How to Get the Best Dog Ever

(Image courtesy of the author)

The most common questions I receive while walking my 5-month old puppy:

  • Where did you get your dog?
  • How do you find a dog?
  • Where is your dog from?

The answers in order:

  • Indiana (I’m from Boston).
  • Through months of research.
  • An ethical purpose breeder.
This lovely pup is Zazu, my best dog ever. (Image courtesy of the author)

Let’s be clear: every dog is a good dog at heart. Yes, even the dog I had to kick at last week at the park. He scratched my legs and barked at my crying puppy after he had bitten Zazu’s neck and pinned him to the ground. That dog’s behavior boils down to a poor upbringing.

All of us see our respective dogs as “the best dog ever.” This article highlights the steps I took to find my version of the best dog ever: bred and raised in an ideal home with love before I adopted him. The rest is in my hands.

close up of Tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy sleeping on a lilac rug
close up of Tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy sleeping on a lilac rug
Zazu napping at 11 weeks after coming home (Image courtesy of the author)

Looking for a rescue dog or one from a shelter? You’re my hero. I am a firm believer in attempting to find your dream dog among those without a home before venturing into the realm of breeders. But if you’re like me and live in an apartment instead of a home or lack other criteria an animal shelter is seeking in applicants, finding a purpose breeder is a great way to go.

If you’re considering buying a dog from a pet store, please don’t. I outline in another article I wrote why that’s not okay based on my own experience of being scammed by a pet store and owning a past dog for only a day. Keep in mind that no good breeder would sell a puppy to a broker (third-party salesman) and have them go to a household they know nothing about, let alone send them to live in a glass case until purchased. Healthy, growing puppies require space to exercise, defecate, and regular attention and affection. They learn many of their life skills from their mother and littermates.

Belly shot of mother tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel nursing seven puppies of the same color all lined up
Belly shot of mother tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel nursing seven puppies of the same color all lined up
Zazu (second from the right) nursing with his 7 littermates the day he was born (Image courtesy of the author)

So the pet store dog option aside, because we know that’s a terrible decision, how can we distinguish between a good breeder and a not-so-good breeder? How can we know which is better?

The main difference in getting a dog from a purpose breeder is that they will likely live a longer and healthier life and have fewer temperament issues than un-ethically bred dogs. The infographic below goes much more in-depth on the differences between the four main ways people get dogs:

Infographic on the difference between designer dogs, purpose bred dogs, backyard bred dogs, and shelter dogs
Infographic on the difference between designer dogs, purpose bred dogs, backyard bred dogs, and shelter dogs
Image credit: Sophia Lebel on https://slebel.art/pick-of-the-litter

The How:

  1. Research. Start by looking up how to raise and train a dog. Get an idea of the time commitment necessary initially and think about when you hope to get this dog. Keep in mind that a good purpose breeder will not breed their dogs around the clock. Availability may not be immediate. Plan to wait six months to a year between when you start your search and when your dream dog comes home. Look up dog breeds for different sizes, energy levels, and temperaments. Decide which breed will best fit your lifestyle and living space. Are you a runner who wants a companion? Most small dogs wouldn’t be able to keep up. Consider who will be coming into contact with the dog, including other pets and children.
  2. Organize. Create a space where you will aggregate dog search information. Mine was a 10-page Google Doc containing vets, tips, websites, and contact info for over one hundred breeders, but it doesn’t need to be so long. Outline the breeds you are looking for and link the local breed clubs’ pages based on your region. Breed clubs have purpose breeders among their members, and it’s also a great place to get more information and care tips about a dog breed.
  3. Search. Under the breed section, write out the names, locations, and contact info for breeders you find. The AKC marketplace can be a good resource, although they are not responsible for vetting breeders. The local breed club will typically have a point person you can call who will refer you to club members planning to breed or with upcoming litters. For example, in my search for a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, I called the CKCS Club of Southern New England point person. Remember that even if you don’t find your future dog through the AKC, most breeders register their dogs since the AKC helps limit puppy mills and other poor dog breeding practices. On Zazu’s AKC litter certificate, I have the benefit of knowing his grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ names and the code to look up their health test scores. This transparent information helps me plan what to expect from Zazu’s health.
  4. Interview. Contact breeders to set a time for a more in-depth conversation. Have a list of questions ready out of respect for their time and the fact that they are busy people who probably get tons of inquiries. There are too many essential breeder questions for me to list them all in this article. My favorite being: ‘What type of health testing do you do, and when were the puppy’s parents last tested?’ If they don’t have an answer to this question, please run. Keep in mind this interview is also a chance for the breeder to learn about you and whether you would be a good candidate for raising a puppy. They should have questions for you and your lifestyle. If they don’t care about where the puppies end up, that should be a red flag. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) has a helpful list of questions you should ask a potential breeder to know if they are doing their job right and treating their dogs well. You also want to know about the OFA for the next step.
  5. Verify. Once you have narrowed down a list of no more than five breeders you want to work with, fact-check them. No good breeder will be offended if you ask for the parent dogs’ OFA registration numbers. They will take it as a good sign that you are well-informed and invested in the wellbeing of your future dog. The OFA Advanced Search tool allows you to find a dog by name, reg number, or breed to see their health test scores as well as the accompanying dates.

