#02 – The Difference Between Honest Dog Breeders, Backyard Breeders, & Puppy Mills

by | Jun 15, 2021 | Business Management, People Management

When I first started breeding people sometimes asked if I was a backyard breeder my response was always, “I breed exclusively in my front yard.” which was usually followed by a laugh—although sometimes it was that awkward blank stare.

Let me first distinguish why I don’t use the term reputable breeder. Anyone can have a reputation, and that doesn’t make that reputation good or bad, it’s not helpful to tell someone you have a reputation, rather, that just means your actions have been consistent and you’re known for it. This is why I opt for honest breeder, honest goes hand-in-hand with integrity. And that’s really what you want: to have integrity and honesty about what you’re doing. If you’re an honest breeder, then you have nothing to hide, it’s upfront and transparent.

“Reputable Breeder” is also not helpful for all the new honest breeders, that have such high integrity with what they are doing. I’ve been so lucky to talk with so many bright and young breeders who are just starting out. They have so much heart, they’re so smart, they are really on top of it—BUT they don’t have a reputation yet. Without a doubt, they are honest breeders.

In your first year or two of breeding, it’s common enough to be asked if you’re a backyard breeder, especially from prospective buyers. This is usually because there is a certain presence that established breeders have on the internet and through social media, reviews, and testimonials. When you first start out, you won’t have this, but that doesn’t make you a bad breeder, it just means you’re new.

When you’re first starting out breeding, it is very important to understand why you aren’t a puppy mill and why you aren’t a backyard breeder, even if you aren’t sure if you are a backyard breeder right now.

Puppy Mills

Let’s get puppy mills out of the way, since they aren’t you, but you need to know why you’re different so you can calmly explain it when you are asked and so you can recognize it, should you encounter one.

By the way, it is totally normal for you to feel a little defensive if asked if you’re a puppy mill or even why you aren’t, but understand with all the articles from PETA out there, so many buyers feel they have a list of things to check off when searching for a dog from a breeder, so many are already struggling with a guilt trip from family or friends over “shopping and not adopting.”

Always consider these moments an excellent opportunity to build rapport with your potential customer and to shine a positive light on your breeding program. When people ask this question remember they are trying to be responsible. This is ideal in my mind, I want my pups to go to owners that do their research.

So if they ask you about being a puppy mill or backyard breeder, find a way to compliment them for doing their research and for caring. Something like, “I really respect that you’ve done your research, we truly care about our dogs and the homes that they go to, I’m glad you’re one of the people that will take the time to learn all they can before purchasing a pup.”

The biggest difference in puppy mills and you is that you are not going to sacrifice quality for quantity, and you’re not going to produce bad dogs consistently in the name of making money.

The main differences between honest breeders and puppy mills are the living conditions, care for the dogs, and the motivation of the operation.

Puppy mills, because of their drive to make money, try to do things in a way that is most financially efficient, and they sacrifice the care for the dogs. This often means the dogs will spend their lives in tiny cages, the floors will be wire, so the cleaning is easier and they don’t have to move the dog. They also won’t put time into planning a good pairing of dogs to make a higher quality puppy, although they may push to breed a color combination that sells for more money, they won’t care about hip dysplasia or inherited issues that will arise after the puppy is sold.

One of the easiest ways to set yourself apart from puppy mills is to offer to have the buyers come out and see your “facilities” and also meet the parents. I am a big proponent of owning both your stud and your bitch. Although you do not have to start this way. It makes a huge difference to buyers when they can see both parents and know that they are healthy, happy dogs.

In summary, remember the key difference between you and them is a puppy mill prioritizes profit over the quality. Honest breeders will breed quality and the profit will follow.

Backyard Breeders

Not too long ago, people who would today be considered backyard breeders would have been called hobby breeders. It sounds a little more friendly and welcoming, whereas backyard breeder seems a little haphazard and unplanned.

