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!