You're attracted to this breed and just about decided you're ready to invest in a good specimen. You've done a little homework on the breed and know enough to stay away from commercial puppy sellers. You've called your local kennel club for the name of a reputable breeder in your vicinity, or maybe taken a chance and answered a newspaper advertisement - the best breeders must advertise, too! - and now you're sitting in her living room ,talking puppies. (Since I'm just such a woman breeder, I get to be arbitrary and assign your mythical breeder my own gender. No disrespect intended, gentlemen!)
The little guys you came to see are still nowhere in sight. Your breeder, in fact, is asking you many more questions than you think necessary, and may even seem a little "nosy" about your personal life. She wants to be certain you're matched with the correct puppy.
To be certain you've got not only the correct puppy but the correct breed to suit you, your family and your lifestyle, you should bring your prospective puppy's breeder a few key questions of your own. Here are a few to top off your list and start you off. Be aware that not every question applies to every breed; keep in mind, too, that no breeder will be able to answer every question to your satisfaction. Your goal in asking these questions is to get enough information to make a sound judgment.
1. What are the negative aspects of this breed? Does it shed? Seasonally? Continually? Does it bark excessively? If it accidentally gets out of my control, will it light out for Nome or trot obediently by my side? Does it eat an inordinate (and expensive) amount for its size? Does it require special or frequent grooming? (Consider whether you want to take on the daily half-hour brushing of a Samoyed or the clipping, cutting and pulling required by Schnauzers.) Does it dig holes? Does it chew? What is its temperament? (See Question 7.)
2. What can I expect it to be like as an adult? May I see his dam (and sire if in residence?) The philosophy of a good breeding program is to product offspring who are even better than their show-quality parents, but if the parents are singularly unimpressive, don't hold out unrealistic hopes for the superior quality of their offspring. One notable exception: a few weeks to months after giving birth, the dam's hormones will make her drop her coat. If she's a heavy-coated breed she'll probably look uncharacteristically awful. Be charitable. Scratch her chest and don't be deterred.
3. Are there any special health problems associated with this breed? PRA? Collie eye? Congenital elbow problems? Hip dysplasia? Heart disease? Don't let any breeder tell you her breed or bloodlines are problem-free. Every bloodline, like every family, hash some skeletons inits closet. Are they of vital concern to you - like blindness, lameness or bad temperament - or are they relatively trivial, like eyes a shade different than preferred, or a few short-backed or long-nosed specimens? Ask! And examine the pedigree every breeder will provide with the puppy. Ask about his illustrious ancestors, or get a breed book and see if they're mentioned. Champions (who are noted in red ink or whose names are preceded by "CH" on the pedigree) aren't necessarily better than dogs who didn't finish their championship, but that's information you should elicit from your breeder.
4. May I see a certificate from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA)? Many breeders will have one for each stud or bitch in residence who is 24 months of age or older. If an outside stud was hired, ask for his OFA number. This certificate states that the hips of the dog were radiographically examined by a veterinary radiologist and judged to be free of hereditary dysplasia (HD). This, and whatever information is on your puppy's pedigree - usually recent ancestors' OFA numbers are provided - is as much of a guarantee as you can get that your puppy will not suddenly, "surprisingly," fall victim to crippling dysplasia. Of course, dysplasia can be induced by overfeeding and providing inadequate footing, but your breeder will tell you all about that! (Some breeds do not have a dysplasia problem, and some have an incidence of HD as high as 95% in their general population, so find out whether dysplasia is a problem for the breed you are interested in.)
5. May I see an eye certificate? A form signed by a Fellow of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) or a registration slip from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF), stating that each parent has been examined and cleared of hereditary eye disease, should be available to you, also. Ask to see a photocopy of the stud's ACVO clearance or get his CERF numbers. Recently, even little pups can be examined for PRA and receive a CERF number which, like that of their adult counterparts, is good for one year. The sight of a beloved pet going blind from hereditary disease is an unnecessary heartbreaker, so be wary of buying the offspring of unexamined stock!
In addition, some breeds have specific problems - such as Malamutes do with dwarfism - and the Alaskan Malamute Club of America has developed screening criteria for breed animals. Read up on your breed so you'll know what to ask about breed-specific problems and the clearance of breeding stock.
PRA and HD, along with hereditary heart disease, are three of the biggest risks you can take when buying puppies through a source other than a reputable breeder. While a puppy's heart may not sound like an adult dog's, serious hereditary heart disease such as pulmonic stenosis may be detected early, certainly before a up is old enough to be transferred to a new owner.
