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. 

Puppy Buyer Etiquette (slightly) continued: Expressing preferences

One of the comments on the earlier brought up a very good point: How about when you reeeeeeeeaaaaaalllly want a particular puppy in a litter?

I think this falls into two basic categories: When you NEED a particular puppy and when you have fallen in love with a particular puppy.

If I am looking to buy a puppy to show and breed, I am usually looking for something I don’t have eight of at home. So when I call up a breeder, or talk to them at a show, or e-mail them, I’ll say “I am keeping an eye out for a really wonderful black dog; are you planning a litter with Xerxes right now?” They immediately know that I’m not interested unless they have a black male show-potential puppy whose father is Xerxes. So they’ll send me away if they don’t get any males in the litter, or if they know Xerxes isn’t going to be used, or whatever. The flip side of being this specific, of course, is that I have to wait around until the puppies are all evaluated, and have the breeder or co-breeder pick their puppy or puppies, and then hope there’s a black show male left for me. 

Being this exacting works really well if you know and trust that breeder, so you know she’s not going to try to sell you a puppy that’s not actually competitive, and/or if the breeder already has a couple of Xerxes litters around. It’s even better if you can see the puppies in person; that’s why every Nationals is like a giant puppy-swapping party. You see a stunning brindle puppy in a golf cart, run over, say “Who is that gorgeous creature?” and hopefully things go from there; either you wrangle an introduction to the breeder or (just maybe) that particular puppy or her sister are for sale. 

When you’re getting your first show puppy, and I’m still in the throes of this (I have not been in the breed long enough to have ANYBODY offering to hold puppies for me, except maybe Kate – blows kisses to Bronte’s puppies – ) it’s probably wise to express fewer preferences to the very best breeder you can possibly rather than more preferences to a breeder who isn’t as good. One of my e-mails to a particular breeder basically went “I would be thrilled beyond belief to even be considered for this litter; I’m barely exaggerating when I say I’d like to take home your dog’s POOP.” I couldn’t have cared less about color, gender, amount of white, anything, because I was so excited about the potential of the litter and loved the two dogs involved so much. 

If you’re not going to be showing or breeding, I think it’s entirely appropriate to express a preference of gender, especially if you have a dog at home and he or she tends to get along better with one than the other. Just let us know if you can be flexible on that or if you MUST have a certain gender. 

It’s also more than fine to let us know that you like a certain “fault.” If you think fluffs are da bomb (and, wow, I do); if you think pinks are to die for; if you like the half-white heads or no white at all (which is not a fault but can be more difficult to show), please do express that. With those particular criteria, all of us love to have owners who not only will accept them but desperately want them, so if we don’t have one in a litter we’ll try to point you in the right direction to get, say, a fluffy white-headed merle puppy (and, ohmygoodness, how gorgeous would THAT be). 

From there, you’re looking at color and at markings. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with expressing a preference to the breeder. Just realize that it’s not fair to the puppies for us to put markings (which are entirely superficial and have nothing to do with who the puppy IS) above personality and behavior and needs. For example, let’s say that you live in an urban environment and go for long walks every day; you have three kids and a Pointer. The litter you’re looking at has two brindle puppies with big wide blazes and one tri puppy with a little white squiggle. He’s kind of ugly, honestly. You may feel extremely disappointed, even angry, when you see those wide-blazed puppies go to other families and you get offered the ugly puppy. But if you’ve done your homework and chosen your breeder correctly, she’s giving you that puppy because he’s completely unflappable, adores kids, and has shown a remarkable ability to make friends with big dogs. Wide-blazed brindle #1 was very high-energy and went to a herding home. Wide-blazed brindle #2 showed more sensitivity to noise and would probably not enjoy the chaos of your house; she’s going to live with a retired couple who listen to NPR all day.

If you find that you absolutely cannot accept anything but one color or “look” of dog, please just let the breeder know immediately, and don’t get mad if you don’t get it. Ask your breeder to let you know as soon as possible if she thinks that the one puppy that meets your request won’t be available to you, and ask for a referral to another breeder in that case. Again, please don’t go get yourself on a bunch of waiting lists in the hopes that one breeder will give you a copper brindle with a wide blaze and one solid-colored leg, unless you tell ALL the breeders involved exactly what you’re doing and that you’re on everyone else’s list. 

