How to Recognize a Puppy Mill

How to Recognize a Puppy Mill


I have been working on my material regarding dog breeders and ethics, and I decided to create this page for my web site, with the hope that it may prevent someone the heartache that comes with making  the wrong selection in choosing  the breeder of their puppy.  If you  have any  comments or suggestions, please feel  free  to forward them to me via  the feedback page.

“Buy from a Breeder” that  was the text of a popular bumper sticker available years ago when I first started out in dogs.  But what exactly is a breeder?  Isn’t  anyone who brings a litter of puppies into this world a breeder?  What distinguishes the ethical breeder from the Backyard Breeder? or the Commercial Breeder? or even worse the dreaded “PUPPYMILL”?

Puppymills are finally receiving the exposure  required to make the  public aware of what really happens in these operations.  But not everyone has seen  the 20/20 show, or read the Readers Digest articles (I give a copy out with every puppy!!).  So  I  hope  that this page will provide the information that you need to make an informed decision. Please note that these  definitions are my opinions only…and used to attempt to clarify the various levels of integrity and ethics (or lack thereof) amongst the dog fancy.

THE PUPPYMILL – The Bottom of the Barrel

I am going to define a “Puppymill” as a commercial breeding operation where dogs are bred under totally abhorrent conditions solely for  the  purpose of  creating a profit.

These operations usually have dogs stacked in cages one on top of the other with no trays between them so that urine and feces fall from the cages above on to the dogs below.  Often several males and females are together in small pens, so  that when the female  is bred the puppymillernis not  really sure  which dog sired the litter. Females are bred on every heat cycle, until  they are no longer producingnreasonably sized litters – at which time they are  either  sold at auction, or taken out back and shot.  Puppies are whelped without human or veterinary assistance, under the assumption that the only the strongest will survive.  The puppies  that do manage to survive the poor feeding, and unsanitary conditions are shipped several to a cage to either pet stores or dog brokers for resale.  There are usually several breeds kept  under these conditions and this is where the wonderful whimsical names such as “Cock-a-poos” and “Schnoodles” develop – mixed breeds which will NEVER be recognized by the Canadian or American Kennel clubs…no matter  how much your Pet Shop employee tries to convince you otherwise.

Needless to say there are no precautions taken as to  screening for health clearances, or health guarantees given to the final purchaser other  than that of the end  retailer who usually gives a 30 day guarantee offering another puppy as a replacement. (Refund does not fit into the equation).  Puppies are taken away from their mothers too young and are not properly socialized.  Actually, the puppies that are sold are the lucky ones, their mothers  stay to be  bred  over and over again, while being fed a totally inadequate diet, under filthy  conditions until they are no longer able to produce.

Puppymillers are most often found in rural areas where the barking and howling of the dogs is less likely to upset neighbours, leading to investigations. One sign of a  PM with these  conditions is that you will never be allowed to see the conditions where your puppy has been raised, its parents or its siblings … it will be brought  to  you by the PM to a separate area away from their “kennels”.  A puppy miller will also drive to meet you to drop off a puppy rather than  have you come and inspect their facilities.


The commercial breeder  is a little better in that they are regulated in the U.S. by the U.S.D.A. and watched in Canada by the S.P.C.A.  The facilities that the dogs are in are  kept cleaner, and many actually have kennel help on hand to spend some time assisting at whelpings and socializing the puppies.

Once again they can be recognized by the fact that many breeds are available, that no questions are asked about you or your facilities  (come with Cash or a credit card and you have your puppy).

The commercial breeder very rarely screens for known genetic defects,  it is cheaper for them to replace the puppy from one of their many following litters.  The dogs in the pedigree usually have names like “Bob”, or “Queenie” or “John’s  Sheba”. (see reading a pedigree below)   The only criteria required when breeding two dogs is that one is male, and the other is female.  If they happen to be the same breed (or at least look like they are), then that is a  bonus,  because thenthey may also be registerable if the commercial breeder happens to have registration papers for the parents.

