Shandael Alaskan Malamutes

Guest column:

We can learn from Detroit

by Margaret Anne Cleek

(From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1993.)

An open mind is damned near impossible either to have or to find. The response I've received to my September ANIMAL PEOPLE guest column, "Don't call me a pimp" bears out the opening premise of it: that we all have our own perceptual set which colors our view of reality. This leads to stereotyping and prejudice, which in turn can produce polarization and counterproductive strategy in pursuit of mutually accepted goals.

To re-introduce myself, I am by profession an industrial/organizational psychologist. I am by avocation a dog enthusiast­­not just a purebred dog enthusiast. While I have concerns about the adoption of unsuitable dogs, the true mutt is just plain fine in my book, and I would urge the adoption of the right mutt over the wrong purebred in a heartbeat.

I feel that what I know about dogs and what I know about social science can be integrated in a manner useful to all of us who are concerned about pet overpopulation. And I see a likeness in the evolution of approaches to this issue and the evolution of strategies in the automobile industry, for which I was a consultant in the early 1980s, when U.S. auto makers were at the depths of crisis. The purpose of my work was to break down existing culture and attitudes, to demonstrate the pointlessness of blaming, and to refocus the adversarial relationship between management and unions to develop a new, more effective social technology. In specific, when the U.S. auto industry hit the wall, the reason for their problem was labeled, "Japanese Imports." With the problem thus labeled, the solution was set as import restrictions and trade tariffs, and it now became the U.S. government's responsibility to impose restrictions. I can't tell you how many times I heard this song-and-dance. The rank-and-file believed we needed to stop the flow of imports, PERIOD­­situation solved.

Once a problem is labeled and blame placed, many people feel their work is completed. The belief that the problem is caused by the blamed party is continually reaffirmed with rhetoric. Attention is now focused on a simple, one-step solution: changing the behavior of the blamed party. The development of alternative approaches is ignored. But most problems are not amenable to simple, one-step solutions.

If the U.S. auto industry had succeeded in placing the blame for its woes squarely enough on Japanese imports to obtain a trade embargo, I suspect I would now be driving a piece of crap from G.M. that cost me $50,000. Instead, the U.S. auto industry gradually recognized that the problems it faced were multifaceted, complex, and influenced by the larger context of economics. Reviving sales of U.S.-made cars required responses to many issues, not just one, among them high interest rates, the strength of the dollar, government regulation, poor labor/management relations, outmoded technology, lack of touch with consumer needs, a centralized decision process, and awkward work design.

Much as the auto industry initially focused upon simply placing blame, I feel many humane organizations have focused too intently upon purebred breeding per se as the cause of pet overpopulation, and consequently have promoted legislative action to halt breeding before fully understanding which animals are surplus, where they come from, and what approaches are most likely to effectively reach the people responsible for their existence.

Help needed

While there is no question that we need to encourage and maintain a lower birth rate, the humane community has to learn which births are most essential to reduce, much as the U.S. auto industry had to learn what kind of cars to build. I do not believe the expertise the humane community needs in order to do this is to be found in the advocacy sector, whose raison d'etre is campaigning rather than doing analysis. Nor can shelter and animal control staff be expected to have the necessary overview: like the garage mechanics who could readily diagnose the repair and maintenance problems with Detroit cars a decade ago, the people in shelter work and animal control often have an excellent street-level understanding of the symptoms of the problem they deal with, but cannot be expected to have equal perspective on matters of economics and sociology that have a longterm hidden influence upon how the cats and dogs they handle came to be there. Unfortunately, until recently hardly anyone else has cared about homeless animals. In the absence of leadership capable of taking a multidisciplinary open-systems approach to pet overpopulation, the humane community has focused understandably but somewhat naively upon simply reducing euthanasia numbers by preventing births. This approach has brought dramatic positive results, yet the widely accepted philosophy that all dogs and cats are created equal and are therefore equally worth preventing from being born has resulted in some rapid and unintended shifts in dog demographics that may make further progress difficult.

We must bring the expertise of epidemiologists, operation control experts, marketing specialists, responsible breeders, and industrial/organizational psychologists to bear, along with that of the humane community. We have to consider what segment of the population is neutering pets and what pets are being neutered, which has an immense if unseen influence on the nature of the animal population still out on the streets, unneutered.

I have never maintained that only the purebred dog population should be allowed to continue. The purebred simply increases the odds of predictability of type and temperament, in turn increasing the odds that a person will choose the right dog. My family could never have afforded a purebred when I was a child, yet getting a dog was the most important event of my childhood. (Paradoxically, my first dog was a purebred, given to me free by a show breeder who knew I was bonkers for dogs. This dog was much loved and never bred.)

