How to Choose a Healthy Pure-Bred Puppy

WebMD veterinary expert answers commonly asked questions about how to choose a healthy, friendly pure-bred puppy as your new family pet.

By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by D. West Hamryka, DVM

You made the decision to get a puppy and did your research to find the perfect breed -- the one that will match your family's temperament, energy level, and personality. But how do you find the best breeder to get a healthy, well-adjusted puppy? WebMD asked Lisa Peterson, the director of club communications for the American Kennel Club and a longtime breeder of Norwegian elkhounds, for some advice.

Q: There are ads for puppies in the newspaper, on the Internet, and, of course, there are those adorable puppies in the pet stores. Where's the best place to buy my purebred puppy?

A: Breeders advertise in a variety of ways, including ads on the Internet, in newspapers, and their own web sites. Those are all good places to start, but they are also places you can run into a lot of trouble if you don't do your research. You can go to our web site, www.AKC.org, to look for the parent club of our breeds. We list breeder referrals for all these clubs and they can put you in touch with breeders across the country.

Q: I've heard dogs in pet stores usually come from puppy mills. What are those and are they bad?

A: Most puppies in pet stores come from licensed commercial breeders. Those breeders that register with the American Kennel Club are inspected by us for care and conditions, record keeping, and other things.

There are more than 30 dog registries today. But the AKC is the only nonprofit registry and the only registry that inspects our breeders and mandates that the puppies be raised in humane conditions.

The term puppy mill really describes a kennel with filthy conditions, usually where there are too many dogs to care for properly. Many times these places are unlicensed because they sell directly to the public via the Internet. These are not your well inspected, licensed facilities. We have inspected some puppy mills and some were suspended by us.

Q: Do purebred dogs have a lot of health problems? Where can I find out about the health problems of the breeds I'm interested in?

A: The majority of purebred dogs are happy, healthy pets. We have a web site, www.akcdoghealth.com, which is a great resource for potential dog owners. It highlights what breeders are doing to avoid genetic diseases and whether they are conducting proper health screenings. You need to ask for certificates that show that the breeder has done the proper health screenings on the sire and the dam before the breeding took place.

A balanced breeding program includes a whole list of what should be done ahead of time, such as genetic testing, pedigree research, confirmation, and temperament analysis of the sire and dam.

Q: Will someone who breeds dogs for show sell me a puppy even if I don't want to show it?

A: Absolutely. The majority of puppies in a show litter actually go to pet homes. The breeder selects the best one or two out of a litter to keep for their line and sells the rest.

Q: What questions should I ask to determine if someone is a good breeder?

A: The first question should be, “Can I come visit your home or your kennel facility?” Responsible breeders are very proud of their kennel and their dogs.

Ask if they register with the American Kennel Club. Ask if they have the health certificates for testing prior to breeding. Then, I expect the breeder to ask the buyer a lot of questions about how they plan to care for the new puppy.

Q: Is it a good idea to meet both parents of the puppy I want?

A: It's good to meet both parents, if possible. But the majority of breeders have only the mothers at their homes. Usually the stud dogs live somewhere else. But visiting the mother and other relatives that might be in the breeder's home will give you a good idea of the size and the temperament of the line.

You can also ask for contact information for the stud dog. But in today's world, you may live in New York, but the stud dog's frozen semen was shipped from California.

Q: What's the best age for bringing a puppy home?

A: The ideal time is 8 to 12 weeks, especially with small or toy puppies. Breeders usually want to keep those a little longer because they're fragile when they're young. So a 12-week-old Yorkshire terrier puppy is very acceptable, where a hardier breed, like a Labrador retriever, is ready to go at 8 weeks.

You also need to check with your state, because some states have a minimum age for selling puppies.

Q: How important is it for puppies to be raised around people?

A: Socialization is paramount with any dog, especially in that 8- to 16-week time frame and after proper immunization, You need to get the dog out to see as many people as possible and expose it to as many situations as possible.

Q: I've found a litter of puppies I like. What signs should I look for to be sure they are healthy?

A: You want to look at the surroundings. Make sure it's a nice, clean, well-run home or facility. The puppies should have bright eyes. They should be very curious. They should run right up to you. You shouldn't see a nasal discharge or runny eyes. If you see them poop, they should have a firm stool and no diarrhea. You don't want a lethargic, uninterested puppy.

Q: How do I choose the puppy with the best personality?

A: The responsible breeder will more than likely select the best puppy for you from the litter. They've spent 8 to 12 weeks with the puppies and they know the personalities of each puppy. They know which ones are bold and outgoing and which are the shy ones. And the breeder knows the bold, outgoing puppy will do much better with that active family with three kids versus the shy puppy, which needs to go with the single owner who can spend more time with it so that puppy won't feel overwhelmed.

Q: Will most breeders give me a health guarantee and agree to take the dog back if I can't keep it?

A: Absolutely. What sets the responsible breeder apart from everyone else is they will agree to take the dog back for the life of the dog, no matter the age of the dog, no matter the circumstance the owner has found themselves in. The breeder has created the puppy and the breeder is responsible for the dog for the life of the dog.

With health guarantees, each breeder has his own health guarantee, whether it's to replace the puppy or buy the puppy back or cover vet expenses for certain conditions. All that should be spelled out in the sales contract, which is between you and the breeder. All those expectations and responsibilities will be stated in writing and signed by both parties ahead of time. Some states also have so-called "lemon laws" that give buyers some protection, so check with state officials before buying your puppy to see if your state has laws governing the sale of puppies.