Finding a puppy: Choosing the right puppy

By the time you bring your new puppy home, say at eight weeks of age, she should already be accustomed to an indoor domestic environment (especially one with noises) and well-socialized with people. Similarly, housetraining, chewtoy-training, and tutoring in basic manners should be well underway. If not, your prospective puppy’s social and mental development is already severely at risk, and sadly, you will be playing catch-up for the rest of her life. Your puppy will require remedial socialization and training for a long time to come.

Make absolutely certain your prospective puppy has been raised indoors in close contact with people who have devoted lots of time to her education.

If a dog is expected to live in a household with people, obviously she needs to have been raised in a household with people. Your puppy needs to be prepared for the clamor of everyday domestic living: the noise of the vacuum cleaner, pots and pans dropping in the kitchen, football games screaming on the television, children crying, and adults arguing. Exposure to such stimuli while her eyes and ears are still developing allows the puppy (with her blurred vision and muffled hearing) to gradually become accustomed to sights and sounds that might otherwise frighten her when older.

There is not much point in choosing a puppy that has been raised in the relative social isolation of a backyard, basement, barn, garage, or kennel, where there is precious little opportunity for interaction with people and where a puppy has become accustomed to soiling her living area and yapping a lot. Puppies raised in physical seclusion and partial social isolation are hardly prepared for household living, and they are certainly not prepared for encounters with children or men. Backyard- and kennel-raised puppies are certainly not pet-quality dogs; they are livestock on par with veal calves and battery hens. Look elsewhere! Look for litters born and raised indoors-in a kitchen or living room.

If you want a companion dog to share your home, she obviously should have been raised in a home, not a cage.

How to choose a good puppy

Your prospective puppy should feel thoroughly at ease being handled by strangers–you and your family. The puppy should be fully desensitized to sounds before he is four weeks old. Likewise, his housetraining program should be well underway, his favorite toy should be a chewtoy (stuffed with puppy chow), and he should happily and eagerly come, follow, sit, lie down, and roll over when requested. If these are not so, either your puppy is a slow learner or he has had a poor teacher. In either case, look elsewhere.

An essential ingredient of puppy husbandry is regular (several times a day) handling, gentling, and calming by a wide variety of people, especially children, men, and strangers. These exercises are especially important during the early weeks and especially with those breeds that are notoriously tricky when handled by strangers–that is, several Asian breeds, plus many herding, working, and terrier breeds: in other words, most breeds of dog!

The second most important quality in any dog is that he enjoys interacting with people, and specifically that he enjoys being handled by all people, especially children, men, and strangers. Early socialization easily prevents serious adult problems.

Please remember, the single most important quality for a dog is to develop bite inhibition and a soft mouth during puppyhood.

Look for a puppy who’s been handled

If you want a cuddly adult dog, he needs to have been cuddled regularly as a puppy. Certainly, neonatal pups are pretty fragile and helpless critters; they can barely walk and they have a number of sensory constraints. But they still need to be socialized. Neonatal pups are extremely sensitive and impressionable, and this is the very best time to accustom them to being handled. Neonatal puppies may not see or hear very well, but they can smell and feel. Of course, neonatal and early puppy socialization, being of paramount importance, must be done gently and carefully.

Look for a puppy who’s used to noise

Exposure to a variety of sounds should commence well before the eyes and ears are fully opened, especially with sound-sensitive dogs, such as herding and obedience breeds.

It is quite normal for puppies to react to noises. What you are trying to evaluate is the extent of each pup’s reaction and the pup’s bounce-back time. For example, we expect a puppy to react to a sudden and unexpected loud noise, but we do not expect him to go to pieces. Judge whether the puppy reacts or overreacts to sounds, and time how long it takes for the puppy to approach and take a food treat (the bounce-back time). Expect immeasurably short bounce-back times from bull breeds, and short bounce-backs from working dogs and terriers, but be prepared for longer bounce-back times from toys and herding breeds. Regardless of a dog’s breed or type, however, excessive overreaction, panic, or extremely lengthy bounce-back times are all proof of insufficient socialization. Unless successfully rehabilitated, such pups may become extremely reactive and difficult to live with when they grow up.

  • Ask the breeder about the extent of the litter’s exposure to domestic noise. Are the puppies being raised indoors?
  • Specifically, ask the breeder whether or not the puppies have been exposed to loud and unexpected noises, such as adults shouting, children crying, television (male voices shouting and screaming on ESPN), radio, and music (Country, Rock, and Classical-maybe Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture).
  • Evaluate the puppies’ response to a variety of noises: people talking, laughing, crying, and shouting, a whistle, a hiss, or a single hand clap.

Look for a puppy who’s started housetraining

Ask the breeder about the litter’s ongoing errorless housetraining and chewtoy-training program. Try to observe the litter for at least two hours and pay attention to what each puppy chews and where each puppy eliminates.

