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buying a puppy

buying a puppy, Responsible Ownership

The “signs of a backyard breeder” that are completely and utterly wrong


Our potential puppy buyers pass the pages around. New breeders, enthusiastic about their membership with the “good guys,” share them too. They are printed and re-printed and gathered by online dog magazines, shelters, even breed clubs.

And they are fatally, horribly wrong.

Let’s take a look at the ten worst “signs of a backyard breeder.”

1. Beware if the breeder doesn’t show their dogs in conformation shows.


Good breeders know the value of peer review, and they seek out ways to prove their dogs and to “take their temperature” as breeders. However, saying that the only definition of good breeding is breeding for the conformation ring ignores a vast and extremely valuable network of performance and working breeders.

Good conformation is important to ALL dogs. No matter what they do. But it’s nothing but hubris to say that the conformation ring is the only place good breeders evaluate their dogs. Remember that the original point of the conformation ring was to judge working dogs against each other. The working came first.

If your breed is one with a working history, the ability to do its historic job should ALWAYS be the boundaries that shape your breeding efforts. If the conformation ring is the best and most demanding place to test whether you’ve done a good job as a breeder, then you should go there. If it’s not – if the best and most demanding test for how well you’re doing as a breeder is the sheep pen or the field trial or the performance ring – then that’s where you should be. And nobody should ever even hint that you’re someone to beware of.

2. Beware if the breeder doesn’t allow you to see the parents. A responsible breeder should be more than willing to allow you to meet the parents of your future puppy.


For the vast majority of good breedings, both parents will not be on site. You may be able to meet mom, but dad is quite unlikely. As a matter of fact, it’s a bigger red flag if all the dads are on site (meaning the person breeds only to her own dogs and never seeks out a good match elsewhere).

It’s also a huge generalization to say that I should be “more than willing” to have you meet the mom dog. That depends entirely on how old the puppies are, how she’s feeling about strangers touching them, and whether she’s in shape to be seen (you know what I mean – there is going to be a time when mom is a naked rat with skin and backbone showing, and maybe I’m not ready to have you, oh sweet puppy buyer, Instagram her all over the world). Mom dogs are individuals, just like humans. It’s not a bad sign, or a signal that she’s not a good dog or that her puppies won’t be good dogs, if she doesn’t like seeing complete strangers mauling her kids.

3. Beware if the breeder doesn’t allow you to visit. It is vital to see where the puppies are being raised.


I used to believe this too – until I began reading the news. I also realized that in every other area of our lives, we take sensible and normal precautions about who comes in the house. But for puppy buyers, it was “Can you type my e-mail address? Then sure, come on over.” I was giving an incredible amount of access to my home, my dogs and puppies, my young daughters, and myself without ever having met the people who were walking in.

So now, if you ask to come over, the answer is no. Instead, we do group visits at set times. My husband and I make sure that multiple adults we know and trust are there for the visits, so we can welcome you – but welcome you wisely. If you cannot come for one of the group visits, I will meet a potential buyer anywhere convenient for them, and we usually turn it into a group get-together with all the buyers and friends from that area. It’s a great system. And it makes me feel much more secure about what’s coming in my front door.

4. Beware if the breeder breeds several types of dogs. The purpose of a responsible breeder is to better the breed. How are they able to do that if they are focusing on different breeds?


New breeders usually have only one breed in the house. However, one of the truly pleasurable rewards of maturing in your breed is realizing that you have the time and energy and structure to indulge in a breed that you’ve always loved.

(For some reason, this seems to be Frenchies, like, ALL THE TIME. You Frenchie breeders are creating the “big bowl of ice cream for breakfast” of the dog breeder world, I swear.)

Some breeders who have always had big go small. Others have fun with a coated breed when they had wash and wear coats, or vice versa. Sometimes they’ve got kids or grandkids who want a different breed. There’s no “right” reason to get into a second breed, except that you love them and you want to. And the breeders who have a second breed (or a third breed) usually do just as fantastic a job with them as they’re doing with their first breed.

5. Beware if the breeder doesn’t issue a spay/neuter contract. Very few people are qualified to breed. A responsible breeder will issue a limited registration contract and require that you fix your dog by a certain age.


And also elitist. Before we even get into the spay/neuter, any statement like “very few people are qualified to breed” will lead to a polite invitation from me to go soak your head. Breeding well takes commitment and sacrifice and money and incredibly hard work, but it does NOT take some kind of educational or income level and it is not granted along with a silver spoon. Anyone willing to put in the effort deserves to try.

Now – the real issue: NO, good breeders do not always insist on a spay/neuter contract and do NOT require that you neuter or spay at a certain age. The health-consequences pendulum has completely swung on this, and any breeder still insisting on an early spay/neuter needs to get educated fast. It is BAD for your bitch to be spayed young, and it’s arguably BAD for your male dog to be neutered ever in his life.

A good breeder will generally insist that you not BREED a non-breed-worthy dog, but they should not be insisting on a spay/neuter contract.

6. Beware if the breeder often has puppies available. Most responsible breeders will create a wait list of people who are interested in their puppies and will only breed when they have enough people to adopt the majority of the litter.


This is one of the incredibly pervasive lies that get passed around, even to the point that many good breeders nod when they hear it. It’s also a really fast way to completely torpedo a breeding program.

As a breeder, you are breeding for YOURSELF. You are not breeding for the demand of buyers, to impress your peers, to do a favor to the stud dog owner, or anything else. You are putting seven or eight or ten puppies on the earth because YOU believe that YOUR breeding program will be brought forward by this breeding. You are responsible to the dogs and to yourself. Nobody else.

