Choosing The Greatest Puppy For Your Life

I know that this is a rather lofty title but, heck, I really love dogs. The dog in my family’s life is an absolutely wonderful, but imperfect, Border Collie named Peter Rabbit. The only thing that is perfect about this dog is that he is perfectly goofy and for a family that includes two barbarians, aged 10 and 11 he is just right. He does do bad things, of course, so he fits in just right. And I knew he would because I carefully selected him using the following technique.

Incidentally, the great dog of my life before Pete was Juan Gomez (named for the outstanding veterinary radiologist). I was childless and in my previous life. I handpicked Juan for personal companionship, backpacking in the wilderness, and obedience competition. He carried off the first two of these like no other dog on the planet. On the last score, my boy was a nationally ranked high scoring obedience competitor. Made his daddy real proud. So, yea, I think this stuff works.

Let’s begin at the right beginning. A lot is known about the socialization process in dogs. We know that puppies need to be with their mothers and litter mates until the age of 5-7 weeks. It’s a critically important time because they need to learn to relate in healthy ways to other dogs. If they are separated from their little families of origin too early they tend to be afraid or aggressive around other dogs and perhaps a bit too attached to their humans.

It’s also necessary for the kids to leave home at a healthy time. If they stay with Mom past 12 weeks of age they tend to get stuck in the group mentality. That too-tightly knit dog family then develops a culture of exclusion of humans that will make a pup growing up in your home unwilling to work with people. He or she may always prefer other dogs to human company. Therefore the best age for puppy adoption is about 7-12 weeks.

So here are the nuts and bolts. I’ll start by debunking a few fallacies. Dog breeds: they are not like brands of cars or stereos. Dogs do not roll off an assembly line. You can preselect a purebred dog for color, haircoat, and size. But I have never known a case of a pet dog that was traded in for a different model because of an imperfect paint job. The reasons that dogs flunk out of the lives of their well-meaning people is nearly always temperament. In other words, who they are. The fact that there is so much variation in temperament within the same breed (in fact huge differences between individuals in the same litter) underscores the importance of careful selection. Assume nothing. So if you must, first choose the racy appearance of your shiny new dog. Then close the book on that dog breed.

Am I crazy? Don’t I know that your favorite breed is courageous and brave and loyal and fun loving and romantic and kind and thoughtful and sensitive and… Of course I know that. The dog books say the same things about every breed. Can every breed be the same? Don’t forget who writes those books: breeders of those dogs (you know, the manufacturer).

Let’s get real. Every dog is an individual just as people of different races are. It is true that some dog breeds have been developed for a specific function. Examples are hounds, sled dogs, bird dogs, herding dogs, rat killing terriers, and fighting and disemboweling other dogs dogs. In some cases this means that a given individual will have an overpowering urge to do that one breed-specific thing compulsively and incessantly to the exclusion of all normal and healthy activities. These dogs represent the minority.

In a broad sense (with lots of room for exeptions) I recommend against such single purpose breeds. One great way to avoid this trap is to not choose your new companion because his or her breed is so pretty. Looks is great when choosing art but not companions.

So what breed? Let’s make it simple. Do you want a small, medium, or large dog? Want nonshedding hair? Want to know Dr. Jeff’s favorite breeds in each category? I thought you’d never ask.

Small breeds:
• Yorkshire Terriers
• Lhasa Apsos
• Shih Tzus
• Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties)
• Miniature Poodles
• Mixed bred

Medium breeds
• Border Collies (of course-but not for everyone)
• Australian Shepherds
• Standard Poodles
• Mixed bred

Large breeds
• Labrador Retrievers
• Golden Retrievers
• Airedales
• Mixed bred

Is that all? Hey, there are great individuals in every breed. There are also perfectly horrible, unhealthy, biting, pooping, horrific dogs in every breed. It’s just that these are the breeds that seem to me, in my experience, to be least likely to give you serious health issues and poor temperaments. My very best advice, however, is exactly the same as I follow when I plan a new car purchase: talk to the folks who provide service for the model you are considering. If the car I plan to buy gets a thumbs down from my mechanic then I’m not going to buy it. I don’t care how sexy I’ll feel driving it.

The moral of the story: ask your veterinarian what’s good in your locale for the type of dog you want.

