Illustration by Kevin Brockbank for the Oct 2010 issue of Dogs Today.
Terrierman’s Tips to Finding
The Right Dog from a Good Breeder
One of the reasons dogs are in such a mess is that consumers who buy dogs are almost completely uninformed when they start the process.
The advice given is always the same: "buy the right dog from a good breeder."
But what does that mean? The right dog? Right for what?
In fact, most people do not live lives very well-suited to dogs. Unlike a bicycle or a shotgun, a dog cannot be tucked into a storage closet, and forgotten. A dog requires attention several times a day, every day, rain or shine, vacation or not. Is your life really that stable? Is anyone’s these days?
And a good breeder? What’s that? No one ever says.
So where to start? Consider these ten tips as a starting place for anyone looking to get “the right dog” from a “good breeder.”
1. Remember that a dog is not a hat to be tried on and discarded.
A dog is a life-long commitment, and it must mesh well with your life as you live it, not as you wish it to be. In short, do not get a dog that needs a lot of daily exercise if you are a couch potato, and do not expect a dog to do well if it is crated eight hours a day while you are at work. Highly-motivated working dogs rarely make good pets, as few owners are able to give them the exercise, work and emotional release they need. If you are young, and your living arrangements and finances are unstable, skip a dog entirely and get a cat -- they won't mind long periods alone, and are much cheaper to care for.
2. Get your priorities in order.
If your first inclination when purchasing a dog is to buy an all-breed book and begin flipping through the pages, you are already making a mistake. The goal of all-breed books is to fill your mind with a romantic ideal of a brand-name dog. The danger in doing this is that once you get this picture locked in your head, you have already "chosen your breed," which means you have rejected healthy non-pedigree dogs without even considering them. It also means you have probably chosen a canine registry. With breed and "registration papers" occupying the first and second slots in your priority list, gender and coat color typically fill slots three and four. That means health and temperament fall to level five and six. No wonder so many people end up with unhealthy dogs! Remember that all-breed books are the dog market equivalent of a sales brochure; they offer lovely pictures and descriptive puffery, but they are not Consumers Report or Which magazine. You would not buy a car based on a sales brochure. Why are you buying a dog this way?
3. Kennel Club paper does not mean quality; it often means defect.
All-breed books are often full of nonsense, copied from one to another, and none tell you very much about health problems and temperament challenges. If you flip through an all-breed book, for example, you may fall in love with the Golden Retriever, but the book will not tell you that 40 to 60 percent of these dogs come down with cancer, or what it will cost to treat that cancer. If you insist on a pedigree dog, take the time to really study the diseases and genetic problems associated with each breed. Look at real longevity data, and ask a veterinarian what it will cost to fix a pair of wrecked hips, to treat chronic heart disease, or to remove a dog’s eye if it has a luxating lens.
4. Realize that breed clubs are trade associations.
The main function of breed clubs is to create and rationalize an artificial market for show dogs bred in a closed registry system. The second function of a breed club is to serve as a marketing hub for puppies sold to a public who are told that breed club affiliation is the first sign of a “good” breeder. In fact, breed club membership is little more than an indication that a breeder has the patience to suffer through breed club politics. Most breed clubs require no health or performance testing of any kind, and offer up only weak ethical guidelines related to the age and frequency of mating. Many good breeders can be found in breed clubs, but breed club membership alone tells you nothing.
5. Be prepared to wait, and be prepared to say no.
Go slow! Study up on breeds and types. Read with a very skeptical eye. Above all, steel your heart and your resolve before you set out to look at dogs in the flesh. If you cannot drive two hours into the countryside, walk into someone's living room to see a mass of wriggling puppies, have tea with them, and walk out without buying a dog, you are not emotionally ready to make a sensible purchase. You are a mark, not a serious consumer. If you must take your spouse and children with you to look at puppies, be sure to agree beforehand that you will drive away without making a purchase no matter what. You can change your mind and come back later, but only after everyone has sat down at a table and talked it all out. Remember that when you set off to buy a dog, you are not looking to make a new friend; you are looking to buy a healthy dog that will be with you for years to come.
6. Accept that dog breeders often have a casual relationship with the truth.
If a breeder says the sire and dam of your prospective pup has been health-tested, ask to see those test scores and know what the results really mean. If they say the sire and dam have worked well in the field, ask for photographic evidence of that work. Remember that dog dealers are not more ethical than car dealers. Dog breeders hope the dog they sell you works out, but if it doesn't, that's your problem, not theirs!
7. Look for danger signs.
If a breeder will not show you the kennels, walk away. If they will not show you the sire and dam (or at least provide contact information for the owner of the sire), go elsewhere. If you ask about health problems in the breed, and they seek to minimize them or say they have never tested their breeding stock because they have "never had a problem," hold on to your wallet and really think hard. If you are looking for a working dog, but the breeder does not work their own dogs, you are at the wrong kennel. If you examine a five-generation pedigree, and the same dog appears more than once, ask yourself if you really want an inbred dog?
8. Disenthrall yourself from puppies and consider dogs that have been "run on."
All breeders hold back a small percentage of their best prospects to see how they develop, with the eye to keeping them for breeding purposes themselves. These dogs, which have been "run on" for five or six months to see how they develop, are often available due to kennel crowding and the smallest of faults that have nothing to do with substance. There is often real gold to be found here, and it generally comes with several added bonuses: semi-adult dogs that have had all their shots, can control their bowels, and may have rudimentary training. And have no fear: if you acquire one of these dogs, they will learn a new name in a week or two!
9. Value is not the same as price.
Some of the best dogs in the world can be had for a song at your local pound or shelter, while some of the most expensive and miserable genetic wrecks are sold for thousands of pounds by Kennel Club breeders. Caveat emptor! As a general rule, an "expensive breed" is one that is a genetic mess because it has a small heavily-inbred gene pool, or else it is a conformation disaster with most pups born caesarian. Oddly enough, many of the dogs found at shelters are dogs that benefit from a certain amount of hybrid vigor -- a fact reflected in lower health insurance premiums for non-pedigree dogs.
10. Money-back guarantees are virtually worthless.
If a dog dealer offers you a "money-back guarantee," be advised that such a guarantee is worthless unless you are willing to return the dog to be euthanized on the spot. No breeder will pay for a hip operation or double cruciate ligament repair on a two-year old dog that you insist on keeping.
The bottom line: purchasing any dog is a calculated risk, but if you use your head rather than your heart, you can reduce the risks and improve the odds of a happy match for owner and dog alike. Select in haste, however, and there is a very good chance you will regret in leisure.
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- This article is a "what to look for" piece written for Dogs Today.
It's analog is a piece I wrote one year ago entitled Terrierman's Top Ten Tips for Avoiding Expense & Misery.