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Is buying a dog from a breeder really that bad? The answer isn't as clear-cut as you think

If you have ever been, or have considered being, a dog owner, chances are you’ve heard that adopting from a shelter or rescue facility is way better than buying from a breeder. In actuality, though, it's not quite as clear-cut as "shelters are good" and "breeders are bad." There are a lot of factors that should go into the decision of where to get your pet, ranging from the age of the dog you want to the size of your budget. So before immediately writing off breeders, do your homework to find out exactly which option is right for you if you're thinking about bringing home a new furry friend.

What to know about breeders

First things first, breeders are not puppy mills. People often conflate breeders with these far more infamous (and often illegal) places, where dogs are bred and kept in horrific conditions with the bare minimum of necessary care. Good breeders, however, are usually certified by the American Kennel Club and take special care to breed their dogs for good health and temperament. The dogs and their pups are kept in a household environment, have plenty of outdoor space, and are well-groomed by their owners.

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If you want a purebred dog because you're obsessed with a certain breed or have allergies, breeders are the way to go, as they generally focus on raising one type of dog. Breeders are also your best shot if you want a puppy, as while you can adopt puppies in shelters, they're less common, and unlike breeders, the shelters might not know their exact ages.

This goes for health history too; because shelter pups from come all types of places, a dog may have behavioral or health issues of which you can't trace the origin. While for some people, the effort involved in managing a pet's care might not be a problem, brand-new dog owners might want to look to a breeder who will allow them to interact with the puppy’s parents, give info on their health, and show what kind of food they eat and their behavior around other dogs. Of course, buying from a breeder doesn't guarantee a puppy won’t have any issues whatsoever when you bring him home, but it may give you some peace of mind and answer any initial questions you have.

If you think a breeder sounds like the right choice for you, the American Kennel Club has resources on responsible breeders that'll give you all the info you need in deciding from who to buy.

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What to know about adopting

While there are many legitimate reasons to buy from breeders, there are millions of dogs already out there in need of good homes. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Due to overcrowding, health issues, or even simply their age, nearly 1.5 million of those dogs are euthanized each year.

Given those statistics, there is a powerful argument for adopting from shelters and rescue facilities. Adoption is also a great choice if you don’t have your heart set on one type of dog or have a soft spot for mutts, although there are certain rescue facilities that cater to specific breeds. That said, you should still do your research beforehand, because different breeds have certain traits or common illnesses important to be aware of. Thankfully, most shelters now list their available dogs on websites or Instagrams, so you can scroll endlessly through the options to learn the breeds and backgrounds of each pup available.

That tool can also let you view dogs in all different age ranges. Puppies are adorable, but their first year involves a significant training and housebreaking commitment. If you don’t have the time or energy to start from scratch, shelters are full of dogs that are still young (1-3 years) but have already learned how to sit and do their business outside. Adopting a “senior” dog (5 years and above) is also a good call if you want an equally rewarding but more low-key parenting experience.

Adopting can save you a ton of money, too, as when you buy from a breeder, you're paying an additional premium for that person’s time and expertise. You can typically expect to pay between $500 to $1500 when buying a dog, depending on the breed. Shelters, meanwhile, have adoption fees, but they're usually just a few hundred dollars (they vary from state to state) and cover the cost of the dog’s medical care and vaccinations. This can be a real help, considering that dogs are expensive, especially puppies. Vaccinations and spaying or neutering procedures all have to be done by the time a puppy is between 6-12 months old, and they don’t come cheaply.

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Like with breeders, not all shelters are alike, and so before going to one to get your dog, check out some reviews. You can look for a shelter that is a “no-kill” facility (meaning they do not euthanize healthy animals) or that adheres to the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, rules laid out by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians to ensure shelter animals receive proper care. And when you visit the shelter, pay attention to the cleanliness, how well the staff interact with the animals, and if the dogs seem healthy and well taken care of.

Where not to adopt from

Both shelters and breeders should care deeply about the animals they keep, and make sure they go to good homes. Wherever you go, be sure to ask the staff plenty of questions; if they are unwilling to answer you, that may be a red flag. Similarly, staff members should ask you questions about your ability to be a responsible dog owner, and not be willing to give a pet away to just anyone who walks in the door. Expect to be interviewed about your home environment, ability to raise the puppy, etc., and you might even have to sign paperwork promising to get your pet vaccinated and spayed or neutered within your first year of ownership.

If a breeder is unwilling to let you meet them and their dogs at their home or care facility, that is a giant red flag, and it might mean they're working for a puppy mill and are not actually a reputable breeder. If you come across a suspicious or abusive breeder or shelter, try your best to document the situation and contact your local law enforcement or animal control.

One last thing — while not all pet stores get their dogs from puppy mills, many do; the ASPCA reports that "most pet store puppies are sourced from commercial dog breeding operations (aka puppy mills), where making a profit takes precedence over how the animals are treated." Stay away from stores, and focus on reputable breeders and shelters only.

Becoming a dog owner is a major decision, and it can be immensely rewarding. Before taking the leap, though, it’s crucial to educate yourself on all the options out there, so you can make the choices that work best both for you and your future pet.