Tibor Lepes figures his life went to the dogs five years ago, when he gave up the helter-skelter world of rock 'n' roll and began working at Centurion Kennels as a trainer and boarder of guard dogs.
Lepes, a 34-year-old Yugoslav immigrant who formerly was a touring assistant for the Rolling Stones, bought the El Cajon kennel last year, becoming one of about 100 San Diego County professional dog breeders.
Though most of Lepes' income continues to come from training and boarding dogs, most of his energy now goes into breeding--which he maintains is the most enjoyable aspect of the dog business.
"You feel like a creator, an artist," said Lepes, who expects to realize an annual average of five litters, or about 30 pups, of Rottweilers and Jack Russell Terriers. "It's almost like playing God."
Financially, though, breeding dogs is a bust, Lepes said. Unlike the notorious "puppy mills" of the Midwest, which produce as many as 30 litters each year, his kennel and most of the other breeders in San Diego County seem more interested in quality than in quantity.
On average, local breeders produce less than half a dozen litters each a year, said Jimmy Frank, president of the Silver Bay Kennel Club. Silver Bay is one of five local organizations that are either chapters of, or licensed by, the American Kennel Club, the largest dog-breeding association in the country.
'Labor of Love'
As a result, Frank added, most local dog breeders either maintain outside jobs or, like Lepes, supplement their meager breeding incomes by running training and boarding kennels.
"It's a labor of love," Frank said. "Last year, the most successful dog breeder in the county told me he did better than he's ever done--and he was about $10,000 in the hole."
"There's really no money to be made in breeding dogs. You start with a particular breed and sooner or later you fall in love with it," Frank said. "So you keep on trying to improve it, litter after litter, and pretty soon you forget the cost."
Vic Monteleon, who breeds two litters a year of Dobermans at Montwood Kennels in El Cajon as a hobby while working full time as a physicist, said expenses far outweigh the income "at least in the breeds we're in."
"Stud fees, if you breed champion dogs, range from $500 to $1,000. Then you have the expense of shipping the female to the stud you think will produce the best pups, and then flying her back home once she's pregnant.
"Within a couple of days after she gives birth, you need to get the pups' tails cut and their extra front toes removed, which runs about $10 per dog. A few weeks later, you need to spend an additional $70 per animal to get their ears cropped," Monteleon said.
"By the time the pups are 7 to 9 weeks old and ready to be sold, you will have shelled out hundreds of dollars more for food and shots. And to that you have to add any medical costs for the bitch, as well as advertising expenses to sell the litter."
A typical litter of eight Dobermans, Monteleon added, will yield three or four show-quality dogs he can sell for $500 to $700 apiece, with the rest priced at $200 to $400.
It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that the profit margin, if any, is pretty slim.
"The only people who can make money breeding dogs are the puppy mills," Monteleon said. "They ship their litters off to pet stores at four or five weeks, so they don't have much money invested in them."
Out to Make Money
"But when that happens, the dogs often have problems. They haven't been around their litter mates for the proper length of time, so you don't have the normal socialization."
"And because puppy mills are out to produce as many litters as they can, the breeding is not done scientifically. They're not out to improve the breed--they're out to make money," Monteleon said.
To many local breeders, however, breeding dogs is more an avocation than a vocation, Monteleon said. "We spend money on breeding dogs the way other people spend money on sailboats. We love it; it's our hobby."
Other breeders agree.
"The satisfaction doesn't come from making money; it comes from breeding good dogs," said Shirley Hayes, who breeds one litter of Dalmatians and whippets each year at Coachmaster Kennels in Harbison Canyon east of El Cajon.
"Over the 27 years that we have been breeding dogs, we've had a number of top champions. And that makes you feel sort of proud."
Teresa Howser, who raises two litters of German shepherds each year at Stiles German Shepherds in Alpine, said her goal is to "preserve the breed."
"At best, we cover the cost of our dogs--but not always. Last month, for example, I had a thousand bucks in medical bills, but no litter in six months. So that money had to come out of my pocket."
"We figured out that by the time we breed a litter, raise them, and then turn around and sell them, we make a profit of about 20%--which isn't a hell of a lot," said Dale Hughes, who owns Candy Kennels, also in El Cajon.