. We’ve left the creation of a system to govern who can get rescue dogs and who cannot, in the hands of zealots who refuse to acknowledge that the perfect is the enemy of the good. A reasonable set of guidelines like “let’s try to ensure that our dogs go to decent homes rather than medical research facilities” becomes “some children may pull a dog’s ears, so we can’t give dogs to people with kids even though most children and dogs love each other, and by the way let’s actually go tour these people’s homes to make sure they’re good enough to get one of our precious pooches, but we all know going in that they probably aren’t.” It seemed at times that some of the people involved in animal rescue would rather have seen a dog languish in a rescue facility indefinitely than to go to a forever home that was anything less than absolutely perfect.
People in business guilds also tend to be jerks. They’re protectionists, looking out for their own self interest at the expense of both their customers and their potential competitors, and are generally willing to game the system to pad their own pockets and shut down said competition. This is the zone in which most dog breeders operate. They don’t spay and neuter the dogs they sell because they’re caring and trying to prevent animals from suffering, regardless of what they claim. They spay and neuter their dogs so anyone buying one cannot start breeding it and compete with them. (Their own dogs are often bred again and again with very little concern for the animal’s well being – they’re fine with populating the world with puppies, as long as they profit from them.) Professional dog breeders have demonized “backyard breeders” (aka people who have a dog and it has puppies now and then) to such extent that they mostly don’t exist any more, and yay, that means dog breeders have no competition. Dog breeders don’t charge upwards of two grand because they want to ensure you are “good enough” to adopt their dog – last time I checked, a lot of poor people dote on their dogs and a lot of rich people ignore theirs, buying expensive dogs as status symbols instead of beloved companions. (rescues are full of trendy dog breeds that were purchased by wealthy people as status symbols!) Dog breeders charge exorbitant rates because they want your money and they can get away with it since they’ve limited the ability of others to compete in the marketplace by shaming them out of existence. If you saw any other business using a moral precept to ensure that they had less competition and thus could charge more for their product would you not be at least a LITTLE suspicious they had ulterior motives? We get all squooshy when it comes to dogs and assume everyone loves them as much as we do, but many dog breeders are absolutely acting out of their own self interest and not the goodness of their hearts.
So. That leaves us, Average Joe and Jane, unable to get a dog from a rescue because we’re not good enough, and unable to get a dog from a breeder because we’re not rich enough. The good old “oops my dog got pregnant, here are some puppies” dogs no longer exist because it’s considered outre for any dog to have unwanted puppies. What do you do then?? Well, if you really want/need a dog, you’ll have to turn to the people who don’t act ethically – the puppy mills and the pit bull breeders. And that’s what a lot of people do. They turn to unethical people to get their pets. By their heavy handed and ultimately self-interested approach, the rescue organizations and “official” dog breeders have empowered puppy mills and pit bull breeders who don’t care about animal well being OR the quality of the animals they breed. It’s yielded a flawed system that is in many cases, bad for both the dogs themselves and the people who want to buy them**. It kinda reminds me of the Drug War in a way – drugs being illegal simply made it more likely that Actual Bad Guys would be in charge of selling them, and the final product was more likely to be diluted, adulterated, or even harmful than if drugs had been readily available all along. People are still selling drugs, just like people are still breeding dogs (with very mixed and even dangerous outcomes) in their backyards, it’s just been driven underground where anything goes.
But what, pray tell, would I do about any of this?? Absolutely nothing, of course. Even though there’s no viable solution to the problem I describe, it just strikes me as interesting and worthy of note. By every metric the spay and neuter program has improved the lives of both animals and human beings, who no longer have to contend with bands of roving stray animals like we did in the past. I simply find it fascinating how even the most purely-intentioned course of action can be corrupted by those who have their own agendas. Our struggle to locate and procure a couple nice doggos feels like a microcosm of so many other things in this world. People set out to design some perfect system and in doing so, create a bunch of other problems, usually problems that the designers of the flawed system then personally benefit in some way from “solving”. It’s true in about every other walk of life, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see it’s true when it comes to canines as well. It doesn’t mean that the solution we have settled upon is therefore terrible and should be dismantled, but it does seem like an issue we should discuss, if nothing else.
Our story has a happy ending. One Sunday morning a few weeks back my husband went on Pet Craigslist like he had every weekend for the past 6 months, and at long last saw a litter of puppies, puppies who came into existence the old fashioned way – an oopsie involving a golden Lab mother, a Great Pyrenees father. The designer dog breeders would call this a Pyrador, but we didn’t care about fancy names. We just knew the combination of friendly Lab and guardian Pyrenees was perfect for meeting our needs for a family farm dog. So we hopped in the car and drove as fast as we could to beat the many other people who also wanted a puppy (we were definitely not alone in our challenge of finding a family dog – some of the interested parties were driving from hundreds of miles away to get these pups). Fortunately we beat the crowd, and came home with two adorable puppies named Emmett and Luna, so named in honor of our valiant Emma.
They’ll be bigger than Emma, and hopefully will have each other’s backs, plus the new and improved fence should ensure their safety. But they will be expected to actually do work on the farm, guarding our smaller animals and the children from the big bads of the world. Because they’re dogs, and it’s a part of their nature to want to work.
Some dogs needed a home, and we needed some dogs. It may not be a perfect solution in everyone’s eyes, but it’s the solution that is working for us.
Release the hounds!
*As some of you know, I worked for a dog breeder for a few years, and during that time had the opportunity to visit several other dog breeders’ facilities. I know from firsthand experience that in many, if not most, cases, even the most ethical of breeders who claim they’re selling dogs who were “raised with a family” or “well socialized” are doing anything but. Commercial breeders typically keep their dogs in kennels and breeding pens where they interact with people only a few minutes a day, and while these operations are not as horrific and cruel like the puppy mills are, they’re still not providing well socialized dogs.
**Not to mention innocent bystanders who are tired of going for a walk in their neighborhood and encountering the ubiquitous errant pit bull. I moved to the literal edge of nowhere and I still opened up my door to find a pit bull on my patio one day.