One of the tricky things about helping people identify a responsible breeder is that not everyone has the same priorities when looking for a dog. Someone looking primarily for a pet is going to need something different than someone looking for a working dog or even a competition dog. In my post How Do You Find A Responsible Breeder? I tried to point puppy buyers in the right direction and help them identify their priorities, but since then, I’ve had a few people ask me what I personally look for in a breeder. So here goes….
In my opinion, responsible breeding of any animal can be broken down into four main tenets, responsibility to the species, responsibility to the breed, responsibility to the individual animals, and responsibility to the potential owner
These four areas of responsibility are interconnected and affect each other, but some breeders can be stronger in one area than another.
Responsibility to the Species
In some cases, the most responsible thing a person can do for the entire canine species, is not breed at all. For instance, if they know nothing about basic canine genetics and refuse to learn, I’m very hesitant to consider them responsible. This doesn’t mean every dog breeder has to have a PhD in Biology. What it means is that the breeder is constantly working to increase their knowledge of proper breeding practices and staying abreast of new scientific information. If a person knows nothing of basic animal husbandry, dogs are better off not being bred.
Another way that not breeding can be better for dog as a whole, is not producing breeds that are inherently unhealthy. Certain breeds are meant to be bow legged, pigeon toed, hyper brachycephalic and so forth. These dogs have a hard time doing basic things like running and breathing without discomfort and even pain. I do not believe there is a responsible way to breed these dogs in their current form. I’m thinking of some very specific breeds, and will come back to this point in a separate post.
Finally and in my opinion, most importantly, a breeder has a responsibility to keep dogs out of the shelter. If a breeder is producing beautiful dogs but those dogs end up contributing to the shelter population, they’re failing the entire canine species. I don’t care how many titles their dogs have or how many thousands of dollars they’re spending on health tests, they’ve failed as a breeder and are merely a puppy producer.
To take responsibility of dogs as a whole, a breeder must do everything in their power to place their dogs with responsible owners who won’t abandon the dogs, allow them to stray, allow them to reproduce irresponsibly, and who will make plans for the dogs in case of emergency. A responsible breeder will make arrangements for dogs who cannot stay with their owners, and ideally they will be active in rescue for dogs they didn’t produce.
Responsibility to the Breed
No one person owns a breed of dog. For a breed to be recognized, regardless of kennel club or organization, there has to be enough people agreeing on what makes this breed unique. The reason a German Shepherd is not a Malinois is because groups of qualified people have gotten together and agreed on a standard for the GSD vs. the Malinois. In this sense, breeds are communal property. As long as the majority agrees that a breed club has the authority to make decisions regarding the breed, they have power. They can modify breed standards, open stud books and the like.
A breeder does not own the breed, they merely have stewardship over it. A responsible breeder works hard to be a good steward. They abide by the breed standard even if that means they do not do as well in the conformation ring. They stay active in their breed’s conversation on a national and even international level. They’re willing to push boundaries, challenge accepted ideas, and advocate for change, if necessary. At the same time, they’re willing to do their research and stay open to new ideas.
This doesn’t mean that if a breeder is not part of their breed club they’re immediately irresponsible. If a breed club is moving in a direction that is not best for the breed, a responsible breeder will try all appropriate channels to push back. But at one point, leaving the breed club may be the most responsible choice. This takes a deep understanding of the breed, the standard and the state of the breed on a national level.
Every dog that is bred contributes to the direction the breed as a whole is headed. If one breeder makes allowances for financial or personal reasons, they’re taking steps in the wrong direction. Not health testing their dogs is one form that takes. If there is a known health issue in the breed, and the breeder is not taking full advantage of any health testing available they’re doing the breed a huge disservice.
Refusing to bring their dogs out for public observation is a big red flag for me. How can you maintain your responsibility to the breed if you’re producing the dogs in a vacuum? Even the best breeders can become blind to the faults in their own dogs. This is why being active in the breed club and participating in conformation and performance events is important. Not everyone places the same value in an AKC Champion title, but I think we can all agree that there is value in staying abreast of the direction the breed is moving and getting outside input on your dogs.
Breeding for incorrect colors, coat type and temperament are also ways that breeders can be failing their responsibility to the breed. Responsible breeders will have dogs that are ambassadors for the breed. They will work hard not to contribute to any negative stereotypes the breed may carry, and their dogs will be excellent representations of what the breed should be.
The breeder I respect very much recently made a very difficult decision for the good of the breed. She kept a male puppy from a litter and had plans to breed him when he was done showing. Before he could get to that point, they found out he had a congenital defect with one of his joints. It was unclear if the issue was something he could potentially pass on to his offspring, so they paid over five thousand dollars surgery to fix the issue, neutered him, and found him a loving companion home. Years of work, thousands of dollars and priceless emotion had been spent on that dog, only to find out that breeding him would not be fulfilling her responsibility to the breed.
This is the real reason for the saying, “To make a thousand dollars responsibly breeding dogs you have to spend ten thousand.” It’s not really a joke.
Responsibility to Individual Animals
This is one of the more obvious ways where responsible breeders can set themselves apart from irresponsible puppy producers. Mapping out a breeding program, talking to breed experts, and reading books on canine genetics is all well and good, but if the breeder is not feeding daily, cleaning out kennels, taking dogs to the vet and ensuring their mental and physical well-being, they’ve failed their animals.
