Editor's note: The following was written for people looking for Labrador retriever puppies, so the medical issues raised are specifically for Labs. Learn about any medical conditions in the breed you’re interested in and find out what, if any, health clearances are appropriate.
Photo by Barb Burri
Before you fall in love with the first adorable Labrador retriever face you see, take the time in an initial phone call to the breeder to ask the following questions. You may not find a breeder who fits 100 percent of these criteria, but don't settle for anything less than one or two negative responses. At the end of the list are questions to ask yourself. You should be able to answer all of them affirmatively before you begin your search.
Remember you are adding a new member to your family for the next 10 to 15 years. NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO BARGAIN HUNT! Prepare to spend at least $1,500 to $2,500 or more for a well-bred puppy.
You or someone you know may have purchased a "backyard" bred dog or a pet store or puppy mill dog and had great success. However, the high number of serious problems seen in the breed today makes this event unlikely to reoccur. Chief among these problems are temperament issues ranging from aggression to shyness to hyperactivity. Hip dysplasia, eye problems causing blindness, heart defects that can severely shorten life span, exercise induced collapse (EIC), auto immune disorders, and cancer are also becoming prevalent.
Responsible breeders will do all they can to avoid these problems by researching pedigrees and screening parents for certain inherited problems before breeding.
Where did you find out about this breeder? Responsible breeders usually have a waiting list of puppy buyers. They usually don't find it necessary to advertise in newspapers or with a sign out in the front yard.
Keep this checklist by the phone when you make your calls and good luck!
- Are both parents at least 2 years old? Final hip clearances cannot be obtained before that age. Preliminaries can be done before two years, but some dogs can fail to get Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) clearance at two years, even if they passed at a younger age.
- Do both parents (the sire and dam) have a hip clearance from the OFA, Penn Hip or Wind-Morgan? Ask to see the certificates. "My vet okayed the x-rays" is not a valid clearance. Preliminaries can be done before two years, but some dogs can fail to get final OFA clearance at two, even if they passed before.
- Do both parents have eye clearances from a veterinary ophthalmologist or Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) certificate? This must be done every year. Ask to see the certificates.
- Do both parents have other clearances, such as elbow, heart, and thyroid? These are some of the other problems Labradors can have and some breeders are checking for them.
- How often has the dam been bred? If it is every heat cycle, THIS IS TOO OFTEN, and may indicate that profit is the primary motive for breeding.
- Do all four grandparents, siblings of the parents, and any other puppies that they may have produced have these clearances? A responsible breeder will keep track of these statistics and honestly discuss any problems that have occurred in the lines and what has been done to prevent them from occurring.
- Is the breeder willing to provide you with references and telephone numbers of other people who have purchased puppies from them?
- Will the puppy have a limited registration with a mandatory spay/neuter contract? A breeder who cares enough about the breed to insist on these is likely to be a responsible breeder.
- On what basis was the sire chosen? If the answer is "because he lives right down the street" or "because he is really sweet," it may be that sufficient thought was not put into the breeding.
- WILL THE BREEDER TAKE THE DOG BACK AT ANY TIME FOR ANY REASON IF YOU CAN NOT KEEP IT? This is the hallmark of responsible breeding (and the quickest way to make rescue obsolete).
- Is there a written guarantee against congenital health or temperament problems that does not require you to return your puppy or euthanize it?
- Will the breeder be available to answer any question you might have for the life of the dog? Is this someone you would feel comfortable asking any type of question?
- Is the breeder knowledgeable about the breed? Are they involved in competition with their dogs (field, obedience, performance or conformation)?
- Are there a majority of titled dogs (the initials: CH, OTCH, CD, JH, WC and so on before or after the dogs names) in the first two generations? The term champion lines means nothing if those titles are back three or more generations or there is only one or two in the whole pedigree.
- Are the puppy's sire and dam available for you to meet? If the sire is not available, can you call his owners or people who have his puppies and ask about temperament or health problems? You should also be provided with pictures or videos.