Border Collies are strong in Albuquerque but, for all I know, they may be turkeys in Peoria.

Temperament Testing
I am about to provide some simple and fun little tests that you will administer to each puppy in the litter(s) that you will evaluate. I will start, however, with a few things that I implore you not to do. Do NOT allow a dog breeder/litter owner to select your puppy for you. Even if this person knows the purpose and function for your new dog she will select the dog who works for her. And that’s because dogs are neither cars nor appliances. They are real individuals with real emotions. Thus while the puppies have their own personalities they will respond differently to different people. So who should choose your dog? You, of course, even if you have to travel to Poughkeepsie to do it.

The next don’t: Don’t bring your kids. Oh, but this will be their dog. No it won’t. Unless your children are nearly adults this dog will rely on you when your well-meaning, but normal careless youngsters, forget to feed, house, clothe, nurture, and educate “their” dog. This will really be your dog, Mom and Dad. I know this. When the Nichol children were young my wife and I were the caretakers/managers of our family dog.

If you bring your children with you to choose your family’s great American dog the kids will be so tightly wound that the puppies will feed off this energy and they’ll act with exuberance just like your kids. You will learn nothing about their personalities. You will come home with the fastest tail wagger. You will have spun the roulette wheel. Your life with your spiffy new dog may spin out of control.

Remember that we temperament testers are a very small minority. Let a different dog lover take that puppy.

So are you in your methodical, focused mind set? Good. Start with the phone. Tell the litter owner that you will be spending some uninterrupted quiet time ALONE with the litter. Do NOT listen to anything to the contrary. Graciously tell this nice person to butt out.

Last, before you leave home grab an assortment of different colored ribbon, a pad, pen, and an assistant (careful with the grabbing). In order to rate the puppies you will need to label them and make some notes. This will be good fun.

Arrival on the Scene
Politely greet the dog breeder in a quiet but assertive manner. Remind this person that you WILL be spending a bit of alone time with the puppies. Also tell the nice nervous puppy grandparent that you will need a separate nearby enclosure so that you can segregate puppies as you test.

Entering the Puppy Area
Say nothing. Sit on a chair or squat close to the ground. Watch and wait. This may be the most important part of the whole process.

Observe the group dynamic: Is each puppy minding his or her own business or are they fussing and cavorting with each other? A bunch of independent spirits means that a pup from this bunch may always be the loner type. A highly social group, on the other hand, will contain “people” dogs who want to be part of your social group-your family.

Observe the individuals: If they are busy pushing and shoving (you know, not keeping their hands to themselves) look carefully for the pushiest, bossiest puppy. This is the character who is most often at the top of the puppy pile. He or she is also the one who nips and yaps at the other guys if they step out of line. I suggest that you mentally eliminate this one. Again, forget about the male-female thing. An in-your-face personality can come in either flavor.

Next watch for the shy baby. This one steps aside for everyone. He or she may be standing off alone but may also be a willing participant in the group. This submissive position is exactly where the low puppy on the totem pole wants to be. In dogdom all groups have a top dog and a bottom dog. If you select the bottom dog you may have a tough time with training. Submissive dogs often wrap themselves around their person’s legs, roll over and urinate when given an order, and cry everyday in school-even in college. Some submissive dogs become so fear based that they become fear biters. I recommend against the scaredy cats.

When you are clear on the top and the bottom of the hierarchy, quietly remove these puppies. Now you’re ready to test the rest.

Individual Testing
This is the controversial part. There are behaviorists who feel that any puppy from the “middle” of the personality order should work out fine. They say that splitting the group further lacks value. Other experts believe that an individual puppy has a “general appeal” for an individual person. I am in the latter camp. Dogs are complex personalities just like you and I. If you want a generic pet get a beanie baby. If you plan a real relationship get serious. Start by tying a different color ribbon around each puppy’s neck. Give each puppy a different page on your pad by writing the ribbon colors at the top.

Aside from a greater understanding of each puppy’s assertiveness the following techniques will tell you which puppy really wants to be lead by you. While you will be this dog’s friend you will also be his or her leader. Your dog will see you as the top dog-at least we hope so. Thus you are using these tests to learn who best wants to follow your lead and have a good time doing it.

