Dogs are big business.
In Kim Kavin’s “The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers,” the author delves into the business of buying, selling, and rescuing dogs, which she estimates is worth about $11 billion annually worldwide.
If you love dogs, the dogs-as-business approach might be hard to swallow. How could your furry family member be bought, marketed, and sold as a product? How could anyone buy a “puppy mill” dog from a pet store — or alternatively, how could anyone adopt a mutt without a documented history? How will you know what you’re going to get?
But there’s one glaring conclusion from Kavin’s pages: These dogs are all the same.
Yes, dogs are individuals and they come with their own personalities balanced by nature and nurture, but all things equal, the biggest, most notable difference between purebred dogs, with their papers and price tags, and shelter mutts, with their inspirational Instagrams and gut-wrenching pleas for adoption, is marketing.
Over the course of nearly 300 pages, Kavin delves deep into the industry, starting with purebreds. The breeds we now recognise have their roots in Victorian England, when wealthy landowners turned from showing livestock to showing dogs. In order for one dog to be “better” than another, breed standards had to be established. These were, in many cases, aesthetic, and not necessarily in the best interest, health-wise, of the animals themselves. “The majority of breeds, in other words, were developed just like today’s Louis Vuitton scarves or Jimmy Choo shoes or Fendi clutches that visually announce a person’s economic standing — or at least what the person wants other people to believe about her economic standing,” Kavin writes.
As with anything else, the practice trickled down through the classes until the status symbols were pursued and attained by ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic. Those are the roots of the breeds we know and love today, complete with flaws: the bulldog, with its severe breathing and joint problems, is one of the best-known examples of how breed standards can work against the dogs themselves. These dogs may compete in dog shows (“conformation shows” is the technical term, since they judge how closely a dog conforms to its breed’s desired characteristics), popularise breeds to the general public, and set the price points for their offspring and cousins.
On the other hand, we have shelter dogs. Shelter dogs, usually “mutts,” are generally viewed as pathetic creatures who are granted a second chance at life by their rescuers (think those ASPCA commercials with the excruciating Sarah McLachlan song). No one’s speaking against adopting a shelter dog, but one quote in Kavin’s book provides entirely new perspective on breeder dogs versus shelter mutts:
“Why is it,” Mike Arms of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California, asked Kavin, “that somebody can go out and spend $2,000 or $3,000 on a pet and after thirty days realise it’s not for them, and they take it to their local facility, and the minute it crosses that threshold, the value is gone?”
In other words, why are “used” dogs, even purebreds, worth so much less than “new” dogs?
While it might sound icky at first, Arms is a fantastic example of how embracing the idea that dogs are primarily products may be in the dogs’ best interest. Over the course of running the California shelter for the last 17 years, he “tripled adoption rates while charging some of the highest dog adoption fees in America and recruiting employees for their business and marketing savvy,” writes Kavin. He’s “sold” puppies for as much as $1,000 (a goldendoodle), and works with traditional retail powerhouses such as Macy’s and BMW to better optimise his shelter and train his employees.
“[Rescuers] can call it adoptions or rehoming or whatever they want,” Arms told Kavin, “but they’re in the business of selling used dogs. And they’d better be good at it, because those lives are on the line.”
Another memorable example from the book is the Territorio de Zaguates shelter in Costa Rica, which enlisted a creative agency to push its campaign of “unique breeds” — dogs the average person might consider mutts were rebranded as “unique breeds” such as “Chubby-Tailed German Dobernauzers” and “White-Chested Dachweilers.” As a result of the campaign, adoptions increased 1,400% and sponsors took over the shelter’s operating costs. Nothing at all changed about the dogs themselves.
Plus, Kavin explains, many of the “used” shelter dogs in the US come from the same place as the dogs you see in the pet store window. As her book opens, she’s at a dog auction in Missouri, where one of the purchasers bidding on animals is a representative of a rescue organisation. The representative is buying dogs to be “rescued.”
This is a running theme of Kavin’s book: The black-and-white shelter versus puppy mill face-off is drenched in shades of grey. There are “puppy mills” that treat their dogs well and care for them impeccably. There are backyard “hobby breeders” that abuse their animals. There are shelters that regularly put down — kill, if you’re going to call a spade a spade — horrifying numbers of dogs. There isn’t one clear good guy or bad guy, and most consumers in search of a fluffy puppy are completely ignorant of the flawed industry thriving on their dollars.
To add some transparency to the process that brings dogs home, Kavin launched a website, DogMerchants.com, where owners can rate and promote breeders and pet stores and rescues as consumers looking at businesses, enabling those who come next to make better decisions about how they add to the family.
All dogs may be pretty much the same — but the ways humans choose to treat them aren’t.