The subject of this Guide is how to find a good dog breeder when you’re thinking about adding a puppy to your family. There is a lot of debate among dog lovers as to whether rescuing a dog or buying one from a breeder is the better choice.
We believe that the decision is a personal one. No one would argue against the beauty of giving a second chance to a rescued dog who needs a loving home.
On the other hand, buying a purebred puppy from a breeder (when done thoughtfully) increases the chance that you will choose the right dog for your lifestyle. That, in turn, decreases the chance that the dog will eventually end up in a shelter or rescue.
We are in no way advocating for buying over adopting in this Guide. In fact, on this site, we offer information on how to find both breeders and rescue organizations for each breed.
With this Guide, we are simply providing good information for the person who has made the decision that buying from a breeder is the right choice for them.
Why This Guide?
Like nearly everything else in life, when it comes to adopting a new puppy, there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.
You may be thinking, so what’s the big deal, anyway? Why does it matter where or how I buy my puppy?
A very good question! It matters to that puppy and to two million others that are bred in cruel conditions every year. Buying from questionable sources perpetuates cruel breeding practices.
And if you get one of these puppies and find that it’s not at all what you were expecting, it will matter a great deal to you, too.
In this Guide, we will talk about how to find a responsible, cruelty-free dog breeder. We’ll guide you through questions to ask a dog breeder.
We will also touch on how to choose the right breed for your family. This is an important issue that too many adopters take lightly. Choosing a breed because it’s cute and cuddly almost never ends well.
After all, we both want the same thing—for your new puppy to find its forever home with you!
Let’s start with the basics.
What is a Dog Breeder?
The simple dictionary definition is that a dog breeder is a person who purposely mates dogs to produce puppies.
But if you were to ask most reputable breeders what they do, you would probably get an answer something like this:
A dog breeder is a person who selectively mates dogs, usually of the same breed, according to a prescribed standard, with the intent of improving the breed.
That definition is somewhat controversial, but we’ll talk more about that later. For now, we’ll accept this as our definition of a reputable breeder.
What is Selective Breeding?
Selective breeding is the process a breeder uses to decide which dogs to breed.
“A breeder has, in his mind, a perfect dog that he someday hopes to create.” – Peggy Adamson for Woodhavenlanes.com.
The desire to “create the perfect dog” is what drives the selective breeding process. A good breeder is a steward of the breed.
They use a breed standard as a description of the ideal representative of that breed. They choose dogs that are closest to that ideal for their breeding program.
Breed standards cover physical traits as well as temperament.
The idea is to pass the best features of the breed on to the next generation while eliminating the “faults.”
The most severe faults are health issues. Nearly every breed has a genetic disposition to one or more health conditions. Good breeders screen any dogs they intend to breed and their puppies for known health issues.
Responsible breeders do not breed dogs that have a genetic health condition or are carriers of a genetic condition.
In the purest sense, faults can also be defined as any physical feature that hinders the dog’s ability to do the job it was developed to do.
For example, a hunting dog needs to be built a certain way to do its job well on the terrain he traditionally hunts on. A dachshund needs short legs to get into low brush that other dogs can’t. A poodle needs a waterproof coat because he’s a waterfowl hunter.
Dogs whose physical anatomy differs significantly from the breed standard are considered unfit for breeding.
Again, the concept of faults is an area of controversy, which we will speak to later in this Guide.
Who Creates the Breed Standard?
Another good question! The answer is kennel clubs. Nearly every breed has at least one club dedicated to the breeding, preservation, and promotion of that breed.
Most breed-specific clubs then belong to one or more of the major national or international breed clubs. Examples of these include the American Kennel Club (AKC), the United Kennel Club (UKC), and the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) (known in English as the World Canine Organization).
There are a number of smaller kennel clubs as well. But these three are the most well-known.
These groups create the breed standards.
Do All Breeders Belong to These Clubs?
No. But nearly all commercial breeders do. As one example, an AKC registration has traditionally been the “seal of approval” for dog breeders that make it easier for them to promote their puppies.
So If a Breeder is AKC-Registered, I Can Assume Quality?
Not so fast! The truth is more complicated than that. Most people believe that if they buy a dog with AKC “papers” (called a pedigree), they are guaranteed a purebred dog and a quality breeder.
This is not the case. AKC registration means that a breeder is compliant with their pedigree paperwork and that their facility is clean. That’s about it.
The Facts About Proof of Parentage
The AKC operates on an honor system. When a breeder has a litter, they send in their applications for registration. All they have to do is state the names of the dam (mother) and sire (father). If the parents they name are both AKC registered, the breeder gets pedigrees for those pups.
Nobody checks to be sure that information is correct. Short of a DNA test (which you could certainly get yourself), there is no way to be sure of those puppies’ parentage.
They could have been sired by an accidental mating with a neighbor’s dog. No one would be the wiser.
Female dogs can even be impregnated by two dogs during one mating cycle, meaning she could have puppies from both males in the same litter.
“Registration itself is neither a guarantee nor even an indication of quality.” – Norma Bennett Woolf for Dog Owners Guide
Commercial breeders are also subject to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection of their facilities, but only in some cases. Again, this does not necessarily mean that the breeder is “quality.”
This is partially because not all AKC breeders are inspected. Breeders who register a specified number of litters per year are added to an inspection list. From that list, the USDA randomly inspects a number of breeders each year.
Even for those who are inspected, passing only means that the facility was clean, the dogs looked healthy, and paperwork requirements were met.
An inspection does not ensure that good breeding practices are followed. It doesn’t signify that the dogs are purebred or of any particular quality. In fact, a breeder could be deliberately falsifying applications for their puppies and still be granted AKC registration status.
