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Sick Puppies: A Disreputable Crop in Lancaster County, Pa.

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We had a soft coated wheaten terrier for a couple of years. What a doll. Even the name sounds cute, right? “Soft coated wheaten” — just saying the name is like falling into a pile of comforters. Well, the name was nothing compared to the dog.

He was about the size of a golden retriever, with melting brown eyes, silky fur and a sweet, helpless disposition. He was always up for a game, and he was willing to play patsy to our two Westies, who bossed him around mercilessly in the house and tussled with him endlessly in the back yard. He had a sense of humor, too. People who train wheatens refer to a trait called “the wheaten bounce,” which is the breed’s propensity for suddenly rocketing straight up in the air and coming back down with an expression that can only be described as a grin. They are also given to charging madly about the yard for no particular reason — it’s just something they do. I have fond memories of the first snowfall after we got the wheaten: as soon as he felt the snowflakes coming down and saw the white stuff all over the ground, he erupted into a blaze of motion. Even the Westies, who were usually able to zero in on him without too much trouble, just stood by dumbfounded as the toffee-colored blur whooshed past.

But something happened to that dog after about the first year. He’d always been nervous around strangers, but suddenly he was unable to stay in the house when anybody came to visit, and when we let him out he’d cower in the back of the yard and drive the neighbors crazy barking at the house. Sometimes he refused to go on walks; when he did go, he would often freeze in terror at the site of a garbage can, or a bit of litter in the roadway. On more than one occasion, what started as a walk ended with me carrying the dog home, his body tense and trembling under all that soft fur.

His behavior problems built to the point that he was already more trouble than a newborn baby, and after our first child was born, the dog graduated from nuisance to liability. What if his eccentricities started making him hostile? How could we trust him around a small child? We realized we would have to get rid of him, and quickly, lest our new child fall in love with him — what kid wouldn’t want to grow up with a walking teddy bear? — which would make getting rid of him all the harder. Leaving him at the county shelter was out of the question: he was so cute that he would be adopted almost immediately, but so much trouble that his new owner would instantly regret the decision. I hated to think of the dog being abused or even abandoned by his new owner.

If you’re an experienced dog owner, you’ve probably already guessed that our wheaten was the product of a puppy mill — an operation in which dogs are overbred (females forced to bear two litters a year from the moment they’re capable of getting pregnant) and kept caged in squalid, unsanitary conditions that can generate lifelong health problems. Pet shops buy dogs from puppy mills under the guise of acting as “brokers,” but what they’re actually doing is conniving in an inhumane business. Buying dogs directly from a reputable breeder is the way to go, but that can take time, and people who want a puppy or a cat immediately are what keep pet stores, and puppy mills, in business.

All of this is on my mind now because of this Star-Ledger story about how some of the Amish farmers of Lancaster County, just outside of Philadelphia, have become some of the most notorious puppy-mill operators in the country. We sure have come a long way since the 1985 movie Witness made the Amish seem, if not cool, then at least weirdly glamorous in their rustic way. Since then, we’ve learned about drug trafficking rings and other scandals that have taken some of the quaint polish off those black buggies. This story isn’t going to help the Amish image, but it should help you remember what to do when the urge to get a pet comes over you.

Our story ends (sort of) happily. After some research, we tracked down a wheaten rescue network. Most clubs devoted to dog breeds have rescue operations in which people who want to adopt a purebred dog can put their names on a waiting list. I drove our wheaten out to Allentown, Pa., and left him in the care of a nice lady who boarded dogs that were in line for adoption. (While she stroked his ears, she got him to open his mouth and gasped at the sight of his snaggly teeth, one of the hallmarks of a badly bred dog.) He was later adopted by a woman with two other wheatens and a bunch of cats — a pretty sweet deal, all told.

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Originally published in The Opinion Mill.

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About Steven Hart

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Interesting tale – would’ve liked some pics of the dog:)

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

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  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    We bought three sibling kittens from a pet store. The two males were stout fellows with no problems (other than being weaned far too early, having ear mites, and other issues from their ill-bred start in life), but the female was a sweet packet of trouble. She had “failure to thrive,” a fancy term for “born sick,” and died before she was a year old.

    The next time we bought a kitten from a pet store, it was in a Humane Society rescue arrangement, and the female kitten we got is so rambunctious she gives the older, heavier males a drubbing!

    If I had it to do again, I’m not sure how I would choose. Our “boys” are great cats, and we love them dearly, but I know our purchase simply encouraged the mother-cat’s owner to breed her again and sell the kittens.

  • http://url Teddybearcrys

    I , for a short period of time took a job part time in a pet store. We guaranteed our customers that all our puppys came from breeders. But it wasnt long afterwards I learned they came from Lancaster puppy mills.A part of our jobs was to lie to these innocent customers.When the dogs were brought back ill, and bad tempered, the store owners would put people down telling them they were doing something wrong.I can not count how many pups came in and died from diseases in our back room.I had to leave that job because I could not lie to the public, nor live with what I had to witness.I am a proud owner of to beautiful pomeranians that I fel are saved from the torturous lives they lived in puppy mills.Thay are very insecure, but very loved as they should be.Ive made several calls and contacts to help these pets, but its never enough.They are still operating.and making 500+ dollars in profit per puppy at the pet stores.WE NEED TO BE THERE VOICE! Their wimpers are not enough.

