In country New South Wales for a weekend, I answered an ad for a five month old puppy, last of its litter, cheap to a good home.
Half an hour's drive from the nearest town I turned on to a dirt road and pulled up at a nondescript brick house. Chooks and goats wandered a long row of kennels and their curious inhabitants.
We have a concept of puppy farms based on raids by animal rescue organisations and distressing photographs of female dogs kept in squalid conditions and a near permanent state of pregnancy.
The reality is that dog breeding facilities cover the full spectrum from unfortunate to abhorrent and very few break the law.
On rural properties, animals serve the landowner not the other way round, and there's a hierarchy.
Livestock come last as their lives are the most expendable. Working dogs fare better but still endure tough conditions by city standards. If they aren't working they tend to be locked up. There is no cruelty here, just practicality. Then there are farm pets but even these pampered pooches sleep outdoors, eat cheaply and get tied up and ignored.
I have a friend who spent $10,000 on orthopaedic surgery for his kelpie. In the bush a pet will get occasional veterinary care if it seems worth it, a working dog may well be stuck with its fleas and injuries, and livestock are at the mercy of disease and predation. A farmer who has hundreds or thousands of animals in his care can't afford to be soft-hearted.
So it's not surprising that rural people who set themselves up as breeders keep their animals in conditions that seem spartan to city slickers.
The owner showed me around. The animals seemed unharmed and pleased to see their owner. Their kennels and coats were clean. They appeared well fed, even a touch plump. But it was undoubtedly a dog breeding facility, and it made me uncomfortable.
There were at least a dozen dog runs. Most of the adult dogs were accommodated in bedroom-sized wire cubes with a kennel up the back. Others were tethered to a doghouse on a long lead like huskies in the tundra. There were three large litters of puppies just weeks old, tumbling over each other as they pawed at the fence. Their mothers were kept in separate areas, probably to accelerate weaning. Some puppies I was told were five weeks old were advertised a couple of days later as seven and "ready to go next week".
There were three different breeds of dog including about 10 of a large hunting breed I later learned is banned in several countries. Several were lactating. The owner said he sells them "all over the country" to people who want a dog to guard their property.
The small breed puppy from the ad was let out through a gap and shot across the yard like a caged animal which, of course, it was. Sprinting in random directions, scattering chickens and stopping for only a second at each point of interest. She was a barrel of muscle, exuberant but just a bit feral.
Dogs in particular are hard to disappoint and easy to impress, which makes it all the more tragic that large numbers of them live such brutal lives.
I suddenly understood what people mean by socialisation. This puppy had never worn a collar or lead or been indoors. I couldn't get its attention. It wasn't interested in humans, it was interested in freedom.
It was obvious that these dogs got nothing but food and occasionally opened gates. They weren't mistreated so much as untreated. They hadn't needed to learn obedience because if they are locked up they stay and if they aren't they go. It's as simple as that.
The breeder told me that every afternoon he gets out the motorbike and lets the whole pack out for a run along the dirt road. Their training was limited to going berserk once a day to the sound of an engine.
When I asked to see vet paperwork, the breeder wasn't sure where it was and said he'd have to ask his girlfriend. About vaccinations, he was uncertain beyond the initial shots (at five months it should have had three). On diet he said it eats "anything" and gave as an example "offcuts, you know, like a sheep's head", as if everyone has a freezer full of sheep heads.
I left empty handed with a knot in my stomach. I had wanted to "rescue" this puppy but it wasn't to be.
Backyard breeding, even on a large scale, is not illegal in New South Wales and, depending on your personal standards, isn't unethical either. Short of actual cruelty, breeders can do more or less as they please.
Thankfully the ACT has a much stricter regime in place, and under proposed changes to our animal welfare laws, domestic pets will be given even greater protection from harm. For example, placing limits on the length of time a dog may be contained, and making it lawful to rescue a dog from an locked and unattended vehicle if it is at risk of serious harm. There is already vigorous debate about whether these moves are an overreach.
Of course, New South Wales is only a stone's throw away. But the ACT has at least set a high standard of animal welfare that other states may eventually follow.
Two-thirds of Australian households have a pet. The company of other species delights us. Dogs in particular are hard to disappoint and easy to impress, which makes it all the more tragic that large numbers of them live such brutal lives.
So what to do? If you are able to, donate to organisations that work to close down puppy mills and rescue and rehome animals. Adopt don't shop. If you want a new dog, read the RSPCA's guide to buying a puppy. If it comes from "the country" and you don't visit its home and meet its parents, don't buy it.
It's vital that you choose a breed that suits your lifestyle and the space and time you have. Do desex your dog because according to the RSPCA there are about 5 million here already. Most of all: keep it for its whole life. Be prepared to cry your heart out when it dies but be there for the last goodbye, no matter how much it hurts.
- Leonie Doyle is a Canberra writer.