Even dogs purchased at pet stores can be AKC registered. But almost all dogs bought at pet stores are from puppy mills, as we’ll discuss in the next section.
So How Do I Know Whom to Trust?
The answer to this question is also complicated, as we’ll see. Before we get to that, it’s important to know what’s at stake, for both your family and the dog you ultimately choose.
The best way to illustrate that is to talk first about what you should not do.
How NOT to Buy a Puppy
We’ve all seen them on TV. ASPCA vans with workers in HAZMAT suits taking filthy and terrified dogs out of a facility where they have been kept as nothing more than breeding stock.
There are 10,000 of these puppy mills in the United States, according to the Human Society of the United States (HSUS). They breed more than 2 million puppies every year.
These dogs are sold in two primary markets: pet stores and online.
Nearly all dogs sold from pet stores come from puppy mills. They’re often taken away from their mothers too young. They are shipped in inhumane conditions to pet stores all over the country.
Many puppies don’t survive the trip. Those that do often have respiratory and other conditions from being shipped in tight quarters with many other dogs.
The eventual owner is lucky if they get a healthy dog.
Most pet stores will tell you that their puppies came from a breeder that’s licensed by the USDA. And many of them do.
The sad truth is that many puppy mills do have a USDA license. And for those who don’t, it’s rare that the inspections laws are enforced. There are simply too many of these facilities. The USDA can’t keep up.
Without the pet store market, puppy mills would find it hard to stay in business. Thankfully, awareness of the issue is rising. Many cities in the US have banned the selling of dogs and other animals in pet stores.
In January 2019, California became the first state to do so. Maryland soon followed, and several other states now have legislation in the pipeline to do the same.
The Online Market
Selling dogs online is a newer way for puppy mills to unload their dogs. These people know how to make their offers look as enticing as possible.
They post photos of irresistible puppies in several free online marketplaces. But that adorable puppy in the photo is not likely to be the one you get. Chances are good it’s a photo they grabbed from another web site.
They offer near-instant gratification. There can be hundreds of puppies and several breeds to choose from. They can have one available immediately. The seller may even offer to deliver it right to your door.
Reputable breeders, on the other hand, seldom have puppies available on demand. Unlike the puppy mills, they don’t breed carelessly. They plan their litters thoughtfully and often have waiting lists for a puppy.
Once the litter is born, buyers have to wait another eight or more weeks before the pups are ready to leave their mother.
It’s easy to see how people get caught up in the excitement of getting a puppy right away and how they forget to be cautious.
But again, the dogs they are likely to get will be puppy mill dogs (if they get one at all; see Online Scams).
So How Does All of This Affect Me?
- As we mentioned above, puppy mills often remove puppies from their mothers too soon. This can cause all sorts of issues in the pups. They tend to lose their appetites and lose weight. They are more prone to disease.
- Conditions in most puppy mill facilities are filthy. The more available space, the more puppies can be produced. So, the dogs are often kept in wire cages stacked on top of each other.
They are rarely exercised or taken from their cages. When they relieve themselves, the urine and feces drop to the cages below.
Not surprisingly, this is a perfect environment for disease to spread. Many puppies are sick by the time they leave these facilities.
- Conditions are nearly as bad when the puppies are transported to pet stores. Again, they are crammed into cages in tight spaces with little to no care during transport.
This is another perfect setup for a disease to spread. Many puppies will have respiratory issues like kennel cough and other contagious conditions.
- The puppies can have serious genetic issues that may not show up until they become adults.
Reputable breeders screen their breeding parents for known health conditions. They won’t breed dogs that don’t pass those screenings. They are invested in the genetic soundness of the breed for generations to come.
Puppy mills don’t even think about this. Their only concern is their bottom line.
Even worse, puppy mills will indiscriminately inbreed their dogs. They will breed sisters to brothers and mothers to sons. This causes any number of health issues for the resulting puppies.
- The puppies in these facilities rarely receive any socialization. They likely have had no exposure to people at all. These pups will have a harder time transitioning to their new situations.
Separation anxiety issues are common with puppy mill dogs. They often grow into anxious or fearful adults. Fearful dogs can become aggressive to other dogs and to strangers.
- Puppies who are taken from their moms too soon often don’t get the chance to be taught social skills like bite inhibition by their mothers and can be a training challenge.
- You may not get what you thought you were buying. Most people who buy purebred dogs will give careful thought to the breed they choose. They will want to be sure that the dog will be a good fit for their lifestyle.
If you do this right (and you will if you’re reading this guide!), you will research several breeds to find the one that would be the best choice for your family.
This is possible with purebred dogs because in general, their temperaments tend to be predictable (with some individual difference, of course).
This is because good breeders breed to a standard. Their goal is to produce dogs that are “true to type.” This means that a Golden Retriever will almost always act like a Golden Retriever and never like a Rottweiler.
Again, this is something that puppy mills don’t care about. What this means for the buyer is that they may be getting a dog that doesn’t have the breed-specific traits they were expecting.
It may not even be a purebred at all.
If that dog turns out to be a poor fit for the family, there is a good chance it will eventually end up in a shelter.
Bottom line? It’s never a good idea to buy a dog that may have come from a puppy mill.
For more information about how puppy mills operate, visit www.aspca.org.
A backyard breeder is usually an individual who owns one or more dogs and has decided he or she would like to breed them to sell the puppies.
There is nothing legally wrong with this. Most state laws allow individuals to breed and sell dogs within limits.
They can usually have a certain number of breeding females. Or they can sell or give away a certain number of litters per year. Above those limits, they need to register as a commercial breeder.
So, backyard breeding is not necessarily illegal. But it isn’t the best way to buy a dog, for a number of reasons.
