Breeder Etiquette

(Added last: So for some reason this text looks GIGANTIC in my RSS reader but normal size on my browser. If it’s doing the same to you, just go to the actual blog and it should look normal. I’ll fight with the formatting after I get some sleep.)

I promised a breeder etiquette post weeks ago, but I have been putting it off because I didn’t want to get people mad at me. But I can’t get it out of my head, which usually means that I NEED to write it, so I am doing so. It’s taken me like five days to write, which is why I haven’t updated in so long.

Let me begin by saying that my personal convictions are the result not of having done everything right, but of incredible difficulty and heartbreak. My last Dane litter was such a nightmare (not with the buyers, with the other owner involved) that I still, seriously, have the cold shakes about it. Because of my complete inability to make things work with another person, I feel that I let my puppy buyers down and I know that I was unable to stop one dog from going into a place that I am fairly sure was not the best home for it. 

I’ve also put a couple of puppies into homes that turned out not to be suitable for that dog, and those lessons are reflected here as well.

So trust me, what is below is not “Here’s how I do things that are so awesome,” it’s “Here are the things I totally whiffed and if possible I’d like to not have anyone go through what I did.”

And, of course, I’ve been a puppy buyer more than a few times. I know what it feels like to have your whole world focused on whether a website was updated that day or not.

So here goes. As always, this is my opinion only; feedback is always welcome.

1. Please be free and open with information.

a) Return phone calls and e-mails, at least with a boilerplate response. 

It’s super easy to get completely snowed under with puppy inquiries. You can spend hours a day returning phone calls and e-mails, which is par for the course as the puppies get older but when the puppies are tiny babies you just CAN’T spend all that time away from them. But puppy inquirers feel bereft or ignored or take it very personally when an e-mail or call isn’t returned.

After several litters of people getting ticked at me, I set up my answering machine to say “Hello, you’ve reached… If this is a puppy inquiry, please visit us at our website, which is …. and read through our information. If after that you’re interested in getting to know us better, please send us an e-mail and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

I also set up four or five e-mails that I could copy and paste and send to inquiries with very minimal changes. One was “I am so sorry, but we are not taking any puppy inquiries at this time; thank you so much for your time and good luck in your search for the perfect puppy.” Those went to the inquiries that I had a bad feeling about. The second was similar, but listed half-a-dozen breeder names and numbers at the bottom and advised the buyer to contact one of these breeders. That one went to people who sounded good but I really just didn’t have a puppy for. The third was a “Thank you for your inquiry; let me tell you more about the litter” information dump. It was very long, introduced the dogs, talked about what kind of person is a good owner for these puppies, told about my expectations for buyers, and included as an attachment a copy of my questionnaire. The last one was a “So you want to take the next step” e-mail that went to people who had submitted the questionnaire and who had passed my initial screening; it had my contract attached and talked about the specifics of the contract requirements. 

I also sent out a CD to every legitimate inquirer. I HIGHLY recommend this. My first litter I printed out a 15-page packet with pictures, pedigrees, and all kinds of information. It cost about $5 each and HOURS to print out. If I burn a CD, I can put a hundred times as much on it – I put in links to every good web article I can find, I put in tons of training information, health, vaccines, you name it. I’ll add historical and informational pictures and, as my digital cameras have gotten better in quality, more and more puppy pictures with each litter. It ends up costing me about $.75 for each CD, including printing a nice label for it, and I don’t feel any worry about not having enough or about spending so much money that I can’t just give them away. I’ve even brought some (very general ones, with no specific breeding mentioned but all the useful info) to shows and handed them out instead of business cards when people inquire about puppies.

Remember that even though it’s one of many to you, it’s the ONLY one for them. I completely suck at this and I really need a kick in the pants every few days to remember to post new pictures (even though to me they just look like gerbils and are not interesting appearance-wise at ALL yet), to update the website, to gush over each litter like it’s my first. 

b) Don’t set people up to fail

There is a bad thing that happens in a lot of breeders’ minds where after a while there’s almost an “us versus them” feeling about prospective buyers. You set up situations or questions that can only be navigated or answered correctly if the buyer comes in with a ton of “inside information.”

The main idea here is that there are a set of correct answers to a group of accepted questions, and you immediately reject any puppy buyers who don’t answer every question correctly. Questionnaires are a GREAT tool; I would never want anyone to think that I’m criticizing the idea of a questionnaire. What I’m talking about is the difference between “Do you have elderly or disabled living in your home?” and “What are your feelings on putting a puppy in a crate?”

