COLUMBIA — George Craig is particular about his dogs, especially when it comes to food.
For pregnant and breastfeeding women, he pays particular attention to their diet. He starts with a premium brand of food, like NutriSource or Royal Canin, and soaks the kibbles in warm water for 15 minutes until they soften and puff up.
Dogs eat this meal twice a day to help replenish lost nutrients and generate milk supply for their nursing puppies.
“I try to give them the best dog food I can give them,” he said.
Most are fed without making a scene, he says, but some are picky eaters and require a little something extra.
“I feel like a chef when I feed them because this dog loves yogurt, this dog loves cottage cheese, and this dog loves canned dog food,” Craig said.
He said he used to treat his mother the dogs at night to small pieces of hot dogs, but like a Pavlovian experiment gone slightly awry, the dogs got conditioned and started anticipating their treats nocturnal.
When he walked to their enclosures, hot dogs in hand, they jumped with excitement.
Sometimes they landed on their young.
Craig stopped this routine – he didn’t want any of the puppies getting hurt.
“I love my animals,” he says smiling.
He and his wife, Elaine, own and operate Sunset Acres Kennels in Butler.
They are licensed commercial breeders, although they prefer the term “professional breeders”.
The couple have been raising animals for more than 30 years, but they fear the requirements for spacing, flooring and unimpeded access that will come into full effect in 2016 under the Prevention of Canine Cruelty Act.
They say the cost of upgrading their facilities may be too high. Already, they’ve spent over $40,000 on renovations to comply with regulations, and it may take another $30,000 to complete the job.
“We had some really nice paddocks before,” said George Craig.
The couple started with sheep, horses and cattle — traditional breeding — then moved on to the dogs. Toy Poodles, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzus, Maltese and, more recently, Yorkshire Terriers.
They now have over 100 dogs and four full-time staff members helping them with day-to-day operations.
They are proud of their dogs. Several Yorkies have won the American Kennel Club Championships, a rigorous competition where dogs earn points for various accomplishments.
Dogs that are so successful are highly valued in the world of commercial dog breeding. They are often used as breeders. — a group of animals selectively bred for their genetic traits.
Craig said he had already paid $12,000 for a 4-pound male Yorkie; the offspring brought in between $2,000 and $5,000 per dog.
Not all of his dogs are equally valuable and not all are certified champions. But that makes no difference to him.
“I love all dogs,” he said.
Over the years, even as a rancher, Craig worked full-time as the superintendent of public works. He is now retired, but continues his breeding practices.
“We don’t do it for the money,” he said. “We do it because we like it.”
About 800 commercial breeders remain licensed with Missouri’s animal care program, up from more than 1,400 in 2010, the year before the Prevention of Canine Cruelty Act was enacted.
A local rancher, who asked not to be identified because she was afraid of becoming a target, said she had to build outdoor enclosures for her animals to meet requirements of the Prevention of Cruelty Act towards dogs.
She said the upgrades cost thousands of dollars, even though her dogs were housed in a barn with spacious horse boxes, sheltered from the summer heat and winter cold.
“So far, I’ve managed to complete all the milestones laid out for me,” she said. “I take care of my cattle and my dogs.”
Karen Strange, president and co-founder of the Missouri Pet Owners Federation, said her organization opposes animal welfare laws such as the Animal Care Facilities Act and the prevention of canine cruelty.
Strange argues that state officials are using these laws to overregulate ranchers, essentially forcing them out of business.
“What they’re doing is coming up with regulations that are so expensive and so difficult that it’s extremely difficult to comply with them,” she said.
“MoFed does not condone animal cruelty or abuse, but we don’t believe in making regulations so onerous that no one can comply.”
Strange said it could cost some breeders up to $100,000 to upgrade facilities, build larger enclosures, and install approved flooring and outdoor exercise areas after 2016. If breeders are older, there is no way to recoup the cost, she said.
“Some very good breeders have been forced into retirement,” she said.
Alumbaugh has been a licensed veterinarian in Trenton for over 40 years and many of his clients are commercial breeders.
Since 2011, however, when the Prevention of Canine Cruelty Act was enacted, Alumbaugh has seen a noticeable decline in the size of his commercial breeding clientele.
He attributes the loss of business to Missouri’s animal welfare laws, saying they unfairly target good breeders in the state, driving them out of business.
“It’s unwarranted,” he said. “We don’t need more government regulations than we already have.”
Alumbaugh said all ranchers in and around Trenton are good people who take good care of their animals.
He inspects their facilities and their dogs at least once a year.
“I’ve never seen a major problem,” he said.
As for bad breeders, Alumbaugh thinks the scenario often goes something like this:
They come into possession of a litter of puppies, sell them and earn some money. Then they get greedy, try to produce more animals, and get in over their heads.
As their operations expand, they neglect to upgrade their facilities. Animals suffer in the process and become abused, sick and abused.
On the other hand, selling poor quality animals is counter-intuitive for good breeders.
“The majority of breeders take care of their animals,” Alumbaugh said.
The Craigs have carried out a number of renovations to meet the requirements of the Prevention of Cruelty to Dogs Act.
Every dog at Sunset Acres Kennels has 24-hour access to heating and air conditioning, ensuring the air temperature fluctuates between 45 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Each dog has access to automatic food and water dispensers, ensuring that each animal is fed at least twice a day and has fresh, safe drinking water.
About 50 dog pens have automatic doors, allowing constant, unhindered access to an outdoor exercise area. This upgrade alone cost Craigs about $23,000.
This requirement of the law bothers George Craig the most. He believes, like many other ranchers, that constant, unhindered access can put animals at unnecessary risk.
One night a severe thunderstorm erupted unexpectedly, he said, and Yorkies wandered outside in the rain and lightning.
They stayed outside in the storm all night, and the next morning he found his dogs wet, cold and shivering.
As a result, the Craigs extended the roof over the outdoor space to protect the Yorkies from the elements.
They also installed wire and metal fencing around the exercise area as a precaution against predators.
“I want to protect my dogs,” Craig said.