I don’t want a show dog; I just want a pet.
This is one of the most pervasive sentiments that puppy buyers, especially families, express when they're looking for a dog. What they really mean, of course, is that they don't want a show dog BREEDER – don't want to pay the high price they think show breeders charge, don't want to go through the often-invasive interview process, and think that they're getting a better deal or a real bargain because they can get a Lab for $300 or a Golden for $500.
I want you to change your mind. I want you to not only realize the benefits of buying a show-bred dog, I want you to INSIST on a show-bred dog. And I want you to realize that the cheap dog is really the one that's the rip-off. And then I want you to go be obnoxious and, when your workmate says she's getting a puppy because her neighbor, who raises them, will give her one for free, or when your brother-in-law announces that they're buying a goldendoodle for the kids, I want you to remember this article.
If I ask you why you want a Golden, or a Lab, or any purebred dog, I would bet you're not going to talk about how much you like their color. You're going to tell me things about personality, ability (to perform a specific task), relationships with other animals or humans, size, coat, temperament, and so on. You'll describe playing ball, or how affectionate you've heard that they are, or how well they get along with kids.
The things you will be looking for aren't the things that describe just a "dog"; they'll be the things that make this particular breed unique and unlike other breeds.
That's where people have made the right initial decision – they've taken the time and made the effort to understand that there are differences between breeds and that they should get one that at least comes close to matching their picture of what they want a dog to be.
Their next step, tragically, is that they go out and find a dog of that breed for as little money and with as much ease as possible.
You need to realize that when you do this, you're going to the used car dealership, WATCHING them pry the "Audi" plate off a new car, observing them as they use Bondo to stick it on a '98 Corolla, and then writing them a check and feeling smug that you got an Audi for so little.
It is no bargain.
Those things that distinguish the breed you want from the generic world of "dog" are only there because somebody worked really hard to get them there. And as soon as that work ceases, the dog, no matter how purebred, begins to revert to the generic. That doesn't mean you won't get a good dog – the magic and the blessing of dogs is that they are so hard to mess up, in their good souls and minds, that even the most hideously bred one can still be a great dog – but it will not be a good Golden or Lab or Poodle. You will not get the specialized abilities, tendencies, or talents of the breed.
If you don't NEED those special abilities or the predictability of a particular breed, you should not be buying a dog at all. You should go rescue one. That way you're saving a life and not putting money in pockets where it does not belong.
If you want a purebred and you know that a rescue is not going to fit the bill, the absolute WORST thing you can do is assume that a name equals anything. They really are nothing more than name plates on cars. What matters is whether the engineering and design and service department back up the name plate, so you have some expectation that you're walking away with more than a label.
Keeping a group of dogs looking and acting like their breed is hard, HARD work. Trying to maintain a healthy breed is even harder. If you do not get the impression that the breeder you're considering is working that hard, is that dedicated to the breed, is struggling to produce dogs that are more than a breed name, you are getting no bargain; you are only getting ripped off.
How much does a puppy cost? Purchase price, adoption fees, discounts, expensive puppies, and cheap puppies.
This goes out to all the people who say “Sixteen hundred dollars for a DOG? You've GOT to be kidding me!” I am going to tell you how we as breeders try to come up with a dollar amount for a puppy and how rescues do the same.
I am definitely not making a statement about how much we do or don’t love our dogs, or how we would or wouldn’t see them as valuable members of our families. What I am going to write is not about love; it’s about how we try to balance many considerations as we price our puppies, and how to tell if you’re getting what you are paying for.
Before we start, I want to explore a little bit of the idea of what a dog is “worth.” It’s not something that’s easy to put a finger on. Much of what we buy, when we purchase or adopt a puppy, is companionship. Dogs don’t generally bring in any income (at least they shouldn’t), so there’s not a lot of production value. You could argue that because there are a lot of dogs out there that need homes, there’s very little scarcity and so the intrinsic value of the dog is very low. And all of that is true.
I would like to invite you to consider value on two levels: first, what has been directly spent ON the dog to the point at which you are buying it; and, second, the “intellectual property,” warranty, and customer support that you are buying as intangibles when you write your check.
Those aspects we can actually quantify, and they should give you a decent idea of when you’re getting your “money’s worth” in a puppy or adult dog and when you’re getting taken for a ride.
First, the money that goes into a litter.
These are figures that I put together to describe a “typical” Golden litter that I bred. Some of mine have been more expensive, a couple MUCH more expensive. I tried to make this an expression of an average experience.(Any buyer should INSIST that any puppy has been seen by the vet and cleared for heart murmurs, and has a first shot – it is actually illegal in most states for breeders to sell a puppy without this check, but many will try to get away without it because it’s so expensive.)
Health testing dam (Penn Hip and OFA, thyroid, echocardiogram): $700
Stud Fee -- $1200
Travel & hotel bill/travel for 4 days of breeding $500
Progesterone testing, LH testing, brucellosis, etc. (pre-breeding): $475
Whelping supplies and box: $400
C-section -- $1200
Extra food for the dam and of course the puppy feeding (easily $1000, considering we were feeding 7-8 lbs of meat a day at the end).
Puppy Health checks, worming, vaccinations: $400
Heart checks: $300
Eye checks: $180
AKC Registrations: $265
Leashes, collars, kongs, whistles, bumpers, gifts for puppy buyers: $300
Puppy testing fees $75
Pedigrees, puppy books, photos $300
So for that year alone I had big-chunk expenses of $7800 for that litter (I also had other dogs taking up money and not giving me any puppies).
I had five puppies in that litter for $1500 each.
Total intake, therefore, was -$14.00 for that litter. That’s pretty typical; I think I actually made money, about $2000, on one litter in six or seven years of breeding.
