So now it's time to take a look at what determines a breeder to be legitimate. How easy is it to spot a "backyard breeder" from someone who is being responsible and ethical? As you can imagine, there are many strong opinions on this topic - but after a little discussion with fellow trainers and dog professionals - I feel this is a fair summary of what to expect if you are shopping for a puppy.
Every breeder will usually state a few reasons they choose to breed their dogs. The first few are typically:
Those are all legitimate, and totally on point. If you're looking at a breeder's website or printed material - and it says none of those things.... you've already uncovered a major red flag!
So beyond a love and affinity for their breed of dog - there needs to be more concrete evidence that the dogs they've chosen as the mother and father, are "worthy" of breeding. Every time a purposeful breeding takes place - it should always be with healthy, stable and proven animals. So how do we evaluate this without bias?
I've broken it down into 3 main categories:
So let's go through these in detail...
An ordinary vet check won't cut it for breeding. When evaluating for breeding, the potential dam and sire should both have passed whatever breed specific testing is recommended.
For example - in the German Shepherd Dog, some very common genetic conditions are Hip & Elbow Dysplasia. So it is strongly recommended all breeding dogs be pre-screened and scored for Hip and Elbow health. While this doesn't ensure the puppies will have perfect joints - it will prevent an animal with an obvious deformity from being bred and possibly passing that trait on to its offspring.
Be familiar with what genetic testing is recommended for your breed, and ensure the breeder provides proof they screen and certify their dogs free of those conditions.
A breeder that refuses to show you breed specific testing results is a red flag.
Assuming you're not looking to buy and raise the next Cujo - I'm going to bet you are hoping for a friendly and sociable pup! The temperament of the parent dogs contribute significantly to their puppies personalities.
There are a few ways to judge this. The easiest way would be simply to meet both the dam and the sire. Are they friendly? Is the breeder comfortable having their dogs interact with strangers? Do they seem skittish? Aloof? Some aloofness may be considered 'normal' in certain breeds - but if you desire to have a puppy that will be social with visiting friends and family, this is an important factor.
If it's not possible to meet the dam and/or sire - you can also look to temperament testing that is often done by breeders. The American Temperament Test Society offers testing that rates a dog's natural, instinctual responses to a specific set of auditory, visual and tactile stimuli. This is a widely recognized temperament test used by breeders to demonstrate the mental stability and soundness of their dogs.
Don't be afraid to ask questions about the temperament and personality 'quirks' of the parent dogs. This is a major factor that most good breeders will consider when choosing which dogs to breed. Making a complementary match is very important, and they should want to explain their logic.
A breeder that refuses to let you meet the parents (or the dam - if the sire is off-site) is a red flag.
A dog's performance titles are often overlooked when a family is shopping for their next 'pet' dog. You might be wondering, "Why is this important? I just want a nice, friendly dog to go on walks around the neighborhood!"
It's important because dogs that compete are subject to a wide range of experiences and pressure - both mental and physical. A dog who can withstand vigorous training and competition - is a dog that can handle a busy, often hectic - and unpredictable - family environment. It also demonstrates a dog that enjoys working with people - they're a team!
There is a wide range of titles - in an ever growing assortment of activities dogs can compete in. Each one harnesses the natural tendencies of the breed and pairs it with the skill of the handler - to prove that they either physically meet the 'standard' for the breed or can perform tasks or actions that measure up to a widely accepted performance standard.
Here's a list of a few examples of popular competitions or venues that demonstrate the performance and abilities of a dog...
This is certainly not an exhaustive collection of titled events or venues for dogs. But hopefully it gives you an idea of the wide range of disciplines a breeder may choose to specialize in with their breeding animals.
Any good, decent breeder will likely have an area of expertise or interest that they choose to participate in. Some participate in multiple venues.
A breeder who does nothing more than breeding dogs as "pets", and never steps foot in a competition, work venue or show ring - is a red flag.
In summary, a good breeder is going to check all the boxes. A great breeder will go above and beyond by not only meeting the minimum standards I outlined above, but inviting you into their facility or home - asking their own list of questions, providing you with oodles of information about their dogs and their breeding program.
Of course, this is not the end of the screening process. When those puppies are developing, her care and preparations should be the utmost priority! The first 8-12 weeks of life they spend in the breeder's home is critical to their lifelong development as healthy, stable, well-adjusted dogs.
Stay tuned... our next post will focus on how GREAT breeders raise super puppies!
So as you stand there ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aaah’ing’ over the adorable cuteness of these innocent creatures - the thought enters your mind… “Well, they look so healthy and happy! Pet store puppies can’t be that bad, can they?”
