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by Maren Bell Jones DVM, MA
Purchasing your first working or performance dog is an exciting time. Many get what is called “puppy fever” as they comb through classified ads and breeder websites trying to select a puppy for their chosen venue. The problem with puppy fever is it can keep you from making an objective, rational decision when it comes to buying your working dog. While this is not the end of the world with a pet dog, failing to do proper research and asking the right questions before you bring home your new superstar may be worse than simply having to wash your dog out of a working program or not being able to compete in your sport due to lack of drive or temperament. It can be costly and heartbreaking when you cannot work or even live with the dog due to a preventable health problem. This guide is written from a working dog health perspective and is designed to guide both new and seasoned working and performance dog owners and handlers into the highest probability of success.
Most people who get started in working dogs have owned pet dogs previously either obtained from a shelter or rescue or a breeder. So while they may not be new to dogs, putting down $1000 or more on a bundle of fur and energy is a major commitment of both time and money that a casual pet owner will never even think about.
My first recommendation is to look at what the breeder has produced in the past. This can be a bit tricky, as many websites are very slick. What they don’t say will likely tell you more about their breeding philosophy and ethics than what they do say. Take note of who is still competing in your venue of choice with their dogs at a fairly high level at 7-10+ years of age. Many working dogs, even some that develop crippling degenerative joint disease, will look pretty good at 2 or 3, especially if you don’t have a trained eye for looking at lameness. How they look 8-10 years later can be telling for their working lifespan.
Next look at their current breeding stock. How old are they breeding their dogs? Remember that dogs that are less than 24 months cannot be fully certified for OFA and many of our larger working breeds (German shepherds, Labradors, Rottweilers, molossers, some Malinois and Dutch shepherd lines) are often not fully mentally or physically mature until they are at least 24 months old. I have yet to meet a dog that seemed so valuable at 18 months old that they could not have waited until they were old enough to fully certify for their hips at 24 months.
In addition, when you purchase a litter off a dog bred for the first time, it can be a bit uncertain what they will produce in terms of health and performance. It can often be worth the gamble, but sometimes it is better to wait on the second or third litter to see how the earlier pups turned out.
Next is the question of what health testing should be done for your breed of choice. If you ask the breeder what health testing they have done and they respond “they have had their shots and my vet said they were healthy,” steer clear! If they say they don’t do health testing because it costs too much or they want to keep the price low, keep in mind doing the bare minimum of hips and elbows on both sire and dam are going to cost about $500-600 total in many parts of the country. In other words, that is the price of half the average puppy or about an extra $75 per pup in an average litter of 8 puppies. This person is either ignorant or they are too cheap to do the proper health testing to preserve the health of your working breed. They should not be breeding in the first place and suffice it to say that they are not who you want producing your next pup. More than likely, they will not be there for any kind of support should something go wrong. If they say, “I’ve never had a problem,” that is because they have not looked. Remember that 50% of dogs with hip dysplasia on radiographs (x-rays) show NO clinical signs, yet they still can be bred and pass on those genetics to your pup! There is truly nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a dog with great temperament and drive to work but are physically unable to do so due to very preventable heritable disorders!
What health testing should be done? That depends on the breed. In general, I recommend hips and elbows as a bare minimum and others depending on the individual breed. For instance, Rottweilers and Dobermanns have heart disease common in the breed, so a screening by a board certified veterinary cardiologist is recommended. For an idea, check out the OFA CHIC website and search by your breed.
The national breed club gets together and decides based on the current evidence what is a good idea to test in the breed. If your breed is not listed (i.e.-the Dutch shepherd), check with similar breeds (the Belgian Malinois) to get an idea of what to test for. In addition, some conscientious breeders also refund a portion of the purchase price if you get the pup tested at the appropriate age. Some breeders will say that their dogs are x-rayed, but there are no certifications because their vet supposedly said "it looked okay." As a non-board certified veterinary radiologist, I will trust the opinion of three board certified radiologists who read for OFA on a daily basis over my own as a general practitioner. If the dog was not imported (there are other radiograph certification registries in Europe and elsewhere) and there were radiographs taken but there is no certification from either OFA or PennHIP, that is a possible red flag in my mind. The current price to send both elbows and hips in together for certification is only $40, so money should not be an excuse. If they won't release the radiographs for you or your own veterinarian to look at, this is a big red flag.
Another thing to consider is the health guarantee. Keep in mind that a health guarantee does NOT in any way shape or form guarantee that your dog is not going to get a heritable disease common to your breed. This bears repeating over and over. There is no guarantee of this as dogs are living creatures and not machines. What health guarantees mean is you will generally get either 1) your dog replaced with another puppy or 2) your money replaced. The first option is much more common and may be a viable option if it seems like the issue was a fluke. But beware of going back to either of those same parents again as they very well could produce the same problem! That being said, I have seen puppy buyers drag an otherwise reputable breeder’s name through the mud when it was not clearly their fault. For example, a puppy buyer lets a young rapidly growing puppy get overweight to obese due to over feeding, especially as a pup, and then blames the breeder for bad hips even though the parents of the pup tested good or excellent.
Lastly, what should you look for if you are buying an older dog instead of a younger puppy? The folks in the equine performance world do what are called pre-purchase exams by a veterinarian of their choosing. They include a full physical exam, radiographs of the feet or other areas of concern, and a breeding soundness exam if desired. This is an excellent approach for dogs as well. If you are purchasing a young dog that is at least 12 months old, I recommend getting OFA preliminary readings on the hips and elbows (termed “prelims”) from 12-24 months with full OFA and/or PennHIP certification afterwards, a full physical, heartworm test, fecal exam, and a breeding soundness exam (if purchased for that purpose) to check semen quality in the male. A few hundred dollars spent now will be worth it to have the peace of mind that your dog can physically perform and be a future breeder if desired. If the seller balks at this, move on.
Remember, you are going to be spending a significant amount of money and time working this puppy in their venue. In some cases, people's lives and livelihood depend on your dog's ability to do their job, so never apologize for having high standards! There are always other dogs out there and you want to get the best return on your investment.