In a previous post, I already talked a little bit about how to select a dog that will be good for your lifestyle and your personal preferences. There, we focused more on how to select a breed and we have also talked about considering adoption. Now, we are talking more about the individual aspects that you are looking for in a puppy.

Aside from helping you with puppy selection, this article should also help you discern if a breeder you are visiting is an ethical one. When viewing a litter, a knowledgeable and ethical breeder should be helpful in selecting a good puppy, and he/she will also be prepared to tell you if this breed does not seem like a good fit for you and your lifestyle. The breeder should be able to point out at least some of the physical and behavioral characteristics distinguishing one puppy from the other, while not trying to hide those characteristics that might make a puppy unsuitable for performance or show. You should ultimately feel comfortable with the choice you make and not feel pressured into it. If the breeder you are buying from is a conscientious one, he/she will guide you in making a proper choice rather than push you to get the sale. If you are feeling coerced perhaps it is better to look for another breeder. You can also read this article to learn more about the characteristics of an ethical breeder.


Now, guided by your ethical breeder’s information, you are faced with the daunting task of picking a puppy out of this bunch. You may fall for the puppy that quickly runs up to you and jumps on your lap. Or you may feel the need to rescue the little loner hiding under a chair in the corner. Or you may have an eye for the little rambunctious fur ball engaging in some mischief. The question is are you right to follow this initial impulse? Is that puppy the right one for you?

Here are some of the characteristics you should be looking at during your puppy selection:

Health and Physical appearance

Puppies under the care of a good breeder are unlikely to have medical issues that will have escaped the breeder’s notice. However, it is still good for you to know what a healthy puppy should look like, since the health of the pups reflects good breeding practices. If you notice too many things amiss in the overall health and appearance of the puppies it is questionable if the breeder you have visited is a reliable or ethical one. Understand, however, that not all health issues to which a breed is predisposed will be evident as early as puppyhood. Therefore, even puppies that look healthy now can eventually develop some health problem. That is why it is important to have a look at the health and appearance of the parents (or at least the dam) as well, and to request for health certifications.

In both the puppies and the parents, note the following aspects of their health and physical appearance:

Bright, Alert and Responsive

Puppies that are healthy are bright, alert and responsive. They are not lethargic. Although some puppies might be asleep while you are visiting, it generally doesn’t take much to rouse them out of their slumber. New visitors or goings-on should easily pique the puppies interest and call their attention.

Body condition

The puppy’s body should look well-nourished, and the ribs and spine should not be too easily visible when looking at the puppy from the sides and top. Nor should the ribs and spine be too easily felt when you stroke the puppy. The puppy should be free of parasites, or of insect bites or sores that could indicate previous infestation. There should be no pus or feces around the area of the genitals. If these are visible, they could indicate diarrhea or a genito-urinary tract infection.

Eyes, Ears and Nose

The whites of the eyes should obviously be white and not tinged red or yellow, while the pupils should be clear and bright not cloudy. The ears should be free of any sort of muck or discharge which could indicate mites or a yeast infection. There should be no crusting or mucous discharge coming from the nose, and the puppy should not be making wheezing noises as it breathes, nor sneeze or cough excessively.

Skin and Coat

The puppy’s coat should not be dry, flaky or dull, nor should it be greasy, have any strong odors, thinning, or bald patches. The skin under the coat should not appear overly pinkish or reddish, which may be suggestive of allergies or inflammatory reactions. The puppy should not be itching or scratching excessively.


Some problems related to muscle, bone, or joint structure can be identified by looking at a puppy’s gait, but other problems will not be evident this early in the puppy’s development. Gait problems can also hint at nutritional deficiencies. Some experience is required for you to be able to assess a puppy’s gait well, but it should be easy enough to spot puppies that are limping, that seem stiff, or that are dragging one hind leg or both, or that are favoring one leg. If possible, watch the puppies walk and run on padded surfaces such as grass or carpeting, and on slippery surfaces such as tiles. Request to see orthopedic clearances of the parents to be sure the breeder has screened for heritable problems.

Hearing and Vision

Healthy puppies will have good hearing and eyesight. Watch the puppies as you interact with them and take note of them tracking various sounds such as hand claps, whistles, squeakers and other noises, and moving objects such as other puppies, rolling balls or other toys.

It is unreasonable to expect that a litter – even one from an ethical breeder – will only have top performance and show quality puppies as there will usually be a runt that will be smaller, and sometimes physically disadvantaged compared to the rest. However, even the runt of the litter can make a great family pet, therefore, do not necessarily exclude him or her from your choices. If selecting a runt, do bear in mind that this dog may need more medical attention throughout his/her life. Some people are prepared to give that extra care, while others are not, so consider this decision well. Your breeder will also likely insist that this dog not be bred. It is ultimately your personal requirements or preferences in a dog that will determine which puppy will be the one you take home.

