What Is a Responsible Dog Breeder? Experts Share 11 Signs You Need to Look For

Bottom line: A reputable breeder provides education and support for the life of the dog, right from the start.

golden retriever puppy with her the mother dog and litter behind him; what is a responsible breeder
Photo: HQuality Video / Getty

Some prospective pet parents become so completely enamored with a certain pooch they've met—such as a French bulldog, one of the two types of corgis, or a Cavapoo—they search for someone who breeds them. But what is a responsible breeder? And why does it matter?

A responsible breeder is someone dedicated to providing the ultimate lifetime care for the mother (dam) and her puppies through respected breeding practices; proper medical care and socialization; and deliberate puppy home placement. This is the opposite of backyard breeders or puppy mills that are focused on profits rather than the health and well-being of their dogs.

A responsible breeder doesn't just sell you a puppy through an online shopping cart, says Leslie Sinn, DVM, CPTD-KA, DACVB, owner of Behavior Solutions. They invest time and training to make sure your new pet is prepared for every environment and healthy for life.

"What's most important when people look for a pup is that he becomes a loving member of their family," Sinn says. "Not whether he's peach- or cream-colored, short- or long-coated. But the fact that he actually likes people is really important. The fact that he's not fearful is super important. So they need to be clear about why they're getting a dog and what makes a particular one ideal for them."

Here are 11 things to look for when choosing the right breeder for your future family member.

1. Breed Club Membership

Most registered breeders have the intention of preserving particular breed characteristics. So Sara Austin, DVM, owner of Austin Veterinary Hospital and lead breeder at Salty Creek Cardigan Welsh Corgis, says many participate in breed clubs or dog shows and performance events. Even if you don't want a show dog, it's a positive sign if a breeder has this level of commitment to the dogs they love.

However, some breeders may choose not to be affiliated with a breed club for a variety of reasons. If you find a breeder that checks the rest of the boxes but isn't affiliated with a breed club, don't be afraid to ask them why.

2. Experience

Responsible breeders require years of research and study to produce puppies who are genetically sound and healthy. Further, successful programs don't happen after just a single litter, as their mothers have approximately one per year. If you want to know about the true experience of a breeder, Sinn is all about online snooping. "Google their name, see if there's any unwanted media attention, or go to their Facebook page."

3. Number of Breeds Available

A concerning difference between puppy mills and responsible breeders is the number of breeds offered. "It takes so much time and dedication to a breed that it would be very difficult to breed more than two and do it well," Austin says. "There may be exceptions, but it should certainly raise suspicions."

4. Health and Temperament Screening

Just like humans, canines have inheritable diseases and conditions, and every responsible breeder adheres to quality testing of the father (sire) and the mother to reduce the chance of those medical issues appearing in offspring.

"Owners should ask for health screenings on the parents," Austin says. "Have they passed OFA hips and elbows? [To detect hip and elbow dysplasia]. Have their eyes and hearts been screened?" Other breed-specific conditions require testing, too—corgis, for example, always need degenerative myelopathy screenings to detect spinal issues.

Breeders should also conduct temperament tests on their mating dogs and offspring. According to the American Kennel Club, these tests evaluate whether a dog will be friendly, social, curious, and able to easily recover from startling situations.

You should be able to receive this information, as well as health test documentation and parental pedigree, at no charge. The breeders should be happy to provide it.

5. Socialization Strategy

Because most people want a family dog, not a show dog, choosing a responsible breeder who prioritizes health and socialization over appearance is crucial, Laura Sharkey, PhD, KPA-CTP, SDC, owner of WOOFS! Dog Training Center, and breeder, says. "Look for a breeder committed to breeding dogs who are successful companions."

Reputable breeders also focus on early socialization and positive reinforcement training for their puppies to:

  • Introduce them to new sights and sounds both in a typical home and outside
  • Help them adapt to being around different people, including babies and children, as well as other animals
  • Prevent fear, stress, and the potential for reactive behavior

"Every good breeder should have a socialization strategy. It's key to setting up puppies for success," Austin says. "Some breeders follow programs established by trainers and others develop their own." They should also provide further socialization tips for pet parents to use at home with their new puppies as they grow.

6. Can They Answer All Your Questions?

Ask responsible breeders pointed questions about methods designed to help puppies thrive. In addition to health and temperament screenings and socialization practices, here are some others Sinn recommends:

  • Why are you breeding these dogs?
  • How often are female dogs bred?
  • How many litters have they had?
  • What kind of vet care do parents and offspring get?
  • Are they vaccinated?
  • When are they weaned?

7. Preparing Puppies for Forever Homes

Responsible breeders should provide you with a host of information to help you adjust to life with your new puppy, including vet recommendations, training regimens, and socialization tips, Austin says. "A good breeder will provide support for the life of the dog!"

Additionally, reputable breeders should always take back puppies for rehoming if the fit isn't right for your family. No exceptions.

8. Proper Facilities That Allow Visitors

All three of our experts stress that if a breeder doesn't let you visit and play with the puppies and meet at least the mother, avoid them completely. Responsible breeders actually encourage multiple visits before pickup day so you can learn more about each puppy's disposition and find the right one for your lifestyle.

They also won't let you "pick your puppy online sight unseen … especially if you put that puppy into a 'shopping cart.' Run away!" Austin says.

While you're there visiting your potential puppy, observe the breeding facilities. You need to see the litter's access to quality food, water, housing, room to roam, and human interaction. See how the mother reacts to you, too. "Just watching a video feed of puppies playing isn't going to help you," Sinn says.

9. Screening Buyers

Sinn says it's not uncommon for pet parents to have a predetermined idea of what type of dog they want. She approached a breeder of both Australian shepherds and border collies, thinking she wanted an Aussie. "But even with all my knowledge and experience, once the breeder heard what I was actually looking for, he recommended the border collie instead and provided all the reasons why," she says.

You should expect insightful questions from reputable breeders who intend to place puppies with the right people. "The most active puppy shouldn't be with the couple that wants a couch potato," Austin adds. "Just the same, the most timid puppy shouldn't be placed with a family with five kids who want a playmate to go on all of their outdoor adventures."

10. Waitlists

Responsible breeders don't produce litters to stock inventory. They have lists of screened prospective owners who might become eventual good homes for their puppies.

"I limit my waitlist to a reasonable number based on my breeding plans," Austin says. "People always want to know what 'number' they are on the list. It's not a numbered list—it's a list of people that I hope to place a puppy with. Then once the litter is born, we wait and see how they develop and then decide which puppy is the best fit for each family." This often isn't known until pups are 8–9 weeks old.

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11. Approach to Hybrid Dogs

Without a doubt, there are many popular crossbreeds, including Cavapoo, Labradoodle, puggle, and goldendoodle. Also referred to as hybrid or designer dogs, they're unfortunately often the primary product of puppy mills and backyard breeders, so Sinn says it's essential to ask a breeder their rationale for pairing these particular dogs.

"How did you decide to breed Sally to Sam? Is it because it makes you money? Is it because you thought they would be a good match? What's the criteria?" she says. "Because if there's no screening, no standards, no checking for health or behavior issues, you may get lucky—or you may not."

One final note. Regardless of what type of dog breed has captured your fancy, don't believe a website. "Anyone can make a pretty website that says all the right things. Meet the dogs, meet the parents, engage in conversation. Go with a recommendation," Sharkey says. "If a breeder doesn't want to talk to you, then maybe move on."

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