What Exactly is a Responsible Breeder?


A healthy, sound dog...

After doing some renovation and painting in my boarding kennel last month, I was rehanging my hard-earned Hall of Fame Kennel certificates when a regular client wandered in to drop off her hound mix, Riley, for daycare. Spying my framed documents, she gushed “Wow, you must be so proud! Those really prove that you are a responsible breeder, right?”.

“Er…” I mumbled, fussing with the picture wire I’d painstakingly installed the day my “proof” arrived in the mail so many years ago, “er…well…kinda’… sorta’…”. Not to be waylaid, she pushed, ” What do you have to do to be a Hall of Fame breeder? It must be a lot of work sending in all the health papers and showing your dogs have good temperaments and all that. Does the Better Business Bureau have to endorse you?” I explained that, proud as I was of my dog’s achievements, these Hall of Fame designations ( and now the AKC Breeder of Merit), really just showed that a certain number of my dogs had earned titles in a variety of competitive venues – no health checks, no temperament tests, certainly no BBB. Sadly, no real proof that I was a “reputable” breeder.

She looked at me quizzically, ” Well then, how does anyone know how to tell if a breeder is responsible?”

A new client arrived yesterday with her 10 week old puppy in tow. “Oh!” I cooed ” How cute is that? Where’d you come across this little fellow?”. “On the internet” she replied ” but don’t worry, they were responsible breeders. The web site said they followed a code of ethics and they had a guarantee. We just love him!”. This was obviously not the time to bring up the life their lucky pup’s parents might endure in what was likely a high volume breeding operation.

A prospective puppy buyer called recently and ,as I have no puppies for sale, I began my usual referral speech. He interrupted me ” I want a reputable professional, not just someone who does this as a part-time hobby in their garage”. When I explained that a part-time hobby/garage breeder might just be exactly who he should work with, his doubt was obvious. “Surely”, he insisted, ” I’d be better off with a full-time professional. They’d have the most expertise.”

We hear this phrase “responsible breeder” bandied about a lot. We are admonished to be “responsible”. Potential puppy buyers are advised to work only with “responsible” breeders. “Irresponsible” breeders are fodder for the animal rights extremists, the media and legislative initiatives. “Irresponsible “breeders are indicted in news headlines screaming “70 Starving Puppies found in Filth”. Websites abound extolling the virtues of buying from breeders who adhere to Codes of Ethics, raise only healthy dogs, breed very few litters of very few breeds, guarantee their dogs and never, ever turn away from one of their dogs in need. Responsible breeder checklists direct puppy buyers to seek out hobby/show breeders and spell out in considerable detail what to look for in such a breeder.

Locating and connecting with those breeders can be a confusing process for pet buyers because much of the “good” breeder’s ethical code is not pet-centric. Much of the current climate on dog breeding vilifies show dog breeders and although some may, no doubt, deserve it, most are, as they say, stuck between a rock and a hard place. Animal rights/welfare doctrine pressures breeders to be “good” ( if at all!) and a “good” breeder assiduously rejects identification as a pet breeder ( after all, isn’t that what puppy mills do?).

The definitions for responsible breeder are paradoxical at best. Confusing not just for the buyer but the breeder as well.

Here’s my tongue-firmly-in-cheek checklist:

  • A responsible breeder is smaller than a puppy mill, but bigger than a backyard breeder – more professional than a backyard breeder but not as professional as a puppy mill…
  • A responsible breeder is identified by how little she breeds, but is expected to be an expert in genetics, animal husbandry, puppy rearing and dog behavior…
  • A responsible breeder provides optimal health care, facilities, food and enrichment for her breeding stock, but must not make any money doing what she loves…
  • A responsible breeder should be THE SOURCE for pups to the public, but should only occasionally breed and most certainly does not advertise in the local newspaper, nor pin notes on community bulletin boards…
  • A responsible breeder is “evaluated” in the show and performance rings, but must not let striving for that validation ( no other accolades in this game!) shape her breeding priorities…
  • Responsible breeders keep meticulous records, stay on top of surprisingly onerous amounts of paperwork, return phone calls and emails promptly, spend hours meeting with potential clients, craft carefully worded contracts for puppy sales, stud services and leases, balance budgets and provide unlimited customer support, yet dares not think of this work in businesslike terms…
  • A responsible breeder does not keep just one dam and sire ( backyard breeder alert?), acts as a lifetime safety net for every dog ever produced, grows all potential stock until at least two years of age, but keeps all her dogs in the house and rarely ( sarcasm alert!), God Forbid, uses crates and kennels …
  • A responsible breeder’s website strives to attract good owners, but insists they “don’t breed pets” and “breed only for themselves”…
  • A responsible breeder structures his life around the care of his animals, but must consider breeding his avocation, never his vocation...

“Good” breeders are betwixt and between. How does anyone realistically and sustainably meet all those divergent criteria? Puppy buyers are understandably just as confused. Their heads must be spinning as they try to sort out the far from cohesive messages about where to find a puppy. This against the constant, guilt inducing drumbeat of “Don’t buy, adopt”.

