Joyce Briggs: What the State of Shelter Adoptions Today Means for Breeders
Jessica Hekman: Welcome to the Functional Breeding Podcast. I’m Jessica Hekman, and I’m here interviewing folks about how to breed dogs for function and for health: behavioral and physical. This podcast is brought to you by the Functional Dog Collaborative, an organization founded to support the ethical breeding of healthy, behaviorally sound dogs. FDC’s goals include providing educational, social, and technical resources to breeders of both purebred and mixed breed dogs. You can find out more at www.functionalbreeding.org, or at the Functional Breeding Facebook Group, which is a friendly and inclusive community. I hope you have fun and learn something.
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Jessica Hekman: Hi friends. This week, I’m talking to Joyce Briggs, the President of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs. Joyce has dedicated her career to working in the world of animal sheltering, and has fascinating insights about how that world has changed over the past decades, backed up by some hard numbers. In this episode, we talked about the changing face of the animal shelter world in the United States, and speculate about what this could mean for people looking to get their next dog, and for dog breeders.
JH: Well, Joyce, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really appreciate your being here today.
JB: Oh, my pleasure, Jessica. I’m looking forward to this.
JH: Yeah. And I would love to start out — Well, I was about to jump in and say, “Let’s talk about your background in dogs and other animals.” But before we do that, why don’t you tell us about the dogs, and I believe, cats that you live with? Because I think I’ve seen a cat on your screen before.
JB: Yeah. Well, we have three dogs, two cats and two goats who don’t often turn up on the screen. But yeah, given the topic, I’ll tell you a little bit about my dogs. We have one Chihuahua mix and two bully breed mixes. And their brief three stories are probably really pertinent to the kind of dogs that are likely to be found in shelters in the community right now. So I’d love to say just a little bit about that.
So our smallest Betsy the Chihuahua mix, came from a shelter here in Portland, Oregon, where I’m based, but she started her life in Central California. And by the time I met her when she was about 18 months, she’d been through probably at least one home and three shelters. She had been transferred up through the kind of “puppy underground,” up the coast, and to shelters in Southern Oregon and then up to the Portland area. And it’s unclear why she had so many homes. She’s a marvelous dog, but it’s a typical… That transfer’s kind of typical of how dogs, small dogs, are found up in the Pacific Northwest.
JB: Our two boys, the big boys. Leo, who’s topping 100 pounds now, he’s an American bulldog/husky mix. And that’s according to his original family who knew of the accidental litter where he was born one of 10 puppies. They had to rehome him when he was about four years old, because they were moving into an apartment and facing divorce and other challenging issues. He’s a challenging dog. And is a little bit hard to manage, but we love him a lot. And then our third dog, Dexter, we just got last fall on a trip to Hawaii. We met him at the Hawaii Humane Society and did a half-day trek with dogs which is a program they offer. He was such a wonderful, wonderful dog. And most of their adoptions are transports to the mainland, and he wouldn’t have been transported because he was essentially… looks like what you call a Pit Bull. Although interestingly, his breed mix on his papers was listed as Labrador/hound mix. And we had his genetic testing done when we got him here and he’s 75% American Staffordshire terrier. (laughter) But I was able to…
JH: So many typical things there – so many typical things in that story. Yeah, sorry, go on.
JB: Exactly, exactly. So we were able to get him transported or transferred only if we fostered him. And we turned into a “foster failure” if you use that term, but we’re delighted to have him as part of our family.
JH: Lovely. So yeah, so this is… You know, I often interview breeders here and so I think some people may be a little surprised that I am interviewing someone from the animal welfare community or the shelter community. And I think it’ll become clear why. But I’ll just say up front that there’s two places that people get dogs from in general and one is sort of from a breeder of any number of sorts, and the other is from shelter, rescue or something like that. And I really wanted to cover that other part of where dogs come from. And you have some really interesting insights into the changes in that world. But let’s start out just by talking about your background a little bit. So why don’t you actually start out… Well, we definitely should talk about what your paying job is now. But how did you get there? How did you get into the animal welfare community?
JB: Yeah, so I have been really fortunate to work in animal welfare, you know, professionally now, for… since 1995, so about 25 years. And I had about a 15 year career before that in marketing and advertising, mostly in New York City. And I really was kind of a student of consumer trends in that career. And I spent all my free time volunteering at animal shelters and on the board of a couple of organizations. And when I got the opportunity to switch into that profession, full time, I was thrilled, and I have never ceased being thrilled. But I found that I think coming from a business background, I really always tried to follow the trends in this field to try to figure out, “How are we doing?” You know, so I’ve been following that for a long time. And during that time, I’ve worked for mostly national organizations, and national organizations including American Humane Association, PetSmart Charities, and my current job, which I’ll tell you about in a second. But I’ve been able to kind of see things at a national level, but then have a lot of contact with animal shelters all over the country on a, you know, on a kind of day-to-day basis. And so that’s been a really nice combination for me.
What I found are a couple of real passions in that, and one has been spreading sterilization to reduce euthanasia in our shelters. And so I focused a lot on spay/neuter, and innovations in spay/neuter, and how we can make it more accessible and affordable. That led me to my current position, which is with the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs. And we are innovating in spay/neuter by looking for ways to make that non-surgical. So essentially innovating to create a spay shot, which will be a big game changer, I think globally, in being able to bring fertility control to dogs and cats all over the world.
