CHOOSING A PUPPY! The common science (common sense + science) approach!
Cranking open this can of worms because……well…..I have a secret to share. I am gearing up to get my first puppy! It’s not yet 100% set in stone as anything can happen (the bitch is currently pregnant) and if something goes wrong- I’m not going to look for an immediate replacement.
This is about the right puppy for me and my dogs- and this blog describes the process I’m working through. Fear not rescue folks, I’m still a rescuer at heart and this will likely be my only puppy.
CHOOSING A BREED, A LINE, GENDER AND A COLOUR
I previously wrote about breed lines and behaviour traits, including a nod toward the influence colour can have on behaviour. I’m going for a show line Border Collie.
I’ve decided on a boy (because Kanita will not want to live with a girl, I am quite sure).
I will only have a black and white or blue dog, because I prefer the personality/temperment traits. I’ve noted in Collies of this colour (absolutely no disrespect to those with reds, merles and tris- it’s all about individual preference – not that there’s anything wrong with those colours).
**WHY** a Border Collie?
I’ve chosen this breed because I eventually (when they’re old enough) want a dog to run with, to do training with and because I love the breed!
Choosing a breed because you like how it looks or because it’s from a breeder not too far away from where you live could land you in a spot of bother down the line….get to know the breed (or breeds, if you’re choosing a mixed breed) and be confident that breed or type meets your needs and you can meet theirs!
**EXPERIENCE** What’s your experience of the breed and what comparisons do you have of them to other breeds/types you observed?
If you’ve only really spent time with Irish Setters, how can you be sure they’re the dog for you? I have direct experience with Border Collies (I own one and have trained plenty). I know what good traits this breed has, and I know what potential difficult traits this breed has. I’ve walked in excess of 6,000 groups of dogs in my career as a dog walker, trained approximatly 300 puppies a year for over five years and carried out hundreds of one-one sessions a year for eight years. That’s a lot of observations and a huge opportuity to observe traits across many breeds and crosses (including traits in lines and colours).
Getting non-bias information is key when choosing a breed. Remember, most breeders are fanatics of their breed/type (or of their dog) and some may not give you the full story!
Those adding a hefty price tag may tell you what you want to hear. Ask veterinary staff about health issue trends in breeds, ask dog walkers, day carers, trainers, behaviourists and groomers! There’s a wealth of info available from those who work with multiple breeds! How healthy are they? Do they age well? Is their coat easy to maintain, what’s their play style like with dogs….etc
**MEET** Get out there and meet people with dogs, observe dogs in action. Ask on dog community pages to go for a (socially distanced) dog walk with someone who owns a breed you’re interested in and see them out and about. Try and see them at different ages (meet an adolescent and an adult dog). Meet both sexes. Ask the owner what they’re like to live with, ask them how their adolescence was, ask them how predatory they are, ask them how they are with children.
**THINK** What is it specifically about the breed (including the breed line) or mixes of breed you’ve chosen that you like? How does this breed meet your needs? What traits does the breed or breeds involved have and how could these cause you challenges? Can you meet this breeds needs, can you provide the level of training this breed likely needs to avoid problem behaviours forming? I’ve chosen show line because I already have a show line Border Collie. I like their level of drive (generally less drive and less intensity than BCs from working stock). I want a dog who is motivated but who can equally switch off.
If you’re going for a real mix…..consider, can you really predict the traits you’re going to get? What if you get all of the challenging traits from all of the breeds involved?! Please don’t think I’m anti mixed breeds guys, I have had three of my own to date. I just think there are some poorly considered crosses out there (Malinois x cavapoo currently takes the title for the most irresponsible one I’ve seen advertised for sale on line to date!).
CHOOSING A BREEDER
Initially I approached my dog’s breeder. I have a huge respect for her because when he was being rehomed at 7 years old (existing owners were worried he was stressed about the baby)- she was about to take him back. But I got to him first, and she was ready to have him if it didn’t work with me. 7 years after breeding- she was going to take him back. That, my friends, is what good breeders do. She carries out every health test going on her dogs.
**RESEARCH** What health issues does the breed (or breeds) your chosen dog tends to suffer from? Eyes, hips, heart, elbows, knees? Then ensure the breeder carries out tests for all of these.
Alas, the timing wasn’t right for my breeder and I asked her whether any offspring from Roo’s (my collie) father (a champion dog called Seamus) was being mated from. She put me in touch with another breeder who had Roo’s half brother. I have chosen a breeder and a line that is as closely related to a dog I know and love (apart from when he rolls in cow pats) as I can get! Roo is 11 years old and runs 6k with me! For an older dog he is in excellent health- I want these physically robust genes in my next dog!
NOTE neither breeder has raised their prices since Covid. A Border Collie pedigree used to be around £800 and still should be around £800.
**FIND** A breeder who has bred a dog you have met in person and liked! If you meet a quality dog, who has a robust, social temperment- find out who bred that dog!! This means you need to get out there and MEET dogs!
GRILLING THE BREEDER! Now here’s the gritty stuff……I think I’ve found my breeder but I am not yet sold! I need to be 100% sure this person has chosen the right dogs to mate and who knows what they’re doing.A good breeder will allow themselves to be grilled. Here’s some questions (plus more) I asked my breeder over a 40 minute phone conversation. I tried when possible to ask non-leading questions, so in brackets is the information I am trying to extract from my phone conversation.
**Temperment**- what temperments are the breeders selecting for.
DO THEY GET TO SOCIALISE WITH OTHER DOGS MUCH? (Do they like dogs and have they shown aggressive tendancies towards dogs?)
DO THEY PLAY BALL OR TUG WITH OTHER DOGS? (Do they resource guard toys)
ARE THEY FOOD MOTIVATED WHEN OTHER DOGS ARE AROUND? (Do they resource guard food)
DO THEY LIKE CHEWS AND BONES? (Resource guarding)
HAVE THEY EVER BEEN LEFT ALONE AND HOW DO THEY BEHAVE WHEN THEY ARE LEFT HOME ALONE? (Do they have separation anxiety, we know there’s a genetic component to separation anxiety- where the tendancy for hyper -attachment or anxiety and panic when alone can potentially be inherited).
DO THEY LIKE GOING ON ROAD TRIPS?
WHERE DO YOU TAKE THEM? (Confidence in the car and going to new places)
WHEN VISITORS ARRIVE WHAT BEHAVIOURS DO YOU EXPECT TO SEE FROM YOUR DOGS? (How do they cope with intrusion onto their territory or towards unfamiliar people).
DO THEY BARK AT THE DOORBELL? (Try to lead on to assessing general alerting tendancies).
ON THEIR WALKS DO THEY LIKE TO SNIFF? (How aroused or visual are they when out and about).
DO THEY APPROACH PEOPLE AND DOGS ON THEIR WALKS? (assessing socialbility)
WHAT ACTIVITIES DO THEY LIKE TO DO? (training, play assessment)
I BET THEY LIKE SQUIRREL SEASON!! (Statement, do they chase squirrels? Obviously many dogs do, but this may link onto info about other prey such as rabbits or birds).
HAVE THEY EVER MET SHEEP OR COWS? (Livestock worrying assessment)
DO THEY GO TO BUSY PLACES? (How do they cope away from home)
WHAT DO THEY THINK ABOUT FIREWORKS SEASON? (Sound sensitivity assessment, there’s often a genetic component to sound sensivity).
**Socialisation**- what does my breeder intend to do with the pups before she passes them on? The sensative window starts from 4 weeks of age- so breeders have 4 weeks of socialisation to do!
Here’s some example questions I asked my breeder on socialisation
DO THE PUPS GET TO MEET ANY OTHER DOGS BEFORE 8 WEEKS OF AGE? (Meeting other dogs can be beneficial, but they also have to be the right dogs- not too vocal, not too many!).
WHAT AGE DO YOU TEND TO BRING VISITORS TO SEE THEM? (Are they going to get to meet other people, not too early and not too late! 4-5 weeks is a good age for pups to meet new people).
DO THE PUPS GET TO EXPLORE THE GARDEN? (Do they experience more than their kennel/whelping box/whelping room/the house?).
DO THEY GET TO SEE ANY MORE ANIMALS THAN DOGS? (If you have cats, it can be beneficial to find a breeder whose cats live at peace with their dogs)
DO YOU TAKE THEM ANYWHERE ELSE THAN THE VET? (If a pup’s first two car journeys are the vets for vaccination and then being pulled away from their litter- we are potentially setting them up for a negative association).It’s worth considering the environment the pup has grown up in. Taking into consideration that stress can affect pups in utero (influencing their behaviour in later life). Furthermore, physical/tactile and mental enrichment within an environment can further influence pup personality and behaviour- helping with brain development in young dogs. Is a concrete kennel, baron utility room or a noisy environment (shrieking children, barking dogs, building work) the best place for a bitch to raise her pups?
So……my breeder stood up to the grilling. Unphazed, non defensive, totally at ease. Breeders should relish in people testing them- because this should be their opportunity to flaunt their breed and genetics knowledge and show puppy adopters that they’ve chosen the right person. A good breeder will likely be pleased someone who is taking one of their puppies has done all this research! A good breeder might even refuse someone as an adopter if they don’t cut the mustard!