I have always been in favor of affordable and even free dogs to approved homes. And just as I maintain that healthy, wanted purebreds do not displace shelter dogs, I believe shelter adoption does not affect the show breeder's market. People have different reasons for getting one dog or the other. I do have definite concerns that people buy or adopt the right dog, and am concerned that as surplus numbers drop, more unsuitable dogs will be placed in homes. Animal behaviorists and knowedgeable dog people can help shelter workers develop means of more accurately assessing dogs. We need experienced people who can tell the difference between a good dog in the wrong home, a snooty juvenile delinquent who needs to be shown how to straighten up and fly right, and a dog who is truly unable to function as a family companion.

Some of my best freinds are mutts. I really like the "Heinz 57," as dogs of indeterminate ancestry are often called, and would never suggest that they have less intrinsic value than a best-in-show purebred. But not all dogs are created equal. There are bad dogs, including purebreds, crossbreds, and mutts who are genetically bad, not just bad as the result of having bad owners. In our efforts to reduce the surplus, we have not addressed which dogs have been removed from the breeding pool and which have not. I believe that current practices are creating a demographic shift in the dog population that can result in a crisis of vicious and unsuitable dogs.

I maintain that our shelters had mostly surplus dogs 20 years ago, but our past efforts have created a situation where more and more, shelters contain unwanted animals. We have created an overnight change in the evolution of the dog, producing not an across-the-board reduction in the dog population, but rather a restriction of range, skewing the distribution toward larger, more aggressive dogs.

If all factors were equal, as the surplus numbers dropped we would have had an across-the-board decrease in the dog population. But all factors are not equal. For example, large dogs may average nine or ten pups per litter. Small dogs may have only two or three pups per litter. There are many other factors, such as ability to live in semi-feral conditions, which favor the large dog over the small dog, even though fewer and fewer people are able to afford or accommodate large dogs. Whelping small dog pups is often difficult, and medical problems necessitate spaying mothers who were intended for breeding. One commonly advanced suggestion, that breeders should be limited in the number of litters that they register, would assure the demise of some small breeds. Two litters of Salukis may be 22 pups, but two litters of pugs may be only four pups, and there is a much greater market for pugs than Salukis.

When random breeding occurs, larger and more aggressive dogs are more likely to cover bitches. Add to this the human element. Certain segments of the public want large, aggressive dogs, who to some degree may vicariously live out their sexual fantasies.

The role of mutts

If we are successful in eliminating the mutt, as some advocate, then the only dogs available will be expensive purebreds (both well-bred and poorly bred), and accidental liasions between purebreds. A recent Massachusetts SPCA survey indicated that a whopping third of dog births are accidental, which argues for education about the difficulty of confining a bitch in season, as well as about neutering. I believe that some combinations of purebred dogs are inherently unpredictable and potentially dangerous because of the combined characteristics of the two breeds. Individually the parents may be sound representatives of their breed type, but the cross may be risky.

Shelters have a responsibility to protect the public from any combination of breed traits that have the potential to result in a dangerous dog, such as a highly reactive herding dog crossed with a large guard dog, or a terrier and large guard dog cross. Who needs a 90-pound family pet who is easily pissed off?

Multiple factors have worked in favor of the large aggressive dog. Now I'm not saying there is no place for the large aggressive dog, but anyone with any shelter experience will tell you that while there may be a waiting list for small dogs, there is never a shortage of big dogs. In my community some individuals are purposely breeding small mixed-breed dogs and selling them for up to $125. There is a wanted ad for small mixed pups run continuously in our paper by a local pet store. We have created a shortage of small dogs and easily adaptable family mutts. And when a demand is created, people will produce pups to meet the demand.

Let me illustrate how this demographic shift has come about. Back in the days when parents could send their children to the store without worrying that their faces would turn up on milk cartons, neighborhoods had dogs like Suzi and Buddy­­each a Heinz 57. Whatever breeds were among their ancestry were so mingled that no specifically developed traits were evident. They were just plain dogs. And they were great. Suzi stayed in her front yard without a fence, and Buddy had his route, which he set out on every morning, but he knew just when to come home so he could meet Billy and follow him around his newspaper route.

Suzi and Buddy hadn't been to obedience classes, yet despite the crude and unsophisticated methods of their respective owners, they learned how to please the family and be good dogs.

Suzi's family and Buddy's family loved them and were good people, but in those days people were not aware of the need to neuter and responsibly confine their pets. In fact, Suzi's family was thrilled when she had pups, and of course Buddy was the dad. Suzi was a great mom, and so proud when all the neighborhood kids came to see her litter. Those pups spent more time in someone's arms than they did on the ground. And every kid in the neighborhood pestered his or her parents for a Suzi pup. A grieving Billy carried home one pup, as poor old Buddy was killed by a car. The streets were getting busy.

