I remember when I was super new at breeding, I was terrible at testing temperament and aligning that with my buyers. I just didn’t understand it, didn’t know there could be that much variation in my dogs, and I didn’t have a way to assess the dogs and the buyers. Total newbie.
Fast forward 4 years into my program and I get a phone call, “Hi, we found your dog” this is always a little comical for me, with nearly 20 dogs on my property at all times, and they don’t really get out of the yard, so I’m always like, “which one?” As they spoke further, they told me the dog was at a shelter that is about 6 hours away from me, which told me it was a dog I bred.
I had the good advice from a breeder friend to microchip all my dogs, however I wasn’t smart enough to register them for my buyers in those first few litters. Anyways, that’s who this dog was, he had a microchip that lead to me because I’m the one who bought it. Thank you AKC Reunite for having such a great program that you can track down the buyers of the microchip even if they aren’t registered.
So it narrowed the dog down to three litters for me. I called the shelter and asked them to send me a picture, I remember most of my dogs oddly enough, so this helped me to find the dog buyer in my records. Well I found him, contacted the phone number I had, and was a little heartbroken when they told me that they had rehomed the dog to their niece, luckily it was family and we were able to get the phone number of her and get the dog home safe, but had it never happened, I would have never known that the dog was rehomed.
This happened to be the third dog from that breeding that was rehomed, it was clear that the breeding pair I had was not producing puppies that were easy to manage. I realized this after the second dog that was thankfully returned to me. I made the decision to no longer breed that female to that male and instead chose a different male who was much more calm and it balanced her temperament without sacrificing drive.
It would have been great to know they were having issues when the pup was 6 months old, but instead I found out about it 4 years later, and so it means I didn’t earn their trust and respect like I should have.
This happens when you first start breeding, but my hope is that some of my experience will save you from having to deal with some of this stuff.
You need to build a relationship with your buyers so they are comfortable and willing to tell you things. If they don’t trust you, or they think that you’re judging them, they aren’t going to talk to you when they have problems. If they don’t talk to you when they have problems, you’ll have a difficult time improving your program, as you won’t know what needs fixing.
I really appreciate and care about all my buyers. Of course some are easier to work with than others, but every single one of them wants to do the best by their dog. None of them says, “I plan on giving my dog a so-so life,” they all want their dog to have a wonderful life.
Sometimes it is hard to remember that fact, that your buyers truly want the best for their dog, especially when you are butting heads with them over something, or you are in disbelief at a particular choice they made for their dog.
We have to remember that our buyers generally have less information about the breed than we do, and often, we have more knowledge about dogs in general…this is probably an obvious point, since it’s what we do, work with dogs, BUT we sometimes forget that much of the knowledge and understanding of dogs that we have is not exactly common knowledge for our owners.
That gap is first place to look when building a relationship with our buyers. We want to educate them and prepare them to best set them up for success with our dogs.
We’ve all been to those doctors, something is wrong, we finally go in, and they make us feel like idiots because we didn’t know that the symptom we were having could be something dire and didn’t come in earlier. We leave the office feeling more like an idiot, and don’t really feel much relief for our situation.
Then there are those doctors who look at us and say, “wow, that has to be a pain, let’s get you on a path to recovery.” They don’t chastise you for not coming in sooner, they don’t make you feel like an idiot because you don’t know everything they know. Instead, they are the subject matter expert and they help us bridge the gap between what we don’t know and what we do know, and they get us on a path to success.
Which doctor are you more likely to go back to if you have another problem? All other things being equal, people will prefer the doctor with better bedside manners.
In the breeding world, we are that subject matter expert. We are the person who probably has the answers, and if we don’t, we can’t tell them we aren’t sure, but then we can work to steer them in the right direction. If we sit there and judge them, chastise our owners for not knowing something, we are just inflating our own egos that we happen to know a lot about our job…but isn’t that how jobs work, anyway? You get the job because you know about it or have the aptitude to learn about it?
Instead of trying to prove to our owners that we know a lot about what we should know a lot about, let’s use that knowledge to make things better for them, like the good doctor. Let’s develop a great kennel-side manner, if you will.