“Only breed when you have enough people” makes it sound like it’s a tap you can just turn on and off – oh, there’s my fourth reservation! DING! Quick, go out there and impregnate Molly!

Dogs do not work that way. The windows your bitch gives you to breed her are going to be few and short. The stud dogs ideal for her are going to be far away and difficult to get. If you can do a breeding that moves your program forward, for heaven’s sake, DO IT. Do it and be thrilled that you had the opportunity.

7. Beware if the breeder isn’t active in breed specific clubs. Membership to any of these clubs shows the breeder is willing to continue learning to help the improve the breed.


This is pretty personal for me, because I am not a member of our national club. I am not a member because I and the entire body of dog-related science believe that the club’s Code of Ethics is bad for the breed. So science and I got together and agreed that we weren’t going to breed that way, which means no membership for me.

For other people, there are any number of other reasons that they are not members of a club. What’s really going on – the root of the matter – is that the IDEA of an AKC parent club is great. The way it is supposed to function and the goals it’s supposed to have are incredibly valuable to good breeders.

If your club has managed to maintain a reality that is close to the idea, then that is awesome and you should be a member. If your club makes you scream at the computer all the time and you can’t go to the annual general meetings because you know you’ll start screaming at real people, then maybe it’s not such a great requirement.

8. Good breeders line up qualified buyers in advance of birth of a litter and rarely ever advertise.

FALSE. Oh my goodness, so dang false. (Links to an old article of mine that is likely to have some broken links and old data, but the point is still valid.) Again, SO SUPER DUPER FALSE.

9. Beware if the breeder offers to ship their dogs to new owners without meeting them first—a responsible breeder meets the new parents before she sends her pups home with them.


Before I get going, my puppy owners are not “parents.” They bought a puppy from me; they are owners.

Now, on to shipping: Shipping is one of the greatest forces for good in the dog world that you can possibly imagine. Before shipping was easy and safe, the regions of the country were islands. There were “West Coast” and “East Coast” styles of the same breed. If you were a breeder, you either bred your girls to the same few boys in your area or you put your bitch on a train and hoped she would be OK when she got off in a week.

Shipping is also an enormous boon for puppy buyers – yes, even pet buyers – because they can seek out many more breeders who are a good match for their needs and their households. As a result, many breeders ship out half or even more of each litter, and they do it to families that they’ve never met in person.

The question is NOT whether a breeder has met a buyer. The question is whether the breeder has done enough homework to determine if this is going to be a good home – whether it is ten minutes away or a ten-hour plane ride away. Shipping has nothing to do with an owner being a good match or a poor one.

10. Beware if the breeder does not reject high-risk buyers: (renters, young people, those with poor track records, low income, other pets, dogs kept outdoors)


The “poor track record” and “dogs kept outside” (for most breeds) are OK. The other stuff – this attitude is why people say “they tried to get a puppy from a good breeder and couldn’t, so they felt like they had to go to a bad one.” This INEXCUSABLE attitude.

Every breeder knows her breed best. Some breeds have very specific requirements from buyers, and tend to not do well in average homes. Rigorous screening is the responsibility of every breeder. But NO BREED requires a list of arrogant garbage like the above. And if you find yourself screening buyers based on qualifications that have nothing to do with your breed’s needs and are just excuses for being a d-bag, STOP. Young broke renters who have scraped together the money for a good puppy and are committed to feeding and vetting it well should be welcomed with open arms.

BONUS: Bad breeders breed their bitches on every season.


That’s how much I hate this one.

It’s completely false. In fact, you may just be a better breeder if you breed every season.

Hey, Joanna, did you steal these? Are you a blatant list stealer?

Yessir, sure did. I am quoting them verbatim so you can see that these are REAL lists.

Sources (not coincidentally, these are the entire first page of a search for “signs of a backyard breeder”): (this is the hall of fame one where most of my top ten came from)


buying a puppy

Dear Puppy Buyers: I do not care

If you ever get a point.

If you ever get a title.

If you ever get a Grand.

If one of my bitches ever gets an ROM.

If I ever have a Bulletin ad or a dog who is ranked or a kennel name with recognition or pedigrees that go on.

I hope, now that a bunch of you have been here and seen my (ahem) “modest” house and met my dogs and my puppies, you really do know that I mean that. It’s not sour grapes; it’s that those kind of things make it to about a point-five on my scale of What Is Important. I lose track of how many points my own dogs have all the time, let alone how many my dogs’ babies have. I show because I must, because right now that’s what you need to do to be a reputable breeder, not because I’ve ever enjoyed it or felt it meant very much.

That’s why I don’t sell show puppies to anyone who I don’t know; it’s why I am over the moon that I have local buyers this time. I am excruciatingly sentimental, always keep the wrong puppies, usually breed the wrong dogs. Please don’t ever send anyone to me who wants the best show dog; good heavens. I love and believe in my dogs but I look forward to being a flaming failure as a show breeder my entire life.

What I DO care about, what I DO want to hear about, what I DO treasure and print out and pass along and laugh about, is whether you have a good dog, a happy dog, a healthy dog, a funny dog, a fulfilled and silly dog, a working dog, a tired dog.

If you ever e-mail me and apologize that you didn’t get points or a Q this weekend, I WILL SMACK YOU.

Now send me pictures and puppy e-mails and keep me happy.