The one is designed to help the breeder put the right puppy in the home; that’s a critical fact for the breeder to know. The second is purely a way of hoping that the owner completely hangs himself. An “insider” will answer using the boilerplate that we all “know” – it’s an excellent way to housetrain, that it’s not cruel, etc. Most uneducated or outsider puppy inquirers will react more viscerally, and will say “Oh, wow, that’s horrible. I would never do that.”

And then you say “Ha ha ha ha, you idiot” and chuck the application.

I understand this, believe me; I’ve felt it myself. But it’s not either healthy or fair. And I am not convinced that it WORKS. Asking questions like how they feel about crating, or who the dog will be taken care of by (the only “correct” answer being both adults in the house) and then rejecting applications based on the uneducated answer, diagnoses nothing more than whether the buyer has read enough websites that they know the politically correct breeder-approved answers to the questions. 

The two placements that I’ve done that have failed the most spectacularly had exactly “correct” answers to every single question of that type on my questionnaire; one, I later found out, had given those same perfect answers to two other breeders and was busy collecting dogs. The other had given me every right answer but had zero intention of actually acting in the way they had indicated.

The ones that I am most proud of were pretty universally owners who were brand-new and who came into the transaction completely clueless but eager to do it right. 

So I’d ask breeders to be aware of the difference between Internet research and true intentions. Don’t speak Dog and then criticize people who don’t know it yet. 

Some questions are absolutely essential to ask. Some only provide good information about how much the buyer does or does not know. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to figure out the person’s intention for the dog. I’m just saying that if the answers are wrong, provide tools and reconsider. If they say they might like to breed the dog, there are hundreds and hundreds of good articles on exactly what breeding entails. Heck, invite them over so they can see what’s involved; meet them at a show so they can see what that is. If they strike you as mentor-able, why not sell them a show puppy? If they (as most will) say wow, not in a million years would I ever want to do this, they’re a lot less likely to sneak off and breed the dog than someone who wrote down the right answer but thinks that you are keeping some kind of secret about how much money you can really make on puppies.

c) Explain the weird stuff

Good breeders insist on doing certain things that seem CRAZY, either super-hyper-controlling or actually victimizing of the buyer. We say “You are going to give me a check for an amount that could buy a used car, but I’m going to name it and I’m going to control it and I’m going to microchip it in MY name and I’m going to prevent you from breeding it and I’m going to visit your home to check on it.” 

It’s no wonder that people start to feel like breeders are out to rip them off or pry in a completely unnecessary way into their lives. It can feel like the breeder is trying to suck all the fun and benefit out of owning a puppy. Can’t NAME it? Isn’t that a little nuts?

I think as breeders we owe them a clear and reasonable explanation, and a chance to fully understand what’s going to happen LONG before they send a deposit or pick up a puppy. If you are honest about the fact that it IS going to sound weird, and here’s why we do it, you’ll get people on board and not make them try to figure out how they can wrest the most control over the dog away from you.

2) Please socialize the litter until they leave for homes. If you are going to keep the puppy beyond eight weeks, socialization (COMPLETE and SOLO socialization) becomes your responsibility.

This is not an option, and far too many breeders treat it like it is.

Until eight weeks, group socialization within the litter is perfectly acceptable. You MUST provide lots and lots of different people, different surfaces, textures, heights, games, toys, and so on. But you can do it within the group, where each puppy is learning both from the environment and from the other puppies.

Within the group is also where the puppy learns the fundamentals of bite inhibition, so keeping him or her within the litter until as close to 56 days is always the best idea. 

Where a heck of a lot of breeders fall off the job and put the future of the puppies in real danger is that they do not switch from a litter socialization to solo socialization from eight to twelve weeks.

The socialization window closes at 12 weeks. From eight to twelve weeks is when the puppy learns what things are happy, friendly, normal, and fun; anything else gets a big “Danger!” sign on it. That means every noise, texture, sight, smell, person, animal, event, and challenge is going to be perceived as a possible threat if they do not encounter it before twelve weeks.

The way you set the puppy up for success in life, and create a dog who approaches every challenge with bright optimism, assumes every person is wonderful, and communicates well with every dog, is to expose him or her SOLO to everything the dog can reasonably expect to encounter. And it MUST be done before 12 weeks.

Doing this correctly as a new puppy owner is practically a full-time job. Every single day you have to think “Who can I take this dog to see; where can we go; what smells can we smell; what textures can I put under her feet.”

The only place puppy buyers shouldn’t be taking puppies is high-dog-traffic areas like the floor at the vet’s office, dog parks, and pet supply stores (those should wait until 12 weeks if you’re using Recombitek vaccines – which I strongly recommend – or 14 weeks if you are using normal vaccines). If you don’t know all the dogs on your street, don’t even put her down on the sidewalk. Carry her into houses and schools and so on. But she MUST get out of your home.

