Occasionally, people tell me that they are planning on purchasing a puppy, and they want guidance on how to find a responsible breeder. Here is my advice.
First of all: Have you considered adoption?
Let’s put it this way: I am not anti-breeder, but I am very pro-rescue/pro-adoption! Adopting a companion is a great choice for many families that are looking for a pet.
Are you aware that you can adopt a puppy from a rescue organization? Did you know that purebred dogs are often available through regional breed-specific rescues? Did you know that there are many wonderful adult companion dogs waiting for their forever homes in shelters who do not necessarily have behavioral or emotional baggage?
When many people think of rescue dogs, they might think of dogs with extensive medical and behavioral needs. However, after more than a decade working in a variety of rescues, I can tell you that there are absolutely “easy” dogs waiting for adoption in shelters and rescues. Consider whether adopting such a companion might meet your needs! One benefit of adopting a shelter pet is that they may already be house trained and have other basic training. Furthermore, if the dog was in a foster home prior to adoption, you may gain valuable information about their temperament and behavior, which helps you pick the right dog for your family!
Finally, consider that puppies are a LOT of work! It seems like everybody wants a puppy because they are CUTE! However, I see clients who are overwhelmed by the amount of care and training that a puppy needs to grow into a well-mannered adult dog. Adopting an adult dog means that you get to avoid some puppy stages that are not so desirable (potty training, mouthing you with those sharp puppy teeth, chewing on everything in sight, etc.) Consider whether a puppy is really what you want!
So you want to go with a breeder…
After weighing the pros and cons of rescue, some people decide that it is not for them, and they’d rather purchase a dog from a breeder. If this is the case, it is important to select a responsible breeder.
Unfortunately, there are still puppy mills that breed dogs in deplorable conditions, and these mills have gotten quite savvy at covering their tracks: many people getting puppies from mills are not aware they are doing so. If the conditions in the mills are not enough to dissuade you, realize that these puppies are often susceptible to health and behavioral problems.
Other breeders are not “puppy mills” per se, but still do not fall under the umbrella of responsible breeding. Your average “backyard breeder” selling puppies does not really know much about the genetic background of the dogs they are breeding. As a result, they cannot tell you about health or behavioral issues in the parents or lines of that dog. Hobby breeders also usually do not know how to work on early socialization with puppies (some of which should be started very early, well before the pups go home) to ensure they mature into well-socialized adults. The result of the breeder’s ignorance is that the dog’s future guardian may pay the price in terms of health issues or behavior problems down the road.
The next question to ask yourself: what is the purpose of getting your puppy? For most people, they are looking for a furry sidekick, or for a good companion animal for the family. However, some people are looking for a dog for working cattle or competing in agility. Folks looking for working or competition dogs will need to do a great deal of additional research before purchasing a pup from a breeder.
I have a saying: “No bad dogs, only bad matches,” because oftentimes when I am called in for training help, conflict is occurring between dogs and their guardians because the dog is not an ideal match in the home. If you have decided to go with a specific breed or mixed breed, carefully research the grooming requirements, need for exercise, common health issues, and typical breed traits of that breed before buying.
For instance, an adolescent Great Dane may not be an ideal dog for an elderly owner with limited mobility, as it would be easy for them to be knocked or pulled over (a small dog may be more ideal). A high-energy Weimaraner is not a good match for an owner who prefers quiet afternoons reading a book on the sofa, but may be a great match for an avid jogger.
Other examples I have seen of this are the people in dog manners class who are frustrated that their hound dog mainly wants to sniff when out on walks, or the husky owner who complains that his dog likes to pull on leash. Of course, hounds can be trained to be more attentive to their owners outside, and huskies can be trained to walk on a loose lead. However, owners should recognize that sniffing in hounds and pulling in huskies are breed traits. Different breeds tend to have different “default modes,” and recognizing this is a key to a successful match.
Sometimes mismatches can be serious, or even tragic. Dogs that do not have their needs met in terms of exercise and enrichment can develop behavior problems. Before bringing home ANY dog, do an honest assessment of your lifestyle so you can find a good fit. If you would like assistance, contact me to ask about the Preparing for Your New Pup package, which includes adoption advising.
The remainder of this post assumes that the owner is looking for a companion animal. I should note that there are some dog professionals who feel that designer breed mixes, such as poodle mixes, are in themselves irresponsible to create, and therefore do not have any “reputable breeders.” This contentious issue could be a topic for a whole other blog post! I will not dive into that here, and will instead focus on how to find a breeder who is breeding ideal companion animals.
How to find your perfect companion…
So, you’ve decided to purchase from a breeder, you’ve decided that you want a dog primarily as a companion, you have settled on which breed(s) would be ideal for you, and you have some breeders in mind. How do you pick a breeder who is getting their puppies off to a great start? Here is the minimum amount of research that I would do before considering getting a puppy from a breeder.
ASK FOR REFERENCES, READ REVIEWS
Ask the breeder for references and connect with other families who have purchased puppies from them. Have their dogs turned out to be great family companions? Did the families feel well supported by the breeder when in the process of purchasing and bringing home their puppy, and was the breeder there for them afterwards if they had questions?
Read reviews online if they are available. Ask veterinarians or trainers in your area if they have references for preferred breeders of a given breed, or if they have any opinions about the breeder(s) you are considering. PupQuest is an example of a database that you can check out to review breeders. If canine professionals are seeing multiple instances of health issues or behavior problems from pups out of a given breeder, that is a warning sign.
