It’s a sunny Sunday in February and our spirits are running high. We’re back in Colorado, headed to the Denver Coliseum for the Twentieth Annual Rocky Mountain Dog Show and a long-awaited reunion with Onda’s breeder, Carol Ann Hartnagle. I’ve got a coffee in the cup holder and I’m singing along with Tom Petty on radio. Bright and alert, Onda is riding shotgun, peering out of the RV’s enormous windshield at a city still fast asleep.

On Brighton Boulevard, we pass by historic brick warehouses that contain abstract art galleries, hipster brew pubs, and skunky marijuana-growing operations. Onda sniffs the air, cocks his head quizzically, then returns to his gazing. The timeworn concrete coliseum is now in view.

To my left, I catch the first rays of dawn striking a billboard. It shows a sullen, nondescript hound dog locked inside a stainless steel cage. It reads: “AKC breeders kill shelter dogs’ chances. Always adopt, never buy.”

My mood slips a notch and there’s a bitter taste in my mouth . . . and it’s not the coffee. It’s bile. Because I know that sign is a lie. And the savvier people in the animal adoption world do, too.

The sign implies that there’s a dog overpopulation problem, and that the problem is the fault of irresponsible and profligate AKC dog breeders. The lie was more explicitly stated in a press release sent to Denver media in advance of the show by the sign’s, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“Dog shows promote breeding and prompt interest in ‘purebred’ animals while animal shelters overflow with millions of lovable, healthy dogs—both mutts and purebreds—whose lives depend on getting a second chance,” it read.

But shelters today aren’t overflowing. Truth be told, shelters in many parts of the country—Denver included—are having to go outside their state borders and even beyond the borders of the United State to find enough adoptable dogs. In fact, the year prior to PETA targeting this show, the state of Colorado imported more than 17,000 shelter dogs to meet demand; in the year ahead, they’d need another 24,000.

Today’s reality is that no dog overpopulation crisis exists in America. And while there is a shelter problem—one that caused 670,000 dogs to be killed in 2016—it’s not due to overpopulation. And it’s not caused by AKC show breeders—who are, for all their faults, the most responsible group of dog breeders in America today.

I know, you think I’m crazy. For decades, every humane group, every animal rights organization, every shelter blog, every self-anointed pet expert, and every media story focusing on pet adoption has said exactly the opposite.

“Every year millions of companion animals are euthanized in shelters around the country because there just aren’t enough homes.”—Sylvia Ottaka, Senior Director of Shelter Operations at North Shore Animal League America.

“Some dog lovers feel that buying a purebred dog is ethically questionable because of health problems associated with overbreeding and inbreeding. At the same time, two million to three million shelter dogs in the US are put to death every year.”—The New York Times.

“Dog overpopulation is not a fairy tale.”—celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan.

But it has become a fairy tale. Shelter populations and euthanasia counts have dropped drastically in the past several years, and the rhetoric has failed to catch up to the reality. Finally, the change is something people are starting to acknowledge.

Journalist Kim Kavin spent more than two years researching and writing The Dog Merchants, an exhaustive investigation of the global dog industry. In it, she debunked the myth of dog overpopulation contributing to shelter deaths.

“Dog lovers could give a home to every single dog who has been abandoned in every single shelter, and millions more pups would be needed to annually satisfy consumer demand,” she wrote. “The notion that America’s homeless dogs face an ‘overpopulation problem’ does not match up against the available statistics. Supply is not exceeding demand.”

Indeed. The most recent figures supplied by shelters, the pet products industry, veterinarians’ associations, and animal welfare organizations bear this out. Each year, people in the United States bring home between seven and eight million new dogs, including roughly six million puppies; many are replacement pets for the millions of pet dogs that have simply died from old age.

In the 1970s, a time when fewer than 10 percent of Americans spayed or neutered their pet animals, public shelters became stretched beyond capacity and were euthanizing as many as eleven million dogs a year—about one in every ten dogs in America. Shelter managers began using the phrase “pet overpopulation” to describe the rivers of puppies, kittens, dogs, and cats flowing through their doors in cardboard boxes and on leashes, only to exit through the backdoors in trash bags.

When I was still a kid, I recall the heroism of a cowboy I knew who walked into a shelter in Texas. After he’d looked at all the dogs, the clerk asked him which one he’d like to adopt. “I’ll take the next one in line to die,” he said. It was a spunky Jack Russell terrier named Danger, and it rode with him in his pickup for a decade. Sadly for the dogs, cats, kittens, and puppies of that generation, there simply weren’t enough cowboys to go around.

