Most characteristics found in dogs, from structure to color, health, and
most importantly temperament, are genetic. While environment can play a part
in these things, even how much influence environment can have is also largely based in
genetics. Most health problems are genetic in nature, or at the very least
require a genetic predisposition in order to occur. Temperament problems,
such as skittishness and inappropriate aggression, are also more often
caused by genetics than by past experience. Many people mistakenly assume that fearful and unstable
dogs must have been abused or neglected in order to act the way they do. While this is sometimes the case,
the unfortunate reality is that more often than not the dog was born that way and how the dog was raised and treated had little, if anything, to do with it.
To put it simply, the importance of good genetics when it comes to ensuring healthy, stable, happy dogs cannot be overstated. This is of course where the breeder comes in. While certainly no one sets out to be a bad breeder or to produce poor quality dogs, many people producing puppies do just that because they are either genuinely ignorant of the steps needed to be a good breeder breeding good dogs, or because they lack the time, money, energy, desire or resources to do so. Fortunately, there are also are many good breeders with the knowledge, experience, dedication, ethics and quality control measures in place to produce exemplary animals.
Of course, when dealing with genetics and living creatures, there are no absolute guarantees. Even the best breeder breeding the best dogs from the best bloodlines, titled and health tested six ways from Sunday, cannot entirely avoid the occasional health or temperament fault. But proper breeding practices can drastically reduce the chances of such problems happening and therefore, one of the most important lessons a future puppy buyer can learn is how to tell the difference between a breeder who is a good, reputable breeder, and one who is not.
The key to finding the right breeder is to first educate yourself. Don't rely on the breeder to educate you anymore than you'd rely on a used car salesman to tell you what car to buy. While good breeders are more than happy to teach newcomers, there are many dishonest breeders out there and without prior knowledge of your own it will be difficult, if not impossible, to know who to listen to and who to ignore. Especially when you receive different, and often contradictory, information from different sources. Reading books and researching on the internet is a good place to start, but it is only the beginning. The only true way to learn about dogs is to get out and spend time with dogs and gather information from as many different dog enthusiasts and professionals as you can. Visit shows, trials, dog clubs and training facilities. Talk to vets, breeders, trainers and owners. Meet as many dogs as you can, and talk to as many dog people as you can.
Really put some time and thought into what breed is the right one for you. While we all have certain breeds whose looks we admire and others we find unattractive, the physical package the dog comes in is far less important than its character. Make sure the breed you choose is a good match for your own personality, lifestyle and goals. Failing to do so is a recipe for disaster. Yet many well meaning, but uneducated, owners do just that.
For example, many apartment dwellers or people with more sedentary lifestyles seek out small breeds because they believe that a larger dog will have space and exercise needs that they can't accommodate. This can easily end up as a mistake, no matter how well intentioned, because in fact many small breeds (particularly the terriers and hunting breeds) are very active and energetic, requiring constant attention and stimulation. Whereas there are many large breeds of dogs who are very calm, easy going and laid back in nature, making them much lower maintenance in the space and exercise department than many smaller breeds.
Spend a lot of time considering your own personality and lifestyle, and how you want a dog to fit into it. Do you want an indoor dog, or an outdoor dog? Some few breeds of dogs can live quite happily outdoors with limited interaction with people, while most will develop behavioral problems if kept isolated from their families for extended periods of time. How much training can you commit to, and do you have not only the time and inclination but also the resources where you live to properly train your dog? For some dogs, an 8 week companion obedience class and infrequent practice is all that's needed to have a well mannered pet, while others with higher intelligence, work ethic and need for mental stimulation require frequent training for a lifetime to keep them from developing bad habits out of boredom. Your happiness and the happiness of your dog are contingent upon making a good match, and that starts with making an informed decision about what breed is the right choice for you.
Once you've decided on a breed, research that breed extensively. Learn about the breed's standard, history and original purpose. Investigate the different health and temperament faults common within that breed. Study the different types within that breed and the mental and physical characteristics of those types. Most modern breeds are divided into different types as a result of decades, and sometimes centuries, of different groups of breeders breeding for different goals. Some breeders breed strictly for show winning looks, while others work to maintain their breed's functional heritage, and many more breed watered down versions for the mainstream pet market. These different sets of priorities amongst breeders have created such differences in types within breeds that you may well find that one type of your preferred breed is not suitable for you, but another type could work out well.
