Finding a Quality Breeder for Your Next Service Dog
When looking for a healthy puppy (or dog) with a good temperament, there are some qualities you can use to pre-screen potential breeders before you spend more time with them. Not all breeders will do all these things but how many they do will be an good indication of how invested they are in their dogs and the line(s) they breed. Do your research before you contact them to rule out the ones you are not interested in. Check their websites to see how much of the information below is available, check the info off and add details. Look for a FAQ page on their website. Have several “big picture” questions for them for first contact and go down through details from there when you either email or call them.
Communication with the breeder is critical.
If you are clear on what you need, let them know right from the start. Let them know what you need the pup for (assistance dog, the specific tasks), that you need a structurally sound healthy pup with a sound temperament and good early start to socialization with people, other animals, and environmental enrichment. Also mention if or not you care what sex or colour the dog is. (Being flexible on all these points will help the breeder choose the right pup for you). Most breeders will not sell you a show prospect as they are potential future breeders for their lines. You will not be breeding the pup as it will be a working dog and taking 5 or more months off from the job (females) won’t work for you. Producing pups takes a lot out of a female. Her system is already taxed enough being a service dog.
As tempting as it may be, avoid hiring a consultant or other third party to contact and evaluate potential breeders at the beginning. Good breeders want personal contact with YOU. They want to know the people their pup will be growing up and spending his whole life with. The first impression is important. The effort you put into learning what a good breeder looks like is what they want to see. If you are not willing to make the time to learn what a good breeder is or talk with them, they will not be interested in selling you a pup. All of what you will learn will be useful information that will help you to raise your pup (and the next ones) to become an assistance dog. If you want to bring a consultant in after you have talked with the breeder to look at the parents and pups with you, ask the breeder if they are open to this. They should be. Good breeders want to educate people as much as possible about good breeding practices, their breed and dogs in general.
A Quality Breeder:
Once you have narrowed down your choice of breed to one to three breeds, now is the time to generate a list of potential breeders. You can narrow the list down to a short list that you can pursue using the following 3 steps. Those that don't meet the list of quality breeders are taken off the list. Then those that are left are examined more closely again. No breeder will do all of the things on the list. It will be a best choice of the breeders available at the time. There may be some flexibility in what some breeders will be willing to do. Some are eager to learn what they can do to help give their pups a head start, while others are already happy with the foundation they provide. Each are individuals just like the puppy you will be bringing home.
Don't forget you can also wait for a litter. Better to get a solid service dog candidate than take the pup in front of you that may not meet up to your expectations.
Keep track of the answers to each question for each breeder. Use the checklist provided at this link.
There is an interactive spreadsheet in Excel format that you can download to your computer and create one sheet per breeder. Type in your answers.
There is also a pdf version in case you do not have access to Excel. Download it and print off a copy for each breeder you interview and write in your answers.
To help you know what is a good answer and what is not for each question, there is more detailed information below. Each number matches the question on the checklist.
The sheet is divided into three sections just like this lesson is. The first section is designed to help you rule out breeders that you do not want to follow up with. Make sure to fill in answers and extra comments to help you remember their answers.
The second and third sections give you an idea of how well the breeder provides for your needs, and the needs of their puppies.
Section 3 looks at some really great things breeders could be doing. The more check marks you are able to put in section 2 and 3, the more reputable and responsible the breeder is likely to be.
This sheet is handy since after talking with several breeders, the details will mix together. Writing it down gives you a detailed record of each breeder and offers you a less subjective way to compare the details.
1. Breeds for temperament and health first and foremost.
Does health screening testing on their puppies’ parents (and ideally grandparents). What specific tests these are depend on the breed. Common things they look for are eyes, hips, elbows. There are also medical problems that may not be tested for but you can ask if they are present in the lines: epilepsy, heart, allergies, thyroid etc. Research what your breed or mixes common genetic weakness are before approaching a breeder. They will give you copies of the applicable test results for you to verify yourself. Some types of tests need to be done on the puppies: Collie eye anomaly and deafness (for white and merle breeds) are two more common ones. Here is a link to an Orthopedic Foundation of Animals (OFA) article that explains what they do and why it is done.
Here is a list of breeders globally that do health checks on their dogs.
Note that dogs that are not recognized by the clubs will not be listed (such as Australian Labradoodles or breeds not recognized by the local kennel club). They have their own registries that you will want to check to see what tests they do.
2. Be a member in good standing of a breed club.
Membership in a breed club is a good sign if the breeders follow the club guidelines for breeding. Find out what the breed club’s guidelines are and ask the questions if they do the specific requirements (health checks etc). Some breeders will join a club but not follow the rules. Since most clubs do not check on their member’s practices and rely on outsider reports before they will investigate, it pays to be diligent.
Check out the Puppy Culture program for a listing of breeders who follow the puppy culture raising strategies.
"Master Breeders" are long time members (at least 20 years) of the Canadian Kennel Club. Look for that name in the CKC breeder listings.
The American Kennel Club has "Breeder of Merritt " program which is now the "Bred with HEART" program.
3. Sells you a puppy or dog directly from their home environment and not sell through brokers or pet stores.
4. Will not breed a female or male until s/he is physically mature (2 years old for most breeds). Will not breed a female any more often than every other heat cycle (unless they can state reason to do so such as recent studies).
5. Retires females from breeding at a reasonable age for the breed. Usually after no more than 3 to 4 litters in her life.
6. Will not allow you to take your puppy home until at least 8 weeks old. (This is law in most states and provinces.)
The ideal time to remove a puppy from its litter and mother to becoming a service dog is between eight and nine weeks.
By this time the puppy has had a chance to begin to develop both dog social skills needed as an adult and develop bite inhibition (the ability to control the amount of pressure he bites with). Bite inhibition is critical later on when the dog is faced with a situation that puts them over threshold and he is forced to bite. A dog with bite inhibition is more likely to bite softly than a dog that has not developed bite inhibition. Taking the puppy home at this age, gives you 3 to 4 weeks to to grow the puppy's brain through socialization and environmental enrichment.Taking a puppy home much later than this reduces the amount of time for you to expose the puppy to the people, animals, places and events (that you need him to be comfortable with later in life) during the sensitive socialization window. For most breeds, by 12 weeks the window is already closing and socialization window has declined by 16 weeks.
Getting a puppy over 12 weeks of age requires that you rely heavily on the breeders (or previous owners) efforts at socialization. Are you willing to take that risk?if yes, get a list of everything the puppy has been positive exposed to. Also ask about any fear issues that may have shown up in that period. May want you to pick up puppies and drive them home, rather than flying them home or other way of transporting them. Some breeders will not ship puppies, especially at certain times of year (too hot or cold in cargo), or during a fear period. Some may allow it if you (or someone you trust) takes the pup as carry on in the passenger part of the plane. This only applies to puppies of suitable size to fit under a seat in a bag in. Some airlines will not transport dogs or puppies.
7. Provides at least a two year guarantee on their puppies. That is, if a genetic health defect occurs in the first two years, they typically will either pay for part of all the vet bills (depending on what the issue is, how much you paid for the pup and if you played a contributing factor), replace the dog with another puppy of similar value (in the case that the dog needed to be humanely euthanized with the prior knowledge and written permission of the breeder), or give you a refund for the dog.
8. Raises puppies in the house underfoot.
This location is critical for maximum brain development so you want to make sure you can see where they are raised. (Look for cleanliness, indoors, accessibility to family life, people and noises, other family dogs, access to different surfaces and environments (indoors and out)). Ensure multiple daily (brief) positive handling, play and interactions with people of all ages (their family and friends) from the time they are born.
Puppies that are raised by one sex only, away from the family in our garage or outdoor building like the shed, barn or kennel, do not have the desired exposure that a potential service dog needs.
9. Starts gentle handling training (paw handling for nail clips, ear checks, hands on all over for grooming and vet visits, etc) at about week 4. But the handling is never rough or aggressive. Examples include picking up puppies by the ears, scruff of the neck only or letting/encouraging adult dogs pin the puppies aggressively are not good signs.
10. In addition, the breeder should make a conscious effort to bring in people of all ages sizes shapes were in different clothing with different voices and different ethnicities as possible without disrupting or stressing the puppies.
11. Encourages you to visit regularly from week 4 or so onwards to help socialize the litter to people.
They may ask you to clean your shoes in a solution or that you refrain from visiting if you have been with other litters in the last few weeks to prevent spread of disease. Parvo is a big concern for all breeders.
12. Have completed at least one vet visit where puppies receive first inoculations and a look over by the vet before they are taken home.
13. Will provide lifetime support for their dogs.
This means they will be available by phone or email for help in raising the puppy through the various life stages, make training referrals, provide support for health issues etc. This also means that should you need to be unable to care for your dog and need to re-home him or her, they will either take the dog back and re-home it or help you to place the dog directly.
14. Will not charge you extra because the puppy is registered.
(In Canada, it is actually illegal for them to charge more for a puppy or dog just because they are registered with the Canadian Kennel Club.)
Do not allow cost of the pup to decide which breeder you choose. A good breeder may cost less than a poor breeder (you see this with popular or rare breeds). A mixed breed pup is usually cheaper than a purebred, but if the history of parents or pups is unknown it is not a bargain and you will pay later on in having to fail the dog out of being a service dog. The purchase price is small compared to the long term costs of owning a dog, even if it is an expensive dog.
Price is a personal thing for the breeder. It is usually based on a combination of stud fees, health tests, vet bills to pay for mother and pups, average litter size, breed popularly or rarity of the breed, titles on parents etc. If the breeder is a member of a breed club, they may set the price range for puppies.
It is common for there to be a different price between breeding quality pups and pet pups. There should not be a differential between males and females though. That is an arbitrary price increase and a red flag.
Be careful how you handle asking about the price and when. Don't start off with that. Work it in the conversation and only near the end if you feel you want to pursue this breeder. If they feel that price will be your main criterion, a good breeder will lose interest in you as a potential owner.
Summary of Step 1
If you like the answers to all of the above questions, and it feels good to interact with the breeder, they can be added to your keeper list. Any that didn’t answer questions to your satisfaction, you didn’t like the answers to their questions or don’t feel right, or maybe don’t come across as knowing their dogs, can be crossed off your list for further consideration.
Questions for Later Conversations
1. Breeder is aware of their breed limitations and weaknesses (behavioral, genetic etc) and willing to admit them to potential buyers. All lines have them but not all breeders acknowledge them. Some have ‘breed blindness” where their breed is perfect.
2. Choose dogs from long-lived lines for their breeds. For example among labs, there are lines that live on average to only to 8 years while others live 12 to 15 years. A longer life allows a longer service life for your dog.
3. Ask to view the pedigrees of dogs they breed (they may be available online as there are registries for Goldens and Labs, for example.) Look to see if any of the dogs are related. If so: how closely and in what way. If too closely related, there may be genetic disease passed down.
Note what titles (both conformation and obedience-related titles) the parents and grandparents have. Ideally a basic Canine Good Citizen or CGN (Canada) plus either championship or a sport title are good things to have. They are an indication of the dog’s potential trainability.
4. The breeder has a vet available in case of complication during delivery of the litter.
5. Wants you to come to their location to meet the mother (and father if available) and the see where the puppies are spending the first 8 weeks of life. Look for a clean safe area with happy friendly confident puppies! Or they can show you this via webcam.
Look at how clean the puppy area is. There should not be excessive poop laying around. It should be cleaned up fairly promptly after the puppies leave it behind. Use your sense of smell. If there's excessive smell of urine or bleach be suspicious that there was a hurried cleanup before you arrived.
6. The mother dog should be on-site (if you are visiting the litter) so you can meet her and evaluate her temperament grooming and overall health. Ask to see the results of any health test that have been done on her. Keep in mind that she may not look her best because she's just raised her puppies. Her body may be lean, fur may be thin and and she may hanging over all but she should have clear bright eyes with no discharge, look healthy overall with no pest infestations (fleas or ticks). Some discharge is normal recently after birth as is bad breath. Female dogs lick their puppies to stimulate them and eat the droppings for the first few weeks. Her breath is likely to smell bad because of this but her teeth should be clean.
Look for a dog whose body language is relaxed and confident and who is not aggressive with her puppies.
Ideally you should be able to either meet the father or at the very least your picture of the father and see the results of any health tests that have been done. Ideally, if you can see the adults off site (such as at a dog show) that is ideal so you can see how comfortable they are out of their onw environment.
7. Will provide you with the Kennel Club registration for the puppy (with the puppy's registered name on it). This usually is not usually received by you until a few months after you take the puppy home.
8. Will provide you with a receipt for the puppy or dog.
9. Get to know the puppies individually. Many breeders have pups colour coded (collars or dyes) and make notes on them as they grow.
Anything from weight gain, to behaviours, interactions with other pups, response to new objects etc.
Some breeders may do some sort of temperament testing as part of getting to know each puppy. Be aware that the ability of these early tests to predict the dog’s temperament is very low since the social and physical environment the dog grows up in plays such a large role in shaping their temperament. The 49 day Volhard test, for example, is generally a better indicator for holes in socialization done by breeder for that puppy rather than adult temperament. The tests are only valid for the day that the test was taken. Each time a puppy learns something new, the results change.
10. Provides environmental enrichment for the puppies.
Breeder should have a heavy emphasis on environmental enrichment as the puppies exposure to new things between three and eight weeks is critical to start growing the puppies brain. They should be exposed to as many different surface textures, things with moving parts, sounds etc. as possible without stressing them.
Here are some examples of what can be done:
Moving puppies to a different room for just 15 minutes a day either with litter or a person, moving the litter box room to room each week as they grow, exposure to different textures and surfaces improves body awareness.
Adding new toys and objects daily: puzzles to solve, pop bottles, milk jugs, cardboard tubes to play with, crates to go into and climb on, obstacles like boxes, tunnels, hanging items, change stations on radio, access to outdoors to potty etc.
This needs to start from week 3 and increase to week.
Exposure to different surfaces:
Also click on this link for more ideas. This German Shepherd Breeder has set up a run way of activities for the puppies to gain confidence.
General Socialization: the Rule of 7s (as a minimum): Source unknown
By the time a puppy is seven weeks old, he/she should have:
A. Been on 7 different types of surfaces: carpet, concrete, wood, vinyl,grass, dirt, gravel, wood chips, etc....
B. Played with 7 different types of objects: big balls, small balls, softfabric toys, fuzzy toys, squeaky toys, paper or cardboard items, metal items,sticks, hose pieces, etc....
C. Been in 7 different locations: front yard, back yard, basement, kitchen,car, garage, laundry room, bathroom, crate, etc.....
D. Met and played with 7 new people: include children, men, teenagers, and older adults, hair colour, different races, ...people with glasses, people wearing hats
E. Been exposed to 7 challenges: climb on a box, go through a tunnel, climbsteps, go down steps, climb over obstacles, play hide and seek, go in and out of a doorway with a step up or down, run around a fence, etc....
F. Eaten from 7 different containers: metal, plastic, cardboard, paper, china,pie plate, frying pan, etc....
G. Eaten in 7 different locations: crate, yard, basement, laundry room, livingroom, bathroom, etc...
11. Regularly posts photos of the litter on their website or blog.
12. Will willingly provide references from other people who have purchased puppies and now have adult dogs (ideally those aged 3 years and older). (They will likely not give you these until after they have had a chance to get to know you and know that you will be a good match for them and their puppy/dog. This protects their references). Also find out who their vet is and if they have been involved in checking the puppies and parents. Ask references about health and temperament issues and other concerns you may have.
13. Likely ask for a deposit to ensure your commitment to a puppy from their litter.
14. Will have you sign a contract that agrees to all these terms and more. And they will sign it too. They will provide you with a copy.
15. Most or all puppies in the litter should be pre-sold before reaching homing age. Reputable breeders have a good reputation, people on a waiting list for puppies and rarely need to advertise in the classified ads (newspaper or online) except in unusual circumstances.
16. Have a good reputation among other breeders of similar dogs (same or similar breeder or group of dogs). Call the other breeders up and ask them about the other breeders once you have narrowed it down. Be aware though that this may be both their friends and competition so handle it accordingly. Be respectful to all involved. This is not a gossip mission, it is only to find the information you need.
17. Are open to questions from you about the above and more as well.
18. Will ask you many questions about your living situation, family and long-term plans. They want to make sure that their breed and individual dog will be the best fit possible for your situation. They are not being nosy. They are looking out for the best interests of their dog.
A Fabulous Breeder will also:
1. Do the Early Neurological Stimulation Program (Super Puppy Program) on the puppies between Day 3 and week 4
2. Start house training as early as four or five weeks. The breeder provides a potty area within the puppies living area. Avoid the use of puppy pads as they can become a crutch that later has to be retrained. It is best to start potty training the proper way by putting a puppy on a feeding schedule and limiting freedom to when the puppy is supervised.
3. Start puppies on crate training or at least it is in their environment and they use it as a day bed.
4. Great breeders starting scent imprinting at about three to five weeks. Some old clothing that you have recently worn is put into the whelping box with the litter so your scent becomes familiar to the pups. Each time you come visit, they get a stronger dose and are already very familiar with your scent by the time you take the puppy home at eight weeks. When your puppy comes home with you, your scent will be familiar and the process of changing homes will be less traumatic for him and he will bond more quickly and strongly to you.
5. During the socially sensitive period of approximately 4 to 12 weeks, a service dog puppy must be exposed other species such as cats, rabbits, birds, other dogs and any other animals that the dog is anticipated to come in contact with in the future. A great breeder gets a good start on this as well. Exposure in this period needs to be short and positive and occurs much more quickly than waiting until after the socially sensitive period has closed.
6. Offer a rebate after you have the dog spayed or neutered or attending puppy classes or a breed instinct test. Check to see when the most appropriate time to spay or neuter is. For some breeds like Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherd Dogs, is is critical to wait until after physical maturity, or at the very least one year for male and 1.5 years for females or health problems are likely to occur.
There may be behavioural complications as well:
7. Competes in a sport of their choice, has titles on their dog(s) or has a job for their dogs to do.
8. Has bred dogs who are successful in their fields (service dog, agility, search and rescue, tracking, conformation etc).
9. Does their research on your specific needs for a service (or other) dog to ensure their breed and individual puppy will be the best match possible for you. They will need to know the type of tasks you will need, size of dog, physical sensitive and emotional sensitivity for example.The breeder may choose the pup for you, or let you help in the choice. If the breeder does not care which pup you take, this is a red flag. If they have been breeding quality pups for awhile, they will have a good idea the size, shape and temperament of their pups as adults than you. (Unless you know significantly more about selection of puppies than the breeder does).
10. Ensure that you will use the training approach of their preference (i.e. positive reinforcement), follow the inoculation schedule they recommend, food type (kibble, raw or home-made) etc.
11. Provide a puppy information package that will help you to adjust the pup to her new home. (food sample, blanket or bed shared with litter, handouts or email links, free online books, socialization checklists etc)
12. Refer you to a trainer in your area who uses training approaches and tools they are comfortable with.
You can see that quality breeders care about the health and welfare of the pups they produce. It is a very time consuming 24 hour a day job from the time the mother gets pregnant to the time the puppies come home with you, and long after that! They want to see you succeed as much as possible as it makes a good name for their kennel to produce healthy, well-adjusted adult dogs who are successful with the roles and jobs asked of them by their human families.
Puppy Buyer Etiquette
Finding a Quality Puppy has two sides to the coin. Just as you are looking for some specific things from the breeder, they are also looking for some specific things from you. A reputable breeder wants to know the people their puppy is going to spend his life with, and in what environment is will be raised and what you will be doing with the pup. Here is a list of questions breeders often ask. Be prepared to answer them. They may even have a form for you to fill out on their website before they will talk to you. This is a good sign. Check out their form for the types of questions asked. Are they similar to this list? How do they differ?
Where do you live (city, state)
Where will puppy live? house, apartment, acreage
Do you rent or own?
Will the puppy live indoors/outdoors/spend time in both
How many people in the home?
What are their ages?
Do you have many visitors?
What are your plans for your puppy?
Are there other animals in the home? Which ones?
Do you have a fenced yard? Height?
What is your activity level?
How do you plan to exercise your puppy/dog?
How many hours a day will the dog be at home alone?
Where will the dog be when you are away from home?
