For the uninitiated, expertise imparts a shroud of mystery: If you have no idea what a carburetor is, or think a meniscus is a sport they play at the Olympics, how in the world do you pick the best car mechanic or orthopedic surgeon?
Dog breeders present an even more vexing conundrum: There’s no perfect directory to help you find a responsible, reputable breeder. Instead, you’re going to have to do some research, leavened with a dollop of good, old-fashioned gut instinct.
Here are some considerations to guide you in your search.
Show Me Who Your Friends Are
It’s human nature: Like-minded individuals who share the same values and goals are drawn to one another. For their part, breeders often belong to their breed’s parent club – the organization recognized by the American Kennel Club as the official steward of the breed in the United States. To join a parent club, members often must sign a code of ethics that usually includes mandated health testing and a disavowal of “fads.” (More on that later.)
Beyond basic membership, look to see how involved a breeder is. Does she belong to any committees or hold any offices? Does she volunteer to help put on any club activities? Does she attend the national specialty, which is an annual show that gathers all the breed faithful? Does she belong to any regional or local clubs for the breed?
A caveat: While belonging to a parent club is a good sign, it shouldn’t be your only criterion. The occasional bad apple can find its way into any club. And, conversely, some very respected and successful breeders do not belong to their breed club because of politics and personality conflicts. But a breeder should have some involvement in the dog fancy at large, such as membership in an all-breed dog club, or a performance or obedience club.
The underlying question is: Has this breeder done anything to give back to the breed?
Obviously, the longer a breeder has been breeding, the more experience he has, and the easier it will be to research him. Oftentimes, skimming his Facebook page will give you a good sense of how well regarded he is, and by whom: Look for comments from fellow breeders who themselves appear well established and reputable.
Long-time breeders will often have waiting lists of repeat customers who understandably will be given priority over newcomers. So don’t discount a breeder just because he is new and having his first litter. We all have to start somewhere. If he is doing things right, he will almost always have an established mentor or co-breeder who is guiding him. Ask about that individual, and then do some more research.
While breeders should be very knowledgeable about their breed, no one – no matter what their experience level – knows the answer to every question. What’s most important is having a network of smart and responsive peers to rely on for guidance in situations they haven’t yet encountered.
Tradition Over Trends
Reputable breeders have one goal in mind: To produce healthy, and physically and behaviorally stable dogs that meet the standard – the written description of the breed. Most would rather gnaw broken glass than purposefully breed for any trait that defies the requirements of the standard.
Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who is actively marketing puppies that deviate from the breed standard. This includes Toy dog breeders who boast about their “teacups”: These cleverly marketed runts are susceptible to a variety of health problems – starting with the inability to maintain their blood-sugar levels – and are not a recognized size in any breed.
Fad colors should also send you streaking for the exit. The only reason to intentionally perpetuate them is to cash in on the naiveté of buyers who are willing to pay top dollar because of their “rarity.”
Dogs are living beings, not widgets on a shelf, and as a result, breeders can’t control everything that happens with them. Nature can be cruel, and sometimes unforeseen health issues develop in the most carefully contemplated breedings. What breeders can do is ensure that the dogs in their breeding programs are as healthy as possible.
There are two kinds of tests for breeding stock: Health screenings, such as hip X-rays and blood tests for thyroid levels, can confirm that a dog is free from disease; while that does not guarantee that the dog won’t produce that defect in its offspring, it certainly improves those chances. DNA or genetic tests can determine if a dog is a carrier for a particular disease or disorder; by knowing the genetic status their dogs, the breeder can effectively prevent a disease from manifesting. (Paging Gregor Mendel: This doesn’t mean breeders must remove carriers from their programs: Instead, in the case of recessive traits, which require “two to tango,” breeders can simply breed carriers to non-carriers without any chance of disease manifesting.)
Organizations such as the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, or OFA, maintain databases of the tests that breeders do on their dogs. Be sure to look not just for your potential puppy’s parents, but their siblings and ancestors: You want to see evidence of a long-established family of dogs with documented health testing that goes back for many generations. (In the case of long-established breeds, this might encompass many decades.)
Seeing Is Believing
Before COVID, many breeders required potential puppy buyers to visit their home or kennel as part of their screening process. Today, these introductions often take place via Zoom, and access to the parents and puppies is understandably more limited. Still, you can request to see videos of the dogs. Pay particular attention to the environment and the dogs themselves. Does the house or kennel look clean? Do the puppies appear to be in good weight, lively and vigorous?
Keep in mind that the sire of the litter is often not on the premises, as a breeder’s criteria in planning a mating revolve around finding the most suitable match – not the most convenient one. But the mother should be there, interacting with her puppies, and appearing comfortable and settled.
For her part, the breeder should be just as interested in assessing you as a suitable home. Expect lots of questions about previous dogs you have owned, the number of people in your household and their ages, your work schedule, where the puppy will live, and how it will be trained and socialized. Breeders whose first questions are about how soon you can leave a deposit are giving you a very clear signal of their priorities. Also beware of breeders who place puppies before they are eight weeks old. Puppies need this time with their littermates to learn proper canine manners. Because of slow maturity rates, toy-dog breeders will often hold their puppies back for as long as 12 weeks.
Sign Here, Please
Reputable breeders require buyers to sign a contract, whether they are acquiring a show dog or a family pet. (And many dogs are both!) The contract will outline the basics about the puppy – including the names of both parents and the puppy’s AKC registration number – and will always include a return-to-breeder clause: No matter how old the dog, no matter what the reason, reputable breeders require that any dog they bred be returned to them. In this way, they keep track of and take responsibility for all the dogs they have brought into this world, and do not contribute to the rescue problem.
Who You Gonna Call?
Even after completing all your due diligence, choosing the right breeder can still feel overwhelming. And that’s perfectly normal. After all, a puppy is more than a product, and a breeder is more than a salesperson: This is someone who should be a valuable resource and mentor for you throughout the life of your dog. In such a long-term situation, personalities matter. No matter how well recommended and well regarded a breeder is, if you don’t hit it off, that’s as good a reason as any to keep searching.
One tried-and-true approach is to ask yourself this question: If I had an emergency with my puppy in the middle of the night, would I feel comfortable calling this person? If the answer is yes, then you may need to look no further.
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