If the puppies have no available toilet and the entire puppy area has been covered with sheets of newspaper, the puppies will have developed a strong preference for going on paper and will need specialized housetraining in their new home. Moreover, if there is no toilet and the entire area has been littered with straw or shredded paper, the puppies will have learned they may eliminate anywhere and everywhere, which is what they will do in your home. The longer the puppy has been raised in these conditions, the more difficult she will be to housetrain.

  • Check for the use of several hollow chewtoys (such as Kongs, Biscuit Balls, or sterilized bones) stuffed with kibble.
  • Check for the use of a doggy toilet in the puppies’ living area. Comparing how many piles and puddles are in the toilet versus on the floor will offer a good indication of where the puppy will eliminate when she comes to your home.

Look for a puppy who’s started obedience training

Inquire about the litter’s ongoing obedience training program and ask the breeder to demonstrate the puppies’ basic obedience skills, for example, to come, sit, lie down, and roll over.

  • Evaluate each puppy’s response to your lure/reward training attempts using pieces of kibble and a Kong as lures and rewards.

Look for a puppy you all love

When choosing the puppy, it is so important that all family members agree. You want to select the puppy you all like best, and you want to select a puppy who likes all of you. Sit down quietly as a family and see which puppies make contact first and which ones stay around the longest.

For years it was dogmatically stated that puppies that approached quickly, jumped-up, and bit your hands were totally unsuitable as pets, since they were aggressive and difficult to train. On the contrary, these are normal, well-socialized, eight-week-old puppies, which are simply saying hello in true puppy fashion without the benefit of manners. With some very basic training to redirect the pup’s delightful exuberance, you’ll have the fastest recalls and the quickest sits in puppy class. Also, puppy biting is both normal and absolutely necessary. In fact the more dogs bite as puppies, the softer and safer their jaws in adulthood.

I would be more concerned about puppies that were slow to approach or remained in hiding. It is completely, utterly, and absolutely abnormal for a well-socialized six- to eight-week-old puppy to be shy when approaching people. If the puppy acts shy or scared, then without a doubt he has not been sufficiently socialized. Look elsewhere. If, however, you really have your heart set on taking a shy puppy, only do so if each family member can coax the pup to approach and take a food treat. A shy puppy represents a substantial time commitment, since he will need to be hand-fed kibble every day from a variety of strangers. To rehabilitate this pup, you’ll certainly have your work cut out for you during the next four weeks.

Beware of breeders who want to decide for you whether to raise your pup for conformation shows or have him neutered. Remember, the puppy is coming to live with you. Raising the pup is your responsibility, and decisions regarding his show career and reproductive status are yours to make.

You can enjoy numerous wonderful activities with your neutered dog, including competitive, rally, and freestyle obedience, agility, carting, flyball, Frisbee, K9 Games, search and rescue, sledding, tracking, and of course, dog walks and trips to the dog park.

It’s entirely your choice, but please neuter your puppy. Each year, millions of puppies and young adult dogs are euthanized (killed) in animal shelters. It’s simply not fair for puppies, and it is not fair for animal-loving shelter personnel. Please don’t add to the numbers. Please neuter your puppy.

Singleton puppies

Most pups have adequate opportunity to play with their littermates during their first eight weeks. Singleton and hand-reared pups have had insufficient opportunity to play (play-fight and play-bite) and therefore teaching bite inhibition is a top priority. Enroll in a puppy classes as soon as your puppy reaches three months of age. Play and socialization are essential for puppies to develop and maintain a soft mouth.

What you don’t want to hear from the dog breeder

You are choosing a pup to come and live in your home and adapt to your lifestyle, so please make sure the puppy has been prepared for domestic life in general and is suitable for your lifestyle in particular. Beware of statements like:

“We haven’t taught the puppies to sit because they are showdogs.”
Basically, this breeder is under the impression the dog is so dumb he can not tell the difference between two simple instructions such as “Sit” and “Stand.” Look elsewhere. Just because the breeder is prepared to live with dogs that haven’t even been taught to sit does not mean to say you should! Also, if the puppy hasn’t even been taught basic manners, there are probably many other things the breeder has failed to teach.

“He’s the scaredy-cat of the litter.”

Certainly in any litter individual dogs will display different tendencies toward approaching strangers (you), but no eight-week-old puppy should be scared to approach people. Any shyness, fearfulness, or tendency to avoid people should have been noticed and dealt with as early as four weeks ago. The shy puppy should have been supersocialized. A single scaredy-cat puppy in a litter indicates that the breeder has not been vigilant in assessing day-to-day socialization. There are most probably other good puppies in the litter, but I suggest that you be vigilant when assessing their socialization status.

Excerpted from Before You Get Your Puppy, by Ian Dunbar.

Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.