Puppies and COVID
There has been a remarkable increase in the demand for puppies since COVID lockdowns began. Many breeders have experienced an extraordinary number of puppy inquiries – often 5 to 10 times their usual number of inquiries. Shelters report a 30-70% increase in adoptions. The Kennel Club (UK) reports a 140% increase in puppy inquiries through their on line puppy search tool.
Why this dramatic increase in demand? There have been no studies to scientifically examine the reasons for this but they are not hard to figure out. Some people already planning for a puppy ‘pre-COVID’ accelerated those plans while they are able to spend more time at home with a new puppy. Many more requests are based less on planning and more on impulse arising from boredom, isolation, loneliness or opportunism.
The negative impact of COVID
While no one would dispute that the COVID demand for puppies has been good for shelter dogs, resulting in many dogs finding new homes, there have been other, not so positive, outcomes.
1. Increase in production of poorly bred puppies: The law of supply and demand is in full effect! This pertains to:
a. High volume (commercial) breeders (e.g. puppy mills),
b. Opportunistic breeders (e.g. someone taking advantage of the opportunity to make some ‘quick money’ off a litter from a household pet), and
c. Commercial importers of puppies (retail ‘rescue’).
In each case, there is strong incentive to increase production of puppies, typically without attention to producing quality puppies. Raising puppies that are genetically and structurally healthy and of sound temperament takes much planning, financial investment and time – and is not something that can quickly be ramped up. Good breeders may spend years developing a breeding program – finding the right breeding stock, raising them, assessing for temperament and health and then breeding and raising litters with great care to ensure the puppies are healthy, confident, resilient and great family pets. It is not possible to quickly ramp up production of quality puppies. In contrast, it is much easier to ramp up output of poorly bred puppies. What does this mean if you are looking for a puppy? The percentage of poorly bred and raised puppies is going to be higher than normal and your risk of getting a poor quality puppy (poor health, structure or temperament) is statistically greater, especially if you are not diligent in evaluating the breeder or source. Many poor quality breeders use excellent marketing skills, glitzy websites and convincing pitches to convince you that they are producing wonderful dogs while they fail to health test, or claim to health test but do not do important breed specific testing, fail to choose the sire and dam with care to ensure puppies have good structure, and good temperaments. Puppy rearing will be focused on keeping costs low and expediency rather than providing an enriched environment that helps build confidence, resiliency and novelty seeking in the puppies.
2. Difficulty in meeting breeders and puppies: When looking for a puppy, if at all possible, you want to meet the breeder and see where and how puppies are raised. Obtaining a puppy from an ethical breeder is much more than a financial transaction – rather it is developing a long-term relationship where the breeder remains a resource throughout the life of the puppy. Face-to-face interactions allows breeders to observe potential owners interacting with their dogs and potential owners the opportunity to observe the temperament and behaviour of the dogs. Recently, aggressive animal rights activities have made some breeders cautious about inviting prospective puppy owners to their homes and now COVID has made the home visit and face-to-face meetings even more difficult. Some breeders may feel comfortable with outdoor meetings while we have good weather and if this is possible, be sure to take advantage of it. Others, especially those with vulnerable individuals in their household may not be willing to have on site visits but may consider other options such as meeting in a public location.
