So you decided to get a puppy - congratulations! If you have settled on a specific breed and are beginning your breeder search, you’ve come to the right place. Perhaps you decided on a purebred because you needed a predictable puppy - one that would become a certain size and have certain traits as it matured. Maybe you are even interested in pursuing conformation when your pup grows up, or maybe you have a specific lifestyle that you need your dog to mesh with (e.g., lazy days at home, 14 mile hikes, high or low drive, etc). Whatever the reason is, it is important you take the necessary time to do your homework and find a reputable breeder.
What makes a breeder reputable? This can be hard to pin down, but below I have provided some general guidelines on how to spot the good breeders from the bad.
Limited Litters and Breeds
Properly raising and socializing a litter of puppies is a lot of work, so the more breeds and/or litters a breeder has at one time can negatively impact each individual puppy’s socialization before they leave the breeder. As a rule of thumb, good breeders should only breed 1-2 breeds, and have 1-2 litters at a time. Different breeds will have different average litter sizes, but in general, it is best to limit the number of puppies the breeder has to attend to at any given time to ensure each puppy will receive adequate care, attention, and socialization. If you see a breeder who boasts that they breed multiple kinds of dogs, or who has more than four litters at any given time, it is more likely that they are a backyard breeder.
Many reputable breeders will take puppy owners’ preferences into consideration, but will often recommend or place a specific puppy with each family based on their home environment, what they’re looking for, and the puppy’s temperament. For example, many people have coat color and sex preferences when they begin looking for a purebred dog. And while these factors may influence the decision, a good breeder will not let potential puppy owners choose a puppy on those criteria alone. They need to ensure that each puppy’s temperament and drive (energy, willingness to work) match the needs of the family. In contrast, backyard breeders and puppy mills don’t care where their dogs end up - they will sell any puppy to any family without a second thought. Reputable breeders care where their dogs go, and do their best to ensure that each puppy’s home is a forever home.
Puppy Contracts and Applications
Any good breeder will have an application and a contract. Let’s talk about the application process first!
Reputable breeders care where their puppies end up. Most applications ask for basic information like where you live, how many people and pets are in your household, and why you want a puppy. Some other questions might include:
Where will the puppy be raised?
Do you have experience with this breed?
What are your long term goals/plans for the puppy?
Where will the puppy be kept when no one is home?
Do you rent or own?
How will the dog get exercise?
Are you willing to enroll in obedience training?
Many reputable breeders have extensive questionnaires about potential puppy owners - they want to be sure their pups end up in forever homes! In contrast, backyard breeders or puppy mills will not ask very many questions about you or your home. Their primary goal is to sell puppies as soon as possible for a profit, and they often aren’t very concerned about whether your household is a good fit. In addition to this, I also recommend doing some basic temperament tests (like the Volhard test) when you first meet the litter! This can help you get a sense of each puppy’s personality before you make your decision.
As for contracts, reputable breeders will have a contract and health guarantee for you to sign before they allow you to take your puppy home. The breeder will guarantee the puppy to be properly vaccinated for its age, free of any illnesses and genetic defects (for a specified period of time), and will require a veterinary examination usually within the first week of going home. Puppies sold to “pet” homes or on limited registration will typically be on a “spay/neuter” contract and require the puppy to be spayed or neutered within a certain time frame, usually after 1-2 years of age to allow for proper skeletal development. In contrast, puppies sold to a show or performance home will be required to stay intact (not spayed or neutered), and may even have a clause in their contract about potential future breeding depending on how the pup develops.
Reputable breeders will also require owners to contact them first in case they need to rehome their dog - they will not allow their dogs to end up in shelters or rescues! Any reputable breeder will ALWAYS take their dog back in the event the owner cannot care for it anymore. Puppies will also be registered with AKC and should go home microchipped.
Finally, it’s not uncommon for reputable breeders to want to establish a relationship with their puppy buyers! Many breeders like to keep in touch in case the new puppy parents have any questions. This isn’t the case with all breeders, but it’s a good sign if your breeder welcomes you to contact them if you have any concerns.
Photo by Prima Dobermans
Whenever possible, ask to see the parents of your potential puppy before taking the plunge. This will help you evaluate their temperaments, size, and physical appearance, and will give you a good idea of what to expect with your new pup! It will also let you see the kind of environment the parents and puppies are raised in. Some questions you may want to ask yourself include:
Is the facility clean?
