What are Puppy Mills and Backyard Breeders?

Often you will see Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy ads in the newspaper or on mass breed websites. Sometimes these ads are placed by reputable breeders. However, often these ads are placed by "backyard breeders." These are people who have acquired a male and one or more females and crank out litters of puppies for the sole purpose of profit. Or they could have decided to bring a litter of puppies into the world because they love their companion and erroneously believe it's ok to breed "so the kids can witness the miracle of birth" but with complete disregard for the consequences of poor breeding. Puppy mills are more commonly understood, these are places that have large numbers of dogs kept in often horrible conditions only for the purpose of producing a product. You've seen news segments on TV about these places, and this is where most of the puppies in pet stores come from because responsible breeders who adhere to codes of ethics do not place puppies through puppy stores.  

With all of these kinds of people sellling puppies out there, It's challenging for new puppy buyers to navigate through an often confusing search for a healthy, well-bred puppy! In addition, acquiring a puppy is an emotional process and it's really easy to get carried away in the excitement of the decision. Because anyone can set up a website, caution is advised as you start your search.  Do not be sold by a slick website because “puppy mills” and “backyard breeders” are as capable of glitsy marketing as anyone else. You can take control of the process by doing your research and asking questions! You can spot one of these backyard breeders or puppy mills in several ways, and if you see a red flag or something makes you uncomfortable you should trust your instincts:

  • If the seller has trouble remembering details of the pedigree of the puppies for sale or is reluctant to share the pedigree, beware. Breeders who are breeding with the goal of improving the breed will be very familiar with the pedigree of their puppies, and will be able to tell you the AKC names of sire and dam, grandparents, and usually even great-grandparents. Be cautious if you are told that the pedigree is “not important” because people who are just in the business of selling puppies for a profit will often "not remember" these important facts while trying to sell you on their dog's "superior" lines. 
  • Also beware of the slick marketers who advertise their "top ranked" show dogs but fail to disclose that these rankings are from non-AKC events. The pedigrees of the breeding stock should have AKC Champions in multiple generations, denoted by a "Ch." in front of the dogs' registered name. Be cautious of people who claim "ribbons are not important" and do not participate in AKC conformation events with their breeding stock. Those ribbons indiciate that multiple judges felt the dog was a good representation of the breed, able to fulfill the intended purpose of a Ridgeback. Additionally, a solid temperament is critical to earning an AKC conformation title and earning a ribbon demonstrates that dog allowed a stranger to put their hands on the dog and examine them, in a loud stressful environment. 
  • If the seller does not know what a dermoid sinus is, beware. This is a common genetic problem in the breed and is present at birth. Knowledge is required to detect it and while a dermoid sinus can be removed surgically, the operation is rather major and costly. It is a genetic condition that may occur in the most well-bred litter so do not fall for the trap that “it’s not an issue”. 
  • If the seller tells you that "hip dysplasia is not a problem in Ridgebacks" so therefore OFA certifications aren't required, beware. Reputable breeders have made great strides in minimizing hip dysplasia in the breed, but it can still occur. The probability of a puppy having hip dysplasia is much reduced if both parents and all four grandparents have been x-rayed and certified clear of the condition by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. If the seller tells you that OFA is “a waste of time and money” (or worse, doesn't know what the OFA is) you should be concerned and you are probably dealing with an irrespondible breeder. Reputable breeders also screen for elbow dysplasia, as well as other genetic issues including Thyroid, Cardiac, and Degenerative Myelopathy (DM). They are knowledgeable enough to discuss the health issues and trends in the breed.
  • If the seller will not provide a written health guarantee, beware. There are enough reputable breeders that you can certainly find a guaranteed puppy, so there is no need to take one with no strings attached and then find in a year that you have a $600 vet bill to remove a dermoid, or even worse a $3000 hip replacement surgery on a young dog. 
  • If the seller does not ask YOU questions about your lifestyle, living arrangements, and plans for your new puppy, beware. A responsible breeder is looking to make the best match between puppy buyer and puppy, and a Ridgeback is not a breed for everyone. A few questions up front can save a lot of heartache later on. 
  • It is a myth that if a puppy "doesn't have a ridge yet, it will come in later”. It is possible that a Ridgeback puppy may be born without a ridge but it is either there at birth or not, and is readily visible. A puppy that does not have a ridge will never have one. Ridgelessness occurs due to a genetic fault and reputable breeders will place ridgeless puppies in companion homes at a discounted price.
  • If the seller tells you that they "don't make a distinction between show-quality and pet-quality puppies," in their breeding program, beware. Reputable breeders seek independent confirmation from an objective source that their future breeding stock is considered an excellent representative of the breed, as measured against the breed standard. While there may be perfectly legitimate reasons a dog has not achieved an AKC CH title, this is an opportunity to ask the breeder about the reason. Back yard breeders often tell potential customers that "show dogs" are inbred and have genetic problems that will result in poor health, or they will try to tell the buyer that dog shows aren't necessary to prove their dogs are "quality". This is a damaging myth because the truth is exactly the opposite. When you buy a dog whose sire and dam, along with their extended family members, are AKC champions (as evidenced by "Ch" before the name on their names on the registration application), you know that at least three different judges (and usually more) have measured these animals against the breed standard and awarded championship credit.
  • Similar to the point above, if the seller tells you "we don't breed show dogs" you should be concerned. In any given litter, many of the puppies will have faults that would make it difficult or impossible to achieve their AKC Ch. title. These are what we consider "companion" or "pet" puppies. However, responsible breeders are dedicated to maintaining and improving the breed and for the reasons noted above it's important to participate in the evaluation process and to strive to produce AKC Champions.  
At the end of the day, puppy buyers should be comfortable that the person they're dealing with is knowledgeable about the history and function of the breed, they understand the health issues and trends in the breed, and are committed to improving the breed. Use the guidelines above to "gut check" yourself and if during the process of purchasing your puppy you feel doubt that the breeder is passionate and cares about the breed, you should walk away and find a breeder that will care as much about your puppy as you will. Adding a Ridgeback to your family is a big decision that will affect your life for at least a decade. You deserve a healthy, well-bred, socialized puppy and do not settle for anything less!