The Search for an Akita (Choosing a Good Breeder, part 2)

Note:  I wrote this in May, but the end of the semester caught up with me, and I didn’t have time to edit it or post it.  Since then, I’ve been involved in many discussions on where to get a dog, as people on the Shiba forum have tried to educate people about puppy mills.  This post is focused more on my experience choosing a good breeder; people looking for more basic advice and information on puppy mills might want to look at my first post on the topic.  I will also probably do another post, at some point, about puppy mills specifically.

The Search for an Akita

Awhile ago I promised there would be a part two to “choosing a good breeder” so here it is:  instructive lessons from my search for an Akita breeder.

I decided I wanted another large dog last winter, when it was clear that my handsome German Shepherd Dog, Kai, was not likely to make it through another year.  He was 10, and had hip dysplasia as well as severe arthritis in his spine, and in January, he was also diagnosed with osteosarcoma (bone cancer).  Kai was a wonderful dog, a rescue, who had I adopted from a vet in Michigan.  He was one of two surviving pups from a large litter that an irresponsible breeder  had let die of parvo; since he didn’t bother to vaccinate his dogs, or pay his vet bills, the vet who managed to save two of the pups offered them up for adoption.  I took Kai, and he was a wonderful dog who endured my education and missteps in training, as well as endured living with Shibas later in his life.   We lost him on May 22, 2011, just a few weeks after his 11th birthday.  Rest in peace, glorious boy.

Kai in April of 2010

I began looking for an Akita in the winter of 2010.  At first, I was fixated on getting an Akita Inu (Japanese Akita).  I loved the idea of a dog that looked like a giant Shiba.  Through some contacts I’d made on the Nihon Ken forum, I contacted a couple of breeders, but one had a very long waiting list, and another had an adult dog available, but no litters planned at that time.    I’d pretty much decided Toby would not tolerate any other dogs, so what I needed was a companion dog for Bel, who has never been an “only” dog and who was very bonded to Kai. What was most important to me was temperament.

I started with rescue, because I really liked the idea of giving a needy dog a home.   My experiences with rescue were good and not quite as good.  The local rescue, New Mexico Akita Rescue Group, was a pleasure to work with.  By this time in my search, I’d composed a rather long summary of my experience with Akitas and Shibas, as well as a description of my home (yard and fence size), and I also explained that I had a difficult situation with my Shibas (that they were kept separate) and that I was looking for a companion for my female Shiba.   I got a friendly email back very quickly,  and was told that they did occasionally get dogs that might fit in with my complicated household, so I could submit an application.   There were no dogs available then, but at least I wasn’t rejected.

Because rejection, from both breeders and rescue, became the norm.  Another told me that Shibas and Akitas were a bad mix, and that I would have to wait til my Shibas had passed on to adopt a dog from them.  (Please do not take my rejection as a negative:  I respect rescue’s right to make the best decisions for their dogs.)  This was actually something I heard quite often.  A number of breeders told me they would not sell a pup to me because of my Shibas.  Most of the breeders and rescue groups who rejected me were quite polite, though I did have a couple of very snippy responses about how I was an idiot to try to mix those two breeds, and that their Akitas would kill a Shiba.   Good information:  what it told me was that I would not want to buy a dog from those people anyway.

There’s a couple of important points in this:  first, when you’re searching for a good breeder, it saves everyone time if you are clear about your experience with the breed and your overall situation from the beginning.  If they don’t think their dogs are a good fit with your for whatever reason, it’s best to move right along.  Second, I absolutely do not believe Shibas and Akitas cannot get along, and I find this kind of blanket statement problematic overall.   Caution is recommended, but obviously, it is possible.  It would have been nice if some people hadn’t immediately leaped to the assumption that this combo is unworkable, but in the case of some of the breeders, I felt like it told me something about the temperament of their dogs if they rejected me outright because of the Shibas.

When I finally did narrow down my choice to two breeders I was interested in, part of my enthusiasm for them was because they both had Akitas and smaller breeds.  The two wonderful breeders I spent a lot of time talking to (and highly recommend!) were Liberty Akitas and Hoka Hey Akitas.   Donna and Mike at Liberty also breed whippets.   Katie at Hoka Hey has basenjis and there used to be a great picture on her website of a Basenji curled up on top of an Akita; that picture really sold me on her dogs!

Most people suggest meeting the breeders in person, and seeing their kennels.  This is a good idea, but often the search for a dog takes you too far afield to be able to practically do this.  I did have the pleasure of meeting Donna and Mike from Liberty Akitas at a dog show in May of 2010.  After meeting them and their dogs, I had no hesitation about buying a dog for them, and would have ended up with a Liberty Akita, if it were not for the fact that the planned pregnancy didn’t go according to plans!  Donna and Mike are wonderful people, and the dogs I met were sound in temperament, healthy, and gorgeous! Their dogs made me fall in love with American Akitas all over again.  I still hope to get a Liberty Akita some day, and I was particularly taken with Bugatti, who was just a pup himself when I met him.  Maybe I will  have the opportunity to get a pup from him some day!

I met a number of breeders at that show, and got to see a lot of Akitas, and I was able to narrow my choices in breeders down fairly quickly.  All the Akitas I saw were beautiful, but I noted that some very good breeders had dogs that did not seem like they would work for me.  When I saw dogs showing aggression towards other dogs in the show ring, when they should be on their best behavior, I had to suspect that these dogs would have a temperament that would not work for us.  I needed a “soft” dog rather than an assertive one, and while it’s possible that these breeders also would have produced dogs that would work, I decided if I saw a lot of sharpness in a breeder’s dogs, I should search elsewhere.  Liberty’s Bugatti, for example, was a sweet  and friendly pup who seemed more interested in playing than anything else, and that’s what I was looking for in a dog.  I also really liked that Donna was able to tell me which of her dogs might not produce pups with the temperament I was looking for.

I would encourage anyone looking for a good breeder to get out to dog events: shows, agility matches, etc, to meet a variety of dogs and their people.  I wasn’t able to meet Katie before I went out to Oregon to get my puppy, simply because of distance, but we “talked” a lot via email (in fact, I’m sure I drove her crazy with my questions!), and she’s been active in the breed for many years and is highly respected.

Some of the things I liked about both breeders I was interested in was that they were upfront about health issues in the breed and had their dogs’ OFA information ready.   They are both active in showing, which tells me that they are serious about the betterment of the breed (a good breeder might also be interested in hunting, agility, or some other dog-related activity, not just conformation, but they should be active in some dog activity).   They had questions for me, too, and detailed puppy applications (beware someone who only wants to talk about price–I didn’t even get to the issue of price in my initial conversations with breeders).  There were other good breeders out there, but I only contacted those who had litters planned, who were in driving distance, and who talked about health concerns on their web pages.

Once I narrowed my choice down, the waiting began.  As I said, I had pretty much decided on Liberty Akitas, and was waiting for one of the females to come into heat.  Except, she didn’t.  And then Hoka Hey had a litter.  At that time, we still had Kai, and I didn’t want to submit my old boy to a puppy, so when it looked like he was going to make it through the summer, I decided not to go ahead with trying to get a puppy.  But Kai’s decline was sudden and quick:  he developed a high fever we couldn’t cure, and within a few days, he was gone.  I contacted Hoka Hey about a puppy again.

One tip for those waiting on a puppy:  you must learn to be very patient.  It had never occurred to me that there was so much uncertaintity in it all.   Will the female get pregnant?  How many pups will there be, and what sex?  Will there be pet quality pups available?  I hadn’t realized that it would be awhile before the breeder could make judgements about show vs. pet quality, and sometimes potential puppy homes won’t know till very close to 8 weeks if they will be getting a puppy or which puppy they will be getting.  The whole “pick of the litter” thing doesn’t really happen much, and shouldn’t–the breeder should know their dogs well enough to make a decision on which pup should go where, especially to pet homes.  I didn’t know which puppy I was getting until about 10 days before I left to get him!

So this means that things like color choice are not important.  I love a brindle, and was hoping to get either a brindle pup or one of the flashy black and white pinto pups, but of course that kind of flash often ends up in the show ring, and I was only looking for a pet.  While Oskar’s coloring would not have been my first choice, he is perfect for us:  sweet-tempered, calm, and biddable.  And now, of course, I can’t imagine having another dog.  And anyway, who could resist this:

Oskar at 4 weeks (photo from Hoka Hey Akitas)

So what are my suggestions for choosing a breeder?

  • Start researching well before you plan on getting a dog.  A year in advance is not too far ahead.
  • Try breed specific rescue first.
  • Look for breeders who are active in dog activities and who discuss health issues openly, and can give you information on tests from OFA, CERF, etc.  Then follow up and check that information on the websites.
  • When you first contact a breeder or rescue, tell them about your experience with the breed (or why you are interested in this breed), and about your living situation and any other pets you have.
  • Do not ask about price and/or color only.  This will mark you as someone who hasn’t done the appropriate amount of research.
  • Expect questions from the breeder.  This is a good thing, even if it may seem a bit intrusive.  A good breeder wants to know they are placing their dogs in the best possible home for them.  A breeder who has no questions for you and only wants to talk price is someone you should avoid.
  • If you can visit the breeder before making your decision, do.  This is ideal.  You might also want to get references and perhaps meet other people who have dogs from them.  I was able to meet a Shiba from the breeder I got Toby from, for example.
  • Many breeders require a deposit; others do not.  Make absolutely sure you’ve done your research before turning over that check, though, because deposits are often nonrefundable.
  • When you buy a puppy from a good breeder, you are entering into a relationship with this breeder.  They should be a resource for you, so you must feel comfortable with this person.  If you’re not comfortable with them for whatever reason, they may not be the person to buy a dog from.
  • Try to get advice from people who have more experience with the breed, and get their opinions on good breeders.  If they tell you a place looks like a puppy mill, listen to them, and stay far, far away.
  • Be patient.
Some other good suggestions from our discussion on the Shiba Inu Forum.  I modified them a bit for this post:
  • Is the breeder a member of the breed club, such as the Akita Club of America?
  • Does the breeder insist on spay/neuter for a pet quality puppy?  They should, and most good breeders do, though you may need to discuss with them when this will happen (I personally prefer not to spay/neuter before 1 year of age, but other people may feel six months is ok)
  • Do they have a policy regarding lifetime returns?  Most good breeders are serious about their dogs, and they want them back if for any reason you cannot keep them.  I recently heard this from a Border Terrier breeder:  she said she wanted him back “even if he is 15 and needs surgery and you can’t afford it. I’ll take him back.  Under any circumstances.”  That’s what you want to hear!
  • Do they have more than two litters of puppies available a year?  While some good breeders might, most do not, and a lot of litters per year often indicate a backyard breeder or worse, a puppy mill.  This is especially true if they have many different breeds of dogs available.
  • Do they have a waiting list?  Are puppies placed before they are born?  While these things may mean it will take awhile to get your puppy, it also is a sign that the breeder is serious about finding good homes for their pups.  Even great breeders will sometimes have puppies available unexpectedly, but often, you’ll have to wait.
These points are meant as guides, not absolutes.  Not all good breeders will match up with all of these points, and some not so good breeders, or even puppy mills, may comply with some of the things on these lists.  Good breeders may still produce dogs with unexpected health problems.  Still, the more you ask and the more research you do, the better off you’re likely to be.
A Final Note
 A few weeks after I wrote this, I accompanied my best friend to the dog show to watch the Akitas, to see the three Shibas entered, and to look at terriers, as she was thinking of adding another dog to her household, and we were interested in Border Terriers.    She insisted she was only information gathering, but as these things happen, we met a breeder who had a litter of puppies, and a week or so later, my friend had a Border Terrier.  Her experience was the exception to the “be patient” rule.  But her experience also illustrates some of these points:  we just happened to meet a wonderful person who is is active in confirmation and Earth Dog trials and other canine activities.  The breeder did everything right:  she told us about the health testing that had been done on her dogs, discussed health issues with the breed, came and did a house check to make sure my friend’s house looked terrier safe, and it’s so clear that my friend will have a wonderful advisor and resource in her pup’s breeder.  That’s how it is supposed to be.
And Truman, as she named her pup,  is wonderful!

Truman!