So I’m very passionate about that. But at the same time, as I followed our progress in the movement, I’ve started to feel like we need to, 1) celebrate some big successes, and 2) look for how we’re going to “right size” the dog population in this field, because there are some different innovations that are needed now to do that, and looking at shelter trends, I think will be an eye opener around that.
JH: I hadn’t heard that term “right size” before. I like that. (laughter) Yeah, so shelter trends. So we were thinking we might start in the 1970s. I was born in 1973. So right, so when I was a tiny little thing living in Chicago with my parents, who were grad students, what was going on in the animal shelter industry around them?
JB: Well, it shows how much older I am than you are because in 1970, I became a teenager. And at that time I first started volunteering in animal shelters in the 70s. And at the time, everybody in this movement that was getting involved was really appalled with how high euthanasia was in shelters. And if you think back about… many people can imagine the pets of their childhood, you know, and how they acquired them and what it was like living with them. And you think about you know, many, many puppies were kind of born of very casual litters, perhaps on your block, perhaps in your neighborhood. You know, we got our little dog that I can remember so well from church. You know, many of them weren’t spayed. And as a result of that, when you look at the animal shelter statistics, some of the ones that we’ve been able to get from back then, there were about 20% of the entire dog population was being euthanized in shelters back then. Every year.
JH: That’s huge.
JB: It is huge. And when you look at that number of households, it’s about half the number of households in the US today. So the US population has grown dramatically. The number of dogs that are owned, has grown dramatically. But now in, you know, in the last couple of years, we’ve been euthanizing an estimated 1.6% of the dog population, down from 20%. So that’s, that’s terrific progress. It’s really terrific progress.
And if you look at, you know, that sterilization factor that I’m so, so jazzed about, it appears that there were under 10% of dogs back then, that were sterilized. Some early data from LA County shows that right about 10% of the registered dogs in the county were sterilized. And it may be hard to extrapolate. That’s registered. Probably a lot of dogs weren’t registered, and were likely not sterilized either. But back then there was a lot of discussion in the animal welfare movement about, “Wow, could we sterilize our way out of this?” And a lot of people felt like, you know, we could never get to the percentage of sterilization that would bring down those numbers. But others thought we could. And it became really the mantra animal welfare organizations. They, you know, we all deployed legislative techniques. A lot, a lot of marketing techniques. Veterinarians were quite engaged. And, people like Bob Barker, who’s, you know, show The Price Is Right ran from I think, the 70s, early 70s, till about 2007. You know, that was his mantra. So a whole generation or generations of people, you know, grew up with the concept of spay neuter your pet. So things have changed a lot.
JH: That was for sure how I grew up. Yeah, I mean, yeah. 100%. That was, you know, certainly every dog that we got when I was a kid got spayed. You know, before six months, probably around six months, and we just never… You wouldn’t have considered having a dog that wasn’t spayed or neutered. That was how we did it.
JB: Well, I think you were progressive with the “before six months,” because that was kind of a later… Oh, not in some cases. Certainly people who appreciated not having female dogs going into heat recognize that before six months was a really good… helpful, helpful timing. But when you look at, you know, just 20 years ago, that’s when the advent of pediatric neutering really started to be popularized. You know, I know when I was first at the American Humane Association, there were Veterinary Association policy statements stating that pediatric neutering was a good idea for purposes of, you know, population control, but it wasn’t well addressed at all. And in that role, I created kind of the first marketing materials like videos and workbooks and things like that, compiling all the data that supported it. So that, you know, preventing those initial “oops” litters was a huge stride forward, because back then, still, there would be animals or dogs might be sterilized after there was an accidental litter or two.
JH: So what did the typical… Well, there’s no typical shelter, of course. But I think what we’re talking about… So back then in 70s, 80s, a lot of good family pets, or a dog that could make a good family pet, might not make it out of the shelter, even though it could have been very successful at home, just because there wasn’t enough space in shelters for all of the dogs that were coming through. Do you think that’s an accurate way of describing that?
JB: I think that is very accurate. Yeah. People who were managing shelters in that time, were having to select the most placeable dogs, at that time, with the space they had, and find homes for them. And there was such a resolution that you know, that there was not a choice about euthanizing for space. So I think one of the things I’ve most loved… Oh, go ahead.
JH: I guess well, no, but you go ahead first, and then I’ll say…
JB: I was just saying, I think one of the things that I’ve so loved about seeing the evolution of the sheltering field is the ability to really see the value in any dog that comes in and give a best shot towards finding the right match for that dog, and with a lot of kind of, you know, behavioral or medical rehabilitation sometimes involved.
JH: Yeah, and actually, what I wanted to say ties on to that really well, which is that I just wanted to take a moment to recognize the really massive amount of trauma that a lot of shelter workers went through and are still going through in the parts of the country where shelters are still like this, where dogs come through and they recognize that it’s a healthy dog or a dog that could be made to be healthy, and/or critically, a really, really nice dog that would do really well in a home, and to have no other option but to euthanize for space. And it’s a whole separate question of whether there are other options, right? But people in that place, there were not obvious, easy options for them. And that is a part of our culture that we still carry with us. That pain of knowing how many dogs and cats, but we’re focused on dogs today, were losing their lives in shelters through no fault of their own. And so I just want to sort of take a second to recognize that.