So don’t go to the dog beach, but DO go to your aunt and uncle’s beach. Don’t go to the dog park, but DO go to puppy kindergarten or puppy playgroup as long as the instructor requires that every puppy begin vaccines before attending. DO take walks in the woods, in fields, on college quads. DO go to schools, preschools, retirement homes, churches, banks, restaurants, and every other venue you can think of. DO make sure your puppy has met multiple people of every age (dogs cannot generalize, so a two-year-old is a VERY different creature from a seven-year-old and also very different from a teenager), gender, clothing style, facial hair, ethnic group, etc. Seek out sounds – garbage trucks, semis, golf carts, airplanes. Animals – sheep, goats, cows, horses, chickens, geese. Again, remember that dogs cannot generalize. Meeting friendly chickens does not mean that ducks are also safe; ducks are aliens. You need to go after every single species you can find.

So my strong message to breeders: If you are keeping a puppy until ten weeks, you’ve left the owner just two weeks to get all that done. Is that reasonable to expect? Is it even physically possible? I’d say no, so you’d better be busting your hump to socialize the puppies from eight to ten weeks.

And if you’ve kept a puppy until twelve weeks, as so many do, that puppy is completely shaped by what you have done. You are delivering a handicapped puppy to its new owners if you have not undertaken a complete – and again I capitalize SOLO – socialization of that puppy. That dog may have been able to grow up perfectly well and happy in your home, where it would never encounter anything other than what it has already seen, heard, smelled, and felt before it turned three months old. But if you sell it and it goes to a new home and the doorbell sounds different or the recycling truck is at a different pitch, or the new home has sheep and horses and yours didn’t, that puppy is substantially less able to react to those challenges in optimistic, confident ways. It’s just not fair to ask the new owners to overcome that kind of a deficit. 

Socialization issues are REAL, they are quantifiable, they are often tragic. They are often the result of well-meaning breeders and owners who are worried about disease exposure. But, as one researcher I read said (very wisely), “Parvo kills in a few days, but the behavioral issues caused by lack of socialization will kill them in a few years.” Dead is dead; there’s no “win” there. So you be as cautious as you possibly can be, you avoid dog-trafficked areas, you keep the dog-to-dog contact limited to friendly, vaccinated dogs at home or in a puppy K. And you push the dog socialization VERY hard once the 14-week shots have been given. You do NOT keep the puppy safe and concealed in the living room with his siblings and mom until that point, unless you want to risk some very nasty behavioral problems, problems that you are passing along to that puppy buyer.

3) Please remember that you’re selling a dog, which is a piece of property. Your responsibility as a breeder is to provide a puppy that has the best chance to succeed in THEIR house, not yours.

This goes back to socialization as well, but it touches on the big-picture ideas of ownership and your responsibility versus the owner’s. Breeders, where they get “impolite” about this (since this is supposed to be about etiquette), tend to do so at either end of the spectrum. Either they do not support the owners enough or they become “helicopter parents” (heck, I know a few who are more like Black Hawks!) that try to micromanage every aspect of the puppy’s life.

None of us really like being reminded that they’re just property, because it seems to contradict what we feel about our dogs, but if we move the dogs in our homes out of the realm of property and into the realm of anything else – companion, child, long-term tenant – we lose the ability to do much of the good we do as breeders. You don’t have the right to tell your tenant who to have kids with; you don’t have the right to expect that your companion will sleep in a cage at night, or pick up that duck and bring it back to you. 

The contracts we ask puppy buyers to sign are good and necessary and mine is ridiculously long and scary, but we have to realize that all the contract gives us is some (slim, usually) grounds on which to sue someone. Are you going to sink tens of thousands of dollars into a lawyer and probably fail to win because a puppy buyer disobeyed you? I think most of us would if the dog was actually in danger, but would you do it if the dog was being fed the wrong thing? To a great extent, once they leave our homes they leave anything but an illusion of our control over them.

When it comes to selling (especially pet) puppies, think carefully about what you can succeed at; figure out where you’re willing to fail.

This is up to each breeder and there’s no one right answer. For me, personally, I am completely unwilling to fail at providing a puppy who has the structure to live a normal life, go up and down stairs, run after kids, chase sheep and cattle. It also has to have some personality or behavioral basics that will enable the socialization efforts of the new owners to work well. I am completely willing to crash, burn, and explode in noisy pieces when it comes to color, coat, whether the tail curls. I am somewhat willing to fail when it comes to herding instinct and bone/substance and head type. 