Don’t let the fact that a breeder is an AKC breeder be enough to satisfy you. While the AKC sets breed standards in terms of the appearance of dogs, they do very little to monitor the socialization of pups and what conditions the pups are reared in. A puppy having papers or being AKC certified is not enough to determine that a breeder is responsible and that they have gotten their puppies off to a good start.
VISIT THE BREEDER
Visit the breeder’s house and make sure that the pups are being raised indoors with the family. Their area should be spacious, well-lit, reasonably clean, and have enrichment (it should not be a barren environment).
Pups start their sensitive period of socialization as early as three weeks of age, so long before you bring them home, they are learning about sights, smells, and sounds of family life. Puppies raised in basements or barns are likely not getting enough exposure to typical human life, and may struggle with behavioral issues as they get older as a result.
Do not buy puppies from breeders who will not allow you to visit their facility or insist on meeting you at a parking lot or other location: these breeders are hiding something. A good breeder will want to meet you (and all your family members) at least once, will not balk at you visiting their home, and may even want to visit your home to ensure it’s a good home for their puppy.
Similarly, do not buy a puppy off the internet without being able to visit the breeder. Many of these operations appear to be reputable based on the pictures they post online, but actually keep their breeding animals in questionable conditions.
Responsible breeders do not sell puppies to pet stores. I repeat: responsible breeders DO NOT sell puppies to pet stores. If you see a puppy for sale in a store, it is from a mill or an unscrupulous breeder.
In addition, beware of breeders that breed multiple types of dogs. Most responsible breeders will specialize in only 1-2 breeds of pup and are very knowledgeable about their needs.
MEET THE PARENTS
A breeder should allow you to meet your pup’s parents. It is a red flag if either or both parents are unfriendly or have significant issues with strangers. There is a genetic component to behavior, so anxious and fearful parents are more likely to have anxious and fearful pups.
ASK ABOUT HEALTH AND BEHAVIOR
Ask the breeder if there are any known health or behavior issues known in the parents. A knowledgeable breeder should be able to discuss health issues common to the breed and disclose whether the parents or puppies in previous litters had these issues. For some issues, the parents may have had x-rays or genetic testing, so the breeder can give you more specific information about the likelihood of pups having those health problems.
Many people think to ask about health, but forget to ask about behavior, which also has a genetic component. While behavior can be improved with training, if there is a pattern of fear, anxiety, or aggression in the parents or other pups born to the parents, proceed with caution, and do not purchase the pup unless you are willing to work with a trainer regularly.
Beware of breeders whose advice goes against standard veterinary medicine or behavior practices in terms of vaccination schedules or socialization. Similarly, avoid a breeder who insists that you use a particular veterinarian.
Unfortunately, I still hear of breeders in my community who try to talk owners out of vaccination schedules that are appropriate to protect their puppies from disease. I also know of veterinarians who tell the owners to isolate their dogs until all of their shots are completed. These practices can be harmful to puppies’ socialization, behavior, and health. If you are confused about what is best practice, AVSAB has evidence-based position statements about how puppies should be vaccinated and socialized.
Stay away from breeders who balk or seem offended by your inquiries about health and behavior. A responsible breeder should be happy to discuss this with you. You can expect to sign a contract with the breeder; responsible breeders will typically offer health and behavior guarantees, and should be willing to take a dog back (at least for a limited period of time) if they present with unexpected health or behavior issues.
ASK ABOUT SOCIALIZATION
I’m putting part of this section in a different color because it is SO IMPORTANT but so often overlooked.
A pup’s sensitive period of socialization and development starts around 3 weeks of age and closes by 12-20 weeks of age.
Pups should come home no earlier than 8 weeks of age.
This means that at least 5 weeks of your pup’s socialization should be happening while your puppy is still with the breeder.
Puppies who are well socialized are more likely to become the perfect furry sidekick you’ve always hoped for. Since aggression is often rooted in fear, socializing puppies thoroughly and helping them develop into confident adults is one of the best aggression prevention measures available. In fact, I would say this is the #1 advantage to getting your companion as a puppy rather than an adult.
The importance of early, positive socialization cannot be understated. Puppies who are poorly socialized are more likely to exhibit fear, anxiety, and aggression. They can improve with training, but they will never have the same temperament as a puppy who was thoughtfully socialized from the get go.
Good breeders should be able to tell you details about how they are socializing their pups. Some breeders use structured programs (Puppy Culture is a fantastic example), or they should at least have some kind of checklist to ensure that puppies are being exposed to many sounds, surfaces, people, places (as much as is safe based on their vaccination status), and things. Their environment should be regularly enriched and invite exploration. Socialization should be positive, and puppies should be encouraged to interact with novel items at their own pace. The breeder should not be using any harsh methods or punishments with puppies.
ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS IN GENERAL!
A dog is a family member that you have for life: that is a big commitment! Take your time making your decision.
Write down a list of your family’s questions for the breeder, and bring it along when you meet them. Great breeders should be able to answer your questions and make you feel at ease.
A good breeder should have lots of questions for you too, because will be choosy about who they sell their puppies to! At the end of the day, do your research, and then listen to your instincts. If something about the situation or breeder seems off, trust your gut, and head elsewhere.
Thanks for reading, and good luck in your search for a new family member!
DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to provide professional dog training advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this website is to promote understanding and knowledge of various pet-related topics.