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I am preparing to adopt a puppy. I have done a lot of research, and keep hearing about puppy mills and such. I am considering a Goldador (mixed-breed), and the breeders are relatively few and far between. So I cannot simply drive to them to check them out. This means I can only judge them by their online presence.

The breeder that I am currently leaning towards has a few things that make me wonder:

  • They do not let you pick your own puppy. Instead, they will ask you questions, and try to choose a puppy that matches well.
  • They are significantly more expensive than other breeders.
  • Their website has no pictures of the dogs' living quarters.
  • There are no online reviews of them, except for their own website.

Are any of these red flags?

They also have some things that make me trust them:

  • They list the health details of each parent on their website.
  • They require an application to adopt.
  • They offer puppy training (at an additional cost).

What are some red flags I should keep an eye out for? What questions should I ask the breeder?

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    Consider adopting from a shelter instead. There are plenty of cute pups at shelters who need love. They are generally cheaper, too. The more breeders breed, the more dogs end up in shelters. – joadha Dec 20 '20 at 20:00
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    Animal shelters do certainly seem like the only truly ethical way of finding an animal companion and saving an innocent soul from misery and suffering. Rescue dogs tend to be incredibly devoted and loving, too. – undercat applauds Monica Dec 21 '20 at 22:19
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    "They do not let you pick your own puppy." Sorry, this is a red flag. The most important thing for any pet is the bond/connection you feel with them. That goes out the window if the breeder picks the dog for you. – TylerH Dec 22 '20 at 14:39
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    We should avoid judging others for buying puppies. It is true that adopting is a very good thing to do. And that buying from a puppy-mill isn't good. But there's a lot of space between those two extremes (i.e. from a legit breeder), and there are valid reasons to buy a puppy from a legit breeder. For example, wanting a specific breed not available in your area in shelters/rescues. For example in my region, you have your pick of large breeds (pit bulls, german shepherds, hounds, etc.) along with senior (7+) chihuahuas. But if you want a Bichon, good luck... So we should refrain from judging. – bob Dec 22 '20 at 20:21
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    Encouraging people to also look at shelters/rescues is good, but it shouldn't extend into a guilt-trip. In fact it can even be a net negative if someone gets guilted into adopting the wrong dog for their life situation (e.g. adopting a senior dog you can't care for--seniors can be a lot of work, or adopting a dog with the wrong temperament for your small children). What's best is what's best for both dog and human. – bob Dec 22 '20 at 20:28
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Any kind of "designer dog" cross with a high price tag is a huge red flag by itself. There are pretty much two types of "designer dog" crosses, the ones that breed two wildly different types of dogs together and the ones that breed two extremely similar types of dogs together.

The type that breeds two very different type of dog together may result in something useful (hypoallergenic labrador) but:

  1. The breeder needs to have a really good understanding of how traits are passed along, not just textbook biology but having seen a lot of puppies of both breeds and how their bloodlines contributed.
  2. There are going to be a lot of extra dogs produced that don't have the traits that the breeder is looking for--some will even have most of the traits the breeder was trying to get rid of--so there needs to be a really strong justification to end up with so many extra puppies (especially when there are already tons of dogs without homes).
  3. You need some way of knowing which traits you're getting, which often isn't apparent until the dog is grown, so if you're getting a puppy you have to know that you may end up with the opposite of what you wanted.

The type that breeds two very similar dogs together (this is your goldador) is just silly. In your case, golden retrievers and labrador retrievers are so similar that I would be seriously asking what the breeder was trying to get from the cross that they couldn't already find in purebred goldens or labs. Actually I looked at some breeder websites and...well, it was pretty easy since they mostly seemed to have all copied the exact same text.

  • "Less prone to hip dysplasia" or other genetic problems. Not really, labs and goldens are both prone to the same genetic problems, so you don't automatically get that. You can reduce chances of it by breeding two dogs who have long family histories of being problem free...but you can do that with two purebred goldens or two purebred labs.
  • "Sensitivity of a golden retriever". The personalities of goldens and labs varies more within each breed than it does between the breeds, you could easily find two sensitive-type purebred labs.
  • "High physical tolerance of a labrador". Goldens are already high energy working dogs...just the same as labs.

Finally, they all seemed to be selling first generation golden x lab crosses, which means if they did come up with some wonderful trait it wouldn't be going back into the gene pool.

In summary, all dogs are good boys/girls but these particular dogs don't seem to have any justification for a higher price tag than getting a purebred lab or golden or even going to the shelter and getting a dog there.

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    Re: hypoallergenic - I cannot emphasize this enough. Poodles are hypoallegenic by virtue of their non-shedding coat. X-oodles may have any coat anywhere between Poodle and the other breed, and can be the worst of both worlds. Successfully breeding X-oodles is hard. Goldador is a really strange mix. If this is a one-off (the breeder doesn't have multiple lines of Goldadors being bred), or they don't have a pedigree, then that's a huge red flag, and sounds like an oops litter. – DeusXMachina Dec 21 '20 at 21:57
  • Having shopped for an X-oodle due to allergies in the family and spent lots of time with retrievers growing up, I think this answer is spot on. This cross doesn't seem to offer much, so the price tag does seem like a Red Flag to me. – psubsee2003 Dec 22 '20 at 12:57
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I don’t see any red flags - in fact, some of the points in your first list are what I would consider pros not cons. Let’s go through them:

  • They do not let you pick your own puppy. Instead, they will ask you questions, and try to choose a puppy that matches well.

Puppies, like people, have different personalities, temperaments and traits, yes, even from the same litter. A good breeder will be able to recognize them very early and will strive to match applicants and dogs. It simply doesn’t make sense to place the most sensitive and timid puppy with the family with four rambunctious kids and a loud and hectic lifestyle or a dominant dog with the elderly lady who just wanted a peaceful companion just because someone fell in love with the specific pup. At worst, this may even mean that even someone high on the priority list of applicants ends up empty handed and the puppy goes to someone further down if it appears a significantly better fit.
When we applied for our puppy (GSD, working line, some Schutzdienst champions in the ancestry, so not entirely uncomplicated), the breeder asked me after the first visit whether we had a favorite and we had two “not this one” candidates - the two with the most drive and dominance. She confirmed that she would never have given them to us either. When we finally picked one, it was the one that she’d had in mind for us right from the start.
Conclusion: Not a red flag, rather a plus.

  • They are significantly more expensive than other breeders.

Supply and demand? And if they have just a litter every few months or years, that’s not much money for them. Good vet care and good dog keeping are expensive and time consuming. Higher prices also keep the “bargain hunters” away. If the first question of a buyer is “how much?”, many reputable breeders will see that as a red flag and decline immediately.
Conclusion: Not a red flag.

  • Their website has no pictures of the dogs' living quarters.

That may be personal preference - for example if you are keeping your dogs in your living room, you may not be comfortable to post your private space for everyone to see. Or it’s just not “photogenic” - and dogs couldn’t care less about it. On the other hand, pretty pictures don’t necessarily mean much either, as Instagram etc. have taught us. I always would insist on meeting with the breeder and the dogs at their place. Then you will see and sense for yourself whether it’s a good fit or not (see also first bullet point). Don’t be afraid to say “no thanks”, if your gut feeling is bad, no matter how far you have traveled or how excited you are to get a puppy.

  • There are no online reviews of them, except for their own website.

This is a puppy, not a coffee machine. We are talking about a very limited number of dogs, so the number of people that could have posted reviews (where, btw.?) is also limited. They are probably more busy with training, walking and loving their dogs than writing reviews. In my opinion, it’s the other way around: Lots of reviews would make me wonder how many puppies they have produced and why they need the advertising. Good kennels are known by word of mouth (we had a few inquiries about our puppy’s line and origin already) and if they breed for a specific use, by the achievements of their dogs. Memberships in reputable organizations is also a plus, certifying that the kennel for example mates only health dogs and monitors the health of their offspring.

The biggest red flag for me is any kind of sales focus - when a breeder is more interested in selling a puppy than in their future home. If they don’t ask questions about you, your life and circumstances and your plans with the dog (don’t lie, remember you want a good fit - we were clear that we would be working with our dog, also depending on his fortes, but not necessarily compete in Schutzdienst, no matter how successful his ancestors were). Ask whether they will be available for questions in the future. Some kennel have “reunions” or keep up otherwise with their doggy clan. Some contracts also include a passage that if you sell the dog within a certain time frame, the breeder gets the right of first refusal.

