It was seeing the disappointment on my little girl’s face that hurt the most. “So we’re not going to see the puppies, after all?” she’d say, after hearing yet another phone call to a breeder end badly.
How could I explain, to an eight-year-old, that there are people out there making huge amounts of money, and some are treating their dogs like dirt? That many responsible, licensed dog breeders have closed their waiting lists, following a huge increase in demand during lockdown, while unscrupulous sellers are cashing in on soaring prices?
I have been a “dog person” ever since my parents adopted a rescue dog called Sylvester when I was nine. As a freelance journalist, I work full-time from home and have often wished Sylvester was still around for company. But my husband is allergic to dogs and we never thought it would be possible to have one.
Lockdown, however, made us realise how much our daughter Flora, an only child, would benefit from having a pet to play outside with – and how much she longs for a playmate she does not have to Zoom call or socially distance from.
And so, after months of careful consideration (by me and my husband) and strenuous campaigning (by Flora), we finally decided to get a “poochon”. This so-called “designer breed”, with its mix of poodle and bichon frise fur, fails to arouse my husband’s allergies, we recently discovered after getting to know a friend’s dog. I searched rescue centres for poochons and other poodle cross-breeds, but couldn’t find any. I also noticed many of the dogs deemed suitable for families with young children were already reserved.
Undeterred, I looked for a licensed poochon breeder. But none of them seemed to have any puppies available either – in fact, none even offered a waiting list. I searched for other popular hypoallergenic breeds, like poodles and cockapoos… again, no litters were for sale. Warnings flashed up: “Puppies are for life, not for lockdown – our waiting list is closed until 2021.” Others said the wait would be at least two years.
I called one breeder to ask what was going on. “We went from three inquiries a day to 73 during lockdown,” she told me. Stuck in the house, people have been buying puppies to keep their children occupied. Others working from home aren’t thinking about when they may leave their dog at home and return to the office, she said. After 40 years, she has decided to stop breeding for a while because she is unable to tell who would be a responsible owner. “People started getting so aggressive on the phone, we decided to close even the waiting list.”
Before lockdown, a pedigree or a designer-breed puppy (like a poochon) would typically cost up to £1,500, she said. Now prices for these dogs usually start at £2,500. Some puppies with desirable “blue merle” fur are advertised for as much as £7,000 each online.
With so much money at stake, puppy farms are thriving, the Kennel Club warned recently. A quarter of new owners recently admitted they purchased their dog after doing little research, with one in four pandemic puppy-buyers admitting they may have inadvertently bought their pet from a puppy farm.
“Red flag” warnings which buyers missed include paying money before actually seeing a puppy, not seeing the breeding environment in real life or via a video call, and not being asked by the breeder about your suitability as owners. The president of the British Veterinary Association, Daniella Dos Santos, told me: “With the current situation, it is even harder to discern a reputable breeder.”
I felt uncomfortable with what I experienced when I started contacting private sellers. Covid restrictions might have made things difficult for sellers but they have created a minefield for buyers. One woman, who wanted £3,000 for her puppy, said I could only look at it in her front garden. While I was prepared to pick it up from outside the home, I wanted to be able, at least once, to see it a inside, where it was being raised. A vet advised me to do this so that I could be sure the puppy was part of a well-looked-after litter, a course of action the RSPCA recommends. When I suggested this, I was accused of being a potential puppy thief.
Another seller said her husband would meet me in a park with the £2,500 puppy. When I asked to see it at home, she said I was being “ridiculous” and “not ready to own a dog”. I explained I was following my vet’s advice – and she hung up on me.
My search also raised questions about the suitability of some homes, something that experts suggest could be becoming more of an issue because of the number of inexperienced breeders who appear to have started under lockdown.
One admitted he worked full-time and shut his puppies in a garage all day, because of the “mess” they made. Another was rearing a litter in the garden because, they said, the mother preferred being outside.
Many sellers did offer to let me see the puppies over the internet, using a website like Zoom, but I was uncomfortable about this because I was unsure I would be viewing the puppy I was actually buying, and felt that anyone who did want to create a temporary set-up with the puppies for the camera could easily do this. Claire Wilson-Leary, spokeswoman for the Dogs Trust, said that at the start of lockdown, when viewing puppies in person was not possible, video calls were a viable alternative – but “now, we would always recommend that buyers visit the puppy in the home with its mum”.
I began to despair of ever finding a puppy. Then, by chance, I found a seller 187 miles away who was happy to let us visit her poochon puppies in her home. She also agreed to sign the Puppy Contract, a free contract created for responsible breeders by the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Association.
That’s when we discovered our Rosie. We drove for four hours and, when we arrived, she curled up on my daughter’s lap and fell asleep. “Look, Mummy, she trusts me,” said Flora, smiling. “She feels safe.”
It was a wonderful moment. Later, we watched Rosie suck her mother’s milk, and I revelled in how healthy and happy, how confident and relaxed both dogs seemed to be, in the owner’s home. The next day, we put down a deposit. To say we are looking forward to bringing our new puppy home in a few weeks’ time is an understatement – it is all the whole family can talk about. But I can’t stop thinking about all the puppies we didn’t buy, and wondering what will happen to them.
Top tips for buying a puppy
• Always ask to see the puppy’s mother
• Ask to see the relevant health test certificates for both the puppy’s parents
• Be suspicious of a breeder selling multiple different breeds
• Report your concerns to your local council animal health officer, the police or the RSPCA if you suspect the breeder is a puppy farmer
Source: Adapted from tips from the Kennel Club