Deciding to get a new dog or puppy can be exciting, especially if it is your first dog. You imagine a soft, cuddly puppy following you around everywhere, giving you puppy kisses rich in 'puppy breath' and living a long, healthy life with you and your family. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple or that realistic if you buy from a direputable breeder. Often times people are misled by breeders whose practices are less than ethical and who sugar coat there ads with dog 'hype' to draw the unsuspecting public to them. The result is that people buy a dog laden with health problems, temperament problems, and behavioral problems. In the dog world, as is everything else, you get what you pay for.
So how does one shop for a dog the smart way? Carefully evaluate your reasons for wanting a puppy. In many cases an adult dog can be a better choice, especially for first-time owners, or owners who have very small children. Puppies have very sharp teeth that can hurt or scare children. Children also do not know how to properly play with a puppy, and may hurt him. For an older child, a puppy is A LOT of work. Don't count on your child taking the puppy out, feeding her, grooming her and training her once the novelty of having a pup wears out. Plan on being a part of it as well, and your new dog will be a joy, not a hindrance.
All of that being said, if you still want a puppy, here are some tips to help you shop smart.
What makes a responsible breeder? With some key information, you can tell the difference between the serious, the irresponsible and the exploitative breeders.
- Puppy mills. 'Puppy mill' and 'dog wholesaler' are vague terms in that some animal activist groups want to term anyone that breeds dogs as a puppy mill. However, this is not necessarily the case. A true puppy mill is a place where dogs are bred without regard for health, genetic issues, temperament, or breed representation (i.e. 'purebreds' that don't look the breed they are supposed to be). The goal of the puppy mill is to mass produce puppies for a profit, nothing more. Often the puppies and breeding stock are malnourished, overall poorly cared for and kept in cages stacked on top of one another. Female dogs are usually bred every season and then disposed of when they can no longer be used. Mostly toy and other small breeds are bred this way, because they take up the last amount of space in the miller's kennel. Many of the dogs are registered with a kennel club of some sort, knowing that the general public sees this as a sign of a good dog.
Once the puppies are ready to be weaned, they are bought from pet stores (who sell dogs to the public off the impulse buy urge), or sold to brokers who will in turn sell the puppies at dog auctions. Dog auctions sell to other wholesalers, who in turn will breed those puppies to make profit by selling them in the same manner of pet store/auction/other wholesaler. It's a vicious cycle in the dog world in which the dogs and YOU ultimately pay the price.
Be alert -- some newspaper ads are in fact dog wholesalers. They entice you to call them, and then claim it's actually a family member's dog or friend who actually has the puppies. This is one of the least reputable sources to get a new dog from.
- Backyard Breeder. A backyard breeder is a term used loosely as well. More often than not, a backyard breeder is typically someone with little or no knowledge of the breed, has puppies due to an 'accidental' mating, bred the dog one time 'for the kids', or believes in the myth that a dog should be bred once before he/she is spayed or neutered. This is not always true of backyard breeders, but is a generalization.
An accidental mating wouldn't have occured if the dogs had been spayed/neutered. A fact of life is that sometimes dogs and puppies die while giving birth, and those that do make it we humans grow quite attached to. Kids can get quite upset about not only losing the family pet in the process, but also when they leave to go to their new homes.
Dogs not intended for breeding should be altered as soon as they are old enough to do so. Breeding dogs before this (or letting the female have a first 'heat' before spaying) not only increases the likelihood of cancer, but also increases temperament and behavioral issues. Females can go through a 'false pregnancy', making your life miserable for 61 days after a season, males will be more likely to roam, and both can become very territorial. A backyard breeder is also not a very reputable source to buy a dog.
- Serious hobby breeder. The serious hobby breeder is one who tests all breeding stock for genetic and health issues before breeding. They have a standard to breed only dogs that have been health-screened and are healthy. They only breed when they have a reason to, either to imrove their 'line' or because they have enough people interested in buying from them.
These breeders may or may not show their dogs, but many do to make sure what they are producing is stable, both in physical and mental health. If you are looking for a hunting dog, look for a breeder who competes in hunting tests. If you want an agility dog, find a breeder who competes in performance or obedience trials.
Serious breeders do research on the genetics of their dogs bloodlines, and know what health problems they may or may not be passing on to the puppies. Serious breeders will also inform you of problems in the breed, and what they are doing to help fix it. The serious hobby breeder is the best possible choice for buying a dog.
- Research your breed. Once you've decided on the breed(s) you are interested in, indulge yourself with as much information your brain can handle. This doesn't mean going to a pet shop or running into someone on the street and asking a few questions and then rushing out to get one. The key to good research here is to dig to find out as much 'wrong' with your breed as possible. If you do this beforehand, you won't be surprised if your dog exhibits these problems later in life, and if the problems are more than you think you can handle, you can look elsewhere for a breed that better meets your needs and wants.
It is wise to do this before getting a dog, not only to educate yourself so you know what to ask the breeders, but also to save yourself alot of heartache and disappointment later on.
- Spend hours of your time gathering information from your breed's 'parent club'; most breeds have a 'parent club' dedicated to fanciers and breeders of the breed, providing mountains of information for potential puppy buyers and owners of the breed. Clubs in America provide links on the American Kennel Club's website, listed below.
- Research from books about your breed, and talk to dog trainers who have experience with working with your breed. Find out as much as you can about temperament, health, and training problems.
