News & Politics

Puppy Love

Where should you go to find a good dog? Here’s what you need to know about breeders and shelters.

Elika Eftekhari bought Sayeh, her Doberman puppy, for $900 from a breeder in Missouri. Photograph by Scott Suchman

Elika Eftekhari always wanted a dog when she was growing up, so once she settled into her own place in DC’s Adams Morgan, she hit the books to find her ideal breed. The 26-year-old lawyer was looking for a dog that was intimidating from a distance but loving and loyal at home. She decided on a Doberman because that breed is highly trainable and tends to be less aggressive.

Eftekhari planned to rescue an unwanted dog and thought it would be better to get an older one she wouldn’t have to housebreak. She looked at area shelters, but the few Dobies she found had been uprooted too many times. One had been left to starve, another beaten.

“Since it was my first dog, I wanted one with a clean slate,” Eftekhari says.

Perhaps a puppy wouldn’t be so bad, she decided: “I thought about missing out on all the puppy memories, and I couldn’t bear that.”

Turning to breeders brought other worries. “You have to do a ton of research, look at the chat rooms. People would say, ‘Don’t believe what you read—this is nothing but a puppy mill.’ ”

Eftekhari checked the breeder referrals at the American Kennel Club, which inspects kennels, and found one in Missouri. She knew getting a puppy sight unseen might be risky, but she trusted the breeder, who sent her pictures of the litter and told her about a female that was smart and outgoing.

Eftekhari had the pup shipped to Reagan National Airport, brought her home, and named her Sayeh. The name means “shadow” in Persian, Eftekhari says, reflecting both her own heritage and the puppy’s penchant for “following me everywhere.”

Though many people want to rescue abandoned animals, most still get them from breeders.

Few pet shops sell puppies these days. “There’s something about going in and looking at cage after cage of sad animals,” says Tamela Terry, president of the SPCA/Humane Society of Prince George’s County. “People say, ‘I can’t take them all,’ so they go somewhere else.”

Some prospective pet owners are concerned that shelters won’t know enough about a dog’s past, often because the animals are picked up off the street. Terry says a good shelter can learn a lot in a short time: Many shelters give dogs a report card, grading them on behavior, temperament, and sociability. One German shepherd got this report: “Will drop down at a moment’s notice, especially if it seems someone will give him a tummy rub.”

A shelter can also determine whether dogs are “cat safe” by introducing them to feline shelter mates. “Someone getting their first dog will get much more support from a good shelter than from a breeder, who may not have much staff or is too far away,” says Gary Weitzman, CEO of the Washington Animal Rescue League.

WARL has a Meet Your Match program, which allows prospective adopters to spend time with the dog they want in order to make sure it’s a good fit.

The decision to get a dog from a breeder or a shelter will often depend on cost and availability of the breed. If you’re set on a rare breed, such as the Obamas’ Portuguese water dog, you may have to go to a breeder.

Points for Purebreds

Lisa Peterson of the American Kennel Club says the best breeders can give you a good sense of what you’ll be getting because they have a history with their breeding lines. Prospective owners can select for temperament, coat texture, and grooming and exercise requirements. “Do I want to hike five miles a day, or do I prefer to watch TV with the dog on my lap—or both?” says Peterson.

If you can’t get to the kennel, ask lots of questions. Problems can skip a generation, so inquire about a dog’s grandparents as well as the parents.

You should get a contract with terms for payment and possible health guarantees, and ask for references from owners of previous litters. Some kennels require new owners to spay or neuter their pets to maintain control over the quality of the breed or reduce the number of unwanted animals. Many breeders—and shelters—require owners to return the dog to them if they ever give it up.

You’ll want to know how big a dog will get. One customer brought home what was advertised as a miniature Australian shepherd, only to have the dog grow to 60 pounds.

A good breeder will ask questions, too. “They want the best home for the puppy,” says Peterson.

Reputable breeders should be happy to let you see a puppy’s parents—at least the mother—and registration papers, says Peterson. State laws differ, but generally puppies should never be sold at younger than eight weeks of age; toy breeds often need to be older. Peterson says the Internet can be great for researching breeders. But beware that some online sellers may be puppy mills. “If you purchase a puppy with AKC papers,” she says, “you know the facilities have been inspected.”