JB: Absolutely, yes, I think that’s a really, really important statement. And even now, like any social service, we, in this field, see lots of dogs who have been either injured or abused. And it can be a very challenging field to work in, but it is light years different than it was before. And that has enabled us to keep a lot more really good people in the field, because they don’t feel compelled to leave it because of those strains.
JH: Yeah. Oh, that’s good to know. So, do you want to talk a little bit about how things have changed since then? Do you want to jump to today, or is there, are there other… Do you want to sort of move through the 90s? Or?
JB: Yeah, I think one of the interesting things back in 2000… So 20 years ago, I started as Executive Director of PetSmart Charities, and it was a great way to understand what kind of grant applications we were getting, and what type of need shelters all across the country had. And at that point, you could really start to see how there were different trends in different parts of the country. It’s not at all homogenous across this country. And different things were needed in different, in each marketplace.
We saw that there was a lot more, even then, outreach out into the community to try to further spread sterilization services as part of helping keeping pets out of the shelter to begin with. Prior to that a lot of shelter focus was so, so absorbed by the animals they were dealing with in the shelter, that there was much less opportunity to reach out into the community around them. So we saw the advent of things like high volume, high quality, spay/neuter services, which, you know, innovated around facilities and methodologies, and a huge growth of shelter medicine practice in more and more veterinarians working within shelters. So there was a lot of professionalism around that sort of service delivery.
And about that point, we started to do a lot of transport. And I know you wanted to talk a little bit about transport. One of the things you were seeing was that there was a there was a real, perhaps not an overall overpopulation of dogs, but certainly in certain regions, there were more than there were adoptive homes for. In other regions, there was becoming really a shortage that really goes back almost 20 years. And so there became more and more frequent transport of dogs from some regions to other regions. And that became, was kind of pretty amateur in the beginning and then became much more professionalized with lots of standards. And started redistributing dogs around the country to where there will be most homes for them. And that also then helped bring down the euthanasia, especially in the parts of the country where there was still higher production of dogs without homes.
JH: Yeah, that was and that was where my dog ownership started. My first dog was a golden retriever, Jack, a really lovely dog, who was born in Louisiana, and went into rescue at age, “two or three.” And, you know, was unneutered and had all different kinds of worms. And they fixed him up and they shipped him on an airplane up to me in Massachusetts, and I wanted an adult golden and the waiting list for Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue was immense. And I didn’t have any dog experience, so I would not have been at the top of the list. And that was the way to get a golden if you wanted one in under two years.
JB: Wow, and what year was that?
JH: That was 2003. October 2003.
JB: Yeah, yeah. So that’s already over 10 years ago. And in New England, which brings up a good point. You were in New England at the time? Or you were in Illinois?
JH: Yeah, Massachusetts. Yeah.
JB: And that’s another good point is there… When you look at different parts of the country, certainly… New England’s probably farthest along the route of being mature in these trends where there have been shortages of adoptable dogs for the dog demand for a long time, and it’s being met, much of it’s being met, by transfer up from areas like the… I guess in New England, mostly from the Southeast, where there are more challenges.
JH: Yeah, for sure. And so you said that transport has gone through some of its own evolution. And so I was after I got Jack, I was doing retriever rescue in Massachusetts, and I was in the middle of that when the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture declared that we would no longer be importing dogs from any except for contiguous states unless they went through two weeks of quarantine. And there was a lot of consternation in the rescue community, because that was going to be really hard for a lot of people. But there had been dogs being brought in, as you said, less than professionally, and a lot of disease coming in, and not good for the dogs. And so that was… I don’t actually know how all of that resolved, because I went to veterinary school around that (laughter) and left rescue. But I remember how much of a problem it was. And I remember that, you know, we were sort of like, “Well, we’re only handling dogs coming in from contiguous states.” And then we realized that Maine was not actually contiguous with Massachusetts. And so we had to stop covering Maine. And so that was sort of it for us. But the… You know, the rescues like the one where I had gotten my golden that we’re bringing dogs up from the South had real trouble.
JB: Yeah, there’s some really interesting trends and kind of challenges in transport right now. You know, and one of them, you know, and it makes sense when you think about it, but the shelters who are importing dogs, and I speak from being here in the Portland, Oregon area, where about 50% of our dog adoptions through a coalition that serves the Greater Portland metro area come from out of region. So we for a long time, like New England, have been able to help areas where they have more challenges placing all their dogs. But what you find is you want to import dogs that are not necessarily the profile of the dogs that you could be getting elsewhere in the state, you know. And they, you want ones that kind of meet what other people are looking for. And what you find in more and more of the source shelters is that they have more and more challenging dogs to transport up. So they’re having to kind of negotiate to send certain dogs that will be adopted really quickly and without major investment in medical care. And the proceeds from those adoptions will help shelters help dogs that are going to need to be in their care a lot longer, and may need a bit, you know, behavioral rehabilitation. But what it means is sometimes I think dogs are starting to leave source shelters that could be placed in their community as a kind of payment for the dogs that are going to be harder for them to place and they want to be able to send to another shelter. So it becomes really complex.
