Choosing Your Canine Companion
This article is all about choosing a puppy from a litter. A dog’s litter is the group of young animals born to an animal at one time. The average number of pups in a litter varies depending on the breed of the mother. Smaller breeds have smaller litters and bigger breeds can have bigger litters. The size of a litter could be anywhere from 2-10 puppies. The puppies you evaluate should be between the ages of 6-12 weeks old. The goal is to select a dog that will make a good family pet. This is not a guide for choosing a guide or guard dog puppy. Your initial emotional reaction to a particular puppy in a litter is important but there are many other factors to consider. Listen to your intuition but try to be objective as well.
Why Should You Evaluate a Litter?
Benefits and Purpose
Try to be as objective as possible when evaluating each dog. You may have a tender heart that looks for the outliers and needy puppies. You might see the shy and scared pups and think that you can help develop them into well-adjusted, happy, confident adult dogs. You may even see a puppy with obvious health problems and want to do whatever you can for it. Just make sure that you can objectively identify why you are drawn to a particular dog and understand the reason behind your choice. I’ve seen more than one owner choose the runt of the litter because is the neediest, most isolated pup. Understand that the runt of a litter may need extra training and support to compensate for the lack of development.
The choice you make is highly personal so I hope you are well informed of any potential problems you may face. Puppies with health of behavior issues can be a handful so if you’re up to the change, I say go for it! Many health issues can be treated with enough money and a good vet. Behavior issues can usually be modified or corrected with the proper training techniques while the pup is still young. However, you can never fully predict how a puppy will turn out as it grows into an adult dog. The more time and money you can devote to raising your puppy the better off you’ll be.
There is no test that will determine that your ‘pick of the litter’ will become the adult dog that you want it to be: happy and well-adjusted. However, your chances of choosing the perfect puppy for you and/or your family increase with the proper screening process. The two major factors you want to look for are health and behavior.
Mark the Pups
Bring Order to Chaos
Evaluation will be easier if you can mark each puppy with a distinguishing mark. Make sure that the method you use will not harm or impede the pup’s movement. When large litters are playing, you can quickly loose track of the puppy you are trying to evaluate. I’ve seen the following methods:
- Toe nail polish on the nails.
- Loose ribbon tied around the neck of each pup. (make sure they wont choke and that the ribbon isn’t a distraction)
- Colored chalk that contrasts with the puppy’s fur. (This one is my favorite)
- Distinguishing fur colors or other natural marks (spots, color, size)
Criteria 1 – Physical Health
The physical health of the puppy is the first criteria to be evaluated. While a veterinary check is preferable, it is not always possible. You should look for the following while examining the litter.
- Body Type and Condition: Look to see if the pup is well fed and has a good supply of fat over his ribs.
- Coat: No baldness, greasiness, dullness, or excessive dandruff. The coat should look shiny and clean.
- Energy: The pup should look well rested and alert to its surroundings.
- Gait: There should be no limping and it should seem sore or stiff. Watch closely as the puppy walks and runs around.
- Eyes: Clear bright eyes with no crust or discharge.
- Vision: Roll a ball or other toy in-front of the puppy to see if it is able to properly track it through his/her field of vision.
- Hearing: Clap your hands (not to loud) behind the pup’s head and watch for a reaction.
- Genitalia: No pus or feces is visible around the genitals.
- Breathing: Quiet breathing and does not sneeze or cough excessively. No discharge or crust from the nostrils.
Criteria 2 – Behavioral Health
Behavior is the next evaluation criteria. This can be difficult to judge so make sure you watch closely and give yourself enough time to properly observe each puppy. The goal of this stage in the evaluation is to determine if a puppy will make a good pet. While problems in behavior can usually be corrected with training, there is no guarantee that any issues will be completely resolved. A puppy’s personality and behavior is very malleable when it is young. You will be able to make significant changes in behavior up to 18 weeks of age.
