I’ll admit up front that I want you to adopt a dog rather than buy one from a breeder, but I can understand the appeal. You can get a puppy and have a good idea of his adult size, energy level, grooming needs, lifespan, and temperament. You can get the look, skills, and predisposition to match your lifestyle. Certainly puppies from a breeder should be healthier, easier to train, and all around better than a puppy from the shelter, right? Actually, what you’re buying depends much more on the breeder than the breed. All too frequently, the puppy is not what the new owner expected, or paid for. Many times, you’re better off starting with a puppy from a skilled foster home rather than a puppy advertised on the side of the road.
Raising puppies is an unbelievable amount of work, no matter how little energy you put into it. Doing things right is incredibly expensive, time-consuming, and overwhelming. Many people think that they can just add two dogs of the same breed (or even mix and match, for “designer dogs”), wait around a few months, sell the puppies, and make some money. That’s how the vast majority of breeders operate, and it often ends in dogs that don’t match the breed standard in really crucial ways, such as having bad temperament or poor health. The first indication of a good breeder is that they’re breeding for a goal, and it isn’t profit. There should be some improvement or continuation of a trait in mind. Many former working breeds now have several types of lines, those that are bred as companions, working dogs, or show dogs. The dogs from these different lines will often look and act very differently, so you need to know what you’re buying, especially if you want a working dog.
Having won titles in the show ring is not an indication that a breeder’s lines will excel in either work or as companions, and many times the breed standard pushes breeders to breed dogs with less than ideal temperament or health in an effort to get puppies with better conformation. A notable example of this is Sudden Onset Aggression, or “Rage Syndrome,”a rare, genetically linked behavior disorder that primarily afflicts the show lines of some breeds. Spaniels are the most well-known example of this, and when “Spaniel Rage” was studied, certain coat colors were found to be more likely to have aggression issues. What wins in the ring is very often not ideal for the dogs in question. Many breeds, such as English Bulldogs, Mastiffs, and Pugs have trouble delivering puppies naturally due to excessively large heads, incorrectly shaped birth canals, or other abnormalities that fall within the breed standard. This is not only unhealthy for the mother, but can result in her abandoning puppies she doesn’t remember delivering. If the breeder isn’t skilled and dedicated, puppies raised by hand can have more behavioral problems and self-control issues than those raised by their mom or a surrogate.
Let’s say that you’ve found a breeder with great genetics. The parents have had all the health screens relevant to the breed, and all the related dogs have great temperament and health. Now, you’ve got to investigate the breeder’s skill raising puppies. Good genetics can be ruined with improper handling. How are the puppies socialized? Are they exposed to children, other animals, different types of flooring, the outdoors, loud noises, and all the other relevant stuff before they’re sold? Does the breeder keep the puppies until at least 8 weeks? The last few weeks puppies spend with their mothers is incredibly difficult for the breeder. They’re loud, active, pooping, chewing, into everything, and eating an unbelievable amount of food. They’re usually mostly weaned by 6 weeks, but those last 2 weeks with mom and the rest of the litter are invaluable to give the puppies a good start on bite inhibition, self-control, and basic socialization with other dogs. While it is very important to keep the puppies with the rest of the litter for the correct length of time, they’re also much less receptive to new things after about 12 weeks. This is why it’s crucial for the breeder to give you a head start on socialization. If your puppy has only lived in one room or a pen, and is still afraid of tile or grass when you take him or her home, you’re going to have your hands full introducing them to the big wide world in 4 weeks. After that initial socialization period is over, the puppy can and should still learn to like new things, but it’s much more difficult and less natural.
Puppies start eating solids and pooping and peeing on their own at about 4 weeks, and if they’re in the correct environment, Mom will make them start to go to the bathroom outside of their bed area. Ideally, for future house training purposes, this is a different type of surface from where they sleep, eat, and play. A good breeder will set up the nest box in such a way that this is possible, and supervise the process until the puppies are paper or litter trained.
