Responsible Breeders: Diamonds in the Ruff
As I've been researching Saint Bernard breeders, I've come to realize a very sad fact. Truly responsible breeders are exceptionally rare. The vast majority of breeders I've researched, even those registered with the Saint Bernard Club of America, do virtually no health testing. Many raise puppy litters outdoors in large, loud, kennels with hard cement flooring. Many of these even seem to have a number of champions in their kennels or pedigrees. Truly, it's like being a private investigator trying to evaluate these breeders, because many of them are not readily forthcoming with details about their breeding programs.
My search is liking taking a road trip without any directions. I am trying to follow the rules of the road as I travel this path, and have come across what I've identified as red light, yellow light, and green light considerations for breeders I've been researching.
Red Light Considerations: STOP!
- A kennel which has more breeds than a dog show. To breed even a single breed responsibly and correctly often involves years of mentoring under one or more responsible breeders, studying genetics, congenital abnormalities and how they may be prevented through health testing and careful selection of breeding pairs, history and working purpose of the breed, the breed standard, as well as handling and training breeds. It may take five, ten, or more years of such apprenticeship to have all of your breeding "ducks in a row." Considering how much time it takes to specialize in a single breed of dog responsibly, breeders that offer many different breeds of puppies are truly "Jacks of all breeds, masters of none."
- Sells puppies to pet shops or brokers.
- Cannot or will not provide references from adopters. I prefer references from parents of seniors bred by the breeder, to see what the dogs' health and temperaments are like as they mature.
- Puppies are raised outside in kennels - Puppies should grow up in a household. Many critical stages of development happen before the puppy leaves the breeder. Careful training in the household environment by the breeder can substantially reduce the risk of severe behavioral problems in adolescence and adulthood.
- Breeder won't allow me to see the kennel. For geographic reasons, I may not be able to visit the facility, but if they will not allow myself or a representative visit the kennel, meet the dogs, and observe the rearing situations of the puppies, I consider it a wrong turn and promptly change direction.
- Do no genetic health testing for heritable problems prevalent in the breed - the Saint Bernard breed, unfortunately, has many health problems, including hip and elbow dysplasia, entropian, epilepsy, dilated cardiomyopathy, and bloat. Risk levels for all of these medical problems are greatly influenced by genetics. A truly responsible breeder will health test their breeding dogs for congenital abnormalities and will provide documentation from certifying organizations.
- Will sell a puppy to anyone with a credit card. I want a breeder who is as picky about me and anyone else interested in adopting their dogs as I am about selecting my breeder. The goal of a responsible breeder should be to find the best homes for their puppies. We are interviewing each other for jobs. Their job is to produce the healthiest, most behaviorally sound dog possible,. My job is to make sure their puppy gets a home which builds upon the foundation laid through appropriate training, nutrition, and exercise.
- Either parent is less than two years of age at the time of breeding. Only fully mature dogs should be bred. Dogs under two years of age are often not even eligible for hereditary defect health testing.
Yellow Light Considerations: Proceed with Caution
- Member of local, regional, or national kennel club, including the AKC which does certify dogs from both back yard breeders and puppy mills. While this is nice and responsible breeders should participate in these organizations, it is by no means a predictor of a kennel's ethics, regardless of what the club standards say. While I would like any breeder I work with to be a member of the SBCA (Saint Bernard Club of America), not all members meet my criteria for a responsible breeder, as very few seem to offer comprehensive health testing.
- Dietary requirements - some of the breeders I looked at required, as part of their adoption contracts, that the dog be fed for its lifetime certain foods that I wouldn't feed my dogs even if I had to sell my house to buy better food. I am happy to honor an adoption contract, but not if it means I have to feed my dogs crappy food.
- Multiple litters per year, especially more than one litter from the same dog. Only puppy millers and dog abusers breed a dog again directly after whelping a litter. This will decrease both the quality and quantity of the dam's life, and is unethical breeding practice.
- Multiple champions in the pedigree - while this is a big plus and should be a requisite component of any purchasing decision, a champion dog is not necessarily cleared for health problems. You need both - champion blood lines and health testing to make a truly responsible purchasing decision.
Green Light Considerations: Go!
Green light considerations are either neutral (do not have an effect on my purchasing decision) or are favorable characteristics of a breeder. Qualities in green are mandatory.
- Price: I don't want the cheapest puppy on the market. Health testing, optimal nutrition and veterinary care, and socialization, require considerable investments of time and money. I am willing to compensate a breeder for this investment into the health and behavior of my dog.
- Availability date: I also don't want the first puppy that's available but the best puppy that's available, even if I have to wait for that puppy.
- Quality of website, photographs, or text: A good breeder may not be a professional author, web developer, or photographer and very few possess all of these characteristics. The quality of the dog, rather than the flashiness of the advertising, is my priority.
- Titles - titles in dog sports (particularly drafting, a sport I would very much like to participate in with my Saint) or history of therapy work (indicative of good temperament) would be a big plus for any breeder, in my opinion!
- Requires spay/neuter contract for pet quality dogs.
- Participates in rescue - another big, big plus for me.
- Puppies are extremely well socialized - this is a big one for me. As a trainer, I know extensive, appropriate, and early socialization is the key determining factor in the behavior of an adult or adolescent dog. Since my Saint Bernard will probably be stronger and bigger than me when mature, unhealthy temperament in a dog of that size and power can be exceptionally dangerous. I'm really picky - I want house training, socialization with household sounds, walking on a variety of surfaces, men, women, children, dogs, and other animals, car ride desensitization, crate training, and positive training all to be started well in advance of my puppy's adoption date.
- Health guarantees - a breeder should guarantee puppy health in the first few weeks of life subject to a veterinary evaluation and should also offer guarantees against congenital abnormalities which may not display until later in the dog's life.
- Willingness to answer questions - I feel as though my breeder should want to educate me rather than discourage me on my quest for information.
- Requires return of dog for rehoming if owner cannot keep for any reason at any time in the dog's life.
I'm sure as I continue my journey I'll come to more intersections and add to each of these lists. For now, my standards are extremely high and it may be quite some time before I find a breeder who fits the bill. It will be well worth the wait!
If you have additional criteria you'd expect of a responsible breeder, please list them in the comments section!