What makes an honest dog breeder? I wish I could tell you it was three females, two studs, you’d breed four litters with each female, retire her, health test your dogs, have a contract, and it would be perfect—but that wouldn’t be honest of me, it’s not the truth. Dog breeding isn’t that simple, I wish it were, I’d make you the cheatsheet and we’d call it good.
When you set out to create a dog breeding business, or well set out to accomplish anything really, you want to be successful and you want to do it with integrity—okay, well not everyone wants to do it with integrity…but you’re here, so I imagine you want to do things the right way, or at least the way of integrity, since with dog breeding there is no one-size-fits-all of what you need to do.
Before I dive into what specifically you need to sort out and figure, I’d first like to toss a little psychology at you to think about. I find that when I understand the motivation behind things then I get a little clearer on my goals and how to execute them.
Many new breeders I talk to want to know all the things they have to do to do it “right,” as if there is such a thing…what they are essentially trying to get out of me is a specific list of items, similar to what I mentioned in the intro, but knowing that we can’t get that list—because it doesn’t exist universally—is very irritating for many breeders.
Why do we want that list? Well there are a few reasons, but mainly we want to be good people and have others perceive us as good people. This is where the idea of a list is really helpful, it allows us to see in black and white if we are checking off all the items to hit the point where we are considered a “good breeder.” If we only get say 20 points out of 100, then we know we aren’t doing well, but at least we have this list of the other 80 items we need to check off to get to be the best. Then if we hit 90 points out of the 100, we can confidently go around and say, “Yes, I have this figured out…see, I’m at 90.”
The list gives us confidence that we are doing things right and if we are doing things right then we are a good breeder and if we are a good breeder then our breeding endeavors don’t jeopardize if we are good people. Whereas if we aren’t doing things right, maybe we are a puppy mill and if we are a puppy mill, then we aren’t a good person, at least in this part of our life.
Not to mention that being a dog breeder isn’t exactly approved of by everyone. So here you are, wanting to breed dogs and have the life it brings, but yet you may have family or close friends who think you’re contributing to the problem, like you’re the reason dogs are in shelters.
The alternative to having a checklist or some other scoring rubric is that we have to have confidence that we are doing things right. We have to be able to tell from a place inside ourselves that we are right.
Well I’ll be honest, that opens up a whole can of worms. Some of the scariest times in my breeding business was when I stopped and questioned myself, is this the best thing, why am I making this decision? How will it play out, how will it be perceived, and how will it change things?
Every adjustment comes with a little bit of unknown, that’s what’s scary, your mind looks to protect you so it shows you all the terrible things that could happen in an effort to keep you safe, but it can also be like an overprotective parent, preventing you from reaching your potential. The more I learn about fear and fear management, the more I believe that nothing new comes without some fear and that everything we want that we don’t have is on the other side of our fear. Having a checklist, ideally written by someone “who knows,” is a way to mitigate the fear, to give us confidence before we have built that confidence from within.
This is the same idea as you see in a lot of religions. They have steps. You have this many sacraments, this is the order of doing things, and this is what is considered passing. Once you achieve these standards in this order, then you’re safe.
We also like to be able to compare how good we are using these standards. Maybe I’ve completed all my tasks, but my friend hasn’t, then I’m better. Am I really? Probably not, I just spent more time in that area of life, but completing steps doesn’t make you better, it just makes you further along in that area. The problem with steps is they are only relevant to this particular thing.
My kids remind me of this all the time. They’ll be playing some game on their tablets and one will be so frustrated because the other has more badges or jewels, or dragons, or whatever else they’re supposed to have to be better at the game. I have to ask them how much it matters, “If you had more dragons than anyone else who played…how would that make your life better? What if it took you 10,000 hours of playing that game to make you the best, then you could tell everyone you were the best dragon keeper ever! And then what? You have no life, no friends, and probably need a shower because all you did was collect dragons for 10,000 hours” so is it what you really want?
At our core, we don’t want things, we want the feelings that come with them. There is a feeling of safety and security for me to know that I can breed dogs, be a good mom and wife, and make people’s lives and the lives of their dogs better because of what I’ve created and how I support them.
For the breeders who have been looking for some master list of what makes you an honest dog breeder, they are afraid to fail, do something incorrectly that hurts dogs, others, or the potential for their program to grow, and many are worried they’ll be perceived as a bad breeder or person if they get it wrong. It’s a logical fear, it totally makes sense.