So what happens if you don’t have the answer to their problem? First off, don’t beat yourself up, you have to learn these things somewhere. To maintain integrity, never give them advice on something that you aren’t sure of, if you have an idea, like what you might do with one of your dogs, you can tell them, but be sure to tell them that this is where you would start or that if it doesn’t work you aren’t sure. We obviously aren’t vets and most breeders aren’t trainers, so if their question is out of your wheel-house, well then, the best thing is encourage them to contact a specialist, like a vet or trainer, whatever makes the most sense for the situation.
It is helpful to keep a list of trainers and veterinarians that you like or that have worked with your dogs, as it is great to refer them to specialists that are familiar with your dogs.
Don’t forget to thank your owners for contacting you when they have problems. By taking the time to acknowledge them for reaching out, they will be more likely to do it again if they have another problem and this is very beneficial for us because we learn where our program needs improvement.
When you build a quality relationship with your buyers, one built on trust and integrity, your buyers will talk to you, they’ll share their wins, their struggles, and they’ll keep you in the loop on the important stuff.
As breeders we need this. We need to know these things so we can make sure none of our dogs ever end up in shelters, so we can be there to improve the quality of life of the puppies we’ve brought into the world, and the families that own them, and we need this to build a breeding program that we love.
Want to Get the “25 Things to Say to Build Buyer Relationships” Cheatsheet?
Your dogs won’t end up in shelters
Breeders get a bad rap, as a lot of people think that dogs from breeders end up in shelters, it’s not their fault, they don’t know any better. Saying that dogs from breeders are the reason for dogs in shelters, is akin to saying that people shouldn’t have children because some kids go to foster care or orphanages. Honest breeders will always take their dogs back, at any age, in any condition, and do right by them.
Here is where building that relationship with your buyers is so important. You see, if you build a relationship that allows for open dialogue with your owners, they will feel comfortable talking with you because they know you aren’t there to judge them, you’re there to help them. So if an unfortunate series of events transpire, and they can longer care for the dog, they can always call you, and always bring the dog back to you.
One way to encourage this is to put it in your contract. I don’t recommend you require the dog to come back to you in your contract. I find that this disrupts the relationship, giving them reason to hide this information from you so they don’t get in trouble from a breach of contract, but instead, I put it in my contract under “Items that are unenforceable, but that I’d wish they’d consider.” Something along the lines of, “we will take any of our dogs back, at any age, in any condition, no questions asked.”
The reason I write it this way is because one, it builds trust, and places trust and responsibility in the hands of the owner, where it should be, while also not backing them into a legal corner. The second reason is that most of the time, dogs fall under property rules—which they should, although that’s a discussion for another day—and because they are property, it is very hard to enforce a contract that requires them to do something with their personal property. So it isn’t worth jeopardizing the relationship with your buyers for a line in a contract that is difficult to enforce.
The ability to return a dog has been exercised by some of my buyers, which I greatly appreciate. As a breeder, we are constantly getting asked about available puppies and dogs, we’re in a much better position to rehome their dog. Besides that, we’re able to continue to provide that support to the dog and his new family when we find the new home for the dog.
We do our best to match dogs to owners, but sometimes things don’t work out, so if you get a returned dog, don’t think you failed. It is going to happen at some point or another. In fact, if you talk to a breeder who has been doing this a while and they tell you they’ve never gotten a dog back, that’s a red flag, either they are probably lying, or they didn’t build a quality relationship with their buyers, so when buyers were frustrated with the dog, they rehomed him without the breeder’s knowledge.
Returned dogs actually give you the best information about what is needed to improve in your kennel program. There is a threshold, which is different for each owner, on what is an acceptable level of difficulty in owning a dog. Some people’s threshold is so high, they probably wouldn’t surrender a wolf, even if it bit their arm off. Other people have very little threshold for ownership, so if the dog has an accident, barks occasionally when they are on the phone, they can’t handle it and will decide to surrender a dog.
Obviously, most people fall in between those two extremes, but everyone has their things that are priorities, sometimes it’s the relationship the dog has with their kids, if the dog is unpredictable around the kids, it isn’t worth the risk. For others, it can be shedding, they can’t handle the level of shedding or drool a dog has. It really can be all over the place with what is acceptable or not for dog owners. We do our best to look into these things with our buyers, to educate them, and prepare them, but we won’t know everything about them. We also can’t predict things like divorce, loss of a job, and other life events that can cause them to no longer care for the dog.