That is all. Back to your regularly scheduled programming, and I need to get back to video editing so I can show those of you who did not cram into my little house what the evals looked like. So far the scene where six people are looking for Oberon’s testicles is my favorite (and I rather suspect his as well).

buying a puppy, General, Responsible Breeding

10 Questions you must ask your breeder – AFTER you know she’s responsible

There are a thousand web pages out there that will give you a list of questions to ask a breeder. They’re almost all oriented toward helping you find a person who’s above a certain level of responsibility – does she attempt to preserve or improve a breed, does she health test, stuff like that.

And those are good lists. I am always glad when I get a puppy buyer who is reading off what is obviously a laboriously collected set of questions. It’s a great sign that they’re doing their homework and research.

What you may not know is that your work isn’t done yet – not if you’re really serious about this. If you stop now, if you get the answers you need and then buy yourself a puppy, you WILL get a well-bred puppy. You’ve done that basic, extremely important job. But what you have NOT done is found out very much about whether you’re going to be happy with this breeder for the next (hopefully) fifteen years.

I’ve often spoken of dogs in terms of brands – because I think that the best way for most people to think of the way purebreds are produced is to put it in terms of the real thing or counterfeits. You always fall in love with the real thing – nobody ever finds a picture of a “Couch” purse and says “Wow, I like that better than the $300 version!” You WANT the real one. You get suckered into paying for the fake one because you convince yourself that it’s enough like the genuine article that you’re actually smarter to get the knock-off.

We all knows what happens to the knock-offs, though. You wear them for a few days and then the finish begins to wear off the Leather-Like (R) surface or the Tiffanee ring leaves a green stain on your finger, and they end up in the back of the closet. On the other hand, the ring you killed yourself to pay for at the real counter is a signature piece that you wear every day for the rest of your life and leave to your grandkids.

Those basic questions for the breeder, the ones you ask first, establish whether you’re buying the real brand or a counterfeit. The questions I’m going to suggest you ask next are the ones that tell you what kind of “store” you’re buying from.

Please, please understand that THERE ARE NO RIGHT OR WRONG ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS. They define certain aspects of the relationship you’re going to have, and my ideal answer is going to be different from yours. In fact, it may be radically different. If you ask me these questions, my answers may tell you that in fact you’d be quite unhappy buying from me, but thrilled with the experience of buying from someone else. That wouldn’t hurt my feelings – in fact, I want it.

I want you to think about them because I have seen so much good come from lifelong friendships that are formed when people who are on the same wavelength are involved in a dog transaction (some of my most wonderful friends are people I’ve either bought dogs from or used a stud dog or whatever), and I’ve seen so much personal hurt and misunderstanding come from two people who are both terribly well intentioned but who have completely different ideas of how the breeder-owner relationship should be.

So here they are:

1) Why did you personally get involved in this breed?

2) What do you consider a successful breeding?

3) Have you ever had a real disaster of a litter?

4) Why did you choose these particular two dogs?

5) Do you often get fluffs and mismarks? (Substitute whatever the biggies are in your breed – whites in boxers, for example, or long-coats in Shepherds; do enough research to know what they are.)

6) What kind of owners tend to do best with your dogs?

7) What do you feed your dogs and what would you like buyers to feed?

8) What’s one thing people often don’t know about this breed that you wish they did?

9) If there was one thing you could wave your wand and fix in your breed, what would it be?

10) If I buy a puppy from you, do you call me or should I call you?

See what I mean that there are not right or wrong answers to these? What they’re going to do is let you know what the priorities of the breeder are, how he or she perceives himself or herself in the grand scheme of the breed, reveal attachments they have with other breeders or owners, and (perhaps most important) tell you whether this breeder wants you in bed with them or at arm’s length. There are some breeders who want (and should get) weekly updates for the first year. There are others who don’t mind if you never call them again. Will the first drive you batty or make you feel loved? Will the second give you the freedom you crave or does that scream “uncaring”? Your job is making sure your breeder is close to you on the spectrum, or that you can meet his or her expectations without strain.

If I ask these ten questions questions and the answer to the “successful” and “disaster” litter questions are two sides of a single coin, I know what the top priority is for that breeder. If they center on show success, conformation, or absence of faults, that’s likely to be a breeder that I’d go to for a “flyer” show dog. If they instead dwell on how happy or unsatisfying the placements turned out to be, that’s a breeder who cares a lot about relationships. If I hear a lot about health – or personality or herding success or therapy success or fill in the blank – I can tell if this breeder and I have the same definition of an A-plus job.

I personally think it’s very revealing to explore the idea of those cosmetic faults that tend to be show ring DQs or such big no-nos that they’re in effect DQs. A breeder who says “Oh my goodness, I would never EVER do a breeding that would make fluffs – it’s my job to make as many dogs who could be shown as possible!” is a very different person than one who says “I adore fluffs and have kept several; I never worry about them in my breeding.” Neither one is right or wrong, but if you’re looking for a very reliable pedigree with zero coat in it you’re going to be happier with the first. If you would rather have a breeder who’s a bit more loosey-goosey (and maybe likes “cute” even more than she likes “correct”!), the second breeder is likely to be your gal.

Now that magic wand question is a bit of a subtle one – I love to ask it because there’s an answer I want to hear and if I do I am thrilled. But I’d honestly ask it even if I didn’t have something in mind, because the answer is going to tell you something about that breeder’s long-term plans and big-picture goals. “Group placements” is a different answer than “Temperament.” “Longevity” is a different answer than “No dogs in rescue.” They’re all GOOD goals. But one type of breeder is going to be your better fit.

Number 8, the one thing people don’t know about the breed, is the one I want to address last, because it’s the one thing on there that could cause you to not just walk away from a breeder but walk away from a breed entirely. It’s a very simple question with some very high stakes.