This huge variance in types is most commonly seen in the working, herding and hunting breeds that were originally created to serve useful purposes, but are often no longer used for such in modern times. The result is that today there are Labs who wouldn't know what to do if a bird fell on the ground in front of them, Beagles who'd completely ignore a rabbit running by, Huskies who don't like to be outdoors, and German Shepherds and Dobermans who'd run and hide under the bed if a burglar broke into the house. In short, not all dogs of the same breed are created equal and there is huge variance in type. Learn about these different types and decide which is best for you. And again, while some of this can be accomplished through books and websites, really the best way to get a clear idea of what the types are like is to get out and spend time with the dogs.
Be realistic in your decision. While a German Shepherd from a long line of police dogs may sound cool, you may not have the experience or lifestyle to accommodate such a dog. And while it may seem attractive to own a "real Lab" from a pedigree full of serious hunters and field trial champions, you may find that this dog is very different from the Labs you are used to seeing and may not be a good match for you. In the same vein, if you want a Pointer or Retriever or Spaniel and have an interest in hunting or field trial competitions, don't get a dog from conformation or pet bloodlines. And if you want to get involved in schutzhund, look for a GSD or Rottweiler or Doberman from lines proven to still retain working ability and a breeder who proves this by training and working his dogs.
Avoid Puppy Mills, Pet Stores and Newspaper Ads.
No reputable breeder would be so desperate as to sell his puppies to a pet store. Pet store puppies come from puppy mills. Like the name suggests, puppy mills are designed to produce a great number of puppies at low cost, which are then sold to pet stores who turn around and sell them to the public at exorbitant prices. These dogs are housed in cages, bred every heat cycle starting as early as 6 months old, and no genetic health or temperament testing is performed. Thus, the quality of these dogs is subpar. Historically, the only criteria that a puppy mill had for breeding dogs was that the parents be registered purebreds of the same breed. But even that doesn't hold true any longer, as puppy mills are now producing mixed breed "designer dogs" under cute or fancy names like Teddy Bear, Puggle, and Daisy Dog, and then slapping huge price tags on them. These are mutts and if a mutt is what you want, please visit your local shelter and save a life. Don't support such irresponsible, money hungry breeding practices.
Puppies advertised for sale in the newspapers are more often than not the result of someone putting two dogs together for all the wrong reasons, with little thought as to the consequences. These puppies may or may not be good dogs with good temperaments, but if they are it is luck, not planning. Someone mating the two family pets or setting up a date between their bitch and the dog down the street is not likely to put the time and money into researching pedigrees, screening the dogs for genetic defects and temperament faults, and overall ensuring that such a mating is beneficial to the breed as a whole. They may or may not even put the time and money into proper care of the dam and of the puppies. Typically such "back yard breeders" as they are often called don't mean any harm, they are simply ignorant of what being a good breeder entails, but nevertheless this lack of understanding, experience and effort to preserve the breed can severely compromise the quality of the pups.
Don't be fooled by "AKC Registered" and "Champion Bloodlines."
Many breeders promote their dogs as AKC Registered, and in fact many poor breeders use this as their primary marketing technique, implying that "AKC Registered" is a stamp of quality. Reality is nothing can be farther from the truth. All that is required for puppies to be registered is that both parents be registered purebreds of the same breed. That's it. No health or temperament testing is required and the parents don't have to even meet their breed standard with regards to size, color, structure, coat type or anything else. There is nothing to stop a breeder from breeding animals that are poor representatives of their breed in every way, registering the puppies and selling them as "AKC Registered."
Another common marketing technique is to say a dog is from "Champion Bloodlines". That doesn't mean the puppies, or even their parents, are of any sort of quality. Any purebred dog, including ones who look and act nothing like they're supposed to, can trace its roots back to a few Champions and probably has a couple within the first few generations of its pedigree. Quality is easily lost when breeders don't make it a priority, and unless the subsequent generations between those "Champions" and the current litter have been produced by conscientious, responsible breeders working to improve their bloodlines, having those champions in the pedigree means nothing.
Good breeders are involved in dogs beyond just breeding puppies.