Interaction Between Puppies in the Litter
Good social skills are a sign that a pup will grow into an adult dog that can get along with other dogs and people. Antisocial behavior is a red flag but should not eliminate a puppy from consideration completely. Observing how each puppy plays with his brothers and sisters is the best way to gauge social skills. You can also observe how he/she interacts with people (even of different ages).
When observing the puppies in a litter, make sure they are in a place that is familiar to them. The best time to do your evaluations is when they are wide awake and active. I’d recommend wearing cloths you don’t getting messy because accidents happen. Keep notes during this process to help keep track of each pup. Here’s what you’re looking for:
- Is the puppy comfortable in both a dominant and submissive state while wrestling and play-fighting with the other puppies? You are looking for a puppy that doesn’t mind being on the bottom of the pile but will assert itself when it wants to.
- Is there a ‘lone-wolf’ in the litter? Try to identify any puppies that prefer to be one their own. Asocial behavior as a puppy can lead to problems when interacting with other dogs as an adult. The exception is the runt of the litter. They can be excluded or shunned from the litter but are not necessarily loners.
- Are there any bullies in the group? As the roughhousing heats up, look for the puppies that will easy up when they cause other pup to yelp in pain. A puppy will yelp when it feels pain, usually through a playful bite. The aggressor should back off a little and tone down the rough play for a short time.
After watching the puppies interact as a litter, you should have a good idea what puppy you are interested in taking home. Feel free to isolate the puppy from the litter and do more evaluation (physical health). Try to find a quiet place that is free of distractions.
*IMPORTANT NOTE* Make sure that the mother doesn’t object to this. I’ve seen people bitten because the protective nature of the mother is amazingly strong.
Puppies and People
Does the puppy show interest in people? Bring a couple of family members or friends to visit the litter. If possible, bring a younger child, an adult male, and an adult female. Have the puppy interact with each person to see how respond.
The puppy isn’t trained to ‘come’ but with the right tone of voice, you can get it to approach you. Use a friendly, energetic tone of voice beckoning the pup to come to you. You can even use your feet and hands to get its attention by clapping and softly stomping on the floor. The key is not to frighten the puppy. If the puppy approaches you, praise it and start petting it to get him/her to stick around. Have each person in your group repeat the same process and observe how the puppy interacts with different genders and ages. You should be able to clearly tell how interested that pup is with people.
Here’s what you’re looking for during this observation process:
- Does the puppy love your attention? The pup should stick around when you show it praise and attention/affection. It may start playing with you and nipping at your hands or shoe laces. In my experience, puppies think shoes are a worthy foe and will attempt to conquer your footwear by jumping on them and biting your laces. Do not be concerned about this behavior. It is common.
- Does the puppy display fear? Some puppies are fearful of people and may not come when beckoned. Look for signs like tail tucking, ear tucking, rolling over on its back, urination, cowering, and fleeing, when someone tries to pet it.
- Does the puppy show signs of extreme independence? Some puppies will wander around ignoring you even with your best kissy sounds and vocal calls. An independent puppy will typically wander around the area exploring everything but you.
Puppy Jaw Control
The next test involves some nipping or biting. You want to establish that the puppy has good jaw control and can play-fight with other pups without causing injury. A puppy with good jaw control will be more gentle as an adult when playing with people and eating food/treats out of their hands.
Do this test at your discretion. Allow the puppy to gently nip at your hand. I recommend the area along your pinky on the palm of your hand. Your fingers are very sensitive. The puppy will gradually increase the strength of its bite as you are playing. When the nip becomes forceful, respond with a ‘Ouch!’ and see how the pup reacts to your vocal queue. The puppy may be excited so it might take several attempts for it to notice your reaction.
What to look for during the jaw control test:
- A puppy that can learn to control the force of its bit will notice your pain reaction and stop nipping for a moment. However, they will most likely resume biting after just a few seconds. That is normal for its age.
- A puppy that is not prepared to learn control will ignore your reaction and will continue unabated.
- Make sure you repeat this test several times to confirm the results.
