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 How Do You Score as a Puppy Picker?

By Gary Wilkes Copyright 2000 - All rights reserved

About six years ago my wife, Michele, and I lost our beloved, 14 year old Blue Heeler, Megan. A single day of a deathly quiet, dogless household convinced us that we needed help getting over the grief. We had adopted Megan from a shelter at the age of  five months and had not acquired any dogs  since. Though it had been awhile since Michele and I picked Megan, we were not altogether ignorant of the process. With more  than 20 years experience working with dogs in shelters and in a private behavior practice  I was confident that I could find the right pup. I had helped innumerable people  select puppies for adoption in shelters and had watched hundreds of my clients dogs make the transition from infancy to adulthood. Needless to  say, I felt prepared to  find the perfect pup in the perfect fashion. After all, experts are the best prepared to make expert decisions. To see how my expert knowledge assisted us in our hunt for the perfect pup, here is an   account of our adventure and a running evaluation of what we did.

On a Sunday morning, I looked in the classified advertisements and found a litter of 5 week old Queensland Heeler pups. (AKA Australian Cattle Dog, AKA Blue or Red Heelers, depending on color.) Add five points for picking a breed I have lived with for 20 years and know intimately. Subtract 25 points for using a newspaper ad to find a pup. We had decided we wanted a blue female, similar to Megan. Subtract five points for starting out with a cosmetic feature as a primary criterion for selection.

When we arrived at the breeder's house, we went out in the backyard to look at the pups. The two females had  crawled up under a storage shed for a snooze. As  I helped the breeder extract the two female puppies from under the shed, subtract five points for the pups' reluctance to immediately investigate the sounds of unknown voices,    Michele sat on the grass playing ball with the puppy's mother. Score 20 points for the breeder one of the parents was there. Give and additional 20 points for the other parent  and 5 bonus points for any  older pups from a previous breeding of the same parents. As Michele played ball, it was obvious that the mother was  "ball-crazy" to the point of ignoring a couple of startled yips emitted by one of the female puppies. Tentatively subtract 5 points for possible obsessive compulsive or at least obnoxious  repetitive behaviors. She was a smallish, red Cattle Dog with a  docked tail. As they played, an exceptionally stout, blue, male puppy strolled across the grass and into Michele's lap. Add 50  points for a mutually comfortable and pleasant greeting. He was as unlike his mother as he could possibly be. Add 20 points because he may favor his father, behaviorally. Subtract 20  points because the father isn't available for inspection.

 

 By the time we had the two female puppies out from under the shed, the little male pup was  suckling my wife's earlobe the puppy's version of 'going for the throat.' In this case, the behavior was even more effective in  controlling my wife's behavior than the adult behavior of "going for the  throat."  Add 500 points for irresistibly cute behavior, i.e. "closing the deal."   As the  female pups emerged from their protective shed, one of them barreled over to compete with the male for Michele's attention and then quickly lost interest and trotted off to chase crickets. Subtract 100 points for purely competitive pushiness and an additional 100 points for weak attachment with humans. Coincidentally she was the same shade of red and had the same body style as her mother. Subtract 100 penalty points because you mentally connected cosmetic features with behavior. The little blue female pup was a little shy and wasn't all that thrilled with being picked up and held. Subtract 200 points  for shyness and anti-cuddling. By this time, the fat little male pup was snoozing comfortably in Michele's arms with his head lolled to  the side supremely indifferent to how he was held. Add 50 points for "ability to sleep, soundly", and 200 points for "enjoys physical holding and tolerates being physically restrained." As  Michele and I watched the female pups in their respective modes of indifference and shyness, our eyes kept returning to the angelic little moon-faced pup in her arms. The light bulb  finally popped on for both of us. The male puppy was the one we should have been looking at, the whole time. Add 1000 bonus points for incredible mental density followed by great insight Our preconceived notions about what we wanted affected our judgement. Regardless of my experience with dogs or my professional knowledge of dog behavior, we were still capable of  making a  bone-headed error in selecting our new family member. If you thought my point system was going to help you make your upcoming decision, think again. The only way to create a perfect  checklist for puppy picking is if you do it after  the fact.  So, if you are willing to step into a process that is far from perfect, read on.     


 The first rule of puppy picking is to accept that the process is a gamble. Puppies are not perfect  little machines, assembled from standardized parts. They are not even carbon copies of their parents. They are individual animals  whose physical and behavioral traits are not immediately  observable. Hip dysplasia, a potentially crippling malformation of the hip socket, may not create symptoms of pain or lameness until the animal is two or three years  old which is many months  after you must make your decision about which puppy to take home. Even if you bring an orthopedic surgeon and an x-ray unit with you, the results of any examination for hip dysplasia will  be meaningless.  The disease cannot be accurately diagnosed until the animal is much older.

In a similar fashion, many normal behavioral traits and abnormalities are developmental and do not  appear in infant  animals. For instance, all puppies squat when they urinate. At about nine months of age, about half of all dogs start to  lift their legs when they urinate. The vast majority of leg-lifting  dogs are male. The noticeable exceptions to the rule  are male dogs who never start lifting their leg, and female dogs who do.  There is no test that you can give to an infant  dog that will accurately  determine whether you will have a leg lifting dog. The lack of indicators of future mental and physical health is simply a fact of life.

  Despite the "surprise package" of traits that will awaken later in life, many professional dog handlers  try to get a jump on Mother Nature. Since the 1950's, several "temperament tests" have evolved that claim to accurately predict  future adult behavior by analyzing puppy  behavior. While many  people believe in the effectiveness of such tests, long-term scientific analysis of such methods is sparse and not always in agreement. A recent, two-year-long  doctoral study by Gabi Hoffman, at  the University of Queensland,  Australia, seems to indicate that prior to five  months, puppies go through several behavioral transformations. Until that time there are observable traits that will   predict the behavior of the adult animal.  Undesirable behaviors such as leg lifting,  territorial aggression and a  tendency toward developing phobias may remain invisible to temperament tests  but suddenly appear in the adult animal. The overall evidence appears of lend caution to using any temperament test as the sole means of picking or  not picking a particular pup.

 Though no test or selection process is fool-proof, there are some general rules that are can help guide your puppy  picking experience.  While you have already seen some of the considerations I  gave to the process of puppy picking, here are some additional things to bear in mind.

1) Basic Health.  The most critical aspect of puppy picking is the requirement that  the  sale/adoption is dependent on the results of a veterinary exam by your veterinarian. If you can swing it, it is good to pay half of the purchase price as a deposit and the balance after the vet OK's  the pup's health. It is reasonable for you  to provide the breeder with the name of the vet so he/she can verify the process. Normal puppies have clear eyes, glossy coats and flip between  rocket-power and no-power. During a typical 20 minute visit the puppies  should remain attentive and alert to your presence.  

2) The environment. When examining the breeder's facility your first thought should focus on cleanliness.  Besides the obvious need for sanitation to prevent health risks, there are some  important behavioral considerations that are affected by the puppies' environment. To see how cleanliness affects behavior,  consider this logical sequence.  A) Puppies need to be handled by  people at a very early age. B) Puppies are messy. C) People don't cuddle poop-covered puppies. D) Litters that are confined in messy areas may be  less likely to receive necessary interaction from  people. Ironically, the opposite of a messy environment may also invite behavioral problems. Breeders who are paranoid about perfect sanitation may also be limiting the  litter's opportunities for  proper socialization.

3) Hearing: A common problem of puppy buying/adopting is undetected deafness. There are  several breeds  that suffer from this genetic affliction, such as Dalmations. Deafness is also a problem for my own favorite breed, Australian Cattle Dogs. Not surprisingly, Cattle Dogs have  some Dalmation in their lineage. Regardless  of how rare congenital deafness in any breed or mix or breeds, checking a pup's hearing is very important. Doing a valid hearing check is pretty difficult  when you have a room or yard full of pups.  Puppies are very  visual creatures. Deaf puppies are very good at reading the movement of their litter mates and reacting almost instantly. This immediate  reaction looks  like the puppy heard a hand clap or door slam, when it was actually  reading the visual reaction of its litter mates. Rule number one of your audio check is to test each pup away  from the litter. Next, have someone draw the pup's attention away from you.  Squat down close to the  ground, about three or four feet behind the pup. Make sure you are not in between the puppy  and a light source that could cast your shadow and reveal your movement. When you are sure that the pup is totally  focused on your helper, clap your hands loudly or bang a couple of pie pans  together anything to make a sharp, startling noise. If the pup wheels around or flinches a bit from the noise, you have a good indication that  the pup's ears are working. Excessive reaction to the  noise may be an indication of things to come. The normal reaction is a momentary startle and a return to play and interest in your helper.

 4) Physical Restraint: The mainstream of dog training philosophy maintains that pups who refuse to go on their backs or struggle against restraint grow up to be "dominant" dogs. Looking at  thousands of dogs while  working in shelters and several thousand more as a trainer and behaviorist, I don't think this is necessarily true. I have seen many dogs (and owned two) who were anything but  dominant, but did not like being restrained in  any way. Ultimately, whether or not you buy the "won't roll over = dominance" theory, there is a far more basic reason to ID dogs who don't like  being restrained they are hard to groom, medicate, bath and snuggle  with. This reaction alone should not rule out your choice of a dog, but if there are two pups of relatively identical attributes  and you like a cuddly dogs go with the cuddly one.

5) Interest in people. I think the most important aspect of a pup's behavior is its desire to be with  people. Face it, we took them from nature, genetically shaped them to live with people and that's their primary  purpose. You can live with a dog who isn't all that cordial to other dogs, but a dog  who is indifferent to humans makes a poor pet. To test for this important behavioral trait, have all humans leave the puppy area and  watch the pups. The ones who attempt to follow, wait either  patiently or impatiently at the place the people disappeared are the ones most likely to prefer you to their litter mates. After waiting about five minutes, go  back to the puppies and observe which ones  are most interested in your return.