So my decisions on breeding will focus on making sure that I come the closest to reliably succeeding (in EVERY puppy, not just the show puppies) on those things that I feel I must provide as a “product.” I will place high but not highest priority on the things I want to be there.

And I try to realize that the raw product (the eight-week-old puppy) has a higher chance of failing in the home if I’ve made success difficult to reach. Hence the structure that can (hopefully) withstand stairs, or the temperament that is as receptive to training as I can make it. 

Now, trust me when I say that I do my absolute best to scare new puppy owners to DEATH. We have a 60-minute “Come to Jesus” conversation over my contract and my recommendations before I bring the puppy out into the dining room. But the fact is that once they close the door and walk away, it is their puppy, not mine. 

4) Please keep the money where it belongs

If you sit at a table with a bunch of breeders, they will discuss dogs with joy and glee and respect; eyes light up and hands start waving around. They will discuss other breeders with more or less focus on whether they think that breeder is succeeding where they’ve decided a breeder should succeed, or they’ll tell stories of road trips or show mishaps or that show puppy that got away. They can get catty and gossipy, but it stays reasonable.

Where blood pressures go through the roof and horrible names are called and dire warnings about EVER associating with that person start to come out is where a breeder has lost even one dollar, one puppy, one litter, to another person “unfairly.”

The stories about this are rampant. “I put her on as a co-owner and the next thing I know she’s in New Brunswick and I never saw that dog again.” “I told him he could have a puppy from that litter and he came in and took my pick boy, just walked away and now look, that dog’s in the top 20 and is my name on it? Nooooo.” “Yeah, she said that I could take Pepper as a replacement for that dog who failed his hips… then Pepper started winning. She shows up at my house and says that by rights Pepper’s litter should be half hers, but she’ll be ‘nice’ and just take two pick puppies back!”

My personal story is one that I don’t want to talk about in specifics because the dog and the owners are still alive, but it ended with someone standing on my lawn screaming at me, and then flatly refusing to sign litter registration papers. I believe that what I did that caused so much ire in that situation was not only right, it was the ONLY right thing to do, but it caused a storm of fury and retribution that ended up hurting a ton of people and made me feel horrible for months afterward. 

All these have led me to the following conclusion:

a) Co-owns are the devil. 

I should clarify, of course. Co-owns that are a “legal” (at least according to the vast file cabinet that is the AKC) reflection of an existing partnership are totally appropriate. I will co-own Bronte with Kate because both of us will tell you that she is a dog with two moms. I also co-owned a bunch of prior dogs with another breeder because I felt it reflected the real situation; she was supporting me a great deal with help and advice and travel and so on, and putting her name on their papers was a sign that I knew who the real brains of the operation were. 

Co-owns as a way to exert force or coersion upon a dog owner, be they pet or show, causes SO much pain and resentment that I really think the vast majority are not worth it. 

Look at why we do them: We keep co-owns on bitch puppies so the owner can’t breed her without our permission. But it doesn’t REALLY do that, does it? All it does is keep them from registering the puppies with AKC. It doesn’t put a chastity belt around her or prevent them from breeding her half a dozen times and selling the puppies as “purebred no papers,” which in my area gets you a full 50-75 percent of the registered puppy price. And the whole process of refusing to sign the papers causes so much blackness and hatred that it’ll take years off your life.

If you think the bitch isn’t breedable, you can sell her on a limited registration. That way the owner has only the AKC to blame for the lack of papers. If she is in fact a show puppy and you sell her on a co-own, you’re either adding an extra layer of complexity on to the paperwork for a person who was never going to do anything without asking you anyway, OR you’re only “protecting” the bitch from a bad breeding in terms of the breeding ending up on AKC paperwork. You’re not preventing the breeding in the first place.

And it is very important to realize that the AKC can be horrifyingly capricious about granting registrations without the second signature. When I tried to approach them in my situation, they said “Forget it; without the second signature you’re completely out of luck.” But in the SAME MONTH an acqaintance of mine who had bought a puppy, and had not been given the registration slip because the breeder had registered the litter but routinely held the individual slips until proof of spay/neuter, called AKC up and was told that they WOULD issue a slip to her because the breeder had already registered the litter. 

DO NOT LOOK TO AKC to save you. If you don’t trust the person you’re selling the dog to, don’t sell them a dog on full registration. If you DO trust them, save them the pain in the neck of mailing things back and forth to you, and just sell them the dog. 

b) Never let a financial arrangement ruin a friendship; never let a financial arrangement form the basis of a friendship.

