Edit: I made an absolutely horrible spelling error which is now fixed. Apologies!
Welcome to part 2! This post is going to be a really good look at dog breeders; specifically those who breed their dogs for either conformation, performance or both. I will attempt to peel back the layers to get at the heart of the matter and arm you with some good knowledge and a deep understanding of the professional dog breeding industry. This is specifically looking at the more responsible breeders out there and should serve as a guide to spotting one. We’ll tackled puppy mills and back yard breeders in a later post.
First, let me tackle some common misconceptions that I hear from various individuals and organizations about dog breeders.
- Breeders are the reason there are so many dogs in animals shelters.
- Breeders only care about money; they view their dogs as a business and nothing more.
- Purebred dogs from breeders will have more health problems and genetic issues than a mixed breed.
- All dog breeders are bad.
I have heard these arguments over and over again; in fact, I still hear them today. Let me respond in turn:
(1)Breeders are not the reason that animals make their ways into shelters. Uniformed, uneducated and careless owners are the reason. As a result of this ignorance states are making blind legislation that hurts reputable breeders and makes it hard to continue doing something they are passionate about and love. Again, it’s treated like a ‘black and white’ issue. It’s not (I’m sure you’re noticing the theme here).
(2)Reputable breeders don’t breed dogs for money. In fact, they typically spend more money on testing, vaccines, food, shelter and a variety of other items that they are often lucky if they break even. Good breeders simply are not in it for the money; they are in it for the love of the dog.
(3) Yes, purebred dogs can have health problems from irresponsible breeders who are breeding for the wrong reasons. However, a breeder who knows the breed can inform you of potential issues and you can make an informed decision from there. Just because we are cognizant about potential health issues doesn’t mean they are less healthy than a mixed breed.
I cannot iterate this last point enough. (4) Not all dog breeders are created equal. In fact, we need reputable and responsible breeders to preserve the breed and continue to improve it.
Purchasing from a breeder is right for you if you’re looking specifically for certain characteristics in a dog, want a guarantee on temperament as well as health or are looking to get a specific breed.
If you’re looking for a puppy or starting to contemplate getting one you should first keep the following in mind.
All good breeders should do the following:
- Genetic and/or health testing specific to their breed.They will also explain in-detail all the potential issues they face and what they have done to keep them out of the lines they breed.
- Make sure the dogs they are breeding have appropriate health clearances before breeding; specifically look for:
- Things like hips and elbows if the breed is known to have problems. They will provide you proof if asked.
- Provide health guarantees for the life of the dog against known genetic or other health problems for that breed; they should provide such guarantees in writing.
- Have you fill out a puppy questionnaire or ask you A LOT of questions about where the pup is going. Expect an interrogation.
- Let you meet mom and/or dad if they are onsite at the breeders premise
- Provide you pedigrees for mom and dad so you can track lineage and ensure against line breeding
- Has only 1 or 2 breeds they work with
- Let’s you spend quality time with the puppy on multiple occasions before you purchase
- Breeds no sooner than every other heat
- Breeds for specific characteristics and can tell you why they bred the two dogs they did
- Doesn’t just give you a puppy based on ‘looks’ alone. Tries to match you to a puppy that has a personality you’re looking for
- Explains in depth the pros and cons of the breed (no breed is perfect for everyone)
- Will serve as a point of contact for questions or just check-ins through the life of your dog; they should be willing to be a resource
- Should be the first person you contact if you don’t want the dog; a responsible breeder will always take a dog back
With that in mind, I want to delve more deeply into the difference between a breeder who breeds for conformation and a breeder who breeds for performance.
Yes, I said earlier that a breeder’s job is to improve the breed. No, it’s not playing god. What it is doing is being responsible. Dogs make fantastic pets but that’s not what all dogs are bred for. If you’ve watched a dog show on TV you know that dogs fall into different categories; Companion, Sporting, Non-Sporting, Herding, Hound, Terrier, Toy and Working. I won’t get into these so if you want to learn more, take a look at the AKC’s website for a deeper explanation. Companion and Toy dogs are the only breeds specifically bred to be pets, the rest were bred with a specific ‘job’ to do. Their structure and personality have direct correlation around this ‘job’. Now, this is where conformation and performance breeders are going to diverge. Breeders who primarily breed for conformation are attempting to improve the breed by continuing to breed towards the ideal breed standard. Those who breed for performance do so specifically to improve the breed by selecting for those characteristics that allow the dog to perform it’s job.
Let’s pause a moment. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t purchase a dog that was bred for something other than being a pet to be a part of your family. It’s these job characteristics that make certain dogs absolutely wonderful family companions. Just know that there are some breeds out there that still need a ‘job’ to be happy. Often times the destructive behavior that lands a dog in a shelter or rescue is from neurotic behavior that stems from boredom, not getting enough exercise or by simply not having a job to keep their minds occupied; behavior that could have been prevented with a little history into the breed you’re getting. This is also a reason many people chose to purchase from a breeder and not a rescue; knowing the breed helps them react and work with their dog properly. Unpause.
Let’s get back to the difference in conformation and performance dog breeders.
The dog industry (in the US, I’m looking at you AKC), has forced a divergent split between ‘looks’ and ‘performance’ in purebreds. While not unheard of, it’s rare to see a dog that conforms to the breed standard while still being able to perform what it has been bred to do. In fact, special awards are given for dogs that can do both conformation and agility or obedience. The reasons for this are twofold. First, since breeders are selecting essentially for ‘looks’, any of the dogs personality or ability to perform is secondary. Who cares if my Border Collie can’t herd if he looks great and can become a champion? Second, many breeders don’t work on the duality that their breed presents. When I bought my dog Blizzard, I asked the breeder about hunting and retrieving. Her dogs hadn’t even ever been swimming. She bred purely for looks and while her dogs could potentially been great hunting and retrieving dogs, she didn’t know as she never worked any of her dogs to see if they even had that aptitude. Sure, you can teach your dog to do what it is supposed to do but let’s be honest here; great dogs have innate ability, drive, and intelligence to do what they were bred to. Conformation breeders, who breed only to the standards of structure are unintentionally selecting against the reasons for that breed existing.