Maybe you’ve heard that puppies sold in pet stores only come from puppy mills. Or that puppies sold in stores are sick and riddled with disease.
But these cute puppies in front of you don’t look sick! Could it really be true?
Today I’m going to do my best to help sort out fact from fiction. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give you a broader view of where these puppies come from and benefits or risks you may experience from purchasing a pet store puppy.
So let’s start first with benefits.
The biggest and most significant benefit: Convenience.
Without a doubt, pet stores beat out every other option for acquiring a puppy fast. They typically have many puppies in stock in the store, and in a wide variety of breeds. If they don’t have it, they can usually special order one from their network of brokers and suppliers.
Pet stores will usually send those puppies home with the customer on the same day if you have the cash in hand. In fact, some pet stores are even making that easier - by offering financing. That’s right! In some stores, you can even sign up for monthly payments to help buy your puppy.
In addition to convenience - pet stores also offer the benefit of puppies being handled frequently by a wide variety of staff and shoppers. This early socialization can be beneficial to puppies, especially considering the wide range of age, ethnicities, and mannerisms the puppies likely encounter in a store setting. (This benefit however, is not unique to pet stores.)
So, in addition to the two points above - here are some more benefits that pet stores will frequently list as great reasons to source your puppy from them:
OK. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately while on the surface those points seem to be positive - they also don’t tell the complete truth. So let’s go through these one by one.
#1 - Pet stores help match families with the right breed.
This one I actually find a little bit comical. Why, you might ask? Well - let’s think about it.
This is a store that sells puppies. Puppies.
Cute, adorable, roly-poly puppies that probably range in age from 8 to 16 weeks.
How much do you think the store staff actually know about the adult behavior of every single breed they sell? They only handle puppies!
Puppies are pretty easy to manage, and they often take up to 2 or 3 years to fully mature into their adult personalities and breed traits. Unless a store staff member has actually owned a dog of a particular breed, or spent a great deal of time handling that breed as an adult - I would not rely on them to be ‘experts’ in breed selection.
Also keep in mind, these are sales staff. Their main objective is to sell you a puppy. A very expensive puppy. While I would imagine there are some genuine staff members who do their best to match up a family with the right breed - I remain skeptical that a retail environment is the most appropriate place to get that information.
#2 - Pet stores and their breeders are regulated at the state and federal level.
Again, on the surface - this sounds great. But what regulations are they actually required to follow?
Right here in the state of Pennsylvania, a commercial breeder is anyone who sells a puppy to a pet store. The minimum requirement is that they must obtain a kennel license through the state. The kennel license requires an annual inspection, keeping of certain records, a basic level of sanitation, and veterinary care. And that’s pretty much it.
It does not require any genetic testing for disease such as debilitating Hip or Elbow Dysplasia. (Nor does it prohibit the breeding of animals with known unwanted genetic conditions.)
It does not require that the dogs used for breeding be friendly, social, or pass any sort of temperament evaluation.
It does not require the puppies be socialized or handled when they are young, to be exposed to different environments and surfaces, or to provide them toys or chewies. Nor does it require the breeder to train and prepare these puppies for homes with children and other types of pets.
The laws exist to prevent cruelty to animals, and provide them with basic comfort in a kennel setting. Unfortunately, with dogs - that is often not enough to ensure a healthy, well adjusted puppy will be produced from a “legal” commercial breeder.
#3 - Pet store puppies are “registered”.
Registration for your puppy is not going to be important to everyone, so you may feel free to scroll past. But to those interested in getting those pedigree documents, be forewarned.
Not all registrations are equal.
The most well respected and recognized registry for purebred dogs in the United States is the American Kennel Club (AKC). In addition, is the United Kennel Club (UKC) which is an international organization that also provides registration for purebred dogs and puppies.
With both of these organizations, it’s required to have a minimum of 3 generations documented as a prerequisite to register a litter of puppies. Registration does not automatically equal “quality” when it comes to that puppy’s lineage - but it does document that it came from parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who were all purebred dogs.
With AKC or UKC registration, you are eligible to enter your puppy or adult dog into many different types of competitive events. Conformation shows, obedience, agility, herding, hunt trials, and a long list of new and exciting sporting events are available to registered dogs.
There are many more registries that exist - both for purebred and cross-bred dogs. Unfortunately, these are nothing more than “clubs” that will gladly accept your money in exchange for a fancy piece of paper with your dog’s name on it. Just to reiterate - these clubs do not screen for quality of the dam and sire. These particular registries also do not run competitive events. They do nothing more than maintain the registry and filing of your paperwork.