JH: Yeah, I actually participated in some of this bartering during my year in shelter medicine. I did an internship in shelter medicine in Florida. And it wasn’t long distance, but it was one of those situations where you have the sort of Animal Control type area, that county shelter that is taking in a large number of dogs. And then you have the Humane Society that only takes as many in as they can adopt out so they don’t euthanize for space by definition. And I was working, doing a week’s rotation with the Humane Society. And one of the things that we did was we took the van and we went over to the other shelter. And we were enjoined to come back with 10 dogs. And the veterinarian who sent us fixed us both with a hard stare and said I do not want you coming back with 10 Pit Bulls. And the reason she said that was what was going to happen, and it’s exactly what happened, is we’re going to go over to this source shelter, which is going to be 90%, pitbull-type dogs, and they are going to want us to take all the pitbull-type dogs because they’re very hard to adopt out. We were going to want to take the cute little dogs because that was what was very easy to adopt out. And so there was going to be this back and forth of… And it’s not just about money, as I know, you know, Joyce. It’s also about bringing people into the shelter, right?
JH: So if someone comes in looking for a dog, and all they see are these big muscular dogs and that’s not what they want, they’re going to go away. Whereas if they come in and, “Well there’s some dogs, maybe not quite, but it’s worth coming back, cause you know…”
JB: Yeah, absolutely.
JH: I remember that. I remember that particular trip, I believe we ended up coming back with five or six pitbull-type dogs. We did not come back with 10 dogs. We came back with 11 dogs, one of them had to ride on my lap. And we had 10 and as we were about to leave they came out with this gimpy, ancient dog who could hardly walk and they were like, “Please take this dog. We can’t adopt this dog out.” And I think, “No one’s going to want to adopt that dog. It’s so old and arthritic. It can hardly walk.” And they were… they said, “Please” and so that was the 11th dog. And I ended up adopting that dog and taking her home. (laughter) And then we had her for two years, she lasted two years. She was quite elderly. Anyways, that’s my story of shelter bargaining. It was, it was all in good faith, right? Like, we all knew what everybody’s issues were. We weren’t… It’s not bargaining in the sense of trying to get at somebody else.
JB: Yes. Well put. Yeah.
JH: But at the same time, like we all knew that there’s a certain type of dog that a lot of them came in, and it was really hard for them to go back out again.
JB: Yes, and that’s still so true. Yeah. And it’s… The community has so risen to support shelters, in many places, that oftentimes that kind of dog you adopted then might end up being really appealing to somebody. You know, people who want to kind of give a lovely senior dog a last year or two in a home, and, you know, so it can be surprising what dogs can actually be pretty placeable. But they’re ones that are definitely harder to place.
You know, and then there’s been a whole kind of arising of international importation of dogs, too. So I’ve, you know, kind of had a history. I think I got interested in international animal welfare through ending up bringing back, first a dog from Puerto Rico, for myself, and then a dog from Mexico, and most recently got to just escort five dogs from Thailand who were coming from Soi Dog Foundation to be adopted on the East Coast. But it’s amazing how you talk to people at dinner parties now, back when, you know, we went to dinner parties, and they’ll have those…
JH: On Zoom. You talk to people on zoom, and their dogs… (laughter)
JB: Exactly right. And they will have just adopted a, you know, a dog from China, you know, that just came to them. It’s really, really shifting. And that brings, you know, a lot of issues. But in some ways those dogs are… One of the points I’ve had to really grapple with to understand and looking at the data is that, you know, when you look at… There’s a certain number of dogs that will die of natural causes and old age every year, and that will need to be replaced if we’re going to continue having the same number of dogs, which is its own issue. And really, it’s only dogs that are new to our United States universe at that point, that kind of count. You know, so…
JH: As opposed to the ones that get moved between homes, but still remain, or even that go into shelters as adults and come back out, right? Yeah.
JB: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So when you look at that, and it’s about, you know, probably estimated about 8 million dogs need to be replaced in the United States every year to replace the ones that die of kind of, you know, from lifespan issues. And so when you start looking at, well, where are those 8 million dogs coming from? You know, a lot of us in our, in my early analysis, and many others, we’re kind of applying all of the estimated dogs from shelters to that number, you know? And it’s probably about… Best estimates are about 2.3 – 2.6 million dogs from shelters. But truly, only about 25% of the dogs being adopted from shelters are under a year of age. Which means when you look at dogs new to the universe, it’s really only about a quarter of that 2.6 million that count toward that number. And that was just a real eye opener for me.
And of course, the, I don’t know, if you call it recycling of dogs? Or rehoming of dogs within the universe can be really important, you know, to families to those dogs. It needs to go on, but it is, at the same time, wouldn’t be counted in the dogs that are replacing those that are no longer in our universe.
JH: Yeah, so it’s really different from… We’re talking about going back to the beginning of our conversation in the 70s when there were a whole lot of “oops litters,” and then those puppies would come into shelters. And so if you wanted a new dog, you know, those however many, you know, 8 million now, however many replacement dogs that were back then to keep families “in dogs.” You go to a shelter and there were puppies coming in, right? So how many puppies are coming… And you were saying, so very, very few puppies coming into shelters now, right? So you’re saying fewer than a quarter of the ones coming into shelters are puppies, and that looks really different in different parts of the country as well.
