There is a show on TV that chronicles the lives of animal hoarders. We sit and watch in revulsion as the hoarders climb around rooms in houses piled high with dog and cat feces. Floors inches deep in the mouldering substrate of waste from more animals than the whole neighborhood would own in a lifetime. Certainly these people have deep-seated psychological problems that cause them to use possessions, in these cases animals, as substitutes or distractions for things gone wrong in their lives. You almost feel for them, but you just can’t quite fathom how things got so bad and so little done to remedy the situation. Where were the friends of the hoarders? Why didn’t anybody do something? The programs say along with the increasing numbers of animals inside the seemingly normal homes, in normal middle class neighborhoods, come layer upon layer of secrecy. Even if anybody would have attempted to intervene, they would have been turned away.
Those of us who show dogs usually have more than one. When the decision is made to begin showing it is likely one dog is owned. If the dog finishes his championship easily, the neophyte assumes he has a great one and so must get another dog of that same breed and begin to produce puppies. Setting aside the argument that this person doesn’t have the requisite breed knowledge to make a contribution by breeding, he quickly finds another dog and shortly afterwards puppies arrive. Sometimes the new breeder gets lucky, the puppies and their mother endure the rigors of whelping with no mishaps, and the puppies show some promise. A few kind words by a mentor encourage the newcomer to keep two or maybe three puppies from this first litter. If this breeder has the funds to show what he has produced, he may successfully put more titles on his dogs. More breeding follows, now with two bitches, and more puppies are kept. Just to see if they turn out. But they always turn out. In the span of two years or so, the number of dogs in this home have grown from one to six. In two more years there are eight or maybe ten. Strange how this show person resembles the hoarder. He would never accept that label because there is a purpose for his dogs. He is entitled to add many more dogs to his home because he is a breeder, not just a collector. They are not merely possessions, but they have jobs to do. And because he takes one or two with him to dog shows on some weekends, in his mind he has a point to owning so many dogs, tucked inside their stacked crates, inside his nice suburban home. He is a breeder, he is making a difference.
The difference between the hobby breeder and the hoarder may come down to semantics and degree. Hobby breeders plan their breedings and care about where the puppies they choose not to keep end up. They often have extensive contracts detailing the how tos and wherefores of owning a dog coming from their homes. The puppies go to their new families vetted and socialized and ready to melt the hearts of their new owners. And hobby breeders abhor those who breed indiscriminately or simply to produce pets for sale. The hoarder will talk about his love for his babies and how to part with even one would break his heart. He seems unaware of the conditions his pets live in and can’t motivate himself to spay or neuter even one. As the show breeder becomes seduced by the dog show life, the majority of his friends become show people, too. They reinforce his dellusions about his new lifestyle and the deteriorating conditions inside his home. All their homes are similar. Interestingly, neither the hoarder nor the hobby breeder make much money from the legions of pet they share their homes with. But really, are these two classes of collectors that far apart? Because when you set aside the psychological issues with one and the over inflated ego of the other, you have the quality of life of the dogs. This obvious point is secondary to both.
Dogs are uniquely satisfying to be around. They easily share our lives and adapt to whatever conditions they find. Unlike feral cats, most feral dogs with time and patience can be rehabilitated to live among humans. To support multiple dogs successfully requires a lot of work. Dogs must be exercised mentally and physically daily to be sound. They need human contact and veterinary care, too. This must all be done when the owner is tired, sick himself or just too busy. It’s easy to lavish attention of dogs going to shows, or bitches being bred. But as the numbers climb inside a hobby breeder’s home, every dog cannot possibly receive the attention that it requires. Once dogs are too old to breed or finish their time in the ring, what then? Dogs retire to runs, if they are lucky, or crates is they are less so, to live out their lives in their breeders’ homes. This must be a difficult transition for the dog used to the attention while being shown. It is easier for some people to do nothing rather than make an effort in the animal’s best interest.
Most hobby or show breeders live in suburban settings where municipalities have put limits on how many dogs allowed on a property. Most of us involved in showing dogs for any length of time exceed these limits. Often we exceed them by double or triple the allowable number. We are careful to never put out more than two or three dogs into the yard at a time, and we never tell the truth about how many we have, even to family. Many show people live in fear that neighbors will realize there aren’t just two white ones and one black one next door, but seven white ones and eight black ones living there. A phone call to the county or city will surely follow and some unfeeling official will force us to make decisions about our dogs’ lives we were unwilling to make on our own. There is an unwritten code among fanciers that no matter how much another exhibitor angers you, you will never make that call. We are all too vulnerable. Yet why do so many continue to live underground. Little better than the animal hoarder. The hobby breeder has no excuse of mental illness, just ego.
The urge to keep one puppy from every litter should be carefully evaluated. Some breeders can manage multiple dogs efficiently and the standard of care is very high. The level of committment found in these breeders is impressive and enviable. Others, most others, cannot manage as well. When the shield of secrecy is pierced what is found casts a shadow on every breeder. Tough questions must be asked of ourselves: How many animals are too many? When you no longer invite guests into your home? When the barking from your untended dogs seeps out through the closed windows into the streets? Or when you are just too tired to clean up one more mess, again. Maybe instead of encouraging that new breeder to jump head long into a house full of dogs, we should help him learn to make intelligent choices, good for the people and the dogs in his life.