In short - while the AKC and UKC registrations do not promise your puppy will be free of genetic defects or of show quality - they are the most respected organizations for purebred registration. Any other registration is a waste of your money, at best - and a sketchy option chosen by the breeder, at its worst.
#4 - Pet store puppies are healthy, come with veterinary records & a health guarantee.
Many pet stores will have their puppies seen by a veterinarian either by the breeder or after they take custody of the puppy. This is usually a general physical exam.
The veterinarian checks vital signs, examines for any obvious irregularities or signs of illness, deformity or disease. The wellness exam is then documented and included in that puppy’s file, along with any other records showing when the puppy was administered any vaccinations or dewormer.
Sounds good, right? Sure - this is standard practice for anywhere you acquire a puppy. But it’s only a snapshot of the puppy on that day.
The puppies are usually sold with a “health guarantee”. The scope of this guarantee ranges incredibly from store to store. Most will require the buyer to take the puppy to a licensed veterinarian within a couple days - to be examined at the buyer’s expense.
For some stores, this is pretty much where that guarantee ends. If the puppy is found to be ill, they offer to pay for treatment or return the puppy for a replacement.
Other stores may offer longer initial periods of general wellness - but usually have strict limitations on what they will offer to cover, since puppies can contract communicable diseases once they leave the store.
Some guarantees will offer a warranty against genetic defect - but read that fine print closely! Again, these guarantees widely vary. Some may be as short as a couple months - hardly enough time to detect some genetic conditions. And the policies also differ on how they resolve any potential health issues. Some stores may only offer a 2nd puppy replacement for free.
If you already bought a puppy that requires significant (and often expensive) treatment/surgery - will you want a 2nd puppy (from potentially the same breeder) as a suitable replacement?
You are rolling the dice when it comes to the long term health and wellness of a pet store puppy.
In addition to the list of above - I'd also like to mention a couple more facts to consider about purchasing from a pet store.
#5 - Price
You absolutely will pay the most expensive purchase price for a puppy from a pet store. The mark-up is outrageous. And it's necessary. When you think of all the hands that each puppy has passed through before going home with a buyer - it makes sense why they cost so much.
Paying a higher price, does not guarantee you get a better quality product.
In fact, after visiting a few pet stores to do a little of my own research - I was shocked to see prices $1,000-2,000 MORE than average cost to buy the same breed of puppy from a reputable, independent breeder who can provide long lists of titles, certificates and health testing on the parents, and a lifetime guarantee for genetic defects. I just couldn't believe it.
#6 - Choice
It may seem like you have a ton of options when standing in an aisle lined with pens or cages filled with adorable puppies. But really, your options are very limited once you've narrowed down your breed selection.
Most stores only stock 1 or 2 puppies of the same breed.
Watching puppies interact with their littermates is one of the most important parts of the puppy selection process. There can be a wide range of personalities emerge from the same litter of puppies. When buying from a store, you are sacrificing that opportunity and leaving the selection up to the broker or breeder. How do you know you're getting the best puppy for you from the litter?
#7 - Potty Training Woes
I cannot tell you how many clients I've worked with that bought pet store puppies and had a horrendous time trying to potty train them. This seems to be one of the biggest training problems I have encountered as it relates to pet stores.
While I do not have any data or studies to back up my opinion on this - my belief is that due to the puppies in stores being kept in cages for so long... most pet store puppies are perfectly content to sleep and eat where they use the toilet.
One thing we usually bet on with potty training, is that the puppy would 'prefer' not to toilet where they sleep. Especially when using crates or a portable exercise pen. However, if a puppy was raised in a raised wire-floor cage (very common in many pet stores, to make cleaning more efficient), the puppy gets used to going where they eat, sleep and spend most of their time... the cage.
This results in a puppy that will soil a crate or in a house indefinitely.
Is it possible to untrain a puppy from soiling indoors? Yes. It's possible. But it's much more difficult than your average puppy potty training.
And I'm here to tell you as a trainer, a shelter volunteer, a working dog handler and an owner of both "rescue" dogs and purposefully bred dogs - there is NO wrong answer.
What I hope to achieve with a short series of posts, is to help you sort through the pros and cons of both options - and provide you with some guidance to make the best decision for you and your family.
First... let's take a short quiz.
If most of your answers are "NO" - chances are that a shelter puppy may be a great option for you!
