How to choose an ethical breeder.

The Boys 009Choosing the right dog for your family can be an overwhelming decision. You will receive a lot of earnest, heartfelt advice from friends and family who may have strong opinions on the best and/or only way to get a new dog. My own opinion is that there are many unfortunate ways to get a dog and no one right way. Whether you choose to adopt from a shelter or go to a breeder is a personal choice, but there are things you can do to insure that you make the right decision about where to get your new best friend. So, once you have chosen the type of dog, especially if you have decided on a particular breed, how do you decide where to get a dog? This week I look at how to choose an ethical breeder. A good article on how to choose a dog and from where, is “Pick a Winner* by Pat Miller, in the April 2009 issue of The Whole Dog Journal . In the August  2013 issue of the WDJ, is the article “A Field Guide to Ethical Breeders* by Heather Houlahan, and it has a lot of useful information on choosing the right breeder. Ms Houlahan has a great summary of what you should look for in a breeder:
Buy a puppy from someone who brings her up in such a way that you wish every puppy could be raised that way.
She goes on to describe some characteristics of great breeders beyond providing a clean, healthy, and nurturing environment for their dogs:
  1. The breeder does something with her dogs…Their dogs are seen and assessed by other experts, and there are thresholds – a working title or certificate, a conformation championship…that dogs achieve before being bred.” For example, the flat-coated retriever breeder where I got Bingley and Tex, does a variety of activities with her dogs. She shows some, hunts with others, and does agility with some more. And, her dogs all have titles of some kind.
  2. The breeder has as many, or more, questions for you than you do for her.” When I first called about getting a puppy from Victory retrievers, we spent over an hour on the phone talking about dogs, why I wanted a flat-coat, what I intended to do with my dog, etc. Any breeder worth their weight in puppy chow has for a goal “that every puppy goes to a lifetime excellent home, not getting every puppy paid for and out the door the moment he is weaned.”
  3. Ethical breeders work to support their dogs; their dogs do not support them.”  In other words, this is not a money making affair. Ethical breeders spend a lot of money to raise good dogs and are most interested in producing the best examples of their chosen breed, not the greatest number of puppies. Therefore, expect to hear a lot about their adult dogs and their accomplishments as this will tell you the most about the quality of their puppies.
  4. _CSG5621-crop puppyAnd as Pat Miller says, “No responsible breeder on the earth sells puppies to pet stores. Not one.” Do not buy from a pet store as you will be getting a dog from an irresponsible breeder or a puppy mill, guaranteed.

And here is my list of things that I insist on in a breeder. If they won’t do these things, I walk away:

1.  Have a contract with the breeder that clearly states the terms of your contract with them. The contract should respect and protect the welfare of you, the puppy, and the breeder. Is there a health guarantee? Does it include behavior issues as well as physical problems? For example, what happens if the puppy starts guarding food or toys within the first month you have it? Will the breeder take him back?

2.  The breeder should insist that if you don’t want the dog for any reason, it is returned to the breeder. For example, my grand-dog Tex developed seizures and his owner decided that she could not keep him. The breeder took him back and kept him for 9 months to be sure his condition was stabilized. Before she gave him to me, we once again spent over an hour on the phone discussing him and deciding if Tex was a good choice for us. We ended up agreeing that Tex would be the perfect dog for my daughter and her new husband and arrangements were made to pick him up.

3.  Ideally, do not pick up the dog before 8 weeks of age. The best age to get the puppy is between 8-10 weeks of age. If the breeder is trying to get the dogs out the door at 6 weeks of age or younger, ask why. Puppies learn a lot about life from their litter mates, so don’t be too eager to get them before they have had the chance to learn about how to get along with other dogs!

4.  Find out the vaccination record, the pedigree of the parents, if there has been any problems with legs, hips, eyes, thyroid, in her dogs and get details about any problems. Ask about specific problems relating to that breed. Flat-coats, for example, have a history of cancer and as a result their average life span is only 7.5 years. The breeder should want you to be aware of the breed’s shortcomings as well as their strengths and they should also let you know what is being done to improve the quality of the breed. Does she require you to have the appropriate health tests done? Both Bingley and Buckley (our Bernese Mt. Dog) were required to have thyroid tests, eye exams, and orthopedic x-rays done at the appropriate ages. The results were sent to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals** national data base.

5.  Make sure your pup has his appropriate first shots before you pick him up.

6.  This should not be a bargain. Good, reliable breeders do not make money on their litters. But, their pups are not cheap either because it costs a lot to produce a quality puppy. Expect to pay between $1000-$2000 or more for a dog. If the puppy costs only $400-500, it probably has some issues.

7.  Ask questions about how the puppies are raised. Are they inside the house? (and I mean in the house, not the basement) When are they weaned? How many people have they met before they are adopted? A puppy’s  socialization window closes at 16 weeks of age, so it is important that he meets people, experiences different substrates, and generally has a positive introduction to the world before you take him home.

8.  What are the parents like? Do they get along with other dogs? Do they like people? Children? Cats? How old is the mother and how many litters has she had? You should meet the mother and, if possible, the father. If the breeder refuses to let you meet her adult dogs, you should not adopt from her.