Are the dogs raised indoors?
How many dogs does the breeder have on site?
How many litters do they have at any given time?
Additionally, it is important to note that the sire (the father) may not be present when you visit. Breeders will sometimes breed their dams with a sire from another breeder to promote diversity in their breeding stock. If this is the case, they should be able to provide you with a pedigree, health testing records, and temperament information about the father, despite not having him available for an in-person meeting.
As for age, both dams and sire should be at least 2 years old before being bred. Dams that haven’t reached their full size prior to breeding can suffer from delivery complications and are more likely to have small litters and stillbirths. The other reason it’s important to wait is because many genetic problems like hip dysplasia or heart problems won’t appear until after 2 years of age! Reputable breeders will wait and see how their dogs mature before breeding. If any of their potential breeding stock develops a hereditary problem, they will either keep the dog as a pet, or find it a suitable pet home.
Health Testing and Breed-Specific Health Problems
Reputable breeders will perform health tests on all potential parent dogs prior to breeding them. There are two kinds of tests - genetic testing and OFA evaluations.
The OFA, or the Orthopedic Foundation of Animals, strives to promote health and wellness of companion animals by reducing the incidence of genetic disease. But because all breeds are different, they will require different tests and evaluations due to their varying genetic predispositions for specific health problems. For example, many large breed dogs like German Shepherds or Labrador Retrievers commonly suffer from hip and elbow dysplasia, so an OFA hip and OFA elbow evaluation are crucial for any dogs that might be bred. OFA results can also be found in the OFA database by searching the dog’s OFA registration number, or name and breed.
In contrast, Australian Shepherds and several other herding breeds are prone to a genetic mutation called MDR1, and should be tested to see if they carry the gene prior to breeding. Test results can be normal/normal, normal/mutant, or mutant/mutant. Though dogs with mutant genes can be bred, reputable breeders should take care to only breed unaffected dogs with dogs carrying the gene. Breeders should provide a list of the health tests done on their dogs, as well as the results of each parent’s health test to any potential puppy buyer.
Medical Records and Pedigrees
Before you decide on a puppy, ask to see their pedigree and medical records! Reputable breeders should have a list of the puppy’s vet visits, vaccination records, and a pedigree showing the puppy’s parents and several older generations. You can also look the parents up in AKC’s database by their registration number, or registered name and breed.
Reputable breeders will often show their dogs and compete in AKC Conformation events. Many breeders will also title their dogs in other events, such as dock diving, agility, and obedience. Earning titles in sports demonstrates their dog’s drive and ability to work - something that might be of interest if you are looking for a working or high drive dog. Breeders that show are also typically more knowledgeable about the breed. However, titling in sports or conformation isn’t a strict requirement for reputable breeders - it just shows an extra level of dedication and enthusiasm for the breed, and usually means they will serve as a great resource for the life of your puppy.
Proper socialization as a puppy starts with your breeder, so be sure to ask what kinds of things they do to help their puppies start out in the world! Reputable breeders should introduce your puppy to toys, foods, sounds, the outdoors, and even the beginning stages of potty training. Some breeders even engage in Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS) exercises that can help kickstart the puppy’s neurological system earlier than expected. In learning tests, puppies who received ENS were more active and exploratory than their non-stimulated littermates!
Breeders will also keep puppies at their facility until they are at least 8 weeks old, and it is even illegal in most states to sell puppies younger than 8 weeks! Between the ages of 6-8 weeks, puppies gain several important socialization skills from interacting with their parents and littermates, including things like bite inhibition, rules of possession, and discipline from older dogs and human members of the family.
Meeting the Puppies
Reputable breeders will often be selective about which family members are able to visit the litter before it’s time for them to go home! This is often because young puppies’ immune systems are still developing and are more susceptible to viruses than adult dogs, so they need extra care to ensure they don’t become ill. And while it’s advisable that all the human members of the family are involved in the process, good breeders will often ask you to leave your other four-legged companions at home. Adult dogs can often carry bacteria or germs on them, and good breeders are very careful not to let anything in that might harm their pups! In addition to this, it is important to pay attention to how the puppies look when you visit. Are they alert and active? Is their living space clean? Are they well groomed, and do they look well nourished? Reputable breeders will have healthy, active puppies - not filthy, sluggish puppies.