The aversion to pooping or peeing where they sleep and live is a learned behavior in dogs, and when it’s not learned young, it’s very difficult to house train them. Many toy and small breeds have the reputation of being difficult to house break, and while there are a number of contributing factors, poor hygiene and inadequate space when they’re young puppies is a major reason. The popularity of the breeds, smaller litter size, smaller poops, and the general smallness of the puppies make it much easer and more common to keep them in a box until they’re old enough to be adopted.
Larger breeds tend to have larger litters, bigger poops, and are harder to contain, so breeders are more likely to keep them from sleeping in their toilet. I’ve fostered 2 litters of puppies, and the ones I got young enough to start training as soon as they were old enough to go to the bathroom by themselves all had their adopters report very few or no accidents in the house. The litter I got at 6 weeks and that had already developed bad toilet habits gave their new parents much more trouble and in some cases took months to be as reliable as they should have been for their age.
A good breeder needs to provide veterinary care for the puppies before they’re old enough to be adopted, and this is expensive. They need to be wormed several times, and given their first set of shots before they’re ready to go home. Additionally, the areas and animals the puppies interact with need to be vaccinated and screened to reduce the risk of disease. It’s all too common for someone to buy a puppy and have them come down with Parvo within the 3-10 day incubation period, indicating the virus came from the breeder. Parvo is typically asymptomatic in adult dogs, expensive to treat, often deadly even with prompt treatment, and leaves a puppy with a dangerously weakened immune system. All of this inhibits the socialization the puppy needs, and could contribute to later behavioral issues. Responsible breeders will have a health guarantee and front the cost of medical treatment for a disease contracted while still in the breeder’s care because they’re confident they’re selling healthy puppies. Obviously, no one can totally prevent communicable diseases, but a good breeder is aware of the risk factors and takes steps to limit the likelihood of exposure. A backyard breeder is generally clueless about how dangerous an unvaccinated, but healthy looking dog could be to a young puppy.
Does this all sound expensive and difficult and not likely to turn a profit? Welcome to responsible dog breeding! Because of this, responsible breeders will have all their puppies placed and secured with a deposit before they’re born, if not before conception. Litters are infrequent for the health of the mother and the sanity of the breeder, so there will probably be a long wait for a puppy. If someone is advertising in the newspaper or on the side of the road, they’re trying to make money, not sell excellent examples of a breed. This money is almost universally made at the expense of the puppies, the mother dog, and the breed. Look at any breed that has become super popular and you’ll see an increase in health problems and temperament issues to go along with the increase in backyard breeders producing puppies without the correct resources and knowledge. What’s more, these breeders sell puppies to people who aren’t ready for that type of dog.
Buying a dog from an irresponsible breeder is not any better than a rescue, and in many cases it’s worse. You’ll be working to fix the damage the breeder has already done, and in some cases you’ll be perpetuating the poor health of a formerly healthy breed. The prevalence of Hip Dysplasia in breeds, such as German Shepherd Dogs, is a well-known genetic condition, but poor breeding practices have caused it to become “normal” for some breeds. Spend enough time at dog events, and you’ll see young GSDs with mobility issues. I even used to go to the dog park with a man who had to put his 5-month-old German Shepard puppy to sleep because his hips were so severely deformed he was already having difficulty walking.
The thing that both good rescues and breeders have in common is a life-long commitment to the dogs they send home with people. In both cases, they’re going to screen the potential homes, and provide the best possible care for the mom and puppies, as well as support for the new owners because they don’t want to see them returned. Good breeders will always accept one of their dogs back, and therefore it’s in their best interest to breed and sell healthy dogs with good temperament and the appropriate behaviors for the breed. If you’re not right for a certain breed, a good breeder will tell you no, just like a good rescue. There are already way too many dogs in the world, so I hope that if you do choose to buy from a breeder, you pick one that takes the best interests of their dogs seriously and contributes to the breed they’re selling.