Category Archives: Breeders

What Kind of Dog do you Drive?

Bringing a new dog into your household is a big deal. It’s a long-term commitment that may last fifteen or more years. The type of dog you choose will influence your life in a big way. So why do so many people put less thought into bringing home a dog than they do into purchasing a car?

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Recently, I invited Kim Brophey to journey to freezing Minnesota for a seminar on her DRIVE program. What if we put the same thought into bringing a dog into our lives that we do into buying a vehicle?

Obviously, dogs aren’t cars. Dogs are individual, sentient beings with unique personalities. Just as you’re not identical to your siblings, one dog from a given breed or group will not be exactly the same as the last one you knew. Asking which breed is the best for you misses the point. However, asking which type of dog would smooth most easily into your life is a very, very good idea.

So, which type of dog should you drive?

Hybrid: the mixed-breed dog is often one of the best options for those new to dog ownership or those who need an uncomplicated family companion. Dogs who are so mixed that their heritage can’t even be guessed at tend to be fairly balanced and healthy. Nature’s a great fixer, and if we give nature a few generations to smooth away the rough edges caused by the small gene pools often found in purebreds, we often end up with wonderful dogs.

Scooter: the scooters of the dog world are the toy dogs bred for companionship. These dogs smooth easily into many different lifestyles. While they tend to idle high, their upkeep is fairly simple and they can be driven by a wide variety of people. They may not be the most practical choice for country life due to the risk of predation, but are otherwise able to thrive in many different environments. It’s harder to get in serious trouble with a scooter simply because of its size.

ATV: like all-terrain vehicles, partner hunters such as the sporting breed dogs are quite easy to drive, as long as you’re willing to take them off-road regularly. As long as their exercise needs are addressed, these dogs tend to be simple for anyone to own. Bred to work closely with their human companions and to look to people for guidance, these dogs are easily trained and cared for.

Dirt Bike: Quick and flexible, able to get into tight spaces and a bit racy, small terriers are much like dirt bikes. Expect to get a bit dirty if you own one, but if you’re ready for the ride you can have a lot of fun. These dogs may require a few lessons to drive appropriately, and they’re certainly not for everyone. If you’re going to be horrified when your dog revs up and kills a small critter or digs up your yard, you may want to look into tamer scooters, which have a similar look without so much need for speed.

Train: hounds are the trains of the dog world… after all, they run on tracks! In all seriousness though, hounds tend to be simple to operate as long as their driver understands that they may take a while to stop once they get up a full head of steam. Sighthounds are the commuter trains of the dog world, while scenthounds are more like freight trains – just a little less polished and a little rougher around the edges.

Cop car: “Where have you been? Do you know how fast you were going? Show me your license!” Owners of herding-breed dogs will be familiar with these cars. Driving a cop car requires that you be able to give your deputy consistent work and instruction, but if you’re up for the task they can be wonderful partners. These dogs crave direction. They’re constantly aware of their surroundings and able to keep tabs on everything going on at all times, so if you have a laid-back personality that doesn’t enjoy that constant state of readiness, you may want to consider a different vehicle.

SWAT car: like a cop car on steroids, working dogs with a military, war, or police background take hypervigilance to a new extreme. These dogs require very consistent direction from a competent leader. Expect them to be suspicious of new people, animals, and things. These aren’t dogs who will be everyone’s friend, and expecting them to love everybody is simply unrealistic. However, if you want a loyal companion who will always have your back, and if you have the time and effort to put into training and socialization, these dogs can be amazing partners.

Tank: you wouldn’t drive a tank to work every day unless you had a very specialized job that required it, and livestock-guarding or other guard breeds are quite similar. A bit too much for a city environment without special considerations, they can be indispensable for flock or property guardianship. These dogs don’t get fired up about much, but when they do they’re ready to do what it takes to defend against the enemy. Tanks are great for experienced drivers who need that level of firepower, noise, and loyalty, but tend to be a poor choice for inexperienced drivers.

