PLEASE, read THIS before you contact any breeders. And then, KEEP reading articles on that site until your eyes nearly fall out of your head. You won't be sorry.
For the purpose of this article, I will use "she" and "her" rather than constantly using his/her, she/he, etc. Constantly using both gets really old, and I am a "she" so that's what I'm going with - this is ABSOLUTELY not to suggest that all good breeders are female, that is simply not true at all.
The first place I ALWAYS start when a person asks me to help them find a good breeder is google. No, I'm not googling "puppy breeders", I'm googling the national breed club. Any AKC recognized breed will have a national breed club, and I have yet to find a breed whose club doesn't have a website. Searching _______ Club of America is a sure fire way to find it. (Or, you could check AKC) Once you find the national breed club, you're likely to find a breeder referral section on the website. There may be a list right on the site or there may be an email address or phone number you can contact for a referral. While the breeders on this list are all going to be members in good standing with the breed club, and this is an excellent place to start, they are NOT all necessarily going to be good breeders. Remember, it is entirely possible for a shady breeder to pay their dues and just keep out of trouble in order to get their name on that referral list. If your spidey senses are tingling about a breeder, NEVER let the fact that they were referred by the breed club keep you from deciding against buying from them.
Next, go to a show. (before you do, you might want to check out How Dog Shows Work) Remember, when you go to a show to meet breeders and owners, you have started the interview process so be on your best behavior - if you walk up and start petting a dog without asking his owner/handler or your kids are running wild in the grooming area, don't expect a breeder to have any interest in selling you a puppy. On the other hand, if you come prepared (meaning you have actually done some research) and are respectful, you just might fall into the hands an amazing breeder who will happily share one of her most precious creations with you. Be sure to remember to ask the people you talk to about other kennels they recommend, especially if they tell you they don't have any puppies in the works. WRITE DOWN the kennel names they give you, they will be great places to check out when you get home. Recommendations of kennel names from exhibitors and other breeders are very valuable, those are the people who are right in the thick of things and know who's on the up and up and who's not.
Another place you can go is the local kennel club. Breeders know breeders, even of different breeds, so don't be afraid to ask somebody who doesn't necessarily have a dog of the breed you're looking for - you're highly likely to get a response of "Oh, yeah, I know a breeder of _________" or "Hey, I bet Sandy would know a good breeder for you..." Don't ever become discouraged by a less than friendly person, just find somebody else and talk to them. If you choose not to get discouraged, you WILL find some exceptionally nice and helpful people... I PROMISE.
Ask just about any dog person, most of us are social disasters in some way or another and the other half are nuts - that's why we get along so well with dogs. :)
Another avenue is Facebook. This gets a little tricky because it requires a little more work too wade through the options, but Facebook is networking eden and dog people have taken full advantage of it. One trip to a dog group and you will see loads of dogs as profile pictures and most dog people will have a friend list that is littered with dogs as well. Search for the breed club, local club, breeders, etc. groups and snoop 'till you drop. Facebook is really nice in that you can get a very good idea of who a person is and what they do with their dogs just by looking at their page. It's pretty hard to keep up a false appearance if you have more than just a few things on your page.
Can you find a good dog on a pet seller website? Sure. Can you find one in the paper? Maybe. Can you find one just by googling "_______ breeder"? Probably. It's just a LOT harder. You're SO much better off getting suggestions from breeders/owners/handlers at shows or in the breed club. It might be a bit more work, but it will save you time in the long run.
Ok, so you've found some prospects, now it's time to decide if you've found a GOOD breeder! Sometimes you can get a really good idea of what you're dealing with by looking at a breeder's website, but be very careful about making a judgement that way. Some not-so-great breeders have amazing websites and some amazing breeders have disasterous websites (or no website at all). Click HERE to check out a really great page on evaluating a breeder website from the Newfoundland Club of America.
Before you do anything, read this. Read it as many times as you need to in order to truly understand and appreciate it:
First and foremost, a good breeder is supremely focused on her dogs as companions and individuals. She does not see them as walking pedigrees, puppy factories, machines, children's toys, or lawn ornaments. If she is breeding working dogs it is possible she may appear to view her dogs as machines, but a truly good working breeder will see her dogs as individuals and solid work companions just the same. She WILL have a relationship with her dogs because dogs who form a good relationship with their handlers will invariably perform better. This is one trait of a good breeder that can be a source of misunderstanding between a breeder and a puppy buyer. When a breeder produces a litter of puppies, her primary focus is on providing those puppies she cannot keep with the absolute best homes she can. Sometimes this means not being willing to sell her puppies to a family she does not feel is ready for one of her dogs, or telling a buyer that she is not willing to sell them the "green girl" because she knows they are not a good match even though the buyer is convinced they are. Ultimately, a good breeder does not breed for the purpose of having happy customers, and she does not keep a policy of "the customer is always right". Certainly she wants her buyers to be happy because quite often happy buyers = happy puppies. But, when the chips are down, a good breeder will fight with everything she has to protect the health and safety of her dogs/puppies over ensuring her customers remain satisfied. This should never be taken for snobbery or for a breeder being "too picky" - a breeder being absolutely sure about who she places her dogs with and being a little "over the top" about what she requires is how she stays supremely focused on her dogs as companions and individuals.
