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#17 – What Getting a Dog Returned Says about Your Dog Breeding Program

by | Sep 2, 2021 | People Management

I remember the first time I got a returned dog. I felt like such a failure. I had never surrendered a dog before in my life and, as a breeder, the idea of them surrendering a dog made me feel like there was something wrong with the dog I bred. My creation wasn’t good enough.

The family was young, they had a small daughter and another on the way. He had lost his job and they had to move to an apartment and this dog was just too much dog for an apartment, especially with two little kids.

I tried to reason with them, thinking that they weren’t thinking the whole situation through. There had to be something else they could do to figure this out and make it work so they could keep their dog. I asked a lot of questions and, as I did, I could feel they were getting uncomfortable. I realize that my emotional roller coaster isn’t very exciting. I don’t usually get angry, nor do I get too overly excited over anything. In fact I’m just pretty emotionally boring. So, although I was trying to have a brain-storming session—which isn’t a very emotional thing for me—I could see that, as I was asking these questions, I was breaking down the story they were telling me, …the story they were telling themselves.

I think the questions I asked made them feel guilty about it, and they agreed to “try and figure things out” while I boarded the dog for a while. I cut them a super cheap price of $5/day to board the dog, thinking that they’d need a few weeks to clear their mind and they would figure it out.

He paid me only two months and, after repeated attempts to contact him after the third month, I never heard back. I waited an additional 30 days, having the dog a total of four months, before I rehomed him. It was a stress on my family, on me, and it wasn’t the best thing for the dog to live in limbo.

The truth was, they didn’t really want to figure out how to keep the dog, as he wasn’t a good fit for them. He required more of them than they were able to give and adding kids to the mix only made it harder.

I’ve learned, if people contact you about rehoming a dog, even if they appear to be merely considering the idea, they do not plan on keeping him. Some are better with people skills and some are worse. The worst ones have concocted in their head how horrible the dog is, taking no responsibility, and will try to blame you. Honestly, there is no reasoning with them at all. Don’t worry about defending your program. Don’t say anything. It isn’t worth it. Just get your dog back. I promise it’ll save you the anger and frustration, and probably will prevent them from being angry enough to leave a bad review.

The better ones are more artful. They usually have better people skills. They aren’t being deceptive, but they really don’t want to hurt your feelings. They’ll contact you saying they’re dabbling with the idea, they’ll ask for some advice that they really won’t use—but will consider it—adding it to the pile of cons on their pro and cons list regarding keeping the dog. They’ll wait a few days, maybe a week or two, then tell you it isn’t working despite their efforts.

I am no longer emotionally invested in these things. I don’t find it a reflection of me or my dogs per se. I mean, the dogs were good, but the owners I put them with weren’t. And it isn’t that they are bad people or bad dog owners, but they simply aren’t a good fit for the dogs I breed. I don’t beat myself up, but I do look at the situation and see. I have to learn why this didn’t work. I have to understand it so that I can work to prevent it in the future, or at least work to reduce the likelihood of this stuff happening again.

So what does it mean about you if you get a dog back?

At face value it means that it wasn’t a good fit for the dog and owner; and I know, I know, that’s clear as mud. A poor fit can be the result of health, of course. If the dog has astronomical vet bills and the family can’t afford it, that is understandably a bit of a burden on the family. And they bought from a breeder to reduce the likelihood of these expenses. So, in a way, that would be a major failure on our part as the breeder.

If you receive a dog back over vet bills, do your best to figure them out. Is it a genetic issue that you could prevent in your breeding selection, or is it something environmental or just a non-hereditary congenital issue?

I once had a dog who was returned to me because she was “so crazy” he couldn’t manage her. The dog had extreme anxiety, paced all day, couldn’t keep any weight on, and couldn’t focus. I treated her with MOOM and she put on seven pounds in a week; her coat started to blow, bringing in new hair, and she calmed down. She was a different dog in seven days.

I tell you this because dogs eat stupid things, gross things, and we often forget that parasites, sickness, and pain can change their temperament. …I don’t know about you, but I am not super fun to be around when I’m in pain, and I believe dogs are similar.