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    "If the first question of a buyer is “how much?”, many reputable breeders will see that as a red flag and decline immediately." - can I ask why this is the case? My wife and I have been struggling to get breeders to contact us back, and I'm wondering if this is why. The puppies we're looking at are often in the $5500+ range which to me seems an outrageous price, so yes we're cost sensitive. But I'm kinda offended at the thought that breeders will discriminate against us because of this... – Mark Henderson Dec 21 '20 at 22:35
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    Fascinating. Next time I'll go through the process of pretending to care about the other questions before getting to price and we'll see if that makes any difference. Not going to lie, I'm feeling super judged by these breeders right now. – Mark Henderson Dec 21 '20 at 22:47
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    @MarkHenderson you should. Their job is to judge you. To see if you’re a good fit for one of their puppies. – Tim Dec 21 '20 at 23:10
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    @AngewisnolongerproudofSO High lump sums are often difficult to pay even if you can afford more over a long period of time. – TylerH Dec 22 '20 at 14:38
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    Allow me to rephrase. I'm feeling super judged by my financial position. Wanting to know if your puppy is $5000 or $1500 should have no impact on my ability to care and raise an animal. Why would I want to waste my and your time before finding out if we can even afford it. – Mark Henderson Dec 22 '20 at 20:05
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Stephie's answer is spot-on in every regard. This seems like a trustworthy breeder who has the wellbeing of their puppies in mind.

A small addition to the aspect that they chose your puppy for you: There are standardized character assessment tests that are backed by scientific studies. A good breeder will ask you questions to find out what you expect and need from a dog and then choose the puppy that best fulfills your expectations and needs. You can read more about it in this answer. The link also includes a questionnaire for potential adopters and character assessment manuals for puppies and adult dogs. If you want, you can fill out the questionnaire on your own and provide the breeder with the answers, but also ask informed questions on your own.


Apart from that, I would suggest scheduling a video chat with the breeder. They might not be comfortable publishing pictures of their homes on the internet, but they might agree to show you their dogs' housing in a video chat.

Use this opportunity to ask the breeder some important questions that also allow you to assess their trustworthiness:

  1. How old will the puppy be when you adopt it? If it's less than 7 weeks old, that's a red flag.
  2. Will the puppy be vaccinated? Will you get the paperwork proving that it's vaccinated? If they claim to vaccinate their puppies but there won't be any paper proving it, that's a red flag.
  3. Ask them what kind of socialization they provide for the puppies. If the breeder doesn't know what "socialization" is, it's a red flag. The puppies should at least meet some people and dogs that are strangers to them and optionally be confronted with strange objects and situations like exploring the inside of a car or walking over a metal sheet.
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The other answers are fantastic, but I wanted to add one more thing in regarding good signs/bad signs with breeders. Frequency of breeding.

A given female should generally be bred no more than 3 times in her life, and not right away. This is to stop on female's genes being to prevalent in the breed as a whole (to prevent inbreeding and all the problems THAT causes) and for the health of the mom. If your perspective breeder raves about the tons of litters Dame X has produced, or Dame X is only a year or two old, that should be a big Red Flag.

Edit: I have heard the "preferred" method is litters at 3, 5, and 7 for a given Dame. This gives the Dame time to hit full growth and show she's "worthy" of breeding, and spaces out the litters to maximize the dame's health. Naturally this timeline varies somewhat based on breed but the general concept of "wait until mom is old enough to have most health things figured out and is full grown, and make sure there's enough time between litters to let mom fully recover" is universal

That being said I concur with the other answers that your breeder (by your description) is showing 0 red flags, and that the "can't pick your own puppy" thing is actually a positive sign rather than a negative one. After all, your hourish with the litter is nowhere near as useful as the breeder's 2-3 months! For example, if you want an active outgoing pup and show up when the most active outgoing puppy in the litter is feeling sleepy and just wants to nap, you wouldn't know that it's normally a bundle of energy. But if you wanted a laid-back puppy and got the napper you'd be in for a rude surprise!

