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Dog auctioneers say their business is a healthy and humane way to acquire pets

Two female huskies are seen at the Sugarfork Kennels on March 7,  in Goodman, Mo.
Two female huskies are seen at the Sugarfork Kennels on March 7, in Goodman, Mo. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Bob Hughes, Southwest Auction Service, Wheaton, Mo.

Hughes, 54, grew up in a family of farmers and dog breeders. His father then became a broker, selling dogs among various breeding kennels, working by word-of-mouth, sometimes across great distances. Hughes watched that business as a child, and as an adult, he created Southwest, where breeders could see all the available dogs at once. His auction opened in 1988.

Below are edited excerpts from a Washington Post telephone interview with Hughes.

Read the investigation: Dog rescuers, flush with donations, buy animals from the breeders they scorn

Numerous rescuers say that you auction dogs with health and emotional problems, from kennels where the breeders don’t care about welfare, even if the dogs are on the brink of death.

“We do care about welfare. We’re building a 50-by-60-foot addition to the barn for large-breed dogs to be more comfortable. . . . And we have layers of welfare checks in place.

“The USDA is our first layer of inspection. They are here approximately eight times a year — not during auctions, just during regular business hours. They probably attend an average of 12 auctions a year. . . . They are here checking care and conditions.”

“The next layer is the Missouri Department of Agriculture. They do the exact same thing with about the same amount of frequency, and Missouri does any follow-ups. . . . Anyone who complains to the state, they come down and follow up.”

“The next layer is the American Kennel Club. They do probably three non-auction-day inspections of paperwork and those types of things with their own inspector, and then they are here at probably 95 percent of all the auctions we do. They’re the only registry that I know of in the United States that does not think the auction method of marketing is appropriate for dogs. They’re here regulating it.”

[Note to readers: The AKC told The Post, “We do not ‘work with’ auctions, nor do we regulate their operations as the owner of Southwest stated. Due to the fact that we are aware that there are AKC-registered dogs that are sold at auctions (not a large number), an AKC inspector does go to auctions (not 95 percent of them) and if there are AKC-registered dogs sold there, the inspector asks to see the dogs to inspect their care and conditions and paperwork.”]

“The next level past AKC would be APRI, [America’s Pet Registry Inc]. They attend the auctions to make sure the registrations are correct and the dogs’ microchip numbers match.”

“And the next level is our full-time veterinarian. He does a walk-through of the facility before every auction starts. He tags anything in the health of the dogs that he sees that looks questionable. We have a clinic for him, built into the facility. It’s about four or five dogs every auction that might get an examination, and out of those four or five, maybe one comes out of the sale.”

“And every single dog that comes here has a current rabies shot and has already had a health certificate, so a veterinarian has already looked at that dog. That’s a state requirement, every dog that comes from a breeder’s facility has to have a health certificate and a rabies shot.”

“In terms of temperament, right in our contract, we say that if a dog bites, we’re going to reject it. Anything that could be deemed sick or infectious, the dog is rejected. It’s given right back to the breeder. We don’t sell it. It’s not worth it to us or to subject our buyers to it. And we put that reject slip into the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] paperwork. And we have a person here cleaning full time. Even while the auction is going on. And then after the dogs are gone, we break everything down, clean it and bleach it.”

“We require dogs that go through auction to be microchipped for positive and permanent identification. USDA does not require that. Nor does the state of Missouri. All they require is a tag around their neck or a tattoo in their ear.”

“It also is not a requirement that the dogs have accompanying records of their vaccination histories. That’s an auction policy that we instated. You must give us your shot records for the buyer, so they can continue to give them the proper shots.”

“And we have people helping the breeders unload the dogs before each sale. . . . All of our people who work here know: If you see a problem, bring it to management’s attention immediately. . . . The best time to handle a problem is when it’s in my hands, not when the dog’s been transported off to Indiana or wherever. People like to say it’s a greed factor or a money factor, but there is never enough profit in an individual dog to take a chance on anything getting past us.”

Let’s talk about the ‘greed factor.’ Many rescuers say profit is the only motive among many breeders, and for you, t oo.

“Professional breeders, I don’t know of any that got into it for any other reasons other than that they loved dogs. We did a sale in early February for . . . an Amish guy who walked out back a few times. I saw him go out the door, and so I went out back to see if everything was okay, and he was out there crying. He couldn’t stand to see his dogs being sold. He had to move, and he didn’t have any kennel set up at the new place. He couldn’t take his dogs with him. And his dogs were outstanding, probably some of the best we’d ever sold. That was his miniature/toy poodle that went for a record $18,000 and the two goldendoodles that were $12,600 apiece. That man wasn’t even paying attention to what the dogs were bringing in money. He was standing outside crying over what was happening to his dogs.

