The Problem With “Available Puppies”

I had an encounter today that got me thinking… again… about the problem with “available puppies”.

Puppies are not hard to find. I don’t know if you were aware of this. So many people post on Facebook groups that they are looking for “reputable breeders”, but I think all they mean is that they don’t want to fall prey to supporting a puppy mill. And yet they don’t want to believe the much heralded warning… available puppies with no buyer interview are 100% the first warning siren of a less than reputable breeding program.

Trust me, I’m not pointing fingers. I’ve fallen prey to buying a number of available puppies across several breeds. Here’s a bit of what my own Berner journey has looked like:

When my youngest daughter (in foster care with us at the time) was about to turn 14 and was brand new to our family, my husband and I decided very last minute that we would like to surprise her with “one of those dogs she always points at and declares that she wants” for her 14th birthday. The problem was… we had no idea what kind of dog it was.

We lived in a cabin in the woods at the time, complete with electricity and indoor plumbing, thank God… but our Internet was provided by an abysmally slow satellite startup. I remember typing in the words “Large. Tri-Colored. Dog.” and waiting for an eternity as, pixel by pixel, the first image of a Bernese Mountain Dog I had ever seen took possession of my screen. Excellent. Now we knew the breed name. Time to source the puppy.

Fifteen minutes later, after scrolling through a number of photos of available “large, tri-colored (for the most part) puppies” we were on the phone with the breeder of “Amos”, razzling and dazzling her with our Financial Peace University bartering skills. “That’s not good enough,” we said to the $950 price tag. Imagine our pride when Jonathan arrived to pick up Amos from his too-small crate (a tiny home he shared with his brother Abe) with only $850 carved on the front of our personal check.

After singing Happy Birthday to Marie, Jonathan presented her with a small box, longer than it was wide, looking for all the world like she should expect to find a pair of gloves (or perhaps a pearl necklace, but let’s be real… we hardly knew one another) inside. She opened it to find instead… a small collar and a plush toy. “Thanks,” she said quizzically, looking up at my husband. (My oldest daughter and I had to miss the big moment as Rachael was in the ER with a blinding headache.)

“That’s not your present,” Jonathan said, and he pointed behind Marie to where our friend Eric was holding precious, squirming Hero, named so by Marie for saving her 14th birthday.

Hero taught us to love the breed, but we quickly learned the error of our ways, sourcing him as we had. We determined that before we came to get him at the age of 13 weeks, his spongy pink feet had never touched grass. There was no cover on the crate from which Jonathan claimed him; we believe he was exposed day after day to both sun and rain – thunderstorms too if they should happen to blow over the Pennsylvania farm on which Hero was born.

He had a life-long fear of noises, inclement weather, and being left alone. Thank God he quickly bonded to us (one of us was nearly always home with him) and our Golden Retriever, Scotti. We called Hero a “bad first date” – he would run toward whomever had just stepped through our front door, barking madly at the person’s crotch. We eventually took to putting him in our bedroom until our guests had been welcomed and had a chance to sit on the couch or at our kitchen table. Then we instructed them to look away when Hero entered the room. After four or five hearty barks Hero would sniff… hands, feet, crotch, and finally he would take his big Berner snout and nudge their hand for an ear scratch, or he would climb on the couch next to them, roll his 120 lb. frame onto his back, and demand belly scratches, using our guest’s lap for a pillow. He was pure Berner. Pure. Puppy mill. Berner.

HERO

Hero graced us with 9 years and three months of a lot of joy, but also a lot of sadness. We knew he was not what breed standard described, and when our grandson came along, it broke our hearts that the two of them could not safely be together.

When it came time to get Sherman, our CGC therapy dog, we knew we wanted to approach things differently. This time we looked for websites that looked well-constructed and puppies that looked healthy and robust; we had become familiar with the round, dulled eyes of mill puppies, the improperly proportioned heads (we got lucky with Hero… he was a doggone handsome boy once he grew fully into his frame), wide fronts, long legs. We had still never heard the term “breed standard” – we just knew what we wanted our puppy to look like, and what we wanted to avoid. We found a farm in Indiana that allowed us to come visit when we were in town for a family wedding.

This farm looked Amish as we approached, but we learned they were Anabaptist. The dogs were born in a barn, yes. But the barn was cooled by industrial fans and radiant heat lay under the floors for cold Indiana winters. As we pulled into the driveway, six beautiful adult Berners ran free from the barn and greeted us as we opened our car doors. Every single adult dog we met that day had the disposition poor Hero had been robbed of. There was a litter on the ground; the puppies looked just as they had on the website photos. Full, round heads, dark eyes that were shaped well, and though I didn’t know what I was looking at, I sensed the proportions were correct. There were no available puppies. All were spoken for. Another litter was due in a month and we were told we could have pick of the litter male from that litter.

Breeder photo of Sherman shared with me at six weeks

When the puppies were born I received photos. I picked our boy at two days of age from a photo (not a good practice) and from that time on he was called Sherman. Regular photo updates were texted to me; the breeder’s little girl had chosen Sherman as her favorite and he earned indoor play privileges almost every day. I asked if I could visit when the puppies were four weeks old. From the age of four to five weeks I went to visit and play with Sherman and his littermates every day. I asked the breeder if she would like me to fill out an application, but she said we had now spent so much time together it would be a moot point.