This is the easiest way to discriminate between those who may be serious breeders worth looking into further, and those just pumping out puppies from the family pets to make some money. If the breeder just breeds, but never trains or titles or shows his dogs, walk away. Good breeders study their breed and are involved in their breed as a whole. They will be known within their breed's community because they get out and participate. They train and title their dogs in some venue. What that venue is of course will depend on the individual breeder's interests, chosen bloodline and goals. Someone who is into show lines is going to show his dogs and put conformation championships on them. Someone into the hunting lines of any of the Sporting or Hound breeds will hunt his dogs or participate in field trials. Someone who is into working lines of any of the Working or Herding breeds will compete in activities like schutzhund or herding, or may utilize dogs in Search and Rescue or Law Enforcement.
Breeders being involved in their breed outside breeding is vitally important. First, it shows a true love of their breed and dedication to their breed, not just a desire to line their pocket books from puppy sales. Secondly, it helps ensure the quality of the lines by providing a venue through which breeding stock are tested and objectively evaluated to see how they measure up against a set standard and against other representatives of the breed. Third, it allows breeders a way to network with other breed enthusiasts, sharing information about pedigrees, health histories, training methodologies, and every other breed related topic imaginable.
It also demonstrates a breeder's competence. Being successful in his chosen venue not only proves that the dogs have what it takes, but it proves that the breeder has what it takes as well. He hasn't just read about it in a book or on a website, or talked to someone who's done it. He's done it himself. He knows what sort of dog is needed to succeed, and knows how to raise and train dogs. This arms him with a great deal of important knowledge that comes into play when selecting breeding dogs and planning matings to produce dogs who have what it takes to be successful and then developing those dogs properly. This knowledge and experience on the part of the breeder is very important to the potential customer as such breeders can not only help the customer select the right dog but are also better prepared to offer advice and support to the customer throughout the dog's life.
If you are looking for a dog to perform a specific task, find a breeder who specializes in that type of dog and participates in similar activities. If you want a hunting dog, find a breeder who hunts or competes in field trials with his dogs. If you want to get involved in dog shows, look for someone who shows his dogs. If you want an obedience dog, find a breeder competes in obedience trials with his dogs. If the breeder has no experience in the activity for which he claims to be breeding dogs, look elsewhere.
Good breeders are breeding for a purpose, and to preserve their breed.
Look for breeders who are breeding for a purpose. Ask the breeder straight out what are the goals of his breeding program. If the breeder cannot answer this question, or does so merely by waxing sentimental about what a wonderful dog he has, keep looking. There are a lot of nice dogs in the world, but that doesn't mean that they should be bred. Good breeders do not breed just to produce puppies and make money, nor do they breed for purely sentimental reasons. They breed out of love; not just love of their own dogs, but for their breed as a whole. And they demonstrate this devotion by having long term goals for their breeding program and carefully planning each breeding to further these goals and preserve the integrity of their chosen breed.
Ask the breeder what the faults of his dogs are. We're all happy to talk about our dogs' good points, but the bad points are often another thing entirely. Many breeders will openly berate the dogs from other bloodlines or breeders, but will not discuss or are completely oblivious to the faults in their own dogs. Kennel blindness is common in the dog world. The fact is no dog is perfect and every dog has faults. Thus, the goal of a good breeding program is not to produce the perfect dog, as there is no such thing, but to create the least imperfect dogs. It is a constant battle to lessen the faults and compensate for them, while at the same time strengthening and maintaining the good things. When looking at a particular breeding or puppy, ask the breeder what the goals for that particular mating are. Why was that particular stud chosen for that particular bitch? A good breeder will be able to tell you how the dogs complement each other, the positive traits of each dog that he hoped to bring out in the breeding, and the negatives that he hoped to minimize.
Good breeders health screen their dogs.
Every breed of dog has common health problems that are genetic within that breed. Some breeds have a greater or lesser number or frequency compared to other breeds, or are prone to genetic health problems that are more or less severe in terms of impact on quality of life. But the bottom line is that every breed, and every type and bloodline within every breed, has some. Good breeders work hard to try to prevent these issues, but you can't determine if a breeder is doing that or not if you don't know what those health problems are and how they can be minimized. So again, education is key. Educate yourself regarding the genetic health concerns of your chosen breed, and ask the breeder what he is doing to prevent them in his dogs. If the breeder claims his breed or bloodlines are 100% healthy and there are no problems... run away. It sounds too good to be true, and it is. Any breeder making that claim is either outright dishonest or isn't seeing it simply because he isn't bothering to look.
