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 ½ 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 Dalmatians. Deafness is also a problem for my own favorite breed, Australian Cattle Dogs. Not surprisingly, Cattle Dogs have some Dalmatian 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.