Which Puppy Would You Pick?

By Bob McMillan

Whether you’re making the selection yourself or your breeder picks a puppy for you, what can you tell looking at an eight-week-old puppy? Other than it’s heartbreakingly cute and you wonder how many you can make it out the door with before anyone notices?

Luckily, there’s a testing procedure to that can give you insights into what to expect in the months and years ahead from this squirming ball of fur and razor-sharp teeth.

Evaluating puppies is a both a science and an art form and it’s not perfect. Every puppy is an individual and there are usually surprises as your dog develops and personality, temperament and inclinations unfold. But, if you’re like many of today’s dog owners, you’re going to spend the next eight to ten years training and living intimately with this dog. You want to know what you have to work with as it all begins. No pressure there, right?

An Irish wolfhound puppy
An Irish wolfhound puppy

First, let’s assume that whether you’re getting a purebred or a rescue, you know the general type of dog you want. If you’re quiet and sedentary, a dog who lives to run may not be your first choice. If you’re active and outdoorsy, a toy dog may not be enough for your lifestyle. And let’s assume that if it’s a purebred, you’ve researched breeders and picked a knowledgeable veteran dedicated to the breed and not profit. Most of a dog’s temperament comes genetically through the parents, so you’ll want to be sure to meet and study them for a sign of things to come.

For weeks, I’ve been glued to my computer screen watching photos and videos of a litter of 14 Irish wolfhound puppies born on the 4th of July weekend. In my case, my breeder will pick which puppy I’ll take home.  I’m fine with that because she’s taken the time to get to know my wife and I and she has a record of successfully pairing puppies with owners. And, unlike me, she’s spent nearly two months living with and watching these puppies around the clock while I’ve spent a lot of time just cooing at my laptop screen.
I’m confident that I’ll have a vigorous, robust puppy, but other than knowing she’ll be a 100-pound juvenile in six months and the potential that I’ll be regularly dragged through the shrubbery is high, what else can I expect? I’ve noted which puppies are loners, which ones don’t mind being on the bottom of the pile and which ones don’t like to be left out of the fun.

But it won’t be until at least the seventh week that the puppies can be reliably evaluated. We know this thanks to Clarence Pfaffenberger, an educator and trainer of guide dogs for the blind, who popularized the notion that puppies need socialization to prepare for life in our world.

Training for guide dogs starts young and it is expensive and exhausting. Picking the right puppies to train is essential. In the 1960s, only about 9 percent of the dogs successfully completed training. Phaffenberger was understandably frustrated. He collaborated with other behavioral scientists and in 1963 published, “The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior,” which set the standard for evaluating and rearing guide dogs. The success rate for dogs evaluated using Phaffenberger’s methods jumped to 90 percent. His procedure has been used by numerous other high-profile trainers in devising evaluation plans of their own.

The seventh week is a critical time because that’s the point when a puppy’s brain becomes neurologically complete.  With each passing day, responses to temperament testing will be shaded by new learning, wrote Phaffenberger. More recent studies have questioned this teaching and some suggest testing is inconclusive until the puppy is several months old. But by then the prime period for socializing your puppy — before the 16th week — is past. Any clues that testing can give about your puppy are probably better than none.

Whether the pressure to pick a puppy is entirely on you or you simply want to better understand the puppy your breeder is giving you, take your time. You’re improving your odds for a successful relationship by learning the broad strokes of your puppy’s temperament. What you learn will help you adjust your socialization program and later training.

A puppy who has good social skills with its littermates is one who will probably do well with dogs later in life, so watch how they play fight and wrestle. Which ones enjoy the company of other puppies? Which ones are loners? Does the puppy you’re watching handle being on the bottom of a wrestling match as well as on top? When play biting and the other puppy yelps, does the biter quickly respond and release or does he play too hard?

How sociable is the puppy towards humans? The ones who willingly comes over to you out of curiosity and linger are more likely to enjoy the company of humans as adults. Your heart may go out to the puppy lingering shyly in the corner, but remember frightened dogs are more likely to become fear-biters as adults. Jumping up on you or nipping at the hem of your trousers is normal puppy behavior. The puppies who ignore you and go off on their own away from the litter to explore could be loners as adults as well.

When the puppy is eating or playing with a favorite chew toy, does it growl when you come near or remain relaxed?  Growling is a sign it could become a resource-guarder and will need counter-training later on.

When you gently restrain the puppy and pick it up, does it continue struggling or does it relax to your touch? Puppies uncomfortable with human touch could be hard to groom and live with in later life.

Drop a saucepan lid or tin plate a few feet away from the puppy. Startling is not unusual, but did the puppy yelp and run away, urinate or growl and snap the source of the sound? These puppies may be highly sensitive and require desensitivity training to cope with their environments as adults.

Take the test puppy in a separate room and play with it, then leave it alone for a few moments. Does it bark and cry while you’re gone? This could be a sign of future separation anxiety and if you take this dog home, you’ll need to train accordingly.

Finally, listen to your breeder. He or she has raised and observed numerous litters and knows the traits and quirks of the breed well. They’ve likely made extensive notes on each puppy. They’ve carefully sized up your puppy and can give you valuable insights.

You can find step-by-step instructions from several puppy evaluation tests on line. Just remember, while the steps are based on science, the interpretation of the results is subjective. It’s not a crystal ball, but it can give you the owner and trainer clues as to which direction to take socialization and training when you finally bring that puppy home. And, at that point, any clues are good ones. Plus, you’re learning a valuable lesson. You’re focusing on the nuances of your puppy’s behavior. It’s a skill you’ll want to continue to develop all your dog’s life.

9 comments

  1. I did all the things recomended in this article. I saw in the video and pictures that my puppy was a loner—she even slept outside the puppy pile. That was the only thing I ignored, instead, relying on the breeder (who meets all the reputable standards).

    My dog is now a little over 2 years old and we are very bonded but I wish I had not ignored this sign. I spent many years fostering and rescuing, so I am not overwhelmed by the task of dealing with her behavior, but I wanted a break from dogs with severe problems and had to make a decision to return her or to keep her and work with her.

    I opted to keep her and she is a great dog except for her fear and anxiety. Prozac made it worse. Early on, we took puppy socialization classes and took her to the same place for doggy daycare. We are dog park regulars and she runs errends with me. We took a road trip that involved a total of 3500 miles. I used rest stops and treats to make people and other dogs appealing. I am happy to say she is not at all shy, although an unfortunate experience with a bigger dog at the dog park has made it harder for her there.

    Her separation anxiety and fear barking are intense, even after working with a professional. At some point in the future, we may just have to use some kind of mild sedation. I accept it will always be a factor for her, but even dealing with it daily, she does’t respond to any training or behavior work. It is frustrating but more that that, I worry for her.

  2. Great point! I would have to try the room test when I get a pup. We would like to have a pet, however they should be trained for the missus to get approval.

  3. This is very helpful as I am thinking of getting one and would be useful to know their temperament so that I could know what to expect slightly from them. Thanks for sharing. – Lisa Williams

  4. Scott, I admire your tenacity. I think there are no 100% guarantees with any form of evaluation. We can do our homework, focus on the traits we want, glean everything we can from the breeder and tests… and then roll the dice.

  5. Bob, some very good points. I do not make any claim to be an expert on picking the right puppy. However, interesting enough in Nov 1st 2013 I went to Montana to pick a golden retriever pup to do therapy work. I was told this was the pup, he was the last pup to be picked up, the breeder I questioned a lot and she was doing a puppy socializing process from Carmen Battgilia who was well known. So, I thought this pup would ok. I was told do not get a field golden, however I had a field golden and he was nothing short of amazing and I picked him. I knew what I wanted, my main sign was NO fear, I needed confidence, give me a confident pup and s/he will do great in many things. Well, the minute I got this guy home I told my wife & breeder something is not right? This pup does not want to engage me unless I give food(he is 9weeks old), he appeared to me very independent, he did change some, but once again wit

    1. but once again within 2 weeks of having him, I knew this guy would not do therapy work. At 10 months old, I had to send him back, he was very smart, very athletic, fast, huge yet very lean 77lbs, and he had a few issues some of the best dog trainers I know could not fix. The wife & I hated it. But, I could not control him. Next I picked a pup that amazing smart at 10 weeks old, tons of confidence, but he had a birth defect & the breeder took him back to be put down? Then came the 3rd pup that I just did not like him, yet I think I took him because I wanted another pup soon. This guy was happy, however all he did is plat around for 15 minutes and go lay down & thats it. No drive to do much, we just did not match, breeder gladly took him back. Then in March 2014 I went to check out 14 male pups, I went at the 6.5 week period for a purpose. I found this guy at 6.5 weeks with the type of focus you get in a much older pup or dog. After using a pine cone as a distraction it was very clear this was the guy. And today at 7 mons this little guy has not changed 1 bit, very confident, happy pup, goofball of sorts, and will make a great therapy dog. **My point is you are correct the 7th week very important to look for a confident pup. The breed can make a difference as to what to look for, at least I think so. ***Something else I was looking for in the parents, what I referred to as an off-switch. I had many breeders tell me you will not know if a puppy has an off-switch. I believe if people do their homework they can pick or the breeder can pick the right pup most of the time. It`s 100%, but you can get close. It took me 1.5 yrs to find this guy.

  6. A bit of caution when doing the startle test… keep in mind that your pup may be in a fear imprint period, and we don’t want to leave him afraid of loud noises! Make sure you don’t scare him too much.

  7. Great column, Bob. Much of what we get in adult dogs is genetics. Knowing early on what our dogs may be predisposed to behaviorally gives us the opportunity to address the problem and modify it. Puppies are wonderful and a true labor of love.

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