You want your "show dog" and especially your beloved pet to be the same sound animal years from now that he is when you bring him home. All you get from even the best breeder is the "kit" for an outstanding dog. Heredity and care are equally responsible: the breeder provides the heredity and initial nurturing, , but you must provide the ongoing care and companionship that marks the healthy, secure dog..
6. What kind of exercise does this dog need? Can my facilities match its needs? Example: larger dogs need room to run and a firm footing - not a linoleum-covered basement - while so doing. Apartments or backyard tethers are generally unsuitable for these dogs (of course there are exceptions.) They will become flabby and unhappy, perhaps even neurotic because they can't get to you, their beloved human - and they will age more quickly. You will be doing each other a disservice if your facilities and needs are mismatched. If you want a larger or more active breed, or a breed that tends to be a "one-man dog" and turn into Hairy Houdini in order to reach you, are you willing to fence your yard, lay down the chicken wire and rocks, or build an adequate run with inside access, for the safety and security of everyone?
7. Is this breed temperamentally suited to my family? Will they put up with rough play from children, or be content to stay alone all day if I work? Will their need to chew and digest everything in sight interfere with, say, my garden or my collection of fine old wood furniture? Be fair! You can't expect a dog to accommodate you by going against his nature. Read on to Question 9!
8. What's the difference between keeping a male or a female? Usually not much if you have them spayed/neutered; a whole lot, if you intend to show or breed them. If you already have a male dog, emphasize this to the breeder before you buy a male puppy. Groups of dogs must create and observe a "pack order" in order to live together peacefully. This means that one has to be the boss - sometimes at considerable detriment or mortal danger to any would-be usurper. If you live in the country where your male might get loose but your neighbors have intact (unspayed) bitches, do you want to be responsible for litters of unwanted mongrel pups? Do you want to lose your dog in a traffic accident, simply because he responded to the sheer blind pleasure of running? If the dog is going to be inside the house or apartment, are you prepared to put up with the territorial marking and leg-lifting of a male identifying his territory (of course, you will housebreak him, in order to curb this problem indoors, right?) Marking has nothing to do with the need to urinate but everything to do with notifying the world - and especially any recent intruders of the four-legged variety - that this house is "mine, mine, mine," so get lost!
If you want to keep an intact female, can you confine her comfortably for up to 12 weeks out of the year and be a good sport about occasional drips on your carpets and the "eau de bitch" which follows? Can you build her a covered run to protect her from the neighborhood Romeos, or can you afford to board her for three weeks, two or three times a year? If you keep her intact, can you physically and financially raise a litter of puppies and guarantee them good homes? Will you be able to provide the same genetic clearances and assurances for them that were provided for your own pup?
9. How do you use a crate? Bless you for asking this one and meaning it! Half your adjustment's over already if you take the breeder's advice about using a crate. Remember, a crate isn't a "mean old cage and a cruelty to puppies." Pups aren't human babies, so don't anthropomorphize about puppy's "suffering in a cage." A crate is puppy's home; it's his security, a place to live in comfort while you're away. It's a place to enjoy the soft warmth of his own rugs and chew his bones without fear of punishment. It's a place of his very own, where he can get away from poking kids and teasing cats and can take those long naps puppies need for growth. Would you leave your three-year-old child alone in the house, free to roam around, destroy the house and injure himself because it's "kinder"? No, of course not. You'd be irresponsibly imposing unrealistic expectations upon him. In this case, consider your puppy like an irresponsible, dependent child. Why leave him free to roam because it's "more humane," and then punish him for following his puppy nature and making a meal out of your new sofa, your kitchen floor tiles or your former designer bathmat? (You think some large-breed puppies can't eat a sofa for lunch and blithely come back for the armchair for dinner? What's your take on the tooth fairy?) Why expect him not to chew an electrical cord and kill himself, or fatally shred his insides on a stray aluminum pie plate?
Ask about crates, where to buy a sturdy and properly-sized one and how to use it. Bonus: A crate-trained puppy will housebreak in a few short days if properly taught - but that's another article.
10. What's the difference between the less expensive and more expensive puppies? Your breeder will be glad to show you the Breed Standard, an agreed-upon set of guidelines which determine what a perfect specimen of that breed must look like, how he should move, what his disposition must be, etc. Puppies which conform most closely to this Breed Standard are labeled "show quality"; that is, they should be presented at AKC shows for points toward their championships as worthy representatives of their breed. Only show-quality dogs, in turn, should be used in a breeding program, to assure perpetuation of their excellent conformation.