The best we can do, once the dog is in their care, is be available to talk to, so we can help our owners, and of course, we always be willing to take the dog back.
We Learn Where Our Owners Struggle
Ideally, the owners are going to call us when they are struggling, that’s what we want, we want them to talk to us, so we can help them. It all comes back to the quality of life for those dogs and whatever we can do to improve it.
One thing a lot of breeders miss is that if the dog doesn’t enhance the quality of life for the owners, then the dog will become more of a burden than a joy, and that creates a much higher probability that the dog won’t receive the quality of life he deserves. Our first step is to help our owners get organized with their pup, so that the speed bumps in puppy rearing are tolerable, so they don’t feel like pulling their hair out.
It is the most important report card we can get as breeders, knowing the success and failures of our breeding program as told by our buyers. At the end of the day, nothing will provide better quality of life to our dogs than working to breed and align our dogs to our buyers.
This is why I think it’s so important that you breed for a certain type of dog owner—if you want to learn more about that, be sure to check out Episode #3.
When you learn from your buyers and incorporate that knowledge into your breeding program, your buyers will have more success with your dogs and that provides the dog with a much higher quality of life.
If you don’t have that relationship with your buyers they may never tell you when they’re struggling. Of course you don’t want to hear that they are struggling, but if they are, you want to know.
You can encourage this by telling them multiple times how they can send you pictures or videos if something seems off, or to call or text you.
Also, it’s subtle, but suggest they call you “when they have questions,” not “if they have questions.” This difference is that by saying “when” you’re stating that everyone has questions, so they won’t feel like an idiot calling you over little stuff.
How Do We Apply this Information to Improve Our Breeding Program?
We can evaluate the information and determine if there is something within our dogs that needs improving or we can look at our buyers and see if there is something about the buyers were are attracting that isn’t working with our dogs, which means you have a marketing problem.
For example, say you breed working German Shepherds out of Police Lines, and you find that you sold some of your pups to families with young children who are very busy, these families are struggling because the dog has a hard time relaxing and going with the flow.
In a situation like this, there may be nothing wrong with your dogs, but your marketing might be attracting too many families that don’t really have a job for the dog to do, creating a misalignment of the dog to the family. You could change this in your marketing efforts and how you describe your dogs and the ideal life for them on your website.
What if you find out that 3 of your dogs—who had no issues when they left your home—all showed symptoms of coccidia within 3 days of being with their new families. This is really common because coccidia is found in nearly half of dogs, however once they are about 6 months of age, they are immune. If you didn’t hear back from your owners that they had to take their dog to the vet, then you wouldn’t know that it was something to consider treating for prior to the pups leaving your kennel. You could also look into doing other things that will help make the transition for the puppy less stressful, such as asking for a once-worn t-shirt from the new owners that the puppy can sleep in the crate with, so the new home smells familiar.
Sometimes what we learn from our buyers is something that doesn’t mean a change in your breeding dogs, nor the families, rather the families just need more education and resources to make things easier for them. For example, you could put together a puppy guide to help them with the annoying puppy things like those little shark teeth biting them.
Occasionally you’ll find a weird temperament or personality trend that certain dogs have from certain breedings or individual breeders. For example, I have one line of dogs that has to have something in their mouth, like a ball, toy, rock, or stick, at nearly all times. This is a funny quirk and isn’t a big deal, but what if you found out that half the litter reactively bit when they were nervous. This might mean you need to reassess the temperament of the dogs you are breeding, and it may mean culling some breeding stock or changing breeding pairs.
Building a Better Business
Building a quality relationship with your buyers builds a better business for you, an honest dog breeding business with integrity.
When you learn how your dogs turn out first hand from your owners, you’ll get to make so many little changes to your breeding program to make it better. You’ll be able to dial in your dogs, their temperaments and drives, you’ll be able to narrow your marketing efforts so the majority of people who call you will be a good fit for your dogs, and you can breathe easy because you’ll know your pups are living an amazing life, exactly where they should be.