The first step any responsible breeder takes is to have his breeding stock health tested to ensure that each individual dog is free of genetic health problems. What health testing is appropriate of course depends on the individual breed, what health problems to which it is prone, and what type of health testing is available. Again, having researched your chosen breed before hand is important, as that is the only way you can be aware of what health problems are prevalent in that breed, and thus know what questions to ask breeders.
It is not feasible, or even possible, for a breeder to screen for every existing genetic defect within a breed. No testing exists for many of these problems, and while a test may exist for a specific health disorder, if that disorder is uncommon or non-existent within the breed or bloodlines the breeder is using, it would be unrealistic to expect the breeder to screen for it. But obviously, whenever possible, the breeder should screen his breeding dogs for disorders common to the breed and bloodlines, and should make the results available to customers. Don't take the breeder's word for it that he has health screened his dogs. Ask for proof in the form of OFA certificates and other documentation.
Also be aware that while health screening can reduce the incidence of health problems by removing affected dogs from the gene pool, all the health screening in the world cannot eliminate problems entirely. Most genetic health problems are not only recessive, but also polygenic and multi-factorial, and some even require environmental triggers to occur. This means that bad genes can remain hidden for generations, and then one day suddenly appear when just the right combination comes along. Good breeders work to minimize these chance occurrences by studying the pedigree and genetic history of their dogs. Researching the traits, good and bad, found in ancestors and other close relatives can provide some insight into what genes may remain hidden within a bloodline, and in turn allow breeders to select breeding partners in an effort to further reduce the likelihood of any problems coming to the surface.
Breeders and owners alike also must accept the fact that if we eliminate from breeding not only all dogs who have health problems, but also all dogs who have relatives with health problems (and thus may carry the genes for those health problems themselves) we'd have no dogs left to breed. Thus, even the best, most conscientious breeder who has done everything humanly possible to reduce the risk of health problems will produce a puppy with a health problem from time to time. This is the unfortunate reality when dealing with living creatures. Most good breeders offer health warranties on their puppies for just this reason, and should an issue arise they will offer some sort of compensation to the customer, even though they did all they could to prevent it. The actual wording and stipulations of warranties varies from breeder to breeder, but the point is that the breeder is willing to stand behind his dogs and is confident enough to do so.
Good breeders don't just answer questions, they also ask them.
It goes without saying that a good breeder should happily and openly answer any questions a prospective customer may have. Whether the questions are about the breed in general, health testing, temperament testing, training, housebreaking or any other topic, the breeder should provide clear answers. The breeder should also gladly provide references for past clients and others who have experience with him and his dogs, and encourage you to contact those references. A breeder who dodges questions or dances around subjects should be treated with suspicion. What is he hiding? And it also goes without saying that a breeder who is unwilling to answer questions and help educate a potential customer before a sale certainly isn't going to be willing to offer long term advice or support to customers after the check has cleared.
But the really good breeders go beyond just answering questions from potential customers; they ask a lot of questions of their own. Don't be put off if the breeder asks you as many, if not more, questions than you ask him. Good breeders feel responsibility for their puppies. They not only want to ensure that their pups go to responsible owners who will provide the pup with the best of care, but they also want to make sure that the pup and owner are a good match in personality. Just as it's important to the customer to determine if the breed, type, bloodline and individual pup is right for him, it's important for the breeder to determine if the home is right for the pup. Screening of potential buyers and asking a lot of questions is the best thing a breeder can do to ensure that not only is the customer happy with his purchase, but the puppy has gone to the best possible home.
Other things to look for and questions to ask.
To ensure you get a pup who's a good match for you, find out how the breeder goes about selecting puppies for customers. There is much more to puppy selection than the customer handing the breeder a check and the breeder handing the customer a puppy. At least there should be. Good breeders put a lot of time into puppy selection. They interview their customers to determine what type of puppy would suit them best, and select puppies for customers accordingly based on their knowledge of the dogs and bloodlines, daily observations of the puppies, and frequently some form of puppy apptitude and personality test.