That was when we had a serious, serious dog overpopulation crisis. But today, thanks to largely successful efforts to educate people about the importance of spaying and neutering family pets, about 91 percent of American dogs are sterilized. This has significantly cut down on the numbers of unplanned, unwanted litters.

Today, Dr. Emily Weiss, DVM, who writes an ASPCA blog for shelter professionals, says she loses sleep not over how many puppies are getting euthanized in shelters, but over where we’re going to get enough puppies to meet anticipated consumer demand.

“In many communities around the country, we’re reaching a crisis point—that is, if you believe that people should have an opportunity to have a dog in their life, and that they should have the opportunity to choose what type of dog to be a part of their family,” she said. The big challenge, she believes, will be to find more sources for humanely raised puppies. One solution likely will come from the building I am about to enter, where the dog show is taking place.

Since the release of Pedigree Dogs Exposed, the BBC exposé about genetic diseases in purebred dogs, interest in pedigreed purebred dog breeding has plummeted. Annual registrations with the American Kennel Club have fallen from a record of 1.7 million in 1992 to just over 530,000 in 2011—the last year figures were publicly released. In 2008, when the film was shown in the United States, AKC registrations stood at about three-quarters of a million puppies; since then, registrations have fallen by two hundred thousand dogs a year, or about two million dogs over a decade.

And rightfully so, some would say. As the documentary strongly showed, many of the practices that had become commonplace in the dog show world were harming the dogs and in need of change. But as I wind my way through the maze of rings, looking for Carol Ann’s little compound of dogs, dog crates, and grooming table amid the hundreds of competitors at the show, I see encouraging signs of improvement and hope in the dog show business.

First, dog shows are becoming more open and multi-dimensional. At Denver, for instance, participation in the agility competition is enormous, requiring three rings be run simultaneously on a sunup to sundown schedule. That’s a good outcome—it’s bringing more dogs and dog owners through the door and giving them a chance to compete.

When the Westminster Kennel Club added agility to its roster in 2014, the event became an instant hit, gaining millions of viewers online and on television. In 2017, Mia the beagle, a masters-level agility contestant at Westminster, caused a sensation when she improvised her own course rather than follow her master’s guidance. More than three and a half million Facebook viewers watched the routine, over twice as many people as viewed the televised Best in Show contest. Unlike the meticulously groomed show dogs standing like Greek statues for inspection, the less-than-perfect Mia was a dog people at home could relate to; after all, dogs are only human.

Denver’s three agility rings are, of course, filled with purebreds. Herding breeds—whip-smart border collies, cattle dogs, shelties and Australian shepherds—rule in this canine version of steeplechase, which demands athleticism and the willingness to take commands. But there’s hardly a variety of dog you won’t see in the contest, including lumbering hounds and plenty of “Heinz 57s”—all-American mutts. Yes, in a break from tradition, the AKC allows all comers, whether registered or not, to compete.

As I hasten by the ring, I see that they are running the small dogs. With a jump height set at eight inches, the class is dominated by speedy Jack Russell terriers and shelties. But I am heartened to notice a middle aged Asian-American woman coaxing a Chihuahua through the obstacle course. As I pause to watch, the Chihuahua tiptoes to the edge of the teeter-totter board and peers over the brink as he begins the long descent to earth—or what I imagine seems like a very long distance for such a small dog. When he finally touches ground, I hear a shimmer of applause from the crowd enjoying the teacup-sized competitor’s performance.

Dog shows are increasingly adding events like agility that put more to the test than mere appearances. The number of agility events sanctioned by the American Kennel Club has doubled in five years, growing to more than 3,700 competitions across the United States. And a raft of other events are becoming popular, too.

Performance-based dog show competitions, including flyball (a team relay race for dogs), barn hunting (a search for caged white lab rats amid hay bales), and “nose work,” a game of olfactory hide and seek, are taking their places beside Victorian-era conformation showing. Other activities include “earthdog” trials designed to test burrow hunters like small terriers and dachshunds, “fast cat” sprint races for greyhounds and whippets, and traditional herding and hunting dog trials.

