CHOOSING THE PUP - reducing disappointment and vets' bills
by   David Hancock

"Other persons in selecting a well-bred dog create a circle of flame and place all the pups in the middle of it, and they believe that one to be the best which the mother first runs up to save. Others make observations of puppies while they are sucking milk; and for this reason, if any of them adhere to those dugs of the mother that are nearer the heart, these they judge the better on account of that position and to be more spirited..."
from Aldrovandi's Natural History 1560

The wise selection of stock has long been the key element in breeding and developing livestock of any kind, yet not everyone gives the selection of breeding material the attention it merits. The quote above from the sixteenth century indicates how personal theories can influence the choice of a pup. Whether choosing a pet or breeding material it is always better to bring a technique into play than relying on a crafty breeder's recommendation or your own spontaneous thoughts, whilst admiring an appealing litter of enchanting sucklings. Those who claim to be able to 'pick a winner' at six weeks are either extraordinarily talented or exceedingly lucky. Some breeds are notoriously difficult to judge as nestlings, the bull-breeds especially.

I know of owners of dogs from what can be termed the broad-mouthed breeds who are genuinely surprised, and dismayed, when the pup they bought from a 'reputable breeder' displays in due course a crank tail and a pig-jaw. In her valuable book Bullmastiffs Today (Ringpress 1996) Lyn Pratt writes, on choosing a pup: "Look at the muzzle carefully. Is it the same width under the eyes as it is at the end? If it is, there is every chance that when the cheeks develop, the head will be good. A short muzzle in a very young puppy will look even shorter when the cheeks develop. Run the tail between your index finger and your thumb. It should be straight from root to (the end of the) tail. A short tail, or a crank tail, may be heavily penalised in the show ring. Do not believe any breeder who tells you that gentle massage will smooth away any kink. It will not."   That such a breeder exists is worrying. 
We all know of horror stories linked to crafty breeders; the pup with the distended belly described as 'nice and plump'; runny eyes blamed on a draught; wall-eyes wished away with 'pups' eyes never go brown for a month or two'; a cleft palate excused as 'nothing unusual in a growing pup'; a collapsing leg attributed to a collision with a sibling; a hare-lip explained away with 'he'll grow into that lip' and a swine-chopped pup condoned with 'all young pups have a wonky bite'. Until such disreputable breeders are more easily penalised, either in court or by a more resolute buyer, these scandals will continue and poor old Joe Public swindled. Yet every attempt to tighten up the law affecting unacceptable puppy-selling seems to merit the opposition of so many good breeders; why let your trade be dishonoured?

Irresponsible 'volume' breeders so often get away with it too. The Springer that sired over 100 litters without having any health clearances; the lurcher breeder producing 1000 pups each year; the Breed Club committee officers who direct every enquiry after a suitable sire for their bitch to their own stock however unsuitable the proposed mix of genes; these instances do not reveal dog-lovers but dog-exploiters. Yet so many proposed measures to curb some of these potentially harmful practices are attacked in the dog-press as being anti-dog; they usually sound to me more like anti-nasty human activity. But until we have a culture in which breeders deserve respect, demand the highest standards from their fellow breeders and truly exist to improve their breed rather than their bank balance, change will prove elusive. Meanwhile, not only is the 'man in the street' exploited but dog as a species too. I know of few books on dogs which cover puppy-purchase at all comprehensively; happily a number of magazines on dogs have remedied this and I salute them for this alone.   
Choosing a pup is very different from being sold a pup! A dodgy dog breeder will often act like a dominant male dog: striving to persuade you to do what he or she wants. A wise dog breeder will usually let you decide what suits your needs. Never take your children with you when choosing a pup from a litter! They will instinctively choose either the clown of the litter or the appealing runt; this is not a good start. In a perfect world you should see a litter when it is about four weeks old and collect your puppy when it is six weeks old. These are key stages in a pup's life; at four weeks the pup can see and communicate; two weeks later it needs to begin its learning curve with the new owner. Tiny pups tire easily; don't judge a litter of pups on their animation when you see them, they may be tired from recent play and not display their typical demeanour. Never go to see a litter when you feel bound to buy one; it is very important for the pup and you for you to be able to walk away empty-handed if your expectations are not fulfilled. Fifteen years is a long time to live with a mistake!

Look for lively clear bright eyes, a healthy pleasant-smelling shining coat, clean skin and ears, well-formed stools after excretion, a full complement of sharp little teeth (better judged in some pups at eight weeks), a pup heavy for its size but without a sagging belly. A healthy pup has no ribs or hipbones protruding, no discharge from the eyes or nose. Do not buy a pup with runny eyes, diarrhoea, a cough, bare rims round the eyes, an inguinal hernia (a lump in the groin) or an umbilical hernia (a lump around the navel), both of these being hereditary faults. Ensure that the breeder will take the pup back if, in a male pup, both testicles do not in time descend. Imperfect males can often have hormonal imbalance leading to temperamental disturbance. Your favoured pup should move firmly on all four legs. The smallest pup may be the most appealing but also the most weedy or sickly. Make your choice on those factors you have selected beforehand; never choose on impulse, gut feeling, pure hunch or choice-fatigue, where you choose irrationally because you're fed up with the time it's taking. Fifteen years of feeding an unwanted dog is an expensive mistake!
Decide before visiting a litter whether you want a dog with a certain personality or temperament; there are three basic categories: low, medium or high dominance. Outward signs of each are: low - placid, sedate, easy-going but not shy or insecure, for example hiding from new experiences; medium - active, playful, outgoing but not strongly assertive; high - assertive, especially with litter-mates, over-protective, strong-willed, very determined and not easily deterred. These are not faults! Just decide what you want from your future dog. Stubborn dogs are not easy to train but are often brave in a crisis; independent dogs can prefer to do their own thing rather than yours but often have more initiative; wilful dogs can still be brave but will test you every day. A dog without confidence is a trial for any owner. Look for a bold pup without any sign of nervousness. Never choose a shy dog! Fifteen years is a long time to spend reassuring a timid reluctant permanently frightened dog!