This is where I hate to be the bringer of bad news when I tell you there is no specifically correct way. Please don’t shoot the messenger, I have a pathway for you to get to that success and I’m about to share it.
The real scoring rubric?
So how do you know you’re doing things “right” if there is no specific “right way?” Well, it’s a little harder, but it gets easier. You have to first start with the goals that every breeding program should have and they are: quality of life for puppies, quality of life for the buyers, and quality of life for you and your family. Seems simple, but you can also see how it doesn’t fit nicely into a checklist. You’ll often find that there are competing interests between the two. For example, what’s best for your family is to charge a million dollars for each puppy, but of course, people aren’t spending a million on them…I know your puppies are really good, so this confuses me, too.
I like to think of it like a Venn Diagram, I know the overlapping circles thing has been on the mind a lot recently…there are three circles which represent the best interest of the dogs, buyers, and breeder.
Side note: have you noticed how the world is changing? Economies are changing not just to gig economies, which breeding does fit nicely into, but to more collaboration = success, instead of I need to crush the competition to win. I think it’s a good move, there’s plenty of room in the market for us all to thrive. I’ve also realized that collaboration is abundance driven, while crushing the competition is scarcity driven and that is a whole mindset shift. Anyways, I want to thank a breeder friend, Elli, for being more collaboration-oriented and for sharing that mindset with me. Collaboration over competition is the golden mark of a Venn diagram.
Going back to what’s best for your dogs, you can also see how you might think what’s in the best interest of your puppies is to have them only go to veterinarians as owners, while that sounds nice, it’s probably unrealistic and will not be what’s best for your buyers, nor your family.
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Quality of Life for Your Puppies
Let’s look at how we can develop this rubric of standards for you based of quality of life for your dogs. With my bird dogs for example, they do really well when they’re involved in the family’s day-to-day. I’ve had some buyers teach their dogs to hold hangars for laundry while they’re folding, others who have trained their dogs to sit in the back of side-by-side ATVs for a little off-roading. I’ve also worked with buyers who just pretty much take their dog everywhere.
So when I look at what works well for quality of life for my dogs, it comes down to this lifestyle where the dog is a part of it. Sometimes the families aren’t as active outside the home, but they’re home most of the day, the mom is home with the kids or the couple works from home. The great thing about this is the dog is interacted with for most of the day, and this is what my dogs enjoy, they don’t enjoy being alone, I’ve had dogs who do just fine alone, but this breed isn’t generally the alone-type dogs.
From a drive perspective my dogs really like to be engaged with their nose and to explore with it. They can be a little annoying wanting to be in everyone’s business. I have to find a family that can work with that type of dog and find it amusing or fascinating, someone who appreciates that drive, rather than someone who doesn’t have the patience for it. The people that tend to do best are the ones who are used to a little chaos, they don’t mind a little dog hair on the couch and wet nose prints on the sliding glass door. My dogs make very poor household accessories, they’re liable to be much more destructive than they would be picture-perfect in the home. So for them, I need to find people who can tolerate this and ideally have a bit of humor about it.
Now, of course, a young person will enjoy and appreciate this sort of chaos and energy, but they may not be in a position to have the type of fencing required to contain a dog like this. I know I was in no position to rent a house with a nice backyard until I was in my mid twenties. So there is that consideration of can the owner afford the dog or the situation the dog requires? As a caveat, I will say that I have had very successful owners who lived in apartments, but the dog was a highlight of their day, like a roommate who they took walks and adventures with.
So when thinking of a rubric for dog quality of life with a buyer consider these questions: • Can they afford to feed the dog and give him the necessary medical care? • Can they create an environment that is conducive to the dog’s needs? • Do they have the ability to incorporate the dog into their day-to-day life, such that the dog’s drives are engaged in a positive way that isn’t destructive to the dog or owner? • Can they handle the chaos of the dog and appreciate the dog for it, not hate or loathe the dog for it?
The difficult thing about this list is that there is no one-size-fits-all here either…people who live in an apartment can be just as successful as people who have a hobby farm that engages the dog’s nose all day.
I’ve found one of the best ways to approach if they’re giving the dog quality of life is to list out the ways that your buyers (or owners of the breed if you don’t have your pups yet) struggle with the breed. What drives them crazy? My dogs can jump 4-5’ fences with ease, that’s a big frustration for a lot of families. They also build stamina very easily, so they are difficult to “wear out” from a mere walk. So think of those struggles as a guide of what to discuss and address with buyers so they aren’t stressed out and they feel prepared to take on the challenge of these things.