- Backyard breeders almost always produce puppies only to sell for profit. They are unlikely to spend money on the health of the puppies. The pup you buy will probably have had no vet checks and no immunizations.
- In most states, the backyard breeder is under no legal obligation to wait the recommended eight weeks to separate a pup from its mother.
- The backyard breeder isn’t concerned about the genetic soundness of the breed. They have given no thought to whether the parents were good candidates for breeding.
- The backyard breeder will take your money and have no questions for you. They are unlikely to care what happens to a puppy after they sell it.
- The backyard breeder will offer no support if you have problems with the dog.
- You won’t get a health guarantee.
- The backyard breeder will not offer to take the dog back if you fall on hard times.
Now compare all of this to what you get with the typical registered breeder:
- Many registered breeders will tell you that they do it for love of the breed, not for money. In fact, many of them consider themselves “hobby breeders” and are not trying to run a for-profit business.
For many smaller breeders, the costs involved in caring for the parents and raising puppies to adoption age leave little room for profit.
Those costs generally include food and shelter, health maintenance, immunizations, and sometimes even microchips before the puppies leave the breeder’s facility.
- Good registered breeders are committed to the improvement of the breeds they work with. They screen for common and breed-specific genetic health conditions. They select only healthy dogs for breeding.
- Reputable breeders the time to socialize their pups so by the time they get to you, they are used to being around people.
- Responsible breeders encourage site visits and will take the time to answer questions. They will also have questions for you.
Their first concern is for the welfare of their dogs. They want to be sure that they are placing their puppies in homes that will be a good fit.
- Many good commercial breeders will offer lifetime support if you ever need advice on issues that come up with your dog.
- Responsible breeders will guarantee the health of their puppies for at least a year.
- Most registered breeders will ask you to sign a contract. In that contract, they expect you to agree to return the dog to them if at any time you find you need to surrender it for any reason.
- Perhaps most importantly, as discussed above and unlike backyard breeders or puppy mills, good breeders always breed to a standard. You will have reasonable assurance that you will get what you’re paying for.
The appeal of a backyard breeder is usually twofold: 1) They advertise dogs that are available immediately, and 2) their prices are often significantly lower than commercial breeders.
But when you look at what you get for your money, it’s obvious that the cut-rate puppy is a risky choice.
Then there are the “breeders” who sell dogs that don’t exist. The news has been full of these scams lately. ABC’s Good Morning America recently reported that 80% of the dogs advertised online are fake.
The prices are often very low, so people are eager to believe or willing to take a chance. The scammers will usually ask for the money to be wired to them. The buyer complies, and no dog ever arrives.
It is nearly impossible to recover the money.
The best way to buy a dog online? In most cases, the answer is simple: Don’t.
However, there are some situations where there may not be other options. Maybe you’re looking for a rare breed that’s not available near your home, or even in your country.
In that case, as in many of the articles on this site, we recommend that you consider importing a puppy from its country of origin.
How to Reduce Your Risk When Purchasing a Puppy Online?
In a situation where you are considering purchasing a dog online, there are a few things you can do to lessen your risk.
- Beware of ads offering free dogs. Often you will get a story like the person’s child has died and the dog needs to be rehomed. They may ask for cost of delivery.
Then you will get a communication that they need more money because the airline was forcing them to get special accommodations or something to that effect.
If you resist, they may even tell you that they’re going to report you for the abandonment of an animal.
In a situation like this, hang up the phone and keep looking. You will not be charged with abandonment. Until you actually pay for that animal, it is not your responsibility.
- If you’re answering an ad with a photo of a specific animal, ask for proof. To be sure the photo you are shown is of the dog you will receive, ask the person you speak with to send you a photo of the dog with a common item he/she is likely to have on hand. (Or a recent newspaper with the date showing.)
Don’t let the seller choose the item. This advice is becoming well known, so scammers may be prepared for the request.
- Scammers will almost always ask you to wire the money. Don’t do it. It is almost impossible to recover money that has been wired to an unknown person.
If you pay with a credit card, you still won’t have a dog, but you will be protected from financial fraud by your credit card issuer.
For more tips about pet scams and how to protect yourself from online scams, visit the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association at www.ipata.org.
How Do I Choose a Breed?
Before we move on to how to find a quality breeder, you need to decide on a breed.
This is an all-important question that many people take too lightly. They may decide on a breed impulsively because they see an adorable puppy and they just have to have one.
Or a friend has a dog that’s so well-behaved that they just know it would be a great breed for them.
If you choose a breed based on this type of criteria (or non-criteria, really), you are headed for disappointment. There’s a very good chance that you will end up unhappy with your choice.
We can’t stress enough the importance of taking your time and choosing your breed carefully.
Following are some tips on selecting a breed.
It’s All About Instinct
The thing about purebred dogs is that in many ways they are predictable. Their temperaments and behaviors are instinctive to a large degree.
Environment and training also play a role, of course. But in general, dogs behave according to the jobs the breed has been developed to do. In some cases, we’re talking centuries of selective breeding.
- You can expect a herding dog to show herding behaviors such as nipping at heels. Probably not a behavior you would want around small children.
- Many hunting breeds have a pack mentality and would not be happy living in a home without at least one other dog.
- Many companion breeds are prone to separation anxiety. They would not do well in a home where no one is home all day. They would likely become anxious and fearful and might bark constantly when left alone.
- Most working dog breeds have very high exercise needs. These dogs would be miserable in sedentary households. They would become bored and frustrated, and you would have to deal with destructive behaviors.
- Many breeds are not suitable for first-time dog owners. For example, livestock guardian dogs have evolved into independent thinkers who have traditionally worked with little to no human supervision. These breeds tend to have a stubborn streak and can be challenging to train for an inexperienced dog owner.