“It’s happened more than a hundred times. We’re about to do a sale for a lady who has cancer, and she is going to be going through chemotherapy. . . . She’s sending the dogs with her husband because she can’t give them attention when she’s sick. She says she won’t come because she’s afraid she’ll have a nervous breakdown.”

“And people who say I make so much money? Well, I’ll tell you: I was bragging on how I sold an $18,000 toy poodle, and a guy showed me on YouTube that somebody at a cattle auction sold a $30,000 Australian shepherd that was a trained herding dog. Boy, did that shoot my ego down the toilet. Some cattle auctioneer got $30,000 out of a dog. I might’ve been able to get $2,500 at my auction.”

“Most of these breeders are very professional. They got two or three dogs to raise as a hobby, and their wife really enjoyed it and wanted to stay at home with the kids, and the dogs provide an income that enables them to do that. Most of the breeders I’ve ever met, they didn’t say, ‘There’s so much money in it.’ They loved the dogs, and it grew.”

Numerous rescuers say dogs that don’t sell at auction are summarily killed.

“I read on one of the websites, somebody wrote that I personally, if they don’t sell, that I take them back into a kill shed and shoot them. That’s crazy. It’s just not true. . . . It’s not my dog to put down. We give it back to the seller.”

Several rescuers also told us there are dogs you refuse to sell at Southwest, for age or other reasons.

“I want to be the best. I’m the world’s largest, oldest, professionally USDA- and state-licensed auction company in the world.”

“We catch a lot of negativity from the animal rights groups because they don’t particularly like what I do, but I’m . . . not going to do anything that could tarnish my reputation or cause me a problem.”

“I’m sure that General Motors would like to not have any recalls. . . . Once in a while, something is going to happen, just like every industry in the world, but we do everything we can to ensure that it doesn’t.”

If you are proud of what you do, then why don’t you allow cameras inside Southwest?

“We are an open, public auction. The only thing we say is no cameras or videotapes allowed. Our customers don’t want to be on animal-activist websites being called ‘puppy mills’. . . . But everybody’s welcome.

“There’s two things we don’t allow: laboratory research cannot buy at our auction — not to say that I’m against it; if my kid had cancer and the cure was inside the dog, I’d say, ‘Get it’ — and I don’t allow anybody from the fighting-dog industry. It’s only happened two times, and I asked them to leave, and they were not getting any of the dogs they purchased.”

Numerous rescuers told us they believe that at dispersal sales, where breeders going out of business liquidate their stock, the money they spend goes to the USDA, not to the auction house and breeder.

“There’s no truth there. The USDA does not get any proceeds at a dispersal sale or any other sale.”

Quite a few longtime rescuers say that during the past three to five years, a slew of newer rescuers has started paying far, far more than rescuers ever used to pay for dogs.

“We’re seeing new rescues coming, but they come and go. . . . I don’t know if we’re seeing more rescues than we’ve seen since about 2000. But on those $5, $10, $25 dogs, there was a time frame when the state of Missouri . . . had more breeders than everywhere else. And the Humane Society of the United States came in . . . lobbying to pass a new regulatory framework, Proposition B. When that happened, there were 3,000 licensed breeders in the state of Missouri. And the updates needed on those kennels, to meet the new regulations, were very costly. So . . . now we have about 800 kennels. Breeders said, ‘It’s going to cost me $250,000 to update my facility,’ so they just went out of business. There were $5, $10, $25 dogs because lots of kennels were going out of business. There were 10 to 15 USDA-licensed auctions going on. . . . We were doing 70 auctions a year.

“Now we’re doing about 18. Well, when we were doing 70 auctions a year, dogs were bringing hardly any money. There were just so many. . . . Prices are going up because dogs are in greater demand. There’s much less supply.”

Longtime rescuers also say more highly sought-after puppies and younger dogs are being auctioned, and that newer rescuers are paying dearly for them.

“I wouldn’t say that’s not true, but I think it’s a combination of stuff. There is GoFundMe now. There is Facebook now. . . . That brings more rescuers with more money to spend.”

“I think rescuers do help drive up the prices — but all bidders help. The $18,000 and $12,600 dogs that we broke records selling in February, they didn’t go to rescue. To say that rescuers don’t help the prices, though, would be wrong. . . . Every single person that attends an auction is driving the price up. And if . . . the breeder is determined to get the dog, and the rescue is equally determined to get the dog, that’s going to drive the price.”

