July 14, 2012 — -- The American Kennel Club is facing scathing criticism from a determined group of Girl Scouts who claim the world's largest purebred dog registry, which bills itself as "The Dog's Champion," isn't protecting their four-legged friends at all.
The girls of Troop 6811 from Sandy Spring, Maryland are demanding that the AKC change its position on a proposed change to the federal Animal Welfare Act that would make breeders who sell dogs over the internet subject to regular health and safety inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"(AKC) has a lot of power and we are concerned about what they are saying," said 12 year-old Romina Poblete, a member of Troop 6811.
The proposed rule, which will take effect after a "public comment" period that ends Monday, would apply to all breeders with five or more breeding females. Currently, large-scale dog breeders are inspected by the USDA but pet stores are not. When online puppy purchasing became popular, internet dog breeders classified themselves as "pet stores," thus falling outside USDA's reach.
The AKC has been opposed to the rule change, telling ABC News the rule will affect many smaller "hobby breeders." "The AKC believes it is neither the intent of the Animal Welfare Act nor USDA to place such an unfair burden on small, hobby breeders," it said in a statement.
But the 11 and 12-year olds are unconvinced and have taken on the AKC in their mission to champion the welfare of dogs. The girls are concerned that conditions at uninspected on-line sellers could become like those at "puppy mills," the large-scale breeding facilities often criticized for allegedly inhumane conditions.
"We want to see the rule change happen so we can see that all puppy mill dogs are protected, including the ones sold over the internet," said Tessa Kanstoroom, 12.
"We want breeders, internet or otherwise, to be held accountable for their responsibilities. It's pretty straightforward. If you are keeping dogs, take care of them," added 11-year old Mary Fran Papalia.
Troop 6811 sent a 4-page letter to the AKC, asking why it is taking the position it has. "We don't understand why the rules should be different for some people, especially if they are making money by selling dogs, who keep so much of the money that their dogs are suffering," the letter states. "This seems greedy and wrong to us and we hope it does to you too."
The letter concluded with six questions addressed to the AKC, including how it planned to conduct inspections of breeders itself, something the AKC has suggested in lieu of USDA inspections.
"We checked with the USDA and confirmed that your group has no power to enforce the law – so we don't understand how your group could replace the government inspectors," the letter states.
But the AKC didn't answer the questions, instead responding: "Thank you for your well-written and thoughtful letter with your concerns regarding the Animal Welfare Act rule change. We appreciate that you have taken the time to share your thoughts with us."
"I wanted them to think about our letter and hopefully change their mind about protecting puppy mill dogs," Michele Carter, 11, told ABC News.
The young girls first took on the issue in 2011 when attempting to earn a Bronze Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can receive. They studied puppy mills, and then mounted a campaign to raise public awareness. They testified before the state senate on legislation cracking down on puppy mills and in the process met Governor Martin O'Malley, who promised to sign the bill if passed. It did, and the girls sat behind O'Malley as he signed the bill into law.
WATCH video of Troop 6811 testifying.
"They saw (the rule change) as an extension of their work and they wanted to be more involved," said parent Steve Kanstoroom. "They believe they can make a difference. They really do."
Last month, the girls went to Washington, D.C., to meet with an aide to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who told them that both Vilsack and President Obama support the proposed Animal Welfare Act rule change.
Their efforts also attracted the attention of the Humane Society of the United States, which has been vocal about the AKC's opposition to the proposed rule.
"AKC is supposed to be the dogs' champion, but it has ironically been an impediment to fundamental and essential change for dogs living in filth and extreme confinement in puppy mill operations," Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the HSUS, told ABC News. Earlier this week, HSUS released a report accusing AKC, which collects membership fees from thousands of dog breeders, of blocking laws across the country that would crack down on puppy mills, thus affecting the AKC's members.
"This is one of the most important dog welfare reforms of the decade, and AKC is opposing it."
In a statement to ABC News, the AKC said it "supports legislation to strengthen enforcement and increase penalties for canine cruelty and neglect."
"The AKC has expressed its concerns about the proposed USDA regulations," said the statement, "because the hobby breeder who raises puppies in their home will be impacted in the same way as the large scale commercial internet puppy seller. The AKC believes it is neither the intent of the Animal Welfare Act nor USDA to place such an unfair burden on small, hobby breeders."
"Because of our long history and breadth of experience in advancing the care and conditions of dogs, we know that regardless of the number of dogs owned or the manner in which breeders interact with potential puppy buyers, a 'one size fits all' breeder regulation is unfair and unenforceable and not in the best interest of dogs and consumers in the this country."
Troop 6811 is now urging people to voice their opinions on the proposed rule before the public comment period ends Monday. Twelve-year-old Greta Knowles says she and her fellow Scouts feel like they barked up the right tree.
"We Girl Scouts think it will do a big favor for the dogs."