The following is taken from my personal experiences as a dog owner with all my own dogs coming from puppies, my observations as a behaviourist, my volunteering work at kennels and my formal learnings. In an ideal world it would be good to be able to follow all the following advice and I would recommend it whole heartedly.

    retriever pups

    You should have firstly decided on the right breed or crossbreed for you and your lifestyle and then found the right place to get you puppy from (see other topics on /pedigree-dog-or-crossbreed and /where-should-i-get-my-dog-from ). Before you go to look at any puppies there are some questions you should be asking of the breeder or owner that might well help get you off to a good start. Ask these questions before you go to have a look for I know the powerful draw of a cute pup.

    Mum and dad:- You want to see mum definitely and she should be with the pups, father too would be good. If mum is not there then don’t go and have a look. Puppies learn a lot from mum, things like bite inhibition (not biting too hard), being told off, hierachal decision making and much more.There can be hereditary genes for aggression, nervousness and other traits and behaviours so try to ascertain that mum and if possible dad are sound to give you a good head start, especially if  a new owner. 

    Litter size:- Steer away from very large litters, breeders might say, she is a great mum with 14 puppies, but big litters leave little room in the bitches womb for good development of puppies and sometimes puppies have joint problems from an early age because of this, if they have spent a long length of time squashed up in a bad position then it stands to reason that it might cause a problem with development. Also sadly some unscrupulous breeders will put pups from different litters together to sell. A puppy should be with littermates when you have a look, not on it's own as this will be detrimental to it's outcome.

    Sexes of litter:- When pups are in the womb they are in their own little bag (amniotic membrane) but this bag can be permeated by hormones of other pups in the womb (androgen for males and estrogen for females), this is known as androgenization and estrogenization. There is also evidence for the former taking place through the foetal blood supply. If you have a litter with say five males and one female pup then the female pup will be bombarded with the male hormones and may inherit some male traits and behaviours, these females often turn out to be assertive dogs because of it, cocking their leg to urinate, not a problem for someone experienced but might be for a first time owner. The opposite is true for a single male among female pups resulting sometimes in a male dog with some female traits and behaviours, he will obviously still be a male dog (the priming of the male brain takes place in the womb), just that he may get unwanted attention from other male dogs as he may give of different signals. Try to pick a not too big litter and a male or female pup that comes from a litter that is not heavily biased towards the opposite sex. 

    Put in a behavioural context Androgenization involves both the surpression of female behavioural patterns and the developement of male patterns in utero. The opposite is true for Estrogenization.

    Age of litter:- Preferably you want to be taking a pup from mum at 8-9 weeks, not earlier as your pup will lose out on critical early learning from mother and littermates and not much later as pup will lose out on the critical early learning from you, your family and the environment. If they don't get this continuous learning from a new owner at 8-9 weeks and onwards they will start to make their own mind up about things making it harder for a new owner to get things on track. If possible (and it should be) you want to have a look at them before the 8 week stage, a couple of times really, so you don’t have to make your mind up on the spot for you may well have 17-18 years with your new friend. Most pups are advertised at or near the time to be taken home so this might not be possible but it would be advantageous for you can check out the environment, breeder and mum and have a think about it before deciding, a good breeder would advertise pups early so you could have early visits, a good breeder will also probably have a waiting list for pups. At 8-9 weeks the pups will be weaned of mothers milk if they are not they are too young to leave mum. Again mum at least must be with the pups, if not walk away. The pups should also be wormed at this age, they are born with worms and should have been wormed fortnightly from 2weeks old, you must carry this on (not every two weeks, speak to your vet). Also with pups that are crosses or not coming from professional breeders you want to be seeing the pups before they are due to go out to homes to assess mother, environment etc.

    Breeders history:- Ask the breeder/owner if they have had another litter from mum. If there is a previous litter then see if you can contact one of the previous pups owners to ascertain health and temperament. By law a bitch can only have six litters in her life, still too many in my eyes, but some unscrupulous breeders flout this. Mum should be over a year old and also to the other extent not a very old dog. If you are looking at a pedigree pup then you want to see the relevant paperwork, the pedigree and registration papers, and any breed specific hereditary disease screening certificates for the parents (both of them), you should research a pedigree breed you may be looking at so you are aware of the prevalent clinical problems that can be associated with that particular breed and so ensure the relavant checks and certification is present. If the pup is a crossbreed pup you can also ask about the parents and if they are each a pedigree dog then see the same for them too. If parents are crosses too you want to see at least the mother (preferably both) to ascertain her health and temperament and that she is with the pups and indeed interacting well with the pups (shows she is the actual mother). A good breeder should also want to ask a potential owner of their pups questions too, so they are sure their pups are going to good homes.

