So, you presumably know what breed you are interested in, and what age would be the best fit for you. Now all that is left is to determine where, why, and how to go about adopting that new member of the family. There is one last question you need to ask yourself before you begin searching for your new canine pal: what do you expect from your dog? If companionship is all you desire, consider adopting your dog from a shelter or other rescue/re-homing situation. If you are seeking performance, optimal health, and/or strict adherence to breed standard in conformation or temperament, adopt from a reputable breeder. These are the only two acceptable avenues of obtaining a dog, no exceptions.
Rescues and Shelters
If you live in America and are even remotely interested in pets, then it should come as no surprise that the shelter dog problem is absolutely massive. The ASPCA estimates 5-7 million pets are placed in shelters each year. The number one reason for dogs in shelters is irresponsible pet ownership and/or ignorance, not the fault of the dogs themselves. Looking at the tags on the kennel doors, “no longer wanted”, “needed to move”, “dog growled at kids”, “dog snapped at owner” are very pervasive. Time, effort, and basic behavioral psychology are often all that was required to keep what was supposed to be an integral member of the family. As such, dogs in shelters and rescues are often more challenging because of their past experiences and lack of training, but nothing a new owner can't handle with proper preparation. With a little extra love and attention, any shelter dog can be turned into the dog you want them to be.
The local shelter or pound is an excellent place to seek mixed breed dogs of any age. The shelter may occasionally receive pure breeds, as well. You may have to wait a little before the right dog comes along, but in the meantime, you can check Petfinder.com for dogs in your surrounding shelters. Patience is key, especially at this point in your dog search. You should not compromise what you want or need because you cannot wait for the right dog.
If the type of dog you are looking for simply is not in any shelters or you are seeking a little more background on the dog before you adopt, you can always look into foster programs or breed specific rescues in your area. To find breed specific rescues, a simple search for “[breed] rescue [state abbreviation]” in any search engine will begin pointing you in the right direction. Fostering allows the rescue organization to really know each dog and better match them to a forever home, rather than just any home that comes along that may not be better for the dog than the one it left. A dog's behavior in the shelter is different from the behavior in a home situation, and the foster owner will be able to tell you very specific aspects of behavior that may not be fully evaluated at the shelter. For example: does the dog bark at cars? Pull on the leash? Get along with other dogs? Howl at night? Rescue often involves lengthy paper work and may involve a waiting list, but don’t let that deter you from adopting!
“Breeders”, Problem Dogs, and the Shelter Dog Problem
Outside of shelters, there are many other places to get dogs. Craigslist, websites, the newspaper, pet shops, and other local “breeders” are all places that you can find dogs for sale. But, just because you can buy a dog from those places doesn’t mean that you should. All of the above mentioned places selling puppies have one thing in common: lack of responsibility for the dogs they have brought into the world. But, why is that necessarily a bad thing, and why should you care?
The biggest issue with irresponsible breeding operations is lack of concern for animal welfare. This is a demon with many faces, and while not every breeding operation will share all of the following qualities, every operation shares this one: inattentiveness to the genetic health of the animals. Pure bred dogs are prone to certain diseases as a result of their genetic makeup more so than other animals, and the presence of these diseases is inflated by “breeders”, your neighbors, that farm down the road, and anyone breeding dogs without first testing their breeding stock for diseases common to the breed and then removing affected animals from the breeding program. Even those breeding “designer dogs” or other mutts on purpose are not immune to the effects of genetic disease. For example, the genes for canine hip dysplasia in a Labrador are the same genes for canine hip dysplasia in a Poodle, so without proper health evaluations, the resulting mutts may be at a high risk for developing poor hips early in life. However, some diseases are a function of how the dog is shaped and cannot be completely avoided, such as reduced spinal inflexibility in dwarfed dogs or heat sensitivity in flat-faced dogs. For problems such as these, it is up to the seller to inform the buyer of the presence of these problems and how to deal with them, though that often means losing a sale so it is hardly, if ever, done. The “breeder” in question also has [an abandoned] responsibility to breed dogs that are experiencing little to no problems as a result of their shape and remove problematic dogs from the breeding program. Not only is genetic disease expensive for the owner, it’s physically and emotionally taxing on the dog which serves to severely lower the dogs’ quality of life. Extra cost up front for health testing of breeding stock goes a long way to ensure the happiness of the dog and of the future owner, but you won’t find this sort of attentiveness in any of the places mentioned above.
