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.

12 thoughts on “How to recognize a good dog breeder”

  1. As the owner of a fearful dog I would only add that the breeder has had the pups temperament tested by someone who has genuine qualifcations and that the buyer is given a copy of the results. GREAT points though!!!

    1. Thanks, Barrie, much appreciated. I didn’t know that temperament testing could be done with puppies; I thought it was only for adult dogs, and often used on mixed breeds (like my own fearful dog). At what age are they tested? Roughly, how is it done? Is it a nature vs nurture thing? Tell me more…

  2. Starting right off with trick questions is dishonest. If they always have pups available it does NOT mean necessarily they breed too much. They may have – as a professional – 12 and have an average of a litter per month, in which case there would normally be pups available. But then that brings other criticism.

    Some dogs – especially working dogs that are very bonded and don’t “get out much” can to outside eyes appear “unsocialized”. I had a very social border collie once who was terrified of children – she’d never been around them ’cause I don’t have kids. She’d face down a 1500 pound cow but kids scared her.

    Working livestock guardians SHOULDN’T be friendly to anyone – can hardly keep thieves out if being welcoming. Reservation and standoffishness is NOT always indication of abuse or negative situations!

    Again why is show quality the only indication of quality for breeding? Many world caliber herding dogs are not show quality but are sound, healthy and excellent dogs to have. One of the border collie legends had a blue eye that would keep him out of the show ring – so his line has no value? I don’t think so! There are others who also breed for working purposes.

    Finally, there is increasingly excellent reason to not allow anyone to do such “inspections” – personal safety!! Dog owners have been killed in very public cases by people meeting for puppies; animal rights extremists have no qualms about gathering false information and threatening personal safety; even just run of the mill thugs may not want the puppy but an in to look over what you have to come back later for theft.

    It is not a nice world for breeders; with these things plus adding in liability issues that are increasing all the time there is no way I would invite anyone to my home. There is not enough money to pay for one puppy to jeopardize my safety and that of my other animals. I also very seldom have puppies for sale anymore; but would not expect to go to someone’s home as a prerequisite to purchase of a puppy.

    1. Thanks for your perspective, Jan. A few points I’d like to address.
      — The breeding operation you describe would have to be very, very large for 12 breeding mothers and their puppies to be kept comfortably. And you don’t address the issue of the dogs — and their puppies — living inside a home, essential for socialization. A house that would host all those dogs would have to be a McMansion.
      — I don’t think show quality is an indication of quality for breeding. I mention the UKC — more focussed on health than on physical breed conformity in my view — as well as the AKC. If you’re going to breed dogs, though, you need some information about heritage. Where else are you going to get it than through the registries that kennel clubs offer?
      –I understand the need for personal safety, but believe that screening can be done on both sides. You can ask the person who is interested in a dog how he or she found you — and check that reference. You can discuss the breed, ask why the person wants a puppy. In short, there are many red flags that potential breeders can look for in clients as well as vice versa. I would welcome such a list.

  3. Great post, some very good point made.

    I would add that you can also request to see results of health screens for both dam and sire, even both grandparents.

    If you’re working with a breeder who takes in to consideration: health, (which should be a given), conformation, temperament, movement etc., then this request shouldn’t be an issue, as they will carry copies.

    And yes as mentioned temperament testing which is best done at 7 weeks, can be done. Although in my experience the personality of a pup can and will change depending on its experiences with the environment.

    Good info here: http://www.volhard.com/pages/pat.php

    1. Thanks, Angela. Your additions are very useful; people need to know that they have rights to a LOT of information, especially if they’re going to be screened too. Barrie provided the link to the Volhard test on Twitter. I appreciate your posting it here.

      I was wondering about the nature/nurture issues that temperament testing raises. Even the most laid-back dog, raised in the best home, can have a frightening experience that can alter his personality. As any shrink — or Zen master — can tell you, we can’t control everything. But we can try to do our best to give dogs a good start in life.