The dog is the only thing that matters. If the welfare of the dog is at stake, heck yes you abandon friendships. But if you’re really going to chuck ten or twenty years of happy friendship over who gets to show a puppy that is worth a thousand bucks, you need to move cautiously. Similarly, don’t assume that your stud dog owner is going to run with you through a field of bluebells; being excited about a breeding is not the same as sharing the breeding when the rubber hits the road. If one of those puppies is diagnosed with a heart problem, don’t get resentful if the stud dog owner is suddenly  as far from the bluebell field as she can get. Being ticked off because a person who you handed a check to isn’t acting like your best friend is just going to lead to horrible stress and resentment on both sides.

c) Prepare your pet puppy buyers for the financial reality of ownership.

Be very clear about your financial/return/refund policy; do not let the puppy leave your house until the buyer has agreed that he or she understands it. If your contract includes these aspects, make sure you also address what can and will happen in the event if dissatisfaction with health, temperament, etc.

There is nothing worse than a buyer assuming that what you will do is what someone has told him “good breeders” do, or a buyer being scared to come back to you because they don’t know how you’re going to react, or a dog falling through the cracks because you and the buyer have a disagreement.

The classic conflict arises when a puppy buyer has wrecked a dog, it’s now three years old and biting everyone, and they want their money back. If that’s what you offer as a breeder, then you need to pony up. If it’s not, you needed to be very clear about that three years ago. On the other end of the spectrum is an owner who is demanding a replacement puppy but won’t bring the original one to you, and you don’t find that acceptable because you’re pretty sure that something very hinky is going on. 

My own policy (and, again, this is not the only right one) is that I never sell a dog twice. If a dog or puppy is returned to me and it is able to be sold – that is, if it is not a rehab job – I will gladly return to the first owners every penny that I get for the dog the second time around, less my expenses on travel and/or vet. On the other hand, if I have to not only give this dog away but put in hundreds of dollars on trainers and behaviorists and vets before I can do so, I do not refund money. I try to encourage people, therefore, to act sooner rather than later. If they are coming to believe that this isn’t working, it’s in everybody’s best interests to have the dog come back to me quickly.

My health return policy (after the normal five-day or seven-day no-questions-asked refund) is that I will replace the puppy as soon as possible, but I do not promise a cash refund, and if the owners have fallen out of touch I want to see the sick or unhealthy dog. If it ever came down to a real-life situation, I’d be more than happy to (rather than give them a puppy from the next litter) sell “their” replacement puppy and give them refund money, but I don’t promise it in the contract because there are just too many ifs. I don’t want to write down what I cannot deliver.

Like I said, what I do is not more correct than what you do. You can do more, or less; you can have the most bizarre contract or weird expectations you want. You run the circus. Just make sure the buyer knows exactly what is going on and has read the entire contract and discussed every clause with you before they walk away.

5) Please remember that far more unites us than divides us.

We are all passionate about dogs. We are all trying to make their lives the best we can. We all spend (according to the rest of the world) far too much time, money, and energy thinking about, training, grooming, hand-feeding, and obsessing about dogs. The infighting can get so vicious that we forget that we have a lot more in common with that horrible person who stole our handler from us than we do with 99.8% of the rest of the world. It is not a bad idea to take a deep breath and ask “So what are you feeding now?” and remind yourself that they care just as much about the answer as you do. 

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4 thoughts on “Breeder Etiquette

  1. I love you for the socialization comments. I’ve heard a lot of people recently say that breeders should be keeping dogs longer and longer and longer, and that really, really scares me. I can’t see that most breeders can reasonably appropriately socialize dogs in the same way that I did with my two puppies, which involved Outside Adventures multiple days a week and a huge plan, from 8 weeks of age until well… They still get out regularly. 🙂 And I have two bomb proof dogs because of it.

    As a pet owner, I’d be very uncertain about a breeder who wanted to keep the dogs until 12 weeks if they couldn’t give me an elaborate, indepth list of what they were doing to socialize… and even then, I want to get my hands in there and help shape my dog as well.

  2. I love this article, if all breeders (wannabe breeders) took most of this advice to heart, the whole breeding industry would be better off for it. I especially like the socializing part…… I have seen for myself the ill-effects of undersocializing a dog in the early weeks/months of their lives. My male dog (whom I socialized from 8weeks upward) is literally boom proof whereas my female (whom I got at 7months, due to problems with her original owner…same breeding as my male) is fairly sociable, but no where near as confident with “strange” situations. This even after working my @ss off for 2 years.
    (I admit, that in is this case I knew what I was in for and I bought her at a reduced rate, but I can’t help but think how she would have turned out if I had gotten her at 8 weeks……..).

    Ahhh, breeding…… It’s a world of its own, no matter what animal or breed you deal with 🙂

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