Show Dogs and Breeding

By Lloyd D. Cohen and Debra S. Hart-Cohen

It was the lawyers’ dog day afternoon. First, a family complained about their Pomeranian puppy obtained from the local shopping mall’s pet shop. Later, a show dog fancier inquired about the legal recourse available for a defective show dog puppy. Complicating things was the fact that although both were unhappy with their purchase, both by now had bonded with their four–legged friend.

According to the Pomeranian’s owners, the sales clerk had explained their pet was a “show–quality AKC purebred,” so they could rest assured that they were purchasing a “purebred” in good health for whom “papers” could later be obtained if they decided to “have it registered.” Unfortunately, their supposedly healthy “pure–pom” had, in their words, “grown into a sickly looking mixed–spitz.”

The show dog fancier said that she is a breeder/owner/handler showing “conformation–quality” show dogs for the purpose of winning both championship titles and prize money. She breeds her conformation champions for profit, selling “AKC show–quality registered purebred championship line” puppies. She wants a refund for her latest acquisition, explaining, “I have since discovered that my new puppy has a genetic problem that will hinder future puppy sales.”

These two examples from opposite ends of the dog–law spectrum highlight the same issues of breed standards and puppy lemon laws. However, breed standards and puppy lemon laws come from different places and serve different purposes.

Breed Standards

The starting point for any discussion about breed standards, show dogs, and dog registration in the United States is the American Kennel Club (AKC). The AKC is dominant because of its size and age. Founded in 1884, it recognizes more than 153 breeds and annually sanctions more than 15,000 events involving several million dogs and members. Agility, obedience, tracking, herding, and field trials are only a few of the events that AKC licenses and sanctions each year. However, the AKC’s signature event is conformation (known as “dog shows”). In conformation dog shows, judges decide which dog best conforms to the AKC standard for each breed. Its prestige event is the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

The AKC maintains a registry of lineage or ancestry that, depending on the breed, could date all the way back to 1878. The AKC offers several types of registration, including full registration, limited registration, and purebred alternative listing (PAL). An ancestry record, known as a pedigree certificate, is maintained only for those having full or limited registration. More restrictively, only the offspring of AKC full–registered dogs (male) or bitches (female) are eligible for registration certificates and certified pedigree forms. Limited registration helps breeders protect their breeding programs because the offspring are not to be used for breeding purposes, so they are not eligible for AKC full registration (unless later modified by the litter breeder). In addition, AKC conformation events are limited to AKC full–registry dogs. The offspring of conformation champions can be worth thousands of dollars. PAL is available for dogs that do not have an AKC full registration and pedigree certificate. It is essentially a self–declaration about the dog. With PAL, as with limited registration, these dogs can compete in AKC–licensed and sanctioned events other than conformation. However, unlike those with full registration, the litters of the dam (mother) or offspring of the sire (father) do not receive pedigree certificates.

Making matters more complicated, the AKC is not the only registry. In North America there is also the United Kennel Club (UKC). Both Canada and Mexico, along with at least 32 other countries, have their own national clubs as well. Each club has its own set of guidelines, restrictions, events, titles, and breed standards. In addition, the AKC does not recognize every definable breed. For instance, some dog breeds that are recognized by European kennel cubs are not yet recognized by the AKC. Moreover, the popularity of some dog breeds are so new or limited that recognized breed standards have not yet been developed or become generally accepted.

The AKC is a registry body that does not sell or breed dogs itself. Its registration certificate only identifies the dog as the offspring of a known sire and dam born on a known date. Many consumers think that because they purchased an AKC–registered dog, it is of good health and of great quality. Because of this, scammers often use the term “AKC” very loosely. Being misguided about exactly what AKC registration does and does not guarantee, consumers may become disappointed after the purchase of a new puppy that was represented to be “AKC.” Disappointment may result from animal health problems, the breed being “mixed,” or it just not having the temperament of the trained dogs seen on television. This, in turn, contributes to the large number of abandoned dogs that end up in animal shelters or with rescue groups. In particular, backyard breeders often loosely assure buyers that a dog is “AKC registerable” when only a limited registration is available. Consumers need to be cautious about pet stores, backyard breeders, puppy mills, and Internet distributors who emphasize “AKC–registerable”
dogs for sale.