The theme here, as it was below, is to COMMUNICATE. Be honest, talk a LOT, keep up the calls and the e-mails, offer full disclosure. If you’ve been honest and fair with us and we can’t offer you your dream puppy, we’ll be more than happy to send you to the next breeder with a glowing recommendation. If we’ve been honest and fair with you, you shouldn’t feel concerned or ripped off. Just keep talking, talking, talking. Miscommunications and resentments build when one party thinks the other is keeping secrets or withholding crucial information – in other words, when one party is treating this like a commodity transaction (I’m sure she’s trying to rip me off, so I’m going to protect myself and get what I want) rather than a relationship (I’m sure she wants the best possible outcome, so I’m going to be as honest as I can). The most important thing to remember is that in order to thrive, the puppy is going to need both of you (good grief, I sound like a divorce lawyer, but it is almost like that), so do your best to reject any behavior that will cause the other person to leave the relationship.

Puppy buyer etiquette

I am posting this specifically because I do NOT have any puppies here now, and don’t anticipate any for a while. So you know that I’m not singling any real person out. This is because it seems that there’s a lot of confusion about the whole “proper” way to go about things. So, puppy buyers and anyone else thinking about maybe someday approaching a good breeder about a puppy, here you go:

1) STOP LOOKING FOR A PUPPY. The classic mistake puppy buyers make is saying “I need an xx breed puppy at the beginning of the fall” or whatever it may be. So they go out looking for litters due in August.


Puppies are not interchangeable; one is not the same as the others. This is largely because every breeder has their stop-the-presses criteria for breeding or not breeding, and each has preferences for size, personality, working ability, etc. Breeder X’s “perfect puppy” is not the same as Breeder Y’s.

Stop looking for a puppy; look for a BREEDER. Make a personal connection with a breeder you feel shares your top criteria, and then wait for a puppy from them. Maybe they even have a litter on the ground, which is wonderful, but maybe they’re not planning anything for a few months. Or maybe they’re not planning anything for a year; in that case, ask for a referral to another breeder that shares those same priorities and has a similar (or just as good) personality and support ethic. However it works out, screen the breeder first, then ask about a puppy.

1b) EXPECT TO WAIT FOR A PUPPY. It’s VERY rare to wait less than a couple of months; four to six is normal. I’ve waited a year on a couple of occasions; no, even we breeders don’t walk through the field, able to pick puppies like tulips. We ALL have to wait, and we ALL have to get matched up by the puppies’ breeder. 

2) INTRODUCE YOURSELF THOROUGHLY. The initial e-mail should be several paragraphs long; block out at least an hour of quiet for the first phone call. When you initiate contact, clearly communicate three things: You are ready for a puppy, you are ready for a puppy of this breed, and you understand what sets this breeder apart from the others and you share that commitment. Specifically describe your plans for this puppy; be truthful. If you are not going to be able to go to four training classes a year, SAY SO. Don’t say “Of course, training is a huge priority around here,” or you’re going to end up with a puppy who’s flushing your toilet sixty times a day because he’s so bored and you’re not challenging him. 

The ideal first contact e-mail usually goes something like

“Hi, my name is X and I’m writing to inquire about your dogs. I’ve been doing a lot of research on [breed] and I think they’re the right one for me because of [these four reasons.] I know puppies are a huge commitment, and I am planning to [accommodate that in various ways.] I’m approaching you in particular because of your interest in [whatever,] which is something I feel is very important and plan to encourage in [these three ways.]” 

That’s the kind of e-mail that gets a response, and usually pretty quickly. If I get something that says “I hear you have puppies on the way; how much?” it goes in the recyle bin before you can blink.

2a) Bring up price either at the end of the first contact (if it’s been successful and you feel a connection to this person) or in a follow-up contact. It’s nice to say “If you don’t mind me asking, about how much are [breed]s in this area, if there is a typical price? I just want to be prepared.” The breeder will usually give you two pieces of useful information: Her price, and the median prices around you. That way, if you decide to go a different way, you know about what to expect. If the second person you contact names a price that’s double the median, try to discreetly find out why. A very difficult pregnancy, nationally ranked parents, a surgical AI, c-section resulting in very few live puppies, those are some reasons a breeder could be asking more and it’s reasonable. If there’s no real difference from the other breeders except price, think carefully.

