Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am

This week: responsible breeders

One of the best pet owners I have ever met, Jessie, is the proud owner of four well-cared-for shih-tzus. She is one of those good and diligent clients that really takes caring for her dogs very seriously. She brushes her dogs' teeth and fur twice a day, she takes them out for a 30-minute stroll three times a day, and she is bang on time with routine health care such as vaccinations and worming. Her dogs are immaculately fit and none are overweight. She has lots of common sense and is not a hypochondriac and doesn't panic about every medical ailment her dog may have. She has made obvious efforts to increase her knowledge about her dogs - how to keep them, basic dog training and first aid. She knows all about the specific problems that can happen to her breed of dog and she doesn't hesitate to call me for advice if she has an issue with one of her pets.

It is a pleasure to have her as a client. She thoroughly researches a problem before she presents it to you for clarification, and even though I don't play favourites with clients, I do make that extra special effort for this particular rather motivated client. So I am going to answer her latest question here in this column.

Even though it's a rather personal subjective choice, the only thing I would call a flaw is Jessie's stubborn love for pure-bred shih-tzus. I have three shih-tzus myself and they certainly have an ability to worm their way into your heart. But mine were all adopted and, with mild scrutiny, none of them looks particularly pure bred, but they're undeniably shih-tzus.

Last year one of Jessie's shih-tzus died. It was devastating but it was not unexpected and during her other dogs' annual check-ups this year, she asked me if I could help her find a good breeder. I told her I didn't know any shih-tzu breeders off hand, but then she rephrased her question: 'I want to know how to pick a responsible breeder?' That's a question with more layers than an onion.

My first and foremost recommendation is to give the dogs at an animal shelter a chance. These dogs are often the result of irresponsible dog breeding and with some patience and a little luck you should be able to find a dog that will make a great companion. I have adopted more than 30 animals with no regrets. But for some owners who simply want a specific breed, it may be more serendipitous to find the exact dog you want from a shelter and hence patience is required for that dog to come along. But for those who want more predictability in temperament, health, working ability, size, availability and other factors, then a pedigree from a breeder is certainly a valid option.

What makes a responsible breeder is somewhat subjective and difficult to quantify, but here is a very important rule: winning lots of dog or cat shows does not equate to responsible dog breeding, nor is it a guarantee that the dog is sound. There are many breeders who use trophies won at dog shows to increase prices; they are not motivated by responsibility but by greed and glory. I also find dog shows in the city rather small compared to big overseas events and even if you have the best Afghan hound in town that season, it may be the only Afghan hound on show that season.

Winners of dog shows tend to be the dogs that physically conform most to the breed's standard. Many breeders in the city will disregard a lot of other equally important factors such as genetic problems and temperament when selecting mating pairs. In an attempt to conform, there is often increased inbreeding. Overseas there are registers that keep a detailed index of inbreeding to prevent even accidental inbreeding from occurring. That sort of register doesn't exist in the city.

I remember going to a local dog show as a guest speaker and sat with interest looking at a large group of golden retrievers on show. It shocked me to see that more than half of them were clearly lame with hip problems. It was also shocking to see the winner was one of the lame ones. It was clear that the judges were looking for other physical traits and totally missed or ignored the dog's gait.

In Australia, responsible breeders, as a part of their dog club's code of ethics, would have taken their golden retrievers for hip X-rays before breeding or selling. There is no such code of ethics in Hong Kong. So it is truly a 'buyer beware' situation, with no protection for the consumer, so unfortunately for Jessie, there isn't an objective way she could buy a pedigree dog from a responsible breeder. All she can do is get a guarantee that the dog is without genetic faults and a few weeks observation period. It isn't much of a guarantee, as many genetic problems won't show up until later in life and by then, she would have an emotional attachment.