How To Identify an Ethical Breeder
Buying a puppy can be a confusing experience. First, it’s not something one does frequently— a dog can live for 15+ years, so buyers may notice things have changed since the last time they were searching for a furry family member. Secondly, there are no storefronts where you can easily compare products visually side by side. A lot of buyers are surprised by the sheer number of options out there when it comes to a purebred puppy and at the seemingly wildly different price tags offered by different breeders.
We hope this will serve as a guide for what to look for when you are ready for a pup! (Not ready to start your search yet? Still wondering if you should rescue instead or if it’s even ethical to purchase a puppy from a breeder?— Check out our other blog posts on these topics HERE and HERE).
When beginning your search, it is imperative to understand that not all breeders are created equal and there is not much oversight of the breeding world via legislation so it falls on the shoulders of the buyer to do adequate research.
First and foremost, are the parent dogs health tested? This is one of the most basic first steps any breeder should take. Many breeders tout that their parents dogs are tested for “220+ genetic diseases”. This sounds comprehensive, but actually, genetic testing is only one piece to the puzzle of fully health testing dogs. Orthopedic testing is equally important, and something that many less-than-reputable breeders skip out on due to its high cost. OFA testing is recommended for every breed, you can figure out which tests the OFA recommends for your particular breed by checking on the official OFA website and searching the OFA’s recommended tests for your specific breed.
And it’s not enough that your breeder says they have done health testing, we would strongly encourage that you ask to actually see the results to verify.
In addition to health testing, you want to make sure you are getting a puppy with an excellent temperament. What are some signs that your breeder prioritizes temperament?
A breeder who only talks about the size, color, or other physical aspects of their puppies may be missing the mark. We recommend finding a breeder who prioritizes temperament by waiting to have their puppy picks when the pups are older (6-8 weeks of age). Choosing a puppy based on a picture or specific coloring as a newborn is not ideal for many families who have a specific need for their dog such as service work and/or just really value a certain temperament trait like being calm or human-focused. Many reputable breeders will temperament test their puppies and make those results available to their buyers.
A temperament test isn’t the end all be all on a puppy’s overall personality as there is a lot of development that still takes place after 8 weeks of age, but at the very least, your breeder should be able to have a lengthy conversation about the parent dog’s temperaments and exactly what traits they expect to see in their puppies. Speaking of parents…
This is a BIG one! An ethical breeder will have the UTMOST care and regard for their parents dogs. There is a lot of debate in the dog breeding world when it comes to questions like how many litters, how frequently a dam should be bred and how old a dam should be to start/stop breeding. So a reputable breeder may have different answers to these questions, but they should be able to answer them confidently with reasons that show thought and concern for their parent dogs.
Temperament of the parent dogs simply cannot be underrated when it comes to choosing the right breeder for your family. A breeder should be quick to provide a detailed account of exactly what each individual parent of an intended litter is like when it comes to personality. Dogs are intelligent, socially complex creatures who absolutely have little quirks and differences in personality. A breeder who knows and cares about each of their parent dogs will respond enthusiastically and passionately when asked to describe them!
Saying that all of their dogs or litters are the same or responding in generic terms could be a sign the breeder doesn’t know or care much about temperament in their lines.
If the parents are titled, even better! Many breeders have their dogs compete in what is important to them and their program. Dogs can receive titles in a wide range of sports/competitions from obedience to conformation to scent work as well as temperament related titles like CGC or ATT. A breeder who titles his/her dogs, show that they spend individual time with each dog and that their dog(s) excel in certain areas.
Where do the dogs live?
Where the parent dogs reside is very much linked to how much the breeder cares about knowing their temperaments. Many large scale breeders utilize a kennel. This means dogs are kept in an outbuilding of sorts and depending on the breeder, may receive little to no human interaction.
Keeping dogs in a kennel can be done well, but it takes a lot of extra effort on the part of the breeder to ensure the dogs are still getting adequate attention, exercise, and training. It is much more difficult to adequately assess a dog’s temperament who only resides in a kennel. We strongly prefer breeders who keep their dogs in their homes as pets. Seeing how the dog interacts in a home setting (with strangers coming and going, kids getting in their space, etc.) and seeing how the dog acts in public are two HUGE pieces to the temperament puzzle that should not be ignored.
Many breeders also utilize guardian homes. Because it is only possible to successfully keep so many dogs happy and well-trained in a home setting, many breeders use guardian homes to avoid keeping dogs in a kennel setting. A guardian home is a “normal, non-breeding family” who keeps the dog as their own personal pet, but the dog is contractually tied to the breeder for a certain number of litters. Typically the guardian dog goes back to the breeder’s facility for the whelping of litters or other breeding related needs/services.