If the dog has a genetic issue—say you found out they had a pancreatic issue—then it might be worth calling other buyers from that breeding, finding out what they are feeding, and, of course, if they are having any issues. Not only will you better be able to determine if it’s a fluke or not, but you might help your owners notice symptoms earlier if it is a genetic thing, getting the dog better care earlier on in the diagnosis. Say two of the dogs have an issue with their pancreas, but you find that they are on a primarily chicken diet. Then you have the rest of the litter, and they are on a lamb diet and doing fine. Although you may want to change the breeding pairs for future breeding, you would at least know that the lamb diet might be helpful in mitigating the disease.

Now, I’m just making up this example of a chicken diet being related to the pancreas. But since the pancreas is not only responsible for making insulin, but also digestive enzymes, it would be helpful to know the food that seems to be stressing the dogs and what is working. It’s possible it’s the brand of food and how it is sourced, the binding agent, or other items in the food that are contributing to the issues, so it’s helpful to know what food they’re all on.

Having that said, I’ve never had a dog returned for health issues. And it’s not that every single pup I’ve ever bred was perfectly healthy. There have been a few that have had issues. But when it was health, the owners kept them and figured out a plan with the dog. When I’ve received dogs back, it’s nearly always been that the dog was a poor fit with the owner. A misalignment of the dog’s temperament and drive with the lifestyle of the owner.

It is for this very reason that I stress you tackle your ideal puppy buyer and know intimately who they are. It is the absolute best way to set your dogs and owners up for success. It is the best way to mitigate the potential for a bad fit.

You ever have friends who are a married couple and you enjoy both of them? Then they get divorced, and it isn’t that one was cheating on the other or that one was abusive. Neither of them are bad people, they just aren’t a good fit. It’s the same with owners and dogs. Sometimes they are just a bad fit. And, just like the couple is better off no longer together, the same can be true for dog and owner. So if you get a puppy returned, know that it was just a bad fit.

If you’ve received a dog back, I want to commend you on building excellent customer relations. Potentially the most embarrassing thing for a puppy buyer is to work with you, the breeder, and make you feel good about them taking home one of their dogs; but then, after they get it, they realize it isn’t what they thought it would be. And for them to be willing to call you and tell you that it isn’t working out, well, that means that they trust you, they don’t feel that you’ll harass or judge them, but rather that you’re there to help them. And we should take that in for a moment and be satisfied we were able to build that sort of relationship with our buyers.

In the beginning, as you’re still crafting your bloodlines and building that ideal dog for your ideal puppy buyer in your head, you aren’t always going to get it right. There are so many moving pieces. You won’t know what questions to ask to vet buyers, you won’t know what expectations to share with buyers so they are prepared, and you won’t know all the quirks of your dogs. These things take time.

Given all these variables, what are the odds you nailed the relationship of buyer to puppy every time? I would say it’s highly unlikely.

Just the same, if you’ve bred twenty dogs and have never had one returned, I would wager that there’s a good chance one of your dogs was rehomed without your knowledge. A perfect record of homing dogs might be more indicative of a poor relationship with your buyers.

So as breeders we would do well to stop looking down at one another if someone gets a dog returned. This is just a part of this business.

Instead of looking at the situation like a failure, let’s look at it as a success that, not only was a trusting, honest relationship built between buyer and breeder, but that there is success in the dog coming home to the breeder, not being left at a shelter, not being sold on craigslist, and how lucky that dog is back with the breeder, who intimately knows the dog, and now has the opportunity to find him a more fitting home.

What do you do when you are first contacted about getting a dog back?

First off, don’t make it a big deal. It is easy to feel defensive when they first contact you. You not only feel like you failed, but you are angry they aren’t able to live up to your expectations for them, you’re probably disappointed in yourself, and you’re frustrated for the dog. It’s like a tornado of emotions swirling inside you.