Hot rod: sexy and responsive, bully breeds are the hot rods of the dog world. They can function much like a normal car most of the time, but in the right conditions they’ll go 0-60 in mere seconds. Arousal can be a problem for these dogs, and in inexperienced hands that don’t know how to handle such a big engine they could cause accidents. Drivers should understand how to keep their dog away from the starting line and consider lessons in driving such a powerful car.

Dragon: it’s impossible to drive a dragon, and owners of primitive, Nordic, and Asian breeds understand this well. However, if you can form a bond with your dragon, you’re in for the ride of your life. These dogs are smart and capable. In fact, if people all disappeared tomorrow, these are the dogs who would not only survive, but thrive. That said, they’re not a good choice for most people. Dragons are never going to be perfectly obedient, and they don’t tolerate manhandling. They’re likely to use their amazing problem-solving abilities for their own benefit, which may often run counter to your own wishes. If you have a specific destination in mind, there are much easier vehicles available to get you there, but if you’re okay taking the scenic route you and your dragon can go on great journeys together.

So, what kind of dog do you currently drive? What kind of vehicle would be best for you in the future? Do you feel like these descriptions are accurate? Please share in the comments below!

Does Breed Matter?

Last week I revealed the results of Trout’s Wisdom Panel DNA analysis. So, what good does it do us to know the breed or breed mix that makes up our dogs?

I personally think it can be quite helpful to know the breed mix of a dog I’m working with. But I also know from extensive experience that focusing on a dog’s breed can get people in a lot of trouble. Let’s discuss why it might be helpful to know your dog’s genetic background… and why it doesn’t always matter as much as you think.

Photo by Laura Caldwell

Photo by Laura Caldwell

Firstly, the benefits: Knowing a bit more about what your dog’s ancestors were bred for can give you special insight into what makes your dog tick. Quite a lot of behavior is driven (at least in part) by genetics. If you want a dog to move your flock of sheep, you’re going to have a higher likelihood of success using a Border Collie than a Bloodhound. If you want a dog to catch and kill rats in your barn, starting with a Patterdale Terrier will give you a greater likelihood of success than if you brought home a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

While Trout is usually quite biddable, she becomes very independent and more likely to ignore me when she’s chasing critters off leash. That makes sense with her breed background: both working hounds and terriers were originally bred to have greater-than-average focus on prey animals of various types. Trout also bays loudly when she’s chasing another animal, a trait that her hound ancestors would have been selected for.

So, knowing what to expect can be an important facet that your dog’s breed brings to the way you care for and train that dog. Knowing which motor patterns a dog is likely to display may change the way I initially work with that dog. I’m much more likely to offer a chase game to a sighthound, a tug game to a terrier, and a piece of food to a Labrador in the beginning stages of training. That hound may really enjoy tugging and the terrier may love to chase, but it helps to stack the deck in my favor if I start with the knowledge of that breed’s typical tendencies (such as most Labs’ desire to eat anything remotely resembling food). Once I’ve gotten to know the dog as an individual I will adjust each training program to perfectly suit that dog, but in the beginning stages it’s a good idea to start with offering rewards the dog is likely to find appealing based on his ancestry.

Knowing a dog’s breed background can also give us important insights about areas where we should exercise caution. If Trout’s results had come back with strong herding breed heritage, my vet and I may have used that information in formulating her heartworm preventative program because we know that some collie-type dogs are sensitive to Ivermectin (a common ingredient in heartworm meds). Had she come back as a Flatcoated Retriever, I would be very aware of the risk of cancer. If she had a long back I would be more cautious about activities that could result in a herniated disc. Since she has the floppy ears of a hound, I’ll be careful to clean her ears after she swims or gets bathed since I know that floppy-eared dogs are more prone to ear infections than those with erect ears.

Behaviorally, we can also use general breed knowledge to avoid issues. My dogs are both terrier mixes, a breed type that tends to be more aggressive towards other animals than, say, retrievers or toy breeds. Knowing this, I choose not to leave the two girls unsupervised together. Even though they generally get along beautifully, the risk of a dog fight happening when I’m not home to do something about it is higher than if they were both Maltese. Owners of German Shepherds, Cane Corsos, and other guardian breeds should not be surprised if their dog begins to display suspicion of strangers between 6-18 months of age, any more than the owner of an Australian Shepherd or Corgi should be surprised if their dog nips at their children’s heels when they run or the owner of a Husky or Jindo should be taken aback when their dog repeatedly escapes their fenced-in yard to run about the neighborhood.

So, knowing your dog’s breed can be helpful. However, focusing on your dog’s breed without first looking at your dog as an individual can do an enormous amount of damage.

I’m frequently educated about breeds by my students. Having fostered over 100 dogs of various breeds and worked with everything from Dogo Argentinos to Coton de Tular, I’m very familiar with most breed traits. And I can tell you that while breed is important, it is much less important than many people think.

It can be helpful to think of your dog’s breed in the same way that you think of your human family. Genetics influences behavior, but so does environment. Furthermore, individuals within a breed will each receive slightly different genetic packages, even if certain genetic markers remain constant within that breed. Think of it this way: you and your siblings are not carbon copies, and neither are dogs. Your family probably has a few commonalities, but judging your new dog based on your previous dog is every bit as unfair as your kindergarten teacher judging you based on your older brother’s behavior in her class last year.

Dogs are individuals, and we need to look at them first as individuals. Making excuses based on your dog’s breed is every bit as misguided a generalization as saying that children from bad homes can never amount to anything.  If your Golden Retriever hates the water or your Malinois is totally uninterested in toys there’s nothing wrong with them, just as there’s nothing wrong with me for not liking spicy food even though my mother and brother both love it. While hounds and terriers are both high-energy dogs, Trout is much calmer than her ancestry would suggest – a trait that’s quite individual to her own unique personality.

In the end, dogs’ breeds can give us helpful insights into what behaviors and health issues to expect. However, these are just generalities which may or may not apply to your individual dog. The best service you can do your dog is to view him or her as an individual. Spend time getting to know your dog and enjoy those unique quirks that make your dog who they are.

“It’s all in how they’re raised.”

“All puppies are blank slates.” “If you do everything right with your puppy, you’ll have a great adult dog.” “If dogs have behavioral issues, we should blame the handle end of the leash.”

These are common misconceptions I hear as a trainer, and they make me so very sad. Behavior is a combination of nature and nurture, and if we could just take a moment to look logically at these myths, we would see just how silly they are.

Photo by Tavallai

Photo by Tavallai

Genetics influence behavior. This is part of the reason we have breeds: if you want a dog to work your sheep, you’re going to choose a Border Collie, not a Brittany Spaniel. Even though the two dogs have the same basic size and shape, one is more likely to have the instinctive motor patterns to do the work than the other. Getting a Border Collie whose parents successfully work sheep further increases the likelihood of your dog having the necessary genetic ability to be a great sheepherder.

In the 1970′s, Murphree and colleagues began to study the difference between normal and fearful lines of Pointers. In cross-fostering experiments, puppies from fearful parents were raised by normal mothers. These puppies still turned out fearful, in spite of proper socialization and a confident role model.

Interestingly, puppies from normal parents who were raised by fearful mothers also turned out fearful. Environment also influences behavior, and the best genetics in the world can’t create the perfect dog without a supportive upbringing.

If we believe that the way a dog is raised is solely responsible for his adult behavior, how can the tremendous success of the Pit Bulls from Michael Vick’s kennel and many other fighting operations be explained? With their neglectful and abusive upbringing, we would expect these dogs to be vicious and unsalvageable. Yet many of them have gone on to become wonderful pets. Some compete in agility or work as certified therapy dogs. Many Pit Bull enthusiasts are adamant that it’s all in how the dogs are raised, yet the success of many former fighting dogs tells us that it’s more than just that. These amazing, resilient dogs also have to have a sound genetic basis to explain their ability to overcome adversity.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of my clients have done everything right, yet continue to struggle with anxiety or aggression issues in their dogs. Certain lines of Golden Retrievers are known for severe resource guarding issues that often show up even in tiny puppies. Most of my German Shepherd behavioral consults occur when these dogs hit 12-18 months and growl at or bite a stranger. Miniature Australian Shepherds are likely to come to me due to extreme fear issues at 6-10 months of age. Terrier owners often call me when their dog hits social maturity and begins fighting with housemate dogs. While these traits may be common in my area, trainers in other areas of the country report completely different issues in the same breeds due to different lines of dogs with different genetic potentials living and being bred near them. I also see hundreds of friendly, stable, solid Goldens, German Shepherds, mini Aussies, and terriers in our Beginning Obedience and Puppy Kindergarten classes.

The truth is that dogs are born with a certain genetic potential that will influence which behavioral traits they display. This could include a dog’s sociability towards people, dogs, or other animals; their level of boldness or fearfulness; their likelihood to display anxious or compulsive behaviors; whether they are calm and confident or nervous and neurotic; and many other behavioral factors.

Let’s look at one trait to make this more clear. We know that dogs born from fearful parents are more likely to be fearful and that dogs with bold parents are more likely to be bold. There is a behavioral continuum, with boldness on one end and fearfulness on the other. Here’s what that spectrum would look like. A dog on the left end of the spectrum would be incredibly fearful, while a dog on the right end would be exceedingly confident. Most dogs wind up somewhere in the middle, and dogs on both ends of the spectrum present challenges for their owners.

naturevsnurture

A dog with bold parents is born with the potential to be quite bold. He is physically capable of bold behavior. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will become a bold dog. If his experiences as a puppy and young adult are very limited or if he has negative, scary experiences, he may develop into a fearful adult due to environmental influence. His genetic potential gave him the ability to be bold, but his environment did not nurture that ability.

naturevsnurture_bold

On the other hand, consider a dog who is born from fearful parents. This dog does not have the genetic potential to be bold. Even given an incredibly supportive and nurturing environment as a puppy and young adult, this dog will always be somewhat fearful because the physical ability to be bold is just not there.

naturevsnurture_fearful

These dogs may present identically when we look at their behavior, in spite of the very different levels of dedication their owners had to socializing and supporting their puppies. However, the genetically bold dog may make a lot of progress with appropriate behavioral interventions, while the genetically fearful dog makes little or none. This has nothing to do with the skill level of each dog’s owner, but rather with the raw material each dog started with. (This is also, by the way, why ethical trainers do not make guarantees: without knowing what genetic package a dog starts with, there’s no way to know how much progress that dog can make until we try.)

Do you see how very unfair statements about how “it’s all in how they’re raised” are to committed, wonderful dog owners who have dogs with more difficult baselines? Just because your dog flew through a behavior mod program doesn’t mean every dog can or will, and assuming that it’s all because of the owner is unrealistic and downright cruel. I regularly work with wonderful people who do the best they can with difficult dogs, and that adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes is applicable to their situation. As if living with and training a more difficult dog weren’t enough, these people are often subjected to comments and insinuations that if they were just a better handler, a better trainer, or a better leader, their dog would be perfectly fine. This is untrue and incredibly hurtful, and it needs to stop.

Do you know anything about your dog’s parents? What environmental and genetic factors do you think contributed to your dog’s behavior? Please share your stories in the comment section below!

Case Study: The Importance of a Team

(Thank you to Nicole W. for sharing Shanoa’s story in today’s blog.)

Shanoa’s story starts the day I brought her home from the breeder. She was 17 weeks old and I was thrilled to have an older puppy who would already be on her way to becoming potty trained and well-socialized. I thought I had done my research and picked a good breeder, but I had a lot to learn.

I should have realized something was wrong on the car ride home, when she curled up into a tight ball on the backseat and didn’t move or make a peep. However, she was my first dog and I didn’t know. I figured out pretty quickly, though, that I didn’t have a normal puppy. She was terrified of everything. She’d sit down and shiver with fear when we tried to take her on walks. She had diarrhea all the time because she was so nervous.

We knew we needed help, so we asked our friends with dogs for trainer recommendations. We got her into obedience class, level one, and also enrolled her in a local “boot camp.” She went to boot camp during the work day five days a week for a month. We asked the trainer not to worry about obedience commands, but just to help us catch her up on socialization. We even made some pretty good progress.

As Shanoa got closer to maturity, she started to exhibit some behaviors that concerned us. She was fearful of people. She had been going to the dog park pretty regularly, but started to have some issues with other dogs. At this point, she’d earned her CGC and “passed” obedience classes all the way through advanced. But she wasn’t normal.

The trainers that we’d been working with used a combination of luring and correction. When we started having escalating problems, we called in the trainer for a home consult. After watching Shanoa be “corrected” with an electronic collar turned to the highest level while simultaneously receiving a correction with her pinch collar, I knew we couldn’t do this anymore. It wasn’t working, and I couldn’t watch my dog be corrected like that any more.

I consider myself extremely fortunate because I stumbled upon Leslie McDevitt’s book, “Control Unleashed.” Even better, I found a trainer locally who was using that program. We had an evaluation with Robin and enrolled in her “Reactive Dog” class immediately.

We worked with Robin for about six months before we even considered medication, but we just weren’t making the kind of progress I wanted. I finally consulted with my regular vet, and Shanoa was put on Prozac. We saw some improvement, and continued in classes on that medication for about a year. Then we sort of hit a wall with training.

Shanoa had improved, but she still was very far from normal. She was hard to live with. She was exhausting. At this point, our trainer, Robin, had moved out of state and we enrolled in Sara’s “Growl” class, which also followed the Control Unleashed program. We worked with Sara and Crystal for several weeks, and both of them really encouraged me to work with Dr. Duxbury, a board certified veterinary behaviorist at the University of Minnesota. My own vet encouraged me to do the same. I was reluctant. The initial cost was pretty high, and I was worried that things were as good as they’d ever get. I was skeptical that seeing Dr. Duxbury would make much of a difference.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I wish that I had started working with Dr. Duxbury years ago. Under her guidance we tried several medications and found a combination that works well. In the last couple of months, Shanoa’s become a pretty pleasant dog to live with. She’s spending more time relaxed in the house, without having to “patrol” and without constant barking episodes. Even when she does bark at something (and she is a Doberman after all!), she stops fairly quickly and goes back to relaxing, instead of whining and pacing for up to ten minutes.

We’re seeing progress on walks, too. We’re able to pass people and other dogs on the street without a complete freak-out. Most of all, she’s happy. She’s the most relaxed and happy I’ve ever seen her.

Is there still a long way to go? Of course. Medication hasn’t been a magical fix. But finding the right medication, or combination of meds, was a delicate and complicated task. Medication has been the key that unlocked Shanoa’s ability to learn and improve, rather than continue her patterns of reactivity. My regular vet, as much as I adore her, didn’t have the level of expertise to figure out the correct combination.

Seeing Dr. Duxbury and working with her has been amazing. Not only is she a great vet, but she’s been part of a great support system that’s been so critical to our success. Being able to email her or call her with concerns, talking through different training ideas, and sharing successes is really important.

Working with great trainers is another critical component. Without Sara and Crystal, and Robin before them, I would not have been able to work with Shanoa. I needed a class environment to practice, and I needed another pair of eyes, or two, seeing what was going on with Shanoa. I needed people who were willing to help me evaluate different training methods, and to be creative when something isn’t working.

For the first time in a very long time, I’m optimistic about my dog’s future. My husband and I recently were able to take Shanoa and our other dog on a walk together for the first time in many months. My husband has not wanted to walk with Shanoa because of her extreme reactivity, but he was willing to give it a try since we’ve been seeing such nice progress.

It was a beautiful, quiet evening, late at night, and we didn’t expect to see anyone while we walked. We started down one of the trails near our house that runs behind several homes. There’s very little room beside the trail to move away, and I would not have taken it if it hadn’t been so late at night. But I didn’t expect trouble, so we went. A little ways in, a dog burst out of the house, barking and snarling at both of my dogs. He raced back and forth down the fence line barking at us. We were less than three feet from him and there was no way to get any additional distance. To my surprise, Shanoa simply looked at him, barking and frothing only a few feet away, glanced at me to ask “is it okay?”, and continued walking calmly down the path while he raced next to us, barking the whole time. I was incredibly proud. The rest of the walk was equally uneventful, and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer time with my dogs.

For us, the three-pronged approach has been the key to our success. We needed the right medication and vet care, from an expert in the field of behavior (Dr. Duxbury). We needed the right trainers, with the right methods who really, really know their stuff (Sara and Crystal at Paws Abilities, using Control Unleashed and BAT). And we needed a support system to keep me from giving up on the bad days, and to rejoice with me on the good days (all of the above, plus a great network online on the CU Yahoo Group and elsewhere). We wouldn’t be where we are today without any of these. Shanoa and I are incredibly grateful, and lucky. Getting the right help, the right team, is how success happens.

Littermate Syndrome

Getting two dogs at the same time seems like a great idea. Dogs are social animals, and a dog who will be alone all day can easily turn to destructive behavior or become anxious. Two puppies can entertain each other and keep each other company. So, what’s the problem with bringing home two puppies at once?

Professional trainers like myself recommend against getting bringing home two puppies. While this sounds like a good plan in theory, in practice it often causes quite a bit of heartache and trouble.

In addition to the problems one might expect with bringing home siblings such as double food and vet costs and double the potty training work, we need to focus on how the puppies will develop. Puppies’ brains continue developing until they hit sexual maturity (and even a bit beyond that), and there’s some convincing research out there that bringing two puppies home at the same time prevents one of the puppies from reaching his or her full potential.

Luckily for us, this topic has been researched extensively by someone who knows all about creating behaviorally sound puppies: guide dog organizations. One of the biggest problems that guide dog organizations run into is that puppy raisers are hard to come by. Puppy raisers are families who agree to raise future guide dog puppies, socializing them and teaching them basic obedience. This isn’t an easy job, and the emotional impact of giving up their puppies after a year of bonding and hard work means that many families are reluctant to repeat the experience.

In order to maximize the use of their volunteer puppy raisers, one guide dog organization decided to try an experiment. Willing homes were given not one, but two puppies to raise, thereby doubling the number of puppies the guide dog organization could work with. Puppies born to these organizations are tested before being placed and are tracked throughout their growth and development. What the organization found was startling. Placing two puppies in the same household always caused one puppy to become temperamentally unsuitable for work, even when both puppies started off as perfect candidates.

When two puppies are placed together, they learn to rely on each other. One of the puppies always becomes shy, even when both puppies started off as bold and outgoing. This is a huge problem, since it means that the shy puppy never reaches his or her potential. In fact, this was such a major issue that the guide dog experiment was quickly halted, and to this day guide dog organizations only place one puppy at a time in puppy raisers’ homes, even when the homes are highly experienced.

In addition to one puppy becoming shy, there are other behavioral implications for two puppies who are adopted at the same time. Oftentimes even the “bold” puppy turns out to be quite nervous and uncertain when separated from his or her littermate. Furthermore, the puppies frequently become incredibly co-dependent, exhibiting heartbreaking anxiety when separated from one another. They often fail to bond to their human family as strongly as they otherwise would, or sometimes at all. At social maturity, these puppies may begin fighting with one another, sometimes quite severely.

Even puppies who are not related can exhibit littermate syndrome when placed together. Professional trainers recommend against getting two puppies within six months of one another, because the risks are just too high. This doesn’t even take into consideration the other practical considerations, such as the increased costs of vet care, food, supplies, and training; the extra work of training and caring for two dogs; or the time requirements of two active puppies.

Can littermate syndrome be prevented? Theoretically, yes, however it’s so difficult as to be nearly impossible in practice. Remember, even experienced guide dog puppy raisers aren’t expected to be able to prevent this issue from developing. At a bare minimum, the two puppies would need to be crated and cared for separately, including separate walks, training classes, and playtime with their owners. The puppies need to have more one-on-one time with their new owners than they have with each other, effectively doubling the work and negating any of the possible benefits (i.e. companionship) that they were adopted together for in the first place.

The bottom line is that puppies do best when brought home separately. If you want multiple dogs, consider purchasing or adopting adult dogs who are already done developing instead.

Responsible Breeders

While I support dog rescue, and some of the very nicest dogs I’ve met have been from shelters and rescues, I understand that some people may prefer to go to a breeder to get their next pet. There is a legitimate need for healthy, friendly pet companions, and there are thousands of breeders out there who claim to produce such. So, how can you be sure that the breeder you choose is responsible?

Photo credit: xanboozled on flickr

There are several things I look for when screening breeders. First, and most importantly, I want to find a breeder who cares about the dogs she produces. What steps does the breeder take to make sure her puppies never end up abandoned in a shelter? Does the breeder require that she be notified before you rehome the puppy, or that puppies be returned to her? Does she microchip the puppies before placing them? Can she tell you where every one of the previous puppies she’s placed are right now? Bottom line: if the breeder doesn’t know what’s happened to her puppies after they’ve gone to their new homes, I do not consider her responsible.

If someone is going to bring new lives into a country where 4 million dogs die every year, she needs to make absolutely sure her puppies are not among those filling up our shelters and rescues. In fact, she will likely sell the majority of her puppies on a limited registration (for purebred dogs) or even a spay/neuter contract, to ensure that they are not being indiscriminately bred. Some breeders even have their puppies spayed or neutered at 8 weeks before placing them.

A responsible breeder cares more about health and temperament than about physical appearance. There are genetic issues that affect every breed of dog, and responsible breeders screen for these. Even mixed breeds should be screened for issues common to the parent breeds. Understand that this is not the same as “vet checked,” but rather a more thorough screening of the dog’s hips, elbows, heart, thyroid, vision, hearing, etc. Research your chosen breed or mix to find out which tests your breeder should be doing, and ask to see the results for the parents. Avoid breeders who breed for extremes, such as exceptionally large or small dogs, flat faces, long backs, or wrinkly skin, as these extremes are known to cause multiple health issues down the road.

Temperament is equally important. Many behavioral issues, such as resource guarding, dog- or human-aggression, fear, and noise phobias (to name a few) have a strong genetic basis. A dog’s baseline level of drive (how focused and motivated a dog is) and energy level are also largely determined by genes. If you would not be absolutely thrilled to live with either of your chosen puppy’s parents, strongly reconsider purchasing that puppy. The breeder should be happy to introduce you to the puppy’s mother and to tell you all about the father. Parents who have been shown, whether in conformation (for purebreds) or dog sports such as obedience or agility, are great as that tells you that the breeder is serious about working with and evaluating her breeding stock.

A good breeder socializes her puppies. She handles them all over their bodies. She provides environmental enrichment with different climbing and play surfaces, different toys, and different sounds. She has lots of visitors handle her puppies, and exposes them to crates and car rides. She encourages (or even requires!) puppy classes, and keeps the puppies until they’re at least 8 weeks old so that they don’t miss out on important social development from their mom and littermates.

Finally, a good breeder wants to make sure that you’re going to be a good match for her puppy. To that end, expect her to interview you. She should tell you about the positive and negative aspects of living with your chosen breed or mix. If your potential breeder offers to meet you in a McDonald’s parking lot or lets you order the puppy off a website with your credit card, run away!

So, where can you find this good breeder? Ask around! Ask your vet, your trainer, your groomer, and your dog walker. If you’re interested in a purebred, ask the local breed club and attend shows to meet good breeders and their dogs. Check out email lists and online forums devoted to your chosen breed or mix. Check with rescues who work with the breed or mix you’re interested in: many of the best breeders are also very involved with rescue, and rescues can also tell you who to avoid.

Have you ever purchased a dog from a breeder? If so, do you feel your breeder was responsible? Why or why not? If you breed dogs, how do you ensure that you’re producing the best puppies possible? Please share your thoughts and comments below!