Giving dog lovers more activities focused on performance rather than conformation is important, not only because people today want to do more with their dogs, but because it can help focus breeders on the original purposes of breeds. Australian shepherd breeder Ernest Hartnagle often told me, “performance is the yardstick.” What he meant was, appearance and written standards only go so far in judging a dog’s merit as a breeding animal. We need to consider the whole picture, including the animal’s ability to actually do the thing for which he or she was bred. More and more people in the dog show world seem to be getting that.

Finally, I find Carol Ann’s grooming area. She’s cloaked in a blue smock meant to shield her show outfit from the loose fur she’s brushing and clipping from Lena, a two-year-old black female Aussie with white and gold trim.

“Welcome back to Colorado, stranger!” she says, giving me a hug, her scissors still in hand. She reaches down to pet Onda, who is dancing sideways and whining for her attention.

“And how is the little man?” she says to him. He leaps up and licks her on the face in reply. Carol laughs heartily. Then, as expected, I am swept up into Carol Ann’s tornado of show activity. She hands me a variety of grooming supplies and says, “Can you take Lena’s leash and meet me at ring eight? I need to check myself in the ladies’ room . . .”

Popping Onda into one of the empty travel crates, I lead Lena, whose formal name is “Reverie Primavera of Las Rocosa,” to the ring. Carol takes a brush from her pocket, makes a few last minute swipes to Lena’s coat, spritzes it with show-shine mist, then hands me her blue smock. She’s got on flat shoes and one of her conservative show suits, but it’s an eye-popping shade of canary that flatters her blond hair and Lena’s shiny black coat—and is bound to catch the judge’s eye.

As usual, the Aussie class is one of the biggest at the show. But notably, a lot of the top dogs and professional handlers aren’t there. The Denver schedule happens to overlap with the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and the “big dogs” are all in New York. With less competition, Carol has a strong chance to claim a Best-of-Breed win, as Lena is a very “typey” dog (meaning her features adhere closely to the breed standard) with charisma that’s bound to impress the ring judge.

As if to prove the point, Lena wins her class, females bred by exhibitor. This means that later, she’ll return to the ring to compete for Best of Bitches. (Even after two years around the shows, I still find myself uncomfortable saying that word, though no one else gives it a thought.) If she wins there, she’ll be considered for Best of Breed.

During the break, Carol and I discuss breeding Onda. As he was en route to earning his show championship, two judges in the Australian shepherd club expressed interest in using him as a stud. That’s a big honor, because they’re people who look at thousands of dogs a year and have decided he’s an especially good choice for their own programs. Ultimately, the decision is up to Carol. Per our mutual agreement, I defer all breeding decisions to her superior expertise.

Before we consider the next step, however, Carol suggests I get Onda’s eyes, elbows, and hips tested to rule out any reasons why Onda might not be a good breeding candidate. Fortunately, eye testing is available on-site, so in the interval before Carol Ann’s next class, I take Onda down to the clinic under the coliseum bleachers to see if I can squeeze an exam in. There’s a line of dogs and owners already there, waiting for a chance to see the ophthalmologist. While I wait in line to make an appointment, I check out pamphlets from VetGen, a genetic testing service with a booth adjacent to the eye clinic.

Eight health tests are available for diseases common to the Aussie; knowing the results could help in determining if a bitch is a good potential match. Inevitably, at least one or two of the disorders will appear in any pairing, so that should be factored into any decision. I take a pamphlet so I can discuss with Carol Ann which tests might be worthwhile.

One of the tests I find amusing is for the bobtail trait. Onda was born a “natural” bobtail. What that means is, he carries alleles for the dominant gene. One of the things Carol Ann has taught me is that crossing a natural bob tail with a natural bob tail will likely result in a few pups with spinal disorders. It’s that kind of knowledge, which is often absent among casual breeders and puppy mill operators, that a skilled show breeder brings to bear when planning a litter.

Largely due to the success of Pedigreed Dogs Exposed, many people today hold a negative opinion of show breeders and “hobby” breeders, people involved in dog activities like agility, herding trials, and canine disc competition, who breed for love of animals. Because of negative publicity, it’s widely believed that their blindness or indifference to the consequences of linebreeding and inbreeding jeopardizes purebred dogs’ health. Kona, my epileptic Aussie, is certainly a case that proves the point. But after spending two years at dog shows getting to know the people, I have come to recognize that breeders are far more aware of genetic problems in their breeds than the public gives them credit for, and they are also the most likely breeders to take precautions such as genetic testing and outcrossing with different bloodlines to control for negative outcomes.


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