Hiding and Guarding Items
Guarding or hiding items is a common behavior in dogs. While this behavior may help in the wild, it is not a desirable trait for a pet in a home. We will use food during this test so you may need to bring some with you or ask the litter owner if they have any available. Try to administer this test with each pup one at a time.
- Place food in a bowl and back away at least 5 feet from the bowl. After it has eaten a couple of bites, approach and try to pet the puppy on the back and near its neck. Then, place your hand in the bowl with the food and push against its mouth. If the pup tries to bite you, growls, snarls, or stiffens, stop immediately.
- Offer the puppy something chewy like rawhide. Let the pup chew for a couple of minutes and repeat the same process as the food in the bowl. Stop if you get a negative response.
Here’s what you’re looking for:
- A puppy that is relaxed and doesn’t mind you approaching and their handling food typically denotes the absence of a guarding problem. That problem may develop as it matures but this can be mitigated with the proper training techniques.
- You don’t want to see stiffening, rushed eating, or other aggressive behavior. If any of these signs are shown, you will need to pro actively train the puppy to combat this problem behavior.
Puppy Aggression Around the Food Bowl
How to stop food aggression
Here’s a great puppy behavior training video.
Handling the Puppies
Can you pickup the pups and examine them? You want to see relaxed puppies that don’t mind being restrained or touched by your hands. Fear and aggressive behavior in pups will show as the dog matures into an adult in vet clinics and other interactions with people. This is a safety issue. If you have small children and are getting a puppy, this is VERY important. A puppy doesn’t stay a puppy forever. Depending on the breed, it may be bigger and stronger than your kid(s) in only a few months.
- Hold the puppy between one of your arms and your chest for several minutes. Apply gentle pressure with your hand to the puppy’s chest under its armpits. If you see a reaction of fear or aggression, set the pup down. Squirming and wiggling are normal. They are not fear reactions.
- With your hands, touch the puppy all over its body. Use a gentle touch but include sensitive ares like the paws, nose, mouth, and tail. Grab each paw gently and play with the pup’s toes. Hold the puppy up to your face and look directly into its eyes for a short time (at least five seconds)
What to look for:
- You want to see a pup that is calm throughout this process and doesn’t react fearfully or out of aggression. As an adult dog, this pup should be able to be handled and restrained without behavior problems.
- If you do see signs of aggression or fear, you may need to plan and execute an intense training regimen. The goal is to have a pup that is comfortable being restrained and handled as an adult.
Sight and Sound Sensitivity
Some puppies are more sensitive to sights and sounds than others. A fear response is normal for a pup that is sensitive to what they are seeing or hearing. These tests are straight forward and most puppies can be socialized out of their fear response.
- With the puppy at least 10 feet away, make a loud noise noise or twice in quick succession. I’d recommend using two metal objects. Observe the reaction. Do not repeat the sound. You want a quick, loud noise and then silence. If the puppy reacts with extreme fear, do not continue to the next part of the test.
- Walk near the pup within a few feet with a large object (empty plastic totes are great for this). If the puppy is fearful, stop immediately. If the pup continues to be comfortable and relaxed, try other objects (cardboard boxes, large beach towels, skateboards, large balls, etc). Stop at the first sign of fear. The goal is not to create a fear reaction. The goal is to gauge the level of sensitivity to sights in the pup’s environment.
- After this test, soothe the puppy with your voice and petting.
What to look for:
- It is normal for the pup to be startled initially. You want to see puppies that go about their business or approach the sight or sound to investigate.
- Extreme fear reactions or aggressiveness (snarling, running away, defecating, urinating, trembling, cowering, hiding) are behaviors that can be trained out of a puppy using desensitizing techniques. You’ll know the reaction is extreme when the pup doesn’t recover quickly.
Using the techniques and tests above will not guarantee that your puppy will mature into a well-adjusted, happy pet. However, you will maximize your chances of bringing home a great dog that offers unconditional love and companionship. Picking a puppy from a litter is a process. Trust your instincts and try to keep your objectiveness while doing your evaluations. I hope you find the perfect puppy for you and your family.