If most of your answers are "YES" - you may want to take a close look at whether a shelter puppy would be appropriate for your situation.
So let's break this down...
#1 - No puppy raising experience.
Puppies from shelters step into the shelter or rescue group at ANY age. This means that staff may have very little control over what the puppy was exposed to from birth.
Early socialization and handling shapes puppies into being more resilient and accepting of humans (and other pets) and strengthens their resilience to the environment and stress. To raise a healthy, well-rounded puppy, it's critical that puppies receive this care.
Puppies lacking this early training may develop problematic behaviors which take more patience and diligence to overcome once adopted. If you have no prior experience in raising and training a puppy, this can add to your stress of typical potty training, nipping/biting and chewing habits.
#2 - Breed preference.
It's possible to find a purebred puppy of your preferred breed in a shelter or rescue. But, if we're being totally honest here - it's highly unlikely. If you have your heart set on a very specific breed, a shelter puppy may not be the ideal choice. The exception would be if you're willing to entertain an older puppy (6+ months and up) - your odds increase dramatically of finding a purebred puppy!
Many times the staff does their absolute best to identify the breed of the mother, and if known - the father. But it is absolutely impossible to pinpoint the breed of most puppies when they are very small, or if no history was provided of where they came from. Wandering stray males can show up from miles away, impregnate a female and vanish - so knowing exactly who "dad" is can easily remain a mystery.
If it would disappoint you to see your puppy grow up to be a mixture of another breed, a very different mature size, or you feel you must have a puppy from a very specific breed - the odds may not be in your favor. However, depending on the breed popularity, you may have luck! The more popular the breed overall - the more likely you may find them in your local shelter or rescue group.
#3 - Competitive sports or working dog prospect.
When selecting a puppy for competition or some type of work - we usually look for qualities that will help that dog excel in their 'specialty'. These puppies are typically curious, confident, resilient & eager to perform in exchange for some sort of reward system. Their performance also usually hinges on their relationship with their handler, and the ability to tap into natural talent and breed traits.
There are many, many puppies from shelters that compete and perform jobs (service dogs, search & rescue, detection canines, etc...) But, the "wash-out" rate of shelter puppies is incredibly high compared to dogs that originated from known lineage of other competitive/working parents.
If you choose a shelter puppy as a prospect for competition or work, please have a plan in place if that puppy does not mature into the dog you dreamed of raising. The ideal solution would be to keep that puppy as a pet dog, regardless of their affinity for sports or work. If you cannot keep a puppy if they can't work for you - please consider an experienced, reputable breeder instead of rescue. Breeders often will help you select a puppy that's most appropriate for the job - increasing your odds dramatically for success.
#4 - Breed or size restrictions.
As mentioned above - we rarely know "for sure" what's in the mix with shelter dog puppies. Many puppies look like a "Labrador Retriever mix" when they are 8 weeks old. Floppy ears, long tails and round heads - so cute! But as those puppies grow and mature, they will start exhibiting traits of other breeds that are part of their genetic make-up.
If you rent, and your landlord specifically prohibits you from owning a 'pitbull' breed - please consider being extremely cautious in adopting a "lab mix" puppy. The bully breeds look very similar to Labs when they are small. It would be tragic to have to surrender your puppy because it was the wrong breed when it matured.
On the same token, consider size restrictions too. While we can usually get a general idea of how big a puppy might grow... there are many large and giant breed dogs that start out as runts! And, there have been many cases where puppies outgrow their mother - depending on what breed or breed mix of the father. So the mother's size is a consideration when estimating mature size - but shouldn't be the only factor you consider.
#5 - Genetic health and behavioral concerns.
And lastly, but certainly not least - genetic health and behavioral concerns. This is a matter of great debate (and denial) among many in the rescue and shelter world.
We have all heard the saying, "It's all in how you raise them."
Well, I'm here to say.... That's a lie.
Nature + Nurture = what you get.
We do all we can to nurture a puppy into great physical and behavioral health. But there is always going to be a genetic influence on the final result. That's not to say that a puppy of unknown genetics isn't going to be the best dog to walk the planet! It just might! In fact, when I was a child - my family had several shelter dogs of mixed genetics that all turned out to be awesome, healthy and social pets. Shelter and rescue puppies can be perfectly healthy in every way.
But - I'm speaking to those who may have had a pet with a severe genetic condition - something that can be screened for by a breeder - perhaps it would break your heart to see another pet suffer from this condition. If I'm talking to you - it might be a good idea to look at obtaining a healthy puppy from a breeder. Obviously, even with genetic testing and diligent matching of pedigrees to reduce risk of disease or unwanted traits - we can still see puppies that develop issues. But the odds are better, and this type of assurance can lessen the stress on pet owners wanting to source a healthy puppy who can live a long, healthy life.
