Now that you’ve decided what kind of dog you’re looking for and have some idea of where you’re going to get your new family member, it’s finally time for the fun part — meeting and playing with puppies and dogs!
The Pick of the Litter
If possible, plan on visiting each litter you’re choosing from several times, from the time the puppies are about five weeks old until they’re ready to come home (usually between eight and 12 weeks) so you have some idea of the general temperament and energy level of the puppies before you make your final selection. Some breeders will make the selection for you, placing the puppies in the homes that they feel will be most successful for all concerned.
If you are getting your puppy from a breeder, this is the time to ask about health testing that was done on the puppies’ parents prior to breeding (do your research for the breed you’ve selected and find out what genetic health problems are common). You should also meet the puppies’ parents — at least their mother — if possible. If you don’t like the temperament of the parents, continue your search with another breeder.
If you have your choice of puppies, you’ll want to observe and handle them as a group and individually. The pushy, pick-me type of puppy may seem almost irresistible, but may not be the best choice if your personality isn’t as strong as the puppy’s. The breeder or caretaker of the litter is an invaluable source of information about the puppies’ individual personalities. Use their observations to help you choose the best match for your personality and lifestyle.
There are also some simple tests you can do with the puppies individually to help you make your decision:
- Have the breeder place the puppy in a quiet room with you (they can observe, but shouldn’t interact with the puppy). Does the puppy come right to you? Jump up on you? Paw or mouth you? Ignore you? What if you call her?
- Get up and walk around the room a bit, encouraging the puppy to follow if necessary. Does the puppy follow willingly? Get in your way by tripping you or jumping on you? Go the other way? Not move from the original place?
- Pick up the puppy and gently restrain her. Does she accept restraint willingly? Struggle a little? Struggle a lot? Fight frantically, including biting and growling?
- Get down on the floor with the puppy. One at a time, pick up and handle each foot and lightly pinch the webbing between the toes with your fingertips (no nails, please!) for a few seconds. Do the same with each ear, looking inside the ears and again, lightly pinching the ear leather. Gently pull the puppy’s tail and lightly grab him by his scruff (the loose skin at the back of the neck). Did the puppy accept handling calmly? Did he struggle to get away? Did he cry? Did he fight furiously?
- Put the puppy down and stroke him a couple of time from his ears down to his tail. Does he stay with you, snuggling up for more attention? Does he go away, but come back with little or no encouragement? Does he go away and stay away? Does he seem to hold resentment about the last test?
- Take one of the puppy’s toys (a crumpled ball of paper works in a pinch) and toss it a few feet from the puppy. Does she go get it and bring it back? Does she chase it but lose interest? Does she get it and run away with it? Does she ignore it completely? If she ran away with it, what does she do when you follow her and try to get it back?
- Take an old metal pot or pan and drop it a few feet from the puppy. In another minute or so, open an automatic umbrella a few feet from the puppy. Does the puppy startle, but then investigate the novelties within a few seconds? Does he cautiously circle them but never make contact? Does he jump right on them, maybe even mouthing them? Does he head for the hills in a panic?
Ideally, perform these tests on the litters you’re evaluating two or three times from the ages of six to 10 weeks to get the clearest picture of the puppies’ basic temperaments. In general, most pet homes are looking for a “yes” to the first question in most or all of the tests above. Pushier or more dominant puppies are fine as working dogs or for experienced dog owners or competition homes, but they can be a little (or a lot) too much to live with for the average person who works and wants a life other than entertaining a dog.
Registration with the AKC or any other registry in no way represents or corresponds to the quality of the dog. It only proves that the dog’s parents were registered as purebreds, and that the dog is also registered as a purebred. It is used as a selling tool with dogs, because many people mistakenly assume that registration “with papers” means the dog is good quality.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a dog to run your daily mile with you, a Pekingese isn’t a great choice, unless you’re planning on carrying her. Overly submissive or fearful dogs aren’t usually easy to live with either, as they can be crippled by their fears and neuroses. A puppy that is calm, friendly, and confident is just easier to live with than one who isn’t. Of course, picking out that potentially perfect puppy is just the beginning — there’s a lot to do before you bring him home!
Selecting the Adolescent or Adult Dog
Adolescent and young adult dogs are often in need of new homes because of some behavioral issue that their previous owner couldn’t live with. Many of these issues are relatively easy to solve and were actually caused or exacerbated by the owners in question, but you do need to be aware that you’re not dealing with a blank slate and may have some bad habits to undo.
It can be tough emotionally to visit a shelter. You may feel you can save all the dogs you see. It’s a sad fact that some dogs just don’t have what it takes to become good pets. There are too many nice dogs languishing in shelters to risk injury to yourself or others with a dog that can’t be helped.
Ask the current caretaker of the dog about the dog’s behavioral strengths and weaknesses. You’ll want to know how the dog is when having his nails trimmed; how he acts when he has food, bones, or toys (in other words, is he overly protective?); and if he’s ever threatened or put his teeth on people. You’ll also be interested in whether he’s mellow and laid back, or excitable and nervous. If you’re getting your dog from a shelter, find out if the staff will allow you to interact with him through the fence before meeting. If you can play with him a little, find out the answers to these questions:
- Does he seem happy to see you?
- If you put your hand flat on the fence, does he snuggle up?
- Ask the staff for a handful of dog food and toss half of it on the floor between you and the dog. While he’s eating, kneel down. Does he continue eating happily? Does he get stiff? Growl or worse?
- After he’s done eating, give the fence a little kick and give a little yell:“Hey!” Does he startle but come right back happily? Does he cower, run away, or back away growling? Does he react with aggression, growling, barking, or jumping on the fence?
- Make up to him with a sweet voice and a couple of pieces of dog food. Does he forgive you or hold a grudge?
If any dog you’re considering responds to any of the tests in anything less than a friendly manner, keep looking. If he’s friendly, ask for a leash and take him for a little walk. Even walking inside the facility for twenty minutes is enough for you to get some idea of whether you can live with his personality and energy level. Untrained is one thing, but indifferent or aggressive probably aren’t among your top picks. If there are other family members or pets, they should also be introduced to the candidate. Pets should be introduced in a neutral environment to reduce stress.