The Puppy Contract: Essential Groundwork
By Arliss Paddock
English Springer Spaniel/ Isabel Francais for AKC
The healthiest way to view a puppy sales contract is not as a means of control, but as a way to clearly establish each party’s expectations and responsibilities concerning the lifetime of the dog.
A well-thought-out puppy sales contract is an important tool in ensuring the best future for the puppy you’ve so carefully bred. Whether you are creating a contract from scratch or improving an existing one, a good starting place is the advice of experienced breeders—in this case, three AKC Breeders of the Year—regarding some of the key issues.
Cathy Nelson, 2004 AKC Breeder of the Year, has been raising and showing Dandie Dinmont Terriers for more than 30 years. During that time, she’s learned the value of a good sales contract in starting a puppy and its new owner off right.
“I believe the healthiest way to view a puppy sales contract is not as a means of control, but as a way to clearly establish each party’s expectations and responsibilities concerning the lifetime of the dog,” she says. “The points in a contract serve as an educational tool. When all parties are clear and in agreement on these, this lays the groundwork for a long-term and mutually successful relationship, and establishes a safety net for the dog.”
Clarifying expectations is especially important with novice owners, explains Belgian Tervuren breeder Janina Laurin, the 2002 AKC Herding Group Breeder of the Year. “I specifically find puppy contracts useful for first-time owners, to define expectations such as attending puppy classes, and establishing communication between myself and the buyer for the future.”
The language of a puppy contract needn’t be formal or legalistic; the key is to simply put into writing the important details and conditions regarding the sale of the pup, for the benefit of all involved.
“A good contract makes agreements clear to both parties, and helps you avoid any misunderstandings at a later date,” says Miniature Schnauzer breeder Beverly Verna, who was the 2006 AKC Terrier Group Breeder of the Year.
A first step is to consider some of the basic elements that experienced breeders include in puppy contracts:
- AKC identifying information and pedigree
- Full contact information for buyer and breeder
- Date of sale and price paid
- Health guarantee/warranty
- Spay/neuter requirements
- Expected care of the dog
- Conditions regarding return/rehoming of dog
- Showing/titling requirements
Some Key Elements
A Healthy Outlook
Coverage of health matters is a vital aspect of every puppy sale. The breeder should provide the new owner with their pup’s complete health record, and most contracts guarantee that the puppy is healthy at the time of the sale. Many require that the new owner have the pup examined by their veterinarian soon after taking it home.
“My contract requires the new owners to have the dog examined by their veterinarian within 72 hours,” says Nelson. “If a health issue is found, I am to be called by the owner and the veterinarian. I will take the dog back, treat it, and return it in a well condition, or return their money and keep the puppy.”
“This is an important clause for several reasons,” she explains. “It ensures that all parties know that the puppy was healthy at the time of transfer. Also, as my breed is not often seen, it ensures that the veterinarian recognizes some typical breed features as normal, rather than abnormal or unhealthy.”
Many puppy contracts also include a warranty against serious health conditions or certain breed disqualifications. Along these lines, the contract can require the owner to have the dog tested at an appropriate age for specific conditions that may affect the breed.
Verna’s contract specifies that the owner must have the dog examined by a vet at least once a year; if a disease is diagnosed she must be notified immediately, and she has the right to have the dog seen by a vet of her choice for a second opinion.
“The value of this health guarantee is twofold,” Verna explains. “One, it lets the buyer know that I am a caring breeder who is willing to back up her pups. Two, it ensures that I will be notified of any hereditary defects so I can alter my breeding program if necessary.”
With the sale of a strictly-pet pup, the breeder will have already discussed spaying or neutering with the potential owner as part of the screening process. “The point here is to discuss with the new owner the benefits of spaying a bitch not intended for breeding,” says Nelson. “If suddenly there is some hemming and hawing about maybe wanting to have some puppies, it’s time to rethink the sale.”
Breeders often employ the AKC Limited Registration option for such pups, as well as requiring proof of spay/neuter at such time is appropriate.
“I will only issue Limited Registration on all pet puppies I sell, and I require proof of spay/neuter,” notes Verna. “This is important, because I feel it helps to protect the breed from unscrupulous people who might unknowingly produce dogs with genetic disease.”
Laurin echoes this sense of protecting the breed. “Any puppy sold to a strictly companion home, or to a competition home where the owners have no interest in breeding, is required to be spayed or neutered. I consider this to be incredibly important. As a longtime breeder and breed devotee, I feel obligated to protect my breed.”
Expectation of Proper Care
During the screening process and in pre-sale discussions with the potential owner, experienced breeders will have also covered topics such as the pup’s future health care, feeding, grooming, training, the need for socialization, and so on. Many find it helpful to have these expectations spelled out and agreed upon via the puppy contract, as an additional reinforcement.
“I clearly define what is appropriate care, housing, good condition, and health—currently and for the future,” says Laurin.
Requirements regarding pups sold as show prospects can vary widely. Some breeders will stay on as co-owner until the dog is finished; others require that the dog be exhibited in a certain number of shows, or for a certain length of time.
Since show success can be hard to predict, warranties regarding show prospects can be tricky. “As future development cannot be guaranteed,” notes Nelson, “show quality can be quite subjective, and environment plays a hefty role. Both parties must work together on such clauses. Like Robert Frost’s fences, a good show contract can keep a friendship, even when a puppy falls way short of its initial potential.”
Rehoming the Dog
Most breeders’ contracts require the owner to contact the breeder first should the owner ever decide to give up the dog, for any reason. In some cases the dog will be returned to the breeder; in others, the breeder will use their resources to help find a new home for the dog.
Bottom Line: The Dog’s Welfare
It’s all about communication. “Creating a contract with the new owner is a breeder’s opportunity to reach an understanding about what is going to be best for the dog,” says Nelson. “It’s a further method to demonstrate how serious and passionate you are about the welfare of your dogs—and, by the buyer’s reactions and questions, to confirm that this is a good home for your puppy. Discussing all the points in the contract and the attached health information establishes a relationship with the new owner, based on the understanding that you both care about this dog. As a breeder you will be called upon as a resource if problems arise in the future, whether it’s training issues or health and care.”
Laurin emphasizes the importance of that relationship, and of the contract itself. “Establishing an excellent rapport with your future buyer will help ensure your contract’s intent will be met,” she says, “and that you have found the perfect home for that puppy. And if expectations on both sides fail, for whatever reason, your contract may be able to protect the most vulnerable party: the dog.”
Arliss Paddock breeds and shows English Cocker Spaniels and is former managing editor of the AKC GAZETTE.