I’m not saying you can’t take a Golden Retriever that was bred for conformation and teach them retrieving and make then a hunting dog. You can, with hard work and lots of hours of training. However, if your retriever is gun shy or doesn’t gently pick up the duck you’re going to have issues. What I am saying is that if you want a dog specifically to do what it is supposed to do you generally have to find a performance breeder and not a conformation one.
The AKC in the US has turned the sport of conformation into one that relies solely on looks with no brains (this is politics aside, something I’m not tackling now). As long as the dog conforms to the breed standards it doesn’t matter if they can sit when told, let alone do what they were bred for. This exaggeration of certain breed characteristics has forever changed many breeds and not for the positive. German Sheppard’s now have such severe angulations in the hind quarters that they can hardly walk let alone herd or do protection work. Even many of the ‘companion breeds’ are suffering from such irresponsible breeding. The French Bulldog and Pug are perfect examples. This is a breed that, left to it’s own devices, would select against the snubbed nose. In fact, many of the French Bulldogs born in the US have to be born via c-section due to their heads being too large to fit through the birth canal. There would be no genetic preference to have such a severely snubbed nose.
Look at the AKC’s breed standard for the French Bulldog:
The stop well defined, causing a hollow groove between the eyes with heavy wrinkles forming a soft roll over the extremely short nose; nostrils broad with a well defined line between them
The standard calls for an extremely short nose but I would argue the breed, as it stands today has a fairly non-existent nose. What is ‘extremely short’? It’s left open and as the years have gone by the nose has gone from extremely short to a health hazard. Unfortunately common sense seems to have left the building for breeders whose livelihood comes from their show winners.
If you’re looking for a conformation dog to show, good luck to you. Most breeders won’t sell their shows dogs to someone who is unknown in the industry. Purchasing a conformation show dog is a lot like gambling; you pay a ton of money with no actual guarantees on the dog actually conforming to standards; in fact, from my experience you’re probably better off gambling the money you would otherwise spend. While conformation breeders will and do guarantee against health issues they never guarantee that your dog is going to win in the show ring. Case in point: I purchased Blizzard for conformation and at the age of 3 I am having him neutered. He never panned out to be a show dog but I love him nonetheless and he will stay with this family until he dies. I have a very expensive pet dog.
My advice to you, if you want to get a dog to show, is to network, network, network and be patient. Many breeders are going to turn you away. Some might even downright laugh at you. If you are tenacious enough you might eventually find someone willing to sell you a show dog. Conformation breeders evaluate the litter’s structure at around 8 weeks of age to get a gauge on show potential. They then go down a list starting with ‘pick of the litter’. If you are getting pick 5 out of 6 you likely shouldn’t expect too much from your new show pup in the ring. I once had ‘pick of the litter’ and ended up choosing the 2nd pick in the litter as I like her personality more. Even at second pick she turned out to not be show quality either. Also, expect a contract that outlines the terms and how many shows you’ll need to do. Most importantly don’t expect to win big time, not in the AKC at least unless you are willing to shell out big bucks for a handler. Make sure you ask questions and get referrals to ensure you are getting a dog from a breeder who isn’t so focused on ‘looking pretty’ that they are wearing blinders to other issues like temperament.
Breeders who breed specifically for performance do so looking at drive, ability, intelligence and whether or not they can do a number of different tasks. Performance breeders aren’t necessarily breeding their dogs to do their specific job but they can be looking to breed for certain characteristics that the breed is known to be good at; agility, flyball, obedience, search and rescue, therapy, etc. I know many Border Collie breeders that look for that high drive that make them fantastic agility dogs. My first dog ever was a Golden Retriever that was bred for obedience. She was everything I could have asked for and we went all the way up to UD training. She did obedience, agility, junior showmanship and would have learned math for me if I asked her too. She would have never made it in the show ring; her coat was curly, she didn’t have a straight topline, and her head was a tad too small. However, she did what she was bred to do an I couldn’t have asked for more.
The Golden Retriever is a perfect example of a breed that has diverged due to the conformation / performance split. 20 years ago Golden Retrievers were one of the go-to breeds for obedience work due to their intelligence and eagerness to please. Today, unless you specifically find a performance Golden they are often a few nuggets short of a happy meal. Unsurprisingly there is often a vast difference in appearance between a performance and conformation dog.
Performance dogs are a good bet if you’re looking for a family member or for the dog to participate in a specific sport. The dogs bred typically have impressive lineage with multi-titles in a number of different dog sports. Since they are focused on ‘doing’ and not ‘looking’ you tend to get a healthier more well rounded dog.
There are breeders out there who pay careful attention to both structure and temperament. A good breeder should always keep an eye on temperament but unfortunately many do not. When I look for a breeder I look for someone who has champion bloodlines with versatile dogs who can do more than look pretty in a show ring. The UKC is an organization that recognizes the importance of both ‘form and function’ and their breed standards are being changed to reflect that. The dog should conform to the standards but should also be able to do what it was meant to do. More organizations and breeders need to bring conformation and performance back together in the breed.
Check back for Part 3 – Backyard Breeders, Puppy Mills and Pet Stores