So, just because one gets an AKC dog type, it may not necessarily be a dog that has “papers” (i.e., be eligible for AKC full registration), or be of conformation show quality, or act like a dog seen on Animal Planet. The assurance that a puppy is an “AKC breed” might mean no more than it is similar enough to an AKC–recognized breed type to be eligible for PAL registration. The representation that a puppy is an AKC “purebred” might only mean that it is substantially similar to a standard breed recognized by AKC. It does not mean that the puppy is of conformation show quality. Although the animal may be a very nice specimen, the reputable breeder will classify it as a “pet.” Additionally, the assurance of a puppy being a specific breed, or being a “purebred,” or even being an “AKC–registered dog” is not an indication about its health. Puppies that have been mishandled by careless retailers, born into the filth of puppy mills, or abused by backyard breeders can be susceptible to particular health concerns or even emotional issues regardless of any purebred representations. Then, too, even classic show dogs can have their own health concerns, and many breeds have specific genetic issues.

Unfortunately, there are many breeders and retailers who casually reference “AKC–registerable purebred,” or even “AKC championship dam and sire” in their advertisements. These slogans appear in the retail setting, on the Internet, and in postings displayed by the casual breeder. The goal is to lure inexperienced or novice puppy buyers who have dreams of owning a dog that could appear in a flashy show ring like they might have seen on television—or who at least desire to have bragging rights.

What is not well understood is that the champion dogs seen on television and at shows have more than just a great breed line. They have a great deal of money, time, training, and grooming behind them as well—perhaps years of investment before making it into a flashy ring with prize money and awards. The winnings in top shows, such as the AKC/Eukanuba National Championships, can reach into thousands of dollars. Besides the prize money, the recognition of the winning dog itself holds great value for the owner, breeder, and handler. The owner or breeder can make money from commercial endorsement, stud service, or sale of offspring. The handler makes money by being hired to show dogs for others because everyone wants to go with a winning track record. There are many different championship levels, however, and most advertised championship sires and dams are not top champions. Still, novice buyers continue to be lured in.

Reputable breeders will be up–front about the puppy sale and will be concerned that the puppy finds a loving and caring home. They will be clear about whether they are selling the puppy as a potential show quality prospect or as a pet. If sold as a show dog, they will take great care to make sure that the potential show dogs meets AKC breed standards for the show ring. Furthermore, a reputable breeder will have a clause in the sale contract stating that if the puppy has a breed–standard defect or fault, the breeder will work with the buyer to find a replacement dog. Purchase contracts for true show dogs will often guarantee ancestry and registration and specify breeding rights. Also, joint ownership for top show dogs is not uncommon. For true show dog buyers, it may take years of being on a breeder’s waiting list before getting what is hoped to be a top–quality show dog.

Puppy Lemon Laws

Because of the unhealthy conditions prevalent in “puppy mills” (see the sidebar below) and careless handling in some retail stores, a number of states have enacted “puppy lemon laws.” Although some of the laws address representations made about breed standards, most concentrate on animal health. Many provide a return period (sometimes up to a year). Some states permit reimbursement for veterinary expenses and others will allow an adjustment of the sale price even if the owner decides to keep the sick pet. These laws provide significant consumer protection. In states without them, the acquisition of a pet is no more than the sale of goods as modified by any applicable deceptive sales practices act.

Such laws would impact the two example cases discussed above. If the family who ended up with the sickly Pomeranian–Spitz mix happens to live in a “puppy lemon law” state, they may be due an adjustment because of the dog’s illness. If, however, the complaint is one of breed disappointment, many pet stores use the commercial code to their advantage by offering to take the animal back in exchange for another. The stores bet that owners will bond with their beloved four–legged friend and will not want to part with their companion over a breed issue. If the question is one of ability to obtain official registration papers, the owners should be advised to start building a deceptive sales practices case by taking a close look at the representations that were actually made.

