Image: In the photo provided by Carroll County, Va., three puppies that appear to be a Maltese mix share a cage on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007 in Hillsville, Va., at Horton's Pups, a dog breeding operation owned by Junior Horton, specializing in small breeds
The Roanoke Times  /  AP
These three dogs shared a cage at a "puppy mill." When buying a puppy, check out where the animal was raised.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/22/2008 5:44:46 PM ET 2008-01-22T22:44:46

If you're looking to get a new dog, recent headlines no doubt have warned you against buying an animal from illegal "puppy mills" run by unlicensed breeders. But don't be fooled into thinking that legal, licensed breeders and those with registration papers are a guarantee of a healthy puppy either.

When the Humane Society of the United States released a video last month charging that a Los Angeles pet store, Pets of Bel Air, purchased its pricey puppies from puppy mills, the store responded on its Web site with a statement that its dogs were purchased from pet breeders approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and that it relied on the USDA to inspect breeders and their premises.

But just because a breeder has a license from the USDA doesn’t mean much. USDA minimum standards for housing and exercise are bare bones. The agency requirement for cage size — the primary enclosure in which breeding dogs live their lives — is just six inches taller, wider and longer than the dog inside. That is, a miniature Dachshund measuring 20 inches from nose to base of tail and standing nine inches high might be housed in a cage only 26 inches wide by 26 inches deep by 15 inches high. The USDA waives the exercise requirement of 30 minutes per day for at least five days a week if the dog is housed in a cage with twice the floor space called for by the above formula.

In addition, USDA regulations don’t address socialization — the handling and exposure a puppy needs during its first weeks of life to develop properly — or the health, temperament and quality of the parents.

American Kennel Club (AKC) or other registration papers also may not mean much. All they certify is that both parents were of the same breed. No dog registry or government agency requires breeders to socialize puppies or health-test their parents for orthopedic, eye or heart problems, or even to be knowledgeable about the breed or dogs in general.

Best of breeders
So how do you know whether a puppy’s had a good start in life? Plan on doing some footwork. Purchasing a purebred puppy should entail at least the same amount of thought and research you’d put into buying a new appliance or car, if not more. After all, you’ll likely spend anywhere from $500 to $3,000 for a companion that will spend the next 10 or more years with you.

Your best bet is a breeder who belongs to national and local breed clubs and has signed the club’s code of ethics. But even that’s not foolproof, says French Bulldog breeder James Dalton in Portsmouth, Ohio.

“The French Bulldog Club of America does have a code of ethics that breeders are expected to abide by, but they do not always and the FBDCA has no way of enforcing that code of ethics,” he says.

That’s true for any breed club. A code of ethics is only as good as the people who sign it, so look for red flags.

Visiting a breeder’s home gives you a chance to meet a puppy’s mother and the breeder’s other dogs. If they have nice temperaments, your puppy probably will too. If they’re shy or aggressive, there’s a good chance the puppy has inherited those undesirable traits.

Rule out breeders who sell dogs at flea markets or in parking lots or don’t want you to come to their home, a sign that the breeder doesn't want you to see the conditions in which the dogs live. If you do see the home, heed the advice of Bloodhound breeder Susan LaCroix Hamil of Laguna Beach, Calif.: “Never buy a puppy from a place where you wouldn’t want to eat dinner or use the bathroom.”

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How breeders raise puppies before they go to their new families or are shipped to pet stores has a strong influence on their temperament. Breeders whose puppies live in the backyard, don’t meet other people and animals and aren’t handled much can have more behavior issues. They can also have more difficulty adapting to new homes than puppies raised in the home and exposed to different people, sights, sounds and experiences, says veterinarian Lore Haug, a board-certified behaviorist with South Texas Veterinary Behavior Services in Sugar Land.

Pet stores may charge as much as or more than breeders for puppies, but you don’t get the benefits of buying directly from a breeder: meeting the parents and seeing the conditions in which the puppies are raised. Without that context, it’s difficult to judge a puppy’s temperament and potential health.

Can't pass up that doggie in the window?
If your heart is taken by that doggie in the window, though, ask the pet store for the breeder's name, address and phone number, copies of the breeder's USDA inspection reports, pictures of the parents, and photos of the kennel where the dogs live. If you’re not satisfied with the response, don’t buy the puppy. You can also check the USDA inspection record of a pet store puppy’s breeders at petshoppuppies.org.

While sophisticated Web sites that accept credit cards and offer next-day shipping are quick and easy sources for finding puppies, they’re not the best way to ensure that you acquire a healthy, well-socialized puppy.

Don’t be sucked in by a pretty Web site that promises puppies now. Large numbers of puppies available, acceptance of credit cards and high-pressure sales tactics — “That puppy might be gone tomorrow” — are red flags. Often, these sites are fronts for brokers who purchase large litter lots of puppies from mills in the U.S., Eastern Europe or Ireland. When you buy a puppy sight unseen, there’s no way of knowing what its parents were like or the conditions in which it was raised.

That said, surfing the Web can lead you to good breeders. Sandy Ford of Monterey, Calif., used the Internet to find English Springer Spaniel breeder Linda Prouty of Stonewall, La. Before purchasing a pup, he spent time getting to know Prouty by e-mail and then flew to Louisiana to meet her dogs in person.

Not everyone can do that, but if you know someone who lives in the breeder’s area, ask him to visit and report back to you on the condition of the dogs and where they’re raised. You can also call the AKC’s customer service line at 919-233-9767 and ask if the breeder has ever been suspended for any reason.

A puppy is a big commitment, financially and emotionally. Choosing a breeder carefully will help you make the right decision. And if you really want to make a difference in a dog's life, check your local shelter. Puppy season is coming up.

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

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