A Critical Consideration When Evaluating Breeders

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

breeding and raising puppies

Story at-a-glance

  • Puppies enter a sensitive period at about 3 weeks, and it lasts until they’re about 14 weeks old; during this period, the socialization they experience shapes their adult personality and behavior
  • A study of 264 purebred puppies in Poland suggests that being reared indoors with continued access to family members and socialization opportunities sets puppies up for success as adult family dogs
  • Puppies reared in outdoor kennels with very limited human interaction are likely to show more submissive behaviors, fear-based aggression, and less capacity to cope with novel situations
  • When searching for a purebred puppy, it’s important to work only with a very reputable, preferably local breeder
  • Socialization should start very early in puppyhood and continue throughout a dog’s life

Puppies aged 3 to 14 weeks experience what is commonly called a “sensitive period” during which their day-to-day socialization experiences shape their adult personality and behavior.

Socialization involves exposing puppies to as many new and safe people, animals, environments and other stimuli as possible without overwhelming them. Ideally, these experiences engage all the senses through exposure to the sights, sounds and smells of daily life, and help pups develop a comfort level with new and different situations. The result is an adult dog who has learned to handle new and challenging experiences with acceptable, appropriate behavior.

Study Suggests Puppies Should Be Reared in Breeders’ Homes

In a study published earlier this year in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science,1 university researchers in Poland evaluated the temperaments of puppies reared in indoor kennels with pups raised in outdoor kennels with limited contact with humans.

The researchers’ evaluations were performed between 2011 and 2018 in Poland using breeders belonging to the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI). The study involved only small breeders (one to two females) who were recognized by the FCI as displaying good breeding practices. Puppies from large-scale breeders and puppy mills were not included in the study. The breeders belonged to two groups depending on the location of their kennels.

Puppies from both indoor and outdoor kennel groups didn’t leave the household until they were 7 to 8 weeks old. In all cases, puppies and the mother dogs received a good standard of routine care. The study involved 264 puppies from 44 litters belonging to 21 different breeds:

  • 160 were reared in indoor kennels, including 70 females and 90 males from 27 litters
  • 104 were reared in outdoor kennels, including 52 females and 52 males from 17 litters

Indoor kennels were located in the breeders’ homes. The puppies and their mother had unlimited and continuous access to everyone in the home and were exposed to all the stimuli of a typical household.

The outdoor kennels, on the other hand, comprised an isolated space for the puppies and their mothers, were located outside the breeder’s house, and the only human contact the pups received was when the breeders fed them and cleaned their kennels. The study authors observed that:

“Puppies raised outdoors showed an elevated tendency for submissive behaviour, a greater risk of aggression through fear, and a lowered capacity for coping with novel conditions. These findings have direct implications for dog breeders and illustrates that enrichment of the environment of dam and puppies can mitigate the risk of behavioral problems in adult dogs.”2

The researchers theorize that because puppies raised in home environments receive more socialization with people and are habituated to a greater number of noises, household objects and activities, and other environmental stimuli, they’re better prepared for life as family dogs.

The study results led the researchers to a logical conclusion; however, they fail to demonstrate that the only cause of the difference between in the indoor- and outdoor-kenneled puppies was the location where they were reared.

As applied animal behaviorist and dog trainer Karen B. London notes in a post for the online newsletter Bark, “It is possible that the location in which the puppies were raised is a key factor in the differences between the puppies, but the authors acknow­ledge that they can’t conclude that based on their data.”3

How to Assess Dog Breeders

Despite the study’s shortcomings, London believes it “offers a quick and dirty way to increase the chances of ending up with the wonderful dog you dreamed about: Get a puppy from a breeder who rears the dogs inside with the family rather than raising them outside in a kennel.”

If you have your heart set on purchasing a purebred pup, I strongly encourage you to try to buy from a local, reputable breeder. Make sure to check his or her background and references. Review the sales contract closely.

A reputable breeder will want to meet and interview anyone interested in buying a puppy, as well as be proud to show you the parents, their living environment and their medical records, including genetic testing results. That's why you won't find responsible breeders selling to pet stores.

I met a breeder not long ago who intentionally creates “designer dogs” for people with allergies. She meticulously screens both parents for all potential breed flaws, then creates “fashion mutts” she sells to a long list of buyers who are looking for “healthy hybrids,” as she calls them.

