Pandemic puppies may just be the new sourdough and while I am the first to agree that life is absolutely better with a dog, the number of less reputable breeders ramping up ‘production’ to meet the sudden spike in demand is at best worrisome.
Chances are that if you’re reading this you already have a puppy so please know that regardless of where you found your furbaby you STILL HAVE AN AWESOME DOG, deserving of every chance to become the best doggo they can be. But if you know someone looking for puppy, or for your next family addition, this article is intended to help you understand what impact your choice of breeder may have.
This has nothing to do with breed-snobbery and everything to do with shedding some light on the business of producing puppies. When you invest in a breeder what you are ideally paying for is someone who is dedicated not only to the health and temperament of their own dogs, but of the breed as a whole. They go to great lengths to raise healthy, well-adjusted dogs AND ensure that they get placed in the most suitable home. They are not in the business of just selling puppies.
Most of us have seen pictures of puppy mill busts depicting dogs in filthy and abusive conditions but please know that many are pristine operations with charming phone operators, slick websites and captivating social media. Simply maintaining hygienic conditions is a really low bar when it comes to raising puppies. Be prepared to scratch below a shiny surface.
Top 10 qualities of a responsible breeder:
It’s not a simple transaction. They will interview you as though you were asking for their first-born child. The application form may be long. They will not only ask for references but check them thoroughly to ensure that you are worthy of one of their puppies. This is as it should be for a 10-15 year commitment. They should be happy to provide references of their own, often including trainers and veterinarians.
They will take the dog back at any time, for any reason. They should have some form of Must Return to Breeder clause in their contract. They are not only committed to their puppies for life, they will be there for support along the way and actually want you to stay in touch.
They focus on ONE breed of dog. Maybe two but no more. It takes years to become an expert in any one breed and a lot of time to raise healthy, well-adjusted litters. They should have extensive knowledge of the breed standard and will be honest about both pros and cons. Word to the wise: volume producers know that this is a popular question and divide their websites up by breed so crosscheck contact info.
They will spend more time talking about their adults (both breeding and retired) than about litters for sale. They will know each dogs’ personality intimately and be happy to discuss their history and accomplishments.
They will be specific about which health tests have been performed and provide clear documentation. Depending on the breed, different tests may be required. Know beforehand what your chosen breed may be prone to. ‘Health tested’ and ‘DNA-verified’ are meaningless terms. Good breeders will also be honest about the fact that these are not an absolute guarantee. But you are paying for their due diligence to reduce that risk.
They probably won’t have a litter of pups available. You may have to wait. A while. This is because they breed mature dogs only (age 2 and up) and only once per year. Ask about the reproductive history of their dogs and if they hesitate to answer, walk away.
They understand how important those first 8 weeks are and provide enriched environments. In addition to feeding and cleaning, they are observing puppies daily to assess individual temperament. They are proactively socializing them: introducing them to new people, taking them on car rides, providing mentally stimulating toys and general environmental enrichment. Puppies maturing in this type of environment actually grow more brain and are more resilient to stress later in life, making them easier to train and live with. So if having a calmer dog who is less prone to over-excitability, anxiety and fearful behaviour is important – be sure to pay attention to what your breeder is doing during this critical developmental phase. For more information on the benefits of early enrichment, check out well-known trainer and Bull Terrier breeder Jane Killion’s The Enrichment Effect.
They will encourage you to visit and meet at least the Dam. Pandemic conditions may restrict this but you should be provided with some way to get to know them. If you would not wish to own the Dam or Sire yourself, walk away.
They will have another source of income. Given all the time invested in the above, you can appreciate that good breeding isn’t that lucrative. Just because a breeder is charging a lot of money and their puppies look adorable doesn’t mean they have done a good job.
They will choose a puppy for you. They may take your wishes into account with respect to looks and gender but their primary goal is to ensure that the pup’s temperament is well-suited to you, your dog-owning experience and your lifestyle. This helps ensure a happily ever after for everyone concerned. They will insist on keeping puppies until at least 7 to 8 weeks of age, sometimes longer if they are proactively socializing. They will not try to sell you a training (or ‘imprinting’) program.
It is not possible to discuss best breeding practices without specifically mentioning the Doodles and other ‘designer mixes’. They are wildly popular and deservedly so in my opinion – they are adorable! But because they are cross-breeds (yes, mutts), there is no standard for appearance or more importantly, temperament. So it’s even more important to do your due diligence. If you are going to pay thousands of dollars for a puppy, you should understand what that money is – or should be – going towards. There absolutely are good Doodle breeders out there, it just takes a little more effort to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Finally, It’s worth noting that there are many dogs (including purebreeds and Doodles) in need of a second chance. So if you have your heart set on a specific breed you might still consider adoption. Yes, rescues can come with some baggage but ‘this is so easy’ said no new puppy parent ever 🤣 Finding a good rescue (yes, there are bad rescue groups) will be the topic of another post.
There are no guarantees with genetics (at least not yet) but a lot of work goes into responsible breeding, beyond looks and hygiene. If you have your heart set on a specific kind of puppy, and you would like a dog who is easy to train and not prone to excitability, anxiety, fear or aggression, take the time to do a little homework and be prepared to wait. As someone who spends a lot of time with people and their new puppies, I assure you it will be worth the effort.