Getting a Dog

Many wonderful pets await death in animal shelters across the country. (By: ginnerobot)

There are really only three places you should get a dog from: an animal shelter, a responsible breeder, or a rescue organization. Typically, dogs from shelters or rescue organizations are neutered, or you will be required to neuter them as condition of purchase.

1. Animal Shelters

The animal shelter is a good place to pick up a dog and save them from death in the bargain.

  • Look for a clean, healthy dog, keeping in mind any constraints you may have. Look for signs of friendliness and liveliness. Does the dog approach you in a friendly manner? Talk with the people caring for the animals for any information on a particular animal they can give you.
  • The best thing to do is to go the animal shelter every weekend and spend time with the dogs. Try to put their plight out of your mind for the moment — it would be nice to save them all, but you can’t. Instead, you should get to know the dogs on an individual basis.
  • Read the tags on each cage and see whether the dog was a stray, or whether their human turned them in for some reason. There are some beautiful adult dogs in the shelter who have been given up reluctantly by ill or elderly, or even deceased, folks. Don’t overlook them.
  • Ask to see the dog in the holding area most shelters have. You’ll be able to check for signs of hostility, see if the dog knows anything, and in general how the animal reacts to you. Expect some fear and nervousness. A few dog treats may help calm them. If things seem to be going well, ask if you can take them on a walk, even just around the compound. If you are curious to know the dog’s reaction to cats, take them by the cat compound.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to say “not this dog,” and walk away. It is hard to walk away from a sweet dog, but you are looking for a companion for life, so you will have to be honest with yourself about what you want. There are heartbreaking stories from people who made an impulsive decision and lived to regret it. Bring along a friend who can help you look at the dog more objectively.

2. Breeders

If you plan to show your dog, or desire a healthy purebred, find a responsible breeder.

Don’t use newspaper advertisements. Attend dog shows or performance events instead and talk with the owners and breeders there. Try contacting the local breed club for the breed you are interested in. It’s best to get to know several breeders before they actually have litters you would like to get puppies from. This gives you a chance to learn more about the breed, learn more about the philosophies and intents of the breeders you know, and learn more about the prospective parents of your pup.

The more information you have, the better off you will be.

Remember, though, that no breeder is automatically responsible or ethical just from the source you were referred from. You must determine whether a particular breeder is suitable for your needs. The more time and research you put into this, the better your results will be.

Selecting the Breeder

After you compile a list of potential breeders to contact, screen them through the phone first. Here’s a list of questions to ask:

  • Can you see the dam and, if possible, the sire?
  • Where are the pups being raised — in a family setting or in a kennel?
  • What health problems occur in the breed?
  • Have these problems been checked in the parents? As appropriate: OFA certification, CERF certification, blood tests, etc.
  • Request a copy of the sire and dam’s lineage/pedigree.
  • Titles on sire and dam.
  • Info on puppies the sire and dam (together or with other mates) have previously produced? (That is, are either of the parents “proven”?)
  • Has the puppy been crate trained, paper trained, etc.
  • What breed clubs do you belong to? Do you have references?
  • How many puppies were in the litter?
  • Any difficulties during delivery?
  • How often is the dam bred?
  • What guarantees do you offer on your animals?
  • What is in your sales contract?
  • Do you offer a spay/neuter contract for puppies?
  • Have they been to the vet yet? Wormed? Shots? Are the dogs bred for the ring, field, or for general pet purposes?
  • How many breedings have you done to date? How long have you been breeding? Names and phone numbers of several customers, and the vet you use.
  • How many different breeds have you bred? How many breeds are you breeding now?
  • If for some reason I cannot keep the dog, will you take them back, no matter how old they are?
  • Do you have a litter available? If not, when are you planning one? (If a litter isn’t presently available, ask if/when they are next planning to show their dogs in your area. If you can go, this is a golden opportunity to observe the structure and temperament of the dogs they breed.)

Meeting the Breeders

When you meet with breeders, look for people who seem more concerned with the welfare of their dogs than the amount of money they’re making. Look for ones raising the puppies “underfoot” and around people. If the breeder is using kennels, check for cleanliness, happy dogs, no overcrowding, shelter from the elements, plenty of fresh water.

Check how many different breeds the breeder is breeding — good breeders limit themselves to one or two (usually related) breeds because of the time, expense, and energy involved in producing excellent specimens of a particular breed. Otherwise, the breeder may be operating what is essentially a puppy mill.

A responsible breeder should have some history of breeding animals. They may be breeding for show or field work or just plain good pets. They should be able to tell you about some of their previous puppies. They should be able and willing to discuss the health and wellbeing of the parents of your puppy, including eye conditions, hip dysplasia, etc.

In general, be suspicious of puppies from anyone who has not had the parents at minimum X-rayed for hip dysplasia and had the eyes checked by a veterinarian, or for other problems associated with the breed.

