#43 – What to Do About a Defective Puppy

by | May 19, 2022 | Business Management, Dog & Puppy Management, People Management

It’s a beauty and a curse that we work with live animals. On the one hand, wow is it amazing, new life being created and born. Yet on the other hand, with live animals, there’s always the potential for something to be wrong. It isn’t always a birth defect, although those happen. Sometimes it’s a recessive gene that reared its ugly head, and sometimes it’s an injury or an illness. Regardless of why it happened, it happens. So what do we do about it? The puppy still has a life and value, but isn’t “perfect” in the sense of what you usually produce. How do we find the puppy a great home, maintain his value in the eyes of buyers, and also maintain integrity in our business and its practices?

Assess the Quality of Life

The very first thing we need to do is assess the quality of life of the puppy. How will this issue affect his life long-term, if at all.

Take the issue and really evaluate the quality of life. Generally an issue will fall into one of three categories:

  1. Cosmetic issue, not affecting quality of life
  2. Issue requiring surgery or a single-event veterinary care
  3. Life-long issue, requires a change of life, unique ownership

Is the issue cosmetic? For example, there are some breeds where dogs aren’t supposed to have any white on them. Well, what if this puppy has white? This won’t affect quality of life, so it doesn’t rate as a super-big issue. It might be something to consider with your breeding decisions depending on your breeding goals, but it isn’t exactly a problem for the dog, just the box we try to put dogs into.

Sometimes the issue is something that can be solved with a single surgery or veterinary care for a few weeks or months. For example, I had a puppy who broke her leg when she was three weeks old. It was a nice clean break, it was set, healed well, and there was little chance of further complication. So was she destined for long-term problems? Not any more than a little kid who breaks his arm on recess. Yet, she wasn’t as “perfect” as the other puppies.

What about if the puppy is missing a leg, or pair of legs or he’s deaf or blind?

These are all major differences in the quality of life for the dog. He will need specific treatment outside of normal dog ownership.

There is a whole spectrum of these sort of issues. The harder ones to assess are the ones where the quality isn’t the same compared with other pups, but that the quality of life isn’t specifically affected. For example, say you have a misaligned bite, while it looks funny, this one won’t have any affect on his ability to eat or gain nutrition. Or what about a hernia? Those happen, and if it isn’t severe, just looks like an outie belly-button, is it a problem?

Sometimes the affect on the quality of life will be obvious and sometimes you’ll need to get a vet’s opinion or you’ll need to get a second opinion. I wouldn’t hesitate to get a second opinion if the first opinion seems off or extreme. I once had a vet tell my buyer that the dog had an issue requiring a $2400 surgery, my vet told me she usually charged $100 for that when added to a spay or neuter, so there’s definitely variability in pricing over stuff like this. Turns out that dog was eating toxic mushrooms, but hey, we learned a little with that one, too.

In addition to understanding the impact on the quality of life, we also need to figure out what the burden will be on the family who takes the dog on. Will the dog be an emotional burden because he can’t live up to their expectations? Will he require special accommodations with lifestyle? Such as a deaf dog needing to be trained with hand signals? Will it cost the family money? If the dog will likely need surgery or to be on medication or expensive supplements to maintain quality of life, this needs to be understood as best as possible.

Once we know the burden that the dog will be—or not—then we can start to check our best avenues for finding that dog the proper home.

Think about it from your buyer’s perspective

Before we look at how to reduce the price or spin the defect in a way that still retains the dog’s value, I want you to put yourself in the shoes of the buyers to be. What will their impression of this dog be with this defect in comparison to what you normally create with your dogs (or with other dogs of the breed). If you sold this dog at full price, would your family feel gypted? If so, then you’ll definitely need to reduce the price.

For example, I wouldn’t expect to pay the same price for a puppy with a broken leg that’s healed as I would for a puppy who had never had a fracture. I also wouldn’t want to go into getting a puppy knowing it would need surgery for the same price as a puppy who wouldn’t need surgery.