9.  Get references! Ask if you can talk to some of her past clients. If she can’t/won’t provide references there is something amiss. Moreover, she should insist on references from you as well. Don’t be offended, be glad she cares so deeply about placing her dogs in a good home.

If this feels a bit overwhelming, know that getting the right dog from the right source requires some effort on your part. As Ms Houlahan puts it:

This is the acquisition that most demands a restrained, educated, skeptical approach that serves your own self-interest as well as supporting practices that are good for dogs. For no other purchase does intelligent self-interest mesh so closely with good social ethics.

Huddy at 10 weeks old with Emma

Huddy at 10 weeks old with Emma

*To access this article, you must be a subscriber to the WDJ. I have been a subscriber for about 10 years and can say that it has been well worth the money, but I leave that decision up to you.
**The OFA’s mission is: “To promote the health and welfare of companion animals through a reduction in the incidence of genetic disease.” One way in which they achieve this goal is by collating and disseminating information concerning orthopedic and genetic diseases of animals.

Decisions, decisions, decisions! Informational or Doggie Demographics Your new dog or puppy12 comments

  1. I have never heard the advice to find a breeder who insists that if you change your mind about the dog that it be returned to the breeder. To me, this shows that the breeder cares a great deal for the animal and is willing to do a lot to take care of them. This would be a very good breeder to work with.

    • Julie Smith says:

      Thank-you Jasper for your comment. This is a critical point for me and as you point out, shows that this is a very good breeder who cares about the welfare of his or her dogs. I will not work with any breeder who does not have this clause as part of the contract.

  2. Burt Silver says:

    Thanks for the advice to ask questions about how the dog was raised. I would want to know whether it had been an inside or outside dog, and what its socialization was like. My wife and I are looking into getting a new dog, and we just want to make sure that we find a breeder who has done all of the right things.

    • Julie Smith says:

      Hi Burt,

      Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you found this to be helpful. Good luck on finding a good breeder and a wonderful new companion! You might find my blogs, “Choosing Your New Best Friend”, and “Bringing Home Your New Best Friend” to be helpful as well.

  3. My fiance and I are considering buying a puppy from a labradoodle breeder and want some tips before we do. I like what you said about checking how the puppies are being raised. This way we know that the dogs are cared for the correct way.

    • Julie Smith says:

      Hi Alexandria,

      Thank you for your comment. I am glad you found this to be helpful and I hope you find the perfect dog! Be sure to check out my blog on puppy socialization, “Why your dog should be a social butterfly.” Also, you might find my podcast with Colleen Pelar, Your Family Dog to be helpful as well. Check it out at:

      • James Tiernan says:

        Labradoodles are, necessarily, being bred by backyard breeders or puppy mills. They are NOT a breed and so appropriate genetic testing cannot be performed. It’s a mix. Mixes are great, but the are readily available at your local shelter. No ethical breeder ever breeds mixes.

        • Julie Smith says:

          Thank you James for reading my blog and for commenting. You are correct that Labradoodles are a mixed breed, not a pure bred, but this has been a popular line of dogs for many years and therefore there are reputable breeders as well as backyard breeders and puppy mills. Thus, the questions you should be asking of “doodle” breeders are the same as the ones you would ask of pure bred breeders, including those about any illnesses or issues the parents, grandparents or other litters may have had. For a look at the criminal or seedier side of designer dogs, I recommend you check out the Your Family Dog podcast: The Problems with Designer Dogs as well as Madeline Berstein’s new book: Designer Dogs: An Expose: Inside the Criminal Underworld of Crossbreeding

  4. Shih Poos are my aunt’s favorite dog breed, so I plan to get one by asking around if there are any breeding services for that particular breed that don’t sell their pups to pet stores so that I can be sure of their quality upbringing. Once I get a list of dog breeders such as the one I recently found online, I will try to ask them to see if they have working titles and certificates to prove their pedigree. If it’s okay with them, I will do as you suggest and ask if I can return the puppy if I don’t want it anymore so that it won’t experience feeling unwanted.

    • Julie Smith says:

      Hi Sariah,
      Thank-you for reading my blog. One thing you should note is that Shih Poos are not a breed, they are a mix breed or mutt, so there is no working title or AKC registration for that particular type of dog. This type of miniature dog is one that is commonly bred by puppy mills, so be very careful to go and visit the breeder if possible. Ask to meet the mother, if not the father of the dog and be sure that these pups have been born and raised in a home, not a barn. Another resource you might want to take a look at is our podcast on designer dogs: The Problem with Designer Dogs. I am sure that with enough diligent research, you should be able to find a reputable breeder, but you might also consider checking your local shelter to see if there is a dog there that you can love forever. Best of luck to you!

  5. I like the idea of asking questions about how the puppy was raised. I would think that would help you to know if they were being treated properly. I’ll have to do that if I decide to get a specific breed of dog for a breeder.

    • Julie Smith says:

      Hi Tyler, Thank you for reading my blog and commenting. It is always helpful to know the background of any dog you are looking to adopt, whether or not it is a puppy or an adult. While I addressed the importance of knowing how a litter of puppies was reared, knowing what your new dog experienced previously can help you not only to understand, but to address any issues that arise.

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