Behavior & Temperament

As important to observe as the puppy’s health and appearance are its behavior and temperament. Even though behavior, temperament and personality will still develop as influenced by the environment and various experiences, you can get a head start in the right direction by selecting the puppy that is already showing appropriate canine social behaviors, a healthy level of curiosity and inquisitiveness, and a good balance between being independent and wanting to interact and be near people.

Here are some of the things you should observe, first looking at the puppies as a group and then individually, separating the puppy you want to observe from the rest of the litter:

Interactions between puppies in a litter

Watch the puppies as they play with their siblings and notice their interactions during play and around toys or food. Puppies that play well are those that give and take during play. That is, they will chase and be chased, and they will allow themselves to be toppled and rolled over just as much as they will attempt to topple their playmates.

Bullies are those puppies that always like to stay on top and that do not respond appropriately to nips and yelps from their playmates by easing up on rough play. They will need to be taught appropriate play possibly through interactions with older puppies or dogs that know how to give appropriate corrections without actually hurting the puppy.

Singleton puppies or puppies that were born without littermates will have the hardest time learning about appropriate social interactions during their early days because of the absence of playmates. These puppies will need to be given opportunities to interact with other puppies of similar age as they are growing up so that they develop important canine social skills and proper bite inhibition.

Interactions with people

Another thing you need to observe is how the puppies interact with you when you meet them. Some puppies will eagerly say hello when you arrive, while some may approach more cautiously and eventually warm up to you, and others still will not want to approach at all. Puppies that are unwilling to socialize with humans may turn out to be cautious and fearful of humans as they grow older. They may have difficulty bonding with their human owners, or may bond and willingly interact with certain humans only. If you pick a puppy that you have observed to be shy around humans or uninterested in interactions with humans, you may need to work hard to socialize this pup to humans as soon and as frequently as possible to change non-social tendencies.

Response to Handling

Take your time handling the puppies in the litter: pick up a puppy, cradle it, and touch different body parts such as the muzzle, the ears, the paws and the tail, and observe the puppy’s responses. Some puppies may struggle to get free or try to nip at your hand, while others will simply relax and accept your handling and even enjoy it. Puppies that are overly fidgety and nippy when being handled will require much conditioning so that they learn to accept handling. Tolerance for handling is a must for all dogs, but it is especially important for breeds that require regular grooming by a professional, show dogs and certain working dogs who have frequent interactions with a variety of humans.

Response to Novel Sounds and Sights

Puppies will be exposed to a variety of unfamiliar sights and sounds as they grow up, but it is those puppies that are behaviorally stable and well-socialized that will bounce back quickly from anything that might initially scare them. Watch the puppies in the litter respond to various sounds like metal items (keys, kitchenware, etc.) dropping on the floor, clapping noises, the sound of household appliances, etc. and take note of the puppies that will – after an initial scare – investigate the source of the noise. Those puppies that do not muster the courage to investigate the item or sound may have a greater tendency towards fearfulness, and might need more socialization work than the others. Also, try to observe the puppies’ response to novel items like windblown plastic bags, stools, or even just a large cardboard box – items that some puppies might find intimidating and scary at first, especially if they have never encountered these before.

It is very important, when you meet the puppies, to interact with each one separately so that you can get a good feel for each as an individual. You will probably gravitate more to one puppy over the others. Bear in mind, however, that your choice should also be guided by the observations of the characteristics noted above. Any negative behavioral traits that you observe are not necessarily retained for life because a large part of behavior is continuously in development especially during puppyhood. But you should be honest about noting certain red flags such as poor social skills and tendencies for aggression, and not overlook these in favor of good structure or physical appearance.

If you really want to commit to a puppy that veers towards the extremes in behavior and temperament (ex. highly energetic, incredibly shy puppies, etc.) remember that you may have your work cut out for you when it comes to socializing and training this dog. These dogs may be better suited to more experienced dog owners who already have extensive dog rearing and training knowledge.

Lastly, remember that your choice of puppy is a lifelong commitment. Whichever puppy you pick, he or she becomes your responsibility for the entire life of that dog. And so you must also commit to the possibility that this puppy might not turn out exactly the way you envisioned with regards to physical appearance, or in developing health issues or behavioral problems (despite your best efforts to train and socialize the dog). The most ethical and responsible of breeders will be prepared to take the dog back in extreme and reasonable circumstances wherein appropriate care becomes something beyond your resources and abilities, but this should happen only when you have exhausted all options and tried your hardest to fulfill your responsibilities.

Finally, and all things now carefully considered, you should be prepared to select the puppy that you will welcome into your family. It is truly exciting when you at last come to a decision, and I hope this article has proven helpful to you in making an informed one to increase your chances for the best possible outcome with the puppy you choose.

Your next step will be to make final preparations for picking up your puppy and welcoming him or her into your home. More on Puppy Preparations in my next article!

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