For example, here is a screenshot of what this looks like for Zazu’s mom. (note: I excluded name and registration number for my breeder’s privacy; the website includes both.)

Search results for OFA testing which proves the dates Zazu’s mother was health tested before being bred
Search results for OFA testing which proves the dates Zazu’s mother was health tested before being bred
Screenshot from https://www.ofa.org

If your breeder has bred before, they should have some references willing to gush about how great things have been working with the breeder. This reference could be another resource for you as you raise your dog. I got a reference from Zazu’s older brother’s owner, with whom I still chat and exchange dog tips today.

Verification can also include a house visit. If the puppies are too young to be exposed to outside germs this might not be possible however it is normal for breeders to offer an outdoor visit of the home or place where the puppies are raised as well as a video call to tour their living space. Zazu’s breeder hosts what she calls “Puppy Pick Day” at her home when the puppies are about 7 weeks old when the pup parents get to meet the litter in person and choose the right personality match. Given that I got Zazu in the middle of a pandemic, I opted for a virtual version.

The Why:

Some may call all of the work I put into finding an ethically purpose-bred dog overzealous. Others may call it a waste of time. I call it researching and making a thoughtful investment considering my dog is my responsibility for the next 15 years. I call it putting less harm into the world.

By buying dogs from breeders and puppy mill owners who mistreat animals or do not put enough effort into their puppies’ health and upbringing, we financially support their harmful practice. By working with a breeder who genuinely cares about preserving the Cavalier breed, I ended up with a fantastic dog that exceeds his veterinarian’s, groomer’s, and trainer’s expectations in health, behavior, and intelligence.

Zazu had an ideal start to his early education. During the first days of my dog’s life, his breeder used a finger to stimulate his paw pads, acclimating him to human touch and easing potential future anxiety while being handled. When Zazu was six weeks old, he learned to walk on a teeterboard which enhances his balance. A breeder who raises dogs solely for profit would not do these attentive exercises. Backyard breeders and puppy mills strive to sell you a puppy, regardless of how that dog’s life turns out.

Someone might ask: “Why does this matter? I know plenty of people who have healthy dogs who came from puppy mills and who didn’t have any of that extra stuff your puppy got. They are fine.”

  1. That person’s dog is okay for now. We don’t know what their older years will look like when many genetic diseases or avoidable illnesses take their toll.
  2. Many people do not realize they could have avoided some of their dog’s issues with a better upbringing during their initial weeks of life, such as separation anxiety and setbacks with crate training.
  3. Perhaps the puppy mills or backyard breeder clients got lucky. The dog has an ideal temperament and perfect health. I would be happy for them outside of the fact that they financially supported someone’s wrongdoing.

The Result:

Because of all the work that I put into Zazu’s life while he was just a fetus, I can now hold him to my heart, feel his soft, warm fur, and know that I did everything in my power to make sure he would have the best chance of a long and healthy life. I have the comfort of knowing no one frequently forced his mother into pregnancy and that his parents live in a home where they are loved and cherished.

two tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniels on green grass looking up at camera
two tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniels on green grass looking up at camera
Zazu’s mom and dad/dame and sire (Image courtesy of the author with permission)

I have a lifetime relationship with the woman who worked to bring my dog into this world, knowing I can call her any time with concerns, exchange advice and tips, and share updates on his growth and training with her. And, of course, I now have the best dog ever.

tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel sporting light blue harness, facing camera panting
tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel sporting light blue harness, facing camera panting
Zazu last week at the park (Image courtesy of the author)

Storyteller, scholar, feminist, writer of prose and code.

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