Identifying a "Behaviorally Responsible" Breeder
Thinking about getting a puppy? Before you make an impulse buy, you must think seriously about this big decision; your choice carries with it ramifications which will last ten, fifteen, even twenty years. If you are interested in getting a purebred dog, do your research before choosing the right breed for you. (For the record, as proud dog mom to rescued Chow mix Mokie, I want to quickly say, before continuing- rescue dogs and mixed breeds rock and should not be ruled out!)
Consider, when you are researching, what the working purpose of the breed is. Many dogs in the herding, terrier, working and sporting groups were bred specifically to work long, physically intense days in close connection with their handlers. Pet owners who select a high energy dog based on looks, rather than temperament, often grow to feel frustrated by the challenge of living with "high drive" dogs. If you are a marathon runner, a Chihuahua may not be the best running buddy for you.
Many behavior professionals offer breed selection services, where a detailed questionnaire is used to evaluate a prospective puppy parents' lifestyle and suggest specific breeds which tend to thrive in those environments. Realize that nothing in life is guaranteed - within any breed, you will find some temperamental divergence from the "norm." You may find a couch potato Border Collie, a Belgian Malinois that is content to spend 21 hours a day sleeping peacefully at your feet, a Beagle that doesn't like to sniff things on walks, or a Chow that likes to do therapy work, but don't bet against the odds of breed specific behavioral tendencies.
Once you've selected the right breed for you, your next move should be reading this article from the Humane Society of the United States, featuring a great list of minimum criteria for qualifying a breeder as "responsible." I won't delve into the issue of pet store puppies, back yard breeders and puppy mills today, but will say that no good breeder will ever sell their puppies through pet stores or online puppy brokers. NEVER.
If I ever choose to purchase a purebred puppy from a reputable breeder, I'd have a few criteria that The Humane Society did not mention. First, and this is just a personal preference, if I could find a breeder who advocated natural rearing (limited vaccination schedules, biologically appropriate whole foods, etc.), I would be over the moon. The rest of my additional criteria are related specifically to behavior.
Additional questions for a breeder:
- Rank the following in order of importance in your breeding decisions - Working purpose, Conformation, Ease of Socialization/Temperament, Freedom from Hereditary Illness. As someone who does not planning on showing dogs, conformation would be the least important criteria for me. Freedom from hereditary illness and ease of sociability are neck-and-neck in the running for most important. If I were getting a Bloodhound for Search and Rescue (SAR) work, I would also want to make sure that my puppy comes from a line of dogs that succeeded in that career.
- Can you provide me with a socialization report? Socialization is the number one critical factor in determining a dog's stability (or instability) as an adult dog. I want to know that the breeder has been doing her job in introducing the puppies to normal family life - sounds of vacuums, telephones, television, conversation. I want to know that my puppy is being introduced to new people and situations safely and regularly. I want to know if the puppy is living in a "common area" of the house or if the puppies are relegated to spending their first 8 weeks of life in a kennel, garage, or basement back corner. Are the puppies handled regularly? Did the puppy grow up around other small animals? Cats? If I wanted a Border Collie to work a herd of sheep, I would want a puppy that had imprinted on sheep prior to 8 weeks of age, the minimum-recommended amount of time puppies should spend with their litters.
- What sort of training do you do before the puppies come home? Puppies can and should be learning basics like crate training, interacting with toys, being rewarded for outside potty efforts, nice play/social interaction with other dogs and people, being separated briefly from littermates, even acclimation to veterinary visits and car rides.
Hannah Branigan, of Crossoaks Farm in North Carolina, breeds Belgian Tervuren. Hannah has a wonderful puppy raising plan that illustrates just how much effort should go into socialization before the puppy even leaves the litter. Many thanks to Hannah for providing the great agility picture for this article and some valuable feedback on puppy raising!
I'm sure that, when and if the time comes, these are only a few additional questions I would ask of a potential breeder. Can you think of any to add to the list? If so, please leave a comment!