Updated: Jun 26, 2019
Choosing a breeder can be one of the toughest, most important decisions you will make when you decide to bring a puppy into your life. Although how you raise a puppy can play a role in how your puppy develops, good genetics are the limiting factor.
Throughout this article, I will use two terms to represent different breeders: a reputable breeder (RB) and a backyard breeder (BYB). A RB is a respectable breeder that breeds for purpose. Their dogs are health tested and are often titled in performance, conformation or both. They study genetics, they make thought-out, educated decisions when breeding and they practice good ethics. A BYB is someone who breeds irresponsibly. A lot of BYB breed for color, do not health test, do not do any sort of performance work or titling, and so on. These breeders often breed dogs that a RB would define as unfit for breeding, such as poor conformation, poor health, poor temperament, etc. Just because someone is a professional breeder does not mean they are a RB, and just because someone isn’t a professional breeder does not mean they are a BYB. It comes down to the ethics they use for breeding.
Whether you want a companion or a serious sport prospect, buying from a RB is extremely important. Many people believe that because they only want a companion, not a show dog, that it doesn’t matter where they get the dog, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Good genetics are the key to any good dog, so even if you’re just looking for a dog with good health and a good temperament, buying from a RB is of most importance.
Here are some key points to look at when finding a RB:
-Purpose bred dogs: Any reputable breeder will be breeding for a purpose. Most RBs have a purpose to improve the quality of the breed as a whole, but also focus on specific aspects. For instance, you might have a breeder that breeds to improve the quality of GSPs, but focuses on a hunting dog that is also calm enough to be a good family dog. Purpose can be a variety of things, from temperament, to prey drive to speed and so on, but all RBs will have the foundation purpose of improving the breed. A BYB does not breed with an ethical purpose. They might breed for color instead of conformation, or breed for traits that contradict good health, such as breeding extreme flat-faced dogs that have trouble breathing. BYB often breed for money rather than improvement of the breed.
-Health testing: Breeding any dog without proper health testing is irresponsible. Period. Basic health testing, which is typically radiographs of the elbows and hips, along with general eyes, teeth (RB only breed dogs with a correct bite) and heart tests, are not expensive and easily accessible. There are no excuses for why any dog that is going to be bred shouldn’t be health tested. Certain breeds will require different health screenings. For instance, the Doberman Pinscher has the highest incidence of Von Willebrand’s Disease, so they should be tested for vWD before breeding. In Labrador Retrievers, a genetic mutation can cause Canine Exercise Induced Collapse (EIC) and should be tested for prior to breeding. Each breed’s national breed club sets the standard for the health tests for the breed and is a great resource for that specific breed. You can learn more about heath testing on the AKC Website and through The Canine Health Information Center, or through your specific breed's national club.
-Conformation: Any RB will put an emphasis on conformation. Conformation in dogs refers solely to the externally visible details of a dog's structure and appearance, as defined in detail by each breed's written breed standard. The breed standard is a set of guidelines that is used to ensure that the animals produced by a breeder conform to the specifics of the standardized breed. Therefore, the breed standard is consistency in desired traits that suit the breed’s purpose. Breeds were developed to have dogs with specific mental and physical traits for a specific job. If we were to suddenly start breeding outside of the standard, the breed would no longer exist. Good conformation leads to good health, so even if your goal is not to show your dog, a dog with poor conformation will have health problems at some point.
-Performance: As stated above, breeds were developed for a purpose and being able to do that purpose is important for the quality of the breed. Therefore RBs will have dogs that are titled in performance that they were designed to do. If you have a German Shorthaired Pointer with the best conformation but it couldn’t find a bird if it hit them in the face, it would be a travesty to breed that dog because it cannot uphold its purpose. Some breeders will put more of an emphasis on conformation, some breeders will put more of an emphasis on purpose, and some will work towards both, but a breeder who does not put emphasis on either of these has no purpose and is therefore a BYB. If your goal is to do a specific sport with your dog, you should absolutely find a breeder who has titled dogs in that sport. Just because a dog SHOULD be able perform does not mean it will. Therefore titling dogs is a form of quality control that the dog can perform its purpose.
