This goes out to all the people who say “Fifteen hundred dollars for a DOG? You have GOT to be kidding me!” I want to warn you that this is not a warm-fuzzy approach. I am going to tell you how we as breeders try to come up with a dollar amount for a puppy and how rescues do the same.
I am definitely not making a statement about how much we do or don’t love or dogs, or how we would or wouldn’t see them as valuable members of our families. Ginny cost a grand total of $5 to adopt; I would put a second mortgage on the house to save her if she were sick. What I am going to write is not about love; it’s about how we try to balance many considerations as we price our puppies and rescues, and how to tell if you’re getting what you are paying for.
Before we start, I want to explore a little bit of the idea of what a dog is “worth.” It’s not something that’s easy to put a finger on. Much of what we buy, when we purchase or adopt a puppy, is companionship. Dogs don’t generally bring in any income (at least they shouldn’t), so there’s not a lot of production value. You could argue that because there are a lot of dogs out there that need homes, there’s very little scarcity and so the intrinsic value of the dog is very low. And all of that is true.
I would like to invite you to consider value on two levels: first, what has been directly spent ON the dog to the point at which you are buying or adopting it; and, second, the “intellectual property,” warranty, and customer support that you are buying as intangibles when you write your check.
Those aspects we can actually quantify, and they should give you a decent idea of when you’re getting your “money’s worth” in a puppy or adult dog and when you’re getting taken for a ride.
First, the money that goes into a litter.
These are figures that I put together to describe a “typical” Dane litter that I bred. Some of mine have been more expensive, a couple MUCH more expensive. I tried to make this an expression of an average experience.
Health testing dam (Penn Hip and OFA, thyroid, echocardiogram): $950ish
Health testing sire (repeating thyroid and echo): $650 (this was his second litter, so he didn’t need his hips done–if I had been doing him from scratch it would have been $950 like the bitch)
Progesterone testing, LH testing, brucellosis, etc. (pre-breeding): $475
Whelping supplies and box: $500 ish
Puppy vetting: $400 (Any buyer should INSIST that any puppy has been seen by the vet and cleared for heart murmurs, and has a first shot – it is actually illegal in most states for breeders to sell a puppy without this check, but many will try to get away without it because it’s so expensive.)
Those were the big chunks; I also showed the sire that year ($1500 total), fed both dogs ($750), routine vet costs, and of course the puppy feeding (easily $1000).
So for that year alone I had big-chunk expenses of $7500 for those two dogs (I also had other dogs taking up money and not giving me any puppies). I had six puppies in that litter and sold four for $1200, kept one (later gave her away to a great home for the cost of her spay) and sold one for $800.
Total intake, therefore, was minus $2500 for that litter. That’s pretty typical; I think I actually made money, about $1200, on one litter in six or seven years of breeding.
When breeders price puppies, we know roughly what to expect in terms of outgo. We know that there’s no way we can make that up in puppy sales unless we financially soak our puppy buyers. So most of us prepare to take a bath on the litter and just try to take into account the prevailing price across the US for our breed (for Danes, this is somewhere north of $1500 right now; for Cardigans it’s hovering near $1000 with a rather wide bell curve around that point). We also, believe it or not, look at what pet stores are selling puppies for. This is NOT because we want to align ourselves with pet stores – heavens no – but because we know the way the human brain works. If someone sees a Dane puppy for $1800 in a pet store but the breeders are asking $900, they will often conclude, ironically, that the pet store puppy is more valuable.
So that’s the first thing to pay attention to when you’re considering buying a puppy. What did the breeder invest in this litter that justifies asking a particular price?
Second, you look at what intangibles come with the puppy. To put it more colloquially, if you’re a manager or a professor or some kind of an expert in something, ask yourself what a complete newbie would have to pay you for permission to call you any time of the day or night and keep you on the phone for hours at a time – for the next twelve or fifteen years.
That’s what I, or any other good breeders, “sell” when we sell a puppy. We know that you probably don’t know too much about our breed. You’re going to have training questions, health questions, socialization questions. You’re going to want to know what to do when your dog barks too much, or throws up on the carpet, or doesn’t like Aunt Suzy. You’re going to need someone at the end of the phone at three in the morning when your dog bloats and needs emergency surgery, and you’re going to need that person to stay on the line until five a.m. when your dog comes out of the OR, and you’re going to need someone to talk to the vet for you if you’re crying too hard to do it. I’ve done all these things, and consider it an absolute requirement for good breeders to do.
We also “sell” a warranty, usually in the form of a written contract. The warranty usually offers a replacement puppy (and does NOT require you to return your original puppy–watch out for these, because it’s a big cheat) if your dog suffers a substantial reduction in quality of life because of a genetic disorder, and it applies for a reasonable length of time (usually two to five years). For example, if your dog develops hip dysplasia and is crippled by it, I owe you a puppy. On the other hand, if your fifteen-year-old dog has a back problem, I don’t. It’s pretty much like any warranty on a fridge or camera or wristwatch – if it’s my fault, I stand behind my “manufacture.”
