How did you get the idea for The Dog Merchants?
It was during the marketing for my previous dog book, Little Boy Blue, which is about a friendly, healthy, happy puppy I adopted. Blue and I would be at book signings, and people would look at that book, look down at Blue, look back at the book and say, “I can’t read these dog books. The dogs always die at the end.”
I would respond, “You’re confused. This is Blue, right here. Alive and well. Would you like to give him a treat?”
Blue would wag his tail, and the people would say, “No, I just know these books too well, and they’re always too sad.” Then they’d walk away.
That experience taught me how deeply our biases run when it comes to discussing the issues dogs face, and I wanted to start the conversation in a new way. I decided to focus on money.
Every one of us—whether we pay a breeder or a rescue group—wants to know what everybody else paid for their dog and where the cash went. For The Dog Merchants, I wrote a book about the big business of breeders, rescuers and what all of us dog lovers are buying into with every dog we bring home.
So The Dog Merchants covers breeders and rescuers?
Yes. The first half is about breeders, and the second half is about rescuers. Worldwide, it’s a reasonable guess that $11 billion a year stands to be made selling dogs. That’s a huge industry, about the size of the Ikea brand. Whether a dog purchase is called a sale or an adoption, money is changing hands.
Readers will be surprised to see how often these “two sides” of the business are operating in similar ways, if not in concert, sometimes even out of the same room.
What financial figures most surprised you?
On the breeding side, I had no idea how lucrative the market can be for the frozen semen of dogs who win at events like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. For instance, in a groundbreaking case, a U.S. jury awarded more than $200,000 to compensate a Standard Poodle breeder and her partner after some frozen semen was destroyed. I also didn’t realize how highly prized some purebred dogs can be at auction. A leading auctioneer who once sold an English Bulldog for a bid of $12,600 told me he believes that market can go much, much higher.
On the rescue side, I was surprised that the heads of some nonprofit organizations—groups actively seeking donations to help dogs—are keeping $350,000 or more per year as their personal salaries. I also was surprised that some rescuers are finding more homes by raising, not lowering, the price of mutts, because doing so can affect the perception of the dogs’ quality.
What are some of the places The Dog Merchants takes readers?
One chapter is about a day at America’s biggest legal dog auction, showing who is in the room, how much money is changing hands and how the man who owns it got started. Another chapter goes inside the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, so readers can see how the actual event is sometimes different from what’s shown on television. Another chapter goes inside the Hunte Corporation, one of the world’s largest distributors of pet-store puppies. Readers get to meet some of the people who work there and even see what happens during a service at the on-site chapel where workers can go to pray.
Still another chapter takes readers along the trail from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom, following the “puppy mafia” transporting all kinds of dogs for sale. Yet another chapter takes readers inside a multimillion-dollar animal shelter in America that is using some of the sales methods once used by breeders, including selling imported puppies from inside an old shopping mall pet store. Another chapter introduces readers to shelters everywhere from Germany to Australia that are using modern marketing to sell homeless dogs. The video above is of a “unique breeds” marketing campaign from Costa Rica that was particularly successful.
Why is there a chapter about politics in The Dog Merchants?
As I was researching, I realized how many people in the dog business sound like cable television news pundits. If I was in, say, a conservative Midwestern town, I’d hear farmers say liberal-leftie vegans from New York need to mind their own business when talking about puppy farms. If I was in the Northeast, I’d hear people say the Midwest is full of backward-thinking hucksters who think it’s okay to cage dogs for their whole lives on puppy farms. The language was at times so incendiary that I can’t repeat it here, and it made me think about squabbling politicians on TV.
Ultimately, I connected with political science experts to help make sense of what I was hearing, and they explained how it’s likely that our political predispositions affect our attitudes toward dogs. For instance, it’s highly possible that liberals are more likely to accept shelter mutts while conservatives are more likely to demand purebreds. Those tendencies, in turn, affect marketing and the business of selling dogs.
The Dog Merchants also has a chapter featuring animal law experts. Why?
Animal law is the reason we are able to buy and sell dogs. In our legal system, something is either a person or it is property. Dogs have been property for quite a lot of years now. We may talk to our dogs and buy them birthday presents, but they are transferable property. The law is why our sensibilities about how things should be often bump into barriers about how things are.
I asked the leading experts how the law is likely to evolve in our lifetimes. They talked about everything from the Michael Vick dogfighting case to recent lawsuits involving other intelligent species, like orangutans, to show readers the path we’re on as a society when it comes to giving dogs a legal status that matches the way many of us feel about them.
The Michael Vick story is particularly interesting to me; a lot of us think we know about it from watching videos like the one below, but from a purely legal perspective, that case did far more than most dog lovers realize to affect the future of all dogs, and the dog business, in the United States.
What tools and tips dos The Dog Merchants offer dog lovers?
For starters, The Dog Merchants has a chapter that includes questions to ask before buying any dog, whether a purebred from a breeder or a mutt from a rescue group. The book not only offers questions, but also explains how, and why, certain answers to each question can be red flags.
On a larger scale, the book’s companion website, dogmerchants.com, has been built as a place where dog owners can rate the breeder or rescuer who sold them their dog. Users can say a breeder or rescuer provided a dog “as advertised” or with hidden medical, behavioral or other problems. The site is free for everyone to use.
My hope is that if all of us dog lovers come together at that website, then together, we can expose the worst sellers. Bad ratings will mean the end of their businesses, and the breeders and rescuers treating dogs well should see a boost in business from positive ratings—which would help all dogs, everywhere.
What is the one thing you hope dog lovers will take away from The Dog Merchants?
That we need to be conscious consumers when it comes to our dogs.
We’re carrying around canvas grocery bags and frequenting farmers’ markets, trying to be conscious consumers with our food shopping. We’re buying energy-efficient cars with the help of part dealer and appliances at the PBS events, trying to be conscious consumers with oil and electricity. None of us likes to think of our beloved dog as a product, but legally and financially, that is what dogs are.
We need to understand that system of business—to become conscious consumers when it comes to dogs, too—if we are going to have any chance of making the world a better place for them all. We need to understand what we’re buying into with every dog we bring home.