Navigating the Puppy Market

by Candy Wisnieski

As two households in our dog-loving family are now without dogs and one has recently acquired one over the Internet, it seems timely to give you all some background on the vastly changed pet market as it has evolved since the last generation of family dogs were puppies a dozen years ago. Pets are a huge business in the USA, a business which has been expanding exponentially in recent years. The demand for family dogs is enormous. Legitimate breeders of purebreds cannot begin to fill this demand. The combination of the post 9/11 need for comfort with the Internet and the rise of the chain pet warehouse stores and Animal Planet has driven the pet market to a frenzy of activity and attracted a bell curve of pet sellers, ranging from squalor through exquisite to outright piracy. As we want to stay at the top of the bell curve, I shall try to navigate the curve for you, so that you can avoid the ignorant and/or unscrupulous and point out some changes in the animal markets. Although I have a well known preference for purebred dogs, I love all dogs. What bothers me is the hype, misrepresentation and dishonesty in a process that has at it very core, the heartstrings of nice families. Whether you are looking for a purebred or a pound puppy, the dog buying decision should be based in fact. A dog, after all, is a family member who will be with you for a dozen years or more. Don’t be put off by a long list of pitfalls here. In any enterprise where large amounts of money meet the public, there are going to be pirates and, these days, hype-hype-hype.

The major areas of change that you will find if you start to look for a new dog will be:

The Impact of the Internet and using the Web constructively

The Animal Shelter Supply Crisis and

Imported Shelter Dogs

Hurricane Katrina Refugees

The “Designer Dog” Phenomenon

The traditional sources around for many years still apply also:

The Responsible, Knowledgeable breeder

Breed Rescues

The Backyard Breeder

The Pet Shop, selling dogs produced by commercial breeders


The Internet:

The Internet has revolutionized the pet market as it has all forms of commerce. Most people now at least partially shop for a new pet online. This has caused a major identity crisis in the dog world, and given rise to a whole new type of dealer: the Internet Puppy Mill. The difference between a responsible breeder and a commercial breeder used to be easy to determine. Legitimate breeders sold retail one dog at a time with contact through networking and commercial breeders sold wholesale to pet shops, often through brokers. Backyard Breeders sold retail locally, claiming their puppies “family raised” in newspaper classified ads. The Internet has made it possible for anybody to sell retail directly to the public which easily confuses the pet buyer who can’t tell the difference between a professional commercial breeder or puppy mill website and the site of a responsible breeder. E-bay even further confuses and already chaotic market scene by also giving backyard breeders access to the Internet, making them very small puppy mills. Have a look at the following websites, which are Internet commercial breeder/puppy mills for breeds often sold on the Web, the German Shepherd, the Chihuahua and the Bulldog, as examples of sites that can confuse pet buyers:

The differences between the knowledgeable/responsible and commercial breeder/puppy mill, as they appear on the web, are multiple and subtle. A dog person can tell the difference instantly, but most potential pet buyers cannot. Not all of any type of breeder will have all the characteristics below all of the time, which is what makes identifying them tricky for the pet buyer.

Dog breeding is a science and an art form, and it takes a large measure of both to produce a really fine specimen of any breed. The single identifying factor that makes a good breeder standout, therefore, is the quality and condition of the adult dogs in the kennel. Regardless of the age of dog the buyer is seeking at the moment, it is the adult dog which will be part of the family for many years. For these reasons, the adult dogs in a kennel should be evaluated carefully before the buyer even begins to look at puppies.