  4. I disagree that 12 is very very large or that they can’t be comfortable. Perhaps it is perspective. if someone has, for example, a dozen working guardian dogs, they would NOT be in a home but still cared for, socialized. We want working characteristics and soundness – are the sheep/goats/cattle etc inside the home? Then how can the dogs protect them if they’re not WITH the animals? Working dogs can still be socialized – they SHOULD be handled on a regular basis. But their job is protection of the livestock and that can’t be done inside a house. So if someone has 2-3 pastures and each pasture has 2-3 dogs that’s up to 9 dogs right there. (And good reasons for having 3 in each!) Put another 2-3 in the barn and one in the yard around the house and none are crowded or doing without!

    I know someone with 10 dogs – not breeders – in a singlewide mobile home.Not impossible. They’re fed, housed, inside most the time but outside yard time too. A mobile certainly is not a McMansion! Also a dozen 10-15 pound dogs take up much less room than a dozen Danes or hounds.

    I’ve got 4 mutts sleeping at my feet as I type, a German shepherd snoozing in the living room, hound on the front porch and 2 dogs in the back yard at the moment – now they aren’t breeding dogs but that’s 7 and I guarantee this is no mansion! Yes puppies take more room

    I also know of some breeders who had a couple rows whelping kennels in their basement and yes usually had puppies for sale. They had the main kennel in a separate shed, suffice to say more than 12 breeding females. I guarantee you every one of those dogs and puppies were socialized and got plenty of attention! They rotated through and past a certain point they would spay a female and she’d be a house dog then. Top class place, but not all dogs lived in the house.

    Humans think dogs must live in the house – that there’s no other way to care for them.

    As for heritage – the border collie, anatolian shepherd and several other breed registries DO have information about heritage but it’s discounted as unreliable compared to the AKC. But then there’s the ones who don’t have heritage, health testing etc. – the puggles, buggs, etc etc and yet if you search youtube etc people slamming breeders also fall over themselves to get these crossbreds.

    The kind of people asking “trick questions” are not going to be honest about how they found the perso, what they want etc. Additionally seeing the pup on neutral ground gives a much better idea what they’re like “in the world”. Be it rabbits, cats, dogs, etc etc there are too many reports of people being threatened, having lies told against them and other personal attacks. There’s the goat breeder who had a man stop to buy a goat and once behind the house grabbed her by the throat. Her husband was home but milking and couldn’t hear but the newly aquired Anatolian Shepherd cleared a 4′ dutch door and sent the man packing. Unsocialized rogue dog? NO! The dog did his JOB protecting his family and property. Yet would not hold up on several counts as a good dog/breeder.

    People have had death threats for breeding; for people disagreeing with them. Activists have lied and misrepresented but breeders lose animals. For those willing to take the risk more power to them. But those who value personal safety and privacy should not be deemed an unreliable breeder, puppy mill or other negative connotation for taking care of themelves first!

  5. Hi,

    I finally got around to reading this article (something very near and dear to my heart, I must say!). I have worked/dealt with breeders of all sorts, and the pups produced by them.

    Temperament testing: personally, I believe it should be done with the sire and dam before the breeding takes place. Studies have shown that certain temperament issues (fear in particular) are passed on genetically. If a breeder (and I’m not going to get into the semantic argument about the different ‘flavors’ — to me, there’s only two: Breeding for the betterment of the breed, and breeding for cash — flame away!) has brought up the sire and dam well, and knows the pedigree of each intimately, breeding a behaviorally-healthy pup is a bit easier. However, once that pup goes home, it’s a nature VIA nurture thing — no matter how great the pup was, lapses in continuing socialization and mishandling can wreak havoc.

    To Jan: MY personal issue with having more than one or two litters on the ground at once is the sheer volume of TIME that’s necessary to care for and socialize the pups correctly. As a behavior specialist, I’ve SEEN what happens to dogs that aren’t fully socialized… and it’s a ‘killer’, literally. While I understand your point that flock guarders (for example) don’t need to love everyone, they DO need to be handleable when they aren’t guarding. Guarding breeds DO need to be able to ‘turn off’ the job when necessary. In your example of the Anatolian, as long as this only happened when needed, then there’s no problem. However, I’ve had clients with working breeds who acted that way toward anyone — including family friends and children who were brought in by the owners — no matter what the context. To me, that’s not a well-brought-up and/or well-bred dog. Its not just the breed, though, as I said above… it’s also what happens after the pup goes home.

