Photo by Jesse Schoff

The European Union has never had so many pet dogs — 66.9 million, to be exact. Many are born in “puppy mills” in Central and Eastern Europe, advertised by breeders and delivered straight to customers’ doors. This means enduring road journeys lasting from hours to days. 

The lucrative trade in puppies is increasingly dominated by organised criminals with scant regard for animal welfare or the health risks associated with shipping unvaccinated dogs in close proximity, this investigation reveals.

Like drugs and guns, dogs are a commodity sold and distributed by gangsters. The illegal trade took off during the COVID pandemic, when criminals started forcing couriers to smuggle dogs across borders to satisfy orders.

THE REAL PUPPY GAME [Official Trailer] from Watchdog Jon on Vimeo.

Despite scientific research showing that long road journeys have a lasting psychological impact on young dogs, the European Commission has no plans to limit travelling time in the way it does for livestock transported for slaughter, say.

While the European Commission seeks to overhaul European animal welfare legislation, leaked documents reveal modest ambitions. 

This means that dogs can still be transported for days on end, with the only requirement being that they are fed at least every 24 hours. During such journeys, stress hormones are released, causing dogs to go into prolonged fight-or-flight mode.

One result is that many dogs end up traumatised and unstable, with behavioural problems to boot. A recent British study shows cases of adult dogs biting people have tripled in the past 20 years. Problematic behaviour remains the number one reason for putting dogs down. 

Meanwhile, the rising number of mentally ill dogs abandoned by their owners is overwhelming shelters across Europe.

The trade also poses serious public health risks — including a resurgence of rabies — since many dogs transported across borders are not properly vaccinated. 

The Real Puppy Game is a collaboration between Annick Hus, a Belgian freelance journalist with an MSc in animal welfare science, and Finnish journalist/documentary filmmaker Jon West. Both have previously investigated the dog trade.

See the stories below and stay tuned for a feature-length documentary, to be released soon.

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