The cost of a purebred can run from about $500 to $2,000. According to the AKC, the five most popular breeds in Washington are Labrador retrievers, Yorkshire terriers, German shepherds, golden retrievers, and beagles.

“Designer dogs,” the offspring of two deliberately crossed purebreds, are increasingly popular because their breeding aims to mix the best traits of two kinds of dogs. Labradoodles, a mix of Labrador and standard poodle, can have the easygoing nature of a Lab and the intelligence of a poodle. With puggles, a pug/beagle mix, breeders may eliminate the pug’s breathing problems and the beagle’s wanderlust.

Selected characteristics are not guaranteed, particularly with first generations, which many are. They’re at least as pricey as standard purebreds. You could pay $900 to $2,000 for a Labradoodle, $650 to $2,500 for a puggle.

Or, says Weitzman, you could pick one up from a shelter with a lot less sticker shock: “Those designer dogs are actually no different from mutts.”

Reasons to Rescue

With home foreclosures forcing some people to give up their pets, shelters are overcrowded. The Montgomery County Humane Society receives about 25 animals a day; the DC Humane Society handles more than 30,000 a year.

The adoption fee at the Washington Animal Rescue League, where classical music plays in the dog dens and cat condos, can cost up to $195. That fee covers spay/neuter costs, which can run as high as $1,000 for large dogs, as well as vaccinations, teeth cleaning, nail trimming, obedience classes, and microchipping, in which a tiny chip containing the owner’s information is inserted under the dog’s skin. WARL is a “no kill” shelter, which increases its operation costs.

Weitzman, a veterinarian, says about 25 percent of the dogs that WARL gets are purebreds, but they aren’t necessarily superior to mutts. Labradors are prone to hip dysplasia, German shepherds can have neurological problems, golden retrievers and cocker spaniels tend to have skin disorders and ear infections, and short-nosed breeds may develop breathing problems.

“A mix of a lot of genotypes can be healthier,” Weitzman says.

As shelters run out of room, rescue groups, which place dogs in foster homes, are becoming more popular. Many are breed-specific. Rebecca Coleman, a novelist who lives in Bowie, wanted a beagle from a rescue group and lucked out when she got two.

“These dogs are equal to what you get from a breeder,” says Coleman, who found the Prince George’s SPCA through, which lists dogs available in shelters throughout the country.

The Prince George’s SPCA, which charges $180 for a dog, places animals from shelters with high kill rates in foster homes. “You’re not adopting an animal out of a cage,” says president Tamela Terry. “You’re adopting one out of a home.”

Because many shelter dogs tend to be at least a year old, some are housebroken and aren’t the avid chewers puppies can be.

“We got exactly the right dogs for us,” says Coleman, “and it’s the ideal way because you’re saving a dog.”

Shelters and rescues won’t send dogs home with just anyone. Some require personal references and a home visit. “We don’t want the animal back after six months with behavior problems,” says Terry.

The adoption process can take anywhere from a few days to a week or two. Shelters check out where dogs will eat, sleep, and play, along with outdoor spaces. They look for hazards, such as potted plants that may poison pets, and give adopters advice on protecting furniture and using baby gates.

“It was a lot less intimidating than I thought it would be,” says Coleman. “I realized they’re not just wanting to come through and nitpick your life.”

The Washington Animal Rescue League stopped doing routine home checks a few years ago because Weitzman worried that the practice discouraged people from adopting. But Terry says that what’s gleaned in a home visit can tip the balance when it comes to competition over a popular pet.

“There have been times when five or six families will want a pet and I’ve liked them all equally,” she says. “Then I just have to go with my gut feeling.”

Sayeh, the Doberman puppy, is now seven months old. She steals socks and goes around the house looking guilty. “I call her ma petite voleuse, which means ‘my little thief’ in French,” Eftekhari says.

The dog is playful and outgoing, as the breeder said she would be. “She’s smart enough to have figured out how to bend the rules without breaking them,” says Eftekhari. “She knows not to touch my shoes, but guests’ shoes are fair game.”