Even if the dog will have no issues, just the fact that they aren’t without defect at the time I buy the puppy makes me feel taken advantage of paying full price. In essence, as breeders, we need to reduce the price on these dogs to show good-faith and integrity with our business practices. This is especially important in dog breeding because of all the puppy mills and people’s fears of buying a puppy from a puppy mill.

Ideally, we want to look at these situations with best business practices in mind. We want to make money, but we don’t want to cheat our buyers, so how do we find the pricing sweet spot with defects?

Finding the Sweet Spot

Again, putting ourselves in the shoes of our buyers, what would be a reasonable discount for one of our pups that would justify the “burden” that the dog is or appears to be because the puppy isn’t otherwise “perfect?”

If the dog has a defect, like the previously-broken-leg-but-now-healed-with-no-foreseeable-issues puppy or a misaligned bite that isn’t as pretty, but won’t cause inability to eat, then I would opt for 20% discount in price. This has seemed sizable enough that my expenses are covered, but also makes my buyers feel like they got great value, I always want them to take a puppy feeling they got great value.

If the issue is less severe, like a hernia that just looks like an outie belly-button, I would reduce the price less. For example, my vet will fix a simple hernia at spay for $50. I often offer two options to buyers with a hernia like this: 1. They can pay full price and they can use my vet for spay and I’ll cover the hernia during spay, or 2. I will discount the dog twice the price of what it costs me to have it done, in this instance, $100, and they can take care of it if they like.

Now, to clarify, a hernia like this will pose no problem to the dog, it could live with it its whole life, but some buyers don’t like it, and they will feel taken advantage of if I didn’t address it, or played it down like it was nothing. So these two options are an easy balance. I have never actually paid to have it corrected, my buyers have always opted for the discount on the purchase price.

This idea of covering the cost of the surgery (with your vet, of course, no need for them to go to the most expensive vet just because you said you’d pay for it), or offering to discount by the cost or slightly more than the cost of the surgery, is a simple way to address those simple, one-off issues.

What if the dog will never be restored to it’s quote-in-quote “factory settings?” If the quality of life issue will be more severe, then I recommend you take a customized approach in these instances. Well, then you have to look at the long-term costs. These aren’t always financial, but when they are it helps to look at them as a gauge for the reduction in price.

So for example, if the dog will need $50/year in supplements, then you might want to reduce his price by a half a lifetime cost of those supplements, so reduce him by $300, for the 6 years at $50/year.

If the cost will be lifestyle changes, such as the fact that he’s deaf or blind, then you’re not only looking for a special home, a home looking to take on a challenge, but you’ll also want to reduce his price considerably, at least 50%.

Some will argue that giving him away for free would be the most appropriate thing, but I’m not always sold on that idea. You see, people just don’t value that which they were given for free. Again, think of the kid in high school whose parents gave him a brand new ride. He’s not going to take care of that vehicle the same way that he would if he had paid for it.

Occasionally, in situations where it is really bad, and you essentially have a dog that is a “charity case” meaning there is no amount of money what would “make it right” then you can opt for an application process, where you say, we are looking for the perfect family for this dog, while we aren’t charging for him, we are taking applications to find the right home. Whichever home we feel is best for him is the home where we’ll have him go.

This way people feel they have to “earn” him and this can be used to give the dog value in lieu of having them pay for him. This would be ideal for a dog that was born missing a leg. It can even be appropriate for blind or deaf dogs, depending on the type of ideal puppy buyer you are working with.

Want to Get the After Action Review Worksheet?

What about when you have a list of buyers who are waiting on a puppy and in order to get them all puppies one of them would have to take the defective puppy?

In these instances I like to be as upfront and honest as you can, we aren’t downgrading the dog by saying he’s lessor, but we aren’t hiding it either. We need to take a realistic approach, that isn’t emotional, you don’t want to push people to feel like they need to take a defective puppy because you, the breeder, is emotionally distraught about it.

Before you start sorting out the puppies, figure out the appropriate price difference and make the difference in price known, along with the anticipated extra work/burden he might be or not, and then offer him with the other puppies during selection. Make sure to also share with them his personality, temperament, and drive, just like any other dog.