Few good breeders will let customers select their own pups, or if they do it will be from just a couple of possible candidates, not the entire litter. No matter what a customer's experience, he is not going to be able to observe a puppy for a few minutes, or even a few hours, and know as much about the puppy's individual personality as the breeder who has been observing the pup daily since birth. The breeder's experience and more thorough knowledge of the puppies as well as the bloodlines behind them makes the breeder better able to select the pup that fits the criteria given by the customer, and in this way the customer gets the pup that is the best for him and his own goals and situation.
If you find what looks to be a good breeder locally, contact him and request a visit. Ask to see all his dogs, particularly the parents of any puppies you are interested in. It is not always possible to see the sire, as many breeders breed their bitches out to outside studs, but you should certainly be able to meet the dam. Watch the dogs carefully for any signs of temperament problems. Temperament is the result of both genetic and environmental factors, and as the puppies spend so much time with the dam during their early development she will have a bigger impact on their future personalities than the sire will. Avoid purchasing a puppy from a breeder whose dogs show any kind of fear or shyness, skittish behavior, or unprovoked aggression. Some barking and such behavior when you first arrive is of course to be expected, and if the bitch already has her puppies she may be more on guard and suspicious of strangers than normal. However the dogs, including the dam, should tolerate your presence and be approachable by adults and children alike when the breeder is present. Not all dogs are overly friendly and outgoing and will engage a complete stranger in a game of fetch. Some are more aloof and standoffish, and depending on breed and what the dog is bred for this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, even aloof dogs should allow themselves to be calmly petted and should show no shyness, skittishness or resentment. Regardless of the purpose for which you intend to use your dog, good temperament is always a priority. A dog that is confident, curious, stable and approachable is always a good thing.
When at the breeder's, also take a look at the overall set up of the facility. Whether the dogs are house dogs, kennel dogs, or some of both, take note of their living situation. Are things clean, or is there dog poop all over everything? Do all the dogs appear healthy and happy? Are they well fed, well exercised, and do they have access to fresh water? Ask the breeder what food he feeds; is it a quality commercial or homemade diet, or cheap poor quality kibble? Just because a breeder takes excellent care of his dogs doesn't necessarily mean that he will put the same time and effort into his puppies, but if a breeder doesn't take good care of his dogs it's a sure bet he won't with the puppies either. If the breeder does have a litter of puppies when you visit, ask to see them. Pay special attention to the area where the puppies are kept to ensure that they are in a safe and clean environment. Keeping the puppy area clean is not only important in terms of health, but is vitally important to success in future housebreaking.
Ask the breeder how his puppies are socialized. Are they just kept in a kennel with mom and their littermates until they are old enough to go to their new homes? They shouldn't be. Early socialization is very important for puppies. The breeder should make sure that the pups are handled by people daily. This socialization with people shouldn't just be limited to the breeder himself and the pups should also be exposed to strange people, adults and children alike, as well as strange sounds, smells, objects and surroundings. In fact, when you first ask to see the litter beware of any breeder who hesitates to show them to you, as a good breeder will happily jump at the chance for some extra puppy socialization. The more early socialization a young pup gets, the more outgoing and confident he will be as an adult.
And finally, find out what kind of long term support that the breeder provides to his customers. A good breeder will ask that you keep in touch, and provide photos and updates as to how the puppy is doing. He will make sure you know how to contact him should you have any questions or concerns with the pup, even years down the road. And he will be happy to answer those questions. A good breeder will offer that if ever, at any time, you are unable to keep the puppy, he will take it back and either keep it himself or find a good home for it. Many breeders will even put such stipulations in their sales contracts in order to ensure that they know where all their puppies are at all times. Someone who is willing to do this shows that his concern for the pups goes beyond raising them until 8 weeks old and then sending them off. A good breeder is concerned with the welfare of his puppies for their entire lives, not just until they leave his kennel.
But I just want a pet!
Few people would rush out and buy a car or a house without taking their time to research and shop around and make a sound decision. Yet every day many people do just that when it comes to bringing into their home a living, feeling animal to be a member of their family for the next 10-15 years. Some start off on the right track doing their research only to find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information out there, the differing opinions on breeds and bloodlines, not to mention the fancy breeder advertisements and websites all claiming to have the best dogs in the world. Often times this bombardment of what seems like way too much information makes potential new dog owners just throw up their hands in frustration and go out and grab the first cute puppy they come across. Many others feel that because they just want a pet, not a show dog or a performance dog, all those titles and certificates don't matter. Especially when they see the prices of pups from such breeders as compared to what they can find in their local newspaper.