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Just to add our experience with our breeder:

Yes, they were expensive ($1500) with a significant deposit. Why? Because the mom got lots of prenatal/postnatal vet care and the puppies got a lot of vet care as well. The breeders were "show" breeders, more interested in agility and show quality. We did have an application and a questionnaire where we were matched with a non-show-worthy puppy because we were interested in a family member and not in the show scene. These particular dogs love to show off, so the agility and showing is not a hardship on them. It was clear the breeders were not making tons of money off of this, and I had the puppy's early vet records to show how many visits they got from the vet. We got verification from the vet that the parents were free from the congenital defects particular to that breed, as well as vet assurance that our pup was free from these defects.

We spent several hours at their house, being interviewed. We saw how the dogs lived (inside the house with a big yard, rotating who sleeps in the bed with the breeders and who sleeps in the second bedroom). They got to know us, we exchanged dog stories, etc. We got to know the dogs' temperaments (barky but oh-so-friendly) and they got to show off their champion's agility achievements (which is hilarious because we have one of his granddaughters and she's scared of steps).

We were able to visit the puppies before they were ready to go home. Because of caution with parvo, we had to bring a change of clothes and sanitize our shoes before going into the yard with the puppies. This was probably over the top, but it was pretty clear that they put their hearts into these dogs and didn't want to lose any.

Yes, we were paired and did not pick our puppy. They wanted to place show-worthy pups with show families and pups they were interested in breeding down the line with families who were interested in that. Our pup has a "squiggle" in her markings which ruled her out as a show dog.

Once we had the puppy, the breeder spent countless hours on the phone or over email with me, helping me raise my puppy well (she was my first puppy) with lots of advice and reassurance. I could not have asked for a better breeder.

In conclusion, I recommend getting on the phone and talking with the breeder. Listen to their reasons for breeding. Find out how the dogs live (in the house? in a kennel outside?). How much human contact will the puppies have when they are little? Will they be "grass trained"? (Our puppy never used potty pads and only went outside, it made housebreaking extremely easy). Discover their philosophy for pup-raising and dog-owning. Nothing will beat getting to know them.

In COVID times, you probably won't get to meet the parents in person (and likely not the father as those tend to come from other breeders--if the father is in the home, that may be a sign of overbreeding), but you could ask for video of people interacting with the mom and try to judge her temperament.

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In addition to the other answers, here are some other red flags per The Spruce Pets (https://www.thesprucepets.com/signs-of-a-bad-breeder-1117328). I've read similar advice on other sites. NOTE: I'm not endorsing the site one way or the other, but the advice here seems sound. Here are three items from that site (in my own words):

  • They offer a large number of breeds (especially designer breeds)
  • They always have puppies available
  • They don't screen you in any way--they'll sell to anyone no questions asked (i.e. they don't try to ensure you'll treat the dog well)

You also might be able to google the company and see if there are any local news stories about the company. Have they been investigated recently for complaints of animal cruelty or poor living conditions?

A potential red flag (IMHO anyway) is if the puppies are all photographed against studio backgrounds (i.e. staged photos against backdrops) rather than in their actual living spaces, and the puppies are all just sitting there--never an active pose. Not saying it's necessarily an indication of a puppy mill on its own, but on the other hand a legit breeder shouldn't have a problem showing the puppy in its living environment, and a healthy puppy should do lots of cute, romping play that would make for great advertisement photos, so if all the puppies are photographed just sitting there... 🤔

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One red flag for an unethical breeder is allowing separation at too young an age. Getting the puppies out the door fast is a bad sign.

A puppy should be with its mother for absolute mininum of 8 weeks and even that's not really enough. 12 weeks would be better.

Puppies separated from their mother/littermates too early have a harder time socialising.

Related - the breeder should make it possible to visit your chosen puppy multiple times before going-home day, and should never send a puppy without meeting the new owner. Mail-order puppies are to be avoided.

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    This question is being asked in 2020, when many things that used to be easy and commonplace are now difficult, dangerous, or even illegal. – arp Dec 22 '20 at 18:29
  • @arp fair point - sorry I'm in New Zealand where life is relatively normal, and the implications of the pandemic are almost zero. I don't know how a breeder might "screen" potential adopters without meeting them and seeing them play with the puppies. – Criggie Dec 22 '20 at 20:04

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