  • Crys

    It may not have been a genetic problem with the dog. By carrying the dog home, letting the dog bark at the house, etc. it tells the dog that their fear is justified. This may have been a simple training problem that escalated.

  • maryann

    So basically the dog became less than perfect and the owners gave up on him-have heard many times how dogs start out nice and then develop issues-they are a lot like children-they need to be worked with every day to insure better results-and if you want to know who the biggest perpetuators of puppy mills are-surprise…its other dog breeders-the kind that charge 900.00 to 2000.00 dollars per dog-i have heard many say they want a dog but cannot afford to buy one at private breeder prices and that is why they looked elsewhere-i will give you an example-i met a woman who breeds cavalier spaniels and had a litter of six puppies and with the vet visits and shots etc. the money she had into it was around 350.00 per puppy-her selling price was over 2000.00-now who looks greedy? Let’s face it people-the dog does most of the work and a health “guarantee”doesn’t mean the dog will never have problems-so what are you really paying for? If people are looking for the kind of dog they like just for a pet and not the ring at westminster these breeders make it very unrealistic for people to not explore other possibilities-perhaps if puppy “price gouging” stopped- puppy mill type organizations would lose their appeal and thus be rendered obsolete- or dare I say…”Neutered”. Think about it…

  • Megan

    I agree, Maryann.
    I have personally only ever gotten dogs from shelters and think puppy mills are terrible. However, I recently visited a local pet store and fell in love with a little Yorkiepoo. It’s easier to get a dog from a pet store than through a breeder so I understand why a lot of people choose to do so.

  • Katie

    As a show breeder, I abhor puppy mills. But I totally understand why they exist. People don’t want to wait the upwards of two or three years many show/hobby breeders have. They also don’t want the hassle of getting through the screening of the rescue dog applications that are so difficult. (I mean, I tried to adopt a dog, and was denied because I use a leash and a collar instead of a harness…for a golden retrever?!) The pet store seems like the way to go for people impatient. They always assume that a breeder is cost prohibitive too! We had a litter of 12 pointers. Only 5 were show quality. The remaining 7 were given away to loving pet homes…for free. (On a spay/neuter contract) And these puppies came from AKC champion show dogs, with OFA Good/Excellent hips/elbows and CERF’ed eyes…I mean, you just have to do your research. It’s not that hard. People just have no patience.

  • Sean

    We drove up to Lancaster and bought a pug/cocker spaniel mix and the place was really nice with happy dogs running around.

    Scout is a wonderful, happy and healthy dog. She was very social and was astoundingly easy to train.

    There was no hint of misery or abuse there…hell, his kids were playing with the puppies in several videos.

  • Peter D

    I purchased a Bernese Mountain Dog 4 years ago, from a nice Amish lady that seemed sincere. Whether she is part of the drug running, dog breeding Amish you are talking about I do not know. But I have had no problems with my dog. He seems up to par with other Bernese mountain dogs people paid 3 times the price I paid. So if I had to do it again I have to say I would in a heartbeat. If something seems fishy then you shouldn’t have bought the dog from that breeder.

  • Peter D

    Just reading some peoples comments. I would never ever ever buy from a pet store. Those dogs are so mistreated left in those cages in there own piss n sh@t. The housing is usually way too small to house dogs. Those places should all be shut down. We had one in our local mall, I couldn’t stand when people went in there and bought a dog at a super inflated price from a kid making $7 an hour. I love that you get a guarantee to that’s the best. So if it dies you can come in a get another sick dog. Thank god it is closed now.

  • ms.morgret

    Last year my husband and I purchased a puppy from an Amish breeder near Lancaster Pa. We love this dog who is now due to have oral surgery due to his teeth not coming thru and some of his baby teeth are still intact and he’s far too old for that. I called the Breeder who promised if anything due to the breed should go wrong to call them and they would help us in whatever way they could and cover expenses or replace the dog. Well we wouldn’t want him replaced…we are in love with him. I couldn’t believe the person I was hearing on the other end of the phone…he surely wasn’t the same person who sold us the puppy…he was mean and hateful, before hanging up on me he said he would contact us in the next few days, next week?? then simply hung up…
    Basically we have surgery scheduled for Tuesday morning, and whatever happens this is our little guy.
    To anyone reading this, I suggest do your research and even if you have to wait 3 months for a puppy, wait!! Go to a breeder listed by the breed or on AKC registry….if they aren’t there then don’t buy from them…simply said.
    I will keep you guys posted on our little guys surgery…and more details of the situation. I don’t want to say too much as I don’t want to criticise this person until I see if they actually do come through and prove they care about the puppies they breed and sell…. wish us luck !