The quality of a dog purchased from either a puppymiller or a commercial breeder is always  suspect.  Because there  is no intention to breed towards improvement of the breed, faults are perpetuated and exaggerated through the generations resulting in severely deformed dogs, or dogs that have poor temperaments, or succumb early in life to genetic maladies.

THE BACKYARD BREEDER  – A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing!

Let me clarify this term right off the bat by stating that not having proper  kennel facilities does NOT immediately make someone a  backyard breeder.  MANY good ethical breeders (myself included) prefer to maintain a small  number of dogs  that can live in  the house with them, rather than have a larger number outdoors in kennels.

The term “Backyard Breeder” refers to someone who chooses to breed  their family pet because she’s so cute, or because everyone wanted one of her puppies (and the homes disappeared when they were born), or because  they wanted their children to see the “miracle of birth”, or because the bitch “wouldn’t feel  fulfilled” unless she had a litter, or  because “they live longer (or are more feminine)  if  they’ve had a litter”, or any number of other Old Wives Tales.

The BYB chooses the mate to their dog based on  proximity … they have a Golden Retriever, and so does the guy in the next block.  Once again they don’t  do  any health clearances, but the puppies are usually raised in a better environment than in  either a puppymill  or a commercial breeding establishment. No guarantees are given  with the puppies, and sometimes no registration papers either, because the mother was sold on a non-breeding agreement in Canada, or a limited registration  in  the U.S., although I have seen a  creative BYB make up a “Purebred Dog Certificate” on a colour  printer and give it to a poor  sucker who only realized what had  happened when his son decided he wanted to compete with the dog in obedience, and it wasn’t eligible.

The BYB may very well sell you a healthy happy puppy, it may actually come from very good lines. BUT, most likely your relationship with the BYB is going to end as soon as  your cheque clears the bank.

So, given that all breeders must have bred their first litter at some point, what makes the difference between a Backyard Breeder and an Ethical Breeder?

THE ETHICAL BREEDER –  Your Adopted Family

When the breeder who  chose to follow this path bred their first litter, they most likely did it with the advice and assistance of a “mentor” – a knowledgeable person in the breed who gives of  their time and advice to help a Newbie learn the ropes.  Most of  us who mentor others in the breed are almost always willing to help and teach  those who display their willingness to learn – by their attention, their intelligent questions, their participation in dog related  activities.  In this  way there is a continuous progression  of new breeders in a breed  as the  elders retire.

The Ethical Breeder would have had all possible  health clearances for genetic defects done on their female before looking to breed  her.  Depending on the breed this could be x-raying hips and/or elbows, Von Willebrands testing, eye clearances, thyroid  testing, etc.   The EB will be honest with themselves about the faults of the female that they wish to breed, and will search for a mate who is exceptionally strong in those areas.  While the ideal mate MAY be in the EB’s own kennel, more often than not  they will be breeding to someone else’s dog, because their ethics to not allow them to maintain a  large string of stud dogs sitting in kennels.

The pedigrees of the dogs to be bred are studied for compatibility and incompatibilities.By this I mean that breeding of certain “lines” of dogs together, may result in excellent puppies, or doubling up on certain ancestors could spell disaster. Breeding is always a matter of playing “genetic roulette”, but the ethical breeder stacks the game in  their favour (and the purchasers) by being aware of what  combinations produce  what results.  A knowledgeable Ethical Breeder will be able to tell you why they chose to breed the dogs that produced  the puppies you are interested in.

The EB monitors the bitch’s pregnancy and is present and/or assists at  the whelping.  Puppies are handled frequently to socialize  them and to monitor their progress, daily weigh ins are common to ensure that all puppies are gaining evenly.