In the case of the show dog fancier with the defective show dog puppy, a claim for adjustment owing to illness or breed defect usually requires return of the animal under most show dog contracts. However, the time and money spent developing the show dog is probably a write–off.

Planning for Your New Pet

As part of purchasing a dog, try to match size, grooming requirements, and temperament to your family and lifestyle. When contemplating taking a new companion into your home, consider how much you care about the environment from which the puppy came and how particular you are about a specific breed. The advantage of getting an identifiable breed is knowing ahead of time what type of companion you are purchasing. Breed recognition should give the owner some assurance about how the animal will look and act when it matures. Beyond that, some owners who never intend to take their dog into a show ring may still appreciate the lineage, standard appearance, and common behavioral traits of a purebred.

At the same time, keep in mind that many fine four–legged friends have been found in animal shelters or with rescue groups based on personality and temperament alone. Mixed breeds can make wonderful companions, too. Plus, there are many trained service animals that people depend on and are grateful to even though they may never win a ribbon at a dog show.

With all of this explained, a final word of caution goes to prospective new owners. Be careful to evaluate your choices, consider your needs, and think about what you are buying. Then check the paperwork to see if the sales representations being made actually match the written guarantees being given. Sometimes, people are so eager to bring a new furry friend into their home that they might not be aware of others who are poised to take advantage of their enthusiasm.

Puppy Mills

Buying a dog in the old days necessitated a personal visit to a dog breeder. If the breeder had sick puppies living in filthy, overcrowded, disgusting conditions, consumers would take one look at the kennel and head the other way. But by the early 1970s the puppy business had been changed by the rise of mass wholesalers who would sometimes pack vegetable crates full of month–old puppies for nationwide shipment. More recently, the puppies are not even shipped directly to retailers but to brokers who sort and distribute the livestock to individual stores—whose owners prefer to remain ignorant about the puppies’ origin. In 1970 Congress reacted by amending the 1966 Animal Welfare Act (which originally regulated sales of animals to research) and set minimum standards for dog breeders. The U.S. Department of Agriculture enforces the standards. However, the media is filled with examples of how ineffective this system has been.

As a result of well–publicized problems with enforcement of federal regulations, at least 21 states have enacted “puppy lemon laws” since 1977. These laws are often amendments to local unfair and deceptive practices acts. Although some of these laws deal with breed definitions, most concentrate on animal health by providing a period of time in which a sick pet may be returned. Some states even allow compensation for veterinary expenses, and others permit partial compensation to owners who still desire to keep the pet. Virginia and Louisiana also limit breeders’ overall size.

To bypass these laws, puppy mills have begun making direct Internet sales, and some of these mills are even located offshore. When these mills masquerade as small–scale, caring, quality breeders, their Internet advertisements are referred to as “puppy scams.” Congress included a provision in the 2008 Farm Bill banning the foreign importation of dogs less than six months of age for purposes of resale. Introduced during the same congressional session was the proposed Puppy Uniform Protection Statute (PUPS), which would uniformly regulate all Internet puppy wholesalers, but at the time this article went to press, the bill remained stalled in committee.

Puppy mills are large–scale commercial operations where profit is given priority over the well–being of the dogs. They are unlike responsible breeders who place the utmost importance on producing the healthiest puppies possible and placing them into good environments. There are responsible breeders of all sizes operating in all parts of the country. So even though not all big direct breeders deserve to be called puppy mills, while some backyard and Internet distributors deserve to be so labeled, the odds are good that the cutie behind the glass at the national pet franchise had a dubious and cruel start at a puppy mill.

Lloyd D. Cohen, whose 30–plus–year law practice is concentrated in bankruptcy, small business, and estates, is developing an interest in animal law. Reach him at Debra S. Hart–Cohen manages the law office and shows their AKC–registered Schipperke show dogs. You may reach her at Together they’ve authored Being Prepared: A Lawyer’s Guide for Dealing with Disability or Unexpected Events (ABA, 2008).

Copyright 2009

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