JB: Yeah, well, it’s about… When you look at the intake to shelters, it’s about 20% of dogs qualify as puppies that come in and about 25% of the adoptions are puppies. So and interestingly, when you think about it, if you’re really trying to figure out, “Where are dogs coming from?” I would say most of those puppies aren’t born in a shelter. You know, some probably are. They may be born to a female that comes in and gives birth in a shelter. Certainly some are. But the origin of those puppies was something different. You know what I mean? So it was… Whether it was a casual litter, an accidental litter. But, so… yeah. So you try to kind of figure out… And back to the 70s, to your point there, you’re right. I think there was a lot more casual breeding of dogs where their offspring ended up in shelters as a means of kind of finding, you know, a home for them. And now, it seems to be much more an exception.
JH: Yeah, and I’m trying to think through as well, just how to present, sort of, your point about the recycling of dogs. And so I guess, how much were you saying? How many households in the US, do you know, can or want to have a dog? Or how many dogs in the US are there that are in households?
JB: There’s about 48 million households owning a dog in the United States right now.
JH: That’s a lot.
JB: And they own about 80 million dogs.
JH: Okay. So, there’s these 80 million dogs that are in homes. And some number of dogs leave one home. So if you have a dog, and you are not able to keep that dog for whatever reason and you take that dog to a shelter and it goes to another home, that opens up a spot in your home that presumably you’re going to want to fill with another dog, right? So that’s sort of a way of thinking about it, that, whenever you’re talking about recycling a dog that it moves from one home to another home, it’s opening up a space in the home that it’s left. Not all the time, but that…
JB: It might. It might be that you decide you want to own a dog now and I decide that I don’t. And yet… So my dog goes from me to you. But when they count at the end of the day, how many households still have dogs? It’s no longer me. And now it’s you. But we’ve kind of cancelled each other out.
JH: It doesn’t change the 48 million. The 80 million.
JB: Yeah. So that’s why it seems like it’s mostly the dogs that leave the universe totally, through, you know, approximately 10% of them dying a year, each year, that are the ones that open up holes for new dogs.
JH: So then the question is, where are those dogs all coming from now? About 8 million. If there’s a demand in the United States for about 8 million new puppies, we’ll just say puppies, because that’s what a “new to the universe” dog is, right? So 8 million puppies a year. And I think we should talk about, for sure, the ethics around supporting that. But let’s first just talk about how it is now. So where are those 8 million puppies coming from now?
JB: Yeah, so from what I can tell it looks like there’s about 3.4 million puppies that are identified by the pet industry as being from either AKC breeders, large-scale breeders, or purchased on the internet. So that’s about… And so 3.4 out of 8 million, in the 8 million gap. From the shelter data we just talked about, if about a quarter of the dog adoptions are puppies, then they would count. Maybe that’s not where they originated, but they count in that year. So that’s another 800,000. And from looking at rehoming data of rehomed dogs that are puppies, the percentage of them that are puppies, looks like it’s maybe another, you know, half a million. And I haven’t counted, then, adult dogs that are imported from outside the US because they would be “new to the universe” as well. But you still… You come up with about 4.8 million new dogs from those sources. So the rest of that gap is kind of… It’s unknown, and it’s a gap. So those dogs appear to be coming from someplace, you know, or what we’re also seeing is, you know, perhaps the dog population will start declining.
JB: And what it points out for me is that there’s a big opportunity in this marketplace for someone to want to breed to that gap. And that’s what’s brought me with interest to this field because I’m very connected to the animal welfare field. And I would love for our field to have an engagement in trying to do this the right way. And it’s what makes me really impressed with the Functional Dog Collaborative, because I think you’re going into it with the best intentions for dogs as well as people and having the kinds of dogs that will stay successfully in households where they’re wanted.
JH: Yeah, that is the goal. And that would be a lovely world to see where the majority of dogs did, you know, really, you know, were sort of primed to do really well in the households where they end up.
JB: Yeah. So I think we have more to learn about, “Where are the dogs coming from?” And I think my fear that this might be an opportunity for the growth of puppy mills is something that I would like to see addressed. For breeding establishments that do kind of qualify under those circumstances, I’d like to see that reduced, not increased. You know, that type of breeder reduced not increased. So I think it’s an area that really calls for innovation.
JH: It does. It’s interesting, right, to think that we have done a really good job of reducing the “oops litters,” the casual litters. But what I worry we may have done is, because we haven’t supported the growth of responsible breeding. And so… And yet the demand remains the same. And so, there… I just am worrying that there are, as you say, irresponsible breeders filling that gap. And that there are people purchasing dogs who are not recognizing where the dogs are coming from.
I had a… I told you this story already, Joyce, but I’ll tell it again. I had a very nice man repairing our broken refrigerator. And he commented on our dogs, and he told me about his dog, and it was a cavapoo. And I was immediately like, “Oh, I have someone here in the wild, like an actual owner who bought a cavapoo. I want to know all about how this happened.” So I quizzed him on it, and, you know, why he thought that was the right mix for him and all of that. And then I said, “So where did you get this dog?” And he said, “Well, you know, we got the dog at a pet store.” He said, “But it wasn’t a bad pet store. The dog didn’t come from a puppy mill. It was a very progressive pet store.” And, you know, I left it there, right? I wasn’t going to lecture him. But the likelihood that dog came from a crappy beginning is pretty high.