“I’ve asked rescuers, ‘What did you do before we opened in 1988?’ They said, ‘We didn’t have rescue.’ Breeders would sell their dogs in a breed club or a newspaper or through a broker and say, ‘We’re going out of business, we have 75 dogs,’ and the distributor would call other buyers and say, ‘Do you have any interest?’ It’s not like the breeding industry boomed when rescue started in the 2000s. The industry has been around since the 1950s. The rescuers just didn’t know about it until I got into the auction business.”

Some breeders and rescuers say puppies are being bred specifically to sell to higher-paying rescuers at the auction, because some rescuers will pay more than pet-store brokers outside of the auction.

“I’m not going to deny that it could be possible. . . . Maybe you’ve got breeders that breed specifically for this. If you figure an 8-week French bulldog puppy, the pet-store distributor will pay $1,200 for it, and they sell that same puppy to the pet store for $1,800. At auction, an 8-week-old puppy would be $1,500 to $2,000.”

Numerous rescuers told us that they do not believe individuals buying dogs at high prices should be called rescuers at all. What do you think?

“I honestly think there are very good, responsible rescues that just love the dogs and want to get them out of the breeding industry.

“And I think there are malicious, lying, cheating rescues that are in it for the money and the glory and the funding, and I think that they think they have to create endless turmoil and spread widespread lies to get the funding. And when they adopt the dog out, they’ve got a new contributor. They say, ‘Keep in mind, we’re trying to save a hundred more dogs, and for $19 a month, you can ensure that dogs aren’t tortured in these horrid kennels.’ ”

Numerous rescuers say they are meeting in a secret Facebook group and in person, before the auctions, to set the prices they’re willing to spend and keep the amounts low that you and breeders will earn. How do you feel about that?

“It’s illegal. It’s bid rigging. . . . There is a federal law against that. We call it brother-in-lawing. ‘Don’t brother-in-law me.’ And you can see it: One rescue will be on one side and bid, and the other will look across and say to the other rescuer, ‘Are you going to bid?’ Or one rescue would say, ‘I can spend up to $1,000 and I want that dog,’ and the other rescue won’t bid against them.

“We see it all the time. I don’t really know how you handle it. Unless they blatantly get up and walk across the arena and say, ‘Which one are you bidding on,’ then I say, ‘No, if you’re going to do that, neither of you are buying anything.’ They’ll shrug and walk back to their seat.

“It’s hard to prove. It’s hard to control. It’s hard to stop, and it goes on in every form of auction, from dogs to tractors to cattle to quarter horses.”

Numerous rescuers say they see a difference between the Southwest and Heartland auctions, with bigger-money rescuers and bigger-scale breeders doing business at Southwest, while smaller-money rescuers and smaller-scale breeders do business at Heartland.

“Well, we’ve been around a lot longer, and we do a lot on advertising. We spend $6,000 on marketing for every auction.”

“Of all the dogs sold in the United States at auction, we probably sell 85 percent. . . . We’ve been doing it our entire lives. And we came up in this industry and have all the contacts. The higher-quality, higher-scale breeders bring their dogs to us, therefore they are higher-priced dogs. . . . Very, very few breeders are going to take a full kennel dispersal to a competitor of ours. That $600,000 sale that I did in February? With another company, it would’ve been $100,000.”

How do you feel about The Post obtaining your auction’s records from an industry insider and exposing the rescue part of your auction business to the world?

“I’ve probably had 30 phone calls from rescuers about this story. I told them I have empathy for them, but just no sympathy. Where were they when all the lies were being told about the breeders? You never once stood up. You never corrected a story. You keep painting us all with the same brush. You keep calling all of us ‘puppy mills.’ You want to use the word ‘puppy mill’ to describe the whole industry, and you’re part of it, but you don’t want to be accused of being part of it. Well, what goes around comes around.”

Hank Grosenbacher, Heartland Sales, Cabool, Mo.

Grosenbacher, 67, was working in the used-car business and breeding cattle for a second income, so he was familiar with livestock auctions. A friend who had been to Southwest told him the dog-auction business looked like “a gold mine,” and in 2003, they opened Heartland. Today, Grosenbacher is the sole proprietor. He says he is trying to provide a venue for breeders to sell and buy good-quality breeding dogs.

Below are edited excerpts from a Post telephone interview with Grosenbacher.

Numerous rescuers say that you auction dogs with health and emotional problems, dogs from kennels where the breeders don’t care about their welfare, even if they’re on the brink of death.

“At our auction, I think 75 percent of the people who sell dogs, and the rescues who come to our sale, will do things the right way.”