    Having got answers to all the above questions from the breeder or owner then you can think about going to have a look, as I said earlier try to make this first visit an early one not the one where you have to make the decision and take a pup. If possible try to arrange the visit at a time that will allow you to see a feeding session with the pups. Notice that throughout I will often refer to “the pups” for I do believe that a good breeder will keep a number of the pups together and not have someone coming round to look at one pup on its own for this is in deed detrimental to that single pups learning and outlook. Not a problem maybe for the knowledgeable but might be for the first time owner.

    When you first see the pups they should have already sorted out their place among the litter, some will be much bolder and others much shyer, some will be between the two. If you are an experienced dog owner and have some knowledge then assuming the parents are sound,the breeder or owner has done their jobs well, the environment and early learning has been good then any pup should be OK as long as you carry on the good work.

    If you are a first time dog owner then there are some things that you could look at to give you a helping hand. Firstly you would be better of to steer away from the pup that comes straight to you before the rest particularly if their advance is in anyway aggressive (barking,growling,nipping etc) for they will probably be the ones that end up being a more dominant higher status dog and therefore harder to handle as they grow for the first time owner. Also as a first time owner it would be better to steer away from the pup that runs away from you hiding or shaking behind the settee for they will probably be the ones that turn out to be scared of their own shadow and often much else with tendencies to later fearfulness and nervousness and if handled wrongly these may lead to fear/nervous problems. Watch the pups for a while and how they react to stimulus around them, noises and so on to get a feel for which pups are bolder and which shyer and more nervous. A good pup should be interested in new things/noises etc. They should show restrained interest not running at or attacking or indeed running away and hiding from a stimulus. 

    Part of studies carried out by Hart and Hart et Al (1985) analysed behavioural traits in relation to gender, the results showed that female dogs were easier to housebreak and obedience train and seeked more affection, while male dogs were more dominant over owners, more aggressive to other dogs, generally more active, more territorially defensive, snapped more at children, were more destructive and showed more playfulness. Both male and female were similar in Excitability, Excessive barking and Watchdog barking. So for the first time owner maybe the female pup would be better from a behavioural point of view, though I would not say this is always right.

    A good way to see the litter hierarchy is at feeding time, the bigger or more aggressive pup that barges all out of the way and gets the lions share is probably the future leader and may be harder for the first time owner to handle (not always a male either).

    What I would like to add here is if you are thinking of taking on two pups at the same time it would definitely not be a good idea to take them from the same litter. I have heard and witnessed for myself many instances of two pups from the same litter not being able to get on together with one ultimately having to be rehomed often after some serious ultications. The reasoning behind this is I think that by week 8-9 when you will indeed be taking pups home they have already sorted out the hierachy between them, it will be well set, and when going to a new possibly inexperienced home where the hierachy is not recognized and supported by the new owners problems will follow. With two pups from different litters who do not know each other they may sort things out, but may not, so just get one pup at a time. Two pups from the same litter will already have a strong hierachy (be it fluid though) between them, if it is not supported then troubles will ensue, be warned.

    Obviously your personal views on looks and character should be taken into consideration but all the above should help in your quest, with regard to character try to think of things from the pups point of view, picking the first pup that comes to you for it seems friendly might well be the pup that ends up a more demanding dog and so harder to handle for the novice owner. None of the above are rules set in stone but good knowledgeable advice to help you in your quest.

    For other related advice see the /picking-the-right-adult-dog-for-me or the /where-do-i-get-my-dog-from pages.


    Why not take a look at my first book - Elmer no ordinary wolf, a realistic novel about a wolf called Elmer, his family and their life. My hope is that you would learn much about wolves and mother nature, and come to understand why man first thought to domesticate these amazing social animals to give us our best friend, the dog.

    Stuff any Kong toys with healthy natural treats, use some of their food or small pieces of cooked chicken, beef etc, use pieces that only just fit in so they take longer to get out, but not impossible though. Don't use processed treats full of colours, flavourings and preservatives.  

    copyright 2013-22 Paul lindley