As you carry out these tests try to avoid giving verbal praise. If you lavish these wannabes with words of encouragement you may foster the notion of the casting couch. This part in the play is not for everybody. Lastly, if any of the babies have urine or stool accidents, ignore it. They are just babies, after all.

Do each test to each puppy in the following order. Only when you are finished with each puppy should you pick up the next contestant.

  1. Socialization
    Take a pup out of the holding area and set him/her on the ground. Be sure to squat. If you stand you may inadvertently trigger the perception of a threat and most any puppy will retreat. Watch the puppy. Remain still and silent. Does the puppy come straight to you? Does he/she go the other way? If he walks away does he notice you and come back? Does he make a rude gesture? Rate each on a 1-5 scale to show who is most interested in social interaction.
  2. Calling
    Next set the puppy on the ground 6-8 feet away. Call the pup in a happy voice. If you get ignored, put the puppy aside. Don’t take it personally. If he comes racing for you with his tail up make a positive note. If he comes slowly with his tail down he could be Mr. or Miss Wrong. Repeat this on each puppy in the group. Rate each puppy on a scale of 1-5. Isn’t this easy? You can already see that if you want the exuberant puppy vs. the more reserved personality you have some basis for your choice. So here’s the next step. Set each individual puppy, in turn, a few feet away from you. Stand up and walk slowly away. Which puppies follow you with glee, which follow at a distance, which of them ignores you? Rate the energy for each.
  3. Restraint
    Now that you know who connects most with you let’s advance our knowledge of who wants to call the shots and who is more willing to follow your lead. In a squatting position clasp your fingers under the belly of a puppy and lift him/her off the ground. Say nothing. Suspend the puppy and wait. Some puppies will struggle right away and may even get aggressive. Others may be content to just lie there for as long as you hold them. The middle guys will hang loose for a while but will finally start to fidget. My preference is the middle pup because he or she is willing to go along but has enough intelligence to get bored at some point. The puppy who’s willing to sit there forever is not going to be highly motivated to try new things like training. But, hey, we’re not selecting my new dog here, are we? If you want a low-key relaxed personality this is your baby. On the other hand, if you want a high-energy challenge take the guy who won’t hold still for a minute.
  4. Inversion test
    These youngsters come equipped with an instinctive knowledge of canine communication. By inverting, or rolling the puppy on his or her back and holding her there, you are sending clear signals that you intend to be the captain of the ship. Will your new dog accede to your authority or tell you to buzz off? Have your lovely assistant hand you the puppy and quietly and silently roll him/her on his back. Hold the baby in this position with just one hand and wait. If you have a pushy puppy there won’t be much of a wait, as the puppy will start to flail and struggle right away. If she bites and growls you’ve learned even more. If he’s willing to lay there until the next millennium you have a passive fellow who will roll over and play dead for anyone and everyone including the next burglar. My preference (not necessarily yours) is the puppy who goes along for twenty or thirty seconds then starts to negotiate. If you want Dirty Harry or if you want a crème puff I’ll respect your choice. This is your pupster. But even if you feel like you already have your baby chosen try to remain objective and rate each one.
  5. Buy-in
    This last part is the easiest. Immediately after the above sequence quietly stand up and walk away. Who follows you and with what energy? Rate each puppy on how much they still like you and how well they enjoyed being tested by you.

Confused? Take a break. Leave the testing area and chat with the dog breeder. Tell her what a splendid job she has done raising and socializing the babies. She’ll beam. These pups are an extension of her inner child and she’s been secretly furious with you for torturing them. Your report, of course, makes you her best friend. Now go back over your notes. Eliminate the puppies who just aren’t right and retest the others. Take all the time you need. You will either be in for fifteen years of joy or an even longer period of heck. (Life with the wrong dog could be rough but it couldn’t ever be Hell could it? OK maybe it can.)

It is all pretty easy but it’s difficult too. Administering these tests to every puppy in every litter you consider can be emotionally taxing. If you didn’t love dogs you’d never bother. And if you’re like me you’ll find something engaging and beautiful about each of them. But you’re taking only one dog. Maybe none that you’ve tested so far is right. Trust this method and DO NOT take a puppy from any litter until you find the one who is best for you. While the five point scoring system is an attempt at objectivity we all know that every bit of this is highly subjective, as it should be. There isn’t much that’s cut and dried about love.

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