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How to Choose a Puppy

By Kim Everson, DVM


Preparing to welcome a new dog to your family is an exciting time. Regardless of whether you will be searching shelters or interviewing breeders, it is important to do some research on what type of dog will mesh best with your lifestyle.

1. Puppy or adult? Adopting a puppy allows you to choose a dog with a temperament best suited to you and puts you in control of his early education. However, puppies require a lot of time, training and patience. If you do not have a lot of time for housetraining, socialization and obedience work, adopting an adult dog might be a better choice.

2. Breed: This is a very important consideration that requires careful thought and study. Many types of dogs have been specifically bred for certain habits and temperament. You and your future dog will be happiest if  you share common interests. For example, if you are a confirmed couch potato, a high energy border collie is not a great choice. Consider also the anticipated adult size of the canine candidates. If you live in a studio apartment, a St. Bernard puppy may not be a good fit for long!

Meet and interact with each of the puppies in a litter
to determine each pup’s temperament.

3. Temperament: A dog’s temperament is his personality. When selecting a puppy from a litter, observe how he interacts with his littermates. A confident puppy–who stands over or chases the others–is more likely to be strong-willed and dominant as an adult. The puppy hiding in the corner is more likely to have anxiety later on. A puppy who plays easily with his littermates, but happily follows you around when removed from the litter is a well-adjusted puppy.

If you are considering a shelter or rescue dog, find out as much as you can about his history and socialization. How does he interact with volunteers and other dogs in the shelter? How does he behave during feedings, on walks, in the kennel, when groomed?

The important thing to remember about temperament is that it is an innate part of the dog’s personality. Training will NOT change his personality, but his personality will affect the type of training he will need.

4. Age at Adoption: Sadly, some very serious behavior issues stem from removing a puppy too early from his mother and littermates. Just because a puppy is weaned and eating dry dog food does NOT mean he is mature enough to leave his mother. Essential neurological and social development occurs during and after the time of weaning. Pups that leave the litter before they are 8 weeks old are at much higher risk of being fearful and anxious. Trainer Maryna Ozuna describes Five Week Puppy Syndrome for International Association for Canine Professionals Safe Hands Journal (Winter 2009-10):

  • excessive mouthiness
  • lack of bite inhibition
  • hard biting at extraordinarily young ages
  • lack of tolerance to sensory stimulation: touch, noise, visual confusion
  • lack of tolerance about most anything in general
  • lack of ability to generalize
  • slowness of learning
  • difficulty sequencing concepts and learning
  • lack of bounce back
  • easily confused
  • highly vocal when upset or confused
  • high startle response (startles easily and extremely at low stimuli)
The “piling” of puppies seen here is crucial to the normal
neurological and social development of the dog. Taking a
puppy from the litter before 8 weeks old can hinder
proper development leading to anxiety, aggression and
training disabilities.

In recent months I have met two puppies who fit this bill perfectly. One is a Brittany Spaniel who joined his human family at the very tender age of 5 weeks old! His owners complain that he is strangely and annoyingly vocal. He strongly resents affectionate touching, especially around his face. The other pup is a Visla who, though only a few months old, bites his humans extremely hard and viciously. He too is very vocal.

If these symptoms describe your early-adopted dog, don’t despair. A good trainer or behaviorist can help you recondition your dog through appropriate handling, careful exposure to stimuli and tolerance training. Sometimes early separation from the mother dog is unavoidable due to her serious illness or death. However, if you are interviewing breeders and they routinely send pups home before 8 weeks of age, look elsewhere or insist the pup stay with the litter and mother longer.

5. A Word About Runts: My veterinary clients frequently report to me that they intentionally sought out the runt of the litter. While a Fern-like* desire to nurture the smallest, weakest animal is admirable, it can lead to heartache. Many times the runt of the litter is tiny because there is something physically wrong with it. Congenital liver, kidney and heart conditions, for example, can cause stunted growth and decreased vigor. While certainly every dog deserves a loving home, be prepared if choosing the runt for the increased possibility of  intensive, costly veterinary care and/or a shortened life span.

It is very difficult to overcome our emotional and psychological tendencies to choose a puppy based on it’s visual appeal or antics. A little ball of fluff with mournful puppy dog eyes is hard to resist. For this reason, it is nearly impossible for some of us to visit a shelter or litter without bringing home an unplanned companion. However, it is essential for the health, happiness and well-being of your future relationship with your pet to choose wisely.

* In the classic novel Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, the heroine Fern saves runt piglet Wilbur from certain death and he grows up to be “Some Pig.”

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