This breeder has become a dear friend of mine, and I am now able to knowledgeably and kindly address (this happens through conversations and asking questions) her breeding practices. Some of them are still, in my opinion, not for the best. There are no official applications for puppy families. Puppies have been sold on full registration and I have found some of these dogs in backyard breeding programs. But the puppies are raised with Puppy Culture exercises, their little feet touching a variety of surfaces, rolled gently onto their backs to check for the submissive temperament that is desirable. Each dog used for breeding has complete and passing OFA scores on hips and elbows as well as GenSol results for DM and VonWillebrand. Some have cardio and eye certifications. There is no question as to the lovely disposition that has been bred into Sherman, and his dad just died last year at 11.

I finally had a Berner with breed temperament! Sherman is a therapy dog and a neighborhood favorite.

We had come a long way! Finally, after becoming aware of the existence of preservation breeders and the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America, I decided I wanted to try my hand at showing a dog and perhaps launching a small breeding program. Though my first show dog came to me in a stunningly short time frame (about six months), suffice it to say she was NOT easy to get! To begin with, I was a complete unknown. Any breeding community, name your breed, is tight knit. Not one person knew my name. I had never set foot at a dog show. In fact, the first time I attended a dog show, I was stunned by the quality of dogs I was looking at, but I had NO IDEA what was going on!

I found a kind breeder who was willing to talk with me. She guided me through getting Sherman entered in Berner-Garde, sponsored me as I joined a regional club, and told me she would “see” if there was a female show prospect for me in her two upcoming litters. By the time the puppies went home with their new families, I was at the bottom of the list and told I’d need to wait for the next breeding, where I would again be a “maybe”. But one little girl had been held back by the breeder, and through persistence (and prayer again) I managed to convince the breeder to trust me with my first show dog! We would co-own this puppy, and it was understood that she may or may not turn out to be a show dog. She turned out… today she is CH Trailbounds Having a Wonderful Life CGC TKN RN (and only needs one qualifying score to add CD to her titles.)

Little Zuzu on her Gotcha Day.
Zuzu went on to finish her Championship with four major wins!

It was far easier to source show dog number two. Now people knew me. I had obtained a couple of good mentors. Sourcing a puppy went from begging to be trusted, to a period of time where I was offered a number of promising puppies; strategy is the name of the game now. Who do I want to partner with? What dogs do I want to introduce into my breeding lines? (And… when will I get to experience that all-important first litter? This is not for the faint of heart. These dogs are not to be produced on a factory assembly line, but carefully… intentionally.)

Madi came along just before the pandemic, truly one of the prettiest girls I have ever seen. I’ve had the privilege of being on the end of her lead for 11 of her 16 CH points, for two of her three major wins. She does not have hip clearances so she won’t be bred, but she is healthy and active and should be able to participate in a LOT of sports that are fun for her. Her favorite, currently, is Fast Cat, a timed 100 yard dash. This girl can run like the wind!

CH Blackrock ZZ Like Sunday Morning CGC TKN BCAT and AKC Puppy of Merit

Back to today: I had seen a girl on one of the many Facebook groups I follow post that she wanted to re-home her dogs. Her post was alarming. Something was off. The next day she posted a “look how much they’ve grown” post, and the following day she was asking again about surrendering one of the dogs. I reached out to her on messenger asking if I could have a member of a regional club rescue reach out to her.

“Yes. There’s a fee tho,” she said.

No, I assured her. No cost to her.

“I’m saying there’s a fee to take my dogs,” she said. Was she kidding?

I assured her this would never happen. Hundreds of Berners are currently in rescue. She would not be receiving compensation. She began to pressure me to come and take the dog right away, and I started to wonder about how safe it would be to actually show up at her house.

When we did not respond quickly enough to requests to come and get her dog (the 5 month old puppy has been defecating in her crate – thus the eviction), she informed me my help was no longer needed. “I already found a place for piper thanks tho”… I found myself terrified that poor Piper may end up as a bait dog. Pretending to be a compassionate rescue is one of dog fighting’s favorite ploys to obtain bait dogs.

Within 15 minutes, a new post had appeared on the FB Group. She was bringing another puppy home Monday. I hopped on to Lancaster Puppies, and sure enough, there he was. $150. He was a daily special; a 15-week-old puppy the puppy mill breeder had not been able to yet unload. If I can place my bets, I’m going to bet there are puppies within a year – puppies produced by parents who are still babies themselves, puppies produced by two puppy mill products who have not been tested for genetic maladies nor x-rayed for joint health. Puppies out of grand parents and great grandparents who are not even known. Puppies who will be handed over without a single question asked of the new owner.

This is the plight of the “available puppy”. The breeder does not care where he goes. The buyer does not know what she is getting. Neither one cares. It’s no wonder the USDA considers dogs to be “stock” when we, the only ones who can make a difference, play along with the game. Pay the money. Get the dog. No questions asked. No accountability. Take it home – give it away if it doesn’t work out. Buy a new one on deep, deep discount moments later.

We sometimes joke that our dogs have it better than we do. Not so the “available puppy.” He lives a life of Roulette. And so it bears saying for the 1,000,000th time. The hundreds of Berners in rescue and those recently placed for adoption between BARC and Heart of Michigan Rescue alone… did not come from good breeders. A good breeder does not have available puppies. A good breeder has a contract. A good breeder grills potential owners with personal questions. A good breeder stays in touch. Because a good breeder cares.

Published by: When Life Goes to the Dogs

It was my youngest daughter who introduced me to the Bernese Mountain Dog. That first boy, Hero, set in motion all kinds of crazy love. And now, at the end of the day, I often find myself asking... what do these dogs have that is so special? I'm raising three Berners now, navigating the world of social media for dogs, holistic health and raw feeding. Sherman has become a therapy dog; Zuzu may soon follow in his footsteps. Madi, as I like to say, is still cooking. I guess we all need something to put our hands to that makes us feel like we've made a difference in this world. Believe it or not, these dogs help me do just that.

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