3) BE WILLING TO BE TOLD NO. Not every person is the right match for every breed. That’s just fact. There is no way on earth I could make our home appropriate for a Malamute puppy, and I’d have to lie through my teeth to get approved for one. And I have my entire life devoted to keeping dogs happy. I don’t expect you to have anywhere close to the obsession I have, so that means there will be some dogs that are just plain wrong for you. If a breeder says no, ask why. If the answers make sense, don’t keep calling people until you finally get one who will sell you a puppy of that breed. Go back to the drawing board and be very humble and honest with yourself about what kind of dog really would be right for you and your family.

4) PLEASE DO NOT GET ON MORE THAN ONE WAITING LIST unless you are VERY honest about it. This goes back to rule 1. You need to understand that we think our puppy buyers are just as in love with the puppies as we are. We’re posting pictures, writing up instructions, burning CDs, researching everything from pedigrees to nail grinding, all so we can hand off this puppy, this supreme glorious creature of wonderfulness, with the absolute maximum chance that it will lead a fabulous life with you, and we’ve built all kinds of air castles in our heads about how happy this puppy will be, and what it will do in its life with you, and so on. Finding out that you had your name on four lists shows that you don’t realize that puppies are not packages of lunch meat, where getting one from Shaws is basically the same as getting one from Stop and Shop.

Also, as soon as your name is on one of our lists, we’re turning away puppy buyers. If we’ve sent ten people elsewhere because our list is full, and then suddenly you say “Oh, yeah, I got a puppy from someone else,” it really toasts our bread. So just BE HONEST. If someone came to me and said “I’m on a list with So and So, but she’s pretty sure she won’t have a puppy for me, and I’d love to be considered for one of your dogs and I’ll let you know just as soon as I know,” I’m FINE with that. I understand how this goes. It’s not a disaster for me to have a puppy “left over” at eight weeks because you ended up getting that So and So puppy; it’s just frustrating to have the rug yanked out from under me.

5. PLEASE DO NOT EXPECT TO CHOOSE YOUR PUPPY. This one drives puppy buyers CRAZY. I know this, trust me. I have a lot of sympathy because I’ve been there. But the fact is that when you come into my house and look at the eight-week-old puppies and one comes up and tugs on your pant leg and you look at me, enraptured, and say “THIS IS IT! He chose ME,” I’ve been looking at people coming into the house all week, and every single time this same puppy has come up and tugged at them and every single one of them have said to me “THIS IS IT!”

What you are seeing is not reality. You are seeing the most outgoing puppy, or you’ve fallen in love with the one that has the most white, or the one that has a different look from the rest of the litter (when I had one blue girl puppy in a litter of black boys, every human that came in the house wanted her; when I had one black girl puppy in a litter of blue boys everyone kept talking about how much they loved HER), or the one that’s been (accidentally) featured the most in the pictures I’ve posted. Or, sometimes, you have a very good instinctive eye and you’re picking the puppy that’s the best put together of the litter. And that puppy, of course, is mine, and you’re going to have to pry him out of my cold dead hands.

My responsibility is not to make you happy. And that, dear friends, is why I am posting this now, and not when I have a bunch of actual puppy buyers around :D. But it’s the truth. My responsibility is to the BREED first. That’s why my first priority in placing puppies is the show owners, because they are the ones that will (if all goes well) use this dog to keep the breed going. It’s not that I like them better than I like you; it’s that I have to be extremely careful who I place with them so that they can make breeding decisions with the very best genetic material I can hand them. My second responsibility is to the PUPPY. I will place each puppy where I feel that it has the best chance of success and the optimal environment to thrive.

So while I do care, and I will try to take your preferences into account, do not expect to walk into my living room and put your hand in the box and pick whatever puppy you want. And do not expect to be given priority pick because you contacted me first; conversely, do not expect that because you came along late you somehow won’t get a good puppy. Sometimes the person who calls me when the puppies are seven and a half weeks old ends up with what I’d consider the “pick” for various reasons (sometimes because somebody called me up and said they’d gotten a puppy from someone else; see rule 4 above). I am going to try to do my absolute best to match puppies to owners as objectively as I can, not according to who called first. 

