Pandemic puppy prices: are we really paying too much?
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Puppy prices are at an all-time high; Imogen Bole talks to a gundog vet & gundog trainer to get their take on the pandemic puppy craze
It cannot have escaped your notice that puppy prices have been on the up since our first national lockdown, with prices for gundog breeds soaring to £4,000 and more. But while some of these price rises seem outrageous, are we actually now on on track to reach a more reasonable middle ground?
I spoke to Vicky Payne, a qualified vet and a springer spaniel breeder, and Ryan Kay, a Kennel Club Accredited Instructor for working gundogs who also runs FarlaVale Gundogs, to get their views on this contentious topic.
“I have been pushing for a while for people to be charging a sensible price for their dogs so that they’re not considered disposable,” says Vicky, who believes breeds such as springer spaniels have historically been hugely undervalued at around £300 per pup. The fact of the matter is that springers haven’t been the desired breed, and, as she and Ryan agree , puppy prices are ultimately determined by supply and demand.
Lockdown demand for puppies increased
As the coronavirus pandemic was so unanticipated, by the time we entered our first lockdown, the supply of dogs had already been set. However, it was at this point that many more people considered bringing a four-legged companion into their homes, which is when the imbalance between supply and demand first began to grow, and as Vicky remarks: “You couldn’t just ramp up the production of dogs.”
For Ryan, the immediacy of buyers’ want is what drove the demand ever higher: “It wasn’t even necessarily about the breed at one stage; it was about getting a puppy during the lockdown period.” And the consequences of such a disparity from the outset are that the prices began shooting up, the wrong dogs have been going to the wrong homes and third parties began selling dogs on for a profit.
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Puppy prices on the up during lockdown
While both Ryan and Vicky accept that two of the factors in the price hike are the greed of some breeders and the impatience of numerous prospective pet owners, there have been those who increased their prices for the right reasons. “You’ve got Lucy’s Law,” Ryan says, “where anyone wanting to buy a puppy must buy directly from a breeder, or consider adopting from a rescue centre, but third-party buying still happens. I’ve never heard of a case of someone following up Lucy’s Law, so we have to be realistic about it. I have to price my dogs where the temptation to sell them on has been removed, and hopefully I’ll have found them the right homes.” It’s disappointing that breeders are having to adjust their prices to deter those with selling dogs on in mind.
Though she doesn’t condone the extortionate prices some puppies have been selling for, Vicky can understand how things began to escalate: “We saw a bunch of puppies being sold on for quite a lot of money, which then made breeders put ridiculous prices in their adverts to put people off, only to find that people paid these ridiculous prices. And that’s really hard for people to turn down, especially when they may have lost other income due to the pandemic.”
Wrong dogs, wrong homes
It’s true that the surge in both the cost of and the interest in puppies was largely fuelled by the pet market as opposed to the gundog market, but that doesn’t mean the gundog market has not been a contributing factor in the upturn in prices. For some gundog breeders, the pull of the pet market was too strong to ignore, especially in light of the current financial instability; this was the case for a breeder Vicky encountered: “[This breeder] had field-trial-bred dogs, and he had field triallers and working buyers for them. But instead, he put them on Gumtree for three times the price he would have sold them to working people, and sold them to pet homes. And that is going to cause massive behavioural problems because they’re high-drive dogs.”
Equally, Vicky says: “I have to lay some of the blame here with buyers: if they had they not been prepared to pay the money, if they had been prepared to wait, to be there at the beginning, to build relationships with breeders and to wait until dogs were available from breeders who used contracts and weren’t going to screw them over on prices, this wouldn’t have happened.”
And it is this incapacity to wait for the right puppy that caused the gazes of prospective pet owners to fall upon working breeds. Ryan is particularly worried about the number of cocker spaniels going to the wrong homes: “Cockers were the number one dog breed in the country that went crazy over the lockdown period, which is a real shame,” he says. “The biggest downfall of the breed is the aesthetics of them: they’re beautiful, they’ve got little baby faces, they’re the right sort of size, they’ve got the right mood. But there’s a huge problem with the breed with regard to resource guarding, so a lot of them are going to end up in rescue.”