In all of these cases, the dogs are likely to end up in shelters and may eventually be euthanized. Not because they are “bad dogs,” but because the owners can’t deal with behaviors that come naturally to those breeds.
The bottom line is that before choosing a breed, you need to do some research. You want a breed whose instinctive behaviors are a match for your lifestyle.
What You Should Know About Breeding Practices
Of course, you also want a breed that has a good health record. This is where the controversy about breed standards comes in.
Remember that breed standards were initially developed to improve a breed genetically and physically. The original purpose was to preserve that breed’s health and its ability to perform the job it was bred to do.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the opposite has become the case for many breeds. Most dogs are now bred for the show ring and the pet market.
This means that certain “exaggerated” features are selected in parents for various reasons. Ironically, this selection process has actually made it difficult or impossible for some breeds to perform the functions they once did.
Many of these breeds once looked very different. But generations of selective breeding to purposely exaggerate certain features have resulted in dogs that look dramatically different today.
Heartbreakingly, this practice (called extreme breeding) has created horrific health issues for many breeds.
We are not saying that choosing one of these breeds isn’t worth the risk. That, too, is a personal decision. But we do believe you should be aware of those risks before making your choice.
Choosing any of these breeds could result in heartache and significant healthcare costs for you.
Brachiocephalic literally means “short-headed.” For dog breeding purposes, it means flat-faced or short-nosed. These breeds include the Pekingese, Pug, Boxer, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Shih Tzu, English Bulldog, and others. Thanks to generations of extreme breeding, these dogs’ faces have been flattened to the point that many have severe breathing issues.
The Pug, 1915 and today. Note the flattened face, shorter legs, stockier body, and exaggerated skin folds.
In a 2013 study, a whopping 88% of the brachiocephalic breeds studied were found to have severe exercise intolerance and to take a long time to recover from it. Many are also unable to cool themselves in hot weather.
“Today’s Pekingese winners are photographed sitting on blocks of ice because they are overheated and are just barely breathing.” – Wayne Cavanaugh, President of the UKC
Some of these dogs can’t run and play as a dog should because when they do, they can’t breathe. This is a significant quality of life issue for these dogs.
They are also prone to other health issues like high blood pressure and heart problems.
Brachiocephalic breeds are banned by most airlines because too many of them die in flight.
And no matter what you may have heard, the grunting and snoring that some of these breeds do? They are not natural behaviors for dogs.
Breeds with Bulging Eyes
This category includes Pekingese, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso, Pug (and most brachiocephalic dogs). That adorable expression that these big-eyed breeds have? They sell lots of puppies, but they are very hazardous to the dogs’ health.
Because the eye sockets are so shortened in flat-faced breeds, the eyes are literally too large for the dogs’ skulls. They can (and do) actually pop out of the sockets.
These dogs are also prone to a number of eye diseases. Some of these diseases (particularly in the Pug) lead to blindness. Some of these breeds eventually need to have one or both eyes removed. This is not uncommon with Shih Tzus, for example.
The German Shepherd Dog, 1915 and today. Note the sloping back, barrel chest, and shorter hind legs.
The German Shepherd is another dramatic example of extreme breeding. In 1915, the breed had a straight back. The AKC breed standard for the GSD now reads, “Topline – The withers are higher than and sloping into the level back.”
That sloped back has been exaggerated to the point that the hind legs on some dogs are so short in comparison that they look they’re sitting when they’re not. Their spinal cords actually have an arc in them.
Because of this, show lines of the German Shepherd are prone to severe musculoskeletal disorders, including back issues and hip dysplasia. This can result in painful osteoarthritis and loss of function of its legs.
Many of them can’t even run smoothly because their hind legs are so much shorter than their front ones. There is no way these dogs could do their original jobs today. A huge number of German Shepherds end their lives in severe pain.
Luckily for some GSDs but too late for others, Wayne Cavanaugh, current president of the UKC, rewrote the UKC breed standard and retrained judges.
Many dog lovers, including groups of veterinarians, are demanding that the AKC do the same.
The Dachshund, 1915 and today. Note the shorter legs and much longer back.
This breed has traditionally worked underground hunting badgers. Short legs and a long back were assets in this kind of work. But the working Dachshund of 100 years ago looked very different than the Dachshund of today.
The long back and short legs have been exaggerated so much that today’s Dachshund has severe back problems. A study done in 2014 found that 10% of them had intervertebral disk disease (IVDD). This is a severely painful back condition that can cause paralysis.
Ten percent may not sound like much, but the average age of the dogs in this study was only three.
Oh, and by the way? If you have a Dachshund, never let it jump off the furniture. It could result in ruptured disks. Your dog would need back surgery and may never be able to walk again.
The Bulldog, 1915 and today. Note the massive head, much larger size, shorter legs, grossly exaggerated underbite, and skin folds.
The unfortunate English Bulldog is the most extreme example of how breeding to conformation has led to disastrous health problems for some breeds.
These dogs have been bred to such massive size that females can’t give birth on their own. A full 95% of them need cesarean sections to deliver their pups. The puppies’ heads are too large for the mother’s narrow pelvis.
To be clear, only some of this problem is due to conformation breeding. The bulldog has a high risk for having puppies born with anasarca (so-called “water babies”) that are too large to pass through the birth canal.
But the massive size of a bulldog pup’s head is problematic even in births with “normal” puppies.
And what’s more, many Bulldogs can’t even mate without human intervention. (Females are artificially inseminated because the male and female body structures make it impossible for them to manage the mechanics.)
A look at the AKC’s breed standard finds that “the perfect bulldog” should have a “massive, short-faced head.” Its face should be “extremely short.” It should have a “very large skull,” and the circumference of the dog’s “head should measure at least the height of the dog at the shoulders.”
