Saturday, July 2, 2011

Identifying a Reputable Breeder, v.3

This post is targeted toward the average dog owner looking to buy a new companion and to provide a quick, easy reference guide on what questions to ask when buying a new puppy.  It also provides the kinds of answers that suggest the breeder in question cares about the health of her dogs and believes she is responsible for the lives she brings into the world.  The specifics are geared toward Americans, but the same basic principles apply elsewhere.

You'll find the best breeders by going to the breed club's website, finding their member directory, and calling or emailing them.  Few good breeders have a website, and even fewer have good websites.  Good breeders don't have a special license or certificate.  You will have to talk to them to figure out if they're worth getting a dog from.  Visiting dog shows or dog events is an excellent way to find good breeders, meet dogs, and find out about the breed.  Not every reputable breeder will be listed on the club websites, but the only other place to reliably find them is at dog shows and events.  Of course, not every breeder on the club website or at dog events will be reputable or responsible, so it's important to find out as much as you can about their breeding practices.  

This has been modified significantly since its first posting to be more in-depth and understandable.  Remember, these questions should be brought up in natural conversation with the breeder, not presented as a list or ultimatum.  Your breeder is, ideally, someone who will act as a resource for the life of your dog.  The breeder is interviewing you to see if you are a good home for one of the puppies as much as you are interviewing the breeder to determine the quality of the animals. 


1.    having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one's job or role. 
2.   being the primary cause of something and so able to be blamed or credited for it.


1.    having a good reputation.

1.   Why do you breed your dogs?  

What's best is an answer showing attentiveness towards the overall health and quality of the breed.  Breeding for performance, work, sport, or show prospects is one of the most legitimate answers you can receive.  You’re probably thinking, “But I don’t want a show or working dog.”  I Don’tWant a Show Dog, I Just Want a Pet, a blog post by Joanna Kimball, is worth reading if you’re not convinced that quality matters.  Even breeding healthy, stable companions is a great reason to breed provided the dogs are proven in some way (more on that later).  Answers along the lines of, “she needed to be a mother”, “to experience the miracle of life”, “they have the sweetest personalities”, “I wanted another [insert parent dog’s name here]”, or any candy-coated or poorly thought answer is not what you want to hear and certainly not a reason you want to buy a dog. Those candy-coated reasons are selfish and short-sighted; those breeders aren’t providing you with anything you can’t find at a shelter and they’re not taking the time to produce the best puppies they can.  They don’t offer the predictability of health, temperament, or behavior that a responsible breeder does and they don’t offer the knowledge and experience you should demand when purchasing a companion.

2.   Do you work, show, or do sports with your dogs?  

This question goes hand-in-hand with the one above.  These “extracurricular” dog activities are a way to evaluate the structure, behavior, temperament, and ability of the dogs being used for breeding.   Dog showing is not just a beauty contest; it’s a valuable venue to determine if the dog is a good representative of the breed and if the dog has good structure. If the breeder in question shows his or her dogs, ask them what they value in the ring.  You are seeking a show breeder who breeds for excellence in construction and physical soundness.  Someone who breeds for a nice coat, a pretty face, color, or appearance in general may be breeding beautiful dogs, but the overall health of the dog and the quality of the breed suffers. Physically demanding sports such as agility, sledding, or weight-pulling also demand a physically sound dog.  You will want to discuss what traits the breeder breeds for in finding a prospect for any sports and ask how successful the dogs are.  Knowing when and why past dogs have retired is a good follow-up question too.  A poorly constructed dog is not going to do well and will suffer from injuries early in life as a result.  Discuss the temperament bred for in the ring or on the field and determine if it's right for you.  If the breeder is breeding to make good companions and isn’t showing or working them in the traditional sense, ask what that breeder is doing to prove her dogs.  Dogs active in therapy programs like Therapy Dog International and Pet Partners, or puppies that have become active service dogs for the impaired or disabled, are excellent ways to evaluate companionship and temperament.  It is not enough for the breeder to say their dogs can be service dogs or make great companions; there has to be proof.  Take nothing at face value.  Ask for references of placed service dogs or the facility they visit for therapy work. Simple temperament testing of the puppies or breeding stock is not sufficient.