Many times, especially in the case of pet shop dogs and sometimes in the case of “breeders”, the dogs’ environment is severely compromised in order to reduce the amount of work animal husbandry demands and to maximize profits. Dogs are kept in cramped kennels and neglected. Lack of food and water is a common occurrence, and lack of exercise, mental stimulation, and socialization is guaranteed. The breeding females are bred every heat cycle until they are run into the ground. Oftentimes, when the animal can no longer produce puppies (i.e., when they can no longer produce profit), they are killed. Such operations are referred to as “puppy mills”. Typically, puppy mills exist with hundreds of dogs and a greedy overseer looking to do nothing but turn a profit from the animals. But, a puppy mill can also exist in someone’s backyard with just two dogs; anyone breeding dogs regularly for profit is a puppy mill. With such a large overpopulation problem, breeding should only be done with a legitimate purpose outside of profit, and rearing dogs in deplorable conditions for any reason is inexcusable.
Many “breeders” are eager to get the puppies out as soon as possible, but this has its own negative impacts on the health of the dog. Dogs are very social creatures, and they constantly learn social skills from the time they are born to the time they leave their mothers and siblings. They learn how to deal with frustration, bite inhibition, body language, sharing, how to play, how to communicate with other dogs, and many other crucial skills in those critical weeks. Every day is valuable to the mental development of such a rapidly growing animal, and removing a puppy too early puts the dog at a large social disadvantage and burdens the owner intensely in terms of future training and socialization that will need to be completed. No dog should be removed from its littermates before 8 weeks of age, and 10 weeks or even 12 are recommended as the minimum by many breed clubs. Someone selling you a puppy before 8 weeks is someone who has no regard for the well-being of their puppies and wants them gone so there are suddenly seven fewer mouths to feed. Dogs that don't get to experience that extra time with their littermates and mother are at a lifetime disadvantage in their interactions with other dogs, and the owners of such dogs will have their work cut out for them as the dog grows.
Finally, every place, organization, and person that breeds irresponsibly contributes to animal overpopulation in the worst way possible: by willfully contributing to the animals that end up in shelters. Most people/places that breed dogs do not particularly care whether the people they are selling to are informed about dog training or dog care, and they do little to educate their buyers and even less to support them after the purchase has been made. If the owner has problems with the dog that they cannot handle because they weren’t truly ready for a dog, or they have to move, or any number of reasons, then that dog will be returned to a shelter or otherwise rehomed. Even if you, the consumer, are 100% committed to the dog that you purchase, you are still contributing to the shelter dog population because you are supporting a “breeder” with your money, and they will keep breeding dogs that they take no responsibility for because it is profitable to do so.
*Note: Any place offering an adult dog for rehoming is a perfectly acceptable way to rescue an animal. Any places offering puppies for free is also an acceptable avenue of acquiring a dog. Never pay for a puppy that has been irresponsibly bred. You may want to encourage the owner of the puppies to spay/neuter their dogs so such a thing does not happen again.
When a “Breeder” Becomes a Breeder
If you cannot buy a puppy from the pet store, farm, “breeder”, or anywhere else, how are you supposed to buy a puppy? Well, when you have bad, you must have good. The only people you should be paying to get a puppy from are reputable, responsible breeders—with the quotations marks shed! They have earned their title of being a breeder because they are stewards to the canine species and take 100% full responsibility for the dogs they produce throughout the dog’s whole life.