    I deal with working dogs much of the time — and I also live with them. I specialize in Nordic and sled breeds, and was brought up with GSD’s, Dobies and Rotties, as well as other breeds. Breeding for workability is ALWAYS tops on my list, but temperament HAS to be in there as well.

    Another point: to me, an EXEMPLARY breeder is one who also educates the purchasers of their pups on the history, intentions, physiology, etc of their chosen breed. As well, an exemplary breeder won’t sell a pup to someone who is terribly unsuited to owning that particular breed. Case in point (and I have a ton of them) — older couple with physical limitations living in 3 room apartment was sold not one, but TWO Border Collie pups by a well-known working BC breeder. Both became incredible reactive as they got older, especially toward anything that moved. Owner’s way of handling it was to badger their vet for prozac. There’s no way you can argue that this is GOOD for those dogs… and I do blame the breeder for not saying “no”. (if you knew what we had to go through to get our dogs, you would be amazed…)

  6. Agree with you wigglebums – and with an average of a litter per month, selling @ 8 weeks, that’s two litters at a time. And obviously two litters of 10 each (guardian dogs) vs 2 litters of pet sized lap dogs of 2-3 each is a difference too! I agree 300% guarding dogs should be handled – BIG dogs that people can’t handle for basic vet care and such are a problem. heard of a pyr someone got and was told don’t handle them they need to bond to sheep. Well they do but still need to be handled! The dog learned well – couldn’t catch her; well she came in heat and a border collie caught her. She had pups – which also weren’t handled and had the power of her with the prey drive of the border collie and the zero discipline meant – well every pup in time was shot for killing sheep. It didn’t need to be. 🙁

    I think whatever someone breeds for do it with a goal; otherwise it’s just producing puppies. JMO.

  7. I have an invisible fence… why does that make me a ‘mean’ person or bad breeder? It was installed after one of the dogs (who also bark ‘frantically’ in excitement when people come) was run over and killed in my own driveway by a delivery person. The invisible fence allows the dogs to be outside but NOT on the driveway. I don’t think keeping my dogs safe makes me a bad breeder. My Hovawarts learned very quickly that the beep from the collar means back up, the intesity level on the collars is adjustable, and they probably haven’t been shocked since training them to the boundry years ago. Invisible fences are an affordable and safe option for my dogs.

    1. It probably does not. On the other hand I think Edie has a valid point too that it is one of the things to be weary of when selecting a breeder.
      Visited your website and love what you do for the Hovawart breed. I agree on mental testing before breeding as you write. I didn’t know the AKC is “against” that, it is standard in most European Hovawart Kennel Clubs.
      So you are not a bad breeder, what about becoming a perfect one? drop that fence and put a normal one up 🙂

  8. I have been breeding for thirteen years now. Currently Goldens and Hovawarts, and previously Poms. I would consider myself a Hobby breeder, because I breed for temperment, health and appearance. Not money. I will never forget when I went to an eye clinic, and standing in line I started talking to all these “professional” breeders… they complained about their dogs not mating, having to do AI, puppies being born deformed, losing whole litters, etc. I have never had a deformed puppy, my dogs mate naturally, and I never lost a puppy until two years ago when our golden delivered her first litter late at night on the couch and one of the pups was suffocated in a cushion. Our dogs are family dogs, with a fenced in yard, and they sleep with us in the house. We have no kennels. The puppies are born in our bedrooms (often on the bed), all the other dogs are in attendance, males usually to the side, while the other females share in the cleaning of newborns, Pups and mom are kept in my bedroom for the first week, and then brought to the whelping box in the living room. They are handled from birth on. Our retired dogs are family dogs. You will never see on our website our retired dogs for sale like the “professional” breeders do. It is horrible. And when I see “professional” breeders selling dogs without breeding rights, I realize how closed the genetic pool really is, because they are limiting the genetic divergence of the breed, and contributing to the health issues that are becoming so prevalent in specific breeds. I could go on, but I would buy a dogs from a ‘hobbyist’ like myself, any day over a ‘professional’ breeder.

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