Anybody can produce puppies, and does. Here’s how to find a good, caring breeder instead.
Let’s say you want a puppy of a particular breed and you’ve done some research about what breed that is. How convenient to have a pet store around the corner, right? Well, most of you are aware the answer to that is a loud no. And most of you probably also know that if you do want a pedigreed puppy, you should go to a breeder. But then what? Who’s a breeder? How do you find a good one?
How to Find a Good Dog Breeder
A bit of vocabulary and a disclaimer, right off the bat. You’ll notice I speak of full-bred or pedigreed dogs, not of purebreds. Historically, the idea of breed purity has been linked with the idea of racial purity, so I find the term “purebred” distasteful. (1)
Your default setting for dog choice should be “a dog that’s right for me,” and that dog may happen to belong to a particular breed. But breed registration doesn’t mean a dog is better in any objective, absolute way, any more than a birth certificate makes you a good citizen. A kennel club registration tells you nothing about a dog’s health or personality; in some breeds, especially working breeds, many dogs may not be registered at all. (2)
Does Dog Breed Matter?
Most breeds of dogs consist of relatively small populations, and conformation competitions-- dog shows -- reward a very narrow range of looks. For these reasons, pedigreed dogs are more or less inbred. Genetic diversity is limited. That, in turn, means most modern breeds are troubled by at least a few inherited disorders. Many breeds routinely suffer from serious health conditions that shorten their lives. (3)
I’d be wary of a breeder whose dogs competed only in conformation shows, like Westminster and Crufts. Conformation is a beauty contest; the dogs who meet narrow and exaggerated criteria for looks are not necessarily the nicest and they’re not likely to be the healthiest, either. (4) It’s a much better idea to look for a breeder whose dogs participate in activities, such as agility and herding, that require actual physical functionality. Be aware, though, that if a breed is more or less divided into working lines and show lines, the working-line dogs are often more intense and energetic.
What Should Good Dog Breeders Do?
A good dog breeder will do several important things. First, she will perform available genetic and other health tests before breeding a dog. She won’t breed dogs known to carry heritable disorders, nor will she breed shy or aggressive dogs. And she gets a gold star if she supports outcrossing troubled breeds to increase genetic diversity and reduce or eliminate heritable health problems. (5)
Good Breeders Specialize in a Single Breed
A good breeder knows his breed’s history and health like the back of his hand. It’s not easy for one person to develop a deep expertise about many breeds, so a good breeder specializes in a single breed or maybe, maybe two. Run, run, run from the fellow who advertises six varieties of dog and all their mixes as well. (6)
Good Dog Breeders Treat Mother Dogs and Puppies Carefully
At every stage, ask yourself whether the breeder is behaving the way you would behave if you cared about the puppies you produced.
Pregnancy, whelping, and nursing all tax the mother dog’s body. A good breeder will limit the number of times he breeds a bitch--many will only breed a female two or three times over her whole life. The puppies will be raised in the breeder’s home and he’ll see to it that they are appropriately socialized. (Livestock guardians intended for work are an exception to this rule – they will grow up with their flock.) A good breeder provides pleasant experiences of household life, various people and animals, and all kinds of sounds, sights, and textures. Even tiny puppies are learning machines, so the best breeders start reward-based training of manners behaviors by the time the puppies are a few weeks old.
Good Dog Breeders Plan Their Breedings
The care and time involved in raising puppies, and the limits of what can be asked of a female dog’s body, mean you’ll probably have to wait a while for a puppy from a good breeder. A good dog breeder probably won’t plan a breeding until she has homes waiting for as many puppies as the litter is likely to include. And you will not get a puppy from her by sending her an email and plugging your credit card information into Paypal.
Good Dog Breeders Make Sure Their Puppies Go to Good Homes
She’ll want to meet you, and she’ll want answers to many questions about your life, your house or apartment, your landlord if you have one, what exercise and training you plan to give the dog, how much experience you have with dogs, and what drew you to her breed. She’ll make you agree in writing to return your dog if things don’t work out. She may even choose a puppy for you, because she’s the one who knows the litter best. I was once contacted by a breeder who refused to sell a perfectly nice but inexperienced woman a puppy unless the woman agreed to hire a reward-based trainer to work with her.
A Good Dog Breeder Welcomes Your Visits
A good breeder will encourage you to visit the puppy in the weeks before he’s ready to leave his litter. Which is fine, because you’ll also want to visit the breeder, especially if you found her on the Internet. Probably most people know that all puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills, but many haven’t caught on that anybody can put up a pretty website with stock photos of home-reared puppies. (7) Go in person to make sure the reality matches. It’s a red flag if the breeder will ship you a puppy without meeting you. Same goes if she asks all the right questions but discourages a visit and instead offers to meet you in a convenient parking lot halfway between your homes, where she’ll hand over the puppy of your dreams.
Do You Need to Meet a Puppy’s Mom?
It’s often said that you should meet both parents of the puppy you want. That isn’t necessarily so, because the sire may be owned by someone other than the breeder who has the dam. But if you’re warned away from the mother dog, or she’s mysteriously unavailable, go elsewhere. Temperament is largely heritable. An aggressive mother certainly can produce nice pups, but why lower your odds of getting a friendly companion? Besides, the person who has bred an aggressive dog is not someone whose work you want to support.