Animal welfare is the top priority of a breeder. All of their dogs, whether it is one dog or twenty dogs, are loved and treated like members of the family. Everyone is well-fed, exercised, socialized, and anything else you would expect from a family dog. Not every dog a breeder owns is used to breed, and some of their dogs may be puppies from previous litters that could not find the right homes. A breeder would rather take on the burden of an extra dog than send one to a family that cannot care for the animal the way it deserves.
When breeders do breed, which tends to be infrequent, they have a goal in mind for that particular litter. Typically, that goal is to create another conformation or sport prospect. I should note at this point that some “breeders” breed for this reason also, but the ultimate goal is to win at any expense to the dogs’ health; breeders breed with the ultimate goal of producing a dog that will enrich the breed in health, appearance, and ability. With that goal in mind, they test their potential breeding dogs for health problems common to the breed. Dogs that do not pass are neutered/spayed and prevented from ever breeding. Dogs that do pass must be judged at the breeders’ discretion that their temperaments are sound; overly fearful, skittish, or aggressive dogs should not be bred. Breeders then seek a dog from an outside source, often from a dog in another state or even another country, to act as a sperm donor. The dog they seek has had similar testing and evaluation done. No breeding goes without great forethought, planning, and preparation for any bumps in the road.
A breeder thoroughly interviews people interested in buying puppies. In fact, a breeder often turns people away because they are unsuitable homes for any of their dogs. Adopting a dog from a breeder can seem like an ordeal, but it is for the health and safety of the dogs’ futures. If you pass the breeder’s test, they will sell the dog to you with a contract. The contract should contain a spay/neuter clause that states all pet dogs must be altered because they are not breeding quality, eliminating the chance of irresponsibly bred litters. The contract should also, most importantly, contain a statement saying that should you, the owner, be unable to care for the dog for any reason at any point in time, the dog must be returned to the breeder; that is, the dog will never be surrendered to a shelter in any circumstance. In these ways, breeders do not contribute to the shelter dog problem. In addition, they may even help reduce it as they educate and inform potential owners throughout the interview process.
Full responsibility begins before birth and continues all throughout the dogs’ lives. The dogs are the biggest beneficiaries of this effort, followed by the owners. Breeders are the best resource at any new owner’s disposal. These are the people you should be supporting with your money. Yes, it is costly for all of these services, but it is more than worth it for the quality of your dog and the welfare of dogs everywhere.
Finding Reputable, Responsible Breeders
So, now that you know why it is important to support only reputable, responsible breeders, where do you find these people? Unfortunately, reputable breeders for mixed breeds just don’t seem to exist. There’s no reason why they can’t exist, but they just don’t. So, the idea of a reputable breeder, for now, is limited to pure breeds. With that said, the best place to start looking for reputable breeders is the breed club website for your country or local area. Most breed clubs list registered breeders in their club, with contact information that usually is limited to a telephone number or email address. Most breeders do not have a website and they do not advertise. Unfortunately, they are people you must be looking for or you will not find them!
Not every breeder on the club website is going to be one you want to support. You must begin a dialogue with the breeder in question either over the phone or in email and ask your questions in small amounts. Over the course of your conversations together, you will get an idea of whether this person is a breeder or a “breeder”, and they will get an idea of how committed you are to your future dog. If you have prepared as outlined in this and previous blog posts, the breeder should have no problem placing a dog in your home.
Looking for a breeder can be a stressful, long, and arduous process. It may take several emails or phone calls before you perfect your opening speech and get a reply. Do not give up. If you want a healthy, superbly bred animal, and expect specific qualities from the breed you fancy, this is the only way to do it. If the whole process isn’t for you, it’s absolutely imperative you do not purchase a dog from any of the seedier avenues, no matter how inexpensive and easy they may be. The price is instated for a reason, and in the case of a breeder, you get what you pay for. If all else fails and this process is simply too expensive up front or too difficult to complete for whatever reason, search a rescue or shelter for what you are looking for in your future dog. If you do not care about quality, rescue is the only way. And, to repeat myself one last time: adopt a dog from a rescue or reputable breeder only, no exceptions.
Up next is an easy reference list of questions to ask the breeders during the interview stage to determine if they are someone you want to buy a dog from.