by   David Hancock

  The advice to any would-be dog owner nowadays seems to follow a set format: Never buy a dog from the internet; never buy a pup without seeing the dam; beware of pet shops; don't take the children with you when choosing from a litter; research your chosen breed; don't assume that even a KC-registered breeder is faultless; avoid any breeds 'enjoying' temporary fame from 'celebrity' ownership; keep in mind that you have to live for perhaps 17 years with a 'mistake'! But human whim works differently. I have friends, intelligent people, who recently picked up a pup from a motorway service station, after ordering it on the internet, with no knowledge of the breeder, the litter, the breed, the medical history or the puppy-farm where bred! In the following weeks they spent hundreds of pounds in vet's bills and have now decided that they don't actually like the dog. Is this the new format!  

  What do most dog-owners want in their pet dogs? Surely companionability, backed by health, vigour and longevity. But how little both serious innovation and enlightened enterprise feature in the breeding programmes of our pedigree dogs. Pure breeding is fine when strong healthy dogs result from it. But in so many of our pedigree breeds, there is a small gene pool and in all of them there is a closed gene pool. Our ancestors bred for results on legs not on paper and most of our revered pedigree breeds have a very mixed ancestry. Many scientists consider there is a proven case for producing healthy hybrids for the pet market and retaining pure breeds for show and breeding stock. In his most informative book If Dogs Could Talk - Exploring the Canine Mind, (Sutton, 2006), the Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csanyi, makes a compelling case for it.

In his enlightening book, Vilmos Csanyi produces such phrases as: 'It is high time for breeders and their organisations to introduce, in their own self-interest, breeding criteria based on behaviour'...'Homozygous stocks pay a stiff price for genetic order. Whatever the species, its variability, resistance and performance are generally below that of heterozygous stocks'...'It is hardly possible to create a homozygous dog breed without damaging side effects.' He recommends the creation of uniform hybrids, by cross-breeding different existing breeds. But, as a scientist, he does point out that such hybrids should not be bred further. Their merit is not as breeding material, but as healthy stable companion dogs. This is after all, the main market for dogs.

In his informative book How To Breed Dogs (Orange Judd, New York, 1947) the highly experienced dog-breeder Leon Whitney wrote: "Now, as every breeder knows most dogs are bought on the basis of what cute puppies they are. The buyer hardly stops to ask, ‘Will it have a calm even disposition when it is grown?' Nor does the breeder usually stress disposition. Instead he brags about the wonderful champion show dogs in the pedigree - anything to sell the pup. Why can't breeders all realize that what makes dogs lastingly popular is first, disposition?" If the general public buy puppies without any regard to their likely temperament, is it at all surprising that children get bitten, breeds can get a bad name as a result and fewer sales in that breed ensue. Most 'returned' puppies are done so from behavioural defects. Were their parents well selected?

Surely the very first question any responsible parent should ask when selecting a future family pet is: 'What is the temperament of the parents and previous litters from this mating?' Every breeder of purebred dogs needs sales to pet homes to sell litters; who is going to recommend breeders of dogs likely to have undesirable temperaments? The biggest single cause of each and every breed going into rescue is their temperament. What possible solace is there in saying later, in sorrow, that it was such a cute puppy! ' What comfort is it to be told that the dog that bit your child had ancestors that won Crufts? Even accredited breeders are not obliged to put temperament high on their list of desired qualities. Is this the best way to promote the breeding of companion animals? Is this the best way to promote the breed you love? Is this the best way to improve the man-dog relationship? Selectivity really does matter; selecting the breeder really does matter. Selecting the right genes is the key not just to breeding but successful ownership too.

Forty years ago, the distinguished veterinary psychologist, MW Fox was writing: "The breed of dog that a person owns may be a projection of deeper needs and identifications. An insecure or paranoid person may want a powerful guard dog. Another person who is attempting to live up to an ego image of grace and agility may keep an Afghan Hound or a Saluki." The choice should surely rely not on the owner's personality but that of the breed. At the same time Cheshire vet Joan Joshua was writing: "People choose breeds without any thought of their natural working tendencies. Working sheepdogs are popular pets, yet how many appear in veterinary surgeries as pathetic and incurable neurotics because their owners have failed to meet their need to be disciplined, submissive working dogs?"

MW Fox went on to write: "It is important that a potential owner be advised as to the suitability of a certain breed that he feels that he would like. Such 'adoption counselling' would be a great service to the owner."  I believe it would be a far greater service to the dog; it would surely reduce the numbers of unwanted dogs in rescue and welfare kennels at this time. But if someone seeking a companion dog contacts a breed club, I doubt if their needs and circumstances are analysed. The Kennel Club too only supplies a list of breeders in a stated breed. Who is truly going to provide prospective dog-owners with the most valuable advice of all - the best breed for the need?

Far more important than winning rosettes, securing a judging appointment or achieving membership of a committee and one so often avoided, evaded or even ignored is the  temperament in our breeds of dog. Most dogs of any breed ending up 'in rescue' are there because they display problems in their temperament. This means that even handsome soundly-constructed dogs are unacceptable in the family environment because they cannot be trusted temperamentally. Owners of dodgy-tempered  dogs all too often make lame excuses for them. But it is not unknown either for the dreaded 'kennel blindness' to affect those with successful show or working dogs of untrustworthy temperament, even to the extent of breeding from such flawed stock.

Scientists have come up with three possible causes of bad temperament: unsatisfactory upbringing, heredity and the dog's own nature, unrelated to its breeding or upbringing. Sporting and working dogs can be members of a very dominant breed, terriers especially - and with their heritage that's hardly surprising. But a dog of any size, allowed to be too dominant, is a definite danger. We all know of cases where the dog is allowed the run of the house, to replace its owner as pack-leader and display unwanted aggression without being checked. There is a huge difference between a perfectly natural guarding instinct and an unacceptable degree of dominance. When I was a soldier I had experience of guard-dogs, anti-ambush dogs, tracker dogs and detection dogs; those in the first two categories could be more than fierce - but they were always under control.

I don't have a problem with male dogs whichare a bit sharp with other dogs or bitches which take a dislike to a litter-sister or dogs with a strong guarding instinct. The problem lies not with dogs with predictable attitudes but those which bite humans without warning and for no discernible reason. These are the dogs which are capable of shaming the breed, or, worse, getting the breed banned as a dangerous one. This is a topic which more than any other at the moment demands a debate. If not, some precious breeds will face an uncertain future. We live in times when vote-conscious politicians in many Western countries are only too eager to rush through ill-conceived laws to pacify rightly-concerned citizens. Such laws never apply to breeders!


 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'!

“Breeders aspire to breed the perfect ‘specimen’ as laid down in the breed standard, but few Bernese are kept as rural farm-working dogs nowadays. The vast majority are in demand as family companions, and most live in urban, highly populated communities. Breeders must regard good temperament as the primary objective, and must ensure that biddable, predictable, and above all else, manageable temperaments abound. Bernese are indeed one of the most beautiful breeds, but without a good temperament that beauty is worthless – RELIABLE TEMPERAMENT IS EVERYTHING.”
Jude Simonds in an article in Our Dogs of November, 1998.