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How to Recognize a Good Breeder

Reprinted with permission from

Everybody knows you should get your puppy from "a good breeder." But how can you tell who's a good breeder? Raising good puppies makes some very specific demands, so there are signs -- we call them traffic lights -- that the careful buyer can spot.

A good breeder will have all or most of the green lights from the list below, few or no yellow lights, and no red lights. Some of these may show up in advertisements, others are things you can check on the telephone, by email, or during a visit. There may be exceptions to the rules--you should always ask questions if in doubt.

Red Lights -- Avoid This Breeder!

1. Breeder advertises "Puppies always available."
That means lots of litters per year. If a puppy is to have the best chance to be happy in your home, he must be hand-raised with lots of attention and love in a home setting. It's impossible to do that if you're mass-producing puppies. Many good breeders limit themselves to one or two litters a year (depending, of course, on the size of the litters).

2. Any sign that the whole deal can be completed with one phone call or email.
A good breeder spends plenty of time talking to you, not only about her puppies, but about the breed in general, your home, and whether this is the right breed for you. Most require a written application. If the conversation consists mostly of "This is how much they cost, you can pick up your puppy Saturday," that's not a breeder who cares where her puppy is going.

3. Credit cards accepted.
Good breeders are small volume - - they can't afford to take credit cards, unless they run it through another business, such as a pet supplies store, grooming shop, etc. Any breeder, however, can use Paypal or other online payment methods. If you need to use a credit card to buy your puppy, ask about those plans, or get a cash advance.

4. Advertising oddball or specialized varieties.
Rare longhaired whippets, Warlock or white Dobermans, teacup Yorkies, extreme large or big boned dogs. Purebreds must meet a breed standard. If a breeder isn't following the standard on size, coat, etc., how do you know what other oddities there may be? Because these 'improvements' are often done by mixing in other breeds, the advertised animals may not even be purebred.

Before contacting any breeder, you should read the breed standard and know what it says about color, size, and so on. Many kinds of unintended faults are okay for a pet. For example, the breeder might say "This puppy is going to be oversized, so we won't be able to show him," or "Look at the way he carries his tail -- that's a fault."

Read your breed standard at the AKC web site and be sure you understand any breed fault in a puppy you're considering buying and whether the fault is realted to health. (The Whippet Standard is at the American Whippet Club site.) For example, light colored eyes are a fault in whippets but they don't cause any health problems--it's strictly a cosmetic issue. Floppy ears in a German Shepherd Dog are also cosmetic. In some breeds, white coats are simply a color choice -- in others, a white coat can be associated with severe health problems.

5. Offers of stud service to the public, breeding pairs, or a contract that does not require spaying/neutering if the puppy is intact when sold.
Good breeders are stewards of their breeds. This means they are very careful with their bloodlines. They do not offer service or sell breeding animals to anyone who has not made an extensive study of and commitment to the breed. Breeding dogs should not be undertaken casually; a good breeder will offer to mentor someone who wants to learn, but will not encourage everyone who enters the door with cash in hand to breed.

6. Dogs registered with any registry other than the American Kennel Club (AKC), United Kennel Club (UKC) or (for Canadians) the Canadian Kennel Club. Rare breeds which have not been recognized by these organizations are exceptions, as are field/hunting dogs registered with field registries.
Reputable registries maintain the pedigrees of purebred dogs, so that if you pay for a purebred you can be sure you actually get a purebred. As registry standards have been tightened, however, breeders who breed carelessly or sell mixes as purebreds have established several registries with no standards at all. Saying a dog is registered with, say, the Dog Registry of America means "I mailed in his name and $15." Many of these registries are happy to register mixed breeds as well. We know of a cat registered as a "French Cocker Spaniel" with one of these registries. Papers from these off-brand registries do not mean your puppy is a purebred.

The term registered by itself is meaningless and the same is true of pedigreed. A pedigree is just a family tree, and every dog, even a mixed breed, has one simply because he has parents and grandparents.

7. "Ready for Christmas!"
Holidays usually mean lots of confusion and just going to a new home is plenty of stress. Good breeders know that Christmas is the worst time to take a puppy home if you have children, and most won't even sell you a puppy as a Christmas gift. Some may allow you to take a puppy home at that time if you can convince them that you'll keep things calm, but a breeder using Christmas as a marketing tool does not have the best interests of the puppies at heart. Even many shelters won't allow adoptions during Christmas week.

8. Puppies sold at a public place like a flea market, shopping mall, or pet store.
The only humane way to sell a puppy is with an interview and plenty of time to talk about your new family member, ask questions, and get answers. The poor little fellows sold at flea markets and other public places are handed to the first person who shows up with cash or a credit card, whether or not that person will provide a suitable home. Never buy from these places even if you feel sorry for the puppy. For every one bought, another litter is bred, and the more clever salespeople encourage you to feel sorry for the puppies so you will "rescue" them. The only way to stop the practice is to boycott flea markets and pet stores where puppies are sold...and let management know why you're staying away!

Yellow Lights -- Get more information!

1. "State licensed"
Few localities require any sort of license for a small scale breeder. Even if a license is required, it has nothing to do with puppy quality. So why is the breeder advertising this?

