Please don’t purchase that puppy

Puppy mills, backyard breeders (BYBs), and the value of reputable breeders

A friend of mine recently announced that she and her husband had placed a deposit on a puppy. A quick look at the site revealed that they were dealing with a backyard breeder (BYB). Despite my questioning they remain adamant–defensive even–in their insistence that the breeder is great. Having been a naive buyer purchasing my first purebred from a BYB, I feel compelled to share the signs, in hopes that it will deter at least one person from supporting the exploitation of animals.

Not all of these signs indicate a disreputable breeder, but they are signs nonetheless, and should cause a potential buyer pause in the transaction. If several of these signs are noted, you could very well be dealing with a puppy mill or a BYB. Just the same, many reputable breeders may tick off some marks on this list; it is the responsibility of the potential buyer to do their due diligence in researching the breed and the breeder.

Attitudes and actions common to puppy mills and BYBs:

1. No health testing/veneer of health testing. The importance of health testing cannot be overstated. A potential buyer should request to see copies of any health tests performed, or better yet, should request the OFA and CERF numbers to look up the information. BYBs and puppy mills rarely offer health testing, although some BYBs will claim to have tested with vague responses like, “everything was negative/good/clear.” Beware of a breeder who claims that their lineage is clear of certain diseases or refuses to produces any certificates.

Even if a few tests have been performed, you should still insist on OFA and CERF. Many BYBs will perform a simple test to say that the puppies or parents have been “tested” in order to divert suspicion and further questions. A cheek swab to test for von Willebrand’s (vWD) or an inexpensive hereditary cataract test on the parents (allowing the breeder to claim “clear by parentage”) are relatively unimportant considering the laundry list of health issues that many breeds face. Depending on the breed, results from OFA or CERF are likely the most important to obtaining a healthy puppy.

Why you should be concerned: Many breeds are plagued by genetic issues which cause shortened lifespans or decreased quality of life for both the dog and the owner. These diseases can not only be heartbreaking, but also very expensive. Good breeders in every breed work hard in planning their breedings and testing their breeding stock to minimize the occurrence of diseases such as Epilepsy, Collie Eye Anomoly (CEA), Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), and Hip Dysplasia (HD), among others. Research your breed of interest extensively to know the health issues about which you should be concerned, and take those concerns to any breeder you are considering. A good breeder should openly discuss the health issues in the breed, in their line, and the testing that they have done to avoid those issues. Individual breed’s health registries are also a great resource when available (i.e. IDASH for Australian Shepherds, DobeQuest for Doberman Pinschers, etc…).

2. Both parents are on site. This is almost certainly out of convenience for the BYB or puppy miller. The goal of a reputable breeder is to improve the breed, and to do so they tirelessly research the lines of both the sire and dam.  Reputable breeders want to find the best possible complement to their dog–in temperament, performance abilities, conformation, and health. The likelihood that a reputable breeder just happens to have a perfectly complementary pair is very slim, not the least of reasons being that they would have had to invest the time and money in extensively showing, training, and testing both the sire and the dam simultaneously. To a BYB or puppy mill, having the sire and the dam on site means continuous breedings with no stud fees, travel expenses or inconveniences, or additional research.

Why you should be concerned: The genetics of the dogs being bred is questionable, and the breeding was most likely not planned to minimize the presence of health issues or temperament instabilities.

3. Multiple litters or puppies always available. BYBs and puppy mills like to keep a steady flow of puppies because it equates to a steady cash flow. They can accomplish this by having several litters from several females at the same time, breeding the same handful of females at every heat cycle, or both. Reputable breeders plan their litters well in advance, ensuring that both the sire and dam are fully health tested. Reputable breeders often have waiting lists for their puppies, and do not breed in order to accommodate those lists.

Why you should be concerned: In this kind of situation the dogs are most likely bred too young. If they are continuously bred they are not likely being shown, socialized, or trained, and puppies learn a lot from their mothers. Additionally, when a breeder or puppy mill has so many puppies, they are unable to dedicate the time necessary to proper socialization, training foundations, and evaluation of each puppy.

4. Sell their puppies. A BYB or puppy mill will sell you on their puppies with ample lip service and by showing you cute fluffy puppy faces. They depend on impulse and emotion in selling their puppies, and know that you need to be sold relatively quickly before the puppy high wears off and you start asking questions. As long as you have the money, they want to get you that puppy. Conversely, reputable breeders know that you’re already sold on their puppies; perhaps you went to a dog show and saw a dog from their line, or were chatting on the forums and their kennel was repeatedly mentioned–whatever the case, you found your way to their site, researched their dogs and their titles and health tests, and have contacted them because you are ready to purchase their puppy.

Why you should be concerned: Why are they trying so hard to sell something so great? When something is truly worth the money, it sells itself. A breeder should be more concerned about finding the right home than selling the puppy.

