A well-known children’s song asks, “How much is that doggie in the window?” But the more relevant question may instead be, “Where did that doggie come from?” The answer is not always as simple as it seems.

Pet store sales of puppies are a contentious issue now, both nationwide and in Maine, where a group, Maine Citizens Against Puppy Mills, is trying to restrict the practice, starting first in Scarborough and Windham, where they have approached the local town councils.

The group argues that pet stores support irresponsible breeders who keep dogs in deplorable conditions and supply puppies prone to disease and antisocial behavior. They hope consumers consider adopting from animal shelters instead.

“If you buy a puppy from a pet store in Maine, any pet store, it is in fact a puppy-mill puppy that’s come from parents that have been damned to a life of living hell,” said group member Lynne Fracassi of Gorham.

Pet stores counter that they sell the puppies demanded by consumers, purebred animals with a known history that come from licensed and certified breeders.

But a closer look shows the licenses and certifications that instill confidence in consumers are almost worthless. The behavior of breeders runs the gamut from loving to inhumane, and the animal welfare agencies and organizations charged with policing them are often overwhelmed, and sometimes indifferent.

Take, for instance, the American Kennel Club, whose registration acts as a stamp of approval for millions of dog owners. But recent law enforcement raids have uncovered dogs being kept in awful conditions at large-scale breeding facilities that register their dogs with the AKC.

And while the vast majority of the AKC-approved breeders are small, well-run operations, a report from the Humane Society of the United States shows that the group frequently takes the side of large-scale breeding facilities in legislative battles. In one case, the AKC opposed a bill in Louisiana that would have prevented breeding dogs from being kept in stacked cages with wire flooring. In another, the group wanted to squash a Rhode Island bill that would have banned chaining or crating dogs for more than 14 hours a day. The group is also lobbying against a proposed regulation that would force breeders who sell over the Internet to operate by the same rules as the breeders who sell to pet stores.

That Internet-only sellers do not have to be licensed is just one of the loopholes present in the regulations under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which licenses, inspects and regulates breeders. The USDA’s own audit, released in 2010, showed that the agency frequently downgraded violations against breeders, when it chose to write them up at all. Repeat violators were rampant, the audit found, and six of the 19 inspectors followed by auditors did not properly document “direct and repeat” violations, leading to problems when it came time to follow through on the enforcement of the law.

At the state level, the duties of licensing and regulation fall to the Animal Welfare Office, which investigates all manner of animal welfare complaints, not only those pertaining to breeding kennels. In fact, the office’s five district agents deal with 500-800 complaints a year, which it admits is only a portion of the cases existing statewide.

Additional issues in dealing with inhumane breeding kennels were clear in the case of J’aime Kennels in Buxton, a puppy mill raided by police in 2007. Following the raid, authorities had to wait until the dogs, many of them suffering from ailments due to the poor conditions, could be handed over by a court. Homes, first temporary and then permanent, had to be found for the dogs, and expensive treatment was undertaken. That’s not to mention the expense of the legal process, which ended more than three years later with the owners taking a plea deal, criticized by police and animal advocates, that included only probation and community service.

The problem must be dealt with at all these levels. First, the USDA should approve the new regulations, then seek to close the remaining loopholes while tightening enforcement.

In Maine, the Legislature, which strengthened the laws against animal cruelty in 2010, should follow the lead of other states and impose a limit on the number of dogs a breeder can keep. With the full involvement of responsible breeders, a law can certainly be crafted that looks out for local businesses as well as the welfare of animals.

Finally, both pet store owners and consumers have to take responsibility by not turning a blind eye to the practices that bring puppies to the market. Legislation is often imperfect, and regulation is likely to remain inadequate given the resources available. But demanding accountability and transparency on the part of breeders will force the bad ones to either change course or go out of business.

Ben Bragdon is the managing editor of Current Publishing. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter.