The research you do now is crucial to ensure the health and well-being of your new four-pawed pal.
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litter of Border Collie puppies; how to find a responsible breeder
Credit: Puhach Andrei / Shutterstock

So you've done your research and decided you're ready for a dog, and you even have your heart set on a specific breed that fits your lifestyle. Now it's time to figure out how to find a responsible dog breeder. (Simply asking that question proves you're well on the way to becoming a terrific pet parent.)

Your research starts with breeders who put the animal's welfare first. Leslie Sinn, DVM, CPTD-KA, DACVB, owner of Behavior Solutions, says someone who's truly dedicated to the breed is doing their best to offer quality dogs. 

"They're looking at health, at their mental stability—they want to produce dogs that are happy, healthy individuals that are going to have long, successful lives with their families," Sinn stresses you should have all your questions answered and be satisfied that this puppy is the one you really need. "If someone balks at providing information, run in the opposite direction as fast as you can." 

Here are seven tips to help you find a responsible breeder and ensure you and your new pup have the best life together.

1. Ask Trusted People for Recommendations

"The best way to find a breeder is through a direct referral. If you have met a dog you like, ask where they came from," says Laura Sharkey, PhD, KPA-CTP, SDC, owner of WOOFS! Dog Training Center, and breeder. "Nothing tells you more about the dogs they produce … than the dogs they produce!" 

Along with talking with veterinarians and certified trainers and behavior consultants in your area, she recommends researching breeders affiliated with the Functional Dog Collaborative and the Copilot Breeding Cooperative. Both organizations are "dedicated to breeding dogs that can function in our busy world and value health and temperament over breed standards." Also consider the American Kennel Club's Breeder of Merit program.

2. Meet the Breeder

How you choose a responsible dog breeder actually starts with how much they want to know about you. For example, a quality breeder should ask enough questions to determine whether their particular dogs are suitable matches for you, says Sara Austin, DVM, owner of Austin Veterinary Hospital and lead breeder at Salty Creek Cardigan Welsh Corgis. She's also honest with prospective owners about the lifelong relationship she intends to have with them and the puppies she provides, stating that if they don't want that, this partnership won't work.

Sinn says breeders who love talking about their pups encourage multiple visits so you can get to know one another. She advises making a list of questions that include topics such as:

  • Why the individual chose to breed these dogs
  • How many dams (mothers) there are, the number of litters they have in a year, and size of the litters
  • How many litters are planned each year
  • The scope of veterinary care for both the dam and her puppies
  • The status of the vaccination schedule
  • Weaning and socialization process

Another critical question is whether they'll take back puppies if they're not a good fit. "A breeder should have a backup plan for every single puppy they bring into the world. Period. No exceptions," Austin says. "They will always come back to me so I can assess their physical and mental health and then decide the best home for them if they're rehomed." 

How can you tell if a breeder is a puppy mill? They probably won't have more than a transactional conversation with you, much less let you stop by. "Visit the puppies once they're 5 or 6 weeks old," Sharkey recommends. "A big red flag for me is if a breeder doesn't invite a potential puppy buyer to meet the dogs and puppies on site."

3. Meet the Parents and Puppies, Too

Watching a "puppy cam" or looking at stock image photos on a website doesn't provide an accurate portrayal of a puppy's health and temperament. All of our experts agree you have to get up close and personal, especially to observe the dogs' living conditions, their access to all the necessities, and if there's active interaction. 

"You're looking for a puppy that's willing to engage, interested in you, and showing an interest in people. That's why we get them—we want them to be companions!" Sinn says. "The puppy that hangs back, runs away, or won't approach, or the dam that barks a lot—that's all super concerning. The chances of them outgrowing it are slim to none."

However, Austin notes that you may not meet the sire, as many breeders ship semen from outside sources or transport the mother to be bred, but this is okay. "Actually, it's somewhat of a red flag if a breeder only uses their own stud dog for all bitches," she says. Outside sires are sometimes used to avoid breeding dogs who are too closely related, which can lead to unwanted hereditary conditions in their puppies.

If you can't have access to the puppies and witness how they and their mother behave, Sinn says you're being chopped off from a wealth of information, and it's not worth the risk.

4. Look for a Waitlist

Professionals make breeding plans: They don't have an inventory of puppies. So you might be on a waitlist for a year or so. Austin says where individuals are on the waitlist has less to do with being next in line and more about how she's evaluated each home for proper puppy placement.

5. Get All Records

Dogs should be screened for numerous breed-specific health issues, including hip and elbow dysplasia, eye conditions, inheritable cancer, and other medical concerns. These are often accompanied by OFA and CERF certificates. Some breeders also conduct temperament tests. Responsible breeders have an open records policy that allows access to all documentation regarding the parents and offspring. 

"In my opinion, a new owner shouldn't have to pay for medical records, pedigrees, and health screening information," Austin says. "And a good breeder will be proud to show off the puppy's pedigree."

6. Proper Socialization Strategy

To choose the right breeder, our experts strongly recommend asking about their socialization strategy for puppies. "Buyers better emphasize behavior as their primary concern versus the color of their coat," Sinn says. 

Early socialization—gradually exposing young pups to various sights, sounds, and people, as well as different environments—helps build puppies into calm, happy adult dogs and reduces the potential for fearful and anxious behaviors. 

7. Future Care Instructions

Finally, along with all health and temperament records, responsible breeders should provide care instructions on a number of aspects including, but not limited to:

  • Past and current vet care
  • Tips for potty training
  • What type of food they've received
  • How to continue socialization and training as they grow

"A good breeder will provide support for the life of the dog," Austin says.