A Beginner’s Guide to Finding Responsible Dog Breeders

It can be a complex affair, and if you get it wrong, you risk becoming part of the problem.


Editor’s Note: As many of you already know, where it’s okay to get a dog from is a topic of much debate here on Dogster. Our position on this subject, as documented in our list of Dogster Values, is that we love adoption but also support responsible breeders. That said, what makes a breeder truly responsible is another topic that can be confusing. So we’ve invited longtime community member and responsible-breeder advocate and adoptions counselor Lucy Ohannessian to help develop a reasonable criteria. Let us know what you would add.


Welcoming a dog into your family is an exciting thing, and thankfully, these days people are proceeding more thoughtfully. They research what sort of dog might suit them best, and then they consider rescuing a dog vs. getting a puppy from a breeder. This is the time when all the pieces are being put in place to lead you to the dog of your dreams and, in my opinion, a life-enriching experience.

Along the way, some of you will elect for a breeder puppy. As an adoptions counselor, I would hope the reasoning is puppy love, because adult dogs are more known quantities, less headache, and easily found through rescue groups. But some pair puppy love with being drawn to a specific breed, and they feel most comfortable with optimum breeding for health and temperament, perfect beginnings, and the lifelong, expert support only a responsible breeder can offer.

Good research provides individuals with checkpoints to ensure they are getting a dog from such a source, but sadly it is easy to err in the process, resulting in a puppy lacking these benefits from a breeder of repute. Bad breeders do not educate or support their puppy buyers, and they prove disinterested after the point of sale. Mistakes may be discovered through personal experience (an unhealthy or unstable dog, for instance), or simply learning after the fact that a breeder didn’t conform to standards the pet owner now better understands.

I have learned through the years that these concepts are not simplistic enough to be readily grasped, they can be easily misinterpreted (or manipulated by commercial sellers), or even ignored for their consequences not being understood. Empowering people with the knowledge of what to look for when evaluating potential breeders, on the other hand, seems to make them far less open to errors in judgment and also more passionate about the classic checkpoints themselves.

Below are the three main areas of concern to address before thinking about exploring any breeder. Becoming an expert on this is easier than you might think.

1. Health clearances

Health clearances is the checkpoint that’s least subject to interpretation, and it should always be the most basic qualifier for a breeder. Any dog has the potential to develop health problems, but within a breed’s population, certain issues will establish themselves as more prevalent. Concerted effort is required to keep these in check; over the years, the dog world has seen the consequences of breeds overwhelmed when this is not taken seriously. Health tests for known problems via genetic markers or physical exam don’t guarantee a healthy dog, but they establish those who are dedicated to protecting the breed and their puppies alike from known genetic concerns.

National breed club websites often list the directives of their health committees, but the most standardized source is known as CHIC — the Canine Health Information Center — a genetic database that will list for your breed mandatory and optional tests. Breeders should at least conform to the base minimums (not all breeders register with CHIC, but searching the databases of OFA and CERF, via your breeder’s kennel name, will confirm tests for you). Beware of breeders who advertise all their dogs as “healthy,” “seeing a vet annually,” “bred for health,” and so on who are not listed on any of these databases. This is a huge red flag.

2. Titles

Titles are meant to assess the quality of a dog in front of an objective observer, as an affirmation of a breeder’s opinion and a qualifier for the breed community regarding the genetic value of the dog. In breeding dogs responsibly, the goal is to preserve or strengthen good traits and breed out weaknesses using exemplary individuals. Doing less than this adds to the number of dogs out there without benefiting the breed itself. One should see a “reason” for a breeding beyond simply producing more dogs.

Avenues to achieve grading include titles for conformation (dog shows) or sport, or minimally something such as a Canine Good Citizen certificate, which many pet owners can achieve on their own. A fine alternative is the working dog, which can be many things including therapy, service, and farm dogs. Beware of the “I am breeding for pets, so I don’t care about titles” cliché. You should be at least willing to establish that your dog can get a Canine Good Citizen certificate, prove their stability in therapy work, and so on. One of my Cocker Spaniels, Daniel, was bred by someone trying to bring back the famed temperament of the breed in its heyday, the 1950s. She is not breeding for type, but in breeding “only pets” is sure to have a “TT,” or temperament test title, on every dog she considers for her program.

3. Contractual responsibility

Applications and contractual responsibility potentially indicate a breeder who would be aghast if one of their “pet quality” dogs (not suitable to preserve or better the breed) was out there pumping out puppies being advertised on Craigslist, or ended up languishing in a shelter. Good breeders take measures against these possibilities. This includes some assurance built in through contract to ensure puppies will not be produced by the unmentored novice (via spay/neuter contracts and limited registration, which blocks any litters from being registered) and requiring the return of the dog should the animal need rehoming.

Beware of breeders who recommend “pay now” buttons on their websites or seem to lack an application or interview process. Remember, good breeders are never in a rush to move their puppies. Always ask to see the contract before making a deposit.

Other areas of concern can sometimes be more vague:

Breeding multiple breeds might signify a commercial breeder, but it bears noting that it is not uncommon for those in the dog world to branch out into a new breed, looking for a new adventure. Any breed they deal with should pass the criteria above.

Offering to ship or offering Internet sales has been a marketing boon for unscrupulous breeders who gain advantage with deceptive websites. Caution is advised, but with that said, it is not unusual for good breeders to ship puppies. Here, good extra steps are to ask for references from regional clients (who have seen their setup), met their vet, and so on.

Many litters annually can signify someone cash cropping dogs, or it can simply be breeders who have a strong market demand because of their reputation (particularly true of working line breeders, who are sought out for working, sport, and breeding prospects as well as for pets). It is good to remember if they are under such demand, most of their puppies probably will be reserved before they are even born. Breeders who “always have pups available” are not a good sign, as opposed to those who have consistent litters for which you must be put on a waiting list.

Breeders who invest themselves in their breeds will be part of a breed’s community. Often this means belonging to their national breed club or some equivalent thereof, where they can share genetic information and be current on any concern areas within the breed. Breed clubs are great places to start your search. They offer breeder referrals as well as a “code of ethics” that breeders can voluntarily sign, committing themselves to holding important standards. Be aware that many breeders do not use the Internet to market their dogs. They don’t need to; their reputation for integrity and producing quality dogs is well known in their community. Know the community and you know the good breeders.

Buying a breeder puppy from the right source is sometimes erroneously characterized as not making a difference. Not only does it increase the chance of a positive experience for the pet buyer, but it strengthens the breed itself by supporting one of its better wardens while denying those trying to profit from cash cropping dogs. It is part of the solution, but alas it is too easy to get it wrong and become part of the problem.

There is no such thing as overtalking this subject, so I welcome your comments and questions as we educate the newbie as to how to get it right.

More on dogs and breeders:

1 thought on “A Beginner’s Guide to Finding Responsible Dog Breeders”

  1. My younger brother is going to look for a Shih Poo breeding service to get a puppy from them, and telling him that asking for the titles for their dogs would hopefully help him know if the breeders are responsible. I’ll make sure that if the breeder insists to pay for the dog first before letting us see it that my brother reconsider his decision since you say that those are often suspicious. The breed club that I asked pointed me to a list of online services they trust, so hopefully I can trust their referrals since they were said to be invested in their breeds.

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