When breeders price puppies, we know roughly what to expect in terms of outgo. We know that there’s no way we can make that up in puppy sales unless we financially soak our puppy buyers. So most of us prepare to take a bath on the litter and just try to take into account the prevailing price across the US for our breed (for Goldens in our area, this is somewhere around $1300-1800 right now; with a rather wide bell curve around that point, depending on the area). We also, believe it or not, look at what pet stores are selling puppies for. This is NOT because we want to align ourselves with pet stores – heavens no – but because we know the way the human brain works. If someone sees a Golden puppy for $1800 in a pet store but the breeders are asking $1000, they will often conclude, ironically, that the pet store puppy is more valuable.
So that’s the first thing to pay attention to when you’re considering buying a puppy. What did the breeder invest in this litter that justifies asking a particular price?
Second, you look at what intangibles come with the puppy. To put it more colloquially, if you’re a manager or a professor or some kind of an expert in something, ask yourself what a complete newbie would have to pay you for permission to call you any time of the day or night and keep you on the phone for hours at a time – for the next twelve or fifteen years.
That’s what I, or any other good breeders, “sell” when we sell a puppy. We know that you probably don’t know too much about our breed. You’re going to have training questions, health questions, socialization questions. You’re going to want to know what to do when your dog barks too much, or throws up on the carpet, or doesn’t like Aunt Belle. You’re going to need someone at the end of the phone at three in the morning when your dog is sick and needs emergency surgery, and you’re going to need that person to stay on the line until five a.m. when your dog comes out of the OR, and you’re going to need someone to talk to the vet for you if you’re crying too hard to do it. I’ve done all these things, and consider it an absolute requirement for good breeders to do.
We also “sell” a warranty, usually in the form of a written contract. The warranty usually offers a replacement puppy (and does NOT require you to return your original puppy–watch out for these, because it’s a big cheat) if your dog suffers a substantial reduction in quality of life because of a genetic disorder, and it applies for a reasonable length of time (usually two to five years). For example, if your dog develops hip dysplasia and is crippled by it, I owe you a puppy. On the other hand, if your fifteen-year-old dog has a back problem, I don’t. It’s pretty much like any warranty on a fridge or camera or wristwatch – if it’s my fault, I stand behind my “manufacture.”
You should accept nothing less than this if you are considering buying a puppy from a breeder. If the breeder you’re considering does not invest in her litters (showing, health testing, good vet care, excellent food, shots, etc.), if she does not offer constant support, if she does not stand behind her puppies, you should walk away from the purchase.
A puppy that comes with those investments and intangibles will range from $700 or $800 for the least expensive breeds to $3500 or more for the most expensive. The less-expensive breeds are lower in price because they’re easier to breed (fewer required health tests, fewer c-sections, etc.) or because the market is just lower for those breeds. The more expensive breeds generally reflect higher breeding costs and, for some breeders, a desire to weed out bargain-hunters.
One VERY important thing to realize is that the reverse is also true. If someone is offering you a cheap puppy, one you know is far less expensive than the prevailing good-breeder price, you should take a step back and look at it very carefully.
One puppy is not just like the other. There’s no “brand” to rely on. One Havanese is not the same as every other Havanese. So a cheap one isn’t a good idea, because it usually means that the breeder cut corners somewhere, or is going to stop returning your phone calls as soon as your check is cashed. Be very, very cautious when you see a puppy that is appreciably cheaper than the others you’ve been considering.
How about rescue?
There’s a temptation to say “Well, the dog is homeless, it isn’t worth anything.” And people get seriously ticked when a rescue asks $350 for a homeless dog. I understand this impulse, but you need to look at the price you’re paying in just the same way as you do a well-bred dog.
The reason that rescues (these are the organizations that concentrate on one or two breeds, or that pull dogs from shelters to find homes for them) are so much more expensive than the typical shelter, which is in turn more expensive than the typical animal control or pound, is all about investment and support. It’s the same equation.
A pound or animal control has invested only electricity, mortgage, and food in the dogs it releases for adoption. It generally asks you to cover that cost plus (sad, but true) the cost of housing and euthanizing the dogs it does not adopt out. The dog comes with little or no health information, a vague guess on age, and you won’t be calling the animal control officer at three in the morning. So $50-$75 would be typical. But you should never count on this being a “cheap” dog: you’re on the hook for vet costs, spay/neuter, training, etc.
A shelter adds a spay or neuter and shots, and sometimes a behavioral evaluation. Any time you get a spayed or neutered dog you are coming out ahead money-wise; spays are CRAZY expensive. We just paid $275. Shots are generally about $60-75 at your vet’s office. So the shelter can be assumed to invest several hundred dollars per dog but (unless it’s a very rare type of shelter) you are not going to get a lot of behavioral support after adoption; adoption fees are typically $100-300.
Rescues are a HUGE step up in terms of investment and support. A rescue typically puts dogs in foster homes, often invests in behavioral consultation and training, intervenes to cure any health issue, gets the dog in top shape, spays or neuters, and then adopts the dog out. A single behavioral consult is $200 or so – I’ve paid them, so I know – training is another few hundred, spay/neuter, several hundred in vet costs per dog if it has any issue. And rescues are usually run by very knowledgeable individuals, often breeders or trainers themselves. A rescue offers behavioral assistance for the life of the dog and also guarantees the dog a home for life (if anything changes, they’ll take it back from you). The typical rescue fee – $350-$500 – is a bargain when you look at what you get for it.
So – and you know it’s going to come back to me – how much am I going to charge for my next litter? Well, I’ve not made a final decision, but it will be around $2000.
Considering what you will get from me for the life of your dog, I believe it is worth it.