Puppies  will receive vaccinations  when appropriate and wormings when required.  Prospective parents are screened by the EB as closely as if they were adopting a child instead of a puppy.  The EB will ask YOU for references and many questions about your preferences and lifestyle, and will be willing to provide you with references in return.  An Ethical Breeder is not in a hurry to sell off  their puppies, and may refuse you or recommend another

breed if they honestly do not  feel it is the correct breed for you. An Ethical Breeder will also turn down huge financial offers from other countries for their puppies if  they are unable to make contacts to screen  the  purchasers, because their primary interest is that each and every puppy go to the very best home possible.   Another point is that most Ethical Breeders work full time to support  this very expensive  hobby, because  they realize that there is no money to be made in breeding dogs PROPERLY.

One point about an EB, is that they will not mind if you visit other kennels and talk with other breeders (as long as you don’t go  the same day you visit them in order to lessen the risk of carrying disease).  Other breeders  will provide references for the Ethical Breeder, and  they will be willing to refer you to  other breeders if they don’t have puppies at the time you contact them.  For myself, I know that I don’t have to like a “person” to refer puppy buyers to them, I just have to feel that they are ethical in regards to their dogs, and support for their puppy buyers.

The Ethical Breeder  will supply you with a pedigree and diet sheet as a minimum. Many also supply you with a puppy pack.  They are available almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week if you have any problems with your puppy.  They offer a period for you to have your puppy checked by your own veterinarian and a full refund if you aren’t happy with the vets findings.  They will take back  dogs that  they have bred if the owner is unable to keep them (can you just see  a Puppymill doing that???).  And the Ethical Breeder becomes family … a grandma or grandpa  who actually never tires of hearing your puppy stories, who will give you advice when you want it and support when  you need it.

When interviewing breeders ask for the  names of people who have purchased puppies from  them before … and call them!!!   What they have to say about  their breeder will tell you a lot. One final caveat when interviewing breeders. The length of time spent breeding dogs does not necessarily indicate quality. A breeder can breed for 25 years and actually go DOWNHILL if they are not careful about their breeding practices. First, second and third place ribbons mounted on the walls can be meaningless. You should be aware that a dog can actually win a first place ribbon if it is the ONLY dog in its class. Also, if it is a POOR specimen of its breed, the judge may award it a SECOND place, even if it is the only dog in its class. Specialty awards, titles and group placements, are much better indicators of the quality of a breeders dogs.

THE PEDIGREE – Your Dog’s Family Tree

A breeder will supply you with a Pedigree of your dog.  This is simply a family tree, it is not a registration paper, and it does not guarantee that you  will receive registration papers.  All it does is give you a listing of  the dogs in the background of your puppy.  Even mixed breeds  have a pedigree if their parentage is known.

Looking at the pedigree will tell you  many things though.  First it will tell you which dogs have completed Championship requirements for  which countries.  A Ch. in front of a dogs  name means it is a champion and usually refers to the country the dog is  in, e.g. Ch. to a  Canadian breeder means a Canadian Champion, while a Ch. to an American or  English breeder would refer to  their country.  When a dogs is a Champion in multiple countries, the countries are  usually listed, such as Am/Can/Mex. Ch. – would  refer to a dog who is a champion in Canada, the United States and Mexico.  Very few countries use  the term “Grand Champion” (Japan, Australia and New Zealand are the few I know of), so put up your warning antennae if your chosen breeder starts using this term.*

(*Update – 4/14/12 – In 2010 both Canada and the United States established Grand Champion requirements.  Personally, I am not a fan of the U.S. format for attaining a Grand Championship as it appears to be nothing more than a money making scheme for the AKC.  A dog can attain a U.S. Grand Championship without ever winning the breed.  I am seeing a LOT of mediocre quality dogs completing the requirements when it is questionable whether they should have even completed a championship.  On the other end of the scale the Canadian Grand Championship is being criticized for  being too difficult.  A dog needs to win a Best in Show and 3 Group 1’s, plus 100 Grand Championship points.   Although it is extremely difficult to achieve, to me at least the GCh in Canada means something and I prefer the fact that it will only be awarded to the best of the best!)

