Recently, I’ve had a lot of people ask for a list of questions to ask a potential breeder before you buy a puppy, and for some reason I’ve had a really hard time with it. If you google “Questions to ask a breeder” there are a lot of lists available, and they all have similar questions. I felt like any list I made was a bit of me reinventing the wheel, but as people kept asking and I kept running into situations where the lists I recommended weren’t exactly what I would say, I realized there was more to my hesitation.
The problem with cut and dried lists is that everyone’s priorities are different. Something that is an absolute non negotiable for you, may not be as important to the next person and vice a versa. What I want to do with this post is help you figure out what your priorities are and what you are looking for in a breeder.
I also want a list that is fair to responsible breeders. Some of the lists you see online were actually written by anti-breeder activists who made the questions so unrealistic that even the most responsible breeder may be hard pressed to make the cut. A good portion of the questions were designed to merely weed out commercial puppy producing operations (puppy mills), but they don’t really tell you much about how that breeder is going to work with what you’re looking for.
There is a lot of ways this can be interpreted. The key is to find a breeder who shares your priorities.
The other thing to consider about these lists is that puppy producers have internet access too. They can read these lists just as easily as you can, and with the right prepping, it’s not hard to give the right answers with just enough technical jargon to convince the average puppy buyer.
For this next part, I wrote a lot of things, then deleted them all. The issue I’m having with writing any type of list is two fold. One, so many terms have loose definitions. Different people’s idea of terms like “socializing puppies” could give you vastly different results. Second, is the average puppy buyer going to understand the answer enough to tell if it’s going to work with their priorities?
For instance, a puppy producer may think that letting the puppies play with their five year old is plenty of socialization, so when you ask “Are the puppies socialized” They’ll say “Yes! Of course!” What you’re not seeing is that the rest of the time the pups are kept in a kennel outside and have never been inside a house, seen a vacuum cleaner, or walked on carpet.
If you ask a different breeder, “Where do you keep your puppies?” they may respond with “Outside in a kennel”. What you’re not seeing is that the kennel is well constructed, has heated floors, and the puppies are taken out daily for hours and introduced to new people, smells, noises, and new experiences are approached with close supervision to ensure they’re age appropriate and positive.
So I do have a list, but it’s a different type of list. I’m going to go through the stages of finding a breeder and buying a puppy. I guarantee if you follow this outline, your chances of ending up with a responsible breeder will increase exponentially. Having a plan for getting the dog, and doing your research will help you know what questions to ask and how to interpret those answers.
Decide you want a puppy of a certain breed(s). It’s ok to start with a couple breeds you’re interested in and narrow it down from there. At this point you should have done some extensive reading on each breed and have an idea of what health/temperament issues they’re prone to.
Have very clear reasons why you want the puppy. Do you want them only as a companion? Do you want to do Search and Rescue? Are you interested in showing in conformation? Do you want a guard dog? What does that mean to you?
Be ready to take at least a year to actually have the puppy in your hands. Be ready to drive across state lines for the right breeder.
If at all possible, meet some dogs of the breed you’re interested in. Dog shows or competitions can be great places to meet dogs of different breeds.
If you have a specific activity/sport in mind for that dog contact people who are already involved and ask for recommendations. Your local competitive obedience group or agility club may have someone who can point you in the right direction.
Contact a parent breed club and ask for breeder referrals. A parent club is a breed specific club like the Spinone Club of America or the Lowchen Club of America. They usually have the words “club” “association” and/or “America” in the title. If you’re open to a rescue dog, these clubs occasionally know of purebreds that need rehoming.
Shotgun approach. You may start out talking to five different breeders of three different breeds. Be honest when you start talking to breeders. Let them know that they’re on your list, but don’t pretend they’re the only one you’re talking to.
Narrow down your choices:
Write down your priorities. Do you personally feel that it is important for the breeder to be a part of their parent club? Do you think both parents should be AKC champions? Make sure to write those things down. If you don’t have an image of what’s ideal in your mind, then you won’t know whether or not you can compromise on an issue or not.
It’s ok to not like a breeder. If you have a conversation with them and you don’t like them for any reason, even if you can’t put your finger on it, just cross them off the list and move on. Be polite, though. Mainly because it’s the adult thing to do, but also, the purebred world is small and breeders talk to each other.
If you’re talking to breeders of multiple breeds, open with that. Let them know which breeds you’re thinking about and why. By this point you really should have narrowed it down to two or three. If they know what type of dogs you’re looking for and why, they’ll have a better idea of if their breed is the right fit for you.
Ninety Nine times out of a hundred, the breeder is going to know more about the breed than you. If you hear them say something that doesn’t match with your research, you can absolutely ask them about it, but again, be polite.
Keep in mind, this is someone you need to be prepared to have a relationship with for the length of your dog’s life. They should want to help you and answer questions just as much as you need help and have questions that need answered. As long as you’re polite and respectful of their time, a responsible breeder will absolutely show their inner “dog nerd”. You don’t become a passionate, responsible breeder because you hate talking about your breed.
Be ready for them to tell you “No.” Dog buying is wildly different than buying pretty much everything else in life. This is a situation where just having the cash in hand and the desire for a dog does not guarantee you’re getting one. A responsible breeder will not sell a puppy if they don’t believe it’s a good fit. If you’re dead set on getting a Tibetan Mastiff and the breeder says they don’t think the breed is a good fit for you, really sit back and reevaluate your choice. The breeder might not know you as well as you do, but chances are, you don’t know the breed as well as they do.
