How Do You Evaluate A Young Puppy?

By Lisa Lafferty

I recently had a conversation with a fourth-generