Considerable media and public attention have recently centered on the question of where a responsible person can look to find just the right animal. Many of the loudest voices offering opinions have been somewhat disingenuous. People and organizations such as PETA and HSUS, who believe that animals do not belong in captivity and that all pet owners and breeders are unconscionable, are not really offering advice on how to find the best puppy, they are offering advice that advances their agenda of exterminating all dogs as soon as possible. Additionally, the notion that adopting a dog from a shelter is the most humane option has become so politically correct that it is virtual blasphemy to recommend alternative sources, and many celebrities and other superficial animal lovers simply parrot this advice without seriously contemplating what is best for new owners, individual dogs, or dogs in general.
As a professional animal trainer who has had the opportunity to work with many animals from every background but is neither a breeder nor a fulltime rescuer it will perhaps be useful if I share an unbiased but informed examination of the primary options. Keep in mind that wonderful individuals can come from anywhere, presently half our dogs are from breeders and half are rescues, so this is on no way intended to make anyone feel bad about their pet-these are general trends and observations.
There is one answer to this question that should eclipse all others: make absolutely certain you are committed to keeping and caring for a pet for its entire lifetime, do sufficient research, and then get the animal you are most likely to keep: a physically and mentally healthy individual that is well suited to your lifestyle. This is not only best for you and your pet, it is the best thing you can do to ensure no dogs are needlessly killed in the future-if everyone keeps their dogs and does not dump them there will be no dogs to kill.
Before examining your options, let me point out one other important issue: when you select a dog you are making a decision that impacts you, the animal you select, all the animals you do not select, and has an impact on the supply and demand equation.
Do not let your judgment be clouded by people advocating that “rescue” is the only right answer. Every single available animal needs rescuing-not from the shelter, not from the breeder, not even from the puppy mill, but from the far greater evil of the last century: the casual owner who is going to acquire a cute animal and then dump it as soon as it becomes more work. A simple truth-the dogs at the shelter come from every conceivable background: puppy mills, pet stores, strays, thoughtless families who breed dogs to make some money or show the kids the miracle of birth. Many of these dogs came from another shelter that adopted them out previously. Wherever a puppy begins its life, it will end up in the same unhappy place unless people live up to their responsibility. Acquiring a dog ought to entail an absolute commitment to doing whatever is necessary to care for that animal for the next twenty years. Months should be spent doing research-learning about the care, training, health, psychology, etc. Determining whether a mix or a particular breed is best suited to your circumstances and expectations. Learning about nutritional and medical issues, fencing in a yard, finding a good vet, purchasing toys and supplies, etc. And above all else, making sure that you have the time, dedication, resources, and commitment to deal with whatever challenges may arise with that pet.
This group comprises a wide range of people with various motives and beliefs. Some of them only breed one litter in a lifetime, others breed many litters. Some of them breed hoping to make money, or to show their children the miracle of birth, others breed to produce the best puppies they can, to improve the breed, to win at shows.
Some have dogs crammed in little cages, others have palatial estates with pools and heated floors and canine nutritionists. Some know very little about dogs, others are knowledgeable almost beyond belief.
Good breeders are passionate about their animals and their breed. In fact, most of them would be considered obsessed by mainstream Americans. They not only find their puppies excellent homes, but they provide lifetime support and education, and if it ever becomes necessary the take the dogs back years later and make sure they have excellent lives no matter what. They devote themselves to acquiring the knowledge and skills required to breed and raise puppies that are well adjusted, healthy, and conform to a well-considered standard for physiological and behavioral characteristics. Most good breeders operate at a financial loss and continue their efforts out of dedication and passion.
One of the biggest advantages to getting a dog from a breeder is age: puppies that have been raised by responsible breeders already have many good habits, and they are still young enough that you can nurture them into becoming the best possible dogs.
Some people argue that breeding is unconscionable by definition-that so long as dogs are being killed every year we have no business producing more. This is simply wrong. If we stop breeding there will be no dogs in ten years, and if the good breeders stop, we will have simply eliminated the very people who are breeding healthy excellent dogs. There is little question that too many dogs are being bred, but we need to be intelligent and eliminate the breeders who are doing a bad job, not the ones doing a good job.
Good breeders are the future of dogs. In a perfect world everyone would get their puppies from good breeders and no other options would exist-these are the people doing it most correctly. “Animal Rights” advocates feel that all animals should be freed from captivity. One of the most effective tools they have to further this agenda is to vilify all breeders and encourage people to get animals only from shelters. Obviously, if they can eliminate all breeders they will eliminate all pets within one generation. So do not accept propaganda that all breeders are irresponsible.
Most informed animal lovers assume that pet stores are bad-they get their puppies from a wide range of breeders many of whom are unscrupulous (most upstanding breeders refuse to place puppies in pet stores), their puppies are generally not well-bred or adequately socialized, have often been over-vaccinated, roughly handled, and learned many bad habits like barking and going to the bathroom in their cages whenever they have the urge. They are often kept in too-small cages for far too long.
I will go out on a limb here and say something politically incorrect: there is nothing innately wrong with pet stores. If a pet store gets a puppy from a reputable source and does an excellent job with that puppy, then I would have nothing against that pet store. I have not personally ever seen this happen, and I have visited many pet stores, but there is no theoretical reason why it could not occur.
Shelters, pounds, rescues, humane societies
While the motives are often different, in many practical ways, these facilities are similar to pet stores: they take in animals that often come from the same places as pet store puppies, place them in homes, charge money, and try to generate enough revenue to stay in business. Whether you call this selling, adopting, or rescuing, the basic idea is the same and the advantages and drawbacks are the same. They are often underfunded and overcrowded, and dog fights, substandard medical attention, inadequate nutrition, and neglect are every bit as common in bad shelters as at bad breeders. Some of the most unhappy animals I have ever encountered have been standing in the middle of an overcrowded run at a shelter with their eyes closed willing themselves to be anywhere else.
The history, health, and genetic inclinations of shelter dogs are usually unknown. Most shelters and rescues have a cookie cutter approach to veterinary care which results in the animals being extremely overvaccinated, over-exposed to toxins, fed poor quality food, spayed or neutered often at an extremely young age, and exposed to a huge number of diseases. It should be assumed that any dog coming from a shelter is in compromised health.
In addition to health issues, many shelter dogs have behavioral issues. Some of them came to the shelter because of behaviors that were unlivable and unsolvable for at least one family already: housebreaking, barking, biting, jumping on people, etc. Some of them developed behavioral issues while in the shelter. Often these can be fixed, but unlearning bad habits is generally harder then learning good habits in the first place. It is an unfortunate logical truth that most of the people who have the skill and dedication to maximize a puppies development and socialization do not then dump that dog at the shelter, so “most” of the dogs that end up at the shelter are those who were raised by the sort of people who dump dogs at shelters, and these are not generally people who nurture and actualize a puppy’s potential.
Probably the biggest behavioral drawback to shelter dogs is not a bad behavior, but the absence of certain “good” habits that can be cultivated in the first few months of a dog’s life but are far more difficult to create later in life:
- Being with your people is desirable: dogs are born with a very strong desire to stay close to mom. Smart owners nurture and develop this instinct so that, by 6 months, the dog not only comes when called, but also just tends to stay with you. Inexperienced owners teach the dog the opposite. Either by correcting the dog when near or by simply ignoring the dog, they teach him to wander off and entertain himself, and often to run away when called.
- Learning is fun: a well-reared puppy learns early that life involves a never-ending game of training. They are very attentive to their owner and essentially always eager to hear their owner say something because they love to play the training game. They want to hear a command because each command represents an opportunity for them to win praise and treats and generally have a good time.
- New people, sights, and sounds are fun: a well socialized dog is unafraid. He has learned that the world is full of strange things, but that each one is an exciting new adventure full of praise and play.
We have trained many shelter dogs, and many of them have been excellent dogs that have achieved great success. But as a general rule, dogs can be much more successful and happy if they are carefully nurtured from a young age. Shelters are somewhat similar to human prisons-there are many wonderful individuals if you know what to look for, but many have had less than ideal pasts.
A Practical Solution
If you seriously look at the various options for where to get a pet, you will likely reach the conclusion that the business model is not the issue: breeder, rescue, shelter, humane society, and pet store are terms that are often used to evoke emotional prejudices, but in truth any of them can be excellent sources of animals OR very bad sources. In my experience, the best place to find a healthy dog with a good temperament is at a good breeder: more breeders do an excellent job and are able to meet my criteria than rescues, shelters, or pet stores. But if you research carefully and do a good job evaluting both the situation and the individual animal you can theoretically find a wonderful dog in any of these circumstances.
If you want to get the best puppy for yourself AND do the best thing you can do for future dogs, ignore the label and focus on the level of excellence they bring to the process. If consumers insist on getting healthy and good tempered animals from excellent sources, substandard sources will quickly disappear.
Go to various shelters, rescues, pet stores, and breeders and see how they compare to relevant and objective criteria. Your precise criteria may differ from mine, and you may find a particular source that excels in some areas so much that you are willing to compromise on others, but here is a basic set of criteria that I start with:
- Integrity: is honest with others and himself-every other point on this list depends on a person being willing and able to be completely honest about everything relating to their animals, and to be unbiased and careful in his evaluation of himself, his knowledge, and his animals.
- Balance: this is a subtle but important issue for me. Many people become too focused on one attribute and forget about others. They are so focused on looks that they sacrifice health, or so focused on health that they neglect temperament. I look for someone who remains focused on the big picture of producing happy, healthy, wonderful dogs.
- Cares about each animal, treats it as part of his family forever.
- An appropriate ratio of people to animals so that each animal receives adequate quality time and attention
- Any breedings are based on the parent’s appropriate temperament, freedom from congenital and hereditary defects, and qualities.
- All breeding aims for health, temperament, conformation, and type
- Honestly and objectively evaluates animals-not kennel blind or unrealistic.
- Experienced and knowledgeable with breed
- Maintains all animals in clean, healthy, humane conditions.
- Environment is rich and full
- Animals receive adequate opportunity to be outside
- Animals receive adequate exercise
- All animals are given proper veterinary care
- Does not over or under vaccinate, and remains current on pros and cons of vaccines in order to decide which inoculations are appropriate.
- Feeds an appropriate and high quality food.
- Tests for currently known genetic issues within the breed. (OFA or PennHip certification on hips and elbows, cardiologist examination, annual eye exams, thyroid tests, etc.)
- Only breeds animals of known histories
- Is aware of health problems in at least 3 generations of pedigree vertically and horizontally for each animal.
- No animal bred before at least 2 years old
- Makes spay/neuter decisions based on the best interests of the individual animal
- Number of litters
- No unplanned litters
- No bitch bred more often than every other heat cycle
- No bitch bred unless she is in optimal health
- Veterinary knowledge
- Developmental psychology
- History of other breeds to avoid the same mistakes
- Requires return of animal if ever placement is required.
- Requires health checks on all animals, regardless of if they are ever to be bred, andcollects results into a database.
- Has more homes lined up than puppies expected and is prepared to keep each puppy as long as it takes to find an ideal home.
- Interviews and screens thoroughly-requires referrals and calls them.
- Honest about the qualities of the animals. Explains the good points and the bad.
- Never promotes animals in a way to encourage reluctant buyers
- Never places animals with anyone who does not seem entirely certain they want an animal for the next 15 years.
- Explains the challenges of animal ownership honestly and carefully. Makes sure that buyers are prepared for the worst case.
- Educates buyers on diet, socialization, training, husbandry, etc.
- Carefully matches each animal with each home and will not place an animal if it is not a good match.
- Carefully evaluates animals-notes available for review.
- Does not place puppies too young-age depends on individual puppy and home to which it is going.
- Requires return of animal if ever placement is required.
- Post-placement follow-up
- Stays in touch for lifetime.
- Takes back any animal any time.
- Available as resource forever.
- Encourages buyers to call them with every question.
- Enforces contract.
- Explains 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.
- Guarantees puppies for five years or longer.
- Guarantee is not limited to a replacement puppy from the same breeder-option for cash refund.
- Goes through each document point-by-point and ensures that the buyer understands and agrees with each point.
- Supplies proof of health testing on parents and relatives.
- Supplies purchasers with accurate and valid 4 generation pedigree
- Supplies purchasers with a written contract of sale
- Supplies written guarantee
- Supplies instructions for care, upbringing and training.
- Supplies recommended reading list.
- Keeps accurate breeding records, registration papers, and pedigrees.
- All animals are well socialized
- At least one person is available full time to puppies.
- Excellent socialization plan from day 1 through placement
- Canine Activities
- Has participated in canine activities enough to have an idea of what drives and behaviors are required. Has a basic understanding of obedience and other areas in which people may want to participate.
- Breed Betterment
- Participates in health studies
- Participates in educational activities