5. Disinterested in you. Since BYBs and puppy mills are primarily concerned with selling their puppies they will show little interest in the kind of homes to which those puppies are released. When purchasing from a reputable breeder, potential buyers will find themselves in the hotseat, so polish up your puppy-buyer resume. Expect to be asked questions such as:

  • Why do you want this breed of dog?
  • What, if any, canine sports do you intend to participate in?
  • Where will the dog primarily live? Inside or Outside? Where will the dog be kept when no one is home? How long will the dog be alone in an average day?
  • Who will watch the dog when you are out of town?
  • Who will be responsible for the dog’s care?
  • What kind of home do you have? Apartment or house? Do you own or rent? Can you provide written permission from your landlord for this breed of dog?
  • Are you financially stable enough for a dog?
  • What training techniques will you use? What training materials have you read or watched?
  • Are there any breed restrictions in your area?
  • Do you have a preference on age/gender/color/show potential/etc…? Why?
  • Questions regarding criminal convictions.
  • Have you owned dogs before? If so, do you still own them? What was their cause of death?
  • Do you own any other pets? What species, age, and gender?
  • Does everyone in the household support getting the puppy?
  • Do you have any children? If so, what age(s)? How will they be taught to properly interact with the dog?

And be willing to make commitments such as:

  • Attending basic obedience classes
  • A spay/neuter contract
  • Returning the puppy to the breeder if for any reason you are unable to keep it
  • Bringing the entire family to meet the dog
  • A home inspection by the breeder or an associate
  • Providing personal and veterinary references

If a reputable breeder does not believe that the breed is right for you, they will not hesitate to say so, even if it costs them the sale of a puppy.

Why you should be concerned. Often people do not fully research the mental, physical, financial, or other requirements of a dog, much less a breed. Breeders should be concerned about whether or not the potential buyer and the puppy will develop a long and happy relationship. The last thing that a potential buyer should want to end up with is a dog ill-suited to their lifestyle.

6. Absence of titles. Titling a dog takes a lot of time and money, neither of which a BYB or puppy mill want to invest since that would come directly out of their profits. BYBs and puppy mills may claim that their dogs are only “pet quality” or may claim that their puppies are from “champion lines,” neither of which should influence a decision. “Champion lines,” especially without a multi-generational pedigree as proof, means at best that one out of 64 dogs in the puppy’s lineage obtained a title.

Regarding the “pet quality” debate, any buyer looking to purchase a purebred should purchase one from a reputable breeder who health tests and competes with his or her dogs. Not every puppy in the litter will be show quality, but every puppy in the litter will have been given the best possible start in life.

Why you should be concerned. You might not want a titled dog, but never discount what a title means. Titles indicate that a dog conforms to breed standards and performance expectations. Form follows function. Dogs have historically been bred for specific tasks (herding, protection, retrieving, and so on), and their conformation is part-and-parcel to that task. If a dog comes from untitled lines, there is no evidence that the dog is temperamentally sound enough to perform a task, biddable enough to work with a handler, or physically sound enough to meet breed standards.

7. Absence of AKC/CKC and parent club registration. Registering dogs with national or parent breed clubs costs money and opens BYBs and puppy mills up to the scrutiny of reputable breeders. Most BYBs or puppy mills will either not register their puppies, or will register with an obscure breed club. Registration in-and-of-itself does not make a breeder reputable, but it does indicate that the dog has a pedigree which can be traced through proper channels. Research the breed clubs affiliated with your chosen breed–both nationally and local–and find a breeder who is an active member. Beware of any breeder claiming to be a member of a national or parent club, but who refuses to show paperwork on their breeding stock or litters.

Why you should be concerned. Not every AKC/CKC breeder is reputable, but every reputable breeder is AKC/CKC registered. If a breed is recognized by a national club then there is no reason for the breeder not to register their breeding stock and their litters. National registries allow for dogs to compete in larger venues and be objectively judged on their abilities and adherence to breed standards. National registries also allow for tracking pedigrees. Parent breed clubs go a step further, advocating for the health and preservation of the breed, ongoing research, and often maintain a list of breeders registered. Any breeder should be involved in their parent breed club to promote their breed and work with other breeders toward bettering the breed for the future.

8. Do not evaluate their puppies. Not all puppies should be shown in conformation or compete in high level sports. Some puppies are best suited as amazing companion dogs. Reputable breeders acknowledge this, and seek to find the best homes for their puppies; show homes are found for show puppies, companion homes for companion puppies. The breeder decides which puppies should be considered for breeding in the future, and which are sold on spay/neuter contracts.

Why you should be concerned. When a disreputable breeder allows buyers to decide if a dog will be bred, they lose control of their kennel’s lines, and allow for potentially detrimental genes to enter the breed’s gene pool. Deciding which puppies will be shown, and therefore bred, helps to ensure the preservation of the breed and the temperament and conformation which make each breed unique.

9. Lack of Transparency. A breeder should be fully transparent–about their records, their facilities, what they look for in a buyer, the health of their lines, etc. Any breeder who tries to prevent you from seeing their entire facility, avoids disclosing records, or in any other way makes you feel like a detective could potentially be hiding something.