It may take a few conversations before you’re sure that this is the breeder for you. That’s ok. But start narrowing down your choices right away. As soon as you realize you’re not interested in a puppy from a certain person, let them know politely so they can cross you off their own list and move on to other potential buyers. Something like “Thank you so much for your time, your dogs are lovely, but I think we’re going to go with another breeder.” You don’t have to give a reason, just let them know so they’re not surprised when after weeks of talking you just ghost them.
Talking to a breeder :
When you start talking to a breeder start out big picture and move into details as you go. Please do not start out the conversation with “How Much?” If you really develop a connection with a breeder and believe in their breeding program, you may be willing to wait and keep saving up.
The best thing to do when you’re contacting a breeder for the first time is let them know about you and what you’re looking for. Their reaction to that will tell you more than any checklist. By this time you’ve put hours of time, energy and research into this process. Does the breeder appreciate that? You’re telling them what breed traits drew you to the breed, are they giving you feedback about your expectations or are they just trying to get a puppy sold?
My first contact with a breed will often go something like this: “Hi my name is soandso, and I’m really interested in a Flat Coated Retriever. I’m looking for a family dog whose coat is low maintenance, isn’t too energetic, but is still excited to go backpacking with me in the summer. Right now I’m torn between the Flat Coat and a Labrador, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on which might be a better fit for us.” Give some details about your family life, how many kids you have, if you own your own home, have other pets etc.
As I said above, their response to this will tell you a lot. If they sound like they didn’t read/hear a word you said and just jump straight to “The puppies are ready to go home in three weeks and they’re $500”, run. Run fast. That is the opposite of a responsible breeder.
If you are talking to them on the phone, keep a pad of paper and a pen close by. If something doesn’t make sense or seem right, write it down and ask about it later, or do some research.
Let them know your priorities up front. Start with something like, “Health is really important to me, and I know that this breed can suffer from XYZ issue. What do you do in you breeding program to minimize that risk?”
When you start asking questions about their dogs’ health you should not feel like they’re getting defensive. If there is a health test available and the breeder states they don’t test for it, don’t immediately dismiss them, ask them why. They may have an informed reason for their choices, or they may just be cutting corners to save money.
Health testing is very different from going to the veterinarian and getting a clean bill of health. If the breeder says the dogs are health tested, but cannot provide certificates from a nationally recognized organization like OFA or Pennhip, they’re not health tested.
If someone has been breeding long enough, they’re bound to have run into some health issue. A breeder who says “I’ve never had any health issues with any of my dogs” either hasn’t been breeding very long or is lying. It is ok for them to have some issues, but again context is important.
Temperament is how the dogs acts and reacts. Each breed has an acceptable range of behavior and response that is typical for the breed. Guardian type dogs will generally be more aloof with strangers than say a Golden Retriever. Beagles are more likely to put their nose to the ground and run off than a Border Collie.
A responsible breeder will be able to tell you what the breed’s ideal temperament should be, and where their dogs fall within that range. This is one of the main reasons that knowledgeable breed experts will absolutely not allow puppy buyers to choose their own puppies based on color or whether or not they were the first pup to run up to them.
If they were listening and asking questions during your conversations, they will have an idea of what type of puppy you’re looking for. If you want to do agility, one of the pups may have the drive that will make them a great fit. If you’re specifically looking at their breed because of their reputation for being calm, they will want to make sure you don’t end up with the feisty puppy who is always on the go.
If a breeder doesn’t want to pick a puppy out for you, or asks you to do the picking, it’s a indication they are not invested in the dog’s temperament. Even if they say something like, “All the puppies from this dog are perfect for herding” that’s not generally the case. Both parents could be star herding dogs, but there’s going to be one or two puppies who’re a better fit for you than the others.
Even if you’re “just getting a pet” your dog’s structure can have lasting impacts on the rest of their life – and yours! A properly put together dog is going to have efficient movement that doesn’t overly stress their joints or muscles. If a dog is too short in the front or too long in the back, it will absolutely affect how they move and can increase their chances of injury or arthritis. You want a dog that is built the way it should be, and so should your breeder.
Talk to your breeder about this. You want to see photos/video of each parent if possible. Seeing them in person is even better, but it’s often unrealistic to expect to see the sire. Many breeders use studs that don’t belong to them, or ship collection from the male dog and have it artificially inseminated.
Stay away from extremes. At first glance if the dog looks like an extreme version of the breed, ask some questions. Why is this dog soooo short. Why are they soooo tall. I know it’s typical for boxers to be brachycephalic, but this dog’s nose seems to be really short – whats up with that?
If you’re getting the dog for something other than conformation showing, there is a good chance you’re not going to get the dog with the stunning structure or perfect movement. That’s ok, not every puppy out of a litter is built to win Best of Breed. But if both parents are quality dogs with good structure, chances are your dog is unlikely to have severe issues that will cause injuries down the road.
I do have three questions I recommend you ask every breeder:
1. “How did you first come across this breed?”
2. “What made you decide you wanted to breed?”
The answers to those two questions should spark a wonderful conversation filled with passion and a tangible love for the breed. That’s not something you can easily fake. .
3. “Why did you decide to breed these two specific dogs together?”
Again, you’re looking for that inner dog nerd to come out and start going on about stuff you might not one hundred percent understand. When I ask this question, it’s a bad sign when the person seems like they’re not invested in this pairing in particular. To a responsible breeder, every pairing is a step closer to their goal. They should have something they’re trying to achieve or improve with each litter.
Every human being is an individual with their own interpretations of what’s best. The right breeder for me may not be the right breeder for you. Everything I wrote above hinges on you doing your own research and knowing what your priorities are. It does no good to ask someone a list of questions if you don’t really understand what the answers should be.
Don’t let yourself be pressured by a breeder who has puppies to sell right now. You’re not finding a puppy, you’re finding a breeder. Find the right breeder and the right dog will happen.