In addition to physical health - we also must consider behavioral health. Aggressive parent dogs can produce offspring with aggressive tendencies. In the same way, social parent dogs will usually produce puppies with social tendencies.
To deny this is foolish - as that is how service dog breeding programs and police dog breeding programs work! Service dogs must be social, confident, biddable and calm. With each generation, they selectively breed those animals demonstrating the qualities they look for to increase the odds that the puppies can do their job!
Police dog breeding programs also want confident, social dogs - but they also look for high energy and a very "pushy" personality (also referred to as "high drive" in many circles) so they can tolerate the stresses and intensity of their job. I wouldn't expect to get a good service dog candidate from a litter of police dog puppies or vice versa!
When it comes to shelter dog puppies - our best guess about temperament is going to be looking at the parent dogs. When they aren't available, it's often just a guess. For some people, that's perfectly fine - but if it's a major concern for you, maybe a purposely-bred dog from a reputable breeder is a better option.
So, as I wrap up this post... you might be thinking I'm trying to talk people out of adopting a shelter puppy. And the truth is... sort of. Unfortunately, I see many puppy owners struggling with a puppy they simply weren't prepared for - and some of those puppies find their way back in the shelter again. My goal as a trainer is to help as many families live peacefully and happily with their pet. Sometimes that may include guiding the decision of where to get their puppy - and choosing a puppy from a specific breed, with known health & temperament, early neurological stimulation & socialization, and everything else a breeder puts into their puppies can be an appropriate option.
In the next of this series of posts, I'm going to identify what a "good" breeder looks like and how you can be sure that if you do choose to source from a breeder - you know you're getting a quality, ethically sourced puppy. I will also be discussing the pros and cons of buying from a pet store, and also my personal recommendations for how to select your perfect puppy from a litter (regardless of where you adopt or shop!) Stay tuned & happy training!
As a wide-eyed college student, I had the opportunity to spend a year in Sweden. Not only did I get to expand my knowledge of my field of study…
I became a better dog trainer.
My chosen field of study was Landscape Architecture - and had absolutely nothing to do with dog training. It wasn’t what I learned in the classroom that impacted me the most - it was what I experienced one evening, when I was asked to babysit for a friend. He was an adorable little kid - 6 years old with big blue eyes and light blond hair. Active and playful, curious to meet new people. Eager to interact.
His parents gave me some simple instructions, showed me his favorite snacks and told me where they could be reached in an emergency. Easy peasy - just a few short hours with a happy, adorable kid, right? How hard could it be?
Well…. It didn’t take long before the realization sunk in that we had a communication problem. He was happy, and he was eager, but we didn’t speak the same language! Something as simple as asking him what he wanted to do - or if he was hungry… I didn’t know enough Swedish to pose a simple question.
The little boy handed me a book - and I began to read (in Swedish)... and the kid laughed. (Sigh….) Thankfully, he was already learning to read in school, so he took over - and after he read me a story we ended up watching TV for the remainder of the evening.
So what exactly does this have to do with training dogs?
It made me aware of how much a language barrier can frustrate and confuse two humans. I was unable to pose the most simple question to a child.
Thinking back on that experience, I can’t even begin to imagine what it might have been like to try and teach him something. And I believe that’s where I had my *Aha!* moment.
This is exactly the scenario we face when interacting with our dogs.
Our dogs do not understand our language. And while they might be happy, eager and have a desire to interact - they do not automatically understand our expectations.
And this is where I began to explore the ethical considerations of dog training. To what extent do I go to teach my dog? Is it fair to punish him for something he doesn’t understand is “wrong” in my eyes? When I was watching that little boy in Sweden, would have it been ethical to grab his arm and push him around the house until he went where I wanted him to? If he had walked into the kitchen and began pulling knives out of the kitchen drawer to play with - how harshly would I have dealt with that situation if he didn’t understand my words?
Dog training can be difficult, and it can be frustrating. But it’s not just frustrating for us - the humans. It’s also very confusing for the dog.
So with this realization - I try to always keep clear communication at the forefront of my mind. Am I effectively communicating with the dog in front of me? Does he (or she) really understand what I want them to do? And if not - how can I make it easier? Because - after all, if the dog doesn’t understand what I want… is it really fair to punish the dog?
Tell me what you think! How do you effectively communicate with your dog?