Once you've decided that a puppy is right for you and also chosen your perfect breed, then it's time to look for your perfect puppy. The first step is to track down a responsible shelter/animal rescue centre or breeder.
Finding a breeder
When purchasing a puppy from an owner or breeder, the evaluation process works both ways. You want to make sure of their credentials, and they want to make sure you will provide a good home. The Kennel Club runs an ‘accredited breeder’ scheme to which breeders sign up, showing they follow the Club breeding guidelines. Other contacts can be made via a breed-club secretary and many breeds have a rescue society co-ordinating the re-homing of dogs of that breed. You could also visit dog shows to chat to breeders about your chosen breed. Always avoid buying puppies from pet shops or in other circumstances where the puppy’s history is unclear (e.g. at a car boot sale, from the newspaper), no matter how cute or sad they appear. These puppies may have come from puppy farms.
Questions to ask a breeder
Any responsible dog breeder should be happy to discuss and answer questions about their breed, so ask any questions. If they are not willing to answer then look elsewhere.
- Are they a Kennel Club Accredited Breeder?
- Are the puppies eligible for Kennel Club registration?
- Do they just breed, or are they involved in showing, working or competing with their dogs?
- How long have they been breeding for? Experienced breeders will have greater knowledge of their chosen breed.
- Do they breed more than one type of dog? Multiple different breeds producing puppies in one place may suggest more of a commercial operation or at worst a puppy farm.
- How many litters do they produce each year? Responsible breeders will never produce more than one litter per bitch each year.
- In what environment will the litter be raised? Puppies raised running around in a busy household, with cats, dogs, children and lots of visitors, will be better socialised than those reared in a quieter home or in kennels.
- What support do they provide? Responsible breeders usually offer advice and support, including written information on care for the puppy. Reputable breeders usually offer support for the whole of your dog's life.
- Do they offer to take the puppy/dog back in the event of any problems during the dog’s entire life (e.g. health problems or behavioural problems)?
- Are the dogs tested for any genetic problems in the breed? (You should research this before contacting the breeder so you are aware of any tests available.)
- Do they home their puppies with pet insurance?
- Are puppies microchipped (such identification is usually required for Kennel Club registration)?
- Are puppies vaccinated, wormed and treated for fleas before re-homing? Responsible breeders will treat puppies appropriately at an early age.
Don't be surprised, or offended, if the breeder asks you as many questions as you ask them. This is a very good sign and shows they are genuinely interested in finding the best homes for their puppies. They want to make sure you are prepared and that your circumstances are suited to their type of puppy.
Meeting the parents
If you're both happy then it's time for a face-to-face meeting. Assess the environment the puppies are kept in. It should be clean, dry and not smell unpleasant. The mum and puppies should have their own space, and there should not be lots of dogs in one space. The breeder should be friendly and never evasive when asked about their dogs.
All dogs on the premises should look healthy, happy and be friendly, as well as interacting in a friendly manner with the breeder. All the dogs should be treated with respect.
You should always meet the puppy's mother and other puppies. Responsible breeders have nothing to hide and will be happy for you to meet the mother and see her with her puppies in the rearing environment. It's natural for her to be a little wary of people viewing her litter but she should be attentive rather than nervous or aggressive. You should also be allowed to handle the puppies (depending on age). Look at her size and temperament as this may provide an idea of your puppy’s characteristics in the future.
It's unlikely that the father will be around when you visit. Most breeders use a stud dog that is best suited to their bitch. Ask who the father is and about his temperament, health (including any genetic or health tests, if applicable) and pedigree. His pedigree (ancestry/family tree) should go back around five generations. Ideally, ask to see a photo to judge if he is a good physical example of the breed (if you are informed enough to make this judgement).
Choosing your puppy
You will usually meet your pup for the first time at around six weeks of age, but if possible, try to visit as close to three or four weeks as you can and as frequently as possible, so the puppy can become familiar with you. If you can, take the family (including children, but perhaps not all in one visit if you have a large brood) so the puppy becomes used to all members of the household.
At this age, puppies should be interested in you and their environment, keen to sniff your hands and explore the world around them. They should be playful, outgoing and up to mischief.
Always avoid puppies that are the smallest (known as the ‘runt of the litter’): even if they are the cutest, they often have health problems. Also avoid nervous, withdrawn or overly excitable puppies as they are likely to need more training and socialisation. The puppies should be plump, but not be fat, and free of any lumps or bumps. Look for a pot belly as this may indicate an underlying disease (including parasite infection) and check the umbilical region for any swelling that could indicate a hernia. Eyes should be clean, bright, open and clear. Ears should be clean and not red or smelly, and bottoms should also be clean. Coat should be soft and clean, with no bald or sore patches, and the puppy should not be scratching.
Place the pup on the floor. He/she should be interested in his surroundings straight away. Clap your hands, or make a high-pitched squeak. Does the dog respond? Deafness is a big problem in some breeds (Dalmatians, for example, and particularly for white dogs), so it may be wise to avoid a puppy that doesn't respond to obvious sudden noises, or enquire about further hearing testing.
Timing is everything
The time puppies spend with their mothers, brothers and sisters is crucial. It's how they learn how to communicate and learn the do's and don'ts of being a dog. Generally, you should pick up your pup at seven to eight weeks old (a little later with certain breeds). Earlier re-homing is not recommended and may indicate the breeder is not following high breeding standards. Equally, if a puppy is a lot older, there may be a reason the breeder has held them back, so ask why. Sometimes a breeder will ask you to wait until 12 weeks and if so then ideally choose a puppy from a busy household so they have been well socialised, e.g. choose a home with children if you have children yourself. It's worth noting that some insurance policies don't cover dogs that leave the breeder before eight weeks of age. The timing of homing will also influence what vaccinations the puppy has received. Check with the breeder, who should provide documentation of vaccinations received (along with worming and other treatments). Make sure you are familiar with the breeder’s feeding regime so you can continue this at home, at least initially.
Re-homing a puppy
Many puppies of all varieties can be found in animal shelters/rescue centres across the country. A good rescue centre will have clean and homely pens, with a warm, sheltered area for sleeping, plenty of exercise space and toys, as well as time to spend with puppies to ensure their socialisation.
Staff will be friendly, caring and knowledgeable, and ask lots of questions about you and your lifestyle to find the best dog for you. They will not re-home a puppy with you if they feel your lifestyle is not suitable. Most reputable charities conduct a home visit to make sure your home and its location are safe. Most will also neuter their dogs before they are released, or insist that you sign an agreement ensuring the operation is carried out. Vaccinations and anti-parasite treatment should also have been given and documents available.
For more information about rehoming a dog in your area, contact one of the larger, national organisations, such as Dogs Trust, The Blue Cross, Battersea Dogs Home, RSPCA, Scottish SPCA or Dublin SPCA.