3.   How many times are your dogs bred?  

Unless the bitch is producing excellent puppies, there is usually little reason to breed beyond two or three times.  For further discussion on this topic, please see "Overbreeding".  You may want to ask “What age do you stop breeding?” as a follow up just for information’s sake.  Age seven is generally the latest a bitch should be bred.  Similarly, ask when the breeder begins breeding!  Two years is the absolute earliest a bitch or dog should be bred because that is the earliest a dog can have all of its health clearances. 

4.   Will I be able to meet the parents? or How many breeding pairs do you have?  

Many times, especially when buying online or through something like Craisglist or the newspaper, you will encounter a “puppy broker”.  These brokers are not the breeder, though they often pretend to be.  These dogs usually come from puppy mills or careless breeders looking to make a quick profit.  If you are unable to see the dam, just walk away.  You should always be able to meet the dam.  The sire is usually not owned by the breeder.  A good breeder knows the best mate for her bitch is usually not in her own backyard.  To complement temperament or structure, the breeder researches and finds the best dog to breed with.  That dog usually is owned by someone else in another state or even another country.  Breeding pairs are usually a large red flag because they mean the bitches are being bred more than two or three times—to the same dog, no less. Unless the pair produces astounding puppies every pregnancy, there is no excuse for this. An outside stud should be sought to bring in new genes and improve a breeder's lines, and the stud is not found without many hours of research.  There are few cases where breeding pairs are acceptable and used by ethical breeders. Beware any number greater than zero.

5.   What are common ailments in the breed?  

Any breeder will be able to tell you this information fully and completely.  In addition to this, you will want to ask the breeder about incidences of such ailments in her breeding stock, previous litters, and the lines of the dogs in general.  If she can’t provide it immediately, she should be able to do so without complaint or difficulty.  Ask about ailments that cannot be genetically tested for, also, such as arthritis, cancers, or skeletal problems.  Again, the breeder should willingly and easily provide this information.  Allergies, digestive problems, autoimmune disorders, soft tissue injuries, arthritis, cancers, tumors, ear infections, bad teeth, organ dysfunction, and many other health problems do not have a genetic test, but smart breeding can help reduce these problems. 

6.  Are your dogs tested for genetic disease and how do the results fit into your program?  

This is a point many bad breeders are catching on to and they are becoming increasingly skilled at lying to puppy buyers.  There is a difference between a “health test” and what most refer to as “health testing”.  Demand that the breeder produce the OFA certificate showing “fair”, “good”, or “excellent” hips, the CERF paperwork showing the results of a thorough eye exam dated within the past year, and any certificates showing the results of genetic blood testing for breed-specific ailments.  The Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) has a list of recommended health evaluations and genetic screenings by breed.  You can verify whether the breeder has tested her dogs for those tests on  Search for the dog by name, kennel name, or registration number.  If the results aren’t available there, the test most likely wasn’t done as claimed or the dog didn’t pass.  If the breeder says the tests were passed and they’re not listed on the website, you are being lied to.  Do not purchase a dog with the promise that the breeder will produce the certificates at some later date.  That, too, is a scam.  It is not enough that the breeder had their dogs’ hips X-rayed and examined by their personal veterinarian.  It is not enough that the dog had basic bloodwork done before being bred.  The sire, the dam, and other dogs in that dog’s lineage should have verifiable genetic testing results, hip evaluations, and eye evaluations.  Genetic tests and hip evaluations are good for the life of the dog.  Eye evaluations are only good for a year.  Elbow evaluations are common for large and giant dogs while knee evaluations are common for small dogs.  Doing tests and evaluations isn’t enough, either.  Ask what happens to dogs that get poor hip or elbow scores, are carriers for genetic disease, or have eye problems.  The breeder has to remove an unsound dog from the breeding program in order to improve health. Carriers should be bred with clear dogs. 