Even with all that going on inside, try to be calm, …listen, …learn. I recommend you don’t ask them any questions about their life that are unrelated to the dog. For example, I wouldn’t ask how much time they are putting into training, and I wouldn’t ask them how long the dog is left unattended. Instead, stick to questions that will help you better understand what the dog may need in the next home. So go with questions like:

  • Is he house-trained?
  • How does he do in a crate?
  • How is he around other dogs?
  • Is he is neutered?
  • Is he eating okay?
  • How are his stools?
  • What have you been feeding, so I can make sure he transitions okay at my home?
  • Any issues I should get sorted with a trainer in preparation for his new home?

Those questions are just related to the dog and don’t pry into the lives of the people who are already vulnerable telling you they need to surrender the dog you trusted them with.

I wouldn’t try and convince them to keep him. By the time they contact you, it’s already made up in their mind. If they seem on the fence, you can prompt them by asking, “are you looking for help with managing this? Or would it be easier if you brought the dog back to me?” And be super, super careful with tone. People are really sensitive to condescending tone and may opt for training when they really should surrender, just because they don’t want to disappoint you.

After they have decided to return the dog, make it easy. I always start by thanking them for doing right by the dog and bringing him back to me. This way they feel relief more than embarrassment. They also feel better about the safety and future of the dog. I remind people how much easier it is for me to rehome one of my dogs, as I know them well and people are always contacting me looking for older dogs or more affordable dogs. I also tell them that it’s better for the dog because the new owner will get to work with me and have the lifetime support I provide all my buyers.

This is for two purposes: it makes them feel better about returning the dog to me, but it also makes it much more likely they’ll follow through with returning the dog to me. You can even go so far as apologizing that it didn’t work out, like you failed them. You’ll have to read the situation to figure out the right balance in what to say. Some people need to hear that to release their guilt. At the end of the day, my emotions aren’t so deeply attached. I’m just really glad to have my dog back, so I can fix it by finding him a better home.

You can also take the opportunity to accept responsibility—and benefit your program—by asking them if there was something you could’ve done better as the breeder to have better prepared them for the dog. Maybe you didn’t mention they can jump 4’ fences, and that was a major difficulty with their home. Maybe you didn’t prepare them for the size they would be. Maybe you didn’t help them understand all the lifestyle things the dogs need between exercise, mental stimulation, and a job. No matter what they say, even if they say it accusingly, just listen, and thank them. You’ll want to reflect on it later and see what changes you can make in preparing your new owners or vetting potential buyers.

I don’t usually drive to pick them up, unless I’m already headed that way, but basically you want to find an easy opening in your schedule to be home to receive the dog. You can even prompt them with dates and times to lock it in their mind, saying, for example, “I’ll be home Saturday from 8-12 if you’d like to drop him off then.”

Once you’ve selected a date and time, then kindly remind them to bring health records, registration papers (don’t forget to have them sign the transfer signature on the registration papers), and any other paperwork they think will be helpful.

Many times they will bring the dog back to you with all their things, crates, leashes, bowls, beds, toys, and food. I always accept these things, as it makes the surrendering owner feel better. However, I don’t send these things home with their new owners once I rehome them.

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What do you do when you have the dog back?

Once you have the dog in your possession, I recommend you keep the dog for a week or so while you figure out what he’s all about. Chances are he’s not perfect. Rare is the dog with perfect behavior and manners that gets returned. People usually keep those. So plan for there to be some stuff to work out. This is where having a trainer friend to run ideas by can be helpful.

Does he need socialization? Does he suffer from resource guarding? Maybe he doesn’t walk on a leash well? These are all helpful things to know because they will determine some of his success in his new home. Depending on the severity, it may be worth it for you to spend a little time with him to correct some of these issues. I especially want them to be healthy.

If the dog comes back to you and looks wormy or underweight, get that situated as well. You never want to send someone home with issues, and so put the time in and get the dog to where he needs to be before rehoming.

When he’s good to go, I look for the right home. I usually start with my waitlist. If there’s a family that wanted an older dog, but settled on a puppy due to availability, I’ll call them. I sometimes put them on my website or advertise them on social media.

You have to be careful how you advertise. You don’t want to embarrass the family that surrendered the dog, so I don’t always post the name of the dog in the advertisement if it’s overly unique. You should write something that explains why he was surrendered, but try to explain it through the poor alignment of the family’s lifestyle and the dog, not something that is wrong with the dog. And you definitely don’t want to embarrass the family.