Do you travel?Do you move around much?
What training approach do you use?
Do you have trainers available locally?
What do you plan on feeding your dog? Are you open to other options?
Who is your vet?Who takes care of your dog when you go away?
Have you had a similar breed before?
What features do you like about the breed? Dislike?
Describe your knowledge level of dogs.
What types of equipment will you use on your dog?What dogs have you previously owned?
How long did they live?
What happened to them?
Do you plan to crate training?
They will ask for references. A veterinarian, a trainer, a groomer etc.
Anything else that may be relevant to your situation. (Do you have an assistant to help train, family support etc).
Knowing how to communicate with the breeder will help you in finding the best breeder for you.
Here's a great blog post by a breeder about how you can keep your end of the deal.
Click HERE to read the article http://rufflyspeaking.net/puppy-buyer-ettiquette/
And this one on expressing your preference (if you have one)http://rufflyspeaking.net/puppy-buyer-etiquette-slightly-continued-expressing-preferences/
The environment plays such a large role in what the puppy becomes that any testing done at such a young age is only useful as an evaluation for what parts of socialization the breeder has missed. At 49 days the pups are at their most malleable stage. An example of this are adult dog behaviors that are not innate but are learned. Good working dogs are developed from tiny puppies. Their early experience and training are carefully tailored to what they will be doing as an adult. Hence the need to make a continuous training plan for your puppy.
Recent research suggests that looking at puppies chest whorls, paw preference (right or left) and preferred eyes may also play a role in predicting dogs that will be successful as guide dogs.
What about mixed breed puppies? Aren’t they healthier than purebred dogs?
Hybrid vigour is a myth. When breeding two breeds of dog together both breeds are part of the same species and therefore the result is not a hybrid. A hybrid occurs when two different species intermix. Like a mule is a cross between a horse and donkey. When talking about mixed breed dogs, breeding two different breeds together may result in more genetic variety in some individuals, while in others that have similar health issues, may result in dogs that have the same or higher risk of health issues than the parents. So the pup as an adult dog might have less risk, same risk or higher risk than their parents for temperament and health issues.
Be very careful when evaluating ‘designer' breeds. Check to see if the parents have health tests for health issues specific to those breeds. An assurance that the vet said “the adults are healthy” is not good enough. An example of this are the labradoodles whose parent breeds of labrador retriever and standard or mini poodle who both tend towards dysplasia. The hips need to be tested.
A good practice is to look up common breed health issues for foundation breeds under 'breed standards' and find out if previous generations have been tested for all of them.Another thing to watch for in the “doodle" breeds is to find out how many generations removed from purebred you are looking at is. Also be aware at this time, no country in the world recognizes the labradoodle as a breed.
There are breed registries that are working toward one day having them recognized as a breed but they are still in the process. Just like recognized purebreds, the breeders vary in quality. They too need to do health testing on the previous generations.
Some breeders sell first and second generation dogs which are mixed breed dogs. These dogs have great variability in hair type, size and temperament. Having said all of the above, there are some responsible breeders out there if you look and some nice service dog potential puppies available!Animals become accustomed to cues from vertical people.
If the pup's future handler is in a wheelchair, make sure breeder gives the cues while sitting as well as standing. For someone on bed rest, the pup needs to be acclimatized to the handler giving cues in that position.
Avoid breeders that dogs that require spayed or neutered at a young age. Many breeds are negatively affected when they are spayed under 18 months or neutered under a year. Affects can be both behavior and medical/structural. This can affect the ability of the dog to be a service dog.
If you can't find a breeder locally, it is well worth the time and cost (think of it as an investment) to travel to find one that is suitable. It is possible to do most pre-screening by phone and web cam to make sure the pup is a good prospect before going.
Be very hesitant to buy a pup without seeing the parents first. What your interpretation of what a dog is may be very different than what the breeder's interpretation is. You could hire someone knowledgeable about puppies to do an onsite visit for you after you talk to the breeder and get their permission but it is still second-hand information.
If you are seriously interested in one breed, join a national or regional breed club and see what other breeders say about a prospective breeder. They know the strength and weaknesses of their competition. If you talk to them, you'll find out pretty quickly what breeder focusses on.