Wait Lists and Pricing
Like I mentioned earlier, reputable breeders will only have a handful of litters each year, so many of them will often have waiting lists! You may get lucky and find a breeder who has puppies available when you want one, but you may also have to wait anywhere from a few months to a year for your perfect pup.
Reputable breeders will allow you to put down a deposit on a puppy in the litter, but will not let puppy owners pick their puppy until they have been temperament tested and evaluated for show potential. Sometimes you will put a deposit down, but none of the puppies will meet your needs, and that’s okay! Many breeders will either refund your deposit, or allow you to transfer it to a future litter.
As for pricing, well bred purebreds aren’t cheap! But don’t be fooled - paying more doesn’t necessarily mean you are paying for a higher quality puppy. Most purebred dogs will be anywhere from $1000-$3000, depending on the breed and whether the puppy is sold on limited registration (spay/neuter) or full registration (show/breeding rights). Puppies sold on full registration will be more expensive than those going to pet homes. Be wary of breeders who charge more for male or female dogs, or for specific coat colors or eye colors. Charging for specific colors means they are charging more because they know they’re more popular or more “rare,” but this has no bearing on the actual quality of the puppy’s temperament. For instance, some breeders will charge more for blue-eyed blue merle Australian Shepherds compared to brown-eyed black tri puppies - the only reason for this is because they know the blue merles will be in higher demand and they believe they can get more for them, but reputable breeders won’t raise the price for “rarer” puppies.
Pet Quality vs. Show Quality
Whether you intend to compete in AKC conformation shows or not, any reputable breeder should be showing their dogs and striving to improve the breed through selective breeding and high standards. This means that while many puppies will end up in “pet homes,” all reputable breeders should strive to produce puppies that have show-potential. This means selecting parents that balance out each others’ weaknesses, not breeding dogs with health problems, and taking temperament, structure, and drive all into account when producing puppies.
Reputable breeders will typically sell two kinds of puppies - show quality and pet quality. Puppies get evaluated at 8 weeks old, and predictions are made about which puppies could make good show prospects. Many breeders will also keep a puppy as their “pick of the litter.” This puppy will either stay with the breeder until maturity and then become part of their breeding program, or will get re-evaluated down the road and rehomed if it no longer aligns with the breeder’s standards.
There is nothing inherently wrong with pet quality puppies aside from their outward appearance or size. If a puppy is mismarked or much larger or smaller than usual, this will usually disqualify them from competing in conformation shows as adults. Puppies sold to a pet-home are often less expensive than show quality puppies, and often go home on a spay/neuter contract. Puppies sold to a show-home are often more expensive, and their contracts have detailed information about breeding rights.
Additionally, you will never find a well-bred puppy in a pet store. Responsible breeders do not sell their puppies to pet stores. They want to meet the puppy buyer firsthand, ask them about their home environment, and make sure the puppy (and breed) will be a good fit! Puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills or backyard breeders, and often suffer from health defects and temperament issues when they mature. If you want a well-adjusted, healthy purebred puppy, it is best to find a reputable breeder or check out purebred rescues in your area.
Puppy Packs & Nutrition
Your puppy will leave the breeder with several goodies to start them off on the right foot in your home. Many puppy packs will include a small sample of puppy food. You can start by feeding the sample food, and then slowly mix it with your food of choice after your pup has had a few days to adjust!
One thing to be aware of is that some breeders will have deals with pet food companies that give them “puppy starter kits” to give to new pet parents. A couple well-known brands that do this include Purina and Royal Canin. Despite this, I encourage you to do your own research and pick a food that works best for you and your pup! We believe that fresh food is best, but even if you can’t afford cooked or raw food, there are plenty of high quality dry food options available as well. If you are interested in a raw diet for puppies, we highly recommend speaking with a nutritionist to develop a meal plan, or feeding a high-quality pre-made raw food like Darwin’s or Answers! Providing a balanced diet is crucial for puppies to promote healthy development and avoid nutritional deficiencies or imbalances.
In conclusion, choosing a well-bred purebred puppy can be a bit daunting at first, but it’s definitely doable! Just remember to be patient and do thorough research before putting down a deposit. Ask a lot of questions, take notes on how the facility operates and how the breeder cares for their dogs, and know that the wait will be well worth it in the end!