Breeder or Shelter? Purebred or Mutt?

It all depends …

The hubbub earlier this week around the Westminster Kennel Club’s decision to dump Pedigree as a sponsor this year because of their ads featuring sad-faced (mostly) mixed breed homeless dogs in shelters got me thinking about some touchy questions. Is it better to buy a dog from a responsible breeder or adopt a pet in need from a shelter or rescue group? Is it better to have a purebred dog, a mixed breed dog or a mutt?

Although I think most dog lovers are now aware of the issues surrounding puppy mills and agree that buying a dog from a pet store is a bad idea, the debate around these other important questions continues to divide some dog enthusiasts. For most dog lovers I know, the answers are crystal clear—on one extreme or the other, but my own answers may surprise you.

Is it better to buy from a breeder or adopt? Is it better to have a purebred dog, a mixed breed or a mutt? Well, it depends. Who’s the dog for? How much dog training experience do they have? What is their lifestyle like? What are their budgetary and time constraints?

For first time dog owners who can afford the steep cost, I usually recommend buying a dog from a reputable breeder. When you adopt a dog from a rescue or shelter, there’s usually more uncertainty as to the dog’s genetic predispositions and prior care. I frequently get calls from people who adopted a dog that seemed one way when they first met, but as the dog settled in, saw a very different personality emerge along with concerning new behaviors. Sometimes these changes don’t begin to surface for up to six months. This is most challenging when these behaviors involve reactivity towards people or other dogs.

That’s not to say that these issues can’t be worked through — in fact, that’s the type of work I spend most of my days doing. It’s just not something many first-time dog owners can easily handle on their own without the help of a qualified dog trainer or behaviorist, and such services are far from cheap. Not to mention, such work is time-consuming, and can be extremely challenging for a student who hasn’t yet even mastered the routine basics of dog training.

So if it’s usually safer for a first time dog owner to buy their pet from a reputable breeder, does the dog they buy need to be a purebred? Not necessarily, with all the great “doodles” out there. When such a mixed breed comes from a conscientious breeder, you still get the benefit of being able to anticipate certain breed characteristics while also reaping the benefit, in many cases, of less shedding. Case in point: I’ve had the pleasure of working with very many of Erin’s New England Cockapoos which have come through my dog training program with flying colors. They are, of course, mixed breeds (cocker spaniel and poodle.) Breeder, Erin Nagle, is almost fanatical in her extreme care for her dogs, and is just as selective about the homes she allows her puppies to go into.

Once a dog owner has gained some experience at introducing a dog into their home, I’m all for adoption. There are dogs of all kinds who need homes. If you have a strong preference for the characteristics of a certain breed, you can look up the many breed rescues or you may even find that breed in a local shelter.

My older dog, Skylar, came to me last year at the age of five or six from the National Borzoi Rescue Foundation. I was told that they had originally found him in a New Jersey shelter with an unknown history, although another borzoi was also found at different shelter in the region around the same time.

But, then again, why not adopt a mutt? There’s something to be said for the sturdiness that a mutt’s mixture of genes often seems to produce. Some say that mutts tend to have fewer health issues than purebred dogs, and I’m inclined to believe that. Although their behavioral tendencies may be more of a mystery (since their heritage can only be guessed at), for a dog owner with some training chops as well as the right resources and lifestyle, that should be no problem.

Whether adopting a purebred dog or a mutt, there’s no question about the benefits to self and society that this choice can yield. Adopting a dog opens up a shelter space for one more dog in need, leading to one less dog having to be euthanized because of human carelessness. And adopting a dog touches the heart in a way that I just can’t find the words for.

As I see Skylar overcoming his fear of strangers (men in particular) day by day, growing ever more confident and ever more puppy-like, it’s almost as if now he’s enjoying the “childhood” he never got to have before. He’s so affectionate and charming that I simply can’t imagine why his former human “just never bonded” him (although that was exactly what the person who owned him for several years in between the shelter and me said when she returned him to the rescue.)

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Occasionally you come across a purebred dog from a responsible breeder that just doesn’t fit the profile typical of that breed. Sometimes you adopt a mutt from a shelter and wind up with the model canine citizen with almost no training effort at all. Still, my advice in general boils down to this: buy a dog from a responsible breeder if you’ve never owned a dog before. Then open your heart and home to a homeless dog, many times over.


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