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Buying a Puppy Online

Surfing for a Pup? Homework Comes First
Published: October 2, 2005

AFTER waiting more than a year, September Morn of Shelton, Wash., recently received her American Eskimo puppy from a breeder she found online.

"I consider this breeder a personal friend now, after our many, mostly e-mail, interactions," said Ms. Morn, a professional dog trainer. "We've shared joys and sorrows, hopes and worries, and news of our dog families. And if it weren't for the Internet, I might never have found her."
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More than 200,000 American households bought puppies online last year, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, a trade group.

But not all Internet purchases have a happy ending. Law enforcement officials in California and Florida recently reported that charges have been filed in more than 30 cases in which consumers either received sick puppies that later died, or paid upwards of $1,000 for a dog and never received it.

The American Kennel Club - the largest registry of purebred dogs - does not officially track complaints involving Internet purchases. But a spokeswoman, Lisa Peterson, says that more people are reporting health problems in dogs bought online.

Many complain "that the dog arrives sick or in poor condition, and the puppy buyer can't get satisfaction from the breeder because they often live in another state," Ms. Peterson said.

Sometimes the puppy may never show up.

After moving to Virginia earlier this year, Shawnell Ingle wanted a dog for her family. So she went online and noticed an ad for English bulldog puppies for $1,000. After previewing pictures, she chose one.

Ms. Ingle said the seller told her to transfer the funds to a Western Union account in California. Once the money was received, she said, the seller promised to put the pup on a flight to the East Coast.

Days turned into weeks and the puppy did not arrive, and numerous calls to the seller went unanswered, Ms. Ingle said. "All I did was cry for a day or so," she said. "My kids were so brokenhearted."

The police in Chula Vista, Calif., say the seller, Elizabeth Rivera Davis of Chula Vista, stole more than $20,000 from nearly two dozen online puppy buyers throughout the country and Canada. She has pleaded guilty to 2 of 17 felony counts and will be sentenced tomorrow in Chula Vista.

To help buyers find the right breed and to choose responsible sellers, the A.K.C. last year introduced a Web-based service called Breeder Classifieds, found under "Online Services" at Only breeders in good standing with the organization can advertise. The site averages 135,000 searches a month, Ms. Peterson said, and includes a list of questions to ask of breeders.

Some people mistakenly think that A.K.C. papers alone guarantee that a puppy is healthy and of good quality. They don't. They prove only that a puppy is the offspring of a known sire and dam.

Prices for pedigree puppies vary by region, depending on the type of dog, its health screening tests and whether the parents are champions. In the New York metropolitan area, for example, Rhodesian Ridgebacks - large, athletic dogs with permanently raised hair along their backs - sell for around $1,500. In upstate New York, they go for half that price.

In general, buyers can expect to pay $500 to $2,000 for a pet-quality pedigree puppy - one that the breeder believes won't be able to compete successfully in dog shows. A higher price, though, doesn't necessarily mean better quality.

Many fans of purebreds say that good breeders often have the following qualities:

They are not in the business solely to make money. For many, it is a hobby, with the goal of improving the breed.

They often specialize in one breed, and spend time educating buyers about its advantages and disadvantages.

They sell only healthy animals and guarantee them for reasonable periods. They should test a puppy's parents for hereditary diseases, and the puppy's vaccinations should be up to date.

Their contracts stipulate that if the buyer does not meet specified conditions of care, or becomes unable to keep the puppy, they will take it back. (Most contracts for pet-quality dogs also have a clause that requires spaying or neutering of the dog. )

Elaine Gewirtz of Westlake Village, Calif., wants to make sure that her Dalmatian puppies go to good homes - and to people who know what to expect from owning them. (Both Ms. Morn and Ms. Gewirtz, as well as this reporter, are occasional contributors to Dog Fancy magazine.)

More than 60 percent of Ms. Gewirtz's prospective buyers come from online breeder referral services and, her Web site. When people send e-mail requests for information, she asks them to call her. She then asks about their pet-owning experience and lifestyle to determine if they're a good match.

"My husband says it's easier for someone to get a bank loan than one of my puppies," said Ms. Gewirtz, who has bred 25 champion Dalmatians.

When visiting a breeder's home or kennel, ask to see at least one of the puppy's parents, experts say; the appearance and temperament of the parent can provide an idea of how the pup may turn out. Be wary, the experts advise, if a breeder does not let you do so - or if he does not let you see the environment where the puppy was raised.

If you do buy an animal with a health problem, 12 states, including Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, have consumer protection laws for buyers. These laws differ by state. Some "puppy lemon laws" make the seller compensate the buyer for a portion of veterinarian bills incurred; others cover hereditary conditions.

MS. MORN, who recently bought the American Eskimo puppy, a dog with a thick, snowy white coat, said she is happy with her choice.

The dog, which she named Iris, "is healthy, happy, brilliant, athletic, bold, affectionate and thoroughly charming," she said. "She's everything I wanted in a pup."

Ms. Morn clearly did her homework.

"There are different ways to use the Internet to locate a puppy," she said. "Some are great; others are ridiculous."

She said she joined a chat board for owners whose American Eskimo dogs compete in the sport of agility, in which the dogs race through timed obstacle courses.

She carefully read its postings, then asked knowledgeable members to recommend a breeder. She interviewed several, eventually narrowing her search to a breeder in Indiana. The two exchanged dozens of e-mail messages and had a number of phone conversations before Ms. Morn decided to buy a puppy from her for $800.

"My advice to someone seeking a pup - whether they make their contacts in person, by telephone, or via Internet - is before you decide who you're going to get your puppy from, educate yourself about that breed and about common health and temperament issues," Ms. Morn said. "Know the right questions to ask and be able to understand what the answers mean."

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