Before you decide, ask yourself some questions. Can you resist buying the first cute puppy you see, on impulse? Are you prepared to make a commitment to a dog for the next 10-15 years, even if you have life changes such as moving, new babies, or kids going off to college? Full responsibility for a dog is not a job for children; it requires a responsible adult, at least supervising, and should be carefully considered. The commitment is not a small one; training a Labrador to be a pleasant companion requires considerable time and patience. Labs don't become well-behaved all by themselves! They require substantial attention and exercise throughout their lives; they are active and social animals and don't do well when stuck in the backyard and forgotten.
Labrador puppy chewing and digging can be destructive. Do you have an appropriate environment for a puppy and are you willing to live with puppy mistakes? Remember that Labradors are not fully mature until around three years of age, so that's a long puppy-hood. Are you willing to spend the money it takes to provide appropriate care, including quality food and supplies, annual vaccines, heartworm testing and preventative, and spaying or neutering? Are you willing to wait for the right puppy from the responsible breeder of your choice? Remember, finding the best puppy for you is well worth the wait.
Buy a well-bred dog from a responsible breeder. Responsible breeders take care to produce healthy, typical Labradors with good temperaments. Don't bargain-hunt and don't buy a puppy from a pet store; often those puppies come from poor breeding, may have been kept in poor conditions with inadequate socialization, and are sometimes more expensive than puppies purchased from a responsible breeder. Responsible breeders do all they can to avoid producing serious problems, including aggressive or shy temperaments, hereditary health defects such as hip or elbow dysplasia, or early blindness from hereditary eye diseases. Remember that "AKC papers" are not an indication of quality in the dog. They only mean that the dog's parents were AKC registered.
Is a puppy really the right dog for me?
If you don't have the time or facilities for socializing, housetraining, and obedience training a puppy, it's possible that an older dog would be a better choice. Mature Labradors usually adapt very well to new homes and can form very deep bonds. You can investigate Labrador rescue or find a responsible breeder who may have an older dog to place in a new home.
How do I know a breeder is responsible?
Look for a breeder who:
Is knowledgeable about the breed. Most responsible breeders continually test the results of their breeding programs by participating in conformation shows, obedience trials, field trials, or hunting tests.
Is knowledgeable about raising puppies. Even puppies with the best hereditary temperaments can exhibit behavioral problems if they are not socialized sufficiently or if they are removed from their dam and littermates before seven weeks of age. Socialization done by the breeder should include ensuring that each pup receives frequent human attention, is handled frequently, and is exposed to a wide variety of noises and experiences.
Takes steps to keep the puppies as healthy as possible. Before puppies go to their new homes, they should have been wormed or checked for worms, and should have received their first shots.
Takes steps to prevent occurrence of hereditary defects in the puppies. Both parents should have hip clearances from at least one of the following registries: OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals), PennHip, Wind-Morgan, or a foreign joint registry. Many breeders are checking parents for elbow defects as well as hips. Both parents should also both have current eye clearances, either from a veterinarian who is a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) or from a foreign eye registry. Be sure to ask about health clearances; responsible breeders will be happy to tell you about them and will honestly discuss problems that might occur in the parents' lines. Avoid breeders that tell you their dogs don't need health clearances because they've never had a problem, or those who tell you that their "vet said the dog was ok." Remember that clearances on the parents don't guarantee that the puppies will be free of problems, but your chances of buying a healthy puppy are greatly improved if the parents have been cleared.
Does not breed bitches every time they come in season. This is extremely hard on the bitch and may indicate that profit is the breeder's primary motive.
Chooses breedings carefully. Ask why the particular sire was chosen. The answer should be thoughtful and knowledgeable. Answers such as "because he lived close to me" or "because he's such a cute dog" generally don't indicate a breeding that is being done to produce puppies that are better than their parents (the goal of every responsible breeder). One indication of quality breeding is if the majority of dogs in the first few generations are titled (CH, OTCH, FC, CD, JH, WC and so on, before or after the dogs' names). If the titles only appear generations back or if there are only a few in the entire pedigree, they don't mean much.
Lets you meet the parents of the puppies. Bitches may be sent long-distance to stud dogs, but the breeder should be able to show you photographs of the sire and answer questions about him.
Evaluates puppy temperaments and helps you choose the puppy that is best suited to your lifestyle. A very active puppy won't do well in a sedate environment, and a quiet puppy may be overwhelmed in an active household with noisy children. Remember that most breedings are done so the breeder can choose a puppy to carry on his or her own lines, so you may have to wait until this choice is made when the pups are 6-7 weeks old. After that, the breeder can help you decide which pup would be most suitable for you. The breeder has spent extensive time with the litter and know the puppies best, so their advice is important.
Will be willing to take the dog back at any time if you cannot keep it. Responsible breeders do NOT want their puppies to end up in an animal shelter or in a less-than-ideal home.
Is this someone you feel comfortable with? You may not be an expert on Labradors, but you do know about people. Use your intuition. The breeder should be available for the life of the dog to answer questions, so this could be a long-term relationship. If you don't trust the person, don't buy a dog from them.
Will provide appropriate documentation with the puppy, including registration papers, pedigree, and a health record.
Is concerned about your future plans for the puppy, particularly whether you're thinking of breeding the dog. Many responsible breeders sell pet-quality animals with mandatory spay/neuter contracts and/or Limited Registration (meaning that offspring of the dog cannot be registered). This is a good indication that the breeder cares enough about the breed to ensure that only the very best representatives are bred. Some breeders may be willing to change the Limited Registration to a Full Registration if you present the dog to them after maturity, having had all its health clearances. Then, if the breeder thinks the dog is of good quality and temperament, they may change the registration and help you with the selection of a good stud dog. Only the dog's breeder can make this change.
How do I find a responsible breeder?
First, educate yourself. Read books on the breed. Attend dog shows, hunting tests, field trials, or obedience trials, and talk to the Labrador exhibitors. Be willing to spend some time on the phone, talking to breeders, and looking for referrals. Most responsible breeders will have a list of puppy buyers before they do a breeding, and usually don't have to advertise in the newspaper.
Please remember that the great majority of Labrador breeders are hobby breeders. They are not "in business," breeding is not their profession, and very few of them make money on their dogs. It's a labor of love for the breed. Please give them the courtesy you'd give to your own friends and neighbors.
You may not find a breeder that satisfies all these criteria, but these guidelines should be helpful in finding the best puppy for you and your situation. Good luck in your search and enjoy your new Labrador friend. Your time and effort will be well rewarded!
Suggested Reading List
The Art of Raising a Puppy by The Monks of New Skete. 1991. ISBN 0-316-57839-8
How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With by Rutherford and Neil. 1981. ISBN0-931866-09-X
The Versatile Labrador Retriever by Nancy Martin. 1994. ISBN 0-9944875-31-9
Written by Vicki Blodgett
Reprinted (with permission from the author) from The Labrador Connection
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