There comes a time in almost everyone's life when you or your children say, "I want to get a dog!"But where do you go to find a healthy, nice dog? A pet store? An ad in the newspaper? A farm in the area that sells puppies? An Internet Web site?

Wait - do some research before you buy!

Mass-breeding facilities called puppy mills may be behind most of these places.

Pennsylvania has the reputation for being the Puppy Mill Capital of the East, with hundreds of kennels that breed dogs. A puppy mill is a commercial breeding operation whose sole purpose is to supply puppies for pet stores and the other outlets across the country where profit is placed above the health and welfare of the dogs used as breeders and for their puppies.

The breeding dogs are kept in cages all of their lives, never let out, never petted or handled, and are bred continually for years until they no longer can produce puppies. At that time, they are either shot, drowned or left to die.

Sadly, these dogs are called "breeding stock" and are considered to be no different than a cow to the puppy millers. But cows don't live in our homes like dogs do. Cows are allowed to roam free in the fields; not these dogs.

The kennel operation does not have to be very large in order for the dogs to be living and breeding in deplorable conditions. Small farms can also be breeding factories.

Sadly, most people don't realize that they are puppy mills. All the public sees is a homemade sign advertising dogs for sale, or an advertisement in the newspaper saying "farm raised."

These places are not the kindly places we think of when we envision farm life.

When you buy a dog from a pet store, an Internet site, or a farm, you take a very large risk that the puppy will be sick or have genetic health or behavior problems. For the unsuspecting public who is looking for a healthy, happy pet, they may be getting a sick dog. Frequently the puppies are ill and may die when they get home due to improper health care. Or the health and behavior issues surface as the puppy grows.

As a certified pet behavior counselor, I have worked with many clients who have purchased puppies from pet stores only to find that the puppies have severe aggression issues, often food-related aggression.

Not all pet stores sell puppies from puppy mills, but there is one simple reason to suspect that most of them do: a reputable breeder would never allow their puppies to be sold through a pet store. A good breeder is very choosy about who adopts their puppies because they have invested time, care and money into breeding good puppies.

What are the characteristics of a good breeder?

You know you've found a good dog breeder if:

€¢ They specialize in breeding only one or two breeds of dogs.

€¢ They will not allow the puppies to be adopted before 7 to 8 weeks of age. It is illegal to sell or give away puppies who are under 7 weeks in Pennsylvania.

€¢ They interview you extensively to be sure their puppies are going to the best homes.

€¢ They offer a return guarantee should you have health or behavior issues.

€¢ They allow you to meet the puppy's parents who should be very healthy, very well-behaved and very friendly.

€¢ They make sure that the puppies' parents are healthy and have no serious behavior problems.

€¢ The puppies live in an impeccably clean environment, and their health is carefully monitored. The puppies are seen by a veterinarian.

€¢ The puppies are constantly handled and exposed to people to ensure that a bond forms, making the dogs friendly and happy. This is called socialization.

Okay, where do you find a reputable breeder?

Ask any pet professional for a referral: your veterinarian, a dog trainer, someone you know who works for an animal shelter or a veterinarian. If you find an ad in the paper that sounds good, make sure you ask them the questions above.

Go on the Internet to the American Kennel Club's web site (www.akc.org) and look up clubs for the breed of dog you are looking to buy.

These clubs are comprised of people who breed dogs to show them in competition. They are the cream of the crop. Keep in mind, however, just because the breeder says the dogs have AKC or ACA papers, it does not mean the breeder is reputable.

By the way, the designation of ACA (American Canine Association) was created by pet store owners and Amish breeders to bypass the requirements of the AKC. An AKC or ACA title does not guarantee anything; it just means that the puppy's parents had papers.

Why buy when you can adopt?

The number of homeless pets is skyrocketing with the recent economic woes of our country. People are leaving pets behind if their homes are foreclosed, and pets are being surrendered because people don't have enough money to take care of them.

For these reasons and more, the Animal Rescue League encourages adoption. There are wonderful animals in shelters and at rescue organizations, many of them pure-bred dogs.

The Animal Rescue League has been a part of puppy mill busts, where the dog wardens have cited the kennel owners for problems such as sanitary conditions of the facility and health problems with the dogs. The dogs who come out of these facilities are sick, scared and mal-nourished. After staying at the shelter for a few weeks, they are happy and able to go to loving homes. Some take a little longer than others to adjust to being around people, but with time, they are very grateful to have a warm bed, good food and someone to love them.

Anyone who sees the pathetic condition of puppy mill dogs knows that this abuse must be stopped.

How can you help?

€¢ Please do not buy a dog from a pet store, even if they claim they don't buy from puppy mills. More than likely, the pet store buys their puppies from a broker (a middleman) who has bought them from puppy mills. A large percentage of these dogs have health and behavior problems - food aggression, object aggression or anxiety issues.

€¢ Avoid buying from a farm. Most farmers do not treat their dogs like pets, and are not careful about breeding a quality dog who will be living in a home with people.

€¢ Never buy a dog from an Internet Web site. These sites are a front for puppy mills.

They show pretty pictures of the puppies' parents but in reality, the puppy's parents are stuck in a cage at a facility.

€¢ Adopt a homeless pet. There are millions of unwanted pets in this country in shelters. Why not adopt one who will show you a lifetime of gratitude?

Together, we can make a difference for our animal friends.

Chris Shaughness is the Media Coordinator for the Animal Rescue League of Berks County, on Kennel Road off of Route 724 in Cumru Township. Contact the ARL at 610-373-8830 or at www.berksarl.org.

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