Not all breeds have the same problems, but breeders should know what they are and be able to tell you which ones they’ve tested for. And if you’ve done your homework beforehand, you’ll know if they’re checking the right things.

Breeder Red Flags

Here are some red flags that should make you wary. The presence of any one of them is not necessarily an indication that something IS wrong, but you should definitely check further if you see any of these:

  • Breeding more than one breed: A few breeders branch out into a second breed, but the truth is there is so much work involved in breeding right that one breed is more than enough for most people. If they are breeding more than two breeds, something may be very wrong.
  • The sire and dam are both on the same premises: Now, sometimes the breeder owns the dog they decided would be best for their female; it does happen. If you see this, ask who else the female has been bred to and generally try to find out if the breeder always uses their own stud dogs (a BIG red flag), or uses a variety of dogs depending on the female.
  • The dam was bred her previous season as well as this one: This is called back-to-back breeding and is extremely rare among responsible breeders and all too common among unethical breeders. Unless the previous litter resulted in no live puppies (or perhaps only one or two pups) or there was a compelling reason to do this this time (the sire is on his last legs, etc), this should be reason enough to leave.

Other Things to Check

  • Ask to see paperwork on the parents: OFA hip certificates, elbow certificates, ACVO (eye examination), CERF paperwork. Yes, it’s possible to fake all of these, but generally folks who are lying will trip up somewhere when you double-check on the numbers and such. This is where checking references comes in… You want to be satisfied of the breeder’s overall integrity, etc.
  • Get references of previous clients and call them up and ask how they liked their dog. Don’t overlook this step — you can learn a lot about what the puppies are like and how well they did this way. A responsible breeder should have no problem supplying you with such references.
  • You should be able to see the mother of your puppy. Her temperament will give you a good idea of your puppy’s adult temperament. Obedience and temperament titles can indicate good temperament. Being unable to see the sire is not uncommon; picky breeders will often ship their girl cross-country to a good prospect. If you’ve done your homework, though, chances are you are already familiar with the sire and know that he has the qualities you want.
  • Check for basic health problems: A litter that was larger than the breed average may mean that the puppies are smaller and not as healthy, a small litter might indicate trouble during pregnancy. A litter of size one or two means that the puppies are getting little or no socialization with littermates, regardless of health. The puppies should look vigorous and be strongly sucking, beware of listless (though sleeping is OK) puppies and indifferent suckling. Try to see the puppies when they’re likely to be active.

“Runts” are puppies who are significantly smaller than their litter mates. If they are otherwise healthy (actively rooting and sucking, playing with litter mates, etc.), then they are probably simply younger than their siblings. When dogs are bred, they mate over a period of several days, and it’s possible for some of the puppies to be conceived on the first mating and others on subsequent matings. Over a period of four days, this can make the youngest puppy significantly smaller. These puppies frequently catch up several months later, and it’s not uncommon for such a pup to turn out to be the largest one in the litter! Puppies who are runts because of health problems should be avoided. A responsible breeder will let you know which kind of runt the pup is.

Puppies should be at minimum dewormed by eight weeks of age. The first set of puppy shots is desirable as well. Beware of breeders who have not had a vet see the puppies (or mother).

Many responsible breeders guarantee the general health of a pup only for a limited time (e.g., 48 hours). This is not a ripoff. The breeder has no control over the puppy once the new person takes them.

Guaranteeing against genetic defects is common: such a guarantee generally means a refund or replacement in the case of a defect occurring; it does not mean that the puppy will “never” develop a genetic defect. Be wary of breeders who claim their puppies can never develop some defect that does occur in the breed.

If guarantees or other contracts (such as spay/neuter) are involved, get it all down in writing. A responsible breeder will not be offended by such a step. If something goes wrong, you have no legal recourse if there is nothing in writing, verbal contract laws in some states to the contrary.

Approach getting a puppy as if you were adopting a child. Expect a lot of questions and ask a lot of questions! A responsible breeder is also looking for a responsible caregiver.

3. Rescue Organizations

Another excellent source for a purebred dog is from rescue organizations run by various clubs across the country. If it is a breed rescue, dogs of that breed are rescued from shelters or private homes as needed, fostered while a placement is found, and then placed. The adoption fee usually is less than the cost of a purebred from other sources.

There are all-breed and mixed-breed rescue groups — this is another source besides the shelter to obtain a dog.

You should try to spend some time with each dog you consider adopting, as recommended and described for shelter dogs. Talk with the people who are fostering the prospective dog for a better idea of the particular dog’s temperament. Ask questions as you would with a breeder; expect a good outfit to screen you as well.

Expect them to ask for a donation and require that the animal is neutered, if not done already.

Next, in Part 4 of this article, now that we’ve discussed where to get a dog, we’ll mention where you should not get one.

Part 4: Where to NOT Get One »

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