Piles of presents surround the tree on Christmas morning, but a large red bow makes one of the bigger boxes stand out. A child lifts the lid and out pops an adorable tail-wagging puppy.
The look of pure joy on their child's face is the reaction loving parents hope for after spending lots of time and money seeking that perfect present.
Type "Christmas puppies" into Internet search engines, and you'll get millions of hits, including family videos showing children ecstatic with their new pups on Christmas morning.
An Internet search also produces an endless number of Web and pet store sites eager to help.
Pups on the Web
The Internet is awash with puppies in all shapes, sizes, colors and breeds. You also can find a wide variety of purposely bred mixes, including puggles and Yorkie-poos. You can order tiny "teacup" versions of toy breeds like Chihuahuas, and one site advertises teacup Malti-poo (Maltese-poodle mix) pups selling for as much as $10,000.
Some of the ads are for brokers who don't breed dogs. They get puppies from breeders and ship them to pet stores all around the country.
But like the Grinch stealing Christmas, an ever-growing yule chorus chants: "Don't get a puppy for Christmas." The message comes from national and local animal welfare and animal rights organizations, as well as from some shelters and rescue organizations.
Though many of them try to persuade people to adopt adult dogs from shelters, they're not totally opposed to people adopting puppies. They just think Christmas is the worst possible time to do so.
"Puppies are not stocking stuffers," say public service announcements from the American Kennel Club, the registry for pure-bred dogs. "Think twice before buying a puppy for the holidays. A dog is for life, not for Christmas."
"Puppies aren't products," says the PSA campaign of Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal welfare organization. The society's initiatives include helping to enact no kill programs across the country and caring for 1,700 animals at a no-kill sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.
"The whole holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year's is a very busy and stressful time," AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson said. "There are many visitors, and family routines are disrupted. Many families do a lot of traveling." Homes are filled with holiday foods, decorations and plants that can be toxic if eaten by puppies.
"This is not the best time to get a puppy," Ms. Peterson said. "Puppies need attention 24/7" and need to learn family routines, including going outside to urinate and defecate.
Best Friends would add objections that could be classified as political.
"Christmas is the biggest, most profitable time of the year for retailers, and that includes people who sell puppies," said Elizabeth Oreck, manager of the Best Friends Puppy Mill Initiative. "Pet stores cater to the desire for immediate gratification. Pet stores can get you anything you want," and that includes catering to your desire to see "the joy on a child's face when they see the puppy under the tree."
Puppies sold in pet stores tend to come from "puppy mills," according to Best Friends and many other rights and welfare organizations. A puppy mill is a commercial, for-profit breeding operation where large numbers of dogs and puppies are raised in cages with little or no exercise and no socialization.
Celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell recently told a Pittsburgh audience, "Don't buy from a pet shop. The puppies are always from puppy mills, though they will tell you they are not."
Ms. Oreck of Best Friends agrees with Ms. Stilwell.
Ask pet store employees to show you "paperwork. Where did the puppies come from?" Ms. Oreck said. Papers will often show the pups were shipped from Missouri, which hosts 40 percent of the nation's puppy mills. Pennsylvania has many puppy mills, especially in the central portion of the state.
On the Internet you can look up the name of the breeder or the broker where the pet store puppies originated. The website of the Missouri-based Hunte Corp. -- www.thehuntecorporation.com -- notes that the company, a broker that ships to pet stores all over the country, including Pittsburgh, has more than 100 breeds. Ms. Oreck said Hunte sells 90,000 puppies each year.
"When you buy a pet store puppy, you are not rescuing it," Ms. Oreck said. "You buy a puppy, and another puppy mill puppy will take its place and the breeders keep breeding" for many years. "The power to stop the puppy mill cycle is in the public's hands. Don't buy from them. The mills only make puppies because people want to buy them."
Anti-puppy mill campaigns are having some impact, she said. "I think it's a dying industry. Buying a dog from a pet store is sort of like driving a Humvee," Ms. Oreck said, suggesting that both things are considered politically incorrect by many people.
Don't get her started on buying a puppy, sight unseen, off the Internet.
"I don't even buy shoes off the Internet," Ms. Oreck said.
Multiple organizations have this message on websites, Facebook pages and T-shirts: "Don't Breed or Buy While Shelter Animals Die." Those groups don't think there is any such thing as "responsible breeders."
Best Friends also encourages shelter and rescue adoptions, but it does think that "responsible breeders" exist, and they "are not in it for the money," Ms. Oreck said. "They will generally lose money on a litter" because of veterinary bills for the mother and puppies and expensive genetic testing of the male and female breeding dogs.
Tests for hip, joint and eye ailments can indicate which dogs are at high risk of passing on serious genetic problems to their puppies. "A responsible breeder will always take back a puppy or dog. And you always see how the puppies are raised. You should see the mother of the puppies. Seeing the father would be a bonus," but breeder's often don't own him.
Responsible breeders will not sell a puppy to just anyone who has the money to buy one. They screen buyers.
Ms. Peterson, the AKC spokeswoman, has been breeding Norwegian elkhounds for 30 years at her home in Newtown, Conn.
Would a "responsible" breeder produce puppies that were ready for new homes at Christmas time?
"We are beholden to the breeding cycles of our bitches," she said with a chuckle. Female dogs generally come "in season" for breeding twice a year.