JB: Yeah, well, and I’ve heard other, actually, researchers note that in focus groups, oftentimes people have a lot of denial about what may have been the source of their puppy. You know, so that may not aid in helping turn those scenarios around.
JH: You told me more details about that one. So let’s talk about that. That was such a great story. So what did those focus groups look like?
JB: Well, I… This is secondhand, so I don’t know them specifically. But I heard that in, probably 10 years ago there were focus groups with people who had acquired puppies. And it was, it seemed pretty clear from what they were describing that they had been purpose-bred, and in kind of a large facility…
JH: For pet stores. Yeah.
JB: You know, and yet the people were all pretty satisfied with their dogs. And were, really couldn’t believe that there was any challenge with that. But it leads me to believe that it’s important to know about how… where people are getting their dogs and what their experience is like.
One of the things that I fear is, you know, we have, with such good intentions raised the percentage of dogs being sterilized now up to about 85%, by one report. And it is such a social norm, and so stigmatized to have an intact male dog (those ones you can tell are intact) that I think it will be… The only people who are letting their dogs breed are either, you know, doing so accidentally and through, kind of, what is irresponsible ownership. And the offspring of those dogs may well not be the kind that are going to be most successful in homes. And everybody else, especially people with really good dogs, have very responsibly had them sterilized, so they definitely won’t be contributing to the gene pool.
So it’s kind of a challenge and it seems very frightening to me to just suggest letting off the gas on spay/neuter initiatives. But that’s one way to approach it. I’d rather do it more intentionally, trying to create the types of dogs that are going to be really wanted in various, different, local communities. You know, do that kind of in a customized way, community to community.
JH: Yeah. And it’s sad that there are big fractures between the animal welfare community and the breeder community, right? And so, what you’re saying is that the animal welfare community really wants to continue to help make sure that dogs go into good homes, that dogs stay in good homes, that animal welfare is considered. And the difficulty of working with the people who are producing those dogs is that these two communities have burned their bridges a while back.
JB: Yeah, I think that’s true. I do talk to increasing number of shelter directors who say that they are happy to refer to responsible breeders and they do do that, and they like to know more about them. So I think that’s, that’s a channel that’s ripe for opening up. But I think it’s also very difficult in our community to figure out how to adapt the messaging because we’ve talked about “adopt, don’t shop” for so long that it’s hard to kind of scale back from that into a new reality. But I think there’s opportunity.
I think shelters are oftentimes seeing people who don’t find what they want when they come to the shelter. And they’re wanting to help steer them, you know, toward a responsible choice. So I particularly think they would, they would like to be familiar with breeders who they feel good about the ways they make decisions about the dogs that they breed, and they educate pet owners. I think there’s a real partnership opportunity there.
JH: Yeah, I think there is. And I also, I liked the way that you brought up the fact that it’s really a new reality now, because I think a lot of us are having trouble seeing the new reality. And so when we think about building those bridges, there’s this… You know, I grew up in this time, when so many dogs were being euthanized through no fault of their own. I went into shelter medicine straight out of vet school. I feel very passionately about it. And the idea that we’re coming to a place where, instead of having too many dogs, people are really having trouble finding dogs that fit well into their homes. And that is the reality. It’s just hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around, for good reason. Because it is a big change. And the pandemic I think has really brought it to a head, right? So what’s some stuff that we’ve seen in the last year?
JB: Yeah, it’s… I’ve wondered, looking at these trends, whether everything would be off. You know, the whole thing would be shifted now during COVID. And it is really interesting to look at the trends, you know, and I must say I am really proud of the animal sheltering community and in general the job they have done on this. But what we saw was, when the pandemic first started there was a deep concern about needing to take in the pets of people who are going to die, or pets of people who might lose their housing because of job loss. There was concern about shelter staff being able to care for animals and keep socially distanced.
And so the way many in the sheltering community dealt with that was to take strides to seek to foster out all the animals in their care. And that’s a wonderful because 10 to 20 years ago, there probably would have been a lot of euthanasia happening at that point. At this point, that’s not acceptable. And there are… There’s a huge number of pets in foster care. And of course, a global pandemic with everybody working from home was actually a really good setup for more and more people feeling like they could make time to take care of a pet for a temporary or even a permanent basis. So they did that.
And at the same time, it turned out that that intake to shelters has gone way down, way down both from stray and from owner surrender. It’s down approximately 24%. And I think a couple things play into that one. There are more people who are wanting to have a dog or a cat. And over the last decade, especially through social media, there are ways of placing an animal within the community that don’t involve going through the shelter. And we’ve really tried to coach people to come to shelters as the last alternative to make a really responsible placement. With the demand for dogs going up, I think there’s been a lot of people who, if they were not able to care for a dog, have been able to place it themselves through social media.
And there’s been kind of a transformation in the shelter community which I now think would like to consider itself a community that doesn’t institutionalize dogs, but that manages them in foster homes, which is really kind of like the turn of the last century where we were with children in orphanages and foster homes. So there’s been a real shift toward social services for shelters that doesn’t involve institutionalizing.
