How to Select an Ethical Dog Breeder

So, you’ve decided to purchase a puppy from a breeder. Selecting an ethical one is both a humane decision and can save you from eventual heartbreak.

Jun 13, 2023By Chelsea Pinkham
how to select an ethical dog breeder

Backyard breeders and puppy mills have sadly become rampant over the last several decades. These unethical businesses use puppies as a source of profit and are responsible for the vast majority of dogs and puppies who end up in the shelter system.

Ethical breeders, on the other hand, breed dogs because they are interested in improving the health and temperaments of their breeds. Their goal is to preserve dog breeds in a way that allows them to continue their breeds’ historical functions. In fact, many ethical breeders lose money on each litter- their motivation is out of love for the breed, not for exploitation or profit.

Ethical Breeders Will Set Your Puppy Up For Success


You’ve likely heard the myth that purebred dogs are plagued by health issues, while mixed-breed dogs are always healthier. This idea exists because of the countless backyard breeders and puppy mills breeding dogs solely for looks rather than structure and temperament. If you’re going to purchase a puppy from a breeder, it is essential to learn to tell the difference. A puppy mill is a facility that mass-produces puppies for sale to the public- like a “factory farm” for dogs. A backyard breeder is someone who chooses to breed dogs, whether as a hobby or for a living, despite having little knowledge or background in canine health and genetics.

Backyard breeders might have good intentions but often accidentally produce puppies with countless issues. Puppies from mills receive little to no human socialization in their young life. They exist in stressful conditions during their early development. They are often separated from their mothers early, which leads to lifelong behavioral issues. Because puppy mills and backyard breeders have little knowledge on genetics, puppies from these operations will develop health issues. Buying a puppy from a subpar source can set your family up for heartache from both behavioral issues and serious health problems.

An ethical breeder will give your puppy the best possible start to life! Ethical breeders often have waitlists, as they find placement for the puppies before the litter is even born. Patience can be difficult, but owning a healthy puppy is worth it.

The Well Being of Puppies and Parents is Essential

Bedlington terrier mom and pup

One of the top red flags in a dog breeder is refusing to show conditions where puppies are born and raised. Highly manicured websites that only show staged photos of puppies (outside or with staged backgrounds) are an indicator that conditions are subpar. What is the puppy’s everyday life like? What kind of socialization are they receiving? An ethical breeder will welcome you into their home, where you can see the mother and litter living in low-stress conditions. The mother dog should be a part of the breeder’s family, living in the home rather than in a cage or kennel. This will best prepare the puppies for home life, too. Another massive red flag is the constant availability of puppies, especially puppies of different breeds.

Reputable breeders typically stick to a single breed, so they can pour their time into becoming experts on that breed’s history, genetics, and needs. Most ethical breeders will breed a dog a maximum of three times in her life and wait long beyond a dog’s sexual maturation to breed. To raise stable and even-tempered puppies, a dog should not still be a puppy herself! Any dog used for breeding should remain with the breeder for the rest of her life and not be rehomed when her breeding days are over. Lastly, ethical breeders always leave puppies with their mothers for a minimum of eight weeks. This is essential, no matter what anyone tells you. Even after puppies stop nursing, their behavior and temperament are partially shaped by what their mother teaches them.

Genetic Testing is Critical

Wirefox terrier dog show

“Breed standards” might sound snobby, but each standard exists to maximize a dog’s ability to perform its breed’s function. Even if your dog is just a companion animal, conforming to breed standards means he is as healthy and well-tempered as possible. A Labrador with hip dysplasia can’t fetch ducks out of the water, can he? Would a Bloodhound with constant eye infections be good at tracking? These standards were developed by breed experts to prevent dogs from developing behavioral or health issues.

That is why breeding away from these standards can cause problems. If you see a breeder advertising “rare” or “exotic” coat colors, or charging more based on coloration, that likely means their priorities are in aesthetics rather than health and structure. Breeding for recessive traits- such as the merle pattern- can cause unexpected issues in many breeds. Creating mixed-breed dogs, such as “doodles” or “exotic bullies”, creates a total lack of genetic predictability. Because these mixes have no breed standard, there is nothing to hold these breeders accountable.

That being said, conforming to breed standards is only the beginning. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) is considered the most thorough form of health testing for breeding candidates. OFA testing screens dogs for predisposition to structure issues such as hip and elbow dysplasia. Genetic testing should also be done to ensure no inbreeding is taking place. Basic veterinary health checks are a bare minimum of animal care, not a qualification for a dog to be bred. Be sure to ask a breeder about what testing they carry out to ensure healthy puppies!

Good Breeders Have Rules

Cocker spaniel litter

With so many perfectly healthy dogs entering shelters, it’s crucial to quiz a breeder on what precautions they take to prevent puppies from entering shelters. At the bare minimum, a breeder should always take a puppy back if the family can no longer care for them, with no questions asked.

This is yet another reason why breeders should produce minimal amounts of puppies! In fact, responsible breeders will typically have buyers sign a contract promising to never attempt rehoming of a puppy and to always return the puppy to the breeder instead. If a breeder doesn’t keep track of their puppies, how do they know each puppy is in a safe situation? Ethical breeders also keep “no breeding contracts” with most buyers. This means they will not allow everyday families to breed their puppies. This is because they believe in high standards for dog breeding and don’t want their dogs producing more puppies than they can keep track of. Don’t be offended by the fact that a breeder doesn’t want you breeding their puppy. Be glad they are so concerned with animal welfare!

Breeders Should be Passionate Educators

Bearded collie agility

Ethical breeders are always transparent about their breeds’ needs. They are more concerned with finding suitable puppy homes than they are about making quick sales. These people are respected members of their community and often participate in dog sports, breed confirmation, and other extracurriculars with their dogs. They have a thorough understanding of the breed’s needs and can serve as an educational resource. They might ask you why you are interested in their particular breed and should be open and honest with you about what you’ll need to provide their dogs with.

A reputable breeder won’t tell you that a Jack Russell Terrier will get along with your pet rabbit, or that a Border Collie needs nothing more than a short stroll around the block every day. Be honest about your level of knowledge, time, and commitment for a dog, and an ethical breeder should point you in the right direction in finding a suitable breed for you.

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!