Our developed world is becoming an increasingly impatient culture. With every slight advance in technology the expectation of instant gratification becomes more and more ingrained.
We've also now grown accustomed to 'supermarket shopping' with seemingly limitless availability and choice permeating through virtually every customer/supplier relationship. From groceries to electronic goods, designer clothes to pets; just like spoiled kids, consumers must have what they want, when they want it, and as much of it as their hungry hearts desire.
All this on-demand, 24/7 anticipation is, of course, a major driving factor in intensive, factory production methods which began during our Industrial Revolution in 1760. But with all the positives that come with industrial production on a large scale, there are always indisputable negative consequences - primarily a reduction in quality - but there are other effects to consider too.
Often if animals are involved there'll usually be a compromise on welfare, with intensive agricultural processes often impacting heavily not only on the farmed livestock, but also the surrounding environment and wildlife as well. For the most part, consumers seem content with these implications; and as long as there are options available, most will often place their own needs over more, say, altruistic considerations.
Arguably there is strong justification for providing this level of availability and choice in many situations. It prevents a single supplier from monopolising the market and benefits consumers in terms of finding the product that best meets their needs. But is this desirable, necessary, or simply inevitable in the UK's commercial pet dog 'industry'?
To get one thing straight from the outset, it's impossible to breed dogs so that supply exactly matches demand, because when it comes to living things the process is a natural one and there will always be fluctuations.
At the moment in this country we are in a situation where supply is greatly exceeding demand; the market is flooded with puppies (and as a result rescue dogs). The average pet owner is faced with the exciting prospect of being able to have their choice of puppy the moment they make the decision to get one - shortly followed by an instant purchase - and another rescue pet desperately needing a forever home is ignored. More worrying still is that some commercial breeders may be deliberately overbreeding to compensate for the proportion of puppies that they know will die as a result of the horrendous conditions they endure before they even reach the final point of sale. An allowance is generally made for wastage in any production process and the puppy industry is sadly no different because these puppies are viewed in unitary terms, not as individuals.
However there are some exceptions to impulse puppy purchasing, with certain owners unable to buy a dog immediately. For example prospective owners of minority, or 'rare', breeds are expected and expect to wait weeks, months, or even years for their new puppy. Furthermore there are no 'on demand' disability assistance dogs either (and coincidentally, and somewhat cruelly, this is one of the very few circumstances where a dog is genuinely, urgently required).
Breeding dogs properly to a high standard of welfare is not a simple task and this might mean that only a finite number of 'responsibly bred' puppies can be produced, which may not satisfy the market. The current prevailing belief is that the shortfall will always be met by irresponsible (or less desirable) breeders. This leads to the logical conclusion that no matter what measures are put in place to curtail the activities of the worst breeders, i.e. 'puppy farmers', there will inevitably be a market for puppies from breeders who are not breeding responsibly. This presumption significantly limits scope for improving the commercial dog breeding industry. If responsible breeders are really unable to produce sufficient quantities of puppies, taking for granted that the demand will have to be met means accepting that lower standards in some licensed breeding establishments are going to be unavoidable and some owners will still be purchasing badly bred puppies.
Politicians and decision-makers involved in discussions on dog welfare are undoubtedly dog lovers, it comes with the territory. Working for the betterment of dogs in general frequently aligns with assisting owners and of course, a core belief in the vast number of benefits that owning a dog brings.
However this bias could mean that in naturally presuming everyone who wants to experience the joys of dog ownership should be able to, the most fundamental question of all has been bypassed - does the supply of dogs have to exceed demand?
There is a radical alternative to this, and that is to look at the solution from an entirely different angle. It is perhaps controversial to suggest that perhaps not everyone who wants to own a dog should be able to, or at the very least should not be able to obtain one immediately the decision has been made, but why shouldn't all dogs be worth waiting for? Dog breeding should be a bespoke industry where every puppy is a cherished arrival with a good home already lined up. Idealistic perhaps, but the potential for progress is so much greater when starting with the assumption that owners have the right to buy a responsibly bred puppy, rather than to have a huge range of puppies available to purchase immediately.
Forcing the commercial dog breeding industry to focus on improving how dogs are bred rather than maintaining the level of supply will have consequences because the two outcomes are mutually exclusive.
Better dogs will be bred but there will be fewer of them. Undeniably this will create a vacuum but rather than anticipating that this will be filled by irresponsible breeders, the aim must be to ensure that it is not. This is the critical difference in approach and only by making this choice from the outset, will it be possible to make a real, meaningful difference.
In practice this may be easier than it sounds.