So I think nobody knows what COVID is going to bring next. You know, we don’t know about the economic fallout, the housing, evictions, and the sheltering community keeps positioning itself to provide as many resources as they can in these scenarios. And there’s a possibility there may be a whole wave of surrenders. But so far, I think, all together we’re weathering this for pets quite well. And I hope that continues.
But what you find is that the stats from 2020 year to date through November are looking kind of comparable to 2019. And if you look at… There’s a website that anybody can go to called “Shelter Animals Count” which is a wonderful resource for shelter statistics. And it has… Certainly not all shelters are reporting to it. And it’s difficult to know how to extrapolate. But for example, there were over 3200 shelters reporting to it in 2019. And in that year, there was an average percentage of about 7% of dogs coming into shelters were euthanized. So you know, and by most cases, they’re talking about “no kill” – a “no kill” being under 10% knowing that there will be some dogs that come into shelters that are either too dangerous to be rehomed or too sick. But, so 7% is pretty good. And actually the trends through that same Shelter Animals Count for 2020. There are… it’s dramatic decrease in intake, but it’s about 5% euthanasia. So it’s even gotten better.
JH: And that’s… So that’s nationwide.
JB: That’s nationwide. Yeah.
JH: So that’s an average, including the parts of the country that do much better than that, and the parts of the country that do worse.
JB: Yeah, well, it’s interesting. And I kind of looked at that, though, which is interesting, because if you look at the… You look at Shelter Animals Count and other sources for either the New England area, or let’s look at New England and the Pacific Northwest to start with. They both have over a 96% “save rate,” or live release rate, of dogs in shelters. And interestingly, in the Northeast, there’s about half the intake of dogs per human population as there is in the Pacific Northwest. So just the volume of dogs coming into shelters is that much dramatically lower, even in areas where the save rate’s quite similar.
If you look at… Looking at where the puppy incidence is highest. And there’s a pretty cool map on Shelter Animals Count that shows the percentage of intake of puppies by state, you know, ranging from less than like 1% to up to 50%. And the only ones in that high area are Louisiana and Mississippi, and I think it’s New Mexico. So I looked at the 2019 data for Louisiana and Mississippi and compared to that 5% euthanasia and you know, in that we saw nationally. They have about a 13%… About a 9% euthanasia rate (13% total, which includes died in shelter, owner requested euthanasia.” But so they’ve got about a 9% euthanasia rate. Their puppy intake is about 31% of all dogs, and about 35% of adoptions. And if you remember that compared to about 20% of all dogs, 25% of adoptions nationally.
So the marvelous thing is while there’s still a lot of challenges in those regions, the animal welfare field nationally and some of the big funders like PetSmart Charities, Petco Foundation, Best Friends have really been focusing resources on those areas to try to help and mentor and expedite their journey towards higher save rates in shelters. Which is, which is amazing, which is which is really awesome to be able to focus on those areas where more help is needed. You know, what that’s going to mean for the rest of the country is that transfer as a means of meeting the interests of people who want to adopt dogs from shelters. (And wonderfully, a lot of people really want to get their dogs from shelters.) That’s going to be… There’s going to be less and less transfer because of the strides being made in the Southeast and Southwest of the US.
JH: Yeah, so I think that if you ask someone in New England where I live, they would say there are not all that many dogs in New England shelters. I think we all know that at this point. And I knew that 20 years ago. But I think we would, we would all say, “but if you go to the south, there’s plenty of dogs. That’s where all the dogs are.” And what you’re saying is that that’s changing. So I had always thought of it as a sort of a static thing. This is how New England is. This is how the South is. (laughter) And that’s how it will always be, of course. But you’re seeing that it’s more like there’s a progression in a particular direction. And New England, maybe chronologically farther along than some other parts of the country. But they’re headed in the same direction.
JB: Yeah, that’s how I see it. And I’m an optimist. But I think I’m not the first to comment that in terms of, kind of, cause issues or social service areas, the amount of positive change we’ve seen in sheltering in the last 20, even 20 years alone, is so much greater than many other areas. I mean, it’s really been transformed. And that is exciting. It creates new challenges for us. But some of those are ones that are good to have.
JH: Yeah, it’s… I keep thinking as you and I talk about this, that if you had asked me when I first volunteered for a shelter in 1996, if we came to this point where we had such low kill rates, such high live release rates that we could actually say, “Hey, shelters are starting to be able to transition to a place where the animals can actually live in foster care. And shelters, instead of being a place to warehouse and move animals can instead be a place, a community resource.” Right? If you had said that to me, I would have said, “Well surely when that happens, there will be celebration in the streets and confetti coming from the sky and trumpets playing.” (laughter) And instead, I feel like we’re all a little bit, sort of… It’s like, we don’t know how to recognize it when we see it because that’s not happening. It’s happening very gradually, as you would expect, if you thought of it. (laughter)
JH: But I feel like a lot of us just haven’t really noticed it because it’s been gradual. And there’s no signs saying, you know, there’s the old… What was it? “Until there are none, adopt one,” is another slogan. I’m like, well, we’re getting there but did you think that there was going to be a counter saying there’s 100 left, there’s 99 left, there’s 98 left, and then we would know that we were down to the one, and we could check the box, and then we can start going and purchasing dogs again. (laughter) Like, that’s not actually what it looks like. And I feel like we’re getting to a place now where we’re starting to see, “Oh, this is actually what it looks like.” And it’s not exactly what we had recognized. But that, you know, it happens in some parts of the country before other parts, but it’s like… We’re seeing that happening in those other parts too.