We want to avoid the victim mentality with these puppies, this retains value, instead of saying he’s the broken-leg puppy, say he’s green-collar pup, he’ll be best for a family with young kids, he patient and biddible, but has also survived a broken leg. We want to make sure we aren’t defining our dogs by their defects, rather, they’re a puppy who ALSO has this in his life or history. Always do your best to treat them as their own life, not as an issue. You remember that whole idea of the “problem child”? We don’t want people to see our pups as that.

Often times people will opt for a defective puppy for the discounted price, especially if it’s cosmetic, or not something they’ll find difficult to manage. Some will get emotionally attached to what they perceive as the underdog, and I have no problem with this. It improves their bond together and that always works well for both the owner and dog.

As you get toward the end of your list of people getting a puppy in the litter and the only puppy left is the defective puppy, then try and give the family two options, offer them that they can take him at the discount, but also offer to have them wait for the next litter, or for a refund if it’ll be a long time (like over 8 months for them to get another dog from you). This way they never feel stuck. You always want them to actively choose their puppy.

What about a dog that gets injured or has a defect found after they already have a home?

This sucks, I’m not going lie. Making that phone call to tell someone the puppy they selected is no injured or broken is really hard. I know it feels best to call them right away, and, truly, you shouldn’t make them wait, but you don’t want to call without information that helps make a decision. For example, if the dog is injured and the leg seems broken. You can call them, tell them there was an injury and you’ll let them know more after you get done at the vet.

If you find the issue and its more a congenital defect they were born with and you didn’t know about it until later, then you can get the dog into the vet and see the long-term prognosis and options, then call to let them know.

You, again, want to give them two options when discussing this, an option to keep the puppy, what it would look like and an appropriate discount if there is one, and also what their options are to get a different puppy. If there are more puppies to sell in the litter you can offer that, but if they’ll need to wait for another litter to get a puppy from you, then let them know about the time frame they are looking for.

What if none of the people waiting on this litter want the puppy?

If none of them want the puppy then it’s best to advertise the puppy with the defect, I recommend reaching out through social media and your email list if you have one. Of course the puppy’s whole information should be on your website in the for-sale section.

The idea here is that we aren’t asking anyone to take the puppy, rather we are advertising the whole situation of the puppy and seeing who wants to step forward and take that puppy. The nice thing is, all that information is upfront, so we don’t need to disappoint someone who was expecting a flawless puppy; these people are coming to you and they already know the whole story before you talk.

Of course, in these situations, it helps to make the story of what happened a little entertaining. For example, my breed of dogs are known for jumping on counters and scaling fences, so, to make it a little funny, I made a joke with my broken leg puppy calling her Peggy and saying that she was a new experiment in 3-legged dogs to make my buyers’ lives easier because of having a dog that couldn’t jump fences. This sort of dark humor works for MY ideal puppy buyer, but again this might really piss off your ideal puppy buyer.

How do we make adjustments to our breeding program?

Whenever things like this happen, we owe it to our program, dogs, and buyers to see about preventing it going forward. Was this injury something we could fix with better facilities? Was this something we could fix with better selection of breeders? Is this always something we’ll need to be careful about?

Review what happened, I highly recommend using the fancy Army AAR, which is After-Action Review, which is a simple three questions to review the situation to make it better next time…I made you a quick worksheet to fill out – get your copy using the form below.

The questions are:

  1. What are three things that went well?
  2. What are three things that didn’t go well?
  3. What are three things we could do to make it better next time?

It’s simple and easy, but that’s the beauty of it, it gets your thinking moving forward and you can use the information to make things better in your program.

When in doubt, reduce the price, but don’t forget to maintain the value of the puppy. Tell their story, be honest, but keep in the center of your mind that this is a living animal with a right to a quality life.

I hope that these moments are few and far between in your breeding program, but I’d be lying if I said they never happened.

Enter your name and email to get the worksheet to help you do an After Action Review to make it better next time!

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!