For example, if I told you that the one thing I wish people knew about Great Danes is that they are NOT big brave dogs but in fact are very soft and sensitive and a huge minority of them have fear issues – that we usually DON’T get the TV version of the breed, that they’re not suited to dog parks, that they can be sharp with other dogs and do a lot of damage even when behaving normally – if you’re honest with yourself you might realize that the picture in your head that you had of your life with this dog is no longer correct.

At that point the huge temptation will be to say “Well, none of the books I read say that, and I am sure she’s wrong – or I am sure the puppy I get won’t have that issue.” But I’m going to honestly BEG you to trust her when she says whatever it is she says. It doesn’t mean you don’t get the dog, but it might mean you need to put down the phone and have a very serious conversation with your spouse or your roommate or you obedience trainer.

One final hint – ask these in the course of a normal relaxed conversation, or your breeder is going to think she’s stumbled into the Spanish Inquisition! It’s great to ask up front if this is a good time to have a breed discussion – if I hear that, I chase my kids outside and know I’m not going anywhere for an hour. Long phone conversations, or long ringside conversations, or twelve-page e-mails, are normal for breeders. We all expect it. And you’ll get some major brownie points for asking and understanding good questions. But try to avoid asking them as somebody’s got a dog on the table getting nails trimmed!

Off I go – to trim nails, natch. And Clue needs some midnight soup; she was breathing hard when she came up the stairs tonight because all of a sudden she’s dragging a load of golf balls with her. So I’ll end this here – but if you are a breeder, or you are an owner who wants to add to this list, PLEASE comment. I never mind being told that I forgot something, and a good list is power for both breeders and owners.

buying a puppy

The tragic myth of being “chosen” by a puppy

Some of the worst decisions in all of dogdom are justified by this line – “He chose me.”

I am tempted to make this post about why this is the case, why we want to make the acquisition of a dog a wholly emotional decision, and (further) why we want it to not just be emotional but an inexorable decision BY THE DOG in the face of which we are hopeless – because it’s ridiculous. Are we somehow thrilled by dogs who are stalkers?

But what I really want to make it about is this gorgeous bunch of Australian Shepherds thundering toward me.

I took this photo about a second and a half before that lead puppy made it to my face. This was the last photo I could take for several minutes, in fact, while I held the camera above my head and laughed helplessly as six babies chewed my ears, sucked on my hair, licked my nose, and wiggled gleefully into my coat.

Once they had all been gently detached from my person, they went running all over the place, except for one.

This dude was on top of me, biting my face, tugging my pants leg, generally making himself a glorious nuisance the entire time. When I put my hands down he ran to them; when I smiled he grinned. I talked to him and he stared into my face as though I was the only person on earth.

So why did I not re-mortgage my house and come home with him? Didn’t he choose me? Isn’t it inevitable? Hasn’t my heart spoken to his, and his spoken back?

Well, for one thing it’s because he’s Leslie’s keeper puppy and I don’t have that much courage in the entire world. But mostly it’s because of this:

Same set of puppies.

There’s “my” puppy, and there’s all that love.

Why? Because he’s that kind of puppy. In fact, a TON of puppies are that kind of puppy. If I went to see a litter of Tervs or Danes or Chihuahuas or Kerry Blues, there would be a puppy “choosing” me in each litter. That puppy would, in fact, “choose” every human to walk into the room, and try to choose the piano and a space heater. Sparkly, pushy puppies are geniuses at it.

Bringing home an Australian Shepherd puppy is the wrong – WRONG – choice for most families. Bringing home a Kerry Blue is wrong for even more of them. Bringing home a puppy of any breed from a pet store or from a bad breeder is even worse. You must choose. YOU must be the one who selects and who takes responsibility and makes sure that the breed and the puppy is a wise and considered choice, and IGNORES the fact that one puppy thinks you’re the bob-omb.

buying a puppy, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership, Selling puppies

How much do puppies cost? How the “breeder wars” hurt our community

There are a whole bunch of good guides out there on how to price a product. They vary in terms of how much you can add on top of the basic equation – how much margin you can expect – but the initial algebra is pretty consistent.

You take your raw materials cost, add in your overhead (travel included), make sure you’re counting rent and utilities and other facilities cost, and then pay yourself a good living wage on top of that. If you’re putting in 40 hours, you might be able to pay yourself $30 an hour. If a lot of what you do is stand around and then there are bursts of activity, $150 an hour might be more reasonable. Once you’ve done all that, then you add in your profit. The whole thing is called “cost-plus,” and it’s why you pay more for a vase than you would for the clay, and more for a photograph than you would for the film.

Anyone investigating setting up a small business that is based on a unique product or service (as opposed to a commodity – in other words, you’re either making something by hand or producing something unique) is told that it hurts everyone to undersell yourself. If you price your widget at $50 when an actual cost-plus price should be $300, you hurt everybody in the widget business. People start to think that widgets should be $50, so they refuse to buy the $300 ones anymore. You enjoy a brief period of popularity but then you go out of business because even with huge volume you still lose money. Nobody wins.

If you want to succeed in your widget business and build the industry for everybody, you not only charge $300, you’re PROUD of the $300. One of the other cardinal rules of expertise-oriented small business is that discounts are death. The discount becomes the “real” worth, and the customer reacts negatively to the normal price. If your instinct is to discount, we’re told, do a freebie instead. Charge $300 for the widget and throw in a $20 credit; don’t discount to $280.

Now let’s look at dog breeding. We’re always walking a delicate line because we don’t consider ourselves businesses but we do ask money for a product, or (as I prefer to think of it) we ask money for an extended-support contract. But people ARE handing us a check.

