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   Checklist for the Responsible Breeder

Quick start - jump to the The short checklist..

The ethical breeder
These are guides, not rules
Apply your own ethics
Sorting fact from fantasy
Questions help evaluate information
Know what you need to know
Take notes, follow-up
The short checklist
The long checklist


The ethical breeder

These are questions a person can consider in trying to evaluate the ethical qualities of a breeder. Note that these are not confined just to considering how healthy the dogs being bred are, but the contribution being made to the health and welfare of dogs generally. Part of being ethical is to avoid contributing to the problem and to contribute to the solutions.

These are guides, not rules

This checklist is only a guide, an ideal if you will. Just because something is missing does not mean a person is not an ethical breeder. It is up to you to decide what is important. This checklist is also not complete. No one can do everything. It is the overall picture that is important. If you don't have any idea how to find the breeders to ask them the questions then take a look at the page on Where to Find a Responsible Breeder.

Oh, and don't have a heart attack at the length of this checklist. It isn't as though you need to spend two hours on the phone grilling the person with these questions. Use the questions to help you explore what it is that makes one breeder better than another. You will find that a lot of the answers will become obvious to you as you become more familiar with reading advertisements, and talking dogs with people.

To make things a little easier I've created a few separate lists. The first list is things you should know before you focus on a particular breeder. Yes, you probably will need to talk to breeders to get the information. But at that point you will be in an information gathering stage so it won't matter whether the person has puppies available. Your goal is first to learn about the breed. After you have the basics then start thinking of the breeder as a source of puppies. It will make your information gathering easier if your first question can be " I have some questions about the breed " which any competent breeder can help you with.

The second list is the initial screening in looking for a breeder you even want to waste your time with. This is the point where you are ready to commit to getting a puppy. The third list is for breeders that pass the initial screening.

The last list, the long list is an educational tool. Its purpose is to broaden your perspective and allow you to be a little flexible on your expectations. It may repeat what is in the other lists or it may offer some alternative methods of achieving the same goals.

Apply your own ethics

If you think its too much trouble to work your way through the questions, well OK. Think about what your goal in getting the dog is. I own shelter dogs. My goal is to get a wonderful dog I can share my life with. If that is your only goal, then go to the shelter. If you don't need a carefully bred dog, save a life, but don't encourage poor breeding. There is no reason to support the kind of breeder that is producing the same dogs that get into the shelter.

I understand that some people want or need a well bred dog. I have no problem with that. My point is that if you are going to support the breeding of dogs, perhaps the only breeder that deserves your support is the one that knows how to produce something obviously better than a shelter dog. If you want something better than a shelter dog you will need to do your homework. All the dogs in the shelter came from breeders. What kind of breeders did they come from? Virtually all came from people who didn't know, or didn't care, to learn how to do the best for dogs.

There is only one person you can control. That is yourself. You can make an effort to avoid supporting the breeders who create the dogs dying in the shelters if you decide it is important. If you encourage careless breeding by rewarding the careless breeder then you aren't doing what is in your power to reduce shelter deaths. Yes, sometimes it IS hard to find the ethical breeder. But by insisting on it you will be encouraging that as the "way it should be" and doing what is in your power for the welfare of dogs. When breeders learn that they will have no market unless they meet certain standards they will meet those standards. What kind of standards will you set for breeders you want to encourage and support?

Sorting fact from fantasy

Questions help evaluate information

You can find breeders whose first concern is the welfare of the dogs. Look for evidence of that concern in the order of information you get from the breeder. Price is obviously not something to be disregarded but it will come low on the list of things to discuss. High on the list of the breeder's importance is "is this the right home" e.g. does the person understand grooming and care requirements. High on the list of your importance (I'm guessing) is "is this pup going to be healthy? Does it have a good temperament?"

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I developed a lot of these questions primarily as a way of exploring the true facts after a breeder claimed that there were no dogs of her breed needing rescue in her area. The truth was that that she just was so uninvolved with the breed that she both didn't know about the dogs needing rescue and had never made a good effort to find out. She did think she had made the effort, but she didn't talk to a single person in any club for her breed. Asking her questions about her contacts in the breed, and specifics of who she talked to quickly revealed her lack of knowledge.

She wasn't intending to mislead, but asking the right questions showed she didn't have a good basis for her claims. If a breeder is going to justify breeding by claiming there aren't any of their breed needing rescue then they ought to be correct and not in fantasy land. It took me just a few minutes of searching on the Internet to find a rescue in her area (and despite appearances the majority of dog people are still not on the 'net if I had gone to the breed club I'd bet I would have found more). I realized that it might be helpful to have more specific questions that would help both the breeder and the buyer recognize the difference between real knowledge and assumptions based on hope or ignorance. The situation also made me realize the importance of "show me". Proof, evidence, is the only way to sort out fact from fantasy.

