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Why It's Buyer Beware When It Comes to Puppies

Don’t buy a puppy on impulse and look out for warning signs of a puppy mill.

Two recent news stories show that anyone getting a puppy needs to be careful to avoid puppy mills and scams. CBC reported that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is investigating the arrival of a Ukrainian Airlines flight with 500 French bulldog puppies, 38 of which were dead and many others seriously ill. Separately, CBC reports an alleged scam across Canada in which people handed over money for puppies they say they did not receive. (The Better Business Bureau received over 6,000 complaints about puppy scams in Canada in 2019.)

Chevanon Photography/Pexels
Source: Chevanon Photography/Pexels

Incidents like this occur because of the high demand for puppies. The laws around the sale of puppies need to be tightened up, but in the meantime there is something else the dog-loving public can do: be very, very careful where you get a puppy from.

Dr. Scott Weese (Worms and Germs Blog) writes of the Ukrainian Airlines incident that, "As long as people are willing to buy imported dogs, or dogs from large-volume commercial breeders (i.e., puppy mills) that buy in cheap breeding stock from overseas, the problem isn’t going to go away."

It’s easy to fall in love with a puppy from a cute photo, but taking great care to choose one is good for the puppy and good for you. Puppies should be raised in a home environment, and research shows this will make them a better pet (Majecka et al 2019). Puppies from pet stores (sourced originally from commercial breeders) are more likely to have behavior problems such as aggression (McMillan et al 2013; Pirrone et al 2016; Todd, 2020). And when puppies are bred in large-scale operations, the health checks necessary for good breeding are often not done.

If you’re going to get one, making sure you see the puppy with the mom and the rest of the litter can help you ensure that the puppy is not from a puppy mill.

How to spot a responsible breeder

A responsible breeder will ask questions to check that you are the right home, will have a contract, and will insist on taking the puppy back at any point if you are no longer able to care for them. They will show you their home where they are raising the puppies; it will be nice and clean, with plenty of space for the animals. They will tell you what health checks they have done prior to breeding and will have the paperwork to prove it. They will tell you about the inherited conditions the breed is susceptible to, and will give you paperwork for registration, vaccinations, and deworming. They won’t breed before 18 months of age, and after that will only breed every other heat cycle.

A responsible breeder will typically have a wait-list, so you may have to wait for your puppy, but they’ll send you regular updates and tell you all about their socialization plans. And they won’t let the puppy go home before 8 weeks of age.

Protecting puppies and yourself

As well as seeing the puppy with mom, there are some other things you can do. Do an internet search on the phone number, email, and website of the person selling the puppy to see if they are also selling other breeds or have been reported for animal cruelty or fraud. A responsible breeder will only breed one or two breeds, not half a dozen. Also do an image search in case the same image has been used in previous ads; this will help you avoid scams.

Some other warning signs to look out for:

  • The seller offers to meet you in a location such as a parking lot. (Sounds convenient, but why can’t you see the mom?)
  • The puppy is coming in from abroad. (Remember, you need to see the puppy with mom.)
  • They would like to show you the puppy with mom but unfortunately she is at the vet or has gone to the groomer. (Maybe this is a convenient excuse?)
  • They are happy to show you the mom but she is in another room or doesn’t look like she was recently pregnant. (Maybe she’s a fake? Yes this can happen—the BBC’s Panorama filmed it in the UK in 2016, prior to changes in UK law.)
  • They claim to be a rescue but an internet search shows they always have lots of puppies available. (Maybe they are really a commercial breeder?)
  • They ask for a deposit via a method that is not refundable, such as Bitcoin or Western Union. (Maybe this is a scam?)
  • They insist on email or text communication rather than phone. (Maybe this is a scam?)
  • The seller puts pressure on you or something just doesn't seem right. (Maybe things aren't what they seem?)

Be especially careful if the puppy is a ‘teacup’ or ‘designer’ cross-breed, or a popular breed (like French Bulldogs) for which there is a lot of demand. And because sellers may claim to be rescues, be sure to check that they are a legitimate rescue. Do an internet search and see if they are a registered non-profit and that they haven’t had any animal cruelty investigations against them. (Of course, a genuine shelter or rescue is a great source for pets.)

If you recognize some of these red flags from the last time you got a puppy, think about the warning signs and use this information to help you avoid a puppy mill in the future. And if you see signs of poor welfare, report the breeder to your local SPCA.

Dog lovers want their puppy to have had a good start in life but often inadvertently support puppy mills. Don’t get a puppy on impulse. Do your research, and take great care not to support puppy mills or to be scammed.

See also: The Best Things You Can Do for Your Puppy


Majecka, Katarzyna, Magdalena Pąsiek, Dariusz Pietraszewski, and Carl Smith. "Behavioural outcomes of housing for domestic dog puppies (Canis lupus familiaris)." Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2019): 104899.

McMillan, F., Serpell, J., Duffy, D., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242 (10), 1359-1363 DOI: 10.2460/javma.242.10.1359

Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Pastorino, G., & Albertini, M. (2016). Owner-reported aggressive behavior towards familiar people may be a more prominent occurrence in pet shop-traded dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 13-17 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.11.007

Todd, Z. (2020) Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, with a foreword by Dr. Marty Becker. Greystone Books.

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