But those things DO matter. They serve a purpose far beyond bragging rights or higher puppy prices. They serve to prove the quality of the dog and its genetics. Do pet owners not deserve a quality dog? Is a dog of sound health and temperament not important to a pet owner? I would argue those things are every bit as important to a pet owner as they are to someone with big aspirations of trophies and ribbons. Perhaps even more so when one takes into consideration the fact that a pet owner may not have the knowledge, experience or resources to properly recognize and cope with health issues or temperament related behavioral problems.
Sure, well bred dogs cost more. Sometimes significantly more. There is a lot of cost, not to mention time and energy, involved in good breeders doing what they do. No one would expect to get a BMW quality car for a Yugo price, and the same applies to dogs. Dogs are no different than anything else, and in many ways you get what you pay for. And while a quality pup from a good breeder may cost more initially, that cheaper pup from a questionable breeder may turn out to be much more expensive in the long run. One can easily rack of thousands of dollars in vet bills for health problems or private training fees for behavioral/temperamental problems, not to mention the emotional heartache and stress that comes with an unhealthy or unstable dog. And while such problems are still possible even in well bred pup, all the effort good breeders put into their breedings make these things significantly less likely to occur.
The importance of health testing should be abundantly clear to anyone, regardless of whether or not they want a pet, competition dog or show champion. But let's look at titles, as this is the area that many people looking for family pets feel is unimportant in relation to their goals. After all, what bearing do performance titles on breeding stock have on a pup's suitability to family life?
To understand this, we must first understand the purpose titles serve and that that purpose extends far beyond proving an individual dog can be trained to perform a specific set of behaviors. To achieve a title requires the trainer to spend a huge amount of time training and working with that dog in a variety of different situations and environments. All that equates to the trainer really, really getting to know that dog well. Through this training, the trainer gains a much more comprehensive understanding of the dog's drives, nerves and temperament than can be obtained through any other means. The stress of training, travel and competition, of going to new places and being surrounded by strange dogs and people, may bring to light temperament and nerve faults that would otherwise remain hidden when the dog is at home in familiar surroundings.
Training and working their dogs allows breeders to gather intimate knowledge of each dog's individual personality and its true ability to do what it's bred to do. This is a depth of knowledge about the dog that can never be obtained if the dog just lies on the couch and putters about the house or lives in a kennel all day. And it is invaluable to deciding whether or not a dog is worth breeding in the first place, and then in selecting the right mate for the dog.
Shows and competitions also provide excellent third party evaluations of the dogs, both objectively compared to the standard and subjectively compared to other representatives of the breed. They test the dog's structure, temperament, nerves and trainability in ways that would never be done if the dog never left the breeder's property. Even if all you are looking for is a family pet and you have no plans to ever show or compete with your dog, this is very important. The pup need not be a top show or performance prospect, but the sound temperament that comes with generations of breeding only dogs who are thoroughly tested in this area is of great importance, even for people who want "just a pet".
Can good dogs come from bad breeders? Of course they can. The most ignorant, careless and irresponsible person will succeed on occasion just due to chance. Just as a broken clock is still right twice a day. Can bad dogs come out of good breeders? Yes. Even the most careful, conscientious and responsible efforts will sometimes fail due to chance. But getting a dog from a good breeder certainly loads the odds in the buyer's favor.
If you find yourself determined to get a dog, but the effort or expense of getting a pup from a good breeder is out of reach, please, PLEASE visit your local shelter or contact your local rescue. The genetic gamble of health and temperament issues in a dog of unknown origin from a shelter or rescue is no greater than that in a dog from poor breeding, but at least in that case your hard earned dollars would go to a good cause and save a life instead of supporting irresponsible breeding.
For more information about the different aspects of temperament, the importance
of temperament testing for breeding stock, and how genetic temperament impacts a
dog's ability to serve both as a working partner and a trustworthy home
companion, this excellent article provides insightful further reading:
The Elements of Temperament by Joy Tiz.