6) Physical sensitivity/lack of sensitivity: Some dogs are very sensitive to touch and enjoy such  things as  ear rubbing, belly rubbing and foot handling. Other dogs show resistance to such handling and will squiggle, wiggle and attempt to escape. Observing which class a put fits is pretty easy. Start  from a seated position and  pick up the puppy with both hands, the way you would pick up a football. You don't need to turn the puppy over to do this experiment, merely hold the puppy in  your arms, close to your body, pleasantly but firmly. If  the pup struggles and attempts to escape, gently put the pup and the ground. After a couple minutes, try it again. If the puppy relaxes and  allows you to hold it, try test number two. Hold one of the pup's forepaws in  your hand and gently manipulate the toes. Try squeezing one of the pup's nails. Next, try playing with the pup's ears,  cheeks, mouth and tail.

7) Watch the Parents: If the breeder has the puppies' parents, take some casual observations of  their behavior. For instance, if the breeder has the mother but won't let you near her, it may be a matter of nasty  temperament. While it may be natural for a mother dog to be protective of her  puppies, it is not an automatic reaction. Many well-socialized and obedient dogs allow people to handle their puppies with not tendency  toward aggression. The basic thought is that if the parents  have behavioral traits that the breeder  considers questionable, you may want to find a different litter.

8) Plays well with others: Many dogs live comfortably with people who simply can't tolerate their own species. While these dogs can live quite well apart from other animals, it is often inconvenient  for the owner.  The most desirable canine temperament is one that can coexist with other dogs, cats,  birds, small children and guests. You will notice that I said "coexist" rather than "likes other animals."  Sometimes passive indifference is  actually preferable to over exuberance. Many dogs fail as family members because they play to rough with children and older relatives. A passive dog who can live  comfortably with other species as well as their own is  a blessing. 

9) Watch the Breeder: While watching the behavior of the puppies is a critical part of your  selection  process, a neglected aspect of puppy selection is the behavior of the breeder. Good breeders have some things in common that let you know they are experienced, thoughtful and  responsible. For instance, good  breeders will have you agree to a spay/neuter contract for puppies that are not specifically intended for conformation dog shows. Good breeders ask questions about  prospective buyers to see if they are  responsible pet owners. Good breeders are concerned for the welfare of their puppies beyond the sale and make arrangements to keep in touch with their owners.  If the breeder is responsible, there are many questions  you can ask to find out more about the care that went into planning the litter.

 

  

Does the breeder have a particular goal to his/her breeding program? 

Does the breeder have any prior experience?

Is this a first mating between this pair of dogs?

What qualities made these two dogs good candidates as a mated pair?

Does the breeder know of any specific temperament problems with the breed? When do these behaviors tend to develop?

Does the breeder keep track of puppy purchasers and may you contact them to find out more about the adult temperament of their dogs?

Who is the breeder's veterinarian and may you contact them?

 

 Selecting a puppy is the equivalent of adding a member to your family. The  new addition will need to adapt to the  dynamics of your existing family members, an environment that is probably devoid  of litter mates, parents and possibly even its own species. While a few people use complex temperament tests to make their selection, the  majority of dog owners still use emotional criteria to  select a pup, or abdicate their power of choice and let the puppy  pick them. Using these simple  guidelines to help make your decision may allow you to find the puppy that appeals to your senses  and your good sense. 

 Author's Note. When this article was written for a major dog magazine, the editors were  horrified that it appeared I was suggesting getting a dog from a "backyard breeder" and that I implied that you could get a  good dog from a backyard breeder. Well, Tuggy was bred in a  backyard by two Phoenix firefighters who really didn't know much about breeding. At six, he's incredibly healthy, bright, cordial and everything I could  have hoped for in a dog and  looks to live up to the breed's history of long active life. So, since I am incapable of fibbing to you, dear reader, yes, I got my dog from someone that magazine editors, purebred dog  groups  and humane groups wish to vilify.  However, AKC purebreds are often unhealthy and very probably my dog's unacceptable siblings made their way to a shelter -- where the magic  wand of dog rescue suddenly  made them adoptable. That means if you buy from an AKC breeder, there is no guarantee you will get a healthy dog -- often you run the risk of the exact  opposite. Likewise, if you get a dog from a shelter, you may  get the puppies that no one else wanted -- sometimes for very sound reasons. So, the bottom line is that good dogs are where  you find them and, as I have already said, any source of dogs is a crap shoot. As for the  money I paid the breeder encouraging more breeding, I did something most people don't -- I  kept in touch with him to find out. Tuggy's mom was spayed after his litter and the breeder doesn't make Heeler puppies  anymore.  Case closed.

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Copyright 1991-2003 Gary Wilkes - All rights reserved. No portion of this website may be reproduced without permission. For questions regarding reprinting articles and copyright, contact Gary Wilkes at wilkesgm@aol.com