Bargain-hunting is a bad idea when it comes to buying a purebred puppy. Paying attention in any but the most cursory way to price is about the worst strategy I know of for determining the potential health and temperament of a dog.
"Cheap" puppies are no bargain, and some high-priced pups likewise come with no guarantee of health and good temperament. The best pet bargains of all can usually be found in a shelter, but for those who insist on a purebred puppy, finding a reputable breeder without regard to price is the best way to go.
Those who offer puppies at prices that seem too good to be true are most often casual breeders, the kind who usually don't concern themselves with such niceties as screening the parents for congenital defects, and who may not know enough about puppy development to ensure that the babies are well-socialized at critical stages.
Like many people, these casual breeders have the mistaken idea that registration from the American Kennel Club means a dog is of breedable quality. But even the AKC doesn't think so: In its own printed and online information, the organization cautions buyers that registration with the dominant breed registry in the United States is no guarantee of high quality.
When you're dealing with casual backyard breeders who don't know enough, or high-volume commercial breeders (also known as "puppy mills") who don't care enough, you put yourself at a higher risk of ending up with a dog whose physical and emotional problems could cost you a bundle -- and break your heart.
Casual breeders tend to be on the low end of the price scale, mostly because they haven't the overhead a reputable breeder does. The dogs they choose as parents generally come from other casual breeders, since reputable breeders usually sell pet-quality puppies with contracts that insist the animals be neutered. Casual breeders rarely spend the money a reputable breeder does to certify breeding stock that's free of such congenital defects as hip dysplasia, a crippling malady that can cost thousands to treat.
Casual breeders don't spend time and money training and showing the animals they hope to breed, and they don't compete with them in sports that prove the animal's intelligence, trainability and instincts. Finally, they rarely spend much money (if any) to acquire a mate for their female. It's usually a friend's or neighbor's dog, which is a far cry from the choice a reputable breeder might make, sending a dog to the best mate available, even if he's on the other side of the country, or even if it will cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars for artificial insemination.
And what about commercial breeders, who often get top dollar for their pups? Organizations such as the AKC and the Humane Society of the United States, as well as any number of reputable news organizations, have documented over the years that large-scale breeders too often don't concern themselves with a pup's health and temperament, either. In many of these operations, puppies are raised like livestock in outdoor enclosures with little human contact. (And too often under conditions that would make any animal lover shudder with horror.).
To be fair, I know of people who have ended up with purebred puppies from both casual and commercial breeders and have had nothing but delight from their pets. Others have ended up with problem pups from breeders who seem to do everything right. That's because animals are individuals. Just as with people, a pup from good circumstances raised with all the advantages sometimes turns out to be a problem, while a pup who has to struggle against the odds sometimes turns out splendidly.
In general, though, you're much better off being an informed consumer when it comes to choosing a purebred puppy. It's all about getting the odds in your favor, and if you have your heart set on a purebred puppy, you need to realize that the odds of ending up with a healthy, emotionally stable dog are much better when you buy from a reputable breeder.
Next week, I'll explain how to evaluate a breeder, along with offering some alternatives for finding purebreds who'll fit your budget -- and not break your bank account and heart later.
PETS ON THE WEB
Do you have any recourse when you buy a puppy who turns out to be sick? In some states, you do. Thanks to the increasing popularity of "puppy lemon laws," you can in some cases get money to cover veterinary expenses, or be given the option of exchanging or returning the puppy. Mary Randolph's book "Dog Law" (Nolo Press, $14.95) covers this topic expertly, and an excerpt from this wonderful book appears on the publisher's Web site (www.nolo.com/encyclopedia/articles/np/nn179.html). It's well worth a read.
Newspapers are perfectly safe for lining the cages of birds and small pets. While some pet lovers worry about the ink on the paper, veterinarians who deal with birds and other small pets report seeing no problems with animals who spend their lives in close proximity to old newspapers. Some do recommend sticking with black-and-white papers, however, and skipping those pages with color inks, or those printed in color on glossier paper.
If you want to be completely ink-free, check with your local newspaper. Many sell the ends of the big rolls of paper that go onto the presses. This blank newsprint is great for lining cages and also quite handy for children's art projects. And best of all: Newsprint roll ends can usually be had on the cheap!
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I live in Northern Ireland, and I have a friend in Michigan who just got an 8-week-old kitten. She is going to get it declawed, which is something I am strongly opposed to.
I feel it is barbaric and one of the most cruel things you can do to a cat. However, she will not listen to me, and is determined to go ahead and get it done.
How can I get her to stop? The more I think about it the madder I get. She is acting on the advice of a veterinarian, and she will not listen when I say all he is interested in is the money. What can I do? -- S.M., via e-mail
A: Debarking and declawing are procedures that are common in the United States but are widely condemned in many European countries.
You may take some solace in the fact that here in the states, many animal-welfare organizations are as appalled at these procedures as you are and work to educate pet lovers that such operations are unnecessary in most cases. Likewise, many veterinarians refuse to do them on ethical grounds.
But there are two sides to every issue. For some pets, solving a behavior problem surgically is all that stands between them and homelessness. As a pragmatist, I would rather see a pet declawed than euthanized, and in this opinion I am joined by many veterinarians. It's unfair to label as greedy those practitioners who do these surgeries.
I am, though, uncomfortable enough with declawing and debarking to consider the measures as last-ditch solutions to behavior problems, not as pre-emptive strikes. There's no reason to declaw an 8-week-old kitten, since a cat this young can be trained to use a scratching post.
Still, the decision is your friend's, and she has made it. There's not much else you can do.
Q: I am interested in positive reinforcement training using a clicker, but I have not been able to find a clicker to purchase. I went to a pet-supply store, some local toy stores and a couple of novelty stores. Any suggestions? -- J.M., via e-mail
A: DogWise has a complete selection of materials for positive-reinforcement training, including clickers, videos and books. You can access the company's offerings on the Internet at www.dogwise.com, or by calling 1-800-776-2665.
If you're looking for classes in clicker training, your best bet is to check the membership listings of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at www.apdt.com. Although not all members are clicker trainers, a good percentage of them are. Check out those in your area, and call each for details.
The APDT Web site also offers a list of recommended books and videos on positive-reinforcement dog training, as well as tips on finding a trainer who works with these methods.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600