If we followed cost-plus pricing, the way a small business is supposed to, the average puppy price for a well-bred litter should be around $20,000 each. And that’s not an exaggeration. Most of us have a litter once a year, twice at most; our expenses are astronomical. Most of our “raw materials” (show-potential puppies) end up never producing anything. Those who have more litters than that are also the ones who are paying the most; they are the ones showing every weekend and they have an RV that cost a year’s salary and their vet bills could send a kid to college.

So let’s say that a fair puppy price, if we were treating this like a business, would be $20,000 per. That’s the price that, if we were businesspeople, we should be PROUD to ask.

Why, then, do the ridiculously small puppy prices we DO ask engender so much embarrassment, and (even worse) so much breeder-to-breeder criticism?

I rearranged my puppy page last night, and as an experiment decided to put my puppy price there publicly. I’ve never done that before; very few breeders do. There’s a feeling, and I think it’s not a bad one, that we don’t want to make it look like anybody who can meet the price gets the puppy. The problem with this is that potential owners are kind of floundering; they don’t know how much is normal and they don’t know when to bring it up with you. I also did it because I’m a potential owner too; I feel the same tension anybody does when I am approaching a breeder. We are not, and never will be, the kind of family that can drop even three figures without thinking about it; when something could be anywhere from $1000 to $5000 – and I won’t even know until I am well into the process – it really gets stressful.

I put my price there because I want to see if a public price really does bring me a lower caliber of buyer, and (if so) if I feel I can still place puppies well using all the other things I do, like questionnaires and interviews and meetings.

I was typing along, listing the stuff that comes with a well-bred puppy, and when I typed out the price my immediate reaction was to say “OH MY GOSH I KNOW I’M SORRY I’M SORRY I PROMISE IT’S WORTH IT.” I was actually embarrassed, cringing with the thought that somebody was going to be mad at me for saying that my puppies are a certain price.

And I also know that any time a price is made public on someone’s website or somebody hears that so and so is charging this much and this other person is asking that much, it becomes a topic of gossip and criticism. “Did you know he asked THREE GRAND for that litter?” “Did you hear that she got TWO THOUSAND for that MISMARK?”

It seems, often, that breeders will take any opportunity to tear each other down – as a group we are passionately pro-dog, and I’ve never met any who were more selfless when it comes to care and welfare and devotion to doing the right thing. But we are often incredibly cruel to each other. It’s the same sad tune that mothers sing: I stayed home and you didn’t; I breastfed and you didn’t; you let your kids eat fries and I don’t. “Did you hear what she did” is the great battle cry.

In dog breeding, and I think this can be the case in many other pursuits as well, self-abnegation becomes the real pride. I lost more money than you did; I neutered more show prospects than you did; I charge $1000, well I charge $800, well I charge $600, well I give them away and also donated my kidney to a puppy buyer. I breed twice a year, I breed once a year, I breed once every five years, I’ve owned this breed for fifteen years and never once have I even LOOKED at a dog’s genitals with intent to use them.

Here’s the truth: Any show breeder charging less than $20,000 per puppy is not running a business. They’re undercharging. So even a few dollars below that amount, we’re all on a level playing field. And I don’t know anybody charging even a third of that, so WE’RE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT. Nobody gives out prizes for I-dig-a-deeper-hole-than-you.

Within our losing-money-fast boat, individual breeders make decisions based on how they feel they can best place their puppies. I’ve had breeders tell me that they charge $2000 because pet stores are asking $1800 for their breed. If they don’t go over that amount, people feel that their beautifully bred puppies are not worth as much as the pet store dogs. I’ve had other breeders tell me that they charge a very low price because then they can pick and choose from many more buyers. And I’ve had others tell me that they price at the very top of their breed’s range because that actually pulls in more buyers (the “Ivy League” effect – Yale has thousands of applicants for a few positions, while Hobtown Community College has a hundred applicants for a thousand positions).

No matter what they have decided, EVERYBODY’S LOSING MONEY. There’s no reason to attack anyone. This is especially so in the Cardigan community, by the way, where puppy prices are INCREDIBLY LOW. I sold my last litter of Danes years ago for $1500 each, and that was the very lowest end of the breed’s range. That same year a friend bought a similarly well-bred Dane puppy for $3000; the show-marked harlequins were somewhere in the $4500 range and many of them went with puppies back as well. Prices went up an average of $50-$100 per year, quite consistently. Danes are not a particularly expensive breed, either; if I were looking for a well-bred pet puppy of any breed in 2010, I’d expect to pay around $2000. When I inquired about Cardigans and was told that they were in the $900 range, I about fell over dead. It felt like shopping at the dollar store for a show puppy!

And there’s no “reason” Cardis are that low; no reason besides a certain expectation of that’s what everybody’s selling them for. So there’s no pride attached to selling them even lower, or any pride attached to selling them higher either. Everybody’s shoveling money into a dog-shaped hole, so what decisions are made around that situation are your business and nobody else’s.

If I see somebody charging $3,000 for Cardigan puppies, I need to be able to distinguish between something that’s WRONG (which obviously it’s not; that person is still nowhere near making a profit or being motivated by money) and something that is not what I would have decided. I may have my own private little thoughts about it, in the same way that I would have my little thoughts about feeding (or not feeding) fries to your kids, but I need to put on my big-girl panties and not make a moral issue out of it – because we are on the same side. That’s what it really comes down to. Much more unites us than divides us, and as a community we should be loving to each other even when decisions differ.


If you’ve hung around long enough and are a normal person wondering how I personally put a dollar figure to puppies, here’s how I do it.

