I’m getting ready to pick out a new puppy. In my lifetime, I’ve owned 10 of my own dogs, and directly lived with and trained hundreds of other dogs (approaching 600 now), as well as heard stories and been consulted on many more. I know that choosing our dog determines so much about what will follow in our life with our dog.
Here are the things I consider when looking for my new puppy.
Coat: Personally, I want a smooth-ish coat. Partly that’s to avoid excess hair, grooming time and costs and so that it will be easier for me to do tick checks. But I don’t want a coat that is so short that my dog will be cold in winter. I am looking for a coat that is not long enough to get snarled and matted, but thick enough to be warm in winter. I like a non-shedding coat, but I know they cost more time and money to maintain, and snow clumps up on them, so although I’ve loved my non-shedding dogs, non-shedding is not my current choice.
Size: I want a dog who is just big enough to enjoy skjoring, but not so big that he will take up a ton of space or become too heavy as we age for us to lift up on our boat. I want a dog who I can catch in my arms or who can jump up on my back. So I am looking for a dog who will be no heavier than about 50-60lbs as an adult.
Gender: I currently have two females, including one who considers herself “Queen Bee.” Usually I choose spayed females, (intact dogs are such a pain! yuck!) because I don’t like to deal with all the leg lifting and penis conversations that often come up with even neutered male dogs, but this time, to make my dogs happy I think this new puppy should be a little boy. Same-gender dogs in multi-dog households can cause strife, so I’m getting a boy to help ensure that my Queen Bee won’t be jealous.
The tricky decisions regard breed. Rather than think in terms of “breed,” I think in terms of behavior and personality traits. I want a very smart healthy dog, but I don’t want a dog who naturally obsesses on squirrels or cats and birds. Been there done that. It’s so much easier to have a dog who is more interested in human beings than in prey.
Prey drive can vary a lot between dogs even within the same breed — you can have prey driven collies and shepherds and terriers, and others of the exact same breed who care not a whit about squirrels. There is some association between prey drive and shyness. Shy dogs tend to have more interest in hunting and less interest in humans. Shy dogs are more difficult to train, more at risk of becoming reactive/aggressive, and they have less predictable and more time consuming responses to training (because they would often rather be avoiding social interactions). I certainly learned a lot from my shy dogs — but I absolutely don’t want to choose a shy dog now. I’m in the mood to teach fun tricks and games, not the mood to spend three to five years working to counter-condition a reactive anxious or prey-driven dog. I am not going to choose a breed that will make it impossible for me to get homeowner’s insurance, nor a breed that is unlikely to live a long heathy life.
So, I do want a super athletic dog. I want a sociable energetic puppy who tugs and is eager to play with me, who might grow up to jump through hoops and run agility for half an hour and still want to play some more. I want a puppy with healthy bones and eyes and ears. I want a smart dog who is likely to live a long time. I want a dog who is emotionally healthy, responsive and fun to train. I want a puppy who plays well with other puppies and humans.
My best dogs have all been mixed breed rescues. Buying a purebred dog might make it easier to “know what I’m getting” (and maybe that’s what I will ultimately do), but there are no guarantees in terms of health or longevity or temperament, and no one breed “has it it all.” I’m starting my search as I always have, by looking at sheltered puppies.
The best way to evaluate what size, coat color and behavior traits will be like as an adult is to choose an older puppy. It’s almost impossible to evaluate how a “breed unknown” 8 or 10 week old puppy will mature, but it’s even harder to know what size or shape a pup will grow up to be if you aren’t certain about the puppy’s age. If you adopt a 6 week old puppy believing it is a 10 or 12 week old puppy, you are likely to wind up with an adult dog who is MUCH larger than you expected. So I will try to find a puppy where the actual date of birth is known. If I select a BIRTH DATE KNOWN 8 or 10 week old puppy who is between 8 and 15 lbs, my adult dog is likely to grow into the “medium” size range than I am hoping to adopt.
Now evaluate temperament. The best test is just watching the pup play and interact. If you drop a metal spoon, does the pup shy away from it? I want the dog where curiosity wins out. I want the pup who sniffs the spoon or pan (even though he maybe was startled by it at first). I bunch up a ball of paper, toss, and I like the pup who goes and gets it and brings it at least part-way back towards me. I want the pup who is very curious and interested in me, who prances and dances and seems happy and playful and cheerful. I don’t mind if he bites at my ankle and demands to play. I hold the pup and touch his paws and tail and try flipping him over. If he seems to want to play with me, if he is smart and funny and active, I like that. I’ll look at his body. Does his shape look balanced and healthy and normal? If I know the mother dog, does she seem limber? Is there any concern about vision or hearing or other functioning?
I watch how the puppy plays with other puppies. Is he happy and confident? Is he in the thick of things or staying off to the side? I want the playground leader, definitely not the wall flower for me, but the playful cheerful littermate.
There are no guarantees. Purebred as well as mixed breed dogs have arthritis and dysplasia, they go deaf and blind, they can have thyroid and behavior problems. Purebred puppies are born with the same numbers of problems that shelter dogs have. No matter what dog I select, I am going to need to deal with his health and training issues, defend his health and happiness for the rest of his life. So at this point, it’s just a matter of enjoying the process of meeting many puppies until my heart is fully able to answer the question: is this my puppy?