The standard also calls for “short legs,” “heavy wrinkles,” “undershot” jaw and “screwed tail,” all of which cause severe health problems for this breed.
These dogs have difficulty breathing because of their short faces and massive body size. They can’t be outside in very warm weather because they overheat and get heat exhaustion. They have heart problems, skin conditions, hip dysplasia…and the list goes on and on.
“Today’s English Bulldog bears almost no resemblance to his original ancestor. This is due entirely to human interference. Selective breeding for smashed faces, compact bodies and oversized heads has come at a high cost.” – Betterbully.com
Because of their numerous health problems, many bulldogs don’t live past the age of 6-1/2. The average lifespan is 8 years. (This is 40% shorter than the lifespan of similar breeds.)
A horrible fate for a dog that is (according to the AKC’s own breed standard) “equable and kind, resolute and courageous…pacific and dignified.”
Other Risky Breeds
The Bull Terrier, 1915 and today. Note the grotesque shape of the head, shorter legs, barrel chest, and thicker neck.
There are many less dramatic examples of breeds with health problems resulting from generations of being bred to conformation. Some, like the Bulldog, is from being bred too large.
Some have similar problems because they have been bred too small (e.g., Chihuahua, teacup breeds).
There are many other examples. An Internet search will turn them up if you’re interested in learning more.
(All photo credits to Science and Dogs, used with permission; adapted from Dogs of All Nations by W.E. Mason, 1915, public domain.)
The Basset Hound 1915 and today. Note the longer ears, shorter legs, extra skin folds, and belly closer to the ground.
Is the AKC Responsible for This?
Yes and no.
There is no one group that’s solely responsible for the results of extreme breeding. It’s important to note here that other kennel clubs and breeders, notably in the UK and South Africa, have also been called out for extreme breeding practices.
It’s safe to say that most AKC breeders and club officials are true dog lovers. Most of them do have the best interests of the breeds they love at heart.
No breeder ever said, “I’m going to purposely breed my dogs to have health problems.” And no club official ever condoned breeding for poor health.
But one fact can’t be ignored. The AKC’s emphasis is on the looks of a breed—not its health, and not its function.
By comparison, the UKC emphasizes a breed’s ability to perform its job over its physical traits. Performance testing is an integral part of the UKC’s program.
(The AKC does hold performance events, but they are best known for conformation dog shows.)
“The UKC has supported the “Total Dog” philosophy through its events and programs for over a century. As a departure from registries that place emphasis on a dog’s looks, UKC events are designed for dogs that look and perform equally well.” – Sara Chisnell-Voigt on Candidae.com
Breeding dogs to conformation is a slippery slope. The evolution of these health concerns in certain breeds did not happen overnight.
It has taken many generations for these unlucky breeds to reach the condition they’re in now. It’s happened one Best of Breed or Best in Show at a time over a period of decades.
How Is This Still Happening?
There are actually several reasons, but the primary one? Because exaggerated features win dog shows.
That may sound harsh, but if you look at the wording of breed standards, they often will read like the poor Bulldog’s above.
But there is no one easy answer to the question of who’s responsible. Kennel clubs, breeders, show judges, and consumers each play a role.
The AKC sets the standards, but it’s the breeders who adhere to them.
But again, no breeder deliberately sets out to harm the breed they love and work with every day. The effects of breeding to an AKC standard are barely noticeable from one generation to the next.
It takes a long time for the cumulative effect to become evident.
Even so, when many breeders raising dogs for Show read something like “massive head,” they think that if massive is good, then more massive must be better.
And this, sadly, is borne out all the time in dog shows. The judging of show dogs is based (partially or entirely) on how well a dog conforms to the breed standard.
If the standard calls for a sloped back, then many judges (though certainly not all) feel the more exaggerated the slope, the better that dog conforms, thus the more perfect a breed specimen it is.
That dog then becomes a sought-after dam or sire, and the next generation of German Shepherds will probably have a slope that’s just a hair more exaggerated. And so it goes for generations.
Of course, there would be no dog shows without judges. Many opponents of extreme breeding practices say that judges are highly likely to choose dogs with the most exaggerated features.
But, again, like club officials and breeders, most judges do what they do for the love of dogs. The decision of one judge at one dog show is not going to have a measurable effect on a breed, so it’s hard to see the cumulative effect of their decisions until they become distressingly obvious.
And many would argue that judges are just doing their jobs—judging according to the breed standards that are set before them.
The principles of selective breeding that have caused catastrophic problems in these breeds could also be used to reverse them. So why don’t we see that happening?
One possible reason is that breeders are giving consumers what they want. People see these breeds paraded in their fancy dress at the big dog shows, and they’re impressed by the distinct and exaggerated features that make a breed unique.
Or they see the latest celebrity with a tiny “teacup” dog, and they have to have one.
Public education is needed to make more people aware of the dangers of the current selective breeding practices. That those adorable eyes and captivating wrinkles come at a significant cost to the dogs they love.
No dog breed has ever been improved by the capricious and arbitrary decision that a shorter/longer/flatter/bigger/smaller/curlier “whatever” is better. Condemning a dog to a lifetime of suffering for the sake of looks is not an improvement; it is torture. – Anonymous, Dogs and Science
A Tale of Two Breed Standards
Many people refer to the AKC’s breed standard when choosing a puppy. After all, a purebred dog can be a big investment. They want to be sure they’re getting a “quality” pup.
We want that, too, which is why we’re providing this information. We want you to make an informed choice.
It may seem as though we’re singling out the AKC. Actually, we have no personal axe to grind with the AKC. There are many breed clubs, and the AKC isn’t the only one that focuses on looks rather than health and function.
However, they are by far the most influential. Positive changes in their mission and focus might effect similar changes in the industry overall.