A BIS in front of the name usually means that  the dog has won Best in Show at an All-Breed dog show, which is quite an honour.  A SBIS or BISS, usually refers to a Specialty Best in Show (or Best in Specialty Show), where only dogs of that breed are shown.

Working titles come at the end of a dogs name.  CD is a high school diploma  in Obedience, CDX is college, and UD is a masters  degree.  Sometimes you will see a Ch & OTCh. on a dog.  In Canada this  refers to a dog who is a Conformation Champion  and a Utility Dog.  In the United States  it is more difficult to achieve the OT Ch. title. On working  dogs  there can be other titles at the end of the name, CGC is Canine  Good Citizen, TDI registered with Therapy Dogs International, WC and WCX are  hunting titles for sporting dogs, FCh. and FChX are  field title  champions for Hounds for Lure Coursing or Hunting.   The SD and SDX are Sled Dog titles for Nordic Breeds, and the DD is a draft dog title for working dogs.

It is said that a “balanced dog” has a title at each end of its name.

A good breeding is usually one where at least 75% of  the dogs in the pedigree have achieved at least one title, either Conformation or Working titles, depending upon the purpose for which the dog is bred.  The breeder should be able to discuss the dogs in the pedigree with you, their strengths and weaknesses, and possibly even supply pictures.  Here are two pedigrees, one for a typical puppymill/commercial type puppy, the other a pedigree for a litter I have bred.  See if you can spot the differences.

Prince Rover III Happy Toes Robert’s Rover
Lablover’s Ebony Hope
Sheba Earl of Balfour
Rustic Shady Lady
Queenie Jack of Swiftcreek Ch. Swiftcreek Take a Chance
Ch. Swiftcreek Daisy, WCX
Blackwater  Lady Donegal Tidalwave, CD, WCX
Blackwater Duchess

“Well, hold on!!!” you say. “Look at that third generation!!  There are Champions AND Working titles in there!!”

Yes, and this is the type of pedigree that  usually backs up an ad in  your local paper that says “champion pedigreed”.  There are 14 dogs  in a three generation pedigree, and 3  have  conformation and/or working titles … less than 25%.

The most likely story here is that Jack was purchased  from a reputable breeder.  Lady was most likely purchased from a Backyard breeder who wanted a hunting dog.

Lady’s owner, another BYB, approached Jacks owner about using  him for stud (after all  he does come from good lines!!).  Then because Lady’s owners were  not careful about placements Queenie sadly ended up in a puppy mill.

  • Compare that to this pedigree of an actual litter:
Am/Cdn Ch Merrymoon Firestorm”Hunter” SBIS Am/Cdn Ch. Phi-Vestavia’s Pirates Patch”Dillon” Am. Ch. Joseter Geefax, JW”Jeepers” Daleviz Vermillion
Jezalin Phantasia
Am. Ch. Kentwood Lyneth”Lyneth” Ch. Downholme Silversand of Joseter
Eng. Ch. Kentwood Bethan
Ch. Phi-Vestavia Unforgettable”Rosie” SBIS Am/Cdn Ch. Phi-Vestavia Nautilus, PT, CGC,TDI”Percy” Am/Cdn. Ch. Salvenik Sea Treasure”Rupert”
SBIS Am/Can. Ch. Phi’s Amazing Grace Ap Ronel
Am/Cdn Ch. Rikarlo American Phi”Beauty” Ch. Talbot’s Steer ‘Em Right Billy
Am./Can. Ch. Twinroc Honey of Demondo
Ch. Yasashiikuma Cinnamon Heart”Abbey” Am/Cdn Ch. Markwell’s Matthew Cuthbert”Matthew” Am/Cdn Ch. Tessaract’s Pete of Santana, CD”Peter” Am. Ch. Quicks Charlemagne
Checkmate Amber Tesseract
Am/Cdn Ch. Markwell’s Maggie Tulliver”Maggie” Am.Ch. Talbot’s Pilot Programme
Am/Cdn. Ch. Finnshavn’s Julia Jarvis
Ch. Yasashiikuma Heart of Gold”Candy” SBIS Am/Cdn.Ch. Tessaract’s Pete of Santana, CD”Peter” Am Ch. Quicks Charlemagne
Checkmate Amber Tesseract
Ch. Finnshavn Disglaircopr Ceinoig”Penny” Ch. Markwell’s Silas Marner
Am/Cdn/Bda Ch. Sweet Molly Magee