If you don’t write why the dog was surrendered, people will ask. Usually, even if you do write about it, they’ll still ask. When they do, you can go into more detail, but I wouldn’t put all the information on blast.

Remember, even if the family that surrenders the dog isn’t on social media or your website tracking where he goes, you still want to respect their privacy and do things with integrity.

It’s sort of like dating a guy who is already in a relationship. If he’s willing to cheat on his current girlfriend to date you, there’s a good chance he’ll be willing to cheat on you if you get into a relationship. Your new buyers will notice—even if only subconsciously—if you’re willing to embarrass other buyers. And, if they see that, they won’t want a dog from you.

Now what about the money?

For me, personally, I never pay people when they return a dog unless it’s within a day or two of getting the dog or it’s a health thing. I personally have an issue with the rent-a-dog idea. I worry that, if you offer to buy the dog back, then people who aren’t good fits for your dogs will be more likely to go through with the process because they know they can get their money back.

Some breeders pay some money back for the dog. I can see this for certain types of ideal customers. It may make them more likely to return the dog to you instead of selling it. I don’t think it should ever exceed half of what the dog was sold for, but you can make that judgement. From an economics perspective, if you pay them slightly more than what they could get rehoming the dog through craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, then that, in combination with the ease of you taking care of all of it, should nearly guarantee they’ll bring the dog back.

Again, nothing is a guarantee. But usually, if you keep the focus on what is best for the dog, you’ll be able to convince them to bring him back to you. But please, again, don’t try and trap them, just encourage them to do the right thing.

In my contract I write that I can’t enforce them returning the dog to me, but that I wish they would consider it. That the dogs are always welcome back to my ranch, at any age, in any condition, no questions asked about their situation, just dog questions. I find this really helps to keep the lines of communication open.

When it comes to rehoming the dog, you have to charge money.

People don’t value what they don’t invest in. I had a dog who was stung by a scorpion in the leg at three weeks of age, when my pens were still on dirt. I didn’t feel it was fair to charge for him because his movement was affected for life because of the scorpion sting. I gave him for free to three different families. All of them returned him. It wasn’t until I charged for him (which was just his neuter fee), and in that family he still lives.

People have to pay. They have to have skin in the game or they won’t value what they have. And that means they won’t invest in the dog with their time, love, care, and money. It sucks, but it’s human nature.

I recommend that you charge based on the age and situation. If the dog is around under a year, you can probably charge about half of what your dogs usually go for. If they are older or have complications, you’ll need to play it by ear. Generally, $500 or so for a purebred dog whose already lived a life is enough skin in the game that people will take care of the dog. Now inflation is crazy, so if you’re listening to this a year from now, that number will probably be higher or may need to be changed to Bitcoin. Time will tell.

Oh, and all the stuff they brought you for the dog when they surrendered him? Don’t give it to the new buyers, unless it’s like a kong toy or something that most of your dogs use. The reason for this is you want the new owners to feel like it’s a blank slate. Just like you don’t want to dump all your emotional baggage on the first date, it’s nice to fantasize that you’ve never been hurt, that you don’t have insecurities, and we should give that blank-slate fantasy to the new owners. You don’t want them to see the dog as damaged goods, because he’s not. He’s a dog in need of love, care, and a place to call home.

After it’s all over, keep reflecting. See if there are any things you can change to make it better. Do you need to adjust the traits you’re selecting for? Do you need to change your ideal buyer? Do you need to pull breeders from your program?

As you hone your bloodline and more intimately know your ideal puppy buyer, returned dogs will become less frequent, but they can always happen. Sometimes you can do everything right and still the family has a tragic situation, a job loss, a home loss, a death, and the dog will need to come back. But that’s why we are honest breeders, because we care about them for their whole lives, we always take them back, and do what’s best for them.

I wish you the best of luck. If you enjoyed this post and want more deep-dives on specific breeding topics, jump on the waitlist for the Dog Breeder Society, an educational community for honest breeders like yourself, breeders who want to run a profitable breeding program built on integrity.

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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!