A puppy who conforms less closely to this Standard of perfection is considered "pet quality." The difference between a "show quality" and "pet quality" puppy may not be detectable to the untrained eye. The breeder will tell you which are "show" and which are "pet" puppies. Be honest! Tell the breeder exactly for what purpose you want this puppy. Don't lie and tell her you intend to show the puppy merely to get "the best one." If they are the result of a conscientious breeding by a reputable breeder, they will all be "the best one" for pet purposes. They will all come from the same sound OFA'd, ACFO'd or CERF'd breeding stock, and the chances are overwhelming they'll be just as sound 5, 10 or15 years down the road as they are w hen you buy them. That's a bargain!
If you ask for a "show quality" puppy and don't intend to show it, you'll probably embarrass yourself in the end, as most breeders of show-quality puppies require show-prospect purchasers to sign a sales contract which requires a buyer to show or have the pup shown through its Championship. Breeders can usually spot equivocation in a prospective purchaser and may not agree to sell you a puppy at all because they'll mistrust your stated plans for its future.
Besides, often the most irresistible puppies, the best pets, the ones you fall in love with, have some little "fault" according to the Standard: a wrongly-placed spot of color, the wrong eye color (although blue eyes in a normally dark-eyed breed can signal albinism, so reject a frankly albino puppy!), a little bend in the tail or a shorter-than-standard tail, ears which didn't "come up" in a prick-eared breed, feet which toe in or out, legs which may be too close together or a back which may be too short, according to the Breed Standard. These little things hardly prevent a pup from being exactly the pet you're looking for!
If you buy such a pet, the breeder may ask you to sign a spay/neuter agreement for the pup, before turning over his AKC registration paper. Alternatively, your pup may receive a Limited AKC registration. This means that while your pup is fully registered with the AKC, its offspring may not be. Furthermore, your dog will be able to compete in all AKC events, such as obedience, agility, herding, tracking, but not in conformation events leading toward a Championship.This doesn't reflect the quality of your animal, but rather the breeder's desire not to contribute to an exploding population of unwanted pets.
However, if your pup does start to look like a show-stopper, your breeder may lift your Limited Registration, allowing the dog to compete in AKC sanctioned events leading toward its Conformation Championship.
11. Is this an expensive dog to keep? Not only must you consider the costs of feeding, veterinary care, obedience training - you will take the dog for obedience training, won't you? - and accessories such as collars, leashes, bedding and crates, but you must figure the additional costs of keeping the dog well-groomed and free of pests and debris that inhabit his coat and spell regular professional grooming for the long-haired breeds. (Of course, you can learn to do it yourself, too, and save a fortune!) You must also consider the cost of building him a run or fencing in your yard; the cost of special supplements which some breeds, show dogs and bitches-in-whelp require; the cost of occasional boarding when you're away or want to avoid accidental breeding; and the cost of photographing him ad nauseam, reprinting those shots dozens of times or putting them on disk and cramming the E-mailboxes of every acquaintance online.And you must be able to absorb any little emergencies, like midnight trips to the vet after a skunk attack, dogfight or nauseated admission that "yes, master, I'm a rock-eater in distress" - and all without having to declare bankruptcy.
Many purebred dogs are abandoned at the vet's because their owners couldn't afford to "bail them out" after expensive treatment and were too embarrassed to approach the vet about time payments. The initial cost of the dog is the smallest expense he'll ever incur! In overall expenses, however, some breeds are cheaper to maintain than others. ASK!
12. I've had this breed before and I love it; or I love this breed and I'm anxious to own and exhibit a show-quality puppy. Will it be expensive to get my dog's Championship? Can I afford it? I don't know - can you? Like everything else in life, you can go the cheaper, do-it-yourself route: take the puppy to handling classes, then pay his entrance fees as you travel around with him to matches and shows, prior to which you've groomed him yourself. This takes time and know-how and you m ay enjoy the sport of dog exhibiting; you may also find the classes tiring and repetitious, the show conditions windy or muddy or cold or providing poor to pitiful parking. Or that long wait before you're called into the show ring may be merely a boring but anxiety-provoking experience. You may wish to turn this Championship business over to a professional handler, and/or groomer. What does this cost? I recently turned an exceptionally fine young male over to a professional handler and his retinue, with whom he lived, by whom he was groomed, fed, trained and loved, for the month it took to earn his Championship. The dog was beautifully trained and presented and the experience cost me $5000. You may choose to fill out your own show entries: they're usually under $25 each; or groom your own dog and save $40 to $80; drive the dog to the show yourself (food, gas, parking); and be your own handler, saving about $75 for entering the ring (more for Group and Best-in-Show rings.)
