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How to Find a Responsible Dog Breeder

Author: Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Published: March 29, 2022

Updated: November 15, 2022

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rhodesian ridgeback mother playing with her puppiesIf you're adding a new dog to your life, it's a good idea to do your research to ensure your puppy is coming from a reputable and responsible breeder.

A reliable dog breeder will give you insight into what puppy temperament will be best for your lifestyle, help match you to the appropriate puppy, and be a lifelong resource in caring for your dog.

Early puppyhood experiences have a lifelong impact, and genetics play an important role in future health and behavior. Having a breeder who is invested in thoughtful breeding choices and raising happy and healthy puppies – along with providing a foundation of good behavior and necessary socialization – means that you and your puppy are better set up for success.

So how do you find a responsible and reputable dog breeder?

What about red flags to avoid?

And did you know there are different categories of dog breeders? In this article, we'll cover some important considerations to take as you start your search for your next puppy.

Different Types of Dog Breeders

Heritage or Preservation Breeders

You may see a breeder call themselves a heritage or preservation breeder, which means they breed dogs in an effort to protect, maintain, and improve a particular breed, based on the original purpose of that breed. It's not about making a profit for these dog breeders – they usually lose money on each litter. Preservation breeders tend to show their dogs or participate heavily in dog sports and invest a lot of time, energy, and money in their dogs.

  • Heritage breeders have extensive health testing for the dogs in their breeding program and do not breed dogs with health issues, genetic defects, or undesirable behavior and temperament issues.

  • Typically, they have long waiting lists as they only breed once or twice per year. It's not about quantity, but quality and health of their puppies and ethical breeding standards. In some cases, you may be on a waiting list for one to two years before receiving a puppy.

  • There may be higher requirements when it comes to placing puppies, to ensure the right match and future care of the dog.

  • They educate themselves in appropriate breeding and puppy raising protocols and practice important early life socialization and neurological stimulation exercises with their litters.

  • They ensure that their dogs are up-to-date on vaccinations, deworming, vet exams, and eating quality food.

  • They are committed to a puppy for their entire life and are a wealth of information and support for their puppies' families. If for any reason someone is not able to care for the dog at any point in the dog's life, preservation breeders will take the dog back or help find an appropriate home by reaching out to their network of breeders across the country.

  • Puppies are often priced higher than puppies from hobby or for-profit breeders.

When I first started looking for a Cardigan Welsh Corgi breeder, it took me a while to connect with a preservation breeder in my area. In fact, the breeder I found was a whole state away. While she didn't have any puppies available at the time, she was able to place an adolescent female with me who was retiring from the show world. Sookie joined my family when she was 18 months old and is now 12 years old. About two years ago, I reached back out to the same breeder about adding another puppy to my life.sookie and fozzie resting together

I now have a second dog, Fozzie Bear, from that breeder, and I can't emphasize enough how wonderful it's been to have her support and ongoing communication. I've learned so much about their breed from her and it's lovely to see updates on both of their littermates as they've grown (the breeder still has my girl's sister as her personal dog). And it's really fun to have her support me as I introduce my younger boy to different dog sports. In the future, I know that when we add another dog to our family, I have someone I trust to help me find the right match.

If you are looking for a purebred dog, I highly recommend getting a puppy from a heritage or preservation breeder or through a breed-specific rescue (often run by a network of preservation breeders). You get what you pay for and you can rest easier knowing that you are supporting ethical and responsible dog breeding and have the lifelong support you'll need for your dog.

Hobby Breeders

Hobby breeders are also not in it for the money, but rather the love of the dog breed. They may participate in showing their dogs, but not always. There are hobby breeders for "unofficial" dog breeds or mixes, such as Labradoodles, or hobby breeders that focus on breeding primarily for behavior and temperament over how a dog looks.

Hobby breeders should be health testing their dogs prior to breeding and maintain high ethical standards when it comes to the frequency of litters and choosing sires and dams. It's important to do your due diligence if thinking about getting a puppy from a hobby breeder. Some lean more towards being unofficial preservation breeders, while others lean more towards being backyard breeders. It can be difficult to identify whether someone is breeding more "trendy" dog breeds because they truly care about the health and behavior of the dogs or if they are simply looking to make a profit.newborn puppy cradled in two hands

For-Profit Breeders

Puppy Mills

Puppy mills are large breeding facilities with high numbers of dogs as breeding stock, usually with many different breeds. The majority of puppies found in pet stores come from puppy mills, although fortunately, some states and local jurisdictions are beginning to ban the sale of puppies in pet stores that are sourced from these commercial operations. Their main goal is to make a profit off of the puppies they breed.