“People in the dog business run in thirds. The top tier, one-third of the people involved in this from all angles will do whatever it takes, no matter what, to make sure they’re doing the right thing, always. Then you’ve got the bottom third. It’s not just the breeders; it’s the brokers, the pet stores, the government, the rescuers, all of them. They will do whatever it takes to be devious. . . . Then in the middle third, they’re weak people on any given day, they’ll just rise to the top or sink to the bottom.”

“So what we’ve worked hard to do for 15 years is to eliminate that bottom third and make sure they’re not coming to our auction. We also try to keep educating and boosting that middle third to be in the top.”

What kinds of regulations, checks and balances are in place at Heartland?

“The auctions are inspected for facilities, health care and paperwork, just as a kennel is. That’s the USDA and the state. The paperwork goes in after every sale. . . . And then a minimum of once a year, we have inspectors here. Usually, it’s two times a year. Typically, those are two-day inspections, not a few hours and they’re gone.”

“Dr. Sally Burd, she is an independent veterinarian, and she checks every dog. She puts her findings on a 3-by-5 card that goes on the dog’s pen so people can see, if they get there before the sale. Then when the dog comes into the auction for sale, my wife reads that card. Everything that the veterinarian says about the dog is announced for the public.”

“We also have our dog handlers, they’re primarily younger people. They’re looking for dogs that have runny eyes, perhaps a skin condition — things that are very obvious, just a quick visual inspection: Do the dogs walk well? Is there any lameness? We do not want to have sick dogs in our auction. The AKC comes also. Depending on the sale, there can be a high percentage of AKC-registered dogs that sell, so they do inspections from time to time. . . . They’re looking at facilities, at dogs and at health, and AKC goes one step further: They really monitor the ethics side of the auctions, too. Are the dogs announced correctly? Are they represented by the auctioneer’s comment to be true?”

Let’s talk about that. The AKC’s spokeswoman told me that the club does not believe an auction is a reasonable or appropriate way to purchase or transport a dog, and that the club does not “work with” or “regulate” auctions. She also said that “not a large number” of AKC-registered dogs are sold at auctions, but you’re saying it can be a high percentage.

“They cannot get their board of directors to retract that statement, that they do not recommend auctions as a place to buy dogs. But these are AKC employees who come here. . . . They’re talking out both sides of their head. . . . One AKC lady was handing out AKC coloring books and crayons to the kids while she was visiting with the breeders. They want the dogs in their system. And typically, any puppy those dogs produce becomes more valuable, and the puppies mean more registrations for AKC.”

Numerous rescuers told us they believe that at dispersal sales, where breeders going out of business liquidate their stock, the money rescuers spend goes to the USDA, not to the auction house and breeder.

“It’s 100 percent false. There is no room for argument at all. The money goes to the auction house and the breeder, even if it’s a dispersal sale.”

Numerous rescuers told us breeders would kill an unwanted dog instead of giving it to a rescuer. Why would that be?

“The majority of breeders would only give them to rescue for free in a controlled situation. . . . They’d call me and say, ‘Hey, Hank, this rescuer wants to come over and get some of my dogs. What do you think of her?’

“He’s asking me that question because he’s scared to death. He is afraid that when they take those dogs, immediately, they’ll go out there and put those dogs’ pictures on Facebook and say, ‘Yea! Look what I got from this horrible puppy mill! I saved it! I saved it! Thank you for your donations!’ ”

“If the breeders could trust the rescuers, nobody would shoot a dog, would euthanize a dog.”

Numerous rescuers say they are meeting in a secret Facebook group and in person, before the auctions, to set the prices they’re willing to spend and keep the amounts low that you and breeders will earn. How do you feel about that?

“I tell them this two or three times a year: In the state of Missouri, there are laws that govern all auctions, no matter what you’re selling. One of them makes it a misdemeanor crime for an auctioneer to run bids, to bump bids, to take rafter bids [from imaginary people behind the bidder]. . . . It is also illegal for buyers to get their heads together and say, ‘Hey, look, I want to buy that plow so you don’t bid over $50 and run the bid up on me.’ That’s a misdemeanor crime, too. So let’s just agree that neither one of us is going to break the law — and if I catch you breaking the law, you’re out of here. And I’ve caught them, and I’ve thrown them out.”

“The way I do things, hopefully will be helpful to keep USDA and the government from banning auctions. I know they’re asked every day to do it. But if you banned the auctions, the breeders would lose their place to buy and sell their stock. They would be faced with having to, either through the Internet or word-of-mouth, let it be known that they had 15 Yorkies that were nice, young, productive dogs — does anybody want to come buy it? Then it’s a free-for-all on Craigslist, and you have problems with unethical people on all sides of it coming into play.”