Know what you need to know

Before you contact a breeder make sure you have done enough research that you can ask good questions and recognize good answers. Here are some questions you should be able to answer by the time you are actually looking for a breeder:

  1. What size (height and weight) is correct for this breed? (For AKC breeds see, for non-AKC breeds contact the registering organization).

    • If the breed is not registered with AKC then use extra care. There are quite a few places that make money simply by issuing entirely meaningless papers. It is not always a simple matter to tell when a registry is worthwhile. You have to look at their registration requirements and their pedigree database. The purpose of a registry is to maintain pedigrees. That is to keep permanent researchable records of bloodlines. Pedigrees less than five generations deep are virtually worthless in establishing breed qualities such as predictability of type.

  2. Does this breed need to be brushed or combed more often than once a week?

  3. Does this breed require professional help in clipping or grooming?

  4. How much ground needs to be covered in daily exercise? Is a one mile walk a lot or not very much for this breed?

  5. What are the typical genetic diseases? How does a good breeder test for and avoid those diseases? Which of the diseases are a "must test for" and which are just a breeder going the extra mile? (This information can be hard to find. Check every breed club page you can find. Join breed specific discussion groups. See if you can find back issues of breed specific magazines.)

  6. What are the most common reasons given for giving up this breed to rescue? This is perhaps the most important information you can get. If you understand why someone would give up their dog you can be prepared. Contact as many rescuers of the breed as you can and ask about the common reasons the match fails. This page only has a few rescue links but it will get you started.

The above questions aren't intended to cover all you need to know before deciding whether a particular breed is right for you. The purpose of knowing the answers to these questions is to help you identify a good breeder. If you can find the answers to these questions, so can any decent breeder. If the breeder gives you different answers than your research supports uh oh red flag. In many cases the source of the information will be breeders - but when you are at the exploring stage. Your questions will have a lot different feel during the exploring stage than later when you are focused on looking for that pup.

Take notes, follow-up

Take notes. It is really hard to think and talk at the same time. When you are new to something the information you hear may seem reasonable, until you think about it later. By taking notes you can research anything that doesn't seem right. You can also ask non-judgmentally for clarification.

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The short list

Although I've listed the "right" answers don't instantly give up if you get the "wrong" answer. The longlist will give you a better idea of the purpose of the question and acceptable alternatives. The article from Dog Owner's Guide Just what is a puppy mill? can help you get a better idea of how the checklist helps you evaluate the breeder. And if your reaction is "Sheesh, I'm just buying a dog! Why do I need to give my life history to the breeder!" the idea here is to do what you can to reduce the number of animals killed in shelters across the USA as well as getting a dog that will be healthy and the kind of pet you want. It is your ethics, you can decide one or more of these don't matter to you. They do matter to me.

You want these to be "yes"

  1. Were the puppies born on the premises?

  2. Does the breeder insist that the puppies be at least seven weeks before being placed?

  3. Did the breeder seem happy that you are asking questions?

  4. Did the breeder ask you lots of questions? Questions about your lifestyle, family, experience with dogs and other pets, why you wanted a dog? Did you feel a bit like you were applying for a million dollar mortgage?

  5. Did the breeder ask you whether you planned on breeding?

  6. Will the breeder be available to offer advice and support for as long as you have the dog?

  7. Does the breeder make you feel comfortable calling for advice?

  8. Did the breeder go over some of the problems some people have with the breed?

  9. Is the breeder a member of a breed club? (An organization sharing information on the breed)

  10. Are the sire and dam each at least two years old?

  11. Were both sire and dam tested for any genetic health problems before the breeding?

  12. Does the breeder have information on the health testing of most of the immediate relatives of the sire and dam?

  13. Did the breeder volunteer information on the health testing, and volunteer proof?

  14. Does the breeder offer a guarantee against genetic health problems?

  15. Did the breeder explain that a guarantee is not a promise that a genetic health problem won't occur, but a promise about what will happen if it does?

  16. Is the guarantee at least two years long?

  17. Does the guarantee allow you to keep the dog?

  18. Does the guarantee allow you to choose at least a partial refund instead of another dog?

  19. Is the dam a family pet (meaning does she live in the house as part of the family)? (For that matter does the breeder know what a "dam" is?)

  20. Have the puppies been introduced to children? To other animals?

  21. Is the breeder concerned enough about the welfare of the dog to promise to take it back (no matter how old) if you can't keep it? (Not necessarily pay you, the purpose is to avoid the shelter, ensure good placement)

  22. Does the breeder believe it is important to keep in contact with puppy buyers to verify the level of success in producing a healthy dog of correct temperament?