Puppy mills generally do not provide adequate health care, housing, or enough human interaction for both the dogs being bred and puppies. There is no health or behavior testing done prior to breeding. Breeding dogs are bred too frequently and for too long.

Some puppy mills have registered their dogs with the AKC or the CKC, so it's important to remember that just because a dog has "papers," it doesn't mean the breeder is trustworthy or responsible.

Puppy mill operations can be quite inhumane and result in serious health and behavioral issues. Avoid purchasing a puppy that may have come from a puppy mill operation at all costs.

Backyard Breeders

The term backyard breeder can cover a variety of scenarios, from someone whose dog had an "accidental" pregnancy after hanging out with the dog next door to someone who wants to make some money on the side. It's not about whether the dogs are kept in the backyard or not. Many are looking to make a profit on their puppies, while for others it's simply about finding homes for these puppies.

It might be that a family wants their children to witness the "miracle of birth" or their friends or family want a puppy and love the temperament or look of their dog. I hate to break it to you, but if someone decides to breed their dog for a reason like this, they are a backyard breeder and should consider that they are hindering the cause of reducing pet overpopulation and dogs ending up in rescues and shelters.

Overall, a backyard breeder is someone with little to no experience in breeding dogs or is breeding with no priority given to ethical or responsible dog breeding practices. In many cases, there is no planning involved prior to breeding, and there may be inadequate health care for pregnant dogs and newborn puppies. Backyard breeders may not understand the breed predispositions and behavior and cannot provide lifelong support for puppies and their new families.

english cocker spaniel nursing her puppies What to Know Before You Search for a Dog Breeder

Working Dog, Show Dog, or Pet Dog?

Before you start looking for and contacting dog breeders, it's helpful to think about what you're looking for in a dog. You may already have a specific breed in mind, but did you know that there can be quite extreme differences within a dog breed based on their genetic lines? There are working lines, show lines, and pet lines, and some breeders specialize in one type over another.

Dogs from working lines are bred to do the jobs they were originally bred for, such as herding, tracking, or guarding, and less about looks or conforming to breed standards. A working line could also focus on producing dogs that excel in certain dog sports. Dogs from working lines have a strong drive to work, meaning they often require high levels of training, management, and exercise.

Dogs from show lines are bred for competing in conformation and to match the breed standards set out by varying kennel club organizations. Less importance is placed on their ability to do their ancestral job. This can result in quite a different look and temperament compared to a dog from the same breed but from a working line.

Pet lines are breeding programs that focus on producing dogs with temperaments ideal for living in a typical pet home. Behavior and temperament are the main factors in creating and maintaining these breeding programs.

Think about your lifestyle, goals, and expectations of your future dog. Do you want to compete in agility? It's worth it to look for a breeder who specializes in working lines with dogs who excel in agility. Interested in showing a dog in conformation? Look for a show line breeder (and be aware that show quality dogs typically cost more and are "co-owned" with the breeder).

Want a dog who can chill out with the family? Be upfront with breeders about needing a dog with less working drive and from a pet line.

Familiarize Yourself with Recommended Health Tests for the Breed

You'll want to research what health and genetic testing is recommended for the breed or breeds you're considering. A responsible breeder should ensure that the breeding pair is in good general health and tested for potentially troublesome inheritable issues, such as hip and elbow dysplasia, degenerative myelopathy, hearing loss, vision loss, and more. Some breeds are at more risk for particular hereditary health issues.

You can see recommended health testing by breed here

Another thing to be aware of is certain unethical breeding practices, such as breeding a merle-colored dog to another merle, which results in a "double-merle." Double-merle dogs are at high risk of hearing and vision impairment, microphthalmia, and skin cancer. A responsible breeder will test their dogs for the merle-color gene and ensure they are not pairing two merle-colored dogs in a breeding.

woman holding five shih tzu puppies in her armsHow to Find a Dog Breeder

Check National and Local Breed Clubs

Initially connecting with a breeder is often the hardest step of finding a new puppy. The easiest place to start is by searching local and national breed clubs based on the breed(s) you're considering. National clubs will have a breeder directory and can help direct you to local clubs in your area.

