THE BLOG
12/03/2014 04:24 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

How a Pet Store Trip Can Teach Your Kids About Cruelty

Originally posted at ASPCA Parents

As a kid, I grew up with a string of great dogs: a loyal German Short-Haired Pointer, a handsome and majestic Collie and an incredibly smart black Standard Poodle. I never thought twice about where they came from, or why that might even be important.

I've since taken that second thought, and now my eyes are open to the tragedy of puppy mills, including how pet stores that sell animals support these deplorable practices.

When I started talking about animal welfare issues with my own 15-year-old son Evan and his twin 12-year-old sisters Mylie and Josie, they processed it as if we were talking about astronomy. To them, the points were mostly distant and theoretical.

Even when we visited animal shelters or spent time with PetSmart's sweet temporary tenants, the origins of these dogs and cats never really intrigued them -- as if all dogs come from Dogville, and all cats from Catville.

So one day, as we passed a strip mall puppy store for the umpteenth time on our way to the bowling alley, I impulsively stopped.

"We're going to check out the puppy situation here," I said.

"But isn't this the place you said was bad for puppies?" Josie asked.

"Yes, but I want to see what it's actually like from the inside. I think it's important to know what we're talking about."

We went in, and the kids immediately gravitated to the front window's cuter-than-cute puppies who were scampering, whimpering, and begging for attention. There were only a few other items for sale. This place was all about one thing: selling puppies.

Within my kids' earshot, I approached a saleswoman.

"Where do these dogs come from?" I asked.

"Good breeders," she said.

"How do you know?"

"We have a list."

"Can I see it?"

"No -- we only give that information after you buy a dog."

"So I can't simply see the list of breeders you work with?"

"No -- but they're good places."

"Have you visited one?"

"Visited one what?"

"One of these breeders."

"No," she said, as if I'd asked her if she'd ever been to the moon.

I thanked her, then called for my kids. Twice. They were reluctant to leave.

Safely back in our car, I turned to them.

"What do you think happens at the pet store when someone buys a puppy from them?" I asked, trying to sound objective.

"They get another one," my son said.

I nodded. "Those puppies' moms are somewhere in a very small cage, pumping out puppy after puppy -- as many as they can, for as long as they can -- just to keep these places in business," I said. "That's what a puppy mill is, and the conditions there are usually horrible and cruel. Meanwhile..."

Evan interrupted: "There are lots of dogs in shelters who already need homes."

"Desperately," I said.

The girls said they felt bad for the puppies they'd played with, and I sympathized.

"Those puppies deserve homes as much as any other," I said. "But that's why we support pet stores that work with shelters to find homes for homeless animals, not those who mass-produce puppies to make money."

As we talked, a large family entered the puppy store, their eyes wide with excitement and anticipation. If we'd stayed, chances are good we would have seen them leave with two things: a tiny, furry animal, fresh off the conveyor belt; and a piece of paper describing an idyllic Dogville from which it came.

As we drove away, our conversation shifted away from animal issues and to thoughts about Iggy Azalea and the merits of ziti pizza.

But like many of my own childhood memories, I hope this trip sticks with them, so that when it's time for them to get a companion, they're adding shelter animals to their families, instead of adding to the problem.

A nationally-published essayist, Joel Schwartzberg is the author of the award-winning "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad" and the recently-released "Small Things Considered: Moments from Manliness to Manilow".