Choosing a Breeder for Your Service Dog Prospect

So you’ve decided training your own service dog is the right path for you. You’ve chosen a breed (or at least narrowed it down to a few potential breeds) and now you’re ready to find a breeder. This article will guide you down the right path to finding the perfect breeder for you. We’ll teach you how to recognize backyard breeders and, even worse, puppy mills. The search can be overwhelming at first but stay diligent, it will get easier as you get used to it.

Where to Start

The first thing you should always do is go to the website for the breed club of whatever breed you’ve chosen and read everything you can. That website will be a treasure trove of information. They often have a page about selecting a breeder with detailed information on your specific breed and many even have a breeders database (even if you find a breeder in their database thoroughly check them out. Don’t assume that just because they’re listed they’re reputable).

If you have the opportunity, go to some dog shows in your area. Make connections with people in the breed you’ve chosen and ask around about breeders. It’ll become clear after a while who’s respected and who isn’t. Plus, no one is more informed than people active in the breed. If you talk to them about what you’re looking for chances are someone will be able to point you in the right direction.

The Importance of Health Testing

While you are beginning your search, you should familiarize yourself with the OFA, or Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. The OFA was created to “promote the health and welfare of companion animals through a reduction in the incidence of genetic disease”. The OFA maintains an extensive database of health testing results for every breed of dog and has determined which specific issues each breed is most at risk for. You should look at this list of every breed and choose yours to see what health tests should be screened for (including ones that won’t show up in the OFA database).

When you start looking at a breeder search a few of their dogs on the OFA database. All of their dogs over the age of two should have results recorded so you can see what’s been tested. You should look at not only the potential sire and dam for the litter but OFA also provides information on every dog closely related to them in their system, including the parents and grandparents, siblings, and all previous offspring. If the dog you’re looking at doesn’t have any of it’s parents or grandparents listed then you want to run away. You want multi generational health testing completed to help insure the health of your future service dog. You will want to get proof of genetic testing from the breeder as well.

What You Don’t Want to See

Below is an example of what NOT to look for. As you can see, only hips are tested on a breed that should have hips, elbows, cardiac, eyes, and thyroid. There are no parents or siblings listed. If this is all they have on a breeding dog run away.

Bad OFA Result

A Better Choice

Below is what you should see when you look up a dog on OFA. All clearances completed as well as for the sire/dam and any offspring. Underneath the offspring there should be a list of siblings and half siblings on both sides.

Better OFA Result

Hip results should always be good or excellent for breeding dogs. Elbows, thyroid, cardiac, and eyes should be normal. For genetic diseases, a carrier can be bred to a non carrier but a carrier can’t be bred to an affected dog or another carrier.

Breed Specific Health Considerations

If your chosen breed is a retriever (Labrador, Golden, or Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever) then K9Data will be your best friend. You can search a dog’s registered name and find it’s pedigree and all of the health testing information in one spot.

If your chosen breed is Great Danes, Australian Shepherds, or any other breed that comes in merle, make sure any breeder you look at doesn’t breed “spot to spot” under any circumstances (Harlequins and Merles are both considered spots). Double merle breedings can result in dogs that are blind and deaf. No reputable breeder will breed two spots together.

Health Screening is Crucial

It seems like a lot but health testing is crucial, especially for a service dog prospect. You want to stack all the odds in your favor so you’re far less likely to spend two years training a dog only to have to wash it out for dysplasia or other health issues. Of course, health testing isn’t a guarantee but dysplasia and other issues have a genetic component. If a dog isn’t cleared, it could easily be passing on bad hips/elbows/etc to its offspring.

Health Testing Red Flags

These are some things bad breeders will say when they’re asked about health testing:

Red Flag #1
  • “Health testing doesn’t guarantee the health of the offspring so there’s no reason to do it”. While they’re partially right here (health testing isn’t a guarantee) it’s proven that many health issues have a genetic component. If the parents aren’t proven to be healthy they could be passing on bad genetics to their offspring, causing them to have severe health problems.
Red Flag #2
  • “We’re sending them in to OFA soon”. This is normally preceded by “oh we did all the health testing but we haven’t sent them into ofa/chic yet”. Generally this means not only do they have no intention of sending them in but they likely never even had them x-rayed or anything else for that matter. Run away.

How the Breeder Raises Their Puppies

Once you find a few breeders that have all the appropriate health testing you want to look into how they raise their puppies. Some breeders raise their puppies in a kennel environment, you don’t want that. You want your prospect to be raised in the house so they’re exposed to all of the normal sounds that happen in a household before they come home to you. If they’re raised in a kennel or outside of the house keep looking until you find a breeder that raises them inside. Some breeders will say they’re raised in a kennel but they handle them regularly so it’s not an issue, don’t believe them.

You also want a breeder that does Early Neurological Stimulation with the puppies. Early Neurological Stimulation is a protocol that is followed from day 3 to day 16 of the puppy’s life and involves different positions and handling to stimulate development. Among other benefits, puppies raised this way are able to handle stress better than puppies raised without it which is extremely important for a service dog prospect.