Local clubs may focus on conformation, obedience, or on performance events, such as FAST cat, herding, hunting, or field trials. They will host different events in your area. This gives you a chance to get connected with the local community and find out more about breeders in your area to narrow down your search, along with learning more about the breed and seeing them in action.

American Kennel Club National Search and Directory

American Kennel Club Local Club Search (by Conformation, Agility, Performance, etc.)

Being a member breeder of a national or local club does not automatically ensure a breeder is practicing ethical or responsible breeding, but it does provide one layer of vetting as breeders listed on club sites often must be active members for a certain amount of time and successful in the sports or conformation world.

Go to Local Dog Shows and Events

Once you've found a local club, go watch some of their events. Many reputable dog breeders will be present at these events showing their own dogs and you may have a chance to chat with them. It's best practice to reach out to the breeder via email or phone call prior to meeting them at a dog show or event. These events can be quite busy and a breeder or handler has lots to do as they prepare to go in the ring and compete. Ask if they are able to meet you after they are finished with their events or when the best time would be so you can ask some questions and get to know them better.

You can also talk with other spectators at these events, as they are almost always breed enthusiasts, may know the breeders, and have extensive knowledge of the breed and different lines.handler showing golden retriever at dog show

Ask for Referrals

Reach out to friends and family members about whether they know any responsible dog breeders in your area. If you know someone who has a dog you admire, ask where they got their dog. There are quite a few social media groups that focus on particular dog breeds, and it can be hit or miss when it comes to asking what dog breeder to connect with in these groups. But it can be a good start to narrow down your search. Ideally, look for breed-specific groups that are associated with local or national clubs and tout responsible and ethical breeding practices.

Never purchase a puppy listed on social media as available or for sale. Not only can this be a scam and no actual puppy exists, but it is a red flag that the puppy is from a puppy mill or backyard breeder.

Don't Be Surprised by Long Waits – They're a Good Thing!

Wanting a puppy and getting one right away isn't usually possible, and I know that can feel frustrating. But it's actually a sign of a responsible breeder! Don't be put off by a breeder informing you that they have a waitlist. If you love that breeder and how they raise their puppies, put your name on the waitlist and check in with the breeder every few months so they know you are still interested.

You can also ask them if they know of other breeders who may have puppies sooner or to let you know if an older dog becomes available. This is how I got my first Cardigan Corgi – I was on the breeder's waitlist for a puppy, and she contacted me knowing I may be interested in an older dog that had become available for placement in a pet home. If your heart isn't set on a puppy, let your breeder know and they can be a great resource in helping you find an adolescent or adult dog in that breed. There are also breed-specific rescues that they may refer you to.

What About Puppies from Dog Breeders in Different Countries?

Purchasing a dog from abroad can be difficult because it usually means you cannot personally visit where the puppies are raised and confirm that the breeder is trustworthy. It is also much more costly to purchase a puppy from overseas, as you must also cover transportation. However, there are some breeds that have stellar breeding programs outside of the United States, and if you have done your research you may be opting to purchase from an international breeder. If this is your first dog, I highly recommend getting a puppy from a local breeder and not overseas, as this provides you with more support as you raise your puppy.

You'll want to extensively research the breeder and seek out personal references from others who have obtained puppies from them. Ask your local or national dog club about whether they have heard of that breeder overseas. Check to see if the breeder participates in any conformation shows or performance events in their country or internationally. Connect virtually with the breeder and ask them the questions below – a live virtual walk-through of where their puppies are born and raised is better than just taking them at their word via email.

Carefully review the contract and make sure you are comfortable with what's entailed when it comes to transporting the puppy to you. Flying internationally is stressful for any dog, and you'll need to make sure the puppy has the required health checks and vaccinations to enter the country. Remember, it will be more difficult to connect with the puppy's breeder with any questions you may have because they are so far away. Plus, if for any reason you cannot keep the puppy, you will need to ensure they are rehomed responsibly without the support of the breeder.

newborn puppies sleeping

What to Ask a Dog Breeder

Can I Meet the Puppy's Parents? What Are Their Temperaments Like?

You should be able to meet at least one of the puppy's parents prior to bringing your puppy home. Typically this is the mother (or dam), as the father (sire) may not live with the breeder. Ask about each dog's temperament and behavior. Have there been any incidences of aggressive or fearful behavior from either? If so, under what circumstances? How are they with children and new experiences?

Does the breeder appear to have a good relationship with the mother of the puppies? Do either of the parents exhibit worrisome behaviors when you meet them? If you can't meet the parents in person, request to meet them virtually via video call. 

