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Amish aims to restore dog breeding representative

When some people think of dog breeding in the Amish community, images appear of puppy mills full of unhappy and abused dogs.

Amish ranchers across the state want to change that and they’re asking for help.

Commercial breeders in Odon — a southern Indiana town with a large Amish population — are working with Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science to establish breeding practices that make consumers and dogs happy.

“It was time for us as ranchers to recognize that there are professionals who can help us and we need to involve them in our activities,” said Levi Graber, a member of the Amish community of Odon who helps several breeders in the region.

Graber contacted Purdue a few years ago for input on how to better meet consumer expectations. Then and began working with Candace Croney, director of the animal welfare center. Croney and a team of researchers launched a pilot program to examine how breeders manage their facilities and whether certain changes could improve the physical and behavioral health of their dogs.

The program, which includes Amish and non-Amish breeders, will be used to create voluntary standards of care and management intended to improve the welfare of breeding dogs, including those in commercial establishments, Croney said.

It will eventually morph into a national program for breeders who want to adopt science-based best practices, she said.

Public Perception

Currently, there is little research on dogs as it relates to housing, care and management, Croney said, particularly as it relates to high-volume commercial breeding.

Yet, she says, some people automatically associate commercial breeding with puppy mills and animal abuse.

“A lot of people hear about animal husbandry and animal welfare and they don’t know what (farmers) are actually doing. They just want to bankrupt them,” Croney said.

People tend to associate the size of commercial facilities with quality and perceive large spaces to be more problematic, said Nicole Olynk-Widmar, agricultural economist at Purdue.

Olynk-Widmar presented preliminary results from its study of public perceptions of dog welfare and dog breeding at the Canine Welfare Science Forum at Purdue on Thursday.

She said it’s important to understand people’s views on reproduction — whether they’re based on fact or not — because it can become a matter of public policy in the hands of voters. People also choose where they buy their dogs based on their opinion on breeding, she said.

“It’s a little hard to hear sometimes, especially when people’s perceptions may not reflect what you’re doing,” Olynk-Widmar said.

These perceptions have caused some Amish ranchers to be reluctant to open their doors to Croney’s team.

“A few different breeders who started doing it were confused but then saw the results and said they weren’t going to go back to doing things the way they used to,” Graber said.

“Happier, Happier Dogs”

The team observed a number of factors regarding the dogs, such as their physical condition, whether they were cute or scared, how they were housed and how they interacted with each other.

The dogs were mostly in good physical health, Croney said, and the biggest room for improvement was in their behavior.

Dogs at some facilities were very loud and many became overexcited when they saw people, which Croney said indicated they weren’t used to seeing people often.

The research team advised these breeders to ensure that something positive happens for the dog, such as receiving a treat, every time someone enters the kennel area.

They also suggested letting the dogs out into the yard daily for exercise and socialization.

Small changes had a big impact, Croney said. For four months, the dogs in the kennel with the most behavior problems became calmer when they saw people, and they looked physically better.

“We’ve seen a really positive impact on some of the things she recommends,” Graber said. “I’ve seen more contented and happier dogs.”

Once the trial program is complete, a third party will verify breeders’ practices, Croney said. If all goes well, the breeders will receive a certification that she says goes well beyond the standards imposed by the United States Department of Agriculture, which covers areas such as housing, sanitation, food, l water and protection against extreme weather conditions and temperatures.

Exceed expectations

Dale Blier, who works for Blue Ribbon Vet & Supply in Odon, sells supplies to many breeders in town. He said their kennels don’t look like what people see on the news and they’re committed to improving their facilities and doing what’s best for the dogs.

“The majority of Indiana dog breeders treat their dogs the same way they treat furniture making: They want to be the best at it,” Blier said.

Some practices surpass those of other ranchers, he said, but the Amish aren’t boastful and don’t publicly address those misconceptions.

Graber said the community feels lucky to work with Purdue and stressed that breeders don’t want to sell puppies that disappoint anyone.

“I just want the world to know that we strive to meet consumer expectations and not be a burden on anyone,” he said.

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