- Consult with your chosen veterinarian about health or genetic related problems he or she may have seen in your breed. If you haven't chosen a vet yet, now is the time to do so! Remember you will need one in the near future, and if your vet isn't familiar with your breed, find one who IS; the vet will be responsible for giving your dog his medical care from now on.
- Go to dog shows, and meet several dogs of your breed, of all ages and of either sex.
- Talk to owners. Now that you are armed with a wealth of knowledge about your breed, you can start talking to people. Again, dog shows provide a venue for meeting many dogs of your breed in one area, but not always the best for asking questions, as the handlers are busy preparing to go in the ring. Get business cards and talk after the show. Dog parks, pet supply stores and training classes can give you a chance to meet owners of your breed and gain insight about your breed. Ask questions about how they are to live with. Do they shed? How much exercise do you give him? How much does she eat? Where did you get her? Do you have any health problems with him? You get the picture. Most people are more than willing to talk about their dog. Don't be shy.
- Consider animal shelters/rescue as a first option. The chance of getting a young puppy is slim, but the average age of the dogs in the shelters is about 2 to 5 years, plenty young enough to live a good life in your family.
The benefits of adopting a dog are countless! On the dog's side, you are saving him from the unavoidable reality of being put down because he'd overstayed his welcome. You are giving him a home rich in love and security, and above all, companionship. You are gaining a friend for life, a dog past the 'puppyhood' of house training, mouthing, and chewing, and a dog that you won't have to wonder how big he's going to get because he will be nearly full grown already.
Many shelters and rescue organizations also include (with the adoption fee) updated vaccinations, the first dog tags and a dog already spayed or neutered (or a discounted fee for you to get him/her spayed or neutered). The staff or foster home will also ensure, in most cases, that the dog matches your needs and wants. They want to ensure a permanent home for the dog they have cared for.
- Search for breeders. If you haven't had any success in finding a shelter dog or rescue organization that has your ideal dog for you, then it is time to look for breeders.
- The best possible resource is your breed's parent club or local club (Beagle Club of America would be a parent club, for example, while Cuyahoga Valley Golden Retriever Club would be local). The clubs usually have a breeder referral program to start you in the right direction.
- As stated earlier, dog shows can be a good resource as well, since they are most likely local to your area, and have loads of knowledge about the breed and where to find a breeder.
- Many people nowadays use the internet as a resource, as well as newspaper ads. Although it is not recommended, many people have found very good reputable breeders in this way, providing they know what to look for.
- Ask questions. This should be obvious, but many people ask the wrong kinds of questions when talking to breeders.
In addition to what ever basic questions you have, go back to what you've learned in your research and address any questions you have. Be specific!! Most breeds have health problems with eyes, hips, elbows and heart. A responsible breeder will have tested any breeding stock for these traits, and will not breed dogs that have not been tested or are affected with said health issue
- Joint testing should be tested and have a rating from OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) or PENNHip (for hips and elbows).
- Heart screening should be conducted by a Board Certified Cardiologist. A rating certificate from OFA will be given.
- Eyes should be tested by a Board Certified Ophthalmologist, and may or may not have a CERF (eyes) certificate.
Ask to see proof of testing, and make sure the seals of the above organizations or similar are legitimate. If in doubt, you can often check online with the parents' registration numbers for validity.
If YOU know more than THEY do, best keep looking. Dogs that are registered do not mean they are a good specimen or that the breeder is a 'good' breeder. Do not fall victim of buying a dog simply because someone thought it had a cute name or falling for ads that brag about being AKC/CKC/UKC whatever registered. This is no more than an identification for breeding purposes to track litter information and competition awards. Find out what sort of contract or guarantee there is. Many breeders have clauses to refund money or replace dogs that end up with health issues, depending on the severity of the problem.
Breeders often won't let their puppies go until at least 7 weeks, and if you are purchasing a toy breed, it shouldn't be less than 12 weeks. This is for the dogs' safety and to make sure they develop properly. Serious breeders will only breed to better the breed and help reduce health and temperament problems, not make more.
- Meet the breeders and dogs. Finally, go meet the breeders face to face if possible. If it is not possible to meet in person, meet people who have bought dogs from them in the past, or know them well. Ask for references and call them!
- Be patient. Not all breeders have puppies on hand waiting for buyers to come along, and many breeders have a waiting list for their pups. This is to ensure they have enough buyers FIRST. This is beneficial to them, in that the puppies will have homes, and also to prevent more unwanted puppies from ending up in shelters/rescue. And this also helps you, because you are more likely to get a pup of your choosing, and one of a young appropriate age. If you do find a breeder who happens to have a litter planned, don't rush to buy one just because they are the only one with puppies. Make sure it's the breeder you want to buy from first, and THEN be sure they have a puppy that suits your needs.
This article is intended only as a guide for choosing a breeder. There are many sites that offer additional information and breeder referrals. Please research your breed thoroughly and ask lots of questions before buying. Hopefully this has shed some light on where to begin, and where not to buy. Remember to shop wisely, and you and your new puppy will have a long, healthy life together.
Heather has bred two litters of Golden Retrievers and has been showing dogs for over 10 years. She has dogs titled or pointed in Obedience, Conformation, Agility, and Rally. She also has trained 6 dogs with the AKC Canine Good Citizen certificate. She is now a dog trainer in Ohio. You can find out more about Heather at Positive Behavior Solutions.