2. "We ship anywhere."
Many good breeders will ship your puppy. But most prefer that you pick him up if at all possible. That's much less stressful and dangerous for him and most breeders want to meet you face to face. Advertising shipping usually indicates more interest in making sales than in finding good homes.

3. "We'll meet you at the rest stop."
Some kennels really are hard to find, but anyone can take directions. Often this just means "We'd rather you not see our kennel." A puppy from a dirty or overcrowded kennel is very likely to have parasites and/or other communicable illness. Corners probably have been cut on other breeding practices.

4. "I'm sorry but the mother is (at the groomer, at a dog show, at the vet...) so you won't be able to meet her."
Offer to come back when she's available and if you can't make arrangements, look elsewhere for a puppy. Mom's influence makes up for about 75% of your puppy's temperament, and if you don't like her, you don't want her pup.

5. Offers to sell puppies that are less than eight weeks old.
Puppies need to be with mom and their siblings for eight weeks or more in order to learn skills that are near impossible for humans to teach. You can consider buying a puppy from this breeder (if other lights are okay) but do not take your puppy home before he's eight weeks old. Some breeds mature more slowly so these puppies should stay with mom at least another week or two.

Puppies must be exposed to humans regularly before 12 weeks of age, and that's a big part of the breeder's job. A puppy that has this contact but has stayed with his litter at least eight weeks will easily bond to your family at any age.

6. 'Easy payment plans.'
Payments are usually way too much trouble and risk for the small breeder. She's already sunk a lot of her own money into this litter, and most breeders are not wealthy. A good breeder doesn't want you to buy a dog you can't afford. If you can't pay for the dog, how will you pay for vet care?

7. Special deals that require you to allow the breeding of a litter from your pet.
A good breeder sometimes will sell a male puppy and ask that you not neuter him without permission, in case she needs him as backup to her bloodline. A breeder with a rare bloodline (or a rare breed) may have a good reason for not wanting to lose a certain female, but usually that breeder simply won't sell the dog. Whelping a litter of puppies is emotionally and physically draining for the owner as well as the bitch and there's a lot that can go wrong. Ask why the breeder wants a litter from your pet -- if it's just to collect more money from the sale, look elsewhere.

8. Signs that the breeder has more dogs than she can properly care for.
Everyone has a bad day sometimes and a lot of dogs can mean a lot of confusion and noise! A breeder's home doesn't have to be something out of House Beautiful, but if conditions that don't look right to you, ask questions. Maybe the dog with the infected eye has an appointment this afternoon; perhaps most of the dogs are crated when company comes to simplify the visit. But dogs in dirty pens, matted or smelly dogs, those who appear to need medical care and have not gotten it, or dogs stacked in crates for most of every day cannot be healthy, well-adjusted dogs. You don't want a puppy from this environment.

Green Lights -- This looks like a good breeder!

1. A list of specific health checks done before breeding and/or on puppies before selling.
Examples might be CERF (eye), OFA (hips, heart), thyroid tests, von Willebrands Disease (blood clotting) and BAER (hearing) as appropriate to the breed. You must know which problems are likely to occur in your breed and what checks should be done. 'Vet checked' is too general -- that statement is a yellow light, particularly if given as the answer to "What health checks do you do?"

2. A lifetime takeback guarantee with a requirement that you return the dog or get approval for a new home if you cannot keep him.
Good breeders do everything in their power to prevent their puppies from winding up in an animal shelter or a pen in some friend of a friend's backyard.

3. A detailed written (or on-line) application required.
Good breeders put too much work into their puppies to sell them to just anyone, and they have learned by experience what kinds of home are likely to work out and which ones probably will not. Most, but not all, require a written application.

4. The breeder makes sure you know the breed's drawbacks and any special breed requirements.
All breeds have some drawbacks. If the breed you're considering drools a lot, is hard to housebreak, does not live long, or may instinctively chase and kill small animals, or (fill in the blank!) a good breeder makes sure you understand those characteristics. If your dog must be kept as an indoor dog, must always be leashed or fenced, requires lots of grooming, or is subject to heatstroke, a responsible breeder tells you these things upfront. If a breeder starts to sound like a used-car salesman, telling you only the good things and she refuses to talk about the bad ones, find another breeder.

5. A written contract with specific requirements and guarantees.
But watch out for extremely restrictive contracts -- for example, specific feeding instructions or you forfeit the dog, no vaccinations regardless of veterinary advice, etc. This may be a very dedicated breeder but is likely to be way more trouble than you want. In special situations good breeders may offer a special deal for retaining control of the puppy. You get a cheaper price, but the breeder's name stays on the puppy's registration papers as "co-owner." We advise against doing this unless you're very experienced. Though a breeder who cares about her puppies will encourage you to keep in touch, a breeder who cannot let go of control can be very difficult.

6. A written health record for your puppy.
This should include the date of whelping, any health problems he had, the date and kind of each shot he got, and the dates of worming and drug that was used. Your vet will want this information and having it in writing makes it much more likely that your puppy has gotten the care he needs.

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