I can further tell you that in this pedigree  are every Canadian National Specialty Winner from 1986 to 1992

  • Am/Cdn Ch. Phi’s Amazing Grace Ap Ronel  – 1986
  • Am/Cdn Ch. Tesseract’s Pete of Santana, CD –  1987, 1988, 1990
  • Am/Cdn Ch. Phi-Vestavia Nautilus, PT, CGC, TDI – 1989
  • Am/Cdn Ch Phi-Vestavia’s Pirate’s Patch – 1991, 1992

The sire of the litter  has  shown at 4 U.S. Specialties, and won Best of  Winners at 3 of them (1998 National Specialty and two 1999 Regionals) and went Reserve Winners at  the 1999  National. As well the pedigree provides links to photos of  the various dogs.

There are 30 names in the 4  generation pedigree above, of which 4 do not have any titles (and I  had to go to 4 generations to get those!), therefore 86% of the dogs  have conformation or working titles.  If we remove the duplication of names due to the line breeding on “Peter” we are reduced to 27 names of which 3 are not titled, or 81% titled.

REGISTRATIONS – What It Is & What It Isn’t

A registration is a proof that your dog is purebred, that its parents are registered with the kennel club of the country in which it was born and that it is eligible to compete in AKC/CKC sanctioned events.


Sadly this is true.  No matter how poor an example of its breed a dog is, it is registerable with the Kennel Club as  long as its parents  were registered.  Therefore the advertisements that say that pups are AKC or CKC registered do not mean a lot to the pet  puppy purchaser.  You need to learn to read the pedigree of the  puppy you are looking to purchase if you are looking for an indication of quality.

In Canada  the breeder is responsible for submitting the registrations andthis must be done within 6 months of the date of sale.   Canadian breeders are regulated by Federal Agriculture laws which states that  all dogs sold as purebreds must be registered, the cost of  the registration must be borne by the breeder, and the breeder MAY NOT charge extra for  the papers.

In the United States some breeders may choose  to register  their puppies, but most will give the purchaser the blue registration slip and have the purchaser register the dog.

In Canada puppies which are not sold for breeding purposes are usually sold on Non-Breeding Agreements.The U.S. equivalent to this is the Limited Registration. A responsible breeder who cares about the future status of their breed will ask you to agree to these conditions, to ensure that only the best representatives of the breed  are bred, and to ensure that registration papers do not somehow fall into the hands of puppymillers.

Reason for Breeding Profit Profit Profit, Miracle of Birth,
Just to try it
Improvement of the Breed
Conditions of Facilities Unsanitary Usually Sanitary Sanitary Sanitary
Number of Breeds Kept* Many Including Mixed Breeds Many including Mixed Breeds Usually One Usually 1-3*
Pedigrees Few or no titles Few or no titles May or may not have titles Usually >75% titled dogs
Whelping conditions Alone unaided May be aided May be assisted or vet assisted Assisted or vet assisted
Health Clearances None None None Any or all of hips, elbows, hearts, eyes, thyroid
Age  puppies sold 4 weeks 4 weeks 6-8 weeks 8-12 weeks
Puppies sold to…… Pet  stores/brokers Pet Stores/Public Public (possibly unwittingly to Puppymills) Carefully screened homes
References available None USDA or SPCA inspection only None Prior purchasers, other breeders

*Sometimes, if a  few Ethical Breeders share a residence there may be more than 3 breeds on the premises.  An example that comes to mind is friends who both bred one breed,  the husband bred another, the wife 2 others, and their kennel girl another, so in total there were 5 breeds on the  premises.

Comments are closed.