These days, that "doggie in the window," to quote the song, is just as likely to be wagging its tail from a window in your computer screen. Estimates are that up to half of puppy purchases are now made on line.
But one thing hasn't changed: If that cute puppy is being sold by anyone other than the person who bred it, it probably came from a "puppy mill," where conditions are anything but cute.
The problem is that breeders who sell online fall through a crack in the federal law and are entirely unregulated. The Animal Welfare Act exempts people who sell directly to the public.
That's so your neighbor can sell you one of her pet's pups without an inspector checking in. But large-scale breeders who sell directly to the public via the Internet get the same advantage.
"Because they're not required to be licensed, there's no way to track them," says Cori Menkin, head of the Puppy Mills Campaign at the ASPCA. "That's part of the problem. We don't know what conditions are like in those facilities because no one has the right to inspect."
But there is now at least one website where puppy mill ads are banned: Marketplace on Facebook.
The ASPCA began by preparing to launch a campaign against Facebook but found an ally instead of an adversary. The advocacy group just announced a partnership, also including Oodle.com, which powers the Facebook Marketplace, to filter out the puppy mill ads.
That's not as easy as it sounds. Ads from shelters, from rescue organizations and from responsible breeders are still welcome. The designers of the filtering system are reluctant to reveal exactly how they do it, for fear the puppy mills will figure out how to game the system, but they say it's working. More than 10,000 ads have already come down, and they expect that number to grow as existing ads expire. Facebook declined to to comment.
But an equally daunting challenge, they say, is educating the public about the ubiquity of puppy mills. A poll commissioned by the ASPCA found that while most Americans have heard of puppy mills and say they wouldn't buy a dog that came from one, most American also believe that the dogs in pet stores come from legitimate sources.
But the ASPCA says nearly every puppy in a window comes from a puppy mill, because no responsible breeder will sell a dog through a third party. That goes for online sellers as well. Good breeders want to meet the buyer and make sure they are sending the puppy to a good home.
Raids on puppy mills have revealed breeding houses where adult dogs are kept for a lifetime in wire cages, sometimes lying in their own waste. The females are bred every heat cycle and given no affection.
"People don't realize we're not talking about the puppies," the ASPCA's Menkin says.
"When you purchase a puppy from a pet store or over the Internet, you're condemning that puppy's parents to a lifetime of misery."
Why misery? It's just math. It's almost impossible, Menkin says, to breed puppies humanely and also make a profit. A Chihuahua, for example, produces two to five puppies per litter. The puppies can sell for roughly $200 each. A responsible breeder will breed a Chihuahua only once a year, which means an annual income of $400 to $1,000 per dog. Anyone who keeps a pet knows that food and vet bills can easily cost that much or more. So dogs bred for profit are not treated like pets.
Another result of simple math is that legitimate dealers cannot meet the public demand for popular breeds, particularly when a celebrity or a movie puts that breed in the spotlight.
The movie "101 Dalmatians" produced an enormous demand for Dalmatians. "Beethoven" did the same for Saint Bernards, and Paris Hilton for Chihuahuas. In each case, puppy mills geared up to meet the demand. But many families discovered that these breeds can present challenges as pets.
A hot puppy one Christmas season often means a glut of unwanted adult dogs the next year. Unwanted Chihuahuas were so common on the West Coast after the Paris Hilton boom, they were actually airlifted east, where there were more families willing to adopt them.
The Internet is full of complaints from online buyers who received sick puppies, or simply did not receive the puppy they saw in the picture. Puppy mills count on the human heart to be too soft to put that puppy back in the box and return it.
A better solution is to be patient. "You're taking in a member of your family," Menkin says, "who will be with you from eight to 15 years."