Next to the importance she places on each puppy as an individual, a good breeder is always focused on the part that puppy plays in both his genetic lineage and the part that lineage plays in her kennel as well as the overall breed. All good breeders are part of an orchestra. Each of the dogs she chooses to breed are violinists (for example) in the orchestra and she runs the violin section to the very best of her ability so as to ensure the entire orchestra can succeed. She works with friends and their kennels to maintain an outstanding string section. She knows that while she is extremely proud of her violinists and the string section, the ultimate goal is to be an outstanding contributor to the entire orchestra. Should you decide to take on a puppy the breeder wishes to use in her breeding program, don't ever forget you have become a part of the orchestra, and you have the responsibility to make sure your little puppy is the very best little violinist he can be. Also, keep this in mind when a breeder makes her choices as to where her puppies will go - she's got an entire orchestra depending on her.
A good breeder values the opinions of the entire orchestra. Certainly there will always be breeders that disagree with each other, but in the end a good breeder doesn't just assume they are the only one who knows anything about anything. A good breeder will not suggest that the opposing opinions of other breeders are simply a result of ignorance. Breeders who feel they know everything and don't need or value the input of others do themselves, their dogs, and their buyers a great disservice. It is common for a good breeder to bring in other breeders to assist in evaluating their litters, for example, because they not only value the input of others but are also constantly looking to learn from each other. (there were 10+ breeders in attendance at the "evaluation party" for my Mendel and his siblings, coming from all different sections of the orchestra, I was so lucky to have been in attendance).
The 10 Characteristics of Good Breeders
Health Tests ALL Breeding Stock
No good breeder chooses not to health test. I have absolutely zero ability to understand how a breeder can live with themselves if they produce (and subsequently sell to a loving family) dogs when they have not done everything in their power to prevent a debilitating disease. Just imagine for a moment how angry you would be if your dog went blind at 6 years of age and you found out his breeder could have done a blood test to determine whether or not his parents were carriers of the disease that blinded him. I can't live with that, and neither should you.
This requires research on your part. KNOW what diseases are a problem in your chosen breed and KNOW what tests are available to a breeder to prevent them. Start here: Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (not all diseases have testing available yet, but you NEED to know these things BEFORE you talk to a breeder - remember, as soon as you start talking to a breeder, the interview process has begun)
For this very reason, in **MY** opinion, no good breeder will breed a dog before the age of 2. (There are breeders who will disagree with this, and that's fine, it's up to you to determine if that's acceptable to you. I simply must ask, why rush?) OFA hip clearances cannot be obtained before a dog is 2 years old, a preliminary test is NOT official. Do accidents happen? Sure they do, but the breeder had better be completely honest about it, and it had better not be a regular occurrence. In the case of an accidental breeding, you need to be even more diligent about researching the potential diseases within the breed so that you can be reasonably confident you're still getting a puppy who's healthy.
NO dogs are perfect, EVERY breeder should have SOMETHING to tell you when you ask them about health issues in their lines even if the parents of this particular litter passed all their tests. A response of "everything is clear" or "my dogs are healthy and you have nothing to worry about" is an indication of either dishonesty or ignorance, or both. Be very cautious.
Any good breeder is going to grill you within an inch of your life. Expect it, and be grateful for it. It's only natural for a breeder to need to be extremely confident in her decision to sell a dog to you, and if she doesn't care, you should be VERY worried. You should be prepared to grill her as well - it's the only way you're really going to get the answers you need to decide if she's a person you want to buy a puppy from.
Does SOMETHING With Her Dogs
No good breeder is foolish enough to believe that keeping her feet warm on the bed at night or playing ball in the back yard is a legitimate reason for breeding a dog. A good breeder does something: conformation, tracking, hunting, agility, herding, sledding, lure coursing, weight pull, obedience, therapy work... or even better, a number of these things. Any good breeder knows that a lack of competition or performance sport leads to kennel blindness (a condition where a breeder looses touch with reality because she never measures her dogs up to what other breeders are producing).
Is NEVER Secretive, Deceitful, or Evasive
If your bull-crap-o-meter is squealing, there's probably a good reason - go elsewhere. If you ask about health testing, any good breeder will either show you how to look up health test scores online or will be able to provide proof of testing and results (remember, just because a test was done doesn't mean the dog passed - always CHECK). There is no excuse for an inability to provide this. There is also no excuse for an inability to answer a question without dodging you. This is one of those cases where you should NEVER ignore a gut feeling if it's telling you somethings not right.