7. How long have your dogs lived and what have they died of?  

A good breeder will be able to tell you not only information about their own dogs, but about other dogs in their lines. You should be able to have a good idea of the longevity of your animal and what diseases to look for later in life.  A newer breeder may not be able to answer this for her own dogs, but should be able to obtain this information for you.  Most breeders would delight in sharing this information; it’s a red flag if the breeder seems put out or reluctant to provide it.

8.   Do you sell your dogs on a contract? and What does the contract contain? 

It’s not unusual for a great quality dog to come with a contract.  In fact, it’s more unusual for a great quality dog to come without one.  Ask for a copy of the contract for review before you make a commitment to buying a dog from that breeder so you know what is expected of both parties.  The contract should definitely contain a takeback or buyback clause good for any point in the dog’s life.  The contract usually has information on the dog’s registration, breeding rights, spay or neuter requirements, and perhaps other topics of importance to that breeder.  The contract will usually contain information about a health guarantee, also. 

9. Do you provide a genetic health guarantee? 

The health guarantee should last at least two whole years, cover any genetic disease and, as stated above, be included in the contract.  Genetic disease may not be apparent immediately and can take up to two years for symptoms to begin.  Many backyard breeders and puppy mills allow for a short-term health guarantee of a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months if they’re generous.  Oftentimes, the guarantee is only good if the dog is seen by a veterinarian within a small time frame after receiving the puppy.  The puppy should come to you vetted, healthy, free of worms, mites, or other parasites, and any possible problems made very clear.  Thus, if the guarantee you’ve been given is short-term, that breeder is not being honest about the healthcare their dogs have received and is not confident that their breeding has produced healthy, sound dogs.  Beware if the short-term health guarantee is reliant upon an initial vet exam.

10. If I can’t keep the dog any more at any time for any reason, would you take it back? 

This stipulation absolutely must be in the contract.  A breeder that does this is a breeder that stands by her dogs and understands that she is responsible for the lives she brings into the world no matter how old, sick, or unwanted they may become.  This gesture helps keep the dogs in a loving home and out of the shelter or rescue system.  It provides security to puppy buyers that the dog they love will never experience the hardship of being homeless.  It also removes the burden of rehoming the dog from the pet owner.  The dog will go back to its breeder to be cared for and matched with another suitable home by an expert, if possible.  The unexpected happens and nothing less than a lifetime takeback or buyback clause will fully protect the dog.  If nothing else, the breeder you support should offer this service.

11. What happens to puppies that don’t find homes?  

Many breeders have wait lists before they even breed the dog.  These lists aim to ensure there is a home for every puppy.  If the breeder doesn’t have enough homes lined up, under no circumstances should they sell the puppies to a store or broker or drop them off at the shelter.  Puppies should stay with their breeder until the right home comes along, whether that’s an extra week or a few extra years.  No reputable breeder will compromise their ability to select a proper home for the dog.  Backyard breeders or puppy mills may lower the cost of the dog and sell it to whoever has the money rather than to whoever would be the right home.  Advertisements on craigslist, in the newspaper, or puppy websites like Puppyfind are from breeders with little concern beyond the money in the buyer’s pocket.  Those sorts of ads guarantee that the breeder is not producing quality animals and does not stand by her dogs. Individual breeder websites with Paypal links are an immediate sign that the breeder is only concerned with money.  No respectable breeder will allow puppies to be paid for online, sight unseen. 

12. Can you describe a day in the life of your dogs?  

Ask related questions about the location of where the dogs eat, sleep, live, or anything else you can think of! Ideally, such information will be volunteered.  You are looking for dogs that are living happy, healthy lives.  A visit to the breeder’s home is necessary to confirm the information that is portrayed, usually after lengthy conversation and before comitting to buying a dog from them.  Never agree to pick up the puppy off-site. A breeder reluctant to let you see the living conditions of the dogs is hiding something.