If your dog is show quality but won't set the breed on fire, this adventure could cost you much more. Are you prepared to choose between a small car and your dog's Championship?
13. I want this show puppy and I can afford to hire a handler: Will you handler her for me? If a breeder is also a handler - and many are, to make ends meet - chances are, they will. If they can't do it, they'll recommend someone competent and familiar with your breed. It's good advertising for their kennel and breeding program when one of their puppies earns its Championship.
14. Where can I go for a course in Obedience Training? Bless you again! Basic obedience training is just good manners. A "down" command keeps puppy from jumping on everyone who comes to the door (especially helpful with little children and large breeds). "Stay" keeps him in place when you must walk away for a moment, or want to walk through a door without him, and should keep him from darting into traffic. "Heel" keeps him safely at your side when walking and is obviously the lesson that was missed by those people you see being dragged down the street by a big, strong dog. Express interest in obedience training; it impresses the breeder, gives the dog the security of knowing exactly what is expected of him and can even save his life! It is not, as one of my rejected prospects believed, "where they hit the dog and teach him to be mean."
"Show training" or "conformation class (note the "o"; this is a secular endeavor!) is for show puppies, and if you're interested enough in the breed to buy a show puppy and pilot him through his championship, t hen be interested enough to ask about handling classes in your area. Sometimes it's required in the show contract you sign.
15. I'm in love with the breed but don't think I'm up to raising a puppy: Do you ever have any older dogs? This is a realistic and sensitive question and with a reputable breeder, the answer is usually yes! Show and pet puppies are returned to their breeders for reasons ranging from the trivial to the profound. A show dog may not want to carry its tail properly when showing; a puppy may simply have outgrown the "cute" stage -- a classic sign of "Owner Failure" - or more seriously, the dog may have exhibited bad temperament. Between those extremes are usually other owner-related problems: the owner wouldn't use a crate to housebreak, and then complains that puppy "won't learn;" the owner wasn't interested in obedience class and complains that "puppy pulls and I can't handle him." Sometimes unsuccessful puppy owners are too embarrassed to state the real reason, but usually it's apparent to the breeder. Sometimes the dog is full grown and has perfect house manners but has been returned for some reason - like faulty tail carriage or a show home's financial reverses or the death or even imprisonment(!) of an owner - which makes no difference to you.
Breed rescue groups, almost nonexistent when this article was first published in 1984, are springing up and flourishing thanks to immediate communication via the Internet. Responsible breeders are often personally involved in breed rescue or connected with people who are, and often know of wonderful, deserving adults of your breed who need to be re-homed. The internet is full of "secondhand dog" tales of success, love and bonding; read only with the "Big Cryer" size tissue box!
If you take a full-grown dog from a breeder or rescue organization, question them closely about why it is available, and be sure the answer is one you can live with. The fact that a previous owner became herself a baby mill and had no room for the dog will make no difference to you (except to gain sympathy for the poor dog!) This may be your ideal pet.
The most common reason you'll hear is directly related to "owner failure," particularly so as we become more of a "disposable" society. Twenty years ago, my foundation brood bitch was a well-bred victim of previous owners' hard times and she became very grateful, loyal and, in retrospect, the best dog I've ever owned. Even the most conscientious puppy sellers often misjudge people and make mistakes in puppy placement, resulting in returned puppies. That mistake can work to your advantage! Bonus: A breeder's half-grown pups were probably very well raised as infants via the "put hands allover" method, making them very emotionally healthy, yet they might not be as cute (and saleable) as tiny pups. Dogs are not used cars; expert breeding and early care makes a half grown dog a bargain, and because he is half-grown, there may be some consideration reflected in his price.
16. Are there any books you can recommend about this breed? Stand back while the breeder bombards you with the names of good ones! Cast an eye on her bookshelves and write down the eye-catching titles.
17. Are you a member in good standing of your breed club? Joining a breed club shows interest in the advancement of the breed. Every breed club has a code of ethics, however, and violators may be suspended.
18. Will you sponsor me for membership in the breed club? That's the right spirit - good luck with your puppy!
Elizabeth Crosby Simpson
First published in the AKC GAZETTE in March, 1984;
Revised for internet publication February, 2000.
Copyright by the author.