A woman who helps retired racing greyhounds find permanent homes hugs a dog on her ranch

Inside the growing U.S. movement to breed healthier, friendlier dogs

All dogs are good boys—but not all dogs are good for families. That’s why these breeders are focusing on health and temperament.

Sharon Dippel hugs a retired greyhound that she adopted in Florida. With fewer shelter and rescue dogs available, some dog owners may want to consider buying dogs from responsible breeders who prioritize health and temperament.
Photograph by ERIKA LARSEN, Nat Geo Image Collection

Laura Sharkey breeds mixed-breed dogs, but they’re not goldendoodles, chiweenies, pomskys, or any other designer crosses. She doesn’t even aim for a specific build, size, or coat. “I’m not concerned with what they look like,” she says of her puppies. “I don’t want any genetic pressure other than health and temperament.”

Sharkey and Erica Pytlovany, both dog trainers, founded Bosun Dogs in 2019 after witnessing clients continually face severe behavioral challenges in adopted dogs. They regularly see owners face rehoming or even euthanizing their pets due to aggression issues.

“I would really love for all families who want a nice dog to be able to get a nice dog—and we don’t have that right now,” says Sharkey, who also owns WOOFS! dog-training centers in Arlington, Virginia. “I decided that the best way I could do that was to breed them.”

Sharkey is part of the growing functional-breeding movement, which raises dogs in small-scale settings to be friendly and healthy pets, with less focus on purebred status.  

“I want to breed dogs for what I think is the actual highest function a dog has, especially in this country, which is as a companion animal,” says Sharkey. Her puppies, sold between eight and ten weeks old, average about $2,000 each, she says. (This is the age when puppies are the cutest.)

In particular, Sharkey hopes to offer an alternative to purebred puppies, around a third of which are bred in high-volume kennels. And while some of these facilities are regulated by the USDA and meet standards such as Purdue University’s Canine Care Certified, many don’t pay as much attention to selecting healthy breeding dogs and providing adequate puppy enrichment as do small-scale breeders, says Sara Reusche, owner of Paws Abilities Dog Training in Rochester, Minnesota.

Some concerned with the health and welfare of purebred puppies choose to adopt shelter animals as an alternative. But this route may not be feasible for everyone—especially in high-demand areas, such as the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and West Coast. Twenty years ago, many U.S. shelters euthanized dogs to provide space for new intakes, explains Reusche.

But today, there aren’t enough dogs in some places, adds Reusche.

“The biggest thing that I wish people knew is that it’s becoming harder to find a dog in the U.S.,” says Reusche. “The messaging has just not caught up.”

Breeding dogs to be good pets

Apart from toy breeds bred specifically as lap dogs, many breeds have backgrounds as working dogs: herding, guarding, hunting, and so on. But today, the primary purpose of dogs, especially in western countries, is as pets.

Yet few people breed dogs for this purpose, according to Joyce Briggs, treasurer of the Functional Dog Collaborative, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit. “The profile of the successful, really well-balanced family dog is not being looked at as a category,” says Briggs.

During the pandemic, when interest in pets spiked, many people saw an opportunity to breed dogs, says Carolyn Kelly, president of the Companion Dog Project, a nonprofit national breeder network. Yet these less-experienced breeders may lack the knowledge needed to carefully choose mates and socialize puppies, which can predispose them to health and behavior issues, Kelly says.

In fact, one of the main reasons Americans relinquish their dogs is due to behavior problems, which can be challenging and time-consuming. To address canine separation anxiety, for example, an owner might need to dramatically change their schedule to stay home with their animal while it’s gradually desensitized to longer periods left alone. (Learn how centuries of breeding has reshaped dogs’ brains.)

Hobby or preservation purebred breeders tend to pay more attention to health tests and puppy care, says Briggs; the American Kennel Club registered about 800,000 dogs from such breeders in 2021. But these operations can only offer so much supply; already, it’s common for these small-scale breeders to have one- or two-year waitlists.

Even if all the estimated 3.1 million dogs entering U.S. shelters annually were adopted out, that would only meet about a third of dog demand, says Reusche. She calculates that since there are between 83 and 108 million dogs in the country and the average dog life expectancy is just over 11 years, to maintain current dog ownership rates, 7.4 to 9.6 million new dogs are needed every year.

Bosun Dogs, which has fostered over 300 rescue and shelter dogs over the years, also offers a service to match people with shelter dogs. Sharkey meets with families looking to adopt to discuss what they are looking for in a dog and then, for a fee, accompanies them to shelters and adoption events to evaluate potential pets.

“We share the goal with responsible breeders that we want people to know the joys of having a dog as part of their family,” Pamela Reid, vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)’s behavior team, says in an email.

“These breeders reject the practices of commercial breeders, brokers, pet stores, auctions, and others who profit from cruelty and instead plan breeding carefully, place dogs thoughtfully, and take a lifetime responsibility for the animals they have bred.”

A collaborative of friendly pups 

To help address the issues in the U.S. puppy industry, canine geneticist and veterinarian Jessica Hekman founded the Functional Dog Collaborative in 2020. The goal of the international organization is to “build this new culture of dog breeding, in which we do things in a somewhat different way, to produce dogs that are more reliably healthy and behaviorally suited” for lives as pets.

The organization’s private Facebook group currently has nearly 12,000 members, and about half are breeders, says Hekman.

It’s partly a response to declining health in certain breeds—Cavalier King Charles spaniels, for example, are almost guaranteed to develop heart disease by age eight; other breeds can’t breathe or move freely due to their anatomy, such as the ever-popular French bulldog. (Read how we’re loving French bulldogs to death.)

Some 15 to 20 percent of a dog’s personality is influenced by genetics, says Hekman. Breeders can also build resilient family dogs in several other ways, for instance by taking good care of mother dogs, whose stress can impact their offspring’s development, and exposing young puppies to positive experiences, which helps boost their confidence in adulthood.

Functional dog breeders are also willing to take back a puppy that didn’t work out, as well as including their contact info on puppies’ microchips. Responsible breeders, by definition, are not contributing to shelter dog populations, says Ji Khalsa, an advisor for breeder education at the Companion Dog Project and founder of Midwoofery, a breeder-education website.

Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, appreciates the efforts of the functional-breeding movement.

He notes there isn’t sufficient evidence to show worsening behavior issues in dogs throughout the U.S. But given the current breeding landscape, it’s certainly possible, he says.

“We can and should make dogs that are more inclined to be good pets,” he adds.

 “Many dogs in western society these days are pets and the behaviors that matter are, you know, not biting children and other dogs and not having panic attacks when the owner leaves the house to go to the grocery store. And I don't think we’ve been breeding for characteristics like that.” 

A standard for excellence

Hekman’s vision is to create networks of breeders with common goals and standards. A puppy buyer going through these networks would have a clear sense of breeders’ procedures. And the member breeders could help each other out, such as by sharing studs and dams.

The Companion Dog Project is one example: It has 25 member breeders, which Kelly hopes to increase. She started breeding her Labrador, Lucy, because she is a “super-resilient, bombproof, go-anywhere, do-anything, loves-everybody kind of dog, who will actually just sleep if you’re not doing anything that day.”

“We aim to set the standard for excellence in breeding dogs whose purpose is to be a family pet.” (Read more about the genetics of dog breeding.)

To further this goal, the network is growing a North American registry, like the one used for purebreds. The soon-to-launch publicly accessible database will make it possible to look up dogs that have met health and temperament standards and see their relatives, health testing results, and eventually owner feedback on puppies sold, says Kelly.

“There’s a lot of interest in dog breeding,” she says. “What I believe we need is an infrastructure, a support system, and a model that says, ‘This is how you do this.’”

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