-Temperament: Temperament is an important part of breeding, but it is not the whole picture. A dog with just a good temperament that doesn’t check all of the other boxes should not be bred. Of course this varies per breed, but temperament should be considering when breeding dogs that do check off all of the other boxes. Intelligence, trainability, friendliness towards people and dogs and so on should be considered. Dogs that have extreme anxiety or aggression should not be bred. If you have the opportunity to meet the parents of a litter, that’s a great way to check temperament! Along the lines of temperament, just because you love your dog and adore it greatly does not mean it should be bred.There is more to breeding than just temperament!
-Ethics: A RB is an ethical breeder. They follow the above outline and implement practices in the best interest of the breed, the dogs and the humans involved. Ethical breeders practice good puppy raising: including safe, clean environments, good food, appropriate weaning, socialization, proper vetting, offer written guarantees on health problems and send puppies home at the appropriate age (8-10 weeks old). Ethical breeders are often members in good standing with their local and/or national breed club. Ethical breeders should be a resource for life; they should get to know you and your lifestyle and be able to answer any questions you might have. They should be willing to take the puppy back at anytime if needed. Unethical breeders do not follow the above practices and may have the wrong reasons for breeding (money vs. well-being of the dogs). They typically don’t care if a specific person is the right fit for a puppy or not (like selling a very active breed to very busy person) and will often sell to anyone who is willing to pay. They don’t have health guarantees, they don’t make the time to be a resource/mentor and they most likely won’t take the puppy back for any reason. Here is a good outline for breeding ethics: link.
If you find a reputable breeder that checks off all of these boxes, be prepared to be put on a waitlist. It’s part of the puppy buying process! I never recommend just buying a puppy on a whim because it’s available; not only does it not give you time to really think things through, but of course when you see a puppy you are going to want to bring it home, regardless of it is actually the right fit for you or not!
Other things to keep in mind when looking for a breeder are:
-Registration: People tend to think that AKC registered = quality breeder and this is absolutely false. All an AKC registration means is that the dog is purebred. Of course that’s important too, but never will a registered dog be synonymous with a quality dog. Think of AKC registration more as a given, not a determining factor.
-Champion bloodlines: If someone is selling their litter based on “champion bloodlines,” it is typically a few generations back that they are referring to. Don’t be fooled by this and make sure the actual parents of the litter are titled, too.
-Genetics: Any RB will have a good understanding of genetics. They will chose specific dogs to breed based on their genetics and the predictable outcome of the litter. It’s a red flag for me when someone owns only two dogs and decides to breed them; it would be a rare case that those two dogs perfectly compliment each other.
When you finally find your breeder, have them help you chose a litter that will be a good fit for you. Any reputable breeder will be knowledgeable about genetics and what to expect with the puppies. Once you have your litter picked out, don’t get hung up on things like color. After you decide what sex you are looking for, allow the breeder to help you pick the right puppy based on characteristics of the puppy, not on color.
Finally, if at any time you feel like the breeder you have chosen no longer represents what you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to walk away. There are SO many breeders and puppies out there, there is no reason to stick with one if it isn’t 100% right. For instance, never bring home two puppies at once! This can lead to littermate syndrome. If a breeder recommends that you bring home two puppies at once, that is unethical and is not the breeder to be buying from!
Whether you're looking for your next serious sport prospect or the best family companion, buying from a reputable breeder is a must. Buying a puppy is a huge commitment that you will live with for the next 10-15 years, so don't rush it. Do your research, find a reputable breeder, and be content waiting for the puppy of your dreams!
One last note: I fully support rescuing, too. But if you are going to buy from a breeder, make sure the breeder is responsible and ethical. The more people that buy from BYBs, the more likely they are to stay in business and this is directly correlated with the number of dogs in shelters. Buying from reputable breeders means less unwanted dogs and less dogs in shelters.