13. Are your dogs registered? or Will my puppy have papers?  

Contrary to popular belief, “papers” are not what determines whether the dog is quality or not.  Registration is merely a tracking mechanism and is not an indicator of quality by itself.  There are multiple registries in the US but only one of them is widely used by reputable and responsible breeders: the AKC, or American Kennel Club.  The UKC, or United Kennel Club, is also fairly reputable.  The difference between the organizations and the value of registration with each is beyond the scope of this article.  Other registries exist but are merely puppy mill registries or registration bodies meant to deceive the buyer.  Examples of these registries include the Continental Kennel Club (CKC/ConKC) or American Pet Registry Inc. (APRI). Sometimes, dogs will be registered with the Canadian Kennel Club, often called the CanKC to distinguish itself from the American and irreputable CKC.  Always remember: AKC registration alone is not a mark of quality, but it can be a useful indicator.  Most good breeders will sell a dog with limited registration, meaning the dog can be registered but puppies of that dog cannot.  Full registration allows for breeding rights, but that is usually reserved for show or performance homes.  Bad breeders will often sell full registration for extra money to anyone who has the cash.

14. What age do you let your puppies go?  

For the average dog owner, the puppy should come home no sooner than 8 weeks.  More and more literature suggests that puppies benefit from staying even later than that, as puppies learn vital skills about how to be a dog during their time with their mothers and siblings.  Some breed clubs have even set a 10 or 12 week minimum age of release.  In some states, it is illegal to sell a puppy before it reaches a certain age.  At weeks 5-8, the puppy is learning valuable skills like bite inhibition, social rules, and how to speak dog.  Removing a dog from its litter before 8 weeks can result in a mentally or emotionally stunted dog, and those problems may manifest as aggression as the dog grows older. 

15. What socialization do you offer your puppies?  

The effects of thorough and early exposure to many people, situations, and experiences have a profound and lasting effect on the dog throughout its lifetime.  Socialization is vital in creating a solid, even-tempered dog.  In fact, a lot of fear usually attributed to abuse most likely stems from lack of socialization.  The breeder should be making huge efforts to socialize the pups according to what is demanded by a pet home and also what is required by her breeding goals.  Most puppies should be raised indoors and exposed to literally everything that ever happens in a house.  They should also get to go outside, meet new people, meet other animals and adult dogs, be exposed to nail trimmings and other grooming procedures, and maybe even be exposed to gun fire, agility equipment, or other circumstances they may encounter as pets, hunters, working dogs, or in other roles.  A puppy litter that grows up without much exposure to the bustling world is going to be face developmental challenges, fearfulness, or anxiety that could have been easily and readily avoided.  Homes seeking a companion should avoid litters reared mostly outside with little socialization opportunities. 

The bare minimum a breeder can do to be responsible is breed healthy and stable dogs, be a knowledgeable resource and caretaker of the breed, and be there for their puppies or puppy buyers throughout the lifetime of the dog.  If you can find a breeder who does these things, you have found someone worth talking to.  The other points addressed define a truly remarkable breeder rather than a simply responsible one. Ideally, the breeder you want to support is someone who favorably answers all of the above questions.  

The dialog between you and the breeder in question should not be limited to whether the breeder is any good or not.  A breeder is a resource for the life of your dog and it’s important that both of you are comfortable with one another and your ideologies.  The following short list has been provided to facilitate further conversation.

  • Tell them your situation (first dog ever, first dog living alone, want an adult, looking for a puppy) and ask if they have any dogs now or will have any in the future to suit you. 
  • Is there a particular vaccination schedule you recommend?
  • What food do you feed?
  • Have any of your puppies gone on to earn titles in sports? 
  • Do you recommend any training techniques?
  • Any other questions that you, the new owner, may have about the breed, the breeder, dogs in general, or the breeder’s dogs.
  • Can you recommend any other breeders?