Likewise, we are not holding up the UKC as a standard of perfection. The UKC is certainly not the only breed club that emphasizes function over conformation. But a comparison of their breed standard for a single breed with the AKC’s standard is enlightening.
Firstly, the following language is included at the beginning of the UKC standards for every breed:
“Breeders and judges have the responsibility to avoid any conditions or exaggerations that are detrimental to the health, welfare and soundness of this breed, and must take the responsibility to see that these are not perpetuated.”
“Any departure from the following should be considered a fault, and the seriousness with which the fault should be regarded should be in exact proportion to its degree and its effect upon the health and welfare of the dog and on the dog’s ability to perform its traditional work…”
“Breeders and judges are advised to always go for healthy and functional moderation, never for exaggeration.”
In the AKC standards, there is no language whatsoever regarding health, function, or exaggeration of features.
Let’s take a look at the two clubs’ standards for the Pug. The Pug is another breed that hasn’t fared well in the selective breeding process, as we’ve already seen.
The AKC’s descriptions of the pug’s head and eyes, which we have already established are serious health problems with this breed, are striking:
Head: “The wrinkles are large and deep…The muzzle is short, blunt….”
Eyes: “Very large, bold and prominent.”
Even more telling is the list of faults on the two standards.
UKC Breed Standard for the Pug
- Heavy wrinkles that obstruct normal vision.
- Excessive nose wrinkle that inhibits breathing, or a muzzle so short and blunt as to affect breathing.
- Wry mouth. Teeth or tongue showing when the mouth is closed.
- Pinched nostrils. Nostrils made obscure by nose wrinkle.
- Eyes protruding or with visible white when looking forward.
- Unilateral or bilateral cryptorchid.
- Viciousness or extreme shyness.
AKC Breed Standard for the Pug
- None mentioned.
- “Any color other than fawn or black.” That’s it.
Now that you know a little more about how breeds are developed and how these practices can affect popular breeds, you will have made an informed choice on the right breed for your family.
It’s time to find you a breeder!
So How Do I Find a Reputable Breeder?
There are several ways to find a good dog breeder in your area. If your breed is a fairly common one, ask your veterinarian. He or she should know of trustworthy local breeders.
Get recommendations from owners of the breed. Attend dog shows or sporting events that involve your chosen breed. This is a great resource for meeting other breed owners.
Look for your breed’s national or North American kennel club online. Many of these have breeder directories.
Look for online forums or Facebook groups. These exist for nearly every breed.
Groups like these make it easy to connect with breed owners. They’re often great sources for recommendations from satisfied customers. Or warnings from those who weren’t.
Once you’ve identified a potential breeder, vet them carefully. Visit more than one if you can.
- Find out how many breeds they handle. If there are more than one or two, you may have stumbled on a puppy mill.
- Check their standing with the Better Business Bureau. This is an easy check on the BBB web site. If you find that the breeder has a lot of consumer complaints against them, keep looking.
- Visit their web site. A good breeder should have one. You may be able to see the facilities and get an overall sense of the quality of the operation. Of course, you can’t rely on this alone, but it can be helpful in preparing your shortlist.
- Research their online presence. Google reviews can be very revealing. The most reliable reviews are not the 1-star and 5-star ratings. Five-star ratings can be faked (and often are). And 1-star ratings are sometimes given for reasons unrelated to quality (“it arrived late,” “the color didn’t look good on me,” etc.).
Instead, pay the most attention to the 3- and 4-star ratings. These tend to be more reliable in terms of both positives and negatives.
- Ask the breeder for references and check them. A responsible breeder will be happy to supply names of satisfied customers. Don’t rely on these references alone, but if a breeder can’t provide them, it’s not a good sign.
The Site Visit
Once you’ve found a breeder who appears trustworthy, arrange a site visit. Ethical breeders will welcome this. If they don’t, run. They’re hiding something.
Once you’re on site:
What to Look for in a Breeder
- Look for a clean facility. Do the dogs seem healthy and happy? Ask a lot of questions. How are the puppies being socialized? Are they exposed to people?
In the best possible scenario, companion breeds are raised in the home with the breeder’s family.
Working dogs may be housed outside as appropriate for the breed. Be sure the facilities are clean and spacious enough and that all their needs are being met (food, freshwater, etc.)
- Ask to see the parents. A reputable breeder will be happy to let you spend time with the mother, who should be on-site, and the father, too, if he is on the premises. Get a sense of their temperaments.
Many vets and other dog experts recommend that the best way to avoid buying a puppy mill dog is to never buy a dog if you can’t meet the mother.
Questions to Ask the Breeder
- Ask to see health records. A good breeder will have health records going back at least two generations. They will also have vet and immunization records for the puppies.
- Ask about any genetic issues that may be common in the breed. If you’ve followed this guide, then you’ve already done your research on this. But an ethical breeder will have no problem sharing this information with a prospective buyer.
- If you choose one of the risky breeds listed above, ask about their breeding practices. Do they choose their breeding parents based on exaggerated features that cause health problems for the puppies?
- Ask about a health guarantee. An ethical breeder will guarantee the health of their puppies for at least one year.
- Expect to sign a contract. Most breeders will require this. Most will require that you agree to have the dog spayed or neutered unless you plan to show or breed it.
Many will offer to buy back the dog within a period of time for any reason, with a prorated refund based on how long you kept the dog.
They will also require that you agree to return the dog to them if you ever need to surrender it (without refund if the guarantee term has expired).
- Ask about support. Good breeders are happy to offer support for their puppies after you bring them home. They will encourage you to call for advice.
Expect the Breeder to Ask You Questions
As we touched on earlier, a reputable breeder will want to be sure their pups are going to families that are a good match for their temperaments and needs.