Each individual animal has its own set of needs. Some dogs are fine with kennel life and thrive, while others need individual attention in a home setting. I know a very well-respected breeder who has pulled dogs out of her breeding program and sent them to pet homes because she has been able to recognize that the dog needed to be a companion. If she had kept that dog, she wouldn’t have been failing her responsibility to the species, or even to the breed. The dog was a lovely representation of the breed and would have produced amazing puppies, but as an individual, that dog would not have been happy. This breeder made a difficult, far reaching decision, that cost her time and money, but she took care of that particular dog’s individual needs.
Making sure each puppy they produce has the best chance at a good life is another aspect of responsibility for the individual. Just because a puppy is going to a companion home instead of a competition home, doesn’t mean that the breeder can neglect the dog’s needs. Ensuring that each puppy has the tools they need to be happy, well adjusted members of their family is one of the most responsible thing a breeder can do.
What’s the point of pedigrees, titles and extensive canine genetics programs if a breeder sends a puppy home that hasn’t had the best upbringing possible? Many breeders use various types of biosensor programs like Puppy Culture to give their dogs the best chance at being ready for the world. These programs are a lot of work. Hours and hours of training, cleaning, stimulating, and observing go into each litter. Most breeders are sleep deprived when they have a litter on the ground. If you think breeding dogs responsibility is “just playing with dogs all day”, you have a lot to learn!
This leads me to the final stage of responsibility:
Responsibility to the Owner
A puppy producer produces a product. Once money changes hands, the puppy is no longer their responsibility. A responsible breeder, on the other hand, has a responsibility to the owner to provide advice, mentorship and support.
Part of raising a puppy to be ready for their new home, is ensuring the new home is ready for a puppy. No amount of neonatal stimulation, reward based interaction or potty training is going to stop a puppy from being a puppy. It’s the breeder’s job to make sure that the new owner is walking into the situation with their eyes wide open. They should already be aware of what’s expected of them as owners and have an idea of that specific breed’s strengths and weaknesses.
If a new owner is shocked that their Corgi puppy is high energy, has a big personality and has a tendency to nip their kid’s heels, the breeder has failed them. If they hear what the breeder has to say, assure them they’re prepared, and then are overwhelmed at the reality of puppy ownership, the breeder has a responsibility not to leave the owner high and dry. Taking the dog back if necessary, is good for the dog, but also good for the owner. It’s important that that puppy owners feel supported.
That support should last the life of the dog. I know breeders who get phone calls, emails and facebook messages from people who bought their puppy ten years ago. They laugh at videos of the puppy’s antics, applaud when they graduate puppy class and cry when they get the dreaded phone call that the dog’s time has come. The relationship between breeder and puppy buyers often turns into life long friendships. I know people who have owned dogs from the same breeder for decades.
This relationship between the breeder and the puppy buyer has lasting consequences that affect every other level of responsibility. They’re invested in the dog’s individual well-being, they’re keeping an eye on the dog’s health and temperament to ensure the breed is moving in a positive direction, and they’re ensuring the dog stays out of the shelter system. The breeder’s responsibility to the owner is the roof on the house, and the other levels are the walls, no part is complete without the others
- Breeder Bashing – if a breeder continuously criticizes other people in their circle, this may be someone you want to steer clear of. A responsible breeder should be excited to talk to you about what makes their dogs special, not what makes other people’s subpar.
- Refusal to participate in any sort of competition event. Conformation, obedience, tracking, field work etc. If a breeder is not getting their dogs out in front of people and making them available for critique, I want to know why. Titles are not everything, but you want to make sure they’re not kennel blind and refusing to hear criticism.
- Lack of health testing. Not all dogs have the same health issues, and some breeds are less prone to serious health problems than others. In some cases grandparents and great grandparents of the puppy may have tested clear so there was no need to test the parents, but that is not very common.
- Consistently breeding young or old dogs. If a breeder is breeding dogs before two years old and after six, I want to know why. Just because a dog can get pregnant doesn’t mean it should.
- Only using AI and scheduled C-sections. If the dogs cannot reproduce naturally I want to know why. Is it breeder choice to avoid brucellosis and complications during labor? Or is it because the dogs are not healthy and functioning?
- Not requiring a contract. Responsible breeders have specific expectations from puppy buyers and they want to ensure their dogs are cared for. The contracts themselves will vary, and it’s up to you to decide how much control you want the breeder to have, but I am always concerned when a breeder does not require a contract.
- If the breeder does not have a plan for the dog in the event that you can’t care for them, I would walk away. In my opinion, this is not a responsible breeder, and their inaction will directly contribute to the shelter population. They need to either have a rescue group lined up to take the dog, or be willing to take the dog themselves.
One thing to keep in mind is that each section of responsibility has it’s own set of nuance. A red flag to me, just means I need to do more research. On their own, only the last one is a reason to completely dismiss a breeder as irresponsible. But if a puppy producer is stacking up red flags, and their explanations are not sufficient for you, move on. This needs to be someone that you can keep in touch with for the life of the dog. It’s always worth it to wait for the right dog.
Remember, you’re looking for a breeder not a puppy. Once you find the right breeder, the right dog will come.
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