For those who have been following the high profile media campaign ( Andrew Penman  – Daily Mirror), promoting “Lucy’s Law”,, the interest in the subject has been mounting. The campaign has now drawn significant interest, and the issues  are being debated nationally.

“Lucy’s Law” is the label that has been attached to the argument that sales of puppies commercially through third party agents should be banned.  The proposal under the new law would be that puppies can only be sold from licensed breeders, in the presence of their mothers, after the age of eight weeks, or alternatively, from verified charity and rescue centres.  This ban on third parties is not universally accepted however, and, notably, Dogs Trust have rejected the proposal for a ban, in favour of a new regime of licensing commercial third party sales. Sarah Clover examines the key arguments against a third party ban that have emerged in the debate.

Everybody agrees that animal welfare is paramount, and the arguments appear to diverge on whether that welfare is capable of being protected in the course of a commercial third party sale or not. Those in favour of an outright ban argue that removing the puppy from its mother, to transport it to a place of sale in the hands of a third party agent gives rise to unavoidable harms, particularly in terms of behavioural issues from the early separation; anxiety; transportation harms and premature exposure to disease.

Two key arguments seem to have emerged against a ban on such sales.  The first is that licensing these commercial sales would be better, and easier to enforce.  The second is that a ban on third party sales would drive puppy sales “underground”. Both arguments give way under a little examination.

The argument against a ban, and in favour of introducing a new licensing regime for commercial third party sellers maintains that Licensing Officers will find this easier to enforce.  The argument maintains that an outright ban on third-parties would be difficult to enforce, because Council Officers “do not have the resources to go out and verify the circumstances of every sale”. The recommendation is for the introduction of a “robust licensing system”, enabling Council Officers to go out, confirm and approve the circumstances of every licensed sale. The fallacy is immediately revealed.

A direct analogy would be with the smoking ban, introduced several years ago. The argument would be the same – that it would be easier for a Council enforcement officer to walk into a room to enforce anti-smoking regulation where half of the people smoking were licensed to do so and half were not, as opposed to walking into a room where no-one was permitted to smoke at all. The difference in the regulatory challenge is obvious.

In fact, of course, Officers do not generally “walk into” any room at all, and rely very heavily upon public scrutiny and whistle-blowers. This is regularly seen in action with the alcohol licensing regime, as just one example, where the public will report underage sales, excessive drunkenness, noise and disturbance and so forth, and the Responsible Authorities react and enforce  on a targeted basis. With puppy sales, in circumstances where some third party sales are licensed and legitimate and some are not, the participating members of the public are very unlikely to “whistle blow” – because they would not be in a position to understand the licensing regime, even if they thought to ask to see a licence, and would be easily deterred by a fake document,  and highly motivated to complete the sale, even if only to “save” the puppy. They would not be witnesses to the circumstances of the puppy being brought from the mother to the point of sale, and could not comment on the care and conditions before they became involved – whether compliant with a licence or not. The first they would know about sickness or behavioural problems would be after the sale was completed and there was nothing more they could do about it. Even the chances of tracing the seller at that stage would be remote.

An outright ban would deter the public from entering into that third party sale arena at all, and would make it far more likely that the whistle blowing would occur upon the first identification of a third party seller, through advertising and so forth, long before the sale had been set up.

The second key argument that is advanced in favour of licensing and in opposition to a ban relates to puppy sales being “driven underground”, to a black market of third party agents, if they are not allowed to do it legitimately.  A closer analysis of this argument reveals the absurdity.

Third party sellers do not create puppies. They bring puppies that exist from an extant source to market. If the puppies and the source were not there, the third party sellers could not bring those puppies to market currently.

Ignoring for a moment whether those sources, (either responsible breeder or high volume puppy farm) are good or bad, if the third party seller is stripped out of the equation,  this does not affect the sources or supply of puppies,  except in terms of route to market.

In terms of the price of the puppy, if the “middle man” is removed, there is potentially more money staying in the hands of the breeder, because they no longer have to pay their agent to get the puppy to market.

So,  this “restriction of supply” argument is really saying:

“If you take out the third party agent, the sources of puppies (breeders or importers) will be so negatively impacted by that loss of route to market that they will stop breeding the puppies that they bred before.”

Why would breeders be so negatively impacted by the loss of their agent that they would actually stop breeding puppies –  especially if they have the potential to make more money without their third party agent? For these potential reasons:

  1. Their conditions are so bad, they absolutely cannot be seen by the public, and they are not prepared to clean up their act. They would rather go out of business;
  2. They are illegal and have no intention of making themselves legal.  [(i) and (ii) would obviously often go together];
  3. The puppies are imports, and the public cannot go to the source, which is abroad;
  4. The breeders are so far away from their potential market that they have no hope of their market coming to them or reaching their market without an agent; ( how many breeders would actually come into this category?)

Removing third party sellers from the equation, therefore, negatively impacts breeders (i), (ii) and (iii). The argument against a ban amounts to this:

“We cannot afford to impact those breeders. It is so important to maintain the current levels of supply to the public, that we cannot afford to put (i), (ii) and (iii) out of business, or even reduce their output –  so instead, we have to maintain their route to market through third party sellers.  If we don’t, and we take out legitimate third party sellers, what is likely to happen is that the whole market will go underground. Rogue, illegal breeders will set up, whose conditions are so bad they cannot be visited by the public and they have to breed “under the radar”, and more dogs will be imported to make up the shortfall in supply.”

There is an obvious flaw in this argument too!

There are other subsidiary arguments against a ban, that look like this:

  • “If we strip out third party sellers, we leave the public with no choice but to pay more for dogs and go further to get them. The public don’t want to do that”

Why should this be so? The public might be very willing indeed to pay more and go further for an ethically sourced puppy. And in any event, why would the public be paying more?  The breeder no longer has to pay the agent fee, and so keeps more in their pocket. Would they increase the price to the public? Maybe, if supply is very restricted and demand is huge – but if the breeder is getting more for the puppies,  and demand is high, why would supply be very restricted? Markets don’t work like that.

  • “The public don’t want any of that, and instead, when faced with a choice of buying a legal puppy direct from a breeder in the presence of its mother,  maybe at a further distance, maybe at a higher price, they would rather source an illegal puppy through an illegal channel, deliberately choosing to include a third party seller in that equation, because it is particularly important to them to have the illegal puppy sold to them by an agent, and not just go direct to an illegal source. Members of the dog-loving public will be so likely to do all of that that we mustn’t even risk it, and must leave third party sellers in the equation now, just in case.”

This seems very far-fetched. People might source drugs and firearms from the Dark Web, but puppies? The public are unlikely to hunt down illegal sources. Illegal third party sellers who want to reach the public will in all likelihood have to advertise publicly through regular channels, and are therefore open to detection and enforcement.

  • “A ban might not work. Some people might carry on doing it anyway, illegally.”

Like smuggled tobacco; contaminated alcohol; drugs; illegal firearms; badger baiting; human trafficking?

Is the argument that we are  never going to drive out these terrible practices by banning them because some people are always going to do it anyway, so instead, they should be licensed? That appears to be an unattractive argument, to put it mildly.

Those who advocate a licensing regime for commercial third party sales of puppies instead of an outright ban may yet have a legitimate argument hidden away  –   but it appears that they have yet to make it.

Sarah Clover

1 February 2018

1It is important to emphasise that the debate is about commercial third party sales  – in the course of a business, for profit. This would not cover informal or incidental sales, and does not affect charities or rescue centres.