On Puppies, Pet Stores, and Behaviour Problems

Research finds puppies from pet stores are more likely to have behaviour problems than those from non-commercial breeders.

Puppies from pet stores are more likely to have behavior problems - but this cute puppy is sleeping


By Zazie Todd, PhD

If you buy a puppy from a pet store, could you be getting more than you bargained for? It has long been thought that puppies from pet shops might have behavioural problems. A new study by Franklin D. McMillan et al investigates this by comparing puppies from pet stores to those from non-commercial breeders.

The puppies that are for sale in pet shops originate from commercial breeding establishments, also known as puppy mills or puppy farms. These are large establishments that breed puppies for profit.

The ASPCA says they “usually house dogs in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, without adequate veterinary care, food, water and socialization. Puppy mill dogs do not get to experience treats, toys, exercise or basic grooming. To minimize waste cleanup, dogs are often kept in cages with wire flooring that injures their paws and legs—and it is not unusual for cages to be stacked up in columns.”

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A large number of dogs took part in this study: 413 dogs that were bought as puppies from pet stores, and 5,657 that were obtained from breeders. Although predominantly in the US, some were in other countries. Dogs from breeders were likely to have been obtained at around the same age as dogs from pet stores, and also to be purebred dogs, so they are a good comparison group to the pet store dogs.

Participants answered an online questionnaire that included the C-BARQ (Canine Behavioural Assessment and Research Questionnaire). This is a standardized questionnaire that assesses 14 behavioural factors as well as a number of miscellaneous items. 

The pet store dogs were significantly worse than breeder-obtained dogs on twelve of the fourteen scales (on the other two scales, they were about the same). The biggest differences were in terms of aggression. Looking only at entire/intact dogs, those obtained from pet stores were three times more likely to display aggression directed at their owner, and almost twice as likely to show aggression to other dogs they did not know, compared to dogs obtained from a breeder.

This is terrible, because aggression can have serious consequences for both dog and owner. 

Other problems that were found significantly more often in dogs from pet stores are aggression to strangers, aggression to other dogs in the household, fear of dogs, separation problems, and touch sensitivity.  They were also more likely to have miscellaneous problems such as soiling in the house and mounting. They were more excitable, energetic, attention-seeking and, if they were not working dogs, they were also rated as less trainable.

Puppies from pet stores are more likely to have behavior problems, especially aggression; illustrated by a cute Siberian Husky puppy
Photo: ingret; top photo, watchara (both Shutterstock)

The authors suggest several reasons for these findings. They say “the formative stages of the puppy’s life in the CBE [commercial breeding establishment] are periods where stress may exert an impact on brain development.”

The puppies are likely stressed by their environment both prenatally and during the first eight weeks of their life. They may experience stress during transit when they are shipped to the pet stores. They also miss out on important early socialization experiences because they are not able to get used to a normal household environment during this time.

It is possible that other factors play a role, since people who get puppies from pet shops may be different from those who go to breeders; for example, they might be less knowledgeable about puppies and the importance of early socialization, or tend to use different training techniques. These were not assessed in the current study. 

This is not the first research to find problems with dogs from puppy farms. An earlier study of dogs that were used as breeding stock at CBEs and then re-homed found they had significantly more health and behavioural problems than a sample of non-puppy mill dogs that were matched for age, breed and gender.  And a study by Carri Westgarth last year showed that it’s best to see both parentsbefore purchasing a puppy; if neither parent was seen, puppies were 3.8 times more likely to have a behavioural problem than if both parents were seen. 
 
Some places have banned the sale of puppies in stores. You can help by not purchasing anything from pet stores that sell puppies.  It’s also important to know that puppies from puppy farms are not just sold in pet stores; they are widely available via free ads and the internet, sometimes with semi-convincing cover stories about new pups that suddenly need to be re-homed.

Warning signs include wanting to meet at a neutral location (instead of where the pup was raised); the same puppy photo appearing in different adverts; and the same phone number appearing in adverts for many different puppies. For more information, see my post on how to choose the right puppy.

If you want to know more about puppy mills, you can read a closer look at puppy mills by the ASPCA, information from the BC SPCA, or join the Dogs Trust battery farmed dogs campaign. And please share the results of this research, so that people understand buying puppies from pet shops has risks of behavioural as well as health problems.

Are puppies for sale in pet stores near you?


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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Reference
McMillan, F., Serpell, J., Duffy, D., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242 (10), 1359-1363 DOI: 10.2460/javma.242.10.1359  
McMillan, F., Duffy, D., & Serpell, J. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135 (1-2), 86-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.09.006  
Westgarth, C., Reevell, K., & Barclay, R. (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems Veterinary Record, 170 (20), 517-517 DOI: 10.1136/vr.100138
Photo: ingret (Shutterstock.com)
P.S. Why you need to socialize your puppy

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