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Sometimes at social gatherings I feel like a real downer. Conversation often comes around to a discussion of pets and someone says "We're thinking of getting a (fill in the breed) puppy!". And they look at me with expectation. Usually I just nod and smile. If they ask my opinion, however, I am likely to give it to them, and in that is a list of problems that are frequently encountered with that specific breed.
German Shepherd dog? Well, they are so wonderful! But there is the high incidence of painful hip and elbow problems often experienced at a young age that may require surgery. There are also recognized heritable eye problems, autoimmune issues and potential neurologic disease as they age. A Golden Retriever? Well, you will possibly be battling skin and ear problems, also possible orthopedic issues, and will likely have to deal with a hot spot at least once, if not every summer. Boxer puppies are so cute, and yet the breed is very prone to developing cancer at any early age. Bulldog puppies are really sweet, but the dog they grow into can have significant joint, breathing and skin problems, coupled with a tempermant that may not allow you to help them the way you may need to, such as daily cleaning of skin folds on the face and hind end. And so on.
But, I caution the people, don't let that discourage you, just think about these things before you make the commitment. Do your homework, learn about the breed, visit a breeder's kennel, meet some of the other dogs they have. Talk to folks who have actually lived with the breed. A breeder's kennel does not have to be fancy or showy, just clean, with enough room, attention, fresh water and food for all the dogs. Ask to meet the parents of prospective puppies, ask for references (note: this rules out pet stores). Call the references. Listen to your gut when dealing with people. Check online sources to see if anyone has reported a bad experience. Don't be shy. So often an emotional impulse decision leads to 12 or more years of caretaking, expense and sometimes heartbreak early in the life of the dog.
The next question always gives me pause for thought, "Do you know any good breeders?". This is a loaded question that I hesitate to answer. I know many breeders, many who are very nice people with the best of intentions, and many of those produce fine puppies with minimal health issues. Some are well situated to provide excellent preventative care such as vaccines and parasite control, or to take care of their dogs if problems arise, and some are not. I might add that I have also come across some very unethical people, aka "breeders", whose motivations are driven largely by greed, self importance and/or ignorance. It is not always obvious who these people are, but sometimes it is.
Unfortunately, dogs rarely get to choose who they breed with or what happens to their offspring. While statistically many of the puppies sold from less than ideal situations are reasonably healthy and happy pets, the fate of others is not always good. I still cringe when someone says, "When I saw the horrible conditions they were living in, I just couldn't leave the puppy there. So I bought (i.e. paid money for) him". Sometimes your head and your heart need to step outside and have a serious talk.
Even those who breed simply because they love and want to improve their particular breed don't always get it right, but at least they are hopefully trying. We are dealing with biology, not mechanics. There are many issues to consider when you are looking at investing a lot of time and finances in a puppy or adult dog. And there are generally no guarantees. Few people seem to want to take back a sick puppy to a breeder for a "replacement" once they have become attached.
There are some very helpful resources available through breed clubs and the American Kennel Club. A very useful and interesting resource is the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals website (offa.org). Many breeds are screened by the OFA to identify genetic problems prior to breeding individuals in order to reduce genetic problems in the gene pool.There is a wealth of information about breed concerns. If you are thinking of getting a particular breed, check out some of the problems there that they are usually screened for. You can even search their database to see if a particular dog has been screened.
For instance, you may be considering a Lab, a breed that is often afflicted by hip dysplasia. A breeder should have the parents checked before breeding and should be able to produce certification from OFA showing that they have had the hips of the parents graded. After the age of two, the OFA will review radiographs taken by a veterinarian and give that particular dog a grade of either excellent, good, or fair hips; or they will grade the hips as dysplastic (i.e. not good and likely to be painful).This problem is known to be strongly heritable. Breeders should not be breeding dysplastic dogs. This type of grading also applies to a number of other issues such as heritable elbow problems, thyroid disease, eye problems, and heart defects.
Buyer beware. If a breeder claims that the hips of the mother and father are "fine", ask to see the OFA certification papers (another grading system for hips is called Penn Hip, which is also acceptable). They should be able to produce them and the information should correlate with the names, ages and colors of the dogs that have been bred. If a Lab or German Shepherd breeder has "never heard of OFA", or refuses to produce papers, this should be a red flag, no matter how adorable the puppies are. Well bred dogs often come with a higher price, due to the extra work and expense. However not every expensive dog is guaranteed to be well bred!
Another very important consideration when choosing a breed is the typical temperament of that breed. For instance, people who work all day and live in an apartment probably should not consider a Siberian Husky or a Border Collie. Some breeds realistically need hours of exercise every day to be happy and healthy, emotionally and physically. Some breeds are notoriously not good with kids. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule in every breed, but again I encourage people to make an informed decision.
Given that most people become attached to a dog in about two hours, it is undeniably better to do the research prior to bringing that puppy home. We have managed to produce such a wide variety of breeds in the dog world there is an endless choice of animals to choose from. Unfortunately our hearts override our heads at times. Looking at how full the shelters and rescue organizations are across North America, it is evident that many people don't make the right choice. The dog doesn't get to choose, people do.
Of course when people talk to me about chosing a new member for their fur family, I always think of my friend's bumper sticker, which reads "Rescued… My breed of choice" and of course this should always be an option. Once the research and education are done, at the end of the day, our hearts need to be involved too.