Although the topic of designer dogs is very controversial, I applaud this woman for testing for all known genetic flaws, something many breeders still refuse to do. She also welcomes visits to her home, believes in early puppy socialization, weans the puppies onto human-grade food, has the entire litter vet checked prior to going to their new homes, and insists dogs be returned to her if for some reason an owner cannot keep a puppy.

As this study demonstrates, the first sensitive period puppies experience is early in their life, so it’s the breeder’s responsibility to provide a safe and effective early socialization protocol for their litters prior to 8 weeks of Age. I recently interviewed veteran dog breeder and trainer Suzanne Clothier, who said one of the most important questions you can ask a breeder is what early socialization program they’re using.

All reputable breeders have a clear understanding of their critical role in early puppy development, including multiple daily intentional socialization experiences. Suzanne’s program, the Enriched Puppy Protocol, is just one of several programs most breeders use to create well-adapted, confident and emotionally balanced puppies; Avidog, Puppy Culture and Puppy Prodigies are also popular programs with breeders.

Your prospective breeder should offer lots of information about their early socialization protocols before you have to ask, but make sure it’s one of the first questions covered as it’s one of the most important factors influencing your dog’s personality and ability to cope with stress, years down the road.

Always visit a breeder's facility in person. During pandemic times, the breeder may offer a “virtual tour” via puppy cams, but transparent breeders will not make any excuses for why they can’t or won’t show you where the puppies live.

You want to see for yourself the conditions in which your puppy was born and raised. I would also insist on meeting the parents (the mother dog, at a minimum). If the breeder won’t show you the dogs’ living conditions, be suspicious. Additional resources:

Top Tips for Socializing Canine Family Members

1. Enroll your puppy in a professionally run, positive puppy class, and do it immediately (I suggest signing up prior to even bringing your puppy home so you know you have a spot). You have a very short window to accomplish all your socialization goals, so don’t waste a single day between 8 and 14 weeks!

These classes involve minimal exposure to health risks and can deliver tremendous benefits for both you and your pup, including increasing his responsiveness to commands, teaching him bite inhibition, and learning tips for successful housetraining and how to prevent hyperactivity.

2. Invite friends and family over to meet and interact with your puppy as often as possible, especially the first two months (daily is ideal, but several times a week is crucial). Try to include people of varying ages and ethnicities, especially children if you don’t have any, and both genders.

Also invite gentle, healthy dogs, puppies and cats to your home to meet and interact with your pup, and regularly take your puppy for visits to other friendly pet-owning households.

3. Make sure your puppy is exposed to unfamiliar or out-of-place objects around your house and outdoor environment, so he’ll be less likely to startle or be fearful of changes.

It’s also important to get him accustomed to hearing a variety of sounds, for example, the vacuum cleaner, the blender, the lawn mower, outside traffic, a blow dryer, a plastic or paper trash bag being snapped open, the TV, radio, video games, etc. The goal is never to frighten your pup, but to expose him to new sounds. Life is noisy; he needs to learn that everyday sounds are no big deal.

4. Get your pup accustomed to being bathed and brushed, having his nails clipped, his teeth brushed, and his ears and other body parts handled and examined. This will help him develop a healthy tolerance for human handling, which will make future baths, nail trims, oral care, and visits to the veterinarian and groomer easier on everyone involved (including puppy).

5. Keep things safe, fun and positive. You should start socializing your pup from his first day home with you, but it’s crucial that you don’t overwhelm him. Set the stage and then let him set the pace. Don’t hurry or force his progress, and keep socialization sessions frequent but brief, and always upbeat. Modify the type of socialization based on the response and personality of your puppy.

6. When your puppy shows hesitance or fear, resist the urge to reward fearful behavior with a lot of attention and affection. Stay close to reassure him he’s safe but take care not to inadvertently reinforce fearful behavior. Never force your puppy to do something if you can see a fear response. Instead, work on accomplishing smaller goals that build confidence and trust.

Always remember that socializing your puppy should be an enjoyable, satisfying experience for both of you — one that will pay dividends for the rest of your life together. There is no greater joy than a well-adjusted, balanced canine companion.

Once your immediate puppy socialization tasks are complete and your dog is on her way to becoming a well-balanced adult, it’s important to continue to offer her opportunities for new experiences, socialization, and training for the rest of her life.

Even dogs well-socialized as puppies, if not given regular opportunities to interact with other dogs as adults, can lose their ability to mix comfortably with others of their species. And while some pets are naturally skilled at dog-to-dog dealings, many others need regular practice through activities that provide the chance to socialize with unfamiliar people and pets.



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