An immediate solution is to prohibit the sale of puppies through third party pet shop licence holders, i.e. quite literally removing the shop window for puppy farmers, thus dramatically improving the transparency of the breeding industry. Selling directly to owners will be a primary driver for raising breeders' standards.
Some large scale commercial breeders are simply not going to be able to breed responsibly - due to logistics and economies of scale; and if unable to compete with their peers on a level playing field will soon face extinction. Survival of the fittest applies in business too.
Will they be replaced? Almost certainly not, because the higher standards necessitated by direct selling from breeder to consumer will act as a deterrent for those incapable of meeting them, and large scale, low welfare dog breeding will cease to be viewed as an easy money spinner.
In removing third party pet shop sellers i.e. the only legitimate point of sale for commercially imported puppies, problems associated with this aspect of the trade will also become virtually non-existent, reducing the risk to human health as well as improving canine welfare..
If the process of third party puppy selling is illegal it should be relatively easy to identify rogue sellers because they leave themselves open to exposure through advertising. This would also apply to any large scale breeders that are tempted to circumvent the legislation by operating without a licence.
It is unlikely that there will be a sudden upsurge in backstreet or small scale breeders simply because the majority of dog owners are not going to take that route. Even if there is an increase in small scale breeders, they will not produce sufficient puppies to make up the difference in numbers caused by eliminating several large commercial breeders.
Although some of the backyard/small scale and hobby breeders will not fulfil the criteria for being classed as 'responsible', the issues will be fewer, less severe, and the number of puppies affected will be far less than the output from a single 'puppy farmer'. If they are not earning a living from their activities the stakes are lower and risk is further reduced.
The Pet Industry Federation (PIF) has issued dire warnings on several occasions that prohibiting the sale of puppies from third parties e.g. pet shops (which it refers to as the only licenced, inspected, and regulated route) will result in an explosion of black market puppies. It is true that some bans do force trade underground but when referring to pet dogs rather than drugs this is not only pure scaremongering, but also highly unlikely, and presumably yet another boring effort to promote pet shop owners' rights to sell any animal they like.
One of the reasons why there is currently a problem is that prospective dog owners often do not put in sufficient effort to sourcing a dog. They frequently don't consider adopting from rescue, or visit the Kennel Club's list of Assured Breeders; preferring to take the easiest and most obvious path so they will not seek out a criminal underground dog selling network if there is a trustworthy and straightforward system in place to obtain a dog both responsibly and lawfully. It is also worth remembering that pet puppy buyers are all looking for a happy, healthy dog, and even if totally naïve - none will set out with the deliberate intention of obtaining it from a clearly unsavoury source. One of the most positive outcomes from having fewer available puppies is that more potential owners will consider getting a rescue dog as an alternative which will result in a reduction in the number of dogs awaiting adoption.
Of course reducing the number of available pups is likely to impact on dog ownership and the bottom line is that purchasing a puppy will become a far more considered transaction than ever before. This is hugely significant because consumers will be compelled through the limitations of the market to make responsible choices, without the need for expensive educational campaigns. It would create a more level playing field in the decision making process because there is already a built-in waiting period prior to taking home an adoption pet through home checking and suitability. Who knows, maybe adopting a rescue dog will become the equal or even preferred option?
Certainly there will need to be a change in consumers' expectations of the puppy buying journey, so that they are prepared from the outset to commit to a decision in advance and will anticipate a period of waiting before bringing home the new arrival. This cultural shift can be expedited through public education but the emphasis now will be to inform rather than guide.
Another important aspect to consider is that demand for dogs may actually reduce as a result of improved breeding practices. Dogs that have been bred responsibly have a much higher probability of being healthier, happier, and consequentially living longer.
If responsibly bred dogs are healthier, they will most likely cost their owners less in veterinary treatment bills; and a decreased incidence in behavioural issues e.g. aggression, could mean a decrease in dog attacks, fewer dogs euthanased prematurely, and less 'problem' dogs surrendered to rescues.
In manufacturing terms, if the quality of the product improves then it will last longer. Increasing the average dog lifespan by as little as six months could significantly reduce the number of 'replacement' dogs needed at any given time.
Ultimately no one's need for a pet dog is so great that it justifies compromised welfare in the commercial dog breeding industry. It is well worth sacrificing immediate availability and unlimited choice to ensure that every puppy from a licensed breeding establishment has been bred responsibly and to encourage owners to consider rehoming a dog instead.
After all, what genuine dog lover is selfish enough to condemn breeding dogs to an existence of unimaginable hell in order to produce the puppy they want to own and love?
There is no need for over population - all dogs are worth waiting for.
Marc Abraham BVM&S MRCVS, Founder PupAid
Julia Carr BSc (Hons), Founder Canine Action UK