There were far too many Suzis and Buddys, and ever-increasing numbers of pups were being destroyed because the number of available homes could never match the number of pups being born. Accordingly, concerned groups including breeders initiated the LES program (Legislation, Education, and Spaying). People like Suzi and Buddy's owners, being caring and responsible, responded. Suzi and Buddy's grandbabies if not babies were neutered. And that was the end of Suzi and Buddy's gene pool.

Meanwhile, in the heart of the city where Queenie and Spike lived, crime was increasing and people were scared. Tough dogs became a symbol of empowerment and a mode of defense. It wasn't long before they became a mode of offense, too. Queenie and Spike and other kick-butt dogs became the dogs of choice in deteriorating urban areas. Their owners were not as easily reached by the LES message, and these dogs were not neutered. Because of high population density and lack of fenced yards, random breeding was frequent. Offspring were given away and they too reproduced. Many were marginal members of their families and became semi-feral. Unlike Suzi and Buddy's pups, Queenie and Spike's became fruitful and multiplied.

This is just one element of the broader picture that emerges when systems analysis is applied. Going to a systems approach to pet overpopulation would allow us to break out of presently unproductive approaches to the problem, and would enable us to anticipate and monitor the effects of our policies on dog population. It would enable us to assess and intervene to assure that appropriate dogs are available to accommodate the needs of the dog-owning public.

Alternatively, if people either buy or adopt inappropriate dogs, shelters will be dealing with an endless flow of dogs that they may label surplus, but are in fact recycled: unable to adapt to any family situation, they are returned to a shelter (often not the same shelter), or are abandoned or left to wander for eventual pickup by animal control. Humane advocates then blame the people, who certainly are not blameless, but it must be recognized that the dogs themselves may be unsuitable. The policies and practices that we adopt to control dog populations should assure the survival of the fittingest in loving homes, not the survival of the fittest when left to their own devices by the irresponsible.

Taking a systems approach requires that we keep data bases on the type of dogs wanted and the type of dogs available, and intervene with educational programs as needed to keep dog populations in line with demand. We may determine that we need to educate specific groups of owners and provide incentives to stop breeding of certain populations more than others. Certainly we must provide neutering service, along with incentives to neuter, in the communities that animal control records indicate have the highest rates of stray dog and litter pickups. We may need to inform people about the availability of recently developed chemical abortion technology when accidental breeding is suspected. We must transport dogs as needed to accommodate market shifts, and we must market shelter dogs effectively to insure that all those who could be placed well are placed in good homes.

The transport of shelter dogs is a controversial topic. The North Shore Animal League initiated the practice on a large scale some years ago, and has been under continuous attack from some quarters ever since. But we should expect to find different dog demographics in different areas. If my hypothesis is correct, high density urban areas would have a shortage of small dogs and an excess of large dogs. If the demand for small dogs is not met, people may adopt large dogs who don't work out and end up back in shelters, or people will intentionally breed small pups for sale. In another area, there may be a surplus of smaller dogs. It is a waste of life to euthanize dogs in one area and create a need for breeding in another, when market analysis, communication, and transport could meet the need.

If we maintain that we do not have the time or the money to do a systems analysis and address the multiple issues involved, we are doomed to face an unending stream of unwanted animals as we burn up our energy and resources on misplacing blame.

An open systems approach requires hard work and detailed analysis. I am encouraged that the Council on Pet Overpopulation recently formed by the leading national humane groups and breeders' associations includes noted epidemiologists. I hope this task force does not take the usual "my agenda versus your agenda and let's compromise" approach. I am an advocate of collaborative problem solving, not compromise and accommodation to appear politically correct.

I would urge the inclusion of an even wider range of professionals. The complexities of pet overpopulation are mind-boggling, and the contingencies extensive. But I am convinced that only such a complex approach complete with flow chart analysis, good data, and contnuous monitoring and adjustment of tactics in line with shifting needs will bring us control of the problem. Pet overpopulation is a continuous phenomenon, and continuous phenomena require continuous monitoring and flexible response. Properly approached, dog breeding and the prevention of overpopulation are not mutually exclusive.

[Margaret Anne Cleek, of Sacramento, California, is a fancier/breeder and breed rescuer, and a member of the Alaskan Malamute Club of America. This is her third guest column for ANIMAL PEOPLE examining various aspects of pet overpopulation, following "Alternatives to breeding bans" in June and "Don't call me a pimp" in September.]