Puppy CultureOne of the most highly regarded puppy raising programs is Puppy Culture. Backed by extensive research, this system for breeders and puppy owners is rivaled by none. If you can find a breeder that utilizes Puppy Culture, you are well on your way in your search. Puppies raised with Puppy Culture have undergone Early Neurological Stimulation, emotional resiliency exercises, safe early socialization, problem solving and so much more. The Puppy Culture website also has a handy map to help you locate a breeder that uses their protocols. Even better, breeders are required to apply to be listed in the map and must display active use of the Puppy Culture methods.

Temperament of the Parents

Temperament is genetic. If one of the potential parents is unstable (anxious, fearful, aggressive, etc) it increases the odds that the puppy will grow up to be the same way. Don’t buy into the idea that it’s all in how they’re raised. I thought that was true and got a puppy whose dam was a fearful anxious wreck. Not surprisingly, despite all the work I did with him as a puppy, he is also an anxious dog. You want the parents of your dog to be calm, confident dogs.

Breed Standards Are There for a Reason

Don’t look for a breeder that breeds out of the standard. If they’re breeding dogs larger, smaller, different colors, or anything else outside of breed standard you should run away. When a breeder is willing to break standard for one thing why should anyone believe they won’t break it in other ways? If standards for color and size are unimportant to them then it’s likely the standard for temperament is not respected and bred for either. Even if you don’t want a show quality puppy, find a breeder that’s breeding to standard and striving to better the breed.

You Want a Dog That Can Work

Look for a breeder that titles their dogs. Regardless of if you’re planning on showing your dog, you should always look for a breeder that competes with their dogs in something at least. They should prove that their dogs are worth breeding. More specifically, you want proof that the dogs they’re breeding are able to work. Just because a dog did well in conformation and got their Championship (CH) or even their Grand Championship (GCH) doesn’t mean that they’ll make a good working dog.

Dog Agility CompetitionLook for titles in obedience, rally, nosework, or really anything that requires the dogs to use their brains. You can even prioritize what titles to look for based on what type of service dog you need. If you need an allergen or diabetic alert dog then you should look for dogs that are titled in nosework. You should avoid most breeders that title in protection work because you don’t want the protection drive to be passed on to your service dog prospect.

If you’re looking at a breeder and you can’t figure out what the letters before and after a dog’s name mean you can look for them here. If the title doesn’t show up on AKC’s list you can always do a quick google search for it, it’s likely just from an event or sport that isn’t AKC sanctioned yet (which isn’t a bad thing). After a while you’ll start to remember what each title is for and it gets easier to navigate. Proof that a dog can think and work is of the utmost importance when you’re looking for a service dog prospect. A dog that has no drive to work will not succeed as a service dog.

Previous Service and Therapy Dogs

Sometimes you will find a breeder that has therapy dogs or service dogs (or even a record of producing them). This can seem like a slam dunk in your breeder search, but should be taken with a grain of salt. People’s opinions on what it takes to be a service or therapy dog can differ widely. There are no generally recognized standards for behavior, nor any type of widely recognized testing. Unfortunately, some individuals are actively working service and therapy dogs that do not possess the appropriate temperament or behavior for this type of work.

Ask for Puppy Owner References

When you find a breeder you’re interested in ask them to put you in touch with owners from previous litters. Talking to people that already own dogs they’ve produced will give you even more information. You can find out about all sorts of things about past litters: what their health is like, what their temperaments are like, how high or low their energy is (and if they have an off switch), and more. It’s even better if you can talk to people that have full or even partial siblings to the litter you’re interested in.

Additional Red Flags

Be on the look out for these common signs of a questionable breeder:

Monty Python Run Away

Red Flag #1
  • A breeder should be happy to show you their dogs in person and show you around where the puppies are raised. If a breeder refuses to let you go see them (or insists on meeting in public when it’s time to pick up the puppy) run away. Chances are they’re either a backyard breeder or worse, a puppy mill. If they let you come out, you want to observe that the dogs are well cared for and groomed, have solid temperaments, and are kept in a good environment. If it looks like a puppy mill or anything seems off to you don’t second guess yourself, keep looking until you find someone you feel 100% confident about.
Red Flag #2
  • No reputable breeder breeds more than one or two different breeds. If someone you find is breeding more than that, run away. Chances are you’ve stumbled upon a puppy mill.
Red Flag #3
  • Ask how many litters they have a year. More than two to three litters a year is generally too many and you should keep looking. If they have more than one litter on the ground at the same time I suggest running away. Puppies require a lot of attention to develop well and with multiple litters on the ground it generally falls to the wayside.
Red Flag #4
  • Your purchase contract should include an approximately 2 year health guarantee. If it doesn’t I would be suspicious and suggest that you keep looking. If the contract requires you feed a specific food or supplement in order for the guarantee to stay intact then run away immediately. The contract also should not require a dog to be neutered before it’s two years old. Research has shown that early neuter negatively impacts their growth.

Remember: Don’t Rush!

Finding a reputable breeder isn’t a quick thing, so please don’t rush it. Take your time and thoroughly evaluate each one. If you rush you will make mistakes. For a service dog prospect it’s even more crucial to double and even triple check everything. Deciding on a breeder is one of most important steps in finding the right dog. It can be easy to see a cute puppy and make an emotional decision rather than the practical one. By following this guide you will avoid the mistakes that so many owner trainers make when searching for a service dog. Good luck!