Why you should be concerned. Anytime a breeder is hiding something you should be seriously concerned about what they are not telling or showing you.

10. Advertise/first-come-first-served policy. Craigslist, Kijiji, Oodle, Petfinder, Nextdaypets,eBay. Puppies are not a pair of shoes, and should not be sold as such.

Why you should be concerned. What kind of person brings an animal into the world and doesn’t care what kind of home they send them to? Each puppy has a unique personality, and compatibility should be based on an honest assessment of a potential buyer’s life and expectations, as well as the puppy’s temperament.

11. Puppies sold before eight weeks. Keeping puppies longer means feeding growing mouths and providing more vaccinations, neither of which rank highly in a BYB or puppy mill’s list of priorities. Disreputable breeders will try to offload the puppies as early as they can, sometimes lying about the age of the puppies. If you are skeptical about the age of the puppies, request the veterinarian’s contact information and confirm with them that the puppies are the age that the breeder claims.

Why you should be concerned. No puppy should be separated from its mother and litter before eight weeks old. Every week during the early stages of a puppy’s life represents a milestone, and learning from its mother and litter-mates is very important. Puppies separated from their mother and litter too early can develop temperament instabilities or fear aggression later in life. See the following link for information on puppy development. Stages of Puppy Development

12. Breed dogs under two years old. BYBs and puppy mills want to get as many puppies out of their breeding stock as possible, which means starting as early as possible. Disreputable breeders often begin breeding their females on their first heat, and continue breeding on every heat cycle.

Why you should be concerned. Many genetic diseases do not present until sexual maturity, which can occur between 18 and 24 months, nor can hips or elbows be tested until at least 18 months (PennHIP) or 24 months (OFA). This means that dogs with any number of genetic diseases could be bred several times before the diseases are even noticed.

13. Poor record keeping. Record keeping is time consuming, especially for several litters of puppies each year. BYBs and puppy mills will not be able to tell you the health status or cause of death of near relatives, past litters, or dogs in the the parent’s pedigree. A reputable breeder is willing and able to discuss any health issues in their lines.

Why you should be concerned. Any breeder not actively recording health issues that develop in their lines or causes of death may continue to breed dogs and pass on genetic diseases.

14. Prices posted differ between registered/not registered, male/female, and full/partial registration. Reputable breeders do not treat their puppies like merchandise, and do not plaster their websites with prices. Additionally, all puppies from a reputable breeder will be registered, and all pet quality puppies will be sold on a spay/neuter contract. Reputable breeders do not allow the buyer to determine if they want to breed the puppy or not.

Why you should be concerned. If a buyer pays for a puppy from registered parents, then the puppy should be registered. Any breeder who allows the buyer to determine if they will breed their puppy does not care about any detriment that may be caused to the breed. Only carefully evaluated puppies should be considered for future breeding.

15. Do not allow buyers to interact with all dogs or view all facilities. Frequently a disreputable breeder will request an offsite meeting place, will not allow you to fully inspect the areas in which the dogs are kept, or will request that you contact them before arriving so that they can put away their dogs. Request to meet the other dogs on the property, if safe to do so–their behavior could tell you something about the genetics of your puppy as well as the environment in which the puppy spent its first critical weeks.

Why you should be concerned. What are they hiding? Reputable breeders will gladly allow you to inspect their home and the premise, and will answer any questions that you have about their dogs and how they are kept. If you are unable to meet the other dogs on the property it could be because they are sickly, malnourished, aggressive, hyperactive, or display other traits which may dissuade potential buyers.

16. Requires a cash purchase. Breeders requiring all cash purchases may be trying to keep their transactions, and income, off the books. This will also make proving your purchase price more difficult should you ever need to, and makes a charge back or hold on the funds impossible. Make sure that the purchase price is at least listed in the contract.

Anytime that you are dealing with a breeder be sure to do your due diligence, and if something feels off about the breeder or the facility, look elsewhere. Try not to be in a hurry or to be swayed by a cute puppy–all puppies will be cute, and spending the time and effort necessary to find a healthy puppy and a breeder who will be a lifelong resource is priceless.

Additional Resources:


Sweat Equity

Perception: I’ve always had a very idyllic view of sweat equity, pastoral really. I envisioned myself buying a less-than-perfect house–perhaps like an open box special, something not quite new and shiny–changing some hardware, applying fresh paint, and planting a quaint cottage garden. I could sell the house at full market value or build a life in my new envy-worthy house. The dogs would romp merrily around the yard while I grilled veggies from my deck with an unobstructed view. 

Reality: Sweat equity is hard. Sweat equity involves digging trenches, hauling siding, climbing ladders propped awkwardly on the side of hills. Sweat equity means spending Labor Day doing actual, real labor–manhandling pave stones to create a wall to prevent a patio from washing out and loading and unloading literally a ton of dirt for backfilling the wall. 

Sweat equity is pictured below.