"I once had 8-week-old puppies at Christmas," Ms. Peterson said. She told buyers "I would hold them until after Christmas. They all went along with that. I have also held puppies for summer vacations."
A responsible breeder "will be a mentor for you" with advice and tips for the dog's entire life, she said. "The breeder wants the puppy to have the best of everything."
Buyers should research the right breed for the family lifestyle. Some breeds, for instance, need high levels of activity while others are happy with a sedentary couch potato lifestyle. Buyers should also research the breeders. Ms. Peterson suggests going to www.akc.org for both research projects.
Breeders like Ms. Peterson are "show" or "hobby breeders." Their dogs take part in AKC competitions. Some produce a litter or two a year. Others breed less frequently, making it difficult to buy a puppy from them. Longtime breeders with a reputation for producing healthy dogs with good temperaments have long lists of people waiting for their puppies. The wait can be months or even years for breeds that are relatively rare.
This can drive some buyers to pet stores, where any breed you want is available on short notice, as Ms. Oreck noted.
Surprises are a bad thing
Everyone interviewed for this story agrees it's a bad idea to "surprise" anyone with the gift of a puppy. Local shelters and rescue groups require every member of the family to be interviewed and involved in the adoption process.
This is what they hope to avoid:
Several years ago, an older woman went to the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society on Dec. 26 with a beautiful Newfoundland puppy she had received as a gift from her grown children. She was turning it in at the North Side shelter.
"She had been talking about adopting a dog, but she wanted a small one," said Gretchen Fieser, director of public relations and marketing. "Her children thought she should get a large dog." The unwanted gift "ruined her Christmas and it ruined her children's Christmas, but the Newfie puppy got a great home in, like, 2½ minutes."
Allegheny County shelters seldom have puppies because spay and neuter programs have largely eliminated the birth of unwanted puppies. They still have an almost year-round supply of kittens, including at Christmastime.
Surrounding counties, especially rural and poorer counties, often have puppies, because low-cost spay and neuter programs are not widely available. Puppies are still euthanized in many states, especially at underfunded rural shelters in southern states.
Eleven puppies arrived at the local Humane Society on Nov. 18. Volunteer pilots with Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team flew them from rural Virginia, where they would have been euthanized. All were adopted in just a few days. Ms. Fieser said two adult dogs were adopted by people who came to the shelter to see the puppies they had seen on television.
The Humane Society imports puppies, when they have room, and they are quickly adopted.
"People will come to see the puppies, but they may fall in love with an adult dog," Ms. Fieser said.
At Christmas, it's "business as usual" at the local Humane Society, but don't expect to walk in on Christmas Eve and walk out with a dog. Impulse adoptions and surprise adoptions are not permitted, but the staff will not rule out holiday adoptions.
"Christmas is busy, and for many it's not a great time to adopt a dog," Ms. Fieser said. "But if you have time off from work, it may be a great time to bring a new pet into the house. It depends on individual circumstances."
At Animal Friends, the philosophy is "the holiday can be an ideal adoption time for some families," said Jolene Miklas, marketing and communications coordinator, because children are home from school and parents take vacation days.
"If you want to put something under the tree, we encourage gift certificates" for a later adoption or a "starter pack" with everything the new pet needs, including toys.
The other two Allegheny County shelters also offer adoption gift certificates, and all three have gifts shops with everything a shelter dog, cat or rabbit would need. Sales benefit the shelter animals.
"We can work with a family and be creative" if a grandparent or neighbor can keep a new pet until Christmas morning, Ms. Miklas said.
In December, Animal Friends has "priceless adoptions" with no adoption fees for dogs, cats and rabbits 2 years old or older. The shelter likes to empty as many cages as possible to make room for the New Year's Eve rescue, when the Ohio Township shelter takes in dogs and cats that would have been euthanized at other shelters and from animal control agencies.
A Christmas game-changer
Two years ago, the Animal Rescue League Shelter and Wildlife Center challenged the conventional wisdom by offering to make Christmas morning deliveries of dogs and cats. The cost to adopters was $25 in addition to the usual adoption fee.
"Initially we had some negative feedback," said Dan Rossi, executive director at the Larimer shelter, "but once we explained it, they were OK."
The same year-round screening applies, including proof from renters that their landlord allows pets. The staff, as usual, discusses the best ways to bring a new pet into the family. Cats, for instance, often need to start out in a small, quiet room. The added stresses of Christmas are discussed.
Staff and volunteers made a dozen Christmas deliveries in 2011 and the same number in 2012.
"About two-thirds of the pets were cats," Mr. Rossi said. "None of them were returned. We hope to deliver two dozen this Christmas morning."
The Animal Rescue League seldom has puppies.
"We get calls all the time from out-of-state shelters, but we usually don't have room," said Mr. Rossi, whose open-door shelter takes in stray dogs and cats picked up by Pittsburgh Animal Control. "We have taken in puppies after natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, and we work with the Humane Society of the United States to take in dogs from fighting rings."
Here's one of Mr. Rossi's memorable moments:
"About a week before Christmas, a family came to the shelter to look at kittens. The little girl was sad when they left without a kitten. A family member told her that perhaps Santa Claus would fulfill her wish."
Santa used Mr. Rossi to knock on the door and deliver the kitten on Christmas morning. He and the girl's family had the unforgettable experience of seeing a look of joy on the face of a little girl whose most fervently desired Christmas wish had come true.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-722-0087.