- Have the puppies been raised in the home - not in a kennel, barn or the backyard?
- Is the breeder knowledgeable about raising puppies, critical neonatal periods, and proper socialization techniques? Puppies that are raised without high exposure to gentle handling, human contact and a wide variety of noises and experiences, OR who are removed from their dam or litter mates before at least 7 weeks, may exhibit a wide variety of behavioral problems!
- Does the breeder provide you with a three- to five-generation pedigree, a contract to sign, copies of all clearances and guarantee, health records, and materials to help you with feeding, training and housebreaking?
- Have the puppies’ temperaments been evaluated? Can the breeder guide you to the puppy that will best suit your lifestyle? A shy puppy will not do well in a noisy household with small children, just as a dominant puppy won't flourish in a sedate, senior citizen household. A caring breeder will know the puppies and be able to show you how to test them so that good matches can be made.
- Do the puppies seem healthy, with no discharge from eyes or nose, no loose stools, no foul-smelling ears? Are their coats soft, full and clean? Do they have plenty of energy when awake yet calm down easily when gently stroked?
- Will the puppies have their first shots and have they been wormed and vet checked by the time they go to your home?
- Does the breeder have only one or at most two breeds of dogs and only one or two litters at a time? If there are many breeds of dogs being bred, the chances are the breeder cannot devote the time it takes to become really knowledgeable about the breed, and if there is more than one litter at a time it is difficult to give the puppies the attention they need. That may indicate that the primary purpose for breeding is profit rather than a sincere desire to improve the breed.
- Does the breeder belong to a Labrador Retriever Club and/or local all-breed club?
Photo by Barb Burri
Don’t be offended by breeders who indicates that they will pick the puppy for you. Everyone wants “pick of the litter.” A good breeder has spent a lot of time with the puppies, and although you may want that quiet resting one you really think would be mellow, the breeder knows that’s the puppy with not much of an off switch and he’s only mellow right now because he’s been rampaging with his litter mates for the last four hours, and will be up and at it again before you are down the driveway in your car.
Do you feel comfortable with this person? After all, you are entering into a decade-long relationship. Are you feeling intimidated or pressured? If so, keep looking!
Questions to Ask Yourself
Are you prepared to:
- Take full responsibility for this dog and all its needs for the next 10 to 15 years? This is NOT a task that can be left to children!
- Invest the considerable time, money and patience it takes to train the dog to be a good companion? (This does not happen by itself!)
- Always keep the dog safe; no running loose, riding in the back of an open pick-up truck or being chained outside?
- Make sure the dog gets enough attention and exercise? (Labrador puppies need several hours of both, every day!)
- Live with shedding, retrieving, drooling, and high activity for the next 10 to 15 years?
- Spend the money it takes to provide proper veterinary care, including but certainly not limited to: vaccines, heartworm testing and preventive, spaying or neutering and annual checkups?
- Become educated about the proper care of the breed, correct training methods and how to groom? (There are many good books available, invest the time to read a few.)
- Keep the breeder informed and up to date on the dog’s accomplishments and problems?
- Take your questions to the breeder or other appropriate professional before they become problems that are out of hand?
- Have the patience to accept (and enjoy) the trials of Labrador puppyhood, which can last for three years, and each stage afterward?
- Continue to accept responsibility for the dog despite inevitable life changes such as new babies, kids going off to school, moving or returning to work?
- Resist impulse buying, and instead have the patience to make a responsible choice?
If you answered yes to ALL of the above, you are ready to start contacting breeders. Start early because most reputable breeders have a waiting list ranging from a few months to a couple of years. Remember, the right puppy or adult dog IS worth waiting for!
A word about rescue dogs: they may or may not be responsibly bred. However, since they are adults, we are able to evaluate them for any signs of a problem before you fall in love, something that can't be done with a puppy. We consider this only one of the many advantages to adopting an older dog!
(The author wishes to thank reference Cheryl Minnier.)