JB: It’s very true. And this field has, as they’ve come up for air, they’ve seen all the other things that can be done, you know. And there’s been a huge shift toward focusing on the, some say, 19 million dogs and cats that are living in veterinary “deserts” and kind of impoverished underserved areas that we can now go try to help those people have, you know, take care of their animals in ways that they need. So I think the sheltering community is finding new things to do, and hasn’t really taken that time to celebrate on the way. They’re just seeing… And that’s, I think, a good sign because there is a lot more to do. You know, there used to be a saying that we wanted to put ourselves out of business. And sometimes you find that if you make solutions in one area, another area becomes very clear that needs your attention. So…
JH: Yeah, there’s lots to do. It’s just not the same stuff that there used to be. So we promised that we would talk about the ethics of this replacement and I sort of want to let people who are listening to this know that Joyce and I have been having these conversations for a while. And it’s a little shocking how long it took for us to realize that we were looking at these eight or so million, you know, the demand for eight or so million replacement dogs. And we were just like, “Well, where where’s that going to come from?” And then someone said to us a couple weeks ago, “Well, maybe they shouldn’t be replaced.” Right? And we were like, you know, that had not really occurred to us. And, it’s a really big question which we’re not going to be able to answer this podcast. (laughter)
JB: Yeah, it is a good question. As I said before, I think it is something to consider. And I do think, you know, the US has one of the highest dog owning rates of many other nations, and is also a consumerist nation. So I think it does make sense to look at whether people really ought to have dogs. Whether we can dictate that though, is probably not the case. And I’m a big fan of things like dog sharing programs, where I think if done well, you could meet the needs of both people and some dogs who need a cozy couch with somebody home all the day, and then a chance to do a five mile run with an athlete. You know, that might work really well and and for the welfare of both, you know, families and the dog. But yeah, they’re… One of the things I like about FDC is we have been talking about all the kinds of ethical quandaries we can put our fingers on that need to be navigated. And I think it comes down to really whatever you do, doing it in the… Checking you’re doing it in the best interest of dogs, as well as families.
JH: Yeah. And I do want to take a moment, by the way, just to take a step back and say that I know there is concern among the breeding community that there are members of the animal welfare community who believe that dogs should not be owned by anyone, ever. And that is not what Joyce and I are talking about. We both have dogs and love dogs. But there is… I think there is a question of – and I know that the breeding community has grappled with this question – “Should everyone who wants a dog, have a dog?” And, you know, I think people who know me know that I’m not a big fan of having there be rules about “You may do this. And you may do that,” right? I don’t want to have rules about who can and who can’t own a dog. But I also think, as you said, Joyce, like we are a very consumerist society where we think that, “If I want something, and I can afford the money for it, I should be able to have it.” I think we need to think about that a bit with all the people who are having dogs if there continues to be such trouble fitting the dogs into the homes.
JB: Yeah, yeah, I agree. And I think the vast majority of people in the animal welfare movement, whether they’re working in it or volunteering in it, do it because they love having dogs and other animals in our lives. And it would be really hard to envision a world where we don’t have the ability to do that. And certainly, there will be some people who feel like, “We should not have dogs in our lives.” But I think it’s a tiny, tiny minority. So there’s maybe I think there’s more common ground in love of dogs between the communities than may be maybe recognized.
JH: And I think dogs chose us. I don’t know how we’d get rid of them at this point.
JB: (laughter) Exactly.
JH: Have we covered everything we meant to cover, Joyce?
JB: I think so…
JH: Well, where can people learn more about you? Or ACC&D? Or any of your projects?
JB: Yeah, thank you for asking. Well, you can find out more about me at the website for the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs where I’m the president. And that’s www.acc-d.org. And you can reach out through that website and contact me if you’d like more information, including a white paper that I’ve written on this topic.
And I should say that the opinions I’ve expressed on this podcast are my own and don’t reflect that of my employer. But that said, I have a wonderfully supportive board who supports me spending time on this topic, knowing it’s a passion and knowing and believing it will advance animal and dog interests to do so. So I’m very lucky.
JH: You are actually. Thank you so much for coming on. This was a really interesting conversation. I often end by saying, “Oh, this was a blast.” I don’t want to say that this conversation was a blast. It was very, very chewy and interesting. And a lot of big ethical quandaries in front of us.
JB: We should have a blast conversation one of these days too soon then.
JH: Let’s do that. Okay, thanks so much Joyce.
JB: Bye Jessica.
Thanks so much for listening. The Functional Breeding Podcast is a product of the Functional Dog Collaborative and was produced by Sarah Espinosa Socal. Come join us at the Functional Breeding Facebook group to talk about this episode or about responsible breeding practices in general. To learn more about the Functional Dog Collaborative, check out www.functionalbreeding.org. Enjoy your dogs.
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