Another thing you can check is the parents' pedigrees (their family trees). This can help you trace their lineage and research the dogs who are contributing to your future puppy's genetics. It's also a way to see whether there is any worrisome inbreeding within a dog's line. Responsible breeders are very careful in regularly outcrossing their breeding lines to ensure genetic diversity. Ask a breeder whether you can view pedigrees online via a breed database (some breeds have this, others may not) or if they have printed records.

So you can see an example, here are my two dogs' pedigrees.
Bonus points if you can figure out how closely they are related! *See the answer here*):

Sookie Bean's Pedigree
Fozzie Bear's Pedigree

When I went to pick up Fozzie Bear from the breeder, I was already familiar with the temperament of his mother (very similar to my current female) but was lucky enough to meet his father who was visiting for a few days. I loved getting to interact with him and get a vibe for how Fozzie Bear might turn out, and it was reassuring to know that both of his parents were sociable and biddable.

Can I See Where the Dogs and Puppies Live?

You'll want to see where your breeder's dogs spend their time and where the puppies are raised. Ideally, this will be in a home environment, but there are some reputable breeders who have larger breeding programs with well-tended and clean kennels and provide frequent human interaction and training. Take note of whether the whelping box (where the mother gives birth and newborn puppies stay), puppy playpen, and other puppy hangout areas are clean and have appropriate enrichment activities. Does the breeder introduce the puppies to crates and other experiences to prepare for their new homes? Are puppies exposed to children and regular visitors?

Do You Specialize in Working, Show, or Pet Lines?

Ask your breeder about whether they breed for working dogs, show dogs, or pet dogs. Be upfront about what you're looking for and what will work with your lifestyle. Within each litter there can be working, show, and pet-quality puppies, so even if they specialize in certain types of breeding, they may have a good match for you in the future. But they need to know your future plans to make the best match.

What Does Your Puppy Rearing Plan Look Like?

Responsible dog breeders know that early puppyhood is an important time for your puppy's physical and mental development and will provide proactive puppy rearing techniques or programs. This includes early neurological stimulation (ENS), early scent introduction (ESI), introducing novel items and experiences, socialization, beginning potty training, and more.

Two popular puppy rearing programs for breeders are Puppy Culture and Avidog. However, there are many reputable breeders who do not closely follow either of these programs and still incorporate essential early learning practices. There are some recommendations in these programs that have no scientific basis.

A breeder should also be ensuring that their puppies and the mother are getting the veterinary care they need. Deworming, fecal tests, and the initial puppy vaccinations are needed before a puppy is weaned at around eight weeks old, and if a breeder keeps their puppies with the mother longer, they'll need to keep up-to-date on the recommended vaccine schedule.

two puppies playing in ball pit for enrichment

What Genetic Testing Do You Do?

Ask the breeder what testing they've done for the mother and father of the puppies and compare that to your list of what is recommended for that breed. Bonus points for the breeder if they've gone above and beyond the usually recommended testing. 

You can search the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals to check test results if you know the pedigree of your future puppy. Some tests cannot be done until a dog is a certain age, which is why it's important that dogs are fully grown before they are bred.

What Does the Puppy Contract Include?

Every responsible breeder will have a contract that needs to be signed by the purchaser, and it should be clear and thorough. These contracts are legal documents, so it's crucial that you understand what is required of you (and what is required of the breeder) in case you ever do end up in court.

  • Does the contract include the basics like your puppy's registration number, names of the puppy's parents, and price paid for the puppy? Does it list what health testing has been performed for the parents? Are vaccination and healthcare records for the puppy included?

  • Does it designate between the dog being a show dog prospect or a pet dog? Puppies who are show prospects will often have more in-depth puppy contracts or may require co-ownership with the breeder.

  • Is there a spay-neuter clause? If your puppy is not a show prospect or potential part of a future breeding program, it should require you to spay or neuter your puppy by a certain age. In some cases, breeders will include a clause about waiting until a certain age for spay or neuter. Make sure you are comfortable having your dog fixed at the requested age, as there are pros and cons of both earlier and later spay and neuter procedures.

  • Are there any health guarantees for your puppy? What happens if your puppy is diagnosed with a genetic defect? Will the breeder take the puppy back or cover related expenses? What recommendations does the breeder make in order to lessen the chance of particular health issues?