There is also the aspect of the puppies and how you produce them, for example, are they healthy, well fed, are the mama dogs well taken care of so they can take care of their puppies? Are you breeding dogs that don’t have health issues so that they can live full lives without physical ailment?
Quality of Life for Buyers
Now let’s look at what would be best for the buyers. The buyers want a dog that will do the things they think it should do, for a fair price. They want to know what to expect and how to mitigate problems, they also want a dog that is free from health issues and excessive financial expenses.
From a breeding perspective we have to not only produce healthy dogs, but we have to raise them to continue that health. Which is where the health of the mama dogs comes in, including her temperament and anxiety level. An anxious dog doesn’t make a wonderful mother, she’ll tend to be a little rough with the pups or not diligent enough.
Obviously health testing our dogs comes into play for all three categories, it’s better for the dogs, buyers, and us, since we have a lot less stress and warranty work, plus looking at our dogs is much more enjoyable when they look nice and are healthy.
I will caveat things here: health testing is not the only health that you should consider. We have a tendency to give more importance to things we can track with a black and white scale, for example hips are good or bad, they have a bad gene or they don’t. Yet, we have to also track health concerns that will create problems for buyers regardless if they can be tested for or not. I always use the submissive urination problem as an example because it makes so much sense. Was anything wrong with the dog? No, not really, but the submissive urination was born of an anxiety-prone temperament and that make things harder on the dogs and buyers, plus the mess it created for the buyers, while for me, it was frustrating when they called me and wanted a solution to this problem and I didn’t have a satisfactory one for them.
Point is, just don’t forget to follow health stuff that extends beyond the health testing. Keep notes on things and make adjustments as necessary.
Quality of life for buyers also revolves around your ideal puppy buyer, I know you’re probably feeling like I’m beating a dead horse, but it’s important. If we send our dogs home to the wrong family and it doesn’t work out, then someone suffers, often the dog, often the buyer, and always the breeder, since we missed the mark and that’s less than desirable, can hurt our breeding reputation, and such.
It’s a lot to juggle, but I promise this all gets easier over time.
Quality of Life for Us, the Breeders!
Lastly, us, the breeders, we need to have quality of life, too!
Sometimes we are so used to meeting the needs of other people that we forget what our needs are. This is so common when you’re a new mom and you’re just completely focused on baby. We sometimes forget to take care of ourselves. And sometimes we forget to take care of our husbands, too!
The same can happen with puppies, they’re fragile, they’re new, and they’re fun and exciting, but they can also be more time consuming and can get you forgetting to take care of yourself and your family.
So we need to sit back and see what really works for us. How can we hold that space for ourselves and our family, while still doing right by the puppies? Maybe that means the dogs get their own facility outside. Maybe that means you no longer have dogs in your bedroom, so it’s a sanctuary for your spouse and you, maybe that means your kids get all their homeschool books purchased. Maybe that means you only have 4 breeding females instead of 6 because it’s easier for you to manage right now without stressing the family. It might mean you hire someone. There are so many options, it’s helpful to again, dive in, see your WHY (if you don’t remember, check the last episode, #59) and see how you can adapt the breeding program to meet your WHY.
Oh, and we can’t forget the adult dogs. The adult dogs fall under us in this Venn diagram, part of breeding is including your breeding dogs into quality of life for you, nothing feels worse than finally making wonderful puppies, sending them to amazing homes, having money in the bank for the fam, and then feeling like you’re not taking care of your adult dogs as best as you can.
Remember, if you’re not taken care of, you’re no good to anyone, that’s why they tell you to put your mask on first before helping your kids, it’s not because you don’t love them, it’s because they need you to be there and able to help them and facilitate their success. This is why we can’t forget ourselves in the process.
I hope this helps you sort out the dynamic question of “what makes an honest dog breeder.” I’m sorry it’s not a simple answer for you, but I appreciate your willingness and drive to move forward with figuring it all out and making it work for your breeding business and family, your dogs and buyers will appreciate it, even if they can’t thank you for it specifically.
This topic is pretty thick and I’ve only been able to skim the surface of it. I’m considering making a masterclass for it or a doing a cohort, which is a group zoom over multiple weeks where we get together and discuss a different element each week. Let me know if you’d be interested by emailing me at [email protected] or sending me a message using the Ask Julie form on this page.
I appreciate you and all that you’re putting into your breeding program, I know it’s not easy, I want you to know that I recognize all the hard work you’re putting in, even if others don’t.