Becoming by Jacquelyn Fogel
Comfort Companions - the Dog Federation of Wisconsin's program to promote pet retention in an animal rights environment
"They're humanizing animals, and de-humanizing people."
This was the phrase that stuck with me after a group of Wisconsin Dog Federation (DFOW) people got together to form a non-profit foundation. It rang true, and put words to a sentiment that I have felt for a long time. It is the guiding sentiment that led this group of people to form Comfort Companions with a mission to keep pets and families together.
After years of sticking to their core mission of fighting legislation that is bad for dog owners and breeders, and lobbying the legislators to pass good dog legislation, the Dog Federation of Wisconsin (DFOW) identified a problem that was not being addressed by most animal rights organizations and rescues. Shelters and rescues were quick to take in and care for animals, but few of them placed any value at all on keeping families and pets together. Their primary focus was the care of the dog, not the preservation of a human-canine relationship. Can't feed your dog? Surrender your pet to us. Don't know how to train your dog? Surrender your pet to us. Moving to a place that won't take animals? Surrender your pet to us. Have a behavioral problem you can't solve? Surrender your pet to us. Can't afford a vet? Surrender your pet to us. Then come back to us later to buy another pet from us. A potentially endless revolving door through the shelter/rescue system was born.
One thing good breeders learn after their first few puppy sales, is that most buyers really don't know much about the care and training of dogs. The public thinks dogs are furry humans, and all the feel-good stuff they read about baby and child care is directly applicable to their new puppy. Good breeders know this because we form long-lasting relationships with our buyers, and we get dozens of phone calls from buyers asking us hundreds of questions about how to deal with their new pet. We have to be experts on everything from house training to canine nutrition, to canine pack behavior, operant conditioning, and vaccine protocols. We learn to assess our buyers needs, and work hard to match the puppies' personalities to their new owners' lifestyles. Our goal is, and always has been, to make sure the humans who purchase our puppies form life-long bonds with their pets. We work hard to keep these relationships together, and only reluctantly take back dogs when it is absolutely necessary. It takes a lot of time, knowledge and energy to be a good breeder. We were the original "dog whisperers".
But what happens when circumstances happen to make keeping a pet difficult? When a family loses a primary source of income or its home, or an older person decides to move into a retirement community, who is there to help with the transitions? Many of these individuals and families don't want to give up their pets, but don't have the resources to keep them. Most end up surrendering their pets to shelters and rescues because they are the only service available to help them. What if there was a network of good breeders, and resources like a pet pantry and temporary housing, or a place from which equipment like crates could be borrowed until the crisis eased? What if we had a network of people who understood canine behavior and training who could supply advice on training issues? What if there was a network of people who knew which insurance companies provided policies for people with pets, or knew how to negotiate with landlords so tenants could keep their pets? What if we could tap the vast resources of the hobby breeder network to make people's lives better?
And here is a touchy subject for breeders - what about the once good breeder who falls on hard times and is no longer capable of taking care of their breeding dogs and puppies? We all know of cases where this has happened to someone. Usually the person is too ashamed and embarrassed to call close friends for help. They don't want the gossip mill to shred them, and they don't know where to turn. Often local all-breed rescues get involved and the person is quickly vilified for not dealing with the problem sooner, better, or in a more humane manner. Rescues say the person got into trouble because they were breeders. According to all-breed rescues, breeders ARE the problem, and we are never allowed to reclaim and rehome the dogs of ours that have fallen into these messes. Rescues are quick to save the dogs, but what about the person who has suffered the devastating loss? And what about the breeders who sincerely want to help? Would that person be quicker to ask for help if they knew they were not going to be crucified? How many of us are one or two paychecks away from losing everything? If we knew there was an organization that could provide help without harsh judgment, would we reach out to them before the problem became too big? Can we preserve dignity AND humane animal treatment when crises like these unfold?
Someone once said all dog problems were actually people problems. I think this is true. I also think there is no better group of people to offer support and advice on canine-related issues than the people who have made it their life-long passion - dog breeders. I know we are not the enemy. I know we were the first no-kill advocates. I know we are much more the solution than the problem. How ironic, yet somehow fitting that the group of people who know most about dogs is now willing to care for the people who own them, and struggle to keep them. The DFOW Comfort Companions program can become a model of pet retention utilizing the vast knowledge and resources of the hobby breeder population. It is time to reclaim our honor in this evolving world of animal rights and animal welfare. Comfort Companions is a good start.
First published by Showsight Magazine in the February 2011 issue, reprinted with permission.