3. Increase in puppy scams: Scammers are quick to take advantage of every new opportunity and they certainly have not failed to see great opportunity in the increased demand for puppies. Puppy scams are not new – but they have thrived on the new constraints and high demand created by COVID. Scammers are quick to take advantage of the pressure people feel in an environment of supply shortage. When supply is short, consumers are prone to making quick / impulse decisions and overlooking red flags. Social distancing has made it seem reasonable to not meet the breeder or puppy in advance of handing over money. One common scam is to demand a deposit for a puppy but then fail to deliver when the puppy is due (the scammer is then nowhere to be found). A variation on this is to request a deposit but when the time comes for the puppy to be shipped, suddenly additional payments (often multiple) are needed to get the puppy to the new owner. The scammer often drags this out with convoluted stories backing up these additional charges. Another scam is to offer a puppy free “to a good home”, but when a commitment is made and the ‘new owner’ is invested in the dog, they are told they need to pay shipping costs, or the cost of a kennel, or pay health certificate fees etc. Sometimes there is a puppy at the end of the story – far more often there is no puppy. Typically, scammers will require payment in modalities that cannot be recovered in the event of fraud (bit coin, cash, wire transfers, gift cards etc.). Scammers often advertise using on-line marketplaces as this gives them a broad reach. While some good breeders do use on-line marketplace advertising, most do not, preferring to advertise through their national Kennel Club and / or breed clubs and their own websites. During this time of unusually high demand, it is even less likely that a legitimate breeder will advertise through on-line marketing sites. If you are looking for a puppy from an on-line marketplace, be especially diligent in checking out the source. Don’t be fooled by pictures of puppies or litters. Pictures add an air of legitimacy – but pictures used by scammers are often stolen from a legitimate breeder’s site. Sometimes even the text of the website is lifted directly from a legitimate breeders own website. A reverse image search on Google can reveal the actual source of the picture. If things look legitimate but you are not sure, you can ask to be shown the puppy in real time using Skype, Face time or Zoom. Even that is not a complete guarantee, as some scammers will actually have puppies available but take non-refundable deposits on many more puppies than they actually have available. If placing a deposit, be sure you know the policies pertaining to the deposit and get those in writing. Be sure that if the breeder is for any reason unable to provide a puppy to you, you are eligible for a full refund of the deposit via a secure money transfer system. If you are working solely for a puppy transaction – be aware that the risk of a scam is high and you need to be extremely cautious. Remember, if something sounds to good to be true – it probably is!
4. Price gouging: The cost of puppies can be a touchy subject and breeders have at times been vilified for ‘greed’ because of faulty perceptions of the actual cost of raising well-bred puppies. In most cases, the cost of a puppy from an ethical breeder barely (if at all) covers the out of pocket expenses for raising the puppy. It is entirely reasonable for a puppy to cost in the range of $1,500-3,000, depending on the breed. The cost may be higher for breeds that have very small litters and /or often require special procedures for breeding or whelping. In the COVID era, many costs have increased and so it is not unreasonable to see a modest increase in the cost of puppies. However, there have been numerous reports of outrageous price inflation with doubling or tripling of costs by unscrupulous breeders. A puppy price wildly out of keeping with local norms is a ‘red flag’ for an unethical breeder. There have also been reports of quoted puppy prices being suddenly raised when the puppy is ready to go to their new home. By then, the new owners are strongly invested in the puppy and feel they have to pay the price or lose the puppy.
5. Concern about a flood of post-COVID surrenders to shelters: While COVID has made it easier for many people to integrate a new dog into their household, there are concerns about what happens when people return to work. New owners who have not given careful thought to how they will manage the needs of their puppy when life returns to normal and they are back at work and school, may find that themselves challenged to meet those needs.
With people home almost constantly, unless owners proactively engage now in prevention strategies, many dogs are at risk for separation anxiety when owners suddenly return to work. Behaviour problems in poorly bred puppies will be emerging as these puppies mature and will be exacerbated with diminished supervision when people return to work. All of these factors have raised concerns about a flood of surrenders as all these challenges hit home.
6. Poor socialization of puppies leading to future behaviour problems: Early puppy socialization is critical to ensure a puppy is comfortable in his world and able to live a full life as a good canine citizen. Inadequate safe and positive exposures to novel experiences, people and other animals during early puppyhood will often result in fearfulness and anxiety when outside their comfort zone. Trainers are already starting to see puppies obtained early in the lockdown phase presenting with extreme fearfulness around people, dogs and other stimuli. Effective socialization has always demanded planning and effort on the part of the owner: the physical distancing requirements of COVID have added substantial challenges to the task of socialization. Although in many areas, lockdowns are easing, and puppy classes are resuming, there are still fewer opportunities to socialize puppies. Classes can be difficult to access even where they are available because of increased demand and smaller class sizes required to maintain physical distancing. Good socialization CAN be achieved despite all these challenges but requires extra effort and creativeness.
COVID has, without a doubt, created many new challenges for people looking to bring a puppy into their homes. But all is not gloom and doom! If you are looking for a puppy, be sure to watch for the next blog post in which we will discuss two other aspects of COVID on puppy ownership and provide tips on how to navigate the ‘new normal’.
• Looking for a puppy in the time of COVID
• Raising a puppy in the time of COVID