Now, you’ll occasionally hear some people still use the term hobby breeder, and while most would be considered backyard breeders, there are a handful of honest breeders who call themselves hobby breeders because they don’t breed on the regular and aren’t making a profit, so they are hobbyists by definition. You’ll usually see this with people who do events with their dogs and are breeding for their own personal benefit, keeping lines to extend the great dog they have.

The biggest difference between being an honest breeder and a backyard breeder is the planning that goes into it.

Honest breeders select their breeding stock with a goal in mind. They do the required health testing. They know their dogs’ strengths and weaknesses and they are working to improve them, although they generally aren’t bad to start because, again, there was planning in the selection of the breeding stock.

Backyard breeders often don’t have a plan, they usually aren’t using a stud that is complementary to their female, but rather he was selected because he was “available.” Backyard breeders are not purpose driven in their breeding efforts. Often times a backyard breeder is created when their dog accidentally gets bred and the owners are trying to do the right thing.

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How do you show your potential buyers that you are so much more than a backyard breeder?

First, SHARE YOUR PASSION WITH THEM – Your passion for breeding is infectious and when you talk about why you love breeding, they will eat up every word.

Tell them stories about your dogs that explain why you wanted to breed. With my first stud, he was so goofy, but he was the perfect hunting dog, yet so good with my toddler daughter, I wanted to bring that wonderful kind of dog to other families so they could enjoy what I enjoyed. Then I explain how I talked with his breeder about breeding him, how I had his papers, how he had been cross-checked against the breed standard and his hunting drive and temperament were right on point.

That story shares my passion for not only breeding dogs, but bringing these wonderful dogs into other people’s lives. It gives them a little glimpse of what their life could be like with one of my dogs, it truly is infectious.

When they see your passion for your dogs, they will really cling to that and will want it for themselves; as a by-product, it shows them how much thought was put into this breeding and it dispels any worries they have that you are in breeding for the wrong reasons.

This is a main reason why I’m not a fan of selecting a breed to breed based on popularity, if you don’t have a passion for the breed and its quirks, it will be more frustrating than rewarding. And when you talk about the dogs, the passion just won’t be there. You have to love the breed, whether it comes with intense shedding, drooling, goofy quirks, or whatever they are, you have to love them for all that they are.

Another good avenue to discuss when buyers are curious, is how you selected your breeding pair, what did you like about your first dog and what didn’t you like? For example, one of my females didn’t have as nice of a tail set as I would like, so when I selected the stud, I made sure that he had a better tail set and that it complemented hers, while not sacrificing the things I loved about her, like her shoulder set.

Discussions like that are so helpful, even if the buyer doesn’t really follow what you are saying—which is often the case—they will still gain an appreciation for the time and care that you have with your breeding program. These are also things that a backyard breeder simply won’t be able to explain.

The Size of Your Kennel, as in (how many breeding dogs you have)

One question that comes up in the beginning a lot for breeders is how many dogs to start with, it is a complicated question and has many elements. Some people believe that they need to have more dogs to look more professional. I believe this is the wrong reason to buy more dogs. Without going into too much detail on this right now, I believe it makes the most sense to start with what you can easily manage as members of your family. Just having one stud and one or two females for the first year of breeding will be very easy to manage, and allow you to do things the right way.

Remember, when you are new and your kennel is small, you can sell the idea of the one-on-one care you give to each puppy and your breeding stock. You will have a much better opportunity to socialize the puppies with people and the family if the pups are living in your master bathroom garden tub and not in a kennel in the backyard. Use this to your advantage and explain how you are seizing the opportunity that a smaller breeding program is to make the best puppies you can.

There is always an advantage, no matter what size your breeding program is. If it is small there is more care to each puppy. If it is larger, you have more options and more dogs available to pick from. There is always an advantage, as long as you know what that advantage is, you can use it to positively explain your breeding decisions.

As far as defending against negative perceptions, when your kennel is small it will be easier to show you aren’t a puppy mill, but it will be more difficult to prove you aren’t a backyard breeder. As your kennel grows, people may get the impression you are a puppy mill, and so that is what you’ll need to work to dispel.