I sell my puppies oddly. I charge more at the beginning and then rebate for classes and titles. I do this on the advice of a wonderful trainer, who said that puppies should be like soda cans; you should be rewarded for doing the right things with them. So I pay for puppy K and I pay for a herding instinct test or any title (rally included). Clue’s first litter was my grand experiment in doing this and I was VERY happy with the way it went. I had a 100% puppy K attendance, which I think is the most important thing you can possibly do for the average puppy, and I gladly wrote those checks. I hope to write more as the titles are achieved.

My puppy price is $1200 (with $200 rebated, for a total of $1000 in the end) this year. I tried to be as honest with puppy people as I could be, showing them exactly how much it cost to get their puppy to eight weeks old so they would understand that I wasn’t making any money; I also used this lovely mess as a ruler. I did not want to price puppies so low that they were being bought as pit bull bait, which sounds hideous but it happens far more often than you’d ever imagine. At $1000 I am right in the middle of the bad-breeder pack, which I am not happy with as a rule but I also don’t want to keep really great owners who don’t have a lot of money to throw around away from my door.

I would love – LOVE – to someday be able to actually redefine what I do as a free puppy and a lifetime support contract. I would love for us all to do that. I think it makes more sense to a buyer when you ask them how much they’d expect to be paid to be on call for the next twelve years than to try to accurately define what a living puppy is “worth.” And I think defining the transaction as a support contract also allows them to distinguish between a good supplier and a bad one without labeling the puppy itself as good or bad.

Maybe someday that will come true, and people will figure they’re paying me a buck-ninety a week and it will seem like a bargain. Until then, I will continue to try to walk that line, failing at business but hopefully succeeding at establishing value.

And hopefully we won’t fight too too much.

buying a puppy, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership

My dog is better than your dog

I discovered this delightful piece of hard-hitting journalism when I was looking for show-dog ads; every once in a while I root through Dog World online to see who’s making ripples. Dog World is a bit like Playboy – reading articles isn’t really the point.  So I’m never all that surprised when there are problems with the writing, but this one really takes the cake.

To paraphrase: Don’t adopt from a shelter, and don’t advise anyone else to adopt from a shelter; show-bred dogs are better.

The writing is absolute crap – dogs bred on street corners? Really? Is it the 1940s? – but I thought the underlying message is important to consider.

Are show-bred (or carefully bred dogs of any ilk) “better” than shelter dogs?

ABSOLUTELY NOT. The only thing well-bred dogs are is more PREDICTABLE.

This is a little bit like the elementary math problem that asks you to flip a series of coins, helping you conclude that the probability of ending up heads four times in a row is very small, BUT the probability of any one toss being heads is still 50%. Even after it’s landed heads 100 times, the probability of the 101st flip landing heads is still one in two.

Carefully breeding dogs skews the problem in the direction of falling heads more times in a row. Looking at a large group of them, there is comparatively little variation in size, shape, temperament, ability, and so on. However, when you’re comparing one individual dog to another there’s no way I’m going to tell you that the shelter dog loses.

If you want to BREED dogs, if what you’re crafting is predictable appearance, ability, and temperament, there’s only one way to go – with the well-bred dog. If you are looking to WORK dogs, if you really need the highest probability that a certain piece of instinct will be combined with a certain work ethic over multiple dogs in a row, you should be choosing a well-bred dog.

But if you are looking for one individual dog who will be all the miraculous things a dog can be in your household, the well-bred dog is NOT automatically better.

As I’ve said many times, if what you need in a dog is just a “good dog” – bonded, affectionate, cute, empathetic – go to a shelter, preferably one that really needs you. I and my puppies do NOT need you. My puppies have a built-in safety net for their entire lives and are never going to be in real danger; that cannot be said for many others. Go rescue one. You will almost certainly end up with exactly what you need in your family.

Come to me, or come to another good breeder, only if you need predictability beyond the natural goodness of all dogs. If you need to work a dog, show a dog, or breed a dog; if you need the kind of intense support that a good breeder can provide, THEN buy one. But do it for the right reasons, and never do it if rescuing a dog is an option. I NEVER want to take a place that you would have been just as happy to fill with a rescue dog.

(By the way, the very worst of all? The poorly bred purebred or designer dog. Not only do you not get any predictability or support, you increase the homeless dog population either directly – when your dog isn’t fitting well but the breeder won’t take her back – or indirectly because the siblings, parents, and offspring of your dog fall through the cracks.)

Thankfully, the views in the Dog World article are very rare, at least in my experience in show dogs, and the few people that hold them are not the ones you want to know. Most show breeders are pro-dog as a whole; we’re just as happy to see a homeless dog get back on his feet as we are to see one of our dogs take a Best of Breed, if not more so. And we get incredibly mad at bad breeders not because they are our competition but because we see dogs suffering because of them.

Personally, nothing would make me happier than one of you telling me that your rescue dog is better than any other dog on earth, including my show dogs. Bronte just got up on the chair and ate all my popcorn, so it’s probably true!

buying a puppy, Dog Behavior and Training, Responsible Ownership

Dogs who fail


All dog people read the same sets of blogs, and this week all anybody is reading or commenting on is Patricia McConnell’s blog, because she’s considering rehoming her young puppy (a puppy who is already her second one in the litter – she returned the first puppy she bought very quickly).

This has highlighted what I think is an important concept, which is when you buy a dog to do a job, failure at that job means they leave.

It’s common for breeders to rehome dogs who are never going to finish or who needed to be neutered for some reason or who cannot be bred or who are done producing puppies. Their role is over in the household, so they leave. We breeders like to assign nice words to it, but that’s what’s happening.

