All Colleen Shelly wanted was a companion for her 2-year-old boxer. What she got was a seriously ill puppy and a harsh lesson on the pitfalls of buying a dog on impulse.
She also learned that Pennsylvania's Puppy Lemon Law doesn't cover all the costs incurred for a sick dog, let alone the emotional toll it takes on the buyer.
Shelly and her husband last summer went to Wentz Canine, a dog retailer in Fogelsville, to look at the dogs. Had they examined Wentz's inspection record, they would have been impressed. The store has a spotless state inspection record since 2003, an impressive feat considering that it sells about 1,000 dogs a year.
Like many dog buyers, however, the Shellys didn't do any homework about how to pick the perfect pet. They quickly fell for a 4-month-old boxer that they named Milton and bought him for $371.
"We thought he was mellow for a puppy," Shelly said. "He was playful. Because we didn't know him, we didn't know what was wrong with him."
Less than 24 hours later, Milton's breathing became labored and he struggled to stand.
Shocked, the Shellys took him to Valley Central Veterinary Emergency Hospital in Whitehall Township, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia.
"They don't get pneumonia overnight. I am not a vet, but I know that," Shelly said.
Several weeks and $1,457 in veterinary bills later, the Shellys sought to recover their losses. That's when they learned another fact of life when buying a dog in Pennsylvania: Let the buyer beware.
Under the Puppy Lemon Law, the Shellys faced two unsatisfactory options: Return Milton -- an unthinkable prospect -- or be reimbursed for vet bills, only up to Milton's purchase price. That left the Shellys stuck with close to $1,100 in unreimbursed costs just for the first few weeks of ownership.
After years of lobbying, supporters in 1997 pushed through the lemon law, which was designed to provide some recourse to buyers of sick or diseased dogs. The law allows buyers to return ill dogs for a refund, an exchange or recovery of veterinary expenses up to the purchase price of the dog.
"I was disheartened" to have such limited options, said Shelly, who lives on a farm with other animals. "I'm kind of emotionally attached to my horses -- but they don't sleep in my bed at night."
Store owner Thomas Wentz said Milton hadn't shown any symptoms of illness, so it is unknown how he became sick. "Pretty much everything that could go wrong did," he said.
Wentz said Milton's was a rare case, and that, short of paying Milton's vet bills, he would be unable to make the Shellys happy. When a customer reports their dog exhibits congenital problems, he may be able to get reimbursement from the breeder who sold him the pup."There's not a lot of motivation to sell sick dogs in this business," said Wentz, who advertises that he's been selling dogs for 18 years.
Pet sellers sometimes exceed requirements to help buyers of sick dogs. Jack's Dog Farm in Pipersville reimbursed Jean Kennedy-Krupa of East Allen Township the purchase price of her Jack Russell terrier, Zoey, plus some expenses, after Zoey got pneumonia. The extreme symptoms appeared the day after the family made a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy Zoey.
But the reimbursement came up more than $1,000 short of what the family paid to save Zoey, Kennedy-Krupa said. "We pretty much had to baby her for three months," she said.
Jack's co-owner Jeremy Belli said in this case, the store exceeded the store's warranty as well as the state requirements. "We do stand behind what we sell," he said.
Like the Shellys, Kennedy-Krupa said her family's mistake was in letting their emotions overrun their judgment and not taking time to research the dog and seller before buying.
"What upset me was I should have known better," she said.
Aside from their dogs' health problems, the Shellys and Krupas share another experience: Their dogs have had difficulty adjusting to home life. Months after recovering, Milton still could be so paralyzed by unfamiliar circumstances that Shelly would have to carry him.Zoey just always was a bit crazy.
"This one will sit and stay, but gosh-darn she won't listen and come to me," Kennedy-Krupa said. "I expect her to behave better than she does."
Their examples show that, whoever the seller, puppies are more likely to grow into healthy dogs if they're treated from the start like pets, experts said.
"There's a period between four to eight weeks of age in the dog family when they must have contact with humans and other dogs in order to socialize properly. They learn the meaning of human signals and dog signals. It's very similar to the development of a human baby," said Marc Bekoff, a biologist and editor of "The Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior."
Puppies that don't get "high-quality interaction," Bekoff said, will at least be difficult to train or worse. "They can become biters," he said. "They're unsocialized, which means they don't know how to play, which is a tragedy for a young puppy."
Barbara Umlauf, manager of Hillside Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Pottsville, said her shelter sees what happens with mass-bred dogs: genetic defects, behavioral problems and injuries from being kept in cages.
"I'm not against breeding," Umlauf said, but "dogs shouldn't be allowed to live in wire cages."
Dogs raised by small breeders in their houses will more likely be more comfortable as house pets, said Ali Brown, owner of Great Companions, a dog-training school in Washington Township, Lehigh County. "If what you want is a dog that will live in a house," she said, "don't get a dog that was raised in a kennel."
Brown said she sees many dogs that are "reactive," snarling and looking threatening, but actually scared.
"I can tell you that a lot of the behavioral problems that I see are the result of poor breeding," she said.