  • What happens if you are no longer able to care for the dog? Will the breeder take them back or require notification of rehoming?

There may be other more odd things included in a puppy contract, such as registered name requirements or feeding and care requirements. A previous training client of mine was searching for a new Golden Retriever puppy and a potential breeder required that she feed the dog raw food for their entire life. After speaking with her veterinarian and considering what would work for her, my client just didn't feel comfortable making that commitment. I applauded her decision – better to be honest than to lie to the breeder for the rest of that dog's life.

Before you sign, make sure that you are completely comfortable with what is in the contract. While it's rare that you would end up in court over what registered name you give your puppy or what food you are feeding, it can happen and you'll have to deal with the court costs even if the case is dismissed.

Can I Speak with Current Owners of Dogs from Your Breeding Program?

It's a good sign if a breeder will connect you with others who have purchased puppies from them in the past! Not only can you ask them about their experiences, but you may also be able to meet their dogs and get a feeling for the temperaments of that breeder's program. Plus, you'll be a part of a community that can provide knowledge and support as you raise your puppy.

family with new puppy at home with children

How Old is the Puppy When They Go to Their New Home?

Puppies should not leave their littermates or mother before they are 8 weeks old. Many breeders are starting to keep puppies a few weeks longer, until they are 12 weeks old, which allows for more development and important social learning with their littermates.

What Questions Do You Have About Me?

A good breeder will have lots of questions for you! They want to ensure that you will provide a safe and loving home for their puppies and be able to meet the demands that the breed may have. A breeder may require that you fill out an extensive application before even being considered and then have more questions afterward. Don't let these intense applications put you off – it means that the breeder cares about finding the right match for you.

Red Flags: How to Recognize a Bad Dog Breeder and Puppy Mills

There are more obvious warning signs that a breeder isn't trustworthy or that a puppy is from a puppy mill, but there are also some more subtle things to watch out for that should make you run fast and far away from a breeder:

  • They specialize in a non-standard color, size, or breed mix (e.g., Cowboy/American Corgi, "teacup," "rare" or "exotic")
  • They post puppies for sale on social media or craigslist
  • Cheap or lower-than-usual price for puppies
  • Extremely high price for puppies (typically seen when it is a trendy breed or the rare/exotic description)
  • There are always puppies available or different breeds available
  • They don't ask you any questions or require an application
  • Will send puppies to new homes earlier than 8 weeks of age
  • No registration papers
  • No vaccination or vet records available or vaccinations given by the breeder (less likely a veterinarian has examined the puppy and done needed fecal tests)
  • No proof of health tests for parents
  • You aren't allowed to or able to meet the parents of the puppies
  • You aren't allowed to visit or otherwise see (virtually) where puppies are raised
  • The breeder provides no post-purchase support and will not take the dog back if there is a problem

If throughout your communication with a potential dog breeder you notice any of the things above, do not pursue getting a puppy from them. This can be quite difficult, as in some cases a person feels like they need to "save" the puppy. But all this does is reinforce that person's unethical and irresponsible breeding practices, and they will continue to breed and sell as long as there is demand. Consider whether you can report them to local animal control, humane society, the national kennel club, or even the USDA Department of Agriculture if they are operating commercially.

While it may take a bit longer than you anticipated to find a trustworthy, reliable, and responsible dog breeder, it's worth the wait! You certainly get what you pay for, and a lifelong relationship with the right breeder is priceless.

*Fozzie Bear is Sookie's great-grandnephew. Sookie's sister is Fozzie's great grandmother.*
Did you figure it out? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author

Profile picture for Cathy Madson

Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

As Preventive Vet's dog behavior expert and lead trainer at Pupstanding Academy, Cathy focuses on helping humans and their pets build a strong relationship based on trust, clear communication, and the use of positive reinforcement and force-free methods. With over 13 years of experience, she has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of dogs on a wide variety of training and behavior issues. Beyond her one-on-one consultations through Pupstanding Academy, she also teaches group dog training classes at Seattle Humane. Her specialties include dog aggression, resource guarding, separation anxiety, and puppy socialization.

Cathy is a certified Family Dog Mediator, and certified through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, holding both the CPDT-KA and CBCC-KA designations. Cathy is a Fear Free Certified Certified Professional, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, and the Dog Writer's Association of America. She has also completed the Aggression in Dogs Master Course.

When she's not geeking out about dogs, you can find her reading, hiking with her two Cardigan Welsh Corgis, or paddleboarding.

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