You should accept nothing less than this if you are considering buying a puppy from a breeder. If the breeder you’re considering does not invest in her litters (showing, health testing, good vet care, excellent food, shots, etc.), if she does not offer constant support, if she does not stand behind her puppies, you should walk away from the purchase.
A puppy that comes with those investments and intangibles will range from $700 or $800 for the least expensive breeds to $3500 or more for the most expensive. The less-expensive breeds are lower in price because they’re easier to breed (fewer required health tests, fewer c-sections, etc.) or because the market is just lower for those breeds. The more expensive breeds generally reflect higher breeding costs and, for some breeders, a desire to weed out bargain-hunters (among the popular breeds, this is a real problem).
One VERY important thing to realize is that the reverse is also true. If someone is offering you a cheap puppy, one you know is far less expensive than the prevailing good-breeder price, you should take a step back and look at it very carefully.
One puppy is not just like the other. There’s no “brand” to rely on. One Havanese is not the same as every other Havanese. So a cheap one isn’t a good idea, because it usually means that the breeder cut corners somewhere, or is going to stop returning your phone calls as soon as your check is cashed. Be very, very cautious when you see a puppy that is appreciably cheaper than the others you’ve been considering.
How about rescue?
There’s a temptation to say “Well, the dog is homeless, it isn’t worth anything.” And people get seriously ticked when a rescue asks $350 for a homeless dog. I understand this impulse, but you need to look at the price you’re paying in just the same way as you do a well-bred dog.
The reason that rescues (these are the organizations that concentrate on one or two breeds, or that pull dogs from shelters to find homes for them) are so much more expensive than the typical shelter, which is in turn more expensive than the typical animal control or pound, is all about investment and support. It’s the same equation.
A pound or animal control has invested only electricity, mortgage, and food in the dogs it releases for adoption. It generally asks you to cover that cost plus (sad, but true) the cost of housing and euthanizing the dogs it does not adopt out. The dog comes with little or no health information, a vague guess on age, and you won’t be calling the animal control officer at three in the morning. So $5-$75 would be typical. But you should never count on this being a “cheap” dog: you’re on the hook for vet costs, spay/neuter, training, etc. The weekend that we adopted Wilson and Sparky from the pound, on Friday they cost $10 for the two of them. By Monday we’d spent $800, and that didn’t count Sparky’s neuter.
A shelter adds a spay or neuter and shots, and sometimes a behavioral evaluation. Any time you get a spayed or neutered dog you are coming out ahead money-wise; spays are CRAZY expensive. We just paid $275 for Ginny, and our last Dane spay was $600. Shots are generally about $60-75 at your vet’s office. So the shelter can be assumed to invest several hundred dollars per dog but (unless it’s a very rare type of shelter) you are not going to get a lot of behavioral support after adoption; adoption fees are typically $100-300.
Rescues are a HUGE step up in terms of investment and support. A rescue typically puts dogs in foster homes, often invests in behavioral consultation and training, intervenes to cure any health issue, gets the dog in top shape, spays or neuters, and then adopts the dog out. A single behavioral consult is $200 or so – I’ve paid them, so I know – training is another few hundred, spay/neuter, several hundred in vet costs per dog if it has any issue. And rescues are usually run by very knowledgeable individuals, often breeders or trainers themselves. A rescue offers behavioral assistance for the life of the dog and also guarantees the dog a home for life (if anything changes, they’ll take it back from you). The typical rescue fee – $350-$500 – is a bargain when you look at what you get for it.
So – and you know it’s going to come back to me – how much am I going to charge for Clue’s litter? Well, I’ve not made a final decision. My instinct is to provide a bundled price, something I’ve been contemplating for a few years now. What I would like to do is ask a certain amount, and have that include the two things that I think are the most important keys to your success with this puppy: training and sterilization. So (and this is just picking a number out of the air) a purchase price of $1200, and I rebate you $100 when you complete puppy kindergarten and another $100 when you provide proof of spay/neuter.
There are actually a bunch of things I’d like to include with the puppy purchase: A membership in the Yankee Cardigan Welsh Corgi Club, microchipping, a crate, a pad, etc. But now I have to do the fancy dance of mathematics, trying to keep my puppy price reasonable and not end up tens of thousands of dollars in the hole.
If I get any big inspirations, I’ll let you know!
Thank you so much for this post, particularly the bit on rescue. It’s amazing how often people are shocked that we ask $175 for our rescue beagles. And they nearly all cost more than that just to vet! People often have very unrealistic expectations.