A Dog’s Choice

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Many of the pups were "designer dogs"—trendy new breeds like puggles which result when a pug is bred with a beagle , Maltepoos a Maltese-poodle mix and Chipins a Chihuahua-pinscher cross. Article continued below The line connecting this canine hellhole to the White House is admittedly indirect.

But any day now the Obama girls will bring home the puppy their father promised them in his election-night speech. In January, Obama told ABC News the family was strongly considering a Labradoodle, a Labrador-poodle hybrid that's become especially popular among allergy sufferers—a group that includes Malia Obama.

Michelle Obama has said she favors a purebred Portuguese water dog; a White House spokesperson won't comment, but an announcement could come this week. No matter which breed the Obamas choose, animal-welfare advocates expect to see a " Dalmatians" effect: a sudden burst in popularity that results when a movie or a celebrity puts a spotlight on a particular dog, a phenomenon breeders try to capitalize on it by mass-producing similar dogs.

By all accounts, the Obamas are laboring to make a prudent decision. They've already committed to adopt a shelter dog, which thrills animal lovers.

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It's also a big improvement over Vice President Biden, who in December unwittingly purchased a German shepherd from a large Pennsylvania breeder whose kennel had a recent history of unsatisfactory inspections. But the two breeds they're considering aren't commonly found in shelters, so if other families want a similar dog, there's a good chance they'll get one bred in a puppy mill like the one raided in Tennessee. The good news is the Obama adoption comes at a time of heightened scrutiny over the practices of these dog breeders, who've been able to utilize the Internet to sidestep regulations intended to protect dogs from cruelty.

More than two dozen states are passing new laws to make commercial breeders treat their living products better.

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Among animal-welfare advocates, much of the concern focuses on reports of inhumane practices by Amish and Mennonite dog breeders in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. As you're driving through bucolic Lancaster County, it's impossible not to be struck by the number of worn, wooden rabbit hutches stacked beside barns. Often, the animals are left outside during the frigid winters.

Their feet slip painfully through the cages' wire floors—and sometimes, so does their excrement, which rains on top of the dogs below when breeders stack cages to save space. Some of the dogs are nearly as big as their cages, leaving them little room to move. In front of the farms handwritten signs advertise the different breeds available. On these farms, hybrids like Labradoodles and puggles are plentiful. Animal-welfare advocates refer to many of these operations as "puppy mills"—a catch-all term that's loosely defined as a facility that produces large numbers of puppies in less-than-ideal conditions for sale to pet stores or to consumers over the Internet.

According to Bob Baker, who investigates puppy mills for the ASPCA, these dogs typically receive little if any vet care, are kept in tiny cages 24 hours a day and rarely interact with humans. Animal-rights advocates say that culturally, the farmers who breed dogs don't see a meaningful distinction between pets and farm animals raised for slaughter.

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Sometimes they behave accordingly: last summer Elmer Zimmerman, a dairy farmer in Kutztown, Penn. There's no law against such behavior in many states—and in fact, because many of these farms now sell directly to consumers over the Internet, they're not even covered by the minimal U.

Department of Agriculture standards that apply to breeders who sell to pet stores. News of the shootings led to protests and prayer vigils outside the Zimmerman farm. Ed Rendell, a pet lover, marshaled that public outrage to push through a tough new law aimed at improving conditions at puppy mills. Under the Pennsylvania law, which goes into effect in October, wire flooring and stacked cages will be outlawed; dogs must be let outside for exercise; minimum cage sizes will be increased; and owners will be required to have every dog examined by a vet twice a year.

The regs also outlaw shooting dogs. Legislatures in North Carolina, Washington, Oklahoma and about two dozen other states are considering or have recently passed bills to improve conditions in puppy mills, too. The legislative crackdown isn't very popular among the Amish farmers, nor are they convinced their practices need reform.

Elmer's father, who declined to be named, says the uproar has led his family to abandon their breeding business, which he regrets. Japan, Mexico—all these countries are taking our jobs," he says.

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Not every Amish or Mennonite breeder treats his dogs harshly: some let their dogs out of their cages to exercise and are scrupulous about vaccinations. And there are plenty of unethical breeders who aren't Amish or Mennonite—including the owners of the Tennessee farm that authorities raided in February, who have not yet been charged but could face jail sentences.

As Elmer Zimmerman's father puts it, "it's the only way to keep a lot of dogs—to keep them penned up. The Zimmermans did particularly well selling designer dogs—Elmer favored cockapoos, a cocker spaniel—poodle mix. No matter which breed farmers choose, the costs of these businesses are astonishingly low, critics say. By some accounts, there are Amish breeders earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

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