Ignore all the old untruths: a dark eye is not preferable to a light eye from a vision point of view; a light eye does not connect with a flighty temperament; a tail out straight behind does not always indicate a strong back; if you throw a lump of liver in with the whole litter, the pup that gets it may be the greediest not the most enterprising; if you tease a pup with a fresh rabbit-skin, it could over-react through hunger or under-react because it's overtired! Check the mouth and bite of the pup! You can see whether a pup is over or undershot very early in its life. Ask to see the parents. Check their 'bites' and their coat texture, both are directly inherited. A bad mouth and a poor coat are dreadful faults in a working dog. Fifteen years with a pig-jawed dog, whose coat in the rain is soaking wet to the skin, can seem longer!
Anatomical flaws are not always easy to spot in a tiny pup, but correct angulation both in shoulder placement and in the hindquarters can be discerned. Upright shoulders are prevalent in show stock, with hyper-angulation in the stifle and hock actually desired by some misguided breeders in quite a number of pedigree dog breeds. A pup should have straight legs, seen from the front and rear; there should be a discernible out-turn forward of the shoulder, in profile, not a straight smooth uninterrupted line from throat to toes, as in so many show Fox Terriers. The elbows should be close to the pup's chest; 'basset-legs', 'ten-to-two' feet or a 'Chippendale' front, in which the legs curve in and then out are not desired features in a sporting breed. When the pup is standing, the rear feet should be under the set of tail, not a few inches beyond it.
'Breed-faults' can be a world of mystery to the layman; expensive veterinary treatment is often attracted by dogs bred with abnormally long ears, unnaturally short legs, a muzzle too short for the dog's good or a needlessly heavy coat. For me, the terriers on display in KC-regulated show rings are often too cobby, or too short in the back. This is sometimes believed to act as a guarantee of an upright tail, but I believe the latter comes from the slope of the croup, rather than the length of back. If a terrier is to be an 'earth-dog' then it has to be really flexible in its spine; too short a spine prevents this. If a terrier is to operate in tight spaces then it needs to be eel-like, not too broad in the chest, with great extension in the forequarters both forwards and rearwards. Suppleness and pliancy in both fore and hindquarters matter when a dog is underground. Cross-bred terriers with Staffie blood so often lack this vital flexibility. Much is made of a 'spannable' chest, but I believe this feature is far less important than well-laid shoulders and unexaggerated hindlegs. These physical features can be spotted, in embryo, in a small pup, often by comparing the various pups in the litter at the same time, and confirmed by examining both parents, where they are available. Like begets like!

The relative size of the ears, tail placement, set of ears and the proportions of the neck do not change with age; large ears, low-set ears and tail and especially a short neck will go forward to the adult dog. The pup's coat should not appear soft or fluffy, but dense, wiry, hard and close-fitting. An open coat does not change with age and offers no protection from the elements. Never choose a pup on colour or markings alone. We all like a handsome typical dog, but a handsome cripple is not going to please even the least demanding owner. Coat colour sometimes defines the breed and I am not advocating any overlooking of mis-marked or unwanted hues in pedigree stock; once some colours, like black and tan, are in your breeding stock it is the devil's own job to get rid of it. It is important to look at the whole pup and strive to envision the future adult dog; some people are brilliant at this, but it needs a mental check list to fuel it. And the old adage 'you get what you pay for' punishes all those mean-minded purchasers who want something for nothing; they pay later! Feeding a dog alone costs a great deal of money over the years and vets' bills do not lessen with the years. What is the sense in throwing good money after bad? Why not invest wisely?

A shy, snappy, cowed, trembling, sick or stunted pup is easier to spot than one with anatomical flaws; that is why the choice should be based on a technique rather than a casual visual survey. If you are seeking breeding material, then judgement is always going to beat luck. Checking the pup from nose to toe, lifting it up, testing it with sudden noises, watching how it moves and relates to its siblings, seriously examining the pup with your brain as well as your eyes and ensuring you have the space and time to do this, reduces the chance of poor selection. It is not difficult to go home with a hound-eared, Staffie-chested, Pug-eyed, Poodle-coated, Basset-legged, swine-chopped but endearing bundle of joy. But if you want it to grow into a handsome dog you are proud to own, dream on! Fifteen years is a long time to live with an embarrassment, however much the children adore it. Plan your pup; select on known criteria not on passing whim or the look in its eyes. It is how you look at it with your eyes that justifies the choice. Not one of us surely wants to be 'sold a pup'!