If pressed, most rescuers will grudgedly admit that breeding dogs is OK, but only if it's done by "responsible breeders". Trouble is, our current, loose definition of "responsible breeder" is all wrong, and will hurt the long-term health of the dogs we love so much.
For example, consider this sale ad that came through my Facebook feed last year for Chesapeake Bay Retriever / German Shorthair Pointer cross puppies:
Or, for another example: that same year, a friend of mine had a litter of fourteen Labrador / German shorthair pointer cross puppies. They sold like hotcakes. Some people drove hundreds of miles to pick one up. Some went to pet homes, but most went to people who wanted an all-around hunting dog.
Both examples we'd probably call "backyard breeders". Bad, irresponsible people making mutts and taking away homes from shelter dogs, right? And yet we, as a dog-loving rescue community, should not only be OK with these breeders, we should be glad they bred their dogs. And we should hope that a few of the puppies from this litter grow up to have a few puppies of their own.
Why? Because our current definition of "responsible breeding" is leading to a devastating loss of genetic diversity, increased accumulation of genetic disease, and dogs that suffer from extreme physical deformities that affect their quality of life.
This is a real problem that hardly anyone is talking about. Inbreeding causes problems all by itself, and so many people either aren't thinking about this, or are in denial about it. There is also the related but separate problem of genetic disorders that build up in purebred dogs over time. So many "responsible" dog breeders think that if they just breed "the best to the best", it will solve all genetic problems. This just isn't true.
There is no earthly reason that "responsible" should mean "pure bred". Crossbreeds are, on average, healthier and live longer than their "pure bred" counterparts. Closed stud books are a new and not terribly great idea. Most people also forget that closed stud books ignore breed histories where one or more closely related breeds traditionally mixed, but are now isolated. For no good reason.
The examples I gave above are not mutts. They are a crossbreed of two complimentary dogs. This particular example happen to be hunting dogs, but crossbreeding is a fine idea if you want to make a dog who's job is to be a cute companion, too.
We rescue folks act like the shelters are over-flowing with puppies "from irresponsible breeders", but look around - you never see a lot of puppies in a shelter, or if you do, you won't see the same puppies if you visit a week later. Puppies are always in high demand. At the Oregon Humane Society, the largest animal shelter in Oregon, puppies are usually adopted the same day they hit the adoption room floor. They sometimes have to call other shelters looking for more puppies because they have more demand than supply.
There are a lot of reasons that dogs end up in shelters, but it's not because of "too many puppies". Take the two examples at the top of the page - those two litters of puppies went to homes that wouldn't have gone to a shelter anyway.
Now, let's look at a "responsible breeder".
Photo by Anne Goetz*
Anne Latimer Goetz breeds purebred, AKC-registered Neapolitan Mastiffs. She takes her dogs to shows, and wins prizes. They sleep in the house with her, get lots of cuddles and treats, and have a nice big yard to play in. She doesn't breed very often, and sells the puppies for a lot of money to select homes with a contract. She always allows buyers to meet the parents. I'm checking off all the little boxes on this form and, hey, it looks like we have bonafide "responsible breeder", right?
Photo by Anne Goetz*
Except that this woman is scum who should be criminally charged with animal abuse. The dogs she creates on purpose are deformed freaks who have never lived a fully comfortable day in their short, pain-filled lives. And that's just from their physical deformities. They're also an inbred, genetic mess, riddled with heritable disease that Anne (and so many like her) ignore or deny to avoid changing the way they do business.
Does Anne love her dogs? Probably. Is she an ethical dog breeder? Absolutely not.
Throw out the damn checklist, and stop using "backyard breeder" like it's a four-letter word. It's people like Anne who should be shunned from polite society. And she certainly doesn't deserve to be called "responsible".
EDITED 4/24/14: here are my revised suggested guidelines for what an ethical breeder actually looks like.
*Photos used under Fair Use doctrine for purposes of scholarly criticism. In case that wasn't clear.