Doesn't Breed Many Different Breeds or Breed "Custom" Dogs
It's actually quite common for a breeder to have 2 or 3 "chosen" breeds. Sometimes they are similar breeds and sometimes they are worlds different and provide a pleasing balance to a breeder's household. This is not a bad thing. However, 15 different breeds in a kennel and a willingness to "take orders" or "blend breeds" is an indication to run away, fast.
Has a Contract and Will Expect You to Have Input and Sign it
Contracts protect the buyer as well as the breeder, but only if they are both involved in drafting it. Ask to see the contract LONG before you commit to a puppy, READ the WHOLE thing, provide input on changes you would like to make if you have any, ask questions for clarification, and make sure the contract is SIGNED by all parties before you bring a puppy home. There are never exceptions to this rule, even when buying a dog between friends - it's how enemies are made.
Has Time For You
Any breeder with a litter of puppies is going to be busy, you WANT her to be busy taking care of those puppies, but she still needs to have time for you. If she doesn't have time for you now, she's not likely to have time for you down the road if you need her help. She's also not likely to take the time to answer all your questions, which makes it impossible for you to know if she is the best choice for you. If you feel like you can't get answers to the questions you have, it's time to start looking elsewhere.
One great way to get a feel for how a breeder is received by her peers (and get to know her better) is to go to a show with her. Any good breeder would be positively delighted to introduce a new person to the world of dog shows. (just make sure you understand that she'll likely have alot to do if she has dogs entered and can't necessarily devote every minute of her time to you) Pay attention at the show and ask questions if you have them. Take note: Does she socialize with other breeders and introduce you to them or do the other breeders tend to avoid her? Does she seem concerned about you talking to other breeders while you're there? How does she handle it if she doesn't do well at the show? How about if she wins?
Has Well Researched Reasons for the Requirements She Sets for Her Puppies
Lots of people will tell you that a good breeder will require you to spay or neuter your dog, or require yearly vaccines, or sell her puppies at a certain age. This is not always true, but what a good breeder WILL offer you is a very well researched standard of care she requires you to follow and pages upon pages of information as to why. For example, more and more information is coming out regarding the repercussions of early spay or neuter in dogs. Your breeder may request that you not spay or neuter your dog until s/he is 2 years of age and fully developed. This is perfectly acceptable, but if you don't understand a requirement you MUST ask about it so you can make a good decision, and if the requirement is not fully explained in your contract make sure it gets added.
Will ALWAYS Take a Puppy Back
No good breeder knowingly allows the puppies they breed to wind up in a shelter, ever. In fact, many breeders would be on a plane (or have some other plan in place) the next day if you told her you couldn't keep your dog any more and he was in trouble. Having a dog they produced go without a loving home and good care is a truly good breeder's worst nightmare. Breeders will move heaven and earth in attempt to make sure it never happens. THIS is why the breeder will grill you about every little detail of your life, and also why she will require you to sign a contract stating that you will notify her immediately if you cannot keep the dog. The idea that good breeders fill shelters is completely false, and this is why. All breeders support rescues in some way, and they all depend on a huge network of rescues and breed friends/contacts to help them make sure their puppies NEVER suffer such a fate.
Is Not Afraid of You Seeing Where Your Puppy Was Raised
Don't expect to be invited to a breeder's home immediately. Not only is it unsafe for a breeder to be inviting people she doesn't know into her home, it's also a potential health hazard for the puppies. However, if you never get invited to visit, never get to see pictures or video of the puppies in the place they were raised, or if the puppies are dirty or look unhealthy you may want to consider a different breeder. Unsanitary conditions lead to unhealthy puppies and expensive vet visits as well as difficulty in house training. They also could be an indication of a breeder who's not in it for the right reasons. If you feel you are being dodged, there's probably a reason.
Please understand it is entirely possible for a good breeder to not have the parents on site, particularly if the puppies are already weaned. There are a multitude of ways a good breeder can orchestrate a breeding, and it is completely possible for a breeder to have a litter whelped by a bitch she does not own (or who does not live with her). If you don't understand the breeding arrangements (or if you are suspicious of the arrangements) ask to see a contract or to talk to the owners of the dogs who were bred. There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with unusual circumstances as far as litter ownership, but a breeder should be happy to discuss it with you and tell you not only exactly how it all works, but why she decided to breed the dogs she did.
Questions to ask a breeder....
”What is your primary goal in breeding?”
“Why did you breed this particular litter?"
"What are your favorite / least favorite things about this breed?"
“How old are your puppies when you send them to new homes?”
"Do you have a contract? May I see it?"
“What are the most common health problems with this breed? What are some of the known health issues behind the puppy I am interested in buying? What are you doing to avoid them? May I see the results of the parents' tests? Can you show me how to access this information online?”
“What happens if we buy a puppy from you and it doesn’t work out?”
“Will you require me to spay or neuter my puppy? At what age?”
“What kind of help can we expect from you after we have taken a puppy home?”
“May I meet the parents? May I see the area where the dogs are kept?”
AKC info page