It’s highly recommended that you visit the site and meet the mother before committing to purchasing a dog from that person.  Be wary of a breeder not willing to let you visit.  Prepare yourself to have the willpower to say no if something doesn’t feel right when you go to pick your puppy up.  You may be able to find information about their kennel on the internet, too, and see what other owners have to say about that breeder.  Finally, you should avoid your puppy being shipped unless necessary.  Meeting the breeder and seeing the dam and the condition of the home is something first-time buyers should do if at all possible.

If the breeder you are interviewing does not pan out, don't panic.  Return to your breed's national or regional club website, search the breeder directory, and choose the next one on the list.  Remember, not every breeder in the club will be reputable, but almost every available reputable breeder will be listed in the club--if not nationally, then locally.  Never rush into getting a dog.  The decision to get a dog from a reputable source is a great one worthy of great patience.  Not only will you be purchasing a top-quality dog, you'll be gaining a resource for life: your breeder, who will be there to support you through every bump in the road if you so require it.  Good luck in your search, be patient, and you will be able to enjoy a quality dog for many years to come. 

I hope you enjoyed my “Adopting a Dog” series!  My next post is Corgi specific.  Thanks for reading.  If you have any more questions about identifying reputable breeders or why some practices are more responsible than others, do not hesitate to ask. 


  1. No offense, but I don't believe breeders need to be coddled when talked to about issues that for all intents and purposes are ultimatums. If someone tells you that, no, they don't test for hip dysplasia, that is a deal breaker -- and as well it should be! Buyers should not feel bullied for making a list, or rude, or like they're telling someone "their business." Be direct! You have every right. You are making a 12-15 year financial and emotional commitment here, so you have just as much at stake. If a breeder really cares about their dog they will appreciate the fact that you are doing your best to be informed and ready, and not interrogating them for the fun of it.

    1. I believe that you are going to be much more successful in searching for a dog if you are pleasant and don't overwhelm the breeder with questions all at once. I don't see this as coddling them or feeling bullied, I just see it as proper etiquette. I have heard of people laying down a list in an email and they don't get a response at all from very good breeders, or the breeder gets annoyed or overwhelmed on the phone. My own breeder has said that while she loves it when people ask these questions (because that means they know what they are doing), she does get tired of answering all of them at once and she would much prefer they be asked gradually within conversation so she gets a better feel for the type of person she is talking to. Presenting these questions as one big list gives the breeder less opportunity to interview you as well. The answers to these questions are all vital and they could all be deal-breakers for a particular buyer, and their importance is not diminished by asking for them in a conversation vs all at once. Ask the most important questions first (health testing, contracts, etc) and if the buyer receives an unfavorable answer, then they should stop the conversation. You can be direct and choosy without presenting a list. Of course, a buyer can do whatever he or she pleases! I just feel they'll be most successful by not presenting a list.

  2. I like your article here, but I think you've got a couple points that could be refined better.

    1. A bitch's age at retirment REALLY varies a lot. Seven is fairly normal for a large breeds, but 8 (rarely older than that) isn't unheard of for smaller breeds.

    2. Spay/neuter- there are some very good arguments AGAINST spay/neuter (or at least delaying it until full maturity, especially in large and giant breeds. Many reputable breeders (particularly those involved with sports as their primary venue) will not have a spay/neuter requirement but will require a non-breeding contract (limited registration or similar) instead.

    3. Age that puppies should leave is a VERY hotly debated subject. As a trainer with almost 15 years of experience, I want my working or herding breed puppy home before their first fear period (around 11 weeks) and well-settled in. A toy breed puppy who tends to be less environmentally suspicious and more prone to liking all strangers, I am less concerned. With large breeds who tend to have large litters, there are simply not enough hours in the day to socialize each puppy individually to the variety of settings and stimuli that a dedicated owner with ONE puppy will be able to do. With toy breeds, later is much more common, especially due to the risk of hypoglycemia. Anything less than 8 weeks should be a red flag- but there's a great deal of variety past that, and it should be a point of discussion, not a dealbreaker.

    1. Hey, thanks a lot. I really appreciate your input. This article needs some work and I will consider refining those particular points of discussion when I go to edit it!