ONTO THE NEXT PHASE……..** MEET THE DOGS IN PERSON**
I should add that before this I facebook and website stalked both dogs……looking at pictures of them and watching videos of the bitch in action in agility (I was pleased to note she completed a clear round 100% without barking! I want a dog who is not genetically predisposed to bark the moment they experience any form of arousal).Now…..I’m in Bristol and my chosen breeder is in Lincoln…..I can’t go up there three times in a few months! Along comes my good friend Sara to save the day. A very experienced trainer for the Guide Dogs with an MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour. This dog-nerd super hero went and visited the dogs for me and took lots of videos because the only downside of my breeder is she’s a tech Phobe ).
– Next to no barking from all 8 collies on arrival
– No sign of nervousness around the breeder, nor nervousness of my friend as the visitor
– All dogs settled very quickly after visitor arrival- Social behaviour, no jumping, enjoying strokes, eye contact, vocal interaction
– No aggression between any of the dogs- most bred by the breeder, but some are other dogs sent to her from her friends for socialising
– No attachment issues observed from the bitch or sire when the breeder was in a different room
– Hips and general health of all dogs looked good (they’re all health tested anyway!)
– 13 year old dog bred by the breeder there, no health issues bar foggy eyes. A glimpse at the longevity of her ‘product’.
– The sire’s tractor chasing (when they appear in the field near the house) was relatively low arousal (no barking) and very short lived. This reassured me no end that I was getting a pup from the right breeder who was breeding two dogs who ticked all the boxes
WHAT’S NEXT? So….once the pup is 4-5 weeks I’ll (hopefully, virus permitting!) be heading up to meet them and choose the puppy. I have a temperment in mind and will be observing all the boys within the litter, looking at how they respond to me coming into the room, any sudden sounds made while I’m there and how they interact with one another. Even where they fall within the group formation (front, middle or back) is important for me to observe. Then….I will head home and try and sleep as much as possible before I pick up my puppy 5 weeks later!
And that my friends, is how you should (in my opinion) ideally go about picking a puppy.
Grill the breeder like you’re Micheal Parkinson
Meet both parents before you’re committed to purchase
Meet the puppy at 4-5 weeks, again you should ideally be able to back out of purchase if you want to
Then pick up the puppy
The more pre adoption meetings the better- but often travel distance is an issue. Sadly, I am seeing more and more puppies who appear to have a genetic predisposition strongly influencing a problem behaviour. I feel increasingly that this is correlated with the ever increasing trend in crossing breeds. This trend is leading to breeders mating dogs who really shouldn’t be bred from- because they know big money is earned for a mongrel mating. 5 years ago this wasn’t anywhere near so much the case. The ever increasing busy-ness and intensity of the urban world and busy working lives of owners undoubtedly plays its role, but you cannot dispute the importance of a solid genetic foundation to build behaviour on!
Remember folks, the tendancy to be anxious, aggressive, fearful, more easily frustrated, more easily aroused and perhaps even difficult to train can be influenced by what happens to your puppy before and as a result of conception (the parents), while they’re in utero (the mum’s environment) and the first 8 weeks of their life (socialisation). This can affect how they are with dogs, people, sounds in and around the home and on walks, alone time, how they handle not having their expectations met (including coping with barriers, such as pens, stair gates and crates).
If owners set higher standards for breeders to meet then less people will haphazardly breed puppies. Those who give little thought into inherited temperment and behavioural traits, let alone the influence of the environment on maternal behaviour or puppy development, really need to leave it up to breeders that do. But if people continue to reinforce breeder ignorance by buying their puppies- then responsibility also falls elsewhere- with you, the consumer!
I appreciate this may be too late for many and this post is 100% NOT designed to patronise, condescend, tell off or frustrate those who have already got their puppy and not been aware of the things they could have asked or done. It is absolutely not your fault that you haven’t managed to sift through the whole internet and find out the info that matters most. It’s a minefield!
But, as the puppy ‘pandemic’ shows no sign of slowing- behaviourists, trainers and vets have to get this information out there. Dog behaviour problems are already the biggest cause of euthanasia in dogs under 3 years of age in the UK (Boyd et al, 2018). This study shows that adolescence in dogs is a tough time for owners (and dogs!!). We need to make it easier by choosing breeders who are breeding from the right dogs.
My advise folks is to research, observe and take your time! A few months of information gathering is a small burden compared to the emotional challenges of living with problem dog behaviour. Getting a rescue puppy is one thing, you resign yourself to some element of the unknown! But when it comes to puppy purchases- you can absolutely play a role in dog welfare by setting a bar so high breeders have to take great leaps to reach!
CHOOSING A PUPPY! The common science (common sense + science) approach!