When I was waiting for Clue, I think I initially called Betty Ann six months before she was born. I waited through two other litters, where Betty Ann thought she might have something for me but then in the end told me no. Then I waited until 8 weeks when she thought this one might really be the one, and then another two weeks until she made her final picks and sent me a puppy. I was about ready to vomit with the tension. I UNDERSTAND. But the rewards of waiting and being matched with the right puppy are greater than any frustration with having to sit with an empty couch for a few more months.

6) ONCE YOU GET YOUR PUPPY, THERE WILL ONLY BE THAT PUPPY IN THE WHOLE WORLD. If you’ve been sitting around with your fingers crossed saying “Please, Molly, please, Molly, I only love Molly,” and I say “I really think Moe is the one for you,” you’re probably going to feel disappointed. But take Moe and go sit on the couch, and put your finger in her mouth, and realize that she has a really cool white toe on one foot but none of the other feet have white toes, and let her try to find a treat in your pocket, and I guarantee you by the time you’re five minutes out of my driveway Moe will be YOUR puppy. And a year later you may remember that you thought Molly was so pretty, but Moe… well, Moe could practically run the Pentagon she’s so smart, and her face turned out MUCH more beautiful than Molly’s did. And so on.

7) PLEASE FINISH THE ENCOUNTER WITH ONE BREEDER BEFORE BEGINNING ONE WITH ANOTHER. If you end a conversation with me saying “Well, this just all sounds wonderful, and I’m going to talk it over with my wife and we’ll call you about getting on your waiting list,” and then you hang up and call the next person on your list, that’s not OK. If you don’t feel like you click with me, or you want to keep your options open, a very easy way to say it is to ask for the names and numbers of other breeders I recommend. That way I know we’re not “going steady,” and I won’t pencil you in on my list. If you are on my waiting list, and you decide that you don’t want to be anymore, call me AS SOON AS YOU KNOW and say “Joanna, I’m so sorry, but our life has gotten a little crazy and I need to be taken off the puppy list.” And I make sympathetic noises and take you off. If, then, you decide you want to get a different puppy, be my guest. Just keep me apprised and let me close off my commitment to you before you open it with another breeder.

…Which brings us to something that is super important and most puppy people don’t realize:

8 ) EVERY BREEDER KNOWS EVERY OTHER BREEDER. Now of course I don’t mean the bad breeders, but the show breeding community is VERY small and VERY close-knit. If you’ve been on my list for three months, I’ve kept in contact with you, I think you’re getting a puppy from me, I’m carefully considering which one to sell you, and finally I match you with a puppy when they’re eight weeks old, and THEN you e-mail me and say “Sorry, I got a puppy from Arizona, bye,” my instant reaction isn’t going to be “Oh noes!” My instant reaction is going to be “From Jill?” I probably e-mail Jill several times a year, if not several times a month, and I’m probably going to pick up the phone in the next sixty seconds and say, “Did you just sell a puppy to Horace Green from Topeka? Did you know that he put himself on my waiting list three months ago and has been saying all along how excited he is?” And two minutes after that she’ll get a call from Anne in Oregon and Anne will say “Did you just sell a puppy to Horace Green from Topeka? He’s been feeding me lines for eight weeks! I had a puppy ready to go to him next week!”

And we will take your name in vain, Horace Green from Topeka, and Jill will feel bad that she sold you a puppy, and oh the bad words we will say. And Horace Green from Topeka will be a topic of conversation at the next Nationals, and t-shirts will be made that say “DON’T BE A HORACE,” and someone will name their puppy Horrible Horace and everyone will get the joke and laugh. 

In the end, “Be excellent to each other,” as Bill and Ted so correctly ordered us, is pretty much the paradigm to follow. If you err, err on the side of this being a relationship, not a transaction. Try to act the way you would with a good friend, not with an appliance salesman. And the ending will  be as happy for you as it is happy for us. 


Tomorrow is Clue’s CERF exam. I’ve got the conditioners and silicones post half-written. I’ve got some rough sketches for structure illustrations. Kate and I have been talking about some very cool ideas. And, obviously, the above post isn’t the whole story; puppy SELLER ettiquette is next. So expect a lot of blogging from me over the next few days, hopefully useful stuff. See you soon!