  23. Does the breeder intend to follow up on the dog as it matures and ages?

  24. Does the breeder consider himself or herself a dedicated hobbyist to the breed?

  25. If the breeder advertises do they focus on the important qualities such as health and temperament.

You want these to be "no"

  1. Did the breeder state or imply that puppies would be arriving from off premises? (e.g. shipped in soon)

  2. Will the breeder agree to sell a puppy less than 7 weeks old?

  3. Was the breeder reluctant to answer questions?

  4. Did the breeder seem to be defensive in answering questions?

  5. Does the breeder charge different prices for dogs with or without papers?

  6. Did the breeder claim that his or her lines were entirely free of genetic health problems?

  7. Do you feel pressured into buying a puppy? Do you feel like the breeder is trying to "sell" the puppy (as in persuading you to buy)?

  8. Does the breeder promote the puppies as gifts or offer some special incentive in price to encourage a sale?

  9. Does the breeder have more than two breeds available?

  10. Does the breeder consider himself or herself to be a professional in the business of breeding? That is "professional" in the sense of making money, profit, or income to be distinguished from "professional" in the sense of serious, dedicated and knowledgeable..

  11. Does the breeder charge different prices depending upon the sex of the puppy?

  12. If the breeder advertises do they seem to focus on superficial qualities like color or size while ignoring health testing?

  13. Does the guarantee require the dog die or be euthanized because of the health problem?

  14. Does the health guarantee require that you return the puppy?

  15. Is the guarantee limited to a replacement puppy from the same breeder?

Wow! Do all those answers really have to be "correct"?

That's up to you and your standards. What I've listed is the bare minimum I would accept. There is actually a lot more I require to feel comfortable supporting a breeder. But I tried to make a list that was just "yes" or "no". However, these are merely my standards. You have to decide your own standards. If you don't think a point is important then don't require it, simple as that. The list is mainly for people who don't know about the issues in the first place. And it is for people who don't know they can demand much more than they get from a pet shop, for much less than it will cost them at a pet shop. That's the basic difference between the person who breeds for income, and the one who breeds because they love the breed. The primary concern of the first type is to avoid losing money, if they lose too much they are out of business. The primary concern of the second type is the dogs. They expect to lose money and lose lots of money. For them breeding is a passion, not a business.

A slightly different approach is here Red Lights, Green Lights: Questions to ask the breeder

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(Contributed by Hannah Samuelson)
Fill in the blanks, put N/A if not applicable or unavailable :

Sire's registered name:
OFA number:
CERF number:
Cardio results:
Thyroid results:
vWD results:
Other test results:
Pedigree examined for the following conditions:
Additional health background information:

Dam's registered name:
OFA number:
CERF number:
Cardio results:
Thyroid results:
vWD results:
Other test results:
Pedigree examined for the following conditions:
Additional health background information:

Sire's strengths:
Sire's weaknesses:

Dam's strengths:
Dam's weaknesses:

Qualities litter was bred for:

Summary of important contract provisions:

Other important information:

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The longlist

There really is not a single test for responsible breeders. This longer list is intended to consider the variety of ways in which a breeder can contribute to the welfare of dogs, and thus earn the label "ethical breeder."

The responsible breeder is involved with welfare of the breed or of dogs generally. Not everyone can be involved directly, but all breeders can and should contribute to taking care of the breed.

The responsible breeder takes steps to protect the dog from becoming a shelter statistic.

Takes steps to ensure that the dogs being produced are an improvement on health, temperament and qualities as a companion.

Remember, it isn't possible to produce the perfect dog. What a breeder can do is become educated on what genetic diseases are, how they are expressed (become obvious instead of hidden), how serious they are in terms of risks to quality of life, and how to balance the risks so the dogs have the best chance at a good quality of life. So if you are looking at the qualities of a breeder what you want to know is how well educated the breeder has become on these issues, and whether the breeder makes good use of that education.

If a breeder can only tell you that a vet checked the dog and found it healthy then they do not have the information they need to breed healthy dogs. Even in breeds with a very low rate of problems the educated breeder knows enough to know the most common problems in *other* breeds and how those problems are discovered. Again, look at the source of information. Sorry, but veterinarians *aren't* the best source of learning what genetic problems affect what breeds. They are generally more concerned with the general dog population, and what problems are actually affecting the life of the dog before them. They leave it to breeders to detect and avoid the potential for problems in future dogs.

OK, if you have plowed through all that let me take a moment to remind you. You won't find a breeder that does all of the above. The purpose of the list is to help you get a feel for what responsible breeding is all about. It is to help you understand the reasons for requirements or provisions that might otherwise seem bizarre or overbearing. It is also to help you get enough knowledge to distinguish the good talker from the good doer. A great talker has reasons for everything, but if you know what to ask their story doesn't hold together. Don't be afraid to ask questions. The better the breeder the happier they will be that you care enough to not just swallow things whole. On the other hand don't be offensive about it. You will want to build a relationship of trust because if you have found a truly caring breeder you have found gold.

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