So you want a puppy for Christmas...
For all that the holidays can be a bad time to bring a pet home, it can also be a great time to bring a pet home. For many people- especially those who don’t tend to have large holiday celebrations, the holidays mean some extra time off and somewhat modified schedules at many jobs, especially in the interval between Christmas and New Years. Writing this on December 14th, there is still enough time for shelter adoptions (especially from city or county shelters) but many rescue groups will have already closed adoptions for now out of concern for impulsive adoptions brought on by excessive holiday spirits.
But wait! You wanted a puppy. Surely there’s still time for that, right? Sorry, you are very likely out of luck, unless you want to support the retail puppy industry which focuses on dogs as a product and not as living, breathing, family members. We at Venture Dog Training cannot recommend EVER using a retail pet shop as a source for a puppy. You are not rescuing them, you are condemning their parents and/or siblings to a further life of production in a commercial kennel. (Which, thanks to increased awareness, may bear very little resemblance to the Sarah McLachlan commercials we’re all familiar with- but still involve a large number of dogs who are not themselves pets and lack the basic ingredients of a relationship with a person as part of their lives. So just don’t.)
The reality is that responsible breeders make up by far the smallest source of puppies in this country. Between restrictive zoning laws and an increased pressure to ‘adopt don’t shop’, fewer people can afford to breed, and they typically produce many fewer litters than in years past in many breeds, including the most popular. Most of them will have some or all of litters spoken for well before puppies are even born, and are significantly more interested in finding a great home for their puppy than providing you, an individual, with a pet. (If you are a great home that matches well with their puppy? Awesome- but their priority is their puppies, not your happiness as a customer.)
There are so many posts on the internet regarding “How to find a responsible breeder” and I don’t want to rehash them here when Google can help you with that information. There’s a lot of individual variation based on the breed and type of dog that you’re looking for, and a greater degree of nuance than a simple set of bullet-pointed guidelines can convey briefly. The short(ish) version follows:
Expect to be asked questions about your lifestyle and what you’re looking for in a puppy. (And it’s okay to have preferences like sex and color, but expect that you may need to compromise on one or both of those unless you’re willing to wait significantly longer for those to line up with personality- a more important trait to match in the long term and the one a good breeder will be focused on.)
Expect to be provided with records of the parents’ health certifications- at a bare minimum, their registered name to look up in a database such as the Orthopedic Foundation For Animals, which records dog health testing results for hips, elbows, eyes, and more. (Which test results are important will vary by breed.) Health testing generally consists of more than DNA testing (such as Embark) and a vet check-up.
Expect that the puppy will have been seen by a vet at least once before coming home to you (and frequently more than once, depending on the timing). They should be current on worming and probably vaccinated with at least one round of vaccines before leaving the breeders’ house, but vaccines are a complicated topic with varying recommendations that are too complex for this post.
Expect to sign a contract that includes limits on things like breeding or reselling your puppy but that also gives you a warranty against hereditary health problems.
Expect that the breeder will be explicitly clear that if you ever cannot keep your dog, they will take them back, no questions asked.
Expect that the breeder does not have puppies available at all times (this is a major red flag). Raising litters is exhausting and takes over your entire life; very few responsible breeders will have more than 2 or 3 litters per year.
Breeders don't breed dogs that aren't mature themselves - at least a year and two is more common in medium and large breeds that should be hip tested before breeding.
Expect to take your puppy home no earlier than 8 weeks. This is a state law in Texas, and there are very solid behavioral reasons for it. Many good breeders prefer to keep puppies longer and this number varies significantly by breed. But it really won’t ever be younger.
If the breeder doesn’t do these things, in some form? They’re probably not ideal.
Puppies bred with care are expensive, and it can be hard to justify the cost sometimes. There is simply no way around this. It is unusual to find a well-bred puppy under about $800 in any breed, and breeds with lots of health testing to do or small litters, the figure may easily triple this. (Want to be horrified by an expense? Call your vet and get a quote for the health testing for your breed, plus the costs for a c-section. Now add time off work, and enough cleaning supplies to outfit a preschool planning a week-long fingerpainting marathon.) Most breeders are not in a position to offer payment plans beyond paying a deposit and spacing out a few payments until the puppy is ready to come home. (There’s nothing like financing for breeders breeding on a typical scale.) Putting families on a waiting list to stretch the payment timeframe out is the most usual solution- breeders KNOW puppies are expensive. Conversely, price alone isn’t a good gauge of quality. Some rare breeds are surprisingly inexpensive compared to more popular ones. Most responsible breeders will be in the mid-range for their breed compared to pet shop puppies (almost always much more expensive than the breed average) or poorly bred dogs (the cheapest, usually because corners were cut when raising them that shouldn’t have been, and frequently in ways that later care won’t make up for.)
Most good breeders will want to match you with a puppy or will offer a couple of puppies who meet what you are looking for in temperament for you to choose between. (This is another area that the cultural norm that varies by breed.) Additionally, matching families with puppies in a litter is usually done later, rather than earlier. It’s less than ideal to be selecting puppies at birth (when the only criteria that can be matched in color and sex), and good breeders will typically be focused on making sure an individual puppy is a good match for your specific home, above and beyond selling you one with the markings and plumbing you prefer.
Many breeds have breed-specific cultures and concerns that are hard to learn about other than by spending a lot of time in research and being part of the breed community. Asking your friends who have pets you like, your vet team, and resources like us can help with finding a starting place, and sometimes in finding contacts locally for a specific breed. Many good breeders are also active in some capacity with their local breed rescues (because they love their breed and want a safety net for them, even if they have no other connection with those dogs), but rescue groups’ friendliness to breeders varies hugely and is largely negative these days.
There is nothing wrong with wanting a puppy, or feeling like a dog carefully selected for an extremely specific temperament and the best possible health is a better fit for your family than taking a chance on a shelter dog. But for the best chance at both those things? Plan on spending time and money to find a good breeder.
A puppy under the tree isn’t a realistic present, as wonderful as the image is. But you can always wrap up a breed book or two. If you’d like something a little bit more interactive, Venture Dog Training offers dog breed consultation and networking services for free, and are happy to send you a printable certificate that can be wrapped up for your recipient, with appointments available starting on December 26th. Book yours now! (and please let us know if you'd like a printable certificate to wrap up under the tree.)