Pedigrees, Contracts, and Health Guarantees
Whenever you get a dog from a breeder, you should always receive some paperwork as well. Even a few dogs in rescue or from shelters will come with their papers. However, don't worry if you don't have papers for your pup. These are only really necessary if you want to show your dog. If you do have your dog's papers, you will need to know how to decipher them. They will likely include several different abbreviations and acronyms that describe your dog's genealogic history, temperament, health, and so on.
A pedigree is basically a dog's family tree; it can trace back any number of generations. Any titles earned by the pup's forebears and recognized by the registering kennel club (most commonly, the AKC) will be included in the pedigree. If you are seeking a show dog, you will want to see the designation “Ch.” (champion) before the names of numerous dogs in the pedigree, particularly those close to the pup, such as parents and grandparents. Other abbreviations, found both before and after the name, may indicate titles in obedience, agility, tracking, and other dog sports.
If your research has left you impressed with a particular kennel, you can look for that kennel's name in the names of the dogs in the pedigree. Read the pedigree from left (where your dog's name or litter should appear) to right, going back through generations as you move to the right.
Contracts and Health Guarantees
If you are buying a dog from a breeder, there should be a contract between you. While different breeders may choose to include somewhat personalized points, any good contract should specify:
Names of the seller and buyer
Name and registration number of the dog being bought
Statement of the dog's sex, and whether it is being sold as a pet or show specimen
A health guarantee of some sort
Requirement for a pet specimen to be spayed or neutered by some specified age (usually six months)
Requirement for a show specimen to be titled and checked for inheritable diseases before being bred
A statement that if the new owner cannot keep the dog, for whatever reason, it will be returned to the breeder
Even rescue organizations and shelters may have you sign a contract when you are adopting a dog. These contracts usually specify that the dog must be spayed or neutered (unless the surgery is done before the dog is released to you) and must be returned to the organization if you choose not to keep the dog.
The health guarantee should specify what testing has already been done on the pup. Some genetic disorders can be seen very early, such as patellar luxation. This document should also guarantee good health for some specific time span — the longer the better. Of course, no one can truly guarantee good health. The guarantee means that the breeder will provide a replacement if genetic problems show up in your pup within the specified timeframe. Some breeders will require that you return the original pup when a replacement is offered. However, they know that by the time problems arise, you will already be hopelessly in love with the pup and won't return it for a new animal.
No health guarantee can truly guarantee good health. The best you can do is make sure that as much testing as possible has been done on the dog's forebears and the dog herself. Of course, the pedigree does not include brothers and sisters of the pup's parents and grand-parents, so you have no indication of their health. A good breeder will discuss this with you.