I’m going to set semantics aside for the moment — not to mention, again, the issue of whether or not rescue would be preferable to getting a dog from a breeder. People are going to get dogs from breeders, whether you approve or not. They should be able to recognize the good ones.
Whatever a breeder calls herself, whether professional, hobbyist, or fancier, these are the things you should look for once you’ve decided on a breed and come up with some possible breeder candidates (see Dog Breeding and Its Discontents, Part 1).
Phase 1: Weeding out the seedy breeders
Before making a trip to visit the premises, ask the following questions:
- Do you always have puppies available?
This is a trick question. An affirmative answer suggests that mama dog is kept bare-pawed and pregnant more frequently than is good for her health. Once-a-year breeding is ideal; more than twice borders on abuse. Good breeders keep a list of interested buyers to contact when the next litter is available.
A corollary of this question is “How soon after he’s born can I get the puppy?” Be suspicious of any breeder willing to separate a puppy from dam and siblings before eight weeks.
- Will I be able to meet the parents of my puppy so I can get a sense of the offspring’s appearance and temperament?
There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make the mother’s acquaintance. If the father can’t be present — and you’re within your rights to ask why not — request to see documents proving that poppa has been registered with the AKC or UKC. (Beware someone who says that they’ve got documentation from, say, the Siberian Kennel Club–even if you’re looking at Siberian Huskies.)
- Can you provide references from a local vet and from families who have purchased puppies from you?
Be sure to follow up with them all if for no other reason than that it’s fun to chat with fellow admirers of the breed to hear about the joys — and travails — of bringing up the pups.
- What potential health problems is the breed subject to?
This is another trick question. If the breeder answers “none,” that’s a sign of either ignorance or dishonesty. All breeds are predisposed toward certain health problems; good breeders work diligently to avoid them. You need to know how severe any inherited condition might be and — more important — whether a puppy from a litter you’re contemplating has in fact inherited it.
If you decide to get a puppy from a breeder, it’s completely kosher to request documentation from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals — an organization devoted to reducing the incidence of a wide range of genetic diseases — that the parents and grandparents have been tested and shown to be defect free.
Phase 2: Peering around the premises
Assuming a breeder has passed these preliminary pup quizzes, it’s time to head out to see how the dogs are kept. If a breeder has a problem with your visiting when no puppies are available (see “Assessing the Litter,” below) then you have a problem with the breeder.
Look for the following:
- Do the dogs you encounter seem healthy, upbeat, and friendly toward strangers?
If they slink off or bark frantically, you might consider slinking off, too.
- Where do the dogs stay? Are they allowed indoors and kept in clean, well-maintained areas, or are they confined in smelly outdoor pens? Do they have sufficient room for exercise?
Or, in short, is this a place you wouldn’t wish on a dog.
- Does the breeder use harsh methods to make the dogs behave?
A well-behaved dog doesn’t necessarily mean a happy dog, just one that’s toed the line. I have no idea if stress hormones have an impact on the development of puppies (though why wouldn’t they?); I just wouldn’t want to buy a dog from a mean breeder. Shock collars, prong collars, invisible fences… to me, all are signs that the breeder doesn’t know dogs very well. Those who do should be able to keep them in line with humane methods.
Phase 3: Getting to know me
A breeder should be interested in you, too, not just in your money. Some signs that the well-being of the dog is foremost to the breeder include:
- Multiple, relaxed visits are encouraged with your entire family.
- You’re asked why you want a dog and who in the family will be responsible for her daily care.
- You’re required to provide proof from your landlord or co-op board that you’re allowed to have a dog (if you live in a building like one where I used to live in Manhattan, you should be asked for verification that the puppy has personally passed muster with the co-op board).
- If you already have another dog, you’re asked for references from a vet.
Phase 4: Assessing the litter
This is perhaps the toughest phase because actually viewing puppies is bound to cloud your ability to think clearly. Nevertheless, try not to be swayed by their overwhelming cuteness and consider the following:
- Are the puppies kept with their mothers and siblings–and encouraged to interact with humans, too?
Duking it out for position with other dogs, being handled by humans, and being introduced to a variety of stimuli–all part of the process known as socialization–are essential to a well-balanced dog.
I gather that not all breeders agree that potential dog buyers be allowed to see the puppies in their early stages because of the risk of infection. I’m assuming that by this point in the negotiations breeder and potential owner know each other very well and the breeder knows how to avoid that risk.
Phase 5: Bringing home baby
When you’re ready to take your new puppy home you should expect
- A written contract that you will return the dog if you can’t keep her. Unless you get a show-quality dog, the contract is likely to include an agreement that you will spay or neuter him.
- Records of veterinary visits for the puppy, a detailed explanation of her medical history, and a clear list of what vaccinations she will need and when.
- Assurances that advice on the care and feeding of your new friend will be available when you need it.
No, a breeder isn’t required to be on call at all hours like a pediatrician, but one who cares about dogs will want to help you succeed in your new responsibilities, which can be overwhelming initially.
Adapted from Am I Boring My Dog.