How do we communicate a coherent definition of responsible breeder to the general public ( and ourselves!)? Are there aspects of what we believe to be responsible that might actually conflict with our abilities to be the primary source for ethically bred puppies?

I’d love to hear more from readers.

More next time…

29 thoughts on “What Exactly is a Responsible Breeder?

  1. Perhaps we do need to consider sometimes trying to fit just into that public “reptuable breeder” does or does not do.. often does send otherwise good people to breeders that are not so caring.. I am glad that someone such as you has finaly put a voice to such things.. as I have had numerous conflicts over these issues.. THANK you..Sorry if I had a dollar for every person I have talked with over the years.. that has contacted me in fustration over silly things like daring to ask a price, not seeing any informaiton on any possible litters or dogs for sale on a website…Or even the impression that a breeder only breeds “show” dogs so somthing a pet owner does not want.. I would be rich!.. and we are in a pretty good area as far as our doggie community goes.. it is far worse in some other breeds/areas..

    I am not saying we should not have ethics..and one can have these things.. however.. worry about that one should “not” do.. for fear of the stigma.. or impression/pressure from others in the dog community.. or this fairy tail concept of what reptuable breeders do or do not do.. often does the dogs, good breeders or homes looking for a good dog no good..

    How does one really tell? pehaps it is not just a list.. but how they act, breed, and care and palce their dogs.. that really matters.. not just some list as there are exceptions to each and every item.. often trying to keep to such a list is the very things that prevents good homes from finding a real reputable breeder?

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that what makes a breeder a responsible breeder is more complex than a list can cover. There are, of course, some bottom line things one can expect from someone ethical.
      I’m interested in exploring what an education/certification program might look like and how it might serve to professionalize the work we do…Maybe one more way to provide breeders dvelopment and validation.

  2. This is a wonderful commentary! Thank you for pointing out the logical inconsistencies in the quest to identify those most “responsible”. I believe the Breeder of Merit must also participate in some breed-specific health testing within the CHIC guidelines. However, in some breeds, the designated tests are not necessarily significant but were selected in order that more breeders would just participate and test for testing’s sake.
    I might add to your list, that one must not have just a sire and dam, but may not have more than a handful of dogs lest they fall into the parameters for “commercial” activity.
    One must primarily breed primarily show champions, with the goal only to “improve” the breed, but must never crossbreed or breed for pets. Unless, of course, you want to produce police dogs, guide dogs for the blind, healthy pets for the public. Hmmm.
    A responsible breeder must never show and breed a “rescued” dog, unless of course he is actually successful, like one of the Weimaraners participating in Westminster this year!

    • Thanks for your comments. I will admit to scratching my head in confusion when I hear that crossbreeding is only concionable in “purpose bred ” dogs (flyball, guide, police, etc).
      I would emphasize that “pet” is a purpose – a job, a very important one. Given that the majority of each of our litters end up in pet homes, I think we must be careful not to denigrate that “work”. Actively, carefully and ethically breeding for the skills necessary to successful “pet-hood” is just as commendable as breeding for a niche dog sport like flyball.
      We are oddly dismissive of the domestic dog’s primary role in present day society.

  3. Very good article. I had a hard time finding my girl, who is my first Aussie, because most local breeders I contacted ended the conversation when I said I wanted a pet quality puppy, one I could spay, and yes that she would sleep outside-in a custom built house with heat, a window, and good insulation. I finally found a breeder who only sold her dogs with spay or neuter contracts and was more interested in what I wanted her for(agility, obedience and stock work), and had my girl home 4 months later. I would hate to be a breeder nowadays, with all the roadblocks the government and groups like PETA put on them, but thank goodness some of them are still around!

    • Thanks for your note. I’m glad you and your pup were finally connected. I imagine the outdoor sleeping arrangements may have given some of the breeders you contacted pause. They may have worried that your pup might have ended up relegated to the backyard permanently – always difficult for such a social species. Careful communication between breeder and client can help increase understanding on such potentially hot button issues.

  4. I did not like this article at all. I feel it slammed the professional licensed breeder and called them a pm . No not a good article. There are good breeders and there bad breeders who shouldnt be in the business, that can be a hobby or licensed breeder. Just having 2 or 3 or 10 dogs instead of 100 does not constitute a good breeder.

    • Thanks for being willing to take the time to post another viewpoint. It is certainly not my intention to alienate breeders from one another. I agree that what makes a “good” breeder vs. a “bad” breeder has less to do with numbers than with how we take care of our animals and support our clients. It’s my opinion, and just an opinion I might add, that dogs seem to thrive best when they are able to develop functional attachments to a social group, exercise regularly and live lives reasonably free of excess boredom and stress. (Sounds like us!) I realize and statistics bear this out, that purebred dogs from ANY source represent less than 1/4 of the dogs that end up in shelters. We do still, though, all have a responsibility to carefully screen and then support our buyers for the long haul. If we can get that 1/4 number even lower, then there will be less finger pointing and vilifying of all of us “evil” breeders. The dogs will only benefit.

