Flower is a sweet-tempered, mixed-breed dog. The sort of dog that, through no fault of her own, can fall out of favor somewhere and into a cold, hard ambiguity somewhere else.

Part black Lab, part German shepherd, she was rescued off the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in June and promptly transferred two hours east to Duluth. Last week, her litter of six puppies was 100 percent adopted into new homes in and around Duluth, where the demand for puppies outstrips the supply.

Falling puppy adoption numbers reported to the News Tribune by the city’s animal adoption partner, Animal Allies Humane Society, have piqued the ears of local animal professionals. The city is on pace to adopt out 140 puppies in 2014 - a 62 percent drop from the recent heyday at Animal Allies, which averaged 372 puppy adoptions between the years 2010 and 2012.

Local experts agree that the decrease is attributable to the animal community’s intensive spay-neuter efforts, and the efficient collaborations of outfits like Animal Allies, the Leech Lake Legacy, the city of Duluth and PetCare of Duluth.  

“This is a good thing,” Animal Allies spokeswoman Amy Miller said. “This is a mark of our success.”

Some worry, though, that without more adoptable puppies in the system, families inadvertently are being funneled into using puppy mills and other forms of unethical breeders.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who travel great distances and who are finding their dogs on the Internet,” said Amanda Bruce, a veterinarian and founder of PetCare of Duluth, a preventable health care clinic that hosts spay-neuter clinics and has performed some 30,000 of the procedures for local animals. “We are absolutely leading the country in dealing with our overpopulation problem. With that comes the next phase: people still want dogs.”       

It hasn’t always been this way.

Carrie Lane remembers a time when Duluth residents weren’t so collectively kind to their pets. Inspired to work with pets while volunteering for a shelter as an Iowa teen, Lane came to Duluth after college and started work in the Duluth police animal control department 24 years ago.

“When I started, this was an absolutely devastating place to be,” said Lane, the Duluth police’s lead animal control worker. “There were so many nice animals being euthanized. There was a huge surplus. So, to see where we’ve been and now have this conversation about a shortage is a wonderful thing.”

Yet, kittens remain prevalent. “Our demand for space is not facilitated through adoption,” Miller said. “We have more coming in than going out.” But the puppy market is humming along.

Simply put, Miller said, “There are a lot of people in Duluth who love dogs.”

If a prospective owner wants pit bull puppies, they’re in luck. On the front lines, Lane sees more stray and abandoned pit bulls than anything else. It recalls a time when she used to see “a bazillion black Lab mixes.” Animal Allies can turn around the pit bulls, too, Lane said, but people want what they want. Nowadays, they want purebred dogs; they crave small-breed dogs; they get googly eyes for designer mixes such as Labradoodles, border collie-based concoctions and ShiChis - a mix of shih tzu and chihuahua. Often, prospective pet owners get impulsive, or rushed by a gift-giving opportunity, creating a scenario ripe for turning to Craigslist and other quick-and-easy marketplaces. Experts encourage a deliberate process and to be wary of certain shady scenarios.

“A lot of puppy mills have really good websites,” Lane said. “But you have to visit and they have to let you indoors.”

There’s a pattern of characteristics among unethical breeders’ practices. They encourage people to meet them halfway, commonly in a big-box store parking lot. If they invite customers to their place, they meet outside holding areas, on green lawns to shield their setups. They offer multiple types of puppies at once - litters of shih tzus and schnauzers together.

“That’s usually not a good thing,” Lane said. “But innocent people are using them, not out of malice, but because they don’t know any better.”

New legislation enacted July 1 cracks down on breeders by requiring commercial licensing, with inspection follow-up. But if a person can get $1,000 per puppy for a litter of Borderdoodles, there always will be someone willing to breed them who won’t be ethical about it.

Experts bristle at the notion that a mill dog sold is a mill dog rescued. Rather, they encourage puppy seekers to shop smartly and let authorities rescue mill dogs en masse.

“Every time someone buys from a puppy mill, it encourages puppy mills,” Lane said.

At Duluth’s Animal Allies, there are 33 dog kennels. In June, there were roughly four empty kennels on any given day. Adult dogs are plentiful. But puppies rotate in and out, too - all varieties, if a person is willing to give their search a little patience. A lot of times, puppies don’t hit the Animal Allies adoption website because a puppy with a hold on it never gets posted online. Miller estimated a full 25 percent of Animal Allies’ dogs are purebreds.

“I’ve seen every animal here and a lot of breeds I didn’t even know existed,” said Miller, who found her own huskies - Maverick and Goose - at the Duluth shelter. “If people are willing to come look around, you just never know what might come in the door next. Our population changes daily.”

Meanwhile, the aforementioned mother, Flower, is getting some TLC in an animal foster home before she is neutered and adopted out herself. Since its inception just three years ago, the Leech Lake Legacy has collaborated with other agencies to save more than 4,500 dogs and cats such as Flower and her family. And that’s working simply in and around population centers surrounding Cass Lake.

“The Leech Lake reservation is 1,050 square miles,” Leech Lake Legacy founder Marilou Chanrasmi said. “We haven’t even gone into the remote areas yet.”

The Leech Lake Legacy sends roughly 80 percent of its dogs to Duluth and the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minn. In fact, Duluth has taken as many as 300 dogs a year from Proctor, Hermantown, southern St. Louis County and the Leech Lake effort. Flower and company notwithstanding, transfers are down, in part because there presently is no regular volunteer to transport dogs from places beyond back to Duluth.

“That would help tremendously,” said Chanrasmi, who segued into a story of a bitterly cold day last winter.

The Leech Lake Legacy was holding its first puppy roundup.

“We had 67 animals surrendered on a very cold, minus-40 degree day,” she said. “It’s a testament to the residents and the trust we’ve earned. They would not have survived the Leech Lake winter otherwise.”

That they were given over to expert care probably means that, in this puppy friendly climate, the dogs found homes.   

“If we can supply them,” said PetCare founder Bruce, “people will adopt them.”

Where to find your puppy

  • Visit Animal Allies Humane Society at 4006 Airport Road in Duluth.
  • Contact show breeders, who often are reputable.
  • Contact Carrie Lane, Duluth’s lead animal control worker, at (218) 390-8065 for a referral.
  • Try Petfinder.com instead of more generic online marketplaces.