At Thanksgiving, a holiday where my family joins several other families to celebrate, the conversation turned to dogs and someone mentioned that they wanted an Irish Wolfhound. I immediately said that they should make sure to get one from a good breeder, which prompted them to ask: what makes someone a good breeder?
Having been a passionate dog lover for, oh, my entire life, I had never really tried to define “good breeder.” It was just something I could recognize. Unfortunately the vast majority of people have no idea what makes someone a good breeder, which is why backyard breeders (BYB) and puppy mills (PM) are still going strong.
How can someone without intuitive knowledge recognize a good breeder? Here are some rules of thumb to guide you through the process.* And yes, I’m a dog snob. I’m OK with that and think you should be one, too. You’re making a 10-15 year commitment, so stop kicking tires and spring for the Rolls-Royce!
*Keep in mind that there are always exceptions to the rules so use your best judgement based on your overall analysis of a breeder.
A good breeder has some kind of mission statement that guides their breeding decisions. While a BYB or PM may have a mission of “make a profit” or “see the miracle of birth” or “I want a Fluffy 2.0”, a good breeder has something much more challenging in mind: make a positive impact on their breed by leaving it better than they found it. Their mission statement often looks something like this: “To breed structurally sound and healthy dogs with amazing family temperaments.” If they have a breed with working instincts they may include something like “with natural working ability.” This mission is backed up by things like health certificates from OFA/CERF, temperament testing, and titles (covered below).
Look at how much time, money, and energy they have invested in their dogs and breeding program. Good breeders have invested thousands of dollars into their breeding program: buying excellent foundation stock, showing, health testing, training, self-education, maintenance of dogs, etc. They do this knowing that they will never see a profit, and they’re OK with that because it’s not about money; it’s about the mission.
A BYB or PM keeps investment costs low since for them it’s also about the mission, but the mission is return on investment.
Volume, Timing, and Duration
A good breeder will usually have 0-3 litters per year depending on their current goals and the size of their breeding program. They only breed if it’s in line with their mission of bettering the breed, which is why some years they may not have any litters at all. The time they begin breeding an individual dog is normally after the dog has reached two years of age and has had health testing completed (see below for more details on health testing). And a good breeder will normally breed an individual bitch no more than three times.
A BYB probably has 1-2 litters per year, often begins breeding by one year of age, and may breed every or every other heat cycle for an indeterminate number of years. A PM will have dozens of litters per year, begin breeding before one year of age, and often breeds every heat cycle until the bitch is no longer productive.
Many people see health testing as a cornerstone to any good breeding program, and rightly so. Genetic disease is a preventable problem in purebred dogs, which means that not doing the proper testing is negligent and detrimental to the breed. Good breeders will do the appropriate testing for their breed, be willing to share the results, and will make breeding decisions based on the results. They will also only breed dogs who meet a minimum standard of good health, which either means passing a test or getting some minimum score. Tests are usually scored by OFA (many conditions) or CERF (eyes only).
For a simplistic example, a breeder has a gorgeous Doberman male but he tests as “affected” for von Willebrand’s, a genetically inherited disease. This dog could still be bred but only to bitches who test “clear” for the gene; this would produce a litter of 100% “carrier” puppies who are not affected by the gene but could pass it on. The breeder keeps one carrier puppy who grows up and is bred to a non-carrier (“clear”), which produces a litter of 50% carrier and 50% non-carrier. Now the breeder can keep a non-carrier puppy who has all the good traits of their original male but no longer passes on the gene for vWD. Because the breeder did health testing, within 3 generations they were not only able to rid their own breeding program of a deleterious gene but also to improve the breed by weeding out the gene while still retaining the excellent traits of their top-winning dog.
BYB and PM don’t normally do any kind of genetic screening (I’ve heard tales of BYB who do, but never seen it in practice), and as such cannot make breeding decisions based on the results. This leads to increased prevalence of genetic diseases and, in turn, increased health problems within the breed.
Most people want a dog that’s easy to live with and a dog with a challenging temperament (reactive, fearful, aggressive, etc) is often the first one to end up at the pound. A good breeder recognizes this and, within the constraints of their breed’s natural temperament, they do their best to produce stable dogs that are easy to live with. Some breeders will do formal temperament testing (TT titles) or therapy work (may have a TDI title, but may not) and some may even do testing on puppies to get a feel for temperament (the Volhard test is popular). The best way to analyze temperament, however, is to meet the dogs in person and determine if you would enjoy living with them.
BYB and PM don’t do temperament testing.
Conformation titles indicate that someone other than the breeder agrees that this is a quality example of the breed. The caveat: conformation shows are subjective so a less than stellar dog can still earn a CH title. As a result you should use CH titles as a baseline and then go further by analyzing the dog yourself or asking a mentor to do so. Read the AKC standard and determine for yourself if the dog is a good example of the breed.
This would be along the lines of obedience, agility, flyball, etc. They are an indication that the dog is trainable and that the breeder spends time with the dog one on one. They are also a rough indication that the dog has a stable temperament since it can compete at venues full of chaos, people, and dogs.
These titles are proof that the dog can do what the breed was originally developed for. Terriers may earn Earthdog titles, herding breeds may earn herding titles, hounds may earn lure coursing or tracking titles (although tracking is open to all breeds), sporting breeds can earn field titles. If you want a dog with strong working instincts you may want to specifically look for these types of titles.
BYB and PM don’t normally have any titles on their dogs.
Frequently a good breeder will have a puppy application that prospective buyers fill out; this helps the breeder determine if you meet their criteria for a good owner. Be honest when you complete these — the truth will come out eventually! The youngest age that a good breeder will release puppies to their new owners is 8 weeks of age. For some breeds, or if the breeder is analyzing puppies to determine show quality, this may increase to 12 weeks of age. Usually they will require you to visit with them in person at least once before you take home your puppy, and the puppy may have to be picked up in person (not all breeders will ship puppies).
BYB and PM don’t have a pre-purchase screening process, often release puppies at 6 weeks of age (which is too young), and will happily ship the puppy to you, sight unseen, for a few hundred bucks.
A good breeder typically divides their puppies into two quality categories: show and pet. They may or may not charge more for a show puppy, but if they do it’s because that puppy is legitimately a better example and could improve on the breed. A BYB or PM will often have three quality categories: show, breeding, and pet. This is ridiculous because any dog that can’t be shown due to conformation faults also should not be bred, which is why a good breeder normally doesn’t have a “breeding quality” category.
In my experience the average price for a well-bred pet puppy is $1500. This, of course, varies by breed, location, quality, etc. Some good breeders will price high in an effort to weed out less than ideal buyers; if you’re serious then they expect you to pony up the cash. If you’re not then they know you weren’t a good fit. Unsold puppies will be kept until an appropriate home can be found; don’t expect a discount.
BYB and PM will price at whatever the market will bear and often offer discounts on unsold puppies.
All good breeders have a binding contract for each puppy. Typically they will have one for pet quality and one for show quality, but both will state basic care expectations, prevent the buyer from selling the puppy without the breeder’s permission, and give the breeder first rights to reclaim the puppy if the buyer can no longer keep it. Basically, a good breeder wants what is best for their puppies. If you can no longer provide that then they want the puppy back so they can find someone else who will. It’s not personal; they just just really care about their puppies! They will also provide a health guarantee, usually up to a certain age. For example, they may state that they guarantee against hip dysplasia up to the age of two and if the puppy shows congenital signs of hip dysplasia prior to that age the puppy may be replaced free of charge.
Show puppy contracts may require co-ownership, may have breeding restrictions built in, and often lay out the responsibilities of the buyer in relation to showing and/or breeding. Pet contracts usually require spaying/neutering and do not allow the buyer to breed the puppy. You will likely have to provide veterinary proof of sterilization.
A BYB or PM won’t have a contract, or if they do it be more like a used car affidavit where you get what you paid for. Health guarantees, if offered, are usually limited to 14 days and may not cover genetic diseases.
Read everything! (Photo credit: Nomadic Lass)
A good breeder will provide lifetime support and always be willing to answer any questions their puppy-buyers might have. This goes back to their desire to place their puppies into the best homes possible: the more you know the better off their puppy is. Plus, the more the breeder knows the better they feel about you having their puppy!
A BYB or PM doesn’t provide support once the puppy is sold.
Assuming the breed is AKC recognized it’s a given that each dog and puppy should be AKC registered. This is not a selling point for a good breeder because it’s assumed to be true, always. Anyone who uses AKC registration as a selling point is not a good breeder.
Also, any registry other than AKC, CKC (as in Canadian Kennel Club, not Continental Kennel Club), UKC, or FCI should not be considered a valid registry. Puppy millers who couldn’t get their stock AKC registered established their own registries that had more lax requirements, which causes unsuspecting buyers to assume that any set of acronyms is a good thing. As a general rule, stick to AKC!
Shots & Deworming
If you look in the local newspaper you’ll see ads proclaiming that the puppies have had their shots and been dewormed as though the breeder were doing you a favor. This is basic health care for any litter of puppies and is to be expected. Good breeders always provide health care to their puppies until the puppies go to their new homes; this usually involves at least first shots (sometimes second) and 1-2 rounds of deworming. Some breeders will not provide shots or deworming based on the natural rearing concept; determine if they’re actually following that philosophy or if they’re just using it as a cover for being cheap.
Do they take Paypal?
Then they’re probably not a good breeder. Since Paypal is so prevalent among shoddy breeders I have a hard time seeing it in a positive light and I’ve never seen any good breeders who accept Paypal.