It’s interesting that you mentioned the Internet. Rescuers say it’s a hotbed of unethical dog-selling already.

“Even six years ago, I might not have said this, but I believe it today: Within reason, everything to do with animals — the sale, the handling, the production — needs to be regulated. . . . The regulation that rescuers are missing is important.”

“With the way my reports go to USDA, on my software, I cannot differentiate the portion of it that deals with who bought the dogs. So when USDA gets my report, it tells who bought the dog and for how much. So the USDA knows that all this rescue business is going on. We’re making slight inroads with USDA in getting them to open their eyes a little bit more and realize that they need to look at the model of business these rescuers are doing.”

Rescuers say the difference is that their hearts are in the right place, while breeders’ hearts are not.

“Breeders, depending on who they are, where they are, they often attend a lot of educational seminars and conferences. Some of them have 30 or 40 continuing-education units in a year’s time. They listen to veterinarians, professors, and those types of people talk about health care, issues with procreation. . . . If I can make sure that dog is successful in raising her five puppies, then I have five products to sell. If she only raises two or three, well, that’s bad business.”

“The rescuers, they’ll tell you they have that education, but they don’t.”

Longtime rescuers say they’ve seen a change at the auctions in the past three to five years, with more puppies and younger dogs showing up, and rescuers willing to pay more for them.

“It is possibly true. We’ve always sold a lot of puppies, but if there’s more, it would be two reasons.

“One, pet stores. They said, ‘Ugh, we can sell little girls but not little boys,’ so they reject the boys, and then the breeders need a place to get rid of the boys. That’s part of it.

“And then two, it’s the designer dogs. You’re seeing lots of designer puppies, the crossbreeds, at the auctions. I put the responsibility for this squarely on the pet stores. They say, ‘Oh my God, let’s get cavachons. They’re the hottest thing on the market.’ Well then they go cold, all of the sudden America doesn’t want to buy cavachons, so the pet store quits buying them, and a high percentage of the breeders sell to the pet-store brokers, and now the brokers are saying, ‘I can’t take those cavachons this time,’ and the breeder says, ‘Hank, I’ve got a litter of cavachons’, and I say, ‘Sure, the rescues will buy them.’

“That’s the one thing that rescues will get in competition over. They’ll stand right there and look each other in the eye and outbid each other. It’s funny. To me, purebreds should sell first. We sell all of the crossbreeds last in the sale. The breeders don’t stick around. As long as their dogs sell, they leave. When we’re selling the crossbreeds, the breeders are gone. By and large, it’s the rescuers knocking each other out. They need a cash cow.”

Some breeders and rescuers say puppies are being bred specifically to sell to higher-paying rescuers at the auction, because some rescuers will pay more than pet-store brokers outside of the auction.

“Prices paid by rescues are higher now. The rescuers come in here with more money than the breeders. I did have an out-of-state breeder tell me he has heard breeders say, ‘Well shoot, we’ll just start raising dogs and take them to Southwest and sell them to the rescues for high dollars. We’ll just breed for the rescues.’ I don’t think it’s happening at Heartland Sales — yet. But again, we’re not seeing the rescues coming in and bidding the really high prices here.”

“The principle of what’s happening with the rescues is the same at our place as at Southwest, but the prices aren’t the same. Southwest had a $600,000 sale in early February. My sale was $132,000 on February 10. The rescuers here, they’re not going to be $5,000 buyers, but they might give $500. And once in a great while, I’ve seen a breed-specific rescue maybe at our sale give $1,000 for a Dogue de Bordeaux.

“All of this money, if you want to go back to square one, it’s coming from consumers, from America. The rescuers go online and say, ‘Please send us $25,000 to save the dogs from these awful puppy mill auctions and dog breeders.’ People give the money.”

One longtime rescuer says that sometimes at Heartland, rescuers make up as much as 50 percent of the business. Is that true?

“That varies. If we’re having a good sale with good dogs, rescues will probably get 15 percent. . . . Probably the highest percentage that I’ve ever seen at my sale was one time — one time only — rescues did walk out of there with 60 percent of the dogs. The next highest was about 40 percent.”

“But typically, at my sale, 75 percent of the dogs go to breeders.”

How do you feel about The Post obtaining your auction’s records from an industry insider and exposing the rescue part of your auction business to the world?

“It is sad — there are some pretty good shelters that could be affected when you write about the rescuers we see out here. But this is a thing in America where we have to figure out, is this for the overall good? Knowing this truth? I think it is.”