“I don’t think any puppy is worth nearly three grand,” says Vicky, “but I don’t think the prices going up to £1,500 is unacceptable; I actually think that is a reasonable price if [the puppy] has fully health-tested parents, it’s been well raised, you get the lifetime support and you get a contract. I think that is what we should be paying for a well-bred, well-reared dog in this country.”
Ryan, too, sees a similar compromise being struck: “What I predict is that there’s going to be a part-way settlement period for this: not £4,000, but not the £800 or £1,000 mark either. Asking for around about two grand is going to be the mark – for cockers, anyway.”
A Labrador breeder (who’s asked to remain anonymous) told Sporting Shooter: “The price of well-bred, health-tested puppies has needed to come up for a long time. By the time I have paid for all the health tests, got them to a standard, paid a stud fee, had a litter, paid the council for my breeding licence and raised them, there isn’t much point in getting out of bed! I think they will stay up, and probably settle around the £2k mark (might be a little more), but spread that over 10-12 years and it’s nothing!”
Our foxing expert, Dean Harrison, weighed into the discussion: “I bought Duke, my Lab pup, in March/April for £800, just before prices went through the roof. He has a fantastic pedigree, is fully health tested and is Kennel Club registered. About six weeks after I bought him, the prices went up to around £1,500. Now, they are around the £2,500-£3,000 mark, which I feel is extreme.”
An underkeeper in the north of England (who requested anonymity) said: “My headkeeper sold a litter of cockers for £2,500 each, as that’s what people were willing to pay. But also, he said he sold them for that much to stop them being bought and sold on again.”
And this from a beater in Hampshire: “[When] on the lookout for a cocker pup, I found a lady who was expecting a litter in between Christmas and New Year. The pups were born and she duly contacted me to say there was a bitch if I was interested. I said I was and asked her to keep me posted on how they were progressing. Then, I get a message from her saying she required a non-refundable deposit.
My reply was: “Hang on a minute, how much are you asking?” £2,850! It was a no-brainer – I’m still looking.”
How to choose the right puppy
Here are some pointers on how to ensure you give the right pup the right home for the right price:
Make contact with breeders early on. If you get in there early (before conception), you’ll be able to get updates, you’ll be able to see the bitch, you’ll be able to see the scan pictures, because a lot of people aren’t now putting this online because they’re afraid of theft - and there are some really clever scams out there.
Be prepared to wait for the right dog.
Be honest about your budget from the start.
Present the breeders with a resumé of why you would give the dog a good home, and mention that if you couldn’t keep the dog for whatever reason, you’d contact them first.
By doing all of this, you are pre-empting all those fears that a good breeder may have.
Make use of The Kennel Club and ChampDogs websites, as well as the Facebook gundog sites.
Word of mouth is hard to beat: talk to people on shoots, stud dog owners. They might be able to put you in touch with pending litters and that way you’re getting in on the ground.
People are making up excuses as to why they can’t get healthcare, which has been harder to get during lockdown, but I just don’t take that as an excuse.
Be prepared to be grilled by the breeder. And you should not be afraid to grill the breeder.
If you just want a working dog (not one to breed from or to compete with), get in touch with rescues who’ll have some great dogs between 6 and 12 months.
For cockers, there are three main tests: KMS, PRCP PRA, FM. They should be registered clear or both parents should be tested for those conditions.
Follow the stud dog’s trialling experience because that is the dog’s CV. If it’s been tested against other dogs, under two different judges and it’s got an award, then it’s got capabilities. It means it’s also been managed and it’s been able to be trained to that level, so it’s got that trainability within the breeding as well.
Don’t go to Pets4Homes because the good dogs aren’t likely to be on there. The good dogs are going to be with breeders or they’re going to be with gundog people and they don’t need to advertise.
Write to the breeders explaining why you want a dog (e.g., to do agility, to work it, etc). The breeder will take you much more seriously.
Don’t underestimate word of mouth – ask around!