Picking the perfect puppy

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
February 2024

Matt Limb OBE considers some of the most important factors – and some old wives’ tales – to keep in mind if you are looking to welcome a new dog into your life.

We often hear the phrase, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’, which has been credited to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The phrase highlights a crucial learning period in any child’s life; those initial, formative years when an individual’s character and continued development are greatly influenced by their early experiences.

Many a dog trainer will know that much the same can be said for a puppy. However, we do not hear ‘Give me the puppy and I will give you the hound’. But the first 12 months are crucial in training any dog.

Before that training can start there is a major difference between the child and the puppy: you need to select the puppy. For many this can be more stressful than any puppy training, but it must be a decision made with your head and not your heart.

The decision process starts with the choice of dog breed. If you are going to be a responsible dog owner, the young puppy arriving at your home will be there for most of the coming decade – will it fit into your home and lifestyle? Is a large breed of dog, such as a Great Dane, a sensible choice for a one-bedroom flat in a tower block? Likewise selecting a breed that needs a large measure of daily exercise is not wise if your work and life routine give you insufficient time for the hound. Sadly, a poor selection of breed is the first mistake made by many new dog owners; take your time, above all think about the consequences.

Over the coming weeks, with early signs of spring, it is the ideal time to take on a new puppy. By the time it is vaccinated and ready for the big wide world, the early days of summer will be upon us and the dog will have a great advantage in its early days. This is highlighted in an old wives’ tale that I remember: ‘Get one well before you hear your first cuckoo’ – an old saying about taking on a new puppy in the early spring.

I can also remember several similar old wives’ tales about the selection of a puppy from a litter, many coming from my childhood on a farm when a new dog was needed. I remember one old hill farmer who swore by never selecting any puppy, but rather allowing their mother to select for him. He achieved this by sitting in the barn with the mother and her litter of pups, watching them until they got accustomed to him being there and allowing them to settle. Then he would quickly take all the puppies to the far side of the barn and put them down in the straw, while telling the mother to sit still and wait. Soon the puppies would whimper and call for their mother crawling in the straw and the farmer would sit back, waiting and watching.

After a few moments the mother’s instinct would force her to go across the barn and start picking up the puppies and taking them back to safety. That first puppy she picked up is the one the farmer would always take as his new dog. I never did find out if it was just a good tale to tell in the village pub over a beer when the search for a new dog was being discussed, or if there was any truth in this. But I can see the judgment and sense that the mother would pick a strong and healthy puppy first to bring it to safety.

Another old wives’ tale, popular with hill farmers in the Northern Pennines, was that while looking into the puppy’s mouth and checking their teeth for alignment and their bite, to look at the colour of the roof of their mouth. If it was black or a very dark colour, the story goes, it would make a good dog and a fine working dog. Again, I have no idea if there is any science behind this story, but I have noted that most of the dogs I have had over the years have all had a dark roof to their mouths.

So, is there a science to selecting a puppy from a litter? Or is it an artform that is based on experience as a dog owner? I will confess that even after taking on many young puppies, I am still not sure. But what I do know is that if selecting the breed must be done with your head, then your heart does have a part to play when it comes to selecting a particular puppy.

Many years ago I was told that if you cannot connect with the puppy, you will never connect with the dog.

It may be a statement of the blindingly obvious, but just how do you connect with a puppy that is running around with the rest of the litter when trying to make your choice? Much like the old hill farmer, take your time and allow them to become accustomed to you being with them. I often find a cup of tea is the ideal distraction; during this time, you can look over the full litter, chat with the breeder about their worming medications, what they have been fed on and how many times a day – plus see them with their mother, and if possible their father.

At this point you are still looking with your head, never your heart. If there are any alarm bells about the breeder, the general health of the puppies or their parents, walk away. I have done this more than once and I have never regretted it. You could be paying a small fortune for a puppy that is not healthy and will not survive for more than a few weeks. Don’t be fooled by your heart and fall for the litter of pups, there are plenty of good, strong and healthy puppies out there which come from reliable and responsible breeders.

But if you feel comfortable it’s time to select the puppy that literally catches your eye, and one you sense there is a connection with.

At this point we will assume you have decided between wanting a dog or a bitch – or as I have sat thinking in the past: does it really matter?

But once there are one or two puppies that have caught your eye – and only you will know that gut feeling – take them away from the rest of the litter and their mother. Ideally take them outside, let them run, make a squeaking noise and call them looking for a reaction. Do they all look up and look at you – and again do they catch your eye?

Again, squeak to prompt a further reaction, throw a favourite toy and check for another reaction. Soon you will be looking at just one puppy. More importantly, that puppy will be looking at you.

This is the one that you have already started to connect with, the one that will be your puppy. But more importantly he, or she, will have chosen you and it will be the start of a perfect relationship between man and his best friend.

Photographs: Matt Limb OBE

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