Find a Breeder Through the National Breed Club
If you plug into Google the name of your breed, plus “breeders,” you will be brought to despair at the bajillion hits on obvious puppy brokerages and puppy mills. You can cut through the commercial noise a couple of ways. The American Kennel Club’s website includes informational pages on all AKC breeds, with links to each breed’s national club. In turn, the breed club’s site will include a breeder referral page. The breed clubs have codes of ethics that members subscribe to, so this supplies an initial filter for your search. (But see note 4, below; the code of ethics isn’t always all that ethical.)
Find a Breeder by Word of Mouth
A second source of breeder referrals is word of mouth. I’m afraid this doesn’t mean your neighbor who has a nice dog, unless said neighbor has special expertise. Rather, talk to people who participate in formal obedience, agility, herding competitions, and the like.
Find a Breeder Who Participates in Rescue Work
Finally, there’s my preferred route. Get in touch with breed rescue groups (search on your breed’s name plus “rescue,” or find rescue groups through the breed club’s site). Ask to be put in touch with breeders who always take responsibility for relinquished dogs that turn out to have been bred by them. Better yet, talk to the breeders who participate actively in rescue work. And find out, if you can, which breeders don’t take back their dogs. The ones who do are the ones who really care. You’ll still have to verify the breeder’s expertise, of course.
If you buy from a pet store, an Internet broker, or anybody who breeds to score beauty pageant prizes or to make a few bucks, you’re supporting the suffering of animals exactly like the companion you love. Yes, it’s a project to find a really good breeder. And the odds are high you won’t get a puppy tomorrow or next week. Some legwork and patience are a small price to pay if you want a puppy from someone who genuinely cares about dogs’ welfare.
Quick and Dirty Tip for Choosing a Good Dog Breeder
Last, here’s your guiding principle when choosing a good dog breeder: At every stage, ask yourself whether the breeder is behaving the way you would behave if you cared about the puppies you produced, and you wanted them to enjoy healthy, happy lives. If the breeder’s policies and actions don’t reflect such loving-kindness, go elsewhere.
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1. See Mark Derr, Dog’s Best Friend: Annals of the Dog-Human Relationship (Henry Holt, 1997), chapter 6, “The Ugliness of Beauty,” especially pp. 215ff. This is one of the best books ever written about dogs.
2. Many people in the working Border Collie community oppose AKC registration. Some Bulldog breeders, using outcrosses, say on their websites that they have attempted to produce what they call “Olde English Bulldogges” that (unlike AKC-registered English Bulldogs) are “free breathers, free breeders, and free whelpers” – that is, they can breed and give birth naturally and don’t suffer from respiratory problems. I haven’t researched these dogs and don’t know whether the claims made for them are true. The Wikipedia article “Purebred (dog)” also discusses the closed stud book/open stud book/registration controversy.
3. See the website of the Canine Genetic Diseases Network; “Purebred Dog Breeds into the Twenty-first Century: Achieving Genetic Health for Our Dogs,” by Dr. Jeffrey Bragg (Canadian); the website of the UK Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, with a link to the RSPCA report on the health of pedigreed dogs; Michael D. Lemonick, “A Terrible Beauty,” Time, June 24, 2001; Jean Dodds, DVM, “Guide to Hereditary and Congenital Diseases in Dogs.”
4. Check out, for instance, these videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_z3fgk9bQw&NR=1 (German Shepherd Dog; watch how his hindquarters wobble and how at several points he’s walking on his metatarsals) and
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIaM3hYFszc (starts with Dachshunds and Bull Terriers but mainly focuses on German Shepherd Dogs).
In the Rhodesian Ridgeback, the ridge is the breed’s most characteristic feature, but associated with it is a condition called dermoid sinus, itself related to spina bifida. Dermoid sinus is rare or nonexistent in Ridgeback puppies who are born without the ridge. In the UK, the breed club code of ethics used to call for ridgeless puppies to be culled – that is, killed. In the US, the breed club code of ethics doesn’t overtly require the killing of ridgeless puppies but seems to leave this decision up to the breeder: “When puppies with serious defects or faults (Dermoid Sinus, ridgelessness) are sold rather than culled, the breeder must take the extra responsibility to see that the dog is spayed or neutered.” In other words, the U.S. breed club’s ethical code permits the killing of healthy puppies because they don’t meet a cosmetic standard that is itself associated with a serious health condition.
5. See Straus, Mary, “Guaranteed Stone-Free Dalmatians? Yes! British Kennel Club Registers First ‘Low Uric Acid’ Dalmatian; So Far, the AKC Won’t.” The Whole Dog Journal 13:6 (June 2010), p. 4.
6. Cockapoos, Labradoodles, Goldendoodles, Chorkies, and so on are plain old mixed breeds. The genetics are beyond my ability to explain, but in a nutshell, the difference is this. If you breed, say, Border Collies for generation after generation, you get dogs that look and act like Border Collies. The various kinds of “designer dogs” don’t breed true in this way (though some breeders are trying to produce a Labradoodle that does). To call these dogs “pure”breeds constitutes deceptive marketing.
7. The pet store staff may try to tell you otherwise. Laugh in their faces. Here’s a useful guide to “pet store doublespeak,” by the Humane Society of the United States.
It’s important to note, by the way, that many ethical pet supply shops provide space to local rescue groups or host on-site adoption events. This, obviously, is a good thing, although rescue groups also vary in quality – a topic for another article.
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