    • I would agree that being a breeder with 10 or fewer dogs does not make you a good breeder – I’ve met plenty from whom I wouldn’t buy a pet rock. But personally, any breeder with 100 dogs, is not someone I would deal with.

      The number one function of most dogs is that of pet, even if they are also performance or show dogs. Many service dogs also function as pets in addition to their jobs. There is no way a breeder can have 100 dogs and actually _live_ with them all in order to evaluate their functionality as a pet dog. And this is not to mention the quality of life for a dog that is 1 out of 100. How many nights by the fire is that dog spending? How many long walks by the river with his owner?

      Not many, I’d wager.

  5. After 25 years of breeding and showing toy dogs, who have small litters anyway, I have spoken to thousands of potential buyers for my puppies. Some leave a good impression on me, some a very bad one. My husband has complained (even though I earn it) of all the money I spend doing genetic testing on my dogs. Not to mention going away to shows or paying a handler to show them when I cannot.
    Raising a few beautiful healthy dogs each year is my legacy to the dog fancy. I am not interested in having lots of pups to sell or care for as it is a very time consuming, heavy responsibility to raise healthy dogs since that is the only worthwhile future to give them along with a loving home for their entire lives. My idea.

  6. “but keeps all her dogs in the house and rarely, if ever, uses crates ”

    A good article, but the author is a little out of touch with every breed. This statement should not be used to judge a good basenji breeder, in fact, can be harmful.

    My dogs, basenjis, sleep in their collie sized crates at night, and throughout the day, since the doors are left open. They can be found curled up in them, usually to take advantage of the treasured sunbeam. Sometimes I find 3 in a crate!

    Those crates are not used ‘rarely’ but responsibly. When I was active in basenji breeding, I ALWAYS suggested to puppy homes to use a crate, at least the first year. My goal was to match the basenji’s unique personality with the right home

    • Thanks for your comment. I realize, I may not have emphasized how “tongue in cheek” my responsible breeder list is. I was actually being a bit sarcastic about the unreal standards breeders are held to. I’m with you on the crate thing. It’s the only way to manage multiple dogs, feed separately, rotate couch dogs, keep them safe when you are out, etc. etc. I was kidding!

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  9. Very well written and enlightening as well I hope for many.

    As a pit bull advocate who is a part of the animal welfare community I routinely come across shelter workers and rescues who target breeders as the ‘sole’ reason why there is over-population in the shelter/rescue system; therefore they cite breeders as the ‘sole’ reason why dogs are being euthanized in shelters or are not being adopted because people choose to purchase a dog from a breeder rather than adopt from a shelter. Most people in the animal welfare community I’ve ever come across only use the term ‘breeder’ when complaining about how over crowded their shelter/rescue is or about how few people come to the shelter looking to adopt a dog and when they use the term it’s used as if describing some evil, uncaring, dog abusing/neglecting person wringing their hands in joy over their piles of money from all the dogs they’ve sold.

    Also as a pit bull advocate I do my best to talk some sense into those who view any and all people who breed dogs as evil, hateful, uncaring people by pointing out to them that those truly ethical and responsible dog breeders in the world could be our best ally in what we do if only we’d reach out to them and ask for their help. But unfortunately due to the intensive brainwashing that is done by just a few in the animal welfare community about breeders (“those breeders, they are ALL alike you know and none of them care about the dogs, not a single one of them”) I am often myself attacked for even suggesting that there is even one truly ethical or responsible dog breeder in existence. They don’t want to hear that most ethical/responsible dog breeders sign a contract with the people who purchase a dog from them and typically in that contract there is a clause that stipulates that if for any reason the purchasers can’t keep the dog or if there are problems the dog goes back to the breeder. They don’t want to hear that most ethical/responsible dog breeders do what they do for the love of the breed they choose or that most of the ethical/responsible dog breeders work diligently to continue to improve that breed in the overall health and disposition of the dogs. They don’t want to hear anything positive about any breeder anywhere because they have made up their minds that they themselves are doing a ‘perfect’ job of handling the dogs in their shelter/rescue and that the dog breeders of the world are the only reason why they need to rescue dogs. One friend of mine who is simply a dog lover stated to me a year or so ago that in her opinion dog breeding in any way whatsoever should be made illegal…should be stopped completely. At the moment she made the statement I was gobsmacked and really had no reply but later I wished I had pointed out to her that IF all dog breeding everywhere was outlawed/stopped that within less than twenty years the domesticated dog would become extinct and there would be no more dogs…period!

    I think this person’s statement about outlawing dog breeding all together was driven a whole lot more by emotions than by logic and to be quite honest the vast majority of the people I have encountered in my travels as a pit bull advocate in the animal welfare community are led completely by their emotions. It’s a very sad thing indeed because their emotions are causing them to eliminate all sorts of help from all sorts of people to save dogs; which in the end I believe is a common goal for the animal welfare community and the ethical/responsible dog breeding community. In the end it is after all ALL about the dogs, isn’t it?

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