COLUMBIA — George Craig is particular about his dogs, especially when it comes to food.
For expecting and nursing mothers, he takes special care with their diet. He starts with a premium brand of food, such as NutriSource or Royal Canin, and soaks the kibbles in warm water for 15 minutes until they soften and swell.
The dogs eat this meal twice a day to help replenish lost nutrients and generate milk production for their nursing pups.
“I try to feed them the best dog food I can feed them,” he said.
Most are fed without making a scene, he said, but some are fussy eaters and demand a little something extra.
“I feel like a chef when I go through and feed them because this dog likes yogurt, this dog likes cottage cheese and this dog likes canned dog food,” Craig said.
He said he used to treat his mother dogs at night with small pieces of hot dogs, but like some Pavlovian experiment gone slightly awry, the dogs became conditioned and began anticipating their nightly treats.
When he walked toward their pens, hot dogs in hand, they would jump up and down in excitement.
Sometimes they landed on their pups.
Craig stopped this routine — he didn’t want any of the pups to get injured.
“I love my animals,” he said, smiling.
He and his wife, Elaine, own and operate Sunset Acres Kennels in Butler.
They are licensed commercial breeders, though they prefer the term “professional breeders.”
The couple have been breeding animals for more than 30 years, but they are apprehensive about the spacing, flooring and unfettered access requirements that take full effect in 2016 under the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act.
They say the cost to upgrade their facilities may be too steep. Already, they have spent more than $40,000 in renovations to comply with regulations, and it may take another $30,000 to finish the job.
“We had real nice pens before,” George Craig said.
The couple started with sheep, horses and cattle — traditional livestock — then transitioned to dogs. Toy poodles, lhasa apsos, shih tzus, Maltese and, more recently, Yorkshire terriers.
They have well over 100 dogs now and four full-time staff members who assist them with daily operations.
They are proud of their dogs. Several Yorkies have won American Kennel Club championships, a rigorous competition where dogs earn points for various achievements.
Dogs that win such acclaim are highly valued in the world of commercial dog breeding.They are often used as breeding stock — a group of animals selectively bred for their genetic traits.
Craig said he once paid $12,000 for a 4-pound Yorkie male; the offspring fetched between $2,000 and $5,000 per dog.
Not all of his dogs are this valuable and not all are certified champions. But that makes no difference to him.
“I love every dog,” he said.
Over the years, even while a breeder, Craig worked full time as a public works superintendent. He is now retired, yet he continues his breeding practices.
“We don’t do it for the money,” he said. “We do it because we enjoy it.”
Around 800 commercial breeders remain licensed with Missouri’s Animal Care Program, down from more than 1,400 in 2010, the year before the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act was enacted.
One local breeder, who asked not to be identified because she was afraid of becoming a target, said she had to build outdoor pens for her animals to meet requirements under the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act.
She said the upgrades cost thousands of dollars, even though her dogs had been housed in a barn with roomy horse stalls, kept out of the summer heat and the winter cold.
“So far I have managed to jump through all the hoops set out for me,” she said. “I take proper care of my livestock and dogs.”
Karen Strange, president and co-founder of the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners, said her organization opposes animal welfare laws such as the Animal Care Facilities Act and the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act.
Strange contends that state officials use these laws to overregulate breeders, essentially forcing them out of business.
“What they do is come in with regulations so costly and so difficult that it makes it extremely hard to abide,” she said.
“MoFed does not condone animal cruelty or abuse, but we do not believe in making regulations so onerous that no one can comply.”
Strange said it could cost some breeders as much as $100,000 to upgrade their facilities, build larger pens and install approved flooring and outdoor exercise areas after 2016. If the breeders are older, there is no way they can recoup the cost, she said.
“Some very good breeders have been forced to retire,” she said.
Dale Alumbaugh agrees.
Alumbaugh has been a licensed veterinarian in Trenton for more than 40 years, and many of his clients are commercial breeders.
Since 2011, though, when the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act was signed into law, Alumbaugh has observed a noticeable decline in the size of his commercial breeding clientele.
He attributes the loss of business to Missouri’s animal welfare laws, believing they unfairly target the good breeders around the state, pushing them out of business.
“It’s unwarranted,” he said. “We don’t need any more government regulations than we already have.”
Alumbaugh said all the breeders 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 issue,” he said.
As for bad breeders, Alumbaugh believes the scenario often looks like this:
They come into possession of a litter of puppies, sell them and make a little money. Then they become greedy, try to produce more animals and get in over their heads.
As their operations grow, they neglect to update their facilities. The animals suffer in the process and become mistreated, sick and abused.
On the other hand, selling shoddy animals is counterintuitive to business for good breeders.
“The majority of breeders take care of their animals,” Alumbaugh said.
Working out the kinks
The Craigs have made a number of renovations to meet Canine Cruelty Prevention Act requirements.
Each dog at Sunset Acres Kennels has 24-hour access to heat and air conditioning, ensuring the air temperature hovers between 45 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Each dog has access to automatic food and water dispensers, making sure each animal is fed at least twice a day and has fresh, potable drinking water.
About 50 dog pens have automatic doors, allowing constant and unfettered access to an outdoor exercise area. This upgrade alone cost the Craigs about $23,000.
This requirement of the law bothers George Craig the most. He believes, like many other breeders, that constant and unfettered access can put animals in unnecessary danger.
One night, a heavy thunderstorm erupted unexpectedly, he said, and some Yorkies wandered outside in the rain and lightning.
They stayed out in the storm all night long, and the next morning he found his dogs wet, cold and shivering.
As a result, the Craigs have extended the roof over the outdoor area to shield the Yorkies from the elements.
They have also installed wire and metal fencing around the exercise area as a precaution against predators.
“I want to protect my dogs,” Craig said.