Another technique I’ve found to be helpful is using the right vocabulary when discussing your program. For example, when I refer to my kennel, I refer to it as my “kennel program.” A program, by definition, is designed with a purpose, so it immediately gives the impression that this has been thought out. The use of the world kennel also gives the impression that your breeding dogs were meant for breeding and weren’t just your two pets that you let hook up.

When you grow your kennel program, there will be times where you feel your facilities or management might be dipping into backyard breeder or puppy mill territory. When you see this happening, use it as an opportunity for growth. Use it to give you a goal to fix.

This could happen when you get a second stud and he hits maturity before you got your second exercise pen set up, so now when a female comes into heat, you have to separate your studs using a crate. This is obviously less than ideal, BUT it is much more ideal than the two studs getting into it over your female.

So if you find yourself aggravated with the situation, study it and figure out what would make it better, then make that your next move to improve your program.


Some will say that if you’re breeding and don’t have facilities set up and your pups are living in the back screened-in porch then you are a backyard breeder. Remember, backyard breeders are different from honest breeders because of the planning that is involved, not because of facilities, and don’t forget the advantage of having just few dogs to manage and how much care they receive. We are all starting somewhere, it wasn’t until my 4th year of breeding that I was able to build a nice facility for my dogs.

If your dogs live outside, this is considered puppy mill territory, I have 22 dogs, there is no way my honey is letting them all come in the house, and I would be quite annoyed with all the cleaning if they did.

I couldn’t afford my concrete kennels in my first year, we did a lot of crates and rotating in the exercise pen to keep dogs healthy, happy, and to prevent them from fights. Many buyers don’t want to see dogs in crates, that looks like a puppy mill to them. I knew that balancing the crates and who was out exercising was the safest way to keep the dogs with the facilities I had, so that’s what I did for a few years.

As I was able, I took the money from selling puppies to buy more things to help with facilities. One year I bought a large set of panels for a few exercise pens. It can often be hard to justify spending a few thousand on a temporary facility that will not be needed or will need to be removed in a year or two when you build your actual facility. So I always opt for exercise pens before buildings, this seems to be more useful over all, creating safe separation, while also allowing plenty of room.

I believe it would be unreasonable to build a large building and facility until you have about 6 dogs in your program. But while you’re getting up to those numbers, you’ll have to do a little juggling. I knew that my dogs were happy, healthy, and safe, but I also knew the perception from buyers wasn’t as great as it could be, so I explained to them the safety aspect—how intact dogs can be a little more feisty than spayed ones—and I also made a goal to build facilities as soon as I was able.

Commercial Breeders

Commercial, as a descriptor just means that there is profit involved. Because honest breeders and puppy mills alike generally make a profit, it’s not a very helpful term, which is probably why it isn’t used as frequently. Sometimes you’ll hear the term used to show that the operation is of considerable size, like commercial breeding facility—doesn’t that just give you the idea of a giant kennel building, with lots of chain link runs, concrete floors, and stainless steel? Anyways, I tend to steer away from using the term commercial, it just doesn’t have the personal feeling that describes my kennel program.

Ultimately, if you aim to do things honestly and with integrity and it’ll always steer you in the right direction.

Well there you have it, the differences between puppy mills, backyard breeders, commercial breeders, and you. I’ve created a worksheet you can download and fill out to help you determine where your kennel program is and how you can you can discuss the advantages of your kennel and why you aren’t a backyard breeder or puppy mill.

By writing these things down now, they’ll help you build some direction in your program, while also giving you a ready answer when you’re asked and need to provide an immediate answer. My answers to these sort of questions have not only built me rapport with great buyers, but it has helped me positively stand out against other breeders.

Show Notes

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Hey! I’m Julie Swan! I’m here to help you build a breeding business that you love, one that produces amazing dogs, places them in wonderful homes, gives you the life you want, also pays the bills!