Those who are serious agility competitors or performance competitors will rehome dogs who are not ever going to meet their expectations.

Field (hunting or other working) breeders rehome those who cannot reach success in that venue.

Service-dog owners rehome dogs who wash out of the program.

And so on.

I don’t personally have any problem with rehoming; I think it’s usually a great blessing on all sides. As you know, we’re currently looking for a place for Bronte, so I obviously don’t think that changing homes is bad for dogs. Where I start to feel uncomfortable is when the job that’s been assigned is beyond the reach of the dog, so failure and rehoming become almost inevitable.

When people buy a dog “for the kids,” the dog is going to fail, and the dog will leave. It’ll either be rehomed or thrown in the back yard or basement. When people buy a dog to be a child, the dog will either fail or, if it’s such a fantastic dog that it tries to shape itself into a child, be spectacularly twisted into something that’s not really a healthy dog anymore. Either way, it will leave (or check out). In both of those scenarios the failure is a foregone conclusion.

In McConnell’s case, her puppy’s job was to nurture and feed the emotional identity of her older dog, a dog who has had a huge number of issues and who is emotionally frail. He is obviously loved in the way that we tend to love frail creatures, with more than a bit of pity and protectiveness. The puppies she’s bringing in do not feel pity and protectiveness toward this weak creature; they just steal his stuff and run off. Dogs are nothing if not realistic about the ability of another living creature to stand up for himself. And so she replaces the first puppy with the second puppy and is now probably going to replace the second puppy with (something?).

I have Feelings about whether it’s a good idea to buy a dog for a dog, but the fact is that regardless of whether I think it’s a good idea or not, the dogs are failing, and they’re very likely to continue to fail. She looks at her older dog and sees the whole swirl of what he was and how hard she worked and how much better he is and how he’s really almost normal now, and feels that protectiveness and that pride and the affection for everything that he is. That’s entirely natural and normal and the way we all feel toward something we’ve pulled back from the brink. There’s nothing wrong about how she feels. Unfortunately, another dog looks at him and only sees a “kick me” sign.

That’s never going to change; dogs are almost impossible to fool. If at some point she comes across a dog who is so incredibly forgiving and undemanding that he never takes advantage of that weakness, I’ll be amazed but happy for them. But amazed. She’s not doing anything “wrong” – she treats the dogs beautifully, the rehomed puppies come beautifully trained, and so on. I in no way want anyone to think that I don’t respect her as a dog owner. I just don’t think in this case she’s going to ever get what she’s looking for.

I’ve made this mistake, by the way. I try to never write about anything I haven’t failed at. The job I was looking to fill was to replace Lucy, my Dane-of-all-Danes. She died young and it absolutely broke me. I kept looking for her in her daughters and her granddaughters, and I had a very hard time separating my emotional response to them from my emotional response to HER. Any way in which they resembled her was good; any way in which they did not was bad. I sold the wrong puppies from litters because I would try to keep the one that was most like her, even when I had a better emotional connection with a very dissimilar puppy. I was fumbling toward something that was never going to succeed.

What snapped me out of it was Clue, a puppy we bought because the kids were bugging me to get a little dog that could sleep on their beds. I had it all worked out that this funny-looking little thing could be the family house dog and the kids could show her and play around with juniors and so on while I kept my focus on the big dogs. I had just had a couple of major losses and was incredibly discouraged (heck, I’d been discouraged for years) but I was getting ready to send a deposit overseas to import a dog who was closely related to Lucy, to try one more time to get her back.

Well, I think you can guess the rest. Clue came out of that shipping crate and looked at me and all the bushes around us spontaneously flowered and pink-haired unicorns twirled around while Rick Springfield rose up out of the lawn and sang. And she was, ahem, not the kids’ dog.

If and when Clue goes to her notable reward, she’s taught me not to look for her.

I would never want anyone to think that they MUST keep a dog. In fact, if you can smell failure I’d rather have you rehome the dog soon, while it is still young and will easily and happily adjust to its new home. But I hope we can maybe shape ourselves to give them jobs they have at least a decent chance at succeeding at, give them a fighting chance to stay, so when another decision is made it’s for the happiness of both sides.

(McConnell’s book is wonderful, by the way. You should definitely read it, and I think you should follow her blog as well. Just beware of putting anyone up on a pedestal.)

buying a puppy, General, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership

Puppies and the morality of the market (or Are puppies a derivative?)

If you've been reading anything within the blogs-about-blogs world this week, there's one dominant topic: WordPress versus Thesis (or Mullenweg versus Pearson). If you haven't been following it, it's a fascinating story and I think it's very relevant to the way we think about what we do as breeders and as owners.

Here's the short version: WordPress, which is the platform this blog exists on and also forms the architecture for a whole bunch of blogs and sites that are actually important, exists under what's called a GPL, or general public license. The GPL that governs WordPress exists in order to keep it open for users to change or modify or build on in whatever way they wish. That's why you can get inside WordPress's code and (on your own site) either break it or improve it or modify it as much as you want, whereas something like Microsoft Word forbids that kind of thing. 

Releasing a platform like WordPress under the GPL is a philosophical decision – it says that its owners don't agree with the concept of closed or proprietary code and believe that all users should be able to have free software – where "free" means freedom to use or change, not zero cost (though WordPress is free).

Part of the GPL says that if you build something that has its own function but uses code from the original platform – if you build a plugin for WordPress, for example – you have to also release it under the GPL. This makes the freedom inherited, and is – again – a philosophical choice. It says "Don't build for this unless you're willing to cede your power to the users."

