Choosing a Puppy

You have decided that you want to bring a puppy into your life and your home but how do you go about choosing which dog is right for you and your family?

Puppies are not puppies forever but turn into dogs which can live for anywhere between 6 and 16 years so a puppy is a long term investment. By doing the right research and knowing as much as possible before you start, you can set yourself up for great rewards. A good place to start is by looking at your life and seeing how a puppy, and then dog, would fit into it.

A priority here is that you are brutally honest with yourself, it will help you make a well informed decision on which is the right puppy for you. What follows are the questions you should ask yourself before you start looking at breeds:

Why do you want a dog? Do you want a dog as a companion, as a guard dog, as an activity partner or as a family pet? There are dogs which will fit each or all of these categories so try be as particular as possible.

What is your family situation? Do you have kids? Are you going to have kids? How soon are you going to have kids? This impacts heavily on the kind of temperament you should be looking for in your dog.

What is your activity / energy level? Be realistic – not what it is on a good day or what you would like it to be. It must be what you would be happy to maintain for as long as you have a dog.

Do you have other pets? Some dogs do not live well with cats as their prey drive is too high.

How much time do you have to dedicate to your puppy or dog, in terms of exercise and quality time? Some dogs are needier whilst others are more independent.

With the answer to all of these questions still in mind, now you can start narrowing down on the type of dog you should consider for you and your family. Things which you should now be thinking about in terms of a dog, is your preferences on each of the following:

How big a dog do you want? How independent do you want your dog to be? How much grooming are you prepared to provide for the dog? Is the breed suitable for the South African climate? How trainable is the breed? How much exercise does the dog require? How affectionate or needy would you like the dog to be? What kind of temperament are you looking for in a dog; friendly, protective? One of the last things that should factor is how the dog looks. A great way to narrow down the choices is to do some online quizzes [1], once again, being very honest in your answers as these can provide you with a great shortlist which you can work from.

Looking at the breeds which you have in your shortlist, each will fall into a breed group. Each of these groups has a set of general characteristics which describe the dogs [2], namely:

Gundogs: good natured, sociable and energetic.

Pastoral: the herders are reactive, sensitive, hardworking, energetic and playful. The livestock guardians are usually very large, lazy with thick coats and display guarding traits.

Terriers: usually small, easily excited, quick to aggression, often strong characters.

Toys: small, sweet and enjoy affection.

Hounds: amiable, independent, sociable, bred to track and chase so they are hard to control on walks.

Working: large, intelligent, protective and other traits depending on the specific work they were bred for.

Utility: the dogs which don’t fit into the other groups – individual characteristics will depend on what the breed was originally bred for.

You should align your choice with the personality traits which you desire in your dog. However, this does not mean your dog will definitely have ALL these traits as each puppy is an individual and is moulded by their own experiences but these provide a good guideline. Examine each specific breed, they will all have their own “quirks” and drawbacks and you need to decide which set is the easiest for you to manage. An important factor to consider in this step is what diseases/ conditions are they genetically pre-disposed to? This can have a large impact on your pocket in the long run so the financial implication of this must be kept in mind when evaluating each breed.

You have hopefully now narrowed down your choices to only one or two breeds. The next step is finding the right breeder.  If you are looking to show or breed from your puppy you are likely to look to KUSA as to which registered breeders they have for the breed you are looking for. This is a good starting point for anyone looking for a puppy. However, there are many options available to you and you should explore each thoroughly. You want to buy a puppy that you know has had plenty of pleasant experiences in a varied environment [2][3]. Talk to as many breeders as possible, asking them as many questions as you can think of. A good breeder will be asking you just as many!

Good questions to pose to the breeder are:

How old is the mother? You don’t want the mother to be a pup herself. Bitches shouldn’t be bred before 2 years of age [4].

Have these parents mated before, if yes, can you give me the name of some of the people who took a puppy? This will give you a good indication of the kind of dog (physically) which you can expect your puppy to grow into.

How do you raise the puppies? Are the mother and puppies in an outhouse and left up to their own devices or are they in the house and handled by all adults and children. You want a breeder that is hands on with their puppies and is from early on exposing the puppies to as many things as possible, trying to give them the best start in making them well balanced and confident in all situations [2].

Have the parents been genetically screened?  This is particularly important when you know that this breed in particular suffers from certain diseases. Breeding from individuals which carry the markers of the disease should not be encouraged.

Can you meet the puppies before you take one home?  This will give you time to meet the puppies, usually at around 6 weeks of age [3], see a little of  each of their personality and test each of them before deciding which one would work well in your family.

At what age can you take the puppy home? This is a very important question. The longer the puppy stays with the mother and litter mates, the more they learn about canine communication but staying too long, they may miss out on the opportunity to learn human ways [2]. Most breeds are ready to go to their new home by 8 weeks of age. Your puppy should have had their first vaccination by the time you take them home.

Can you choose your puppy? Regarding this last point, some breeders will match puppies to owners, if this is the case, and you have chosen a very good breeder, they will often make a good match but you should ask the breeder what criteria they are using to make the match and they should have quizzed you thoroughly about your lifestyle and family.

A last but very important question to ask the breeder is “Can you meet both the parents?” and you definitely want the answer to this question to be YES. By meeting the parents, you will get a good idea of what temperament your puppy is likely to have. Make sure that both of their temperaments are along the lines of what you are looking for in a puppy, you want to be able to say that you would happily take either of them home as your dog right then and there [5]. A male or bitch who is locked up when you visit because they are “protective” should ring warning bells about what kind of dog they are. See how the parents react to children, other dogs and to as many different kinds of people. All of these scenarios give you a good idea on how your puppy’s temperament will turn out.

Assuming that you are now happy with the breeder, the parents and are allowed to choose your own puppy, here are a couple of things you can do to try ensure that the pup you get is a great result after all your hard work and research. Don’t get caught in the “they chose me” trap, yes puppies are cute but you’ve come this far so stay strong!

Pick a puppy up – is it anxious, relaxed or aggressive when you do this? This gives you an indication as to how much human socialisation they have had [3]. Take each pup to a quiet area by itself. Watch if in this new environment it is scared, relaxed or very curious [3]. Make a loud noise and see how the puppy reacts, a puppy which has had lots of exposure shouldn’t be too disturbed, acknowledging the sound but recovering quickly and continuing with its business. Handle each of the puppies, holding them off the ground slightly tighter than is comfortable, their reaction will vary between being terrified to highly annoyed [3].

A well socialised puppy will approach you confidently with a wagging tail [2] and be relaxed in all the scenarios detailed above. This is the kind of puppy that is a great candidate for turning out to be the fantastic dog you have been looking for.

A couple of don’ts:

Do not take two puppies! You may think “two birds with one stone” but if you want your dog to turn out the best it can be then it will require twice the work. It is also likely that the puppies will also bond with each other and not with you.

Don’t be afraid to give the puppy back if he is not right for you or if you cannot handle it. Most good breeders will accept their puppy back at any age as they also want the absolute best for their puppies.