AKC takes it on the chin—again!

AKC takes it on the chin—again!

By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 03/19/1997 Category: | Canine Issues |


The American Kennel Club was damned again, this time by the Philadelphia Inquirer, as a major culprit in the battle over puppy mills. AKC doesn't do its job of protecting the integrity of its stud book, the story went, and it allows breeders to produce registered dogs in abhorrent conditions.

Ironically, these charges come at a time when AKC is moving in the right direction. The cases cited as "proof" of failure were true enough, but they were old news; according to several board members, things have much improved since 1992 when the staid old board began to give way to new blood. Today there is a new director of investigations, new policies, and a streamlined inspection process that results in more than 3000 inspections per year, but the Inquirer treated these changes in an offhand manner in a single paragraph.

Late in 1994, the registry was zapped by a double whammy - a Time Magazine piece that claimed purebreds are genetic nightmares and a 20/20 television report that blamed AKC for puppy mills. None of these media reports analyzed the problems they were trying to address; they began with the point of view that AKC was at fault and wound up the same way.

But the problems of sick dogs, poor kennel conditions, and registration fraud cannot be reduced to this common denominator; the issues simply cannot be resolved by taking aim at AKC no matter how convenient a target it is.

The players

  • Commercial kennels, large kennels that breed and buy puppies for retail trade. Commercial kennels are regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act and various state laws.
  • Puppy mills, the farms and commercial kennels that produce sick or unfit puppies in squalor. Puppy mills can be large or small, produce one breed or several, sell directly to the public or through wholesale channels.
  • USDA, the US Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.
  • State legislatures, the entities responsible for passing welfare laws that protect animals from the cruelty and neglect of puppy mills.
  • Humane organizations, society's watchdogs over enforcement of cruelty laws. Animal control agencies, the local enforcers of state animal welfare laws. These agencies may work with or independent of humane societies.
  • AKC, the American Kennel Club, the largest and oldest purebred dog registry and education organization in the US. AKC registers more than one million dogs each year on an honor system; if a breeder certifies that a litter is the result of breeding two registered dogs of the same breed, the litter and individuals in the litter are eligible for registration.


World-wide, there are about 400 breeds of dogs. In the US, AKC recognizes 140 of those breeds and the United Kennel Club includes about 180 in its books. Each breed has a look, size, coat type, temperament, and ability that appeals to different people. Some breeds are more popular than others. For example, there were 126,000 Labrador Retrievers, 6000 Scottish Terriers, and fewer than 1000 Chinese Cresteds and French Bulldogs among the total 1,345,941 dogs and 523,368 litters registered by AKC in 1994.

The AKC charges $18 to register a litter and $8 to register an individual dog. Obviously, a half million litters and more than a million individual registrations provide the organization with a substantial portion of its budget.

"Sure we want the money," said board member and former president Ken Marden. "How can you do programs without money?"

The game

Breed integrity - and registry respectability - depend on breeder honesty. The more popular a breed becomes, the more money there is to be made and the more likely that uneducated, dishonest, or profit-motivated breeders will enter the picture. Just such circumstances came into play after World War II when Americans had money to spend and became enamored of purebred dogs.

Hobby breeders could not begin to keep up with the demand of families anxious to add a German Shepherd, Cocker Spaniel, or Miniature Poodle to their households, so commercial kennels and pet stores were born to supply puppies to meet the increasing demand.

A few years later, USDA encouraged failing farmers to produce puppies as an alternative crop, bolstering the attitude that dogs are livestock. However, unlike typical livestock species, dogs are relatively clean animals unsuited to cramped conditions and mass production. They need socialization from birth to be good family companions, and much more post-natal care than calves, piglets, lambs, and chickens that are born able to see, hear, and regulate their own body temperature.

Breeding practices for cattle, pigs, and sheep are necessarily integrated into an annual cycle governed by seasonal pressures and the commodities market. Breeding practices for dogs need not follow such a schedule - the demand for puppies is relatively constant, puppies don't need pasture land and are easier to handle than hoofed stock, and there is no market incentive or biological necessity to restrict production to a season or two. A puppy harvest can be constant if the farmer has 10-12 bitches.

In 1966, the US Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act to regulate production, transportation, and health care of puppies. The AWA established classifications of kennel licenses, housekeeping and construction standards, and health protocols. Since dogs were considered livestock, Congress made USDA the AWA watchdog agency.

Today, USDA licenses thousands of commercial kennels and dog brokers, most of them in the farm states of Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. These kennels are subject to USDA inspection, but decreases in the federal budget and the sheer magnitude of the job hamper inspections. Some states have passed their own commercial kennel regulations, and commercial kennels have responded to the increased scrutiny with industry-supported codes of ethics and kennel standards. Many of these kennels have exemplary conditions in compliance with the law and raise healthy puppies that make fine pets.

Unfortunately, many other kennels do not meet minimum requirements for cleanliness and do not consider temperament and genetic soundness when breeding, so the incidence of poor character and physical ailments in the dogs is high and adherence to breed standards is low. Buyers often pay hundreds of dollars for genetically unfit pets birthed in filth and raised in woeful conditions because they feel sorry for the pups in those places or because they don't know any better.

The aim of the game is to put poorly-run kennels out of business. The path to victory is one that educates puppy buyers while it uses reasonable legislation and animal welfare societies to eliminate cruelty. But some people want a shortcut to victory, so they train their sights on AKC, charging greed (those registrations bring in millions, after all); lack of concern for the welfare of dogs; politics; and incompetence.

AKC's response to these tactics has been inadequate at best. The registry seems to swing from disdain for the accusers to mea culpas and defensive outbursts. Although the millions of dollars provided by registration fees pay for comprehensive education programs, sporting events, a comprehensive library, legislative information and assistance, a canine health foundation, and an inspections and investigations department that conducts about 3000 kennel inspections per year, AKC seems incapable of coherent response to these attacks.

The tide is turning. In the past few years, the delegates have voted new directors - James Phinizy, Ken Marden, Patti Strand, Judith Daniels, Patricia Haines, and Carmen Battaglia - who are more aware of the issues involved and of the need to act instead of ignore or overreact. The investigations division has a new director and has streamlined the process of inspecting kennels and taking necessary action. Punishments for infractions have been standardized. Inspectors notify local authorities if they find kennels with neglectful conditions. (More on AKC inspections)

The election in March for three board seats is critical. for continued success. Phinizy is up for re-election, as are Elaine Young and Walter Goodman, and six other delegates have declared their candidacies for the seats. Although six of the nine focus on the sport and the business aspects of AKC, three of the candidates have expressed concern for the issues facing the fancy.

In her remarks to the delegates forum in December, petition candidate Patricia Laurens said, "The AKC must strive to preserve the right for future generations to breed and enjoy purebred dogs by expanding the public's understanding of purebred dogs and (must) be vigilant and act upon any threats to it."

Young also stressed the need to improve the AKC's public image to counteract recent attacks: "Another part of the mission statement is take whatever action is necessary to protect and assure the continuation of the sport of purebred dogs. Prior to this decade, the AKC was not particularly concerned about public relations. Today we must make certain the public knows exactly who we are, and the value and importance of our dogs. We have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to gain by speaking out and speaking out with pride."

Phinizy was more concise. An architect of several of the changes in the inspections and investigations division and a member of the New Hampshire governor's study committee on pet population , he told the delegates: "Inarguably, the American Kennel Club must be the definitive source for purebred dog issues."

About The Author

Norma Bennett Woolf's photo
Norma Bennett Woolf -

Editor and Writer for the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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