Breeder Characteristics online: Knowledge vs Commercial vs Puppy Mill

  • The adults from a good breeder are beautiful versions of the breed in good health and condition. The Puppy Mill adults, if you see them at all, are of inferior quality. Puppy Mill Websites focus on puppies often with minimal or no reference to adult dogs at all. Responsible breeders concentrate on the accomplishments of adult dogs, often in multiple venues, such as the show ring, performance, and therapy.
  • A responsible breeder’s motivations are passion and excellence. Commercial Breeders are running a business and are driven by profit. Commercial breeders can be professional and knowledgeable and/or they can take significant shortcuts to save on expenses while maximizing profit, which negatively impacts the quality of puppies provided to the public. To me, the number and degree of the shortcuts help identify the differences between a good breeder, a professional commercial breeder and a puppy mill. The shortcuts to most watch for are the quality of the adult breeding stock; the breeding practices; the appropriate health screenings for both adults and puppies; puppy rearing environments; how puppy buyers are pre-screened and the breeder’s ethics particularly after the sale. The squalor often associated with the term “puppy mill” is not on my list here, because it is not going to show up on a website. A puppy worth a couple of thousand dollars is presented online by a puppy mill sparkly clean and cute to enhance its value.
  • To make a profit, a Commercial Kennel or Puppy Mill has to breed at high volume. Be suspect of a website that routinely lists many puppies and puppies with different birthdates available at the same time and has puppies available all through the year with extra large numbers for holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Also be wary of a breeder with multiple breeds or puppies born at multiple locations, especially if other for-profit elements are present. Volume is only one factor and not always possible to identify with only one or two visits to a website. Numbers by themselves do not tell the buyer what is excessive. Look beyond volume for other characteristics to be sure.
  • To make a profit, Puppy mills sell puppies at or above the price responsible breeders will charge for them. It is up to the buyer to know what a fair price for a puppy is. Puppy prices and information on deposits are prominently featured on Puppy Mill websites. Some Puppy Mills take credit cards and or PAYPAL. Legitimate breeders don’t list prices on their websites. The sale of a puppy for them involves personal contact.
  • Puppy Mill websites are always right up to date and tend to look very smart. The photography will be first class and the site focuses on the cuteness of the puppies with seasonal accessories such as Christmas ornaments or Valentine hearts. Each puppy will have a cute name and the site will use familiar rather than registered names of the parents. A beautiful website can easily distract a buyer from the important issues of puppy quality and health.
  • Kennel websites may discuss how puppies are raised. Knowledgeable breeders raise puppies according to sound developmental principals, providing the correct environment for each developmental stage during the critical early weeks of life when puppies are still with their littermates. There are periods when the puppies are challenged and other times when they access to them is restricted, all according to what is appropriate for each growth stage (Rule of 7’s, for example-- see note #2 below). During these weeks, the good breeder studies puppy personality for the purpose of matching each individual with the right family. This is a very different process from a puppy mill breeder who does not spend quality time with puppies or create a quality environment during the early weeks and also radically different from a breeder who gives the kids unlimited access to a young litter and calls them “family raised”, which is not quality time at all.
  • Knowledgeable breeders place puppies at the correct developmental age for that breed and each individual puppy. There is a range here in accepted practices from as early as 8 weeks for a retriever to 9-11 weeks for a Collie to 12 weeks and older for a toy breed. Not all the individual puppies in a litter may be developmentally ready to leave for new homes at the same time. Puppy Mills place puppies as early as possible regardless of breed and individual readiness.
  • Both Knowledgeable responsible breeders and puppy mills will claim expertise and experience on their websites. Both may offer breed history, testimonials and FAQ’s. This is an area of extreme confusion for pet buyers.
  • Puppy Mill Breeders operate in isolation from the community of their breed, though they may be connected to other puppy mills through marketing groups (all bulldogs: or multiple breeds:
  • Responsible Breeders operate with close connections to the communities of their breeds. Look for memberships and participation in dog events, dog clubs, canine health foundations, breeder associations, and therapy organizations and links to National Breed Clubs and health foundations as signs of a fully engaged breeder. (see note #4)
  • Responsible breeders screen potential puppy buyers carefully and require that the buyer visit the kennel or be checked out by a knowledgeable representative of the breeder. I routinely do home visits for breeder friends who are negotiating to place dogs close to me. Puppy Mills will sell to anybody who can pay the price, usually on a first come-first-served basis.
  • Puppy Mills routinely ship to the buyer at the buyer’s expense and shipping info is featured on the website.
  • Puppy Mills often use imported dogs and foreign or obscure registrations. They will claim they do this because imported dogs are superior, but actually, the dogs are cheaper and/or available to people to whom a good US breeder will not sell a dog. As the price of purebred puppies has risen, it has become profitable to import puppies, in spite of shipping costs, from places such as Russia for sale to American buyers, and kennel oversight has caused puppy mill breeders to leave the AKC and create their own registries. Responsible Breeders use American Kennel Club registrations for all stock.
  • Responsible breeders will sell all companion puppies on AKC Limited Registrations with spay-neuter contracts and a good one will take the dog back at any time during the lifetime of the dog. Responsible breeders will follow-up on dogs that they place and be available to answer owner questions. The closer the breeder is to the buyer, the more effective this mentoring can be. Puppy Mills tend to offer warranties rather like what one would get when buying a toaster.
  • Puppy Mill breeders will offer show puppies at a greater price. Responsible breeders will not offer show puppies to the general public on a website at all, because they know how rare a true show puppy is and the considerable resources it takes to raise one. They will only make show dogs available to proven people privately and then only with complex detailed show contracts specifying buyer’s responsibilities to dog. Dog Showing is a complex sport. New people need a great deal of help to get started in it. Responsible breeders know this and plan to stay closely involved with any show dog that they place.
  • Puppy Mills tend to cluster in states without much enforcement of legislated kennel standards and with economies with large agricultural components such as Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, the St Louis-area of Missouri and neighboring Illinois, Oklahoma, Arizona, the Carolinas and the upper Midwest, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc. Responsible breeders are spread out fairly evenly across the country. Families who live near canine commercial breeder centers find it even more difficult to tell a legitimate breeder from a puppy mill.

Smart Shopping On The Internet:

There is a safe Internet shopping route, however, that can lead you through the quagmire:

  1. Use the Internet only for your initial browsing. Once you start to narrow down your search to a specific breed and read the background information on that breed, get off the computer and start using the phone and in-person contact and get some expert advice. There is most likely something available within a reasonable time close to home in any breed you might choose where you can easily get follow-up mentoring for the life of the dog. Start serious shopping close and widen the search geographically gradually.
  2. Do not start your computer shopping by googling a breed’s name. Google will highlight website construction and marketing skills rather than dog breeding excellence. The American Kennel Club has the best concentration of high quality information available all in one place, so start your browsing at AKC.ORG. Click on “Breeds” on the homepage, which will bring up a wealth of information:
  1. Next click on either “breeds by name” which will bring up an alphabetical list; or “breeds by group” which will bring up lists of breeds by original job description: Sporting (hunting dogs), Working (draft and guard dogs), Hounds (scent and sight), Herding, Terrier, Toy, and Non-sporting (this is a catch all miscellaneous group that contains a mixture). Click on the drawing of the dog you would like to see on either list and that will bring up a page containing the breed standard, a photo gallery and a video with links to the national breed club for that breed.
  2. The National Breed Club for each breed is charged with maintaining standard and the health and welfare of each breed, and it is the epicenter of wisdom about the breed. The National Breed Club maintains facts about the breed and the code of ethics for the membership, all of which you can read on its website. The National Breed Club should be the next stop as you browse and through its links, you can move to local contacts in your area.