You may also be asked if you’re a homeowner or if your landlord has agreed that you can have a dog. They may require proof.
They should ask for a reference from your vet (if you have had other pets).
Many will also ask if you have a plan for who is going to care for the dog and what the household rules will be. They will want to know that you have considered a new dog carefully and that all family members are on board.
If the breeder just wants to take your money and doesn’t show concern for the fate of their dogs, you may want to keep looking. A breeder is the best judge of the family lifestyle their individual puppies need to thrive.
You don’t want to find out later that the fit wasn’t a good one.
How to Pick a Puppy from a Litter
Can you think of a more exciting task than selecting your puppy from a litter of adorable little fluff balls? If you’re lucky enough to have found a breeder with pups that aren’t all spoken for yet, you may get that opportunity.
So how do you know which one to choose? One thing is for sure…it won’t be easy! But here are some tips:
Choosing a Healthy Puppy
Lynn Buzhardt, DVM, from VCA Hospitals, offer these suggestions:
- Ask questions. Ask the breeder about the puppies’ appetites. Have they had vomiting or diarrhea? Have they been dewormed? (All puppies should be dewormed at two weeks of age and every two weeks thereafter.)
- Assess their appearance. Their coats should be shiny, not dull, with no sores or bald spots.
- Observe how they move. Their gaits will be clumsy, but be sure none are limping. They should bear weight equally on all four legs.
- Observe how they interact with the breeder. They should be comfortable with the breeder. If they all show signs of indifference or even fear, they have not been properly socialized (or worse). You should walk away and find another breeder.
When you’ve narrowed your choice down to one or two puppies, pick them up individually and look for the following:
- Eyes, ears, and nose. These should all be clear with no redness or drainage. There may be a little clear discharge from the nose but no discolored drainage.
- Head. Look for a small soft spot. If there is a large one, there may be issues later.
- Mouth. Look for pink, healthy gums.
- Abdomen. Make sure nothing is poking out around the belly button. This could indicate a hernia which could need surgical correction.
- Skin. Be sure there is no hair loss and no sores or rashes.
Finding the Right Temperament
- Ask the breeder what he or she has observed about the pups’ personalities. He or she should have gotten to know quite a lot about their temperaments in the weeks since birth.
- Spend a few minutes just observing them before you try interacting. Watch how they behave toward each other. Do some seem shy, aggressive, or fearful?
- As you begin interacting with them, judge how comfortable they are with being handled.
If the puppies are responsive and playful with you, that’s a great sign. You want a dog that’s self-confident, not fearful or anxious.
- Once you’ve narrowed your choice down to one or two, do a temperament test with them. This can tell you a lot about a pup’s disposition.
The Breed I’m Looking for is Not Common. How Can I Find a Rare Dog Breeder?
If you have your heart set on a rare breed, you will need patience. You may be in for a long wait. But rare breeds can be well worth the effort and time it takes to find one.
As we discussed above, rare breeds tend to be closer to their natural functions and temperaments than the more popular breeds.
They are an especially good choice if you looking for a hunting or working dog. Rare breeds are less likely to have pet or show lines.
This means they probably have not had the skills that they’re prized for selectively bred out of them.
And because they don’t usually have kennel club pedigrees, rare dogs can cost less. This can help offset the costs of transporting the dog.
So how do you go about finding one?
Some rare dogs have a presence in the US, so start by looking for an American breed club for your breed. And don’t forget Canada – the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) is another good resource. They maintain a Puppy List on their site.
Importing from Overseas
If your breed is especially rare, chances are good you won’t find one in North America. If that’s the case, you will have to look for a breeder in its native country who will export one to you.
Start with the UKC. They are an international breed club and recognize many foreign breeds. They maintain a breeder directory that may be helpful.
If that’s not successful, try the FCI. If they recognize the breed, they may be able to help you find a breeder.
However, if the FCI doesn’t recognize your breed, look for a national breed club in your breed’s country of origin. You may encounter a language barrier, but Google Translate often does a decent job of translating to English.
Another potential source for breeder information is eurobreeder.com. Also, try the Facebook groups and online forums mentioned above.
YouTube is another potential source for breeder information and recommendations. Many dog owners and breeders post videos of their dogs. Many will include contact information.
Take Proper Precautions
When you find your breeder, take the precautions outlined earlier for buying dogs online. You want to be sure you’re not dealing with a puppy mill or an online scam.
Some rare breeds are beginning to find popularity outside of their native countries. A number of these are being actively promoted to people looking for unique pets.
That makes them a lucrative commodity for scammers and puppy mills alike.
What Do I Need to Know About Importing a Dog?
So you’ve found your breeder, have done your due diligence, and are ready to talk about shipping the dog home. Congratulations!
Depending on the country you are importing from, the process can be complicated. You will need to check with several agencies to ensure that your dog’s trip goes smoothly.
Here’s what you need to know.
- The Center for Disease Control has strict regulations regarding importing pets from countries with high risk for rabies. If your dog’s originating country is on this list, you will need a valid rabies certificate for it to enter the country. Visit www.cdc.gov/ or call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) to learn which countries are considered high-risk.
- USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Veterinary Services may have separate regulations regarding import from countries with high risk for other diseases. You can find more information about this at the USDA’s web site: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/.
- States may have their own regulations regarding import of animals. Check with your state’s Department of Agriculture or state veterinarian. You can find a list of state veterinarians at the United States Animal Health site at www.usaha.org.
- Individual airlines will also have specific regulations for shipping pets. Be sure you check on these when making your flight arrangements.
After the Sale
What Can I Do If My Dog Isn’t Healthy?