Again, guardian homes are something that a breeder must be intentional about to do well. Some breeders require the dog to spend a certain amount of time with them during the year to assess the dog’s temperament. Additionally, the breeder needs to have a level of communication with their guardian homes to ensure the dogs are well-cared for and well-trained/socialized.
Where/How are the puppies raised?
Socialization is a critical, non-negotiable part of raising ethically-bred puppies! Puppies start as a blank slate in many ways and it is up to the breeder/puppy raiser to ensure they learn the right things about humans and the world around them from an early age.
Puppies that are raised in a a more “hands-off” environment such as a kennel, outbuilding, etc. may have a socialization deficit that continues throughout their life in the form of being shy and/or reactive in certain situations.
Ethical breeders will go to great lengths to ensure their puppies are exposed to humans and all sorts of human touch from a young age. Many breeders will raise their litters in their house making them a part of daily life as opposed to a task to check off the list. Raising puppies where the humans do their daily life is huge when it comes to getting the puppies used to a home environment.
Many ethical breeders go the extra step and raise puppies using a specific socialization curriculum that spells out a variety of extra stimuli to expose the puppies to that they may not get in a normal home setting such as animal noises, different scents, etc. Some examples are Puppy Culture, BadAss Breeder, and AviDog.
Regardless of the exact setting (kennel versus home), a good breeder will be very quick to explain exactly what they do to ensure well-socialized puppies. Many breeders start their puppies on crate training, recall, and other important first steps.
Are the puppies properly vetted?
This is another very basic aspect to raising puppies responsibly. Each puppy should receive several rounds of deworming and their first round of vaccines while they are still with their breeder. Puppies should also be taken to a licensed veterinarian for a check-up prior to going home. A report should be given to the puppy buyer with the pup's medical records and disclose any possible physical issues, even routine/minor ones like underbites, umbilical hernias, or undescended testicles. Finally, it is illegal any many states to sell puppies under 8 weeks. Make sure your puppy's birth date is clearly noted and that the puppy is not being separated from his/her littermates prior to the 8-week mark.
Meeting the puppies/parents
In today’s day and age, so much marketing is done online. Unfortunately, anyone can have nice pictures and a flashy website. Meeting a breeder and their dogs in person is an important step to take to ensure what you see online matches what you see in person.
There may be some rules about when and where these visits can take place. Newborn puppies are very susceptible to a number of viruses so breeders often limit visits when pups are young. Furthermore, most breeders are using their own homes as their place of business so they may have some safety concerns or otherwise want to put boundaries in place about visits. HOWEVER, there should be some opportunity to meet the puppies and the parents and see where/how the pups are raised. If there is simply a firm “no visit” policy, this could mean the breeder does not raise their puppies in satisfactory conditions, and/or parents are not suitable to meet due to temperaments or poor living conditions, or simply that they do not value being able to physically show their customers otherwise.
A good breeder welcomes questions and takes the time to get to know their buyers. The conversation between you and your breeder should not be simply transactional. Pushing buyers to make a quick decision to buy a puppy is often a red flag. On the contrary, ethical breeders often have an application and/or interview process to really make sure their buyer is the right fit for their breed and/or specific puppy. An ethical breeder isn’t trying to make a quick buck by selling to the first person who asks… on the contrary, they are willing to turn down a sale if it isn’t in the best interest of their puppy.
One of the most important markers of an ethical breeder is if they are willing to remain connected to their puppies/puppy parents for the lifetime of the puppy. A breeder should be willing to offer support and tips as the puppy transitions to his/her new home. A good breeder is truly emotionally invested in each of their puppies and as a result wants to remain in communication with their puppy parents to help in any way they can and to hear how their puppies develop into adults!
In the event that the puppy has to be rehomed (for in any reason), the breeder should always be willing to take him/her back and be responsible for the rehoming process. Most breeders have a contract that specifies this as well as other terms such as the required age of spaying/neutering.
Do your research and TALK to your breeder. Simply choosing a puppy based on a cute picture online is not a good way to ensure you are purchasing from a reputable breeder. Prices vary and a high price tag does not automatically mean a well-bred pup. However, it is important to note that a particularly low price can be a red flag. Appropriate health testing (including OFAs) and vet care for parent dogs and puppies is costly, so breeders selling at a much lower than average price are likely not meeting these important standards of care for their dogs. When in doubt, ask questions! Ask to see health testing results and contracts and what your options are for actually meeting the dogs/puppies! A dog is often a 15+ year commitment, so taking your time and making sure you choose the right breeder and even waiting patiently for the right litter/puppy is well worth it for an enjoyable next 15 years with your ideal companion!