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Litter of Newborn Dalmatian Puppies

Most of life’s major acquisitions require a legal contract, from purchasing a house to leasing a car.

Add to that list bringing home a purebred dog.

Reputable breeders almost universally require anyone who provides a home to one of their dogs to sign a contract. But if you’ve never purchased a dog from a reputable breeder, the requirement to sign a legal document may come as a surprise – and, given its multiple pages and official-sounding clauses, perhaps an off-putting one at that.

Of course, violating a properly executed legal documents can theoretically land you in court. So, if it’s legal advice you seek, you’ll find none of that here.

But there is another important way to look a breeder contract – and it’s not as a “gotcha” waiting to happen. For many breeders, contracts are a parting-shot opportunity to share their philosophy, advice, and expectations about the dog they are entrusting to you. Signing a contract reminds you of the enormous responsibility you are undertaking, and codifies all the things your breeder told you during your many visits and phone calls, but that you were probably too overwhelmed or distracted to process and commit to memory.

While contracts are as individual as the breeders who sign them, they contain some basics you might expect, such as the puppy’s AKC registration number, the name and registration numbers of the sire and dam, and, of course, the purchase price. But if you’ve never seen a breeder contract before, there are other common elements that may be new to you. They include:

Show Versus Pet

Most breeder contracts will make a distinction between a puppy that is “pet quality” versus “show quality” (or, more appropriately, “show potential,” since no breeder can predict with complete surety how a puppy will turn out).

In terms of the contract, the distinction between pet and show hinges on the responsibilities attached to each.

Pet-quality puppies are those that the breeder thinks will likely not grow up to be candidates for showing or breeding. They will often be sold on a limited registration, which means they can participate in all AKC events except conformation (the 50-cent word for “dog shows”), and their offspring cannot be registered.

With show prospects, contracts can vary significantly, depending on the breeder’s desired level of involvement. Some breeders might stipulate that they want to see the puppy at a certain age, at which time they will show it themselves if it has developed as they expected; other breeders require owners to hire a professional handler to show their dog.

If the dog goes on to be bred, the contract will also likely list all the health screenings that need to be performed, who makes decisions on what breedings will happen, who is responsible for whelping and placing puppies, and any of a number of other details, including financial arrangements. If anything is unclear or makes you uncomfortable, ask before you sign the contract.

Spay and Neuter

Most breeder contracts require pet-quality dogs to be spayed or neutered. But as veterinary attitudes and research evolve, the age at which surgical sterilization is performed can vary markedly. Some breeders require that owners wait until the dog has stopped maturing and the growth plates close – a year for most breeds, 18 months for larger dogs – which some studies have shown lowers the risk of bone cancer. Of course, this presupposes that you will keep your dog securely contained and not permit it to wander to avoid unintended breedings.

If a breeder feels strongly about delaying spay or neuter, check with your vet in advance and make sure he or she is on board with that timetable. Ditto for other vet-related items that breeders tend to feel strongly about, such as feeding requirements and vaccination schedules. After decades of experience with dozens of litters, many have evolved successful protocols that work for their family of dogs, and they include them in their contracts with the expectation you will follow them. Having both your vet and the breeder on the same page avoids conflict later.

Return-to-Breeder Clause

Good breeders don’t sell puppies with the expectation of getting them back: A forever home is supposed to be just that. But life happens to the best of us, and a whole host of issues – illness, allergies, divorce, relocation, and financial problems, to name but a few – can make it impossible for an owner to continue keeping a dog, despite the best of intentions.

No matter what the reason for the rehoming, the breeder wants to be notified. Even if your now-adult dog is going to live with another loving family or close friend, the breeder will still want to know about any change of ownership.

While this might seem controlling, look at it from the breeder’s perspective: In order to be responsible for every puppy they bring into the world, breeders need to make sure they are in loving, responsible hands. They will also want the new owners to know they are available to provide the same guidance and advice that they gave you. And they want to know if any problems or issues develop throughout the dog’s life, as that is important information that will help guide their breeding program.

Health Guarantees

Puppies are not widgets – if they were, not only would they not be anywhere near as cuddly, but they would be interchangeable, and a “defective” one would simply mean inconvenience, not heartbreak. While reputable breeders do their utmost to ensure that their puppies are the healthiest and soundest possible, sometimes things do not go as planned, just as with we humans.

Some breeder contracts guarantee all against genetic defects (usually up until a certain age), while others guarantee against specific ailments, such as heart problems, sometimes under certain conditions. Some breeders, for example, will guarantee against hip dysplasia, but only if the owner takes common-sense precautions, such as not running a puppy continuously on a hard surface until a year of age, and sometimes for large breeds, even longer. These specifics are dependent on the individual breeder, as well as the generally accepted health-screening practices in the breed community as a whole. After all, health concerns in a Chihuahua will be different from those in a Great Dane.

National Sibling Day

Naming Conventions

Though reputable breeders only breed dogs that are registered with the American Kennel Club, thus verifying their lineage, each new puppy that is born must be individually registered as well. Sometimes a breeder will require you to fill out the AKC registration papers; other times, the breeder will take care of it herself, especially if she is an AKC Breeder of Merit, a designation that shows a breeder has committed to registering all of her puppies with the American Kennel Club.

No matter who fills out the paperwork, your puppy will need a registered name. Different from its “call name,” which is what you call the puppy at home, a dog’s registered name is a longer, more elaborate name that typically incorporates the breeder’s kennel name at its beginning; in some cases, the kennel names of a co-breeder or the stud-dog owner are included as well.

Breeder contracts often stipulate the use of these kennel names as part of the puppy’s registered name. Beyond that, breeder contracts can vary widely: Some breeders will require the approval of the name before it is submitted; others might mandate that the name start with a particular letter or follow a certain theme they have established with the litter. The only time this name will be used is when your dog is entered at AKC events, including agility, obedience, and conformation. What you call your dog at home is your own business!

The Weird Stuff

While most contracts are straightforward and even boring, occasionally you might find some head-scratchers. Consider, for example, the breeder who required that puppy owners send her a photo of the dog every December. Her explanation, however, made sense: A photo lets her see if the dog is in good condition, and during the holiday season most people are inclined to take and send photos anyway.

Would that demand for a yearly photo op hold up in a court of law? Without seeing the document, or knowing the circumstances, who knows? While most breeders are more concerned about the spirit rather than the letter of the law, others do choose to exercise their legal rights. Reading through and discussing the contract with the breeder before you pick up your puppy should answer your questions and alleviate any concerns. If there’s something in the contract that makes you truly uncomfortable, and the breeder is unyielding about changing it, you might reconsider your options.

No matter how much you research, or how many books you read, in the end buying a puppy is an act of faith. You are trusting that the breeder has done her level best to produce a healthy, well-adjusted puppy, and the breeder is trusting that you will take care of your new family member to the best of your ability, hopefully, long enough to see its muzzle gray. Ideally, the breeder will be available every step of the way for questions, concerns and, at the very end, a shoulder to cry on. If a contract seems so restrictive or punitive that it suggests your relationship with the breeder will be more combative than caring, then that should give you pause.

Though a puppy’s infectious cuteness is hard to ignore, the best advice is not to sign any document that you have no intention of honoring – not just because you might get sued, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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