If you find that your dog has a major health issue after you get it home, talk to your breeder first. If you dealt with a reputable breeder, they should be willing to work with you if the discovery is made within the guarantee period in the contract.
Pet Lemon Laws
If the breeder will not rectify the situation to your satisfaction, you may be covered by “pet lemon laws,” depending on the state that you live in. Some states have these and some don’t.
These laws vary from state to state, but most offer protection for a limited time period for acute illness in your dog, and a longer period for a genetic condition or death. Talk to your state’s attorney general’s office to find out if your state has lemon laws for pets.
Under these laws, you would generally have three options:
- A full refund.
- An exchange of the puppy for a healthy one of equal value.
- Keeping the puppy with a partial refund or reimbursement of veterinary costs.
Be sure to keep all your vet records.
Uniform Commercial Code (UCC)
If your state doesn’t have lemon laws, you would still be protected under the UCC. It covers the sale of “goods,” which includes pets, with the expectation that the “goods” are fit for their intended use.
Your rights under the UCC vary based upon where you bought the dog (from a commercial breeder, backyard breeder, or pet store). They will also vary according to what you intended to use the dog for.
For example, if the contract states that you bought the dog for show and the sale included AKC registration, you may have different rights than if you stated you bought the dog as a pet.
Many cases involving pets are determined on a case-by-case basis, so again, check with your attorney general’s office or a local lawyer to find out more.
What If I Bought My Dog Online?
According to Consumeraffairs.com, courts have a hard time determining jurisdiction when a pet is bought online. Sellers may or may not be held liable, depending on state laws. The best way to protect yourself when buying a dog online is to check a seller’s reputation very carefully before you buy.
How Do I File a Complaint Against a Dog Breeder?
In the course of your search for a reputable breeder, you may run into sellers whose practices you feel are unethical or even abusive. If so, consider turning them in to the proper authority.
First, though, it’s important to note that poor breeding practices are a different issue than abusive treatment. That distinction will determine whom you file a report with.
“Bad breeding,” meaning simply having poor standards, is not illegal. Bad breeding practices would include things like intentionally breeding dogs with health conditions, unclean facilities, dogs that don’t look healthy, etc.
This type of issue needs to be reported to the seller’s kennel club. Commercial breeders are not required to register with a major kennel club (e.g., AKC or UKC), but nearly all do. The clubs often investigate reports like these.
Abuse, on the other hand, is a different matter. Animal cruelty is most definitely illegal. If you see an animal in imminent danger, anywhere or at any time, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recommends calling your local law enforcement agency right away.
For suspected abuse that does not involve an animal in imminent danger, you can also file a report directly with PETA on their web site www.peta.org/.
If you suspect a seller may be abusing their dogs or might be part of a puppy mill operation, then you should notify the ASPCA (www.aspca.org) and/or the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) at www.humanesociety.org.
A Final Word on Animal Abuse
The National Enforcement Center on Animal Abuse (NLECAA) is a program of the National Sheriffs’ Association. This program was established to investigate a link between animal abuse and abuse against people.
Their findings show that people who abuse animals will often commit violence against the women and children they live with.
Reporting animal abuse may save not only the life of an innocent creature but the life of a human being as well.
By now you’re probably thinking, “Wow, there’s so much to think about when choosing a reputable breeder!” And you would be right.
After all, the decision to add another family member to your home is a big one. You will be living with the consequences of that decision for many years.
We hope that this Guide helps make the decision a little easier. Best of luck, and above all, enjoy your new puppy!
References and Additional Reading
Thank you to Anonymous from Science and Dogs. All photos used with permission; adapted from Dogs of All Nations by W.E. Mason, 1915, public domain.
- ASPCA. “Barred from love: puppy mills 101.” https://www.aspca.org/barred-from-love/puppy-mills-101.
- Breeding Business. “How to report an unethical dog breeder.” https://breedingbusiness.com/how-to-report-a-bad-dog-breeder/. June 11, 2017.
- The Puppy Mill Project. “Puppy mills and the law: What is allowed under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).” https://www.thepuppymillproject.org/relevant-laws/.
- Lemonick, Michael D. Time Magazine. “A terrible beauty.” June 24, 2001. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,163404,00.html.
- The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “The American Kennel Club: No longer the dog’s champion?” https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/report-akc-breeders.pdf. July 6, 2012.
- Roedler, Frauke S. et al. The Veterinary Journal. “How does severe brachycephaly affect dog’s lives? Results of a structured preoperative owner questionnaire.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090023313004280?via%3Dihub. December 2013.
- Maldarelli, Claire, Scienceline. Scientific American. “Although purebred dogs can be best in show, are they worst in health?” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/although-purebred-dogs-can-be-best-in-show-are-they-worst-in-health/. February 21, 2014.
- Denizet-Lewis, Benoit. New York Times. “Can the bulldog be saved?” https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/magazine/can-the-bulldog-be-saved.html. November 22, 2011.
- National Sheriff’s Association, National Law Enforcement Center on Animal Abuse. “Behind the mask: animal abuse perpetration as an indicator of risk.” https://www.sheriffs.org/programs/national-law-enforcement-center-animal-abuse.
- Friendly and Free. “The problems with pugs,” featuring a health report from a veterinary clinic. Feb 23, 2017. http://www.friendlyandfree.com/the-problem-with-pugs/. February 23, 2017.
- Buzhardt, Lynn, DVM. VCA Hospitals. “Choosing the right puppy from a litter.” https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/choosing-the-right-puppy-from-a-litter. 2015.
- USDA – File an animal welfare complaint. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalwelfare/complaint-form
- Consumer Affairs. “Pet purchase protection laws: Know your rights if your new pet isn’t healthy.” https://www.consumeraffairs.com/pets/lemon_intro.html#. May 20, 2019.