Once you’ve determined the best breed for you, and assuming you’ve decided to buy a puppy rather than an adult, it’s time to start looking for a breeder. There are several ways to locate a breeder.

Some breeders may not advertise. They may be able to sell an entire litter (before it’s born!) by word of mouth, based on their outstanding reputation. So ask around. Ask veterinarians, groomers, and pet store clerks, obedience class instructors and people who own that breed. Find out when the next big dog show is scheduled for your area, what time your breed will be judged, and go watch. Ask exhibitors and audience members to recommend breeders. Buy a catalog to check kennel names and addresses. Collect business cards. Watch and listen. Find out if your breed has a club in your area. Attend their meetings and get to know the members. If you’re still lacking for breeders, contact the American Kennel Club (AKC) and ask for the address of your breed’s ‘national parent club. Write to them and ask for a half dozen breeders in your area (which may be within a 50 mile, or 500 mile, radius, depending upon the popularity of your breed in your area).

Call and visit as many breeders as you can. Leave the kids and emotional adults at home. Pretend you’re doing research (you are!) and objectively visit each of the breeders. Ask to see their entire operation. Ask to pet and play with some of their adults, including the litter’s sire and dam, if they are on the premises. (If the dam is not well adjusted, the puppies will probably not be either.) Look for clean facilities, and well- adjusted adult dogs. Do the adults have toys to play with, or do they just pace nervously in their runs? Are there large fenced paddocks for the adults to run, or just narrow kennels?

What type of facilities are the puppies kept in? insist on seeing the puppy run or pen. (Don’t allow the breeder to just bring a few puppies into the kennel office.) Puppy pens should be large enough for the puppies to have separate areas for sleeping, eating, playing and eliminating. There should be good footing, with obstacles for climbing and playing and lots of toys lying around. Puppies should not be confined exclusively to cement kennel runs for most of the day.

Ask to see the whelping room. It should be located in, or just off, the kennel office or in some room of the house. From birth, puppies need to have human contact (even before their eyes open). They need to experience the sights, sounds and smells of human activity and a normal household environment (pots and pans, radio, running water, conversation, etc.). Puppies need gentle handling and lots of attention at a very young age to develop properly. Puppies should not be whelped in a kennel or run.

Once you’ve had the full tour of the facilities, ask to see the litter that was advertised (or that you’re interested in). Watch the puppies interact together for a while. Play with them as a group and see who is most outgoing and desiring of your attention. Look for the shy or independent ones. Figure out who the puppy “pack leader” is. Ask the breeder which puppies are still available and within your budget (show vs. pet quality). Then bring those puppies out, one at a time, into the kennel office or other quiet place. This is where you will do your serious evaluation and temperament testing.

During your visit, ask the breeder about the puppies’ temperaments and his or her evaluation of them. How do these puppies compare with other litters (physically and mentally)? How do they compare with their parents and grandparents. Is this litter more or less outgoing, faster or slower to develop and explore, more or less aggressive, etc. (If the breeder is evasive here, or answers “average” to all your questions, beware. There’s a chance the breeder hasn’t spent enough time with the litter to know.) Ask the breeder about physical problems within the breed. (Don’t ask “leading” questions. See how much the breeder will tell you.) Ask about problems with this line of dogs. If the breeder says this line has “absolutely no problems” beware. Very few (if any) can truthfully say that. An honest breeder realizes it is in their best interest (and in the best interest of their breed) to be honest with you and help educate you.

Research your breed thoroughly (through books, veterinarians, breed clubs, and objective individuals) so you know what problems are particularly present in that breed. Beware of books that only sing the praises of a particular breed of dog. Books that avoid discussing the problems associated with a breed are often not objective. These books tend to be written by breeders interested in puppy sales. Look for books, and individuals, who present both sides of the story. Understand what makes the difference between pet, showable and show quality animals. Do not rely exclusively on the information of breeders (who are trying to make a sale). They may be unwilling to give you all the facts. Just because a breed is known for having a higher incidence of problems (such as hip dysplasia in German Shepherds), that doesn’t mean all dogs will have the problem. It does mean you’ll have to do a more careful job of screening prospective puppies through their bloodlines.

Before you leave the breeder’s, ask for a copy of their purchase agreement or contract to review at home. Ask about grace periods (usually 24-48 hours for you to take your puppy to your vet for an evaluation) and return policies. Ask about “guarantees” regarding structural or physical problems (such as hips). Get this in writing! Make sure the breeder has individual AKC registration forms for each of the puppies so that you will not have to wait for paperwork that may never be completed. Be aware that some breeders will not release AKC registration papers until you prove the dog has been spayed or neutered. Do not be taken in by the breeder who puts two prices on the same puppy. Some breeders will sell the puppy “without AKC papers” at a lower price, and charge much more if you want the papers. In fact, this puppy may not be AKC registered, at all. However, you may be able to purchase a very nice AKC puppy at a lower price if you agree to have it spayed/neutered at the appropriate age. Some breeders will wait to release the AKC papers until the animal has been altered, an acceptable practice provided you have proof the puppy is in fact registered.

If your buying a pet quality puppy, base your decision on temperament. A missing tooth or incorrect ear set will probably not impact the dog’s life, but a poor temperament can result in life-long problems. A pet quality puppy should be purchased young, realizing that there are no guarantees about good hips or elbows. On the other hand, if your primary goal in buying a puppy is for show, then you need to buy an older puppy to make sure he is structurally sound. Temperament, in this case, may have to be secondary.

Many breeders will refer to dogs as “guaranteed to finish” vs. “show quality” vs. “showable” vs. “pet quality.” These terms generally refer to the animal’s conformation (physical structure) and its ability to earn a breed championship.

Guaranteed to Finish: Often this is an older puppy or adult dog that already has championship points. The breeder is certain that with proper showing, professional handling, etc., the animal will earn an AKC Championship. A few breeders will actually provide a written guarantee.

Show Quality: This may be any age of dog or puppy. In the breeder’s best professional opinion, this animal will mature into a dog that will finish a championship. No guarantees, however. The breeder has already verified the animal to be free of disqualifying faults.

Showable: This is typically a dog or puppy that has one or more minor faults that would, objectively speaking, never be able to finish a championship. It’s a good quality animal, yet not of the caliber it takes to finish. This dog would probably win a few class placement ribbons, at best, but is best suited as a pet and companion.

Pet Quality: This is typically a dog that has enough minor faults, or disqualifying faults, that would prevent it from competing in the breed ring. If you’re not interested in breed competition, these faults may not matter. The dog may be too large or too small, have a kink in its tail, its coat may be too long, etc. These faults would not impact the animal’s health and life-span. On the other hand, “pet quality” dogs may have very serious faults such as hip dysplasia or eye problems or heart problems that might impact that dog’s quality of life. Have the breeder clearly identify each puppy’s good points as well as faults. If possible, have the breeder’s findings reviewed by your veterinarian.