Where the rubber has hit the road this week is in the issue of themes. 

Themes are what tell the blog what it looks like to you, the reader. They're deeper than "skins" but some people refer to them the same way. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of themes out there that allow my blog to look different from Kate's blog or from Jeri's blog or from anybody else's blog. 

Themes can be as simple as instructions for the text to show up in a plain white box or as complicated and useful as their own little programs. The one I'm using right now allows me to, for example, easily display certain pictures in certain ways, or not have certain pages or posts visible, and it does this by adding code to what WordPress is already doing. 

The vast majority of all themes are released under the GPL, because their owners and developers consider them to be "derivatives" of WordPress. Plenty of those developers charge for the themes, especially if they add a ton of user-friendly functionality and support, but the deal is that once you own the theme you can tinker with it as much as you want.

So, for example, for this blog I started off with an off-the-shelf theme and then changed it like crazy so that it no longer looks like it did when I downloaded it. And I have the right to do this, even to go so far as to strip the theme of its identifying details (as being developed by Woo themes) and pretending that it's mine. And I could give my modified code to somebody else and they could install it and slightly modify it again and call it theirs. And so on. 

Developers who work under the GPL make sales for slightly different reasons than Microsoft or Apple does. You're not paying for the software as much as you're paying for their expertise in making it really useful and in supporting it if you have problems. So, even though I could legally e-mail you code, you're probably going to just go spend the $40 to buy a theme yourself because there's a high chance that I've screwed up the code in some way and there's an even higher – approaching 100% – chance that I can't answer the questions you have about how the theme works. 

Entering this arena is a person who did what many, many other developers have done – he built a theme for WordPress. It's called Thesis. And, by all accounts, it's a good theme. The huge difference is that he decided that his theme wasn't going to abide by the GPL; he was going to release it under a license a little more like Microsoft's or Apple's license. If you buy his theme as a single user, you must abide by his license terms. You can only have the theme installed on one website. You have to have his identifying footer. And you can't redistribute the code to anyone else. 

In the world of blogs-about-blogs, this issue has mushroomed to an astonishing extent. What themes are, what derivatives consist of, whether themes are new works, whether themes can stand on their own, the rather astonishing revelation that big chunks of Thesis code are copied directly from WordPress's, and so on. It's become a big fat hairy deal. 

I'm always interested by big fat hairy deals, but it would have remained on the edge of my awareness if it were not for the VERY unique response that Thesis's owner, Chris Pearson, gave to the accusations that he was violating the GPL.

He did NOT say "I am not violating the GPL, and here are my pieces of evidence one two three."

No, he said, "I don't care if I'm violating the GPL. The market has spoken."

In other words, because he was making so many sales, the market had blessed his decision and nothing else mattered.

I am sure there are people reading this nodding and saying, "Oh, an anarcho-capitalist," and I think you're right. In fact, I think you're so right that about the only thing that will ever resolve the above issue is litigation that tells Thesis's owner that he's not allowed to distribute under his own license; he is going to be completely impervious to any appeals to what is the "right" thing to do or what's respectful or anything else. 

The more I thought about this, about how amazing his response was, how gleefully amoral it was, the more familiar it sounded. 

How many times have you heard, when a terrible breeder is challenged on his or her practices, "I have a hundred happy puppy buyers." Or "I never have any trouble selling my litters." or "You're just saying that because you don't want me competing with you." or "People come to me because you expect them to jump through ridiculous hoops and sign their lives away."

These people will not ever actually address the issue – they never say "Yes, I do test my dogs and here's the evidence." Their response is one of market creating morality. Because they sold puppies, their actions are sound. Because they have no trouble getting checks made out to them, nothing else matters.

Michael Walzer, who has written a lot on how we think morally, said it this way:

Competition in the market puts people under great pressure to break the ordinary rules of decent conduct and then to produce good reasons for doing so. It is these rationalizations – the endless self-deception necessary to meet the bottom line and still feel okay about it – that corrode moral character. 

To you as a good breeder, this should be front and center every time you sell a puppy. You are selling a puppy under a very specific license, if you will. You are saying that the puppy is the derivative of your breeding program – would not exist except for your input and your framework – and therefore decisions made about its future must be made under a set of actions you've set. The puppy must never be bred, must be shown, must be fed a certain diet, must be mated to a certain type of dog. 

You are trusting that everyone around you understands the rules of the system, and wishes to work under your license. They've bought the puppy not because they couldn't get one free somewhere, but because you offer the predictability, education, and support that the free one doesn't come with. 

But out there are a whole bunch of people for whom the market establishes the morality. They will buy one of your puppies and they will do whatever you want, sign anything you want, say anything you want them to say, with absolutely no intention of following it if there's a chance that they can make some money. And, when and if you confront them, their response will be the same as we've heard so many times – "I didn't have any trouble selling that litter. You just don't want me competing with you. You're just mad because I'm succeeding at this and you've failed."

So my question is – what should we do, as breeders, knowing this reality? Is there a way to more accurately assess buyers? Are there any real legal recourses that will actually protect the dogs – not just give us some money for misbehavior? Is there a way to come together as a community and share common goals – to write our "Dog GPL," as it were? How can we act, within our system, in a way that shows respect both for the creatures that we love and respect for (but with the knowledge of the frailty of) human nature? I think we have adequate legal recourse – we CAN, after all, always sue them – but doing so doesn't protect the dogs in the first place. That has to be the definition of success, not that we got paid after the fact for something that wrecked a dog or a breeding program. Is there a way to genuinely establish a morality that is not the market?