You’ve decided that it’s time to add a new canine family member. Congratulations! You understand that a puppy is forever and, accordingly, you want your puppy to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible. You know that you need to ensure that your puppy comes from a reputable source, but you aren’t sure how. What do you do?
When friends ask me for advice on getting a well bred puppy from a responsible breeder, I often find that we first have to start with adjusting their expectations of the timeline. Our society is accustomed to instant gratification, and many people decide they want a puppy today and expect to pick it up tomorrow. In reality, responsible dog breeders don’t always have puppies available. Responsible dog breeders often breed only a few times a year, and many have waitlists for their puppies before they’re even born. Consequently, it isn’t uncommon to wait up to a year (or longer!) from the time you contact the breeder to the time you’re bringing home your bundle of joy. The more popular the breed, the more likely you’ll be able to find a responsible breeder with a litter coming soon, but especially if you’re looking for a less-common breed, definitely be prepared to wait.
If at all possible, be prepared to travel to meet the breeder, the puppy, and the puppy’s parents separately from the time you will take the puppy home. This isn’t always possible – because of the shortage of responsible breeders, you may need to look several states away to find your responsibly-bred puppy. However, if at all possible I recommend that you make the trip. Anyone can make a pretty website and claim to be a responsible breeder, it’s more difficult to trick you when you’re physically there. Do not trust websites that say they will ship a puppy to you.
Make sure you research your selected breed extensively. What are their typical annoying behaviors? Are you prepared to work with that? What are their grooming/hygiene needs? Are you going to manage their skin and coat or pay a groomer to do so? How much exercise do they need? Does that need fit in with your lifestyle?
A responsible breeder will also have questions for YOU about your lifestyle and expectations for life with the puppy. This is a good thing! A responsible breeder wants to ensure that their precious puppy will be going to a home that is prepared to meet the puppy’s needs. If they don’t care if you’re a good future dog parent, beware!
Interview the breeder before you visit. Here are some questions you may want to ask them, as well as some comments on how they might answer –
What health testing do you do?
Are you in touch with the owners of puppies from previous litters – have any heritable diseases been identified in those puppies?
Depending on how long they’ve been breeding and how communicative their puppy buyers are, I may not hold this against them. Responsible breeders want to know if their puppies develop heritable disease so they can modify their breeding program accordingly.
How do you socialize the puppies prior to them leaving your home?
Socialization before they leave the breeder’s home is critically important. The socialization period in puppies is from approximately 3-14 weeks of age, so by the time you’re picking up your puppy, half the socialization period is over! The breeder should be carefully introducing the puppies to sights, sounds, textures, floor surfaces, loud noises, etc.
What is your policy on puppy returns if a family is unable to keep a puppy?
A responsible breeder is almost always willing to take a puppy/dog back if the family is unable to keep them. Responsible breeders do everything they can to avoid their puppies ending up homeless.
How did you decide to cross these two individuals?
There are a million answers – maybe they love his topline and her personality or he has a particular fault that they’re trying to correct – the important thing is that they HAVE a reason, that they made this choice INTENTIONALLY after considering their goals for the litter. I do not consider “they both happened to be available” as an acceptable reason to breed.
What is the purpose of these dogs?
Pet is a valid answer! What about them makes them suited for that purpose? If they were not bred for the purpose of being pets, are you prepared to manage the behaviors associated with their intended purpose?
When can I come visit and meet the parents? Is a televisit possible if in-person is not?
If they aren’t willing to let you visit, something is not right. Ideally you need to be able to meet the parents to get a feel for their temperament, and being able to see how the dogs are housed gives lots of information about the breeder’s philosophy. What are they hiding?
May I see their vet records?
The main things you’re looking for here are 1) that they HAVE vet records and 2) that the pet is generally up-to-date on their vaccines and other preventative care. If you see that they haven’t been to the vet in years and have tons of out-of-date preventative care, I would worry that they aren’t concerned for the dogs’ health. I admit that I’m probably a little biased on this point, since I’m a vet!
My favorite database of responsible breeders is Good Dog. They have a screening process before they list breeders on their website, and they also differentiate between multiple “levels” of breeder – Good, Great, Excellent. No system is perfect, so I still recommend carefully evaluating the breeder for yourself, but Good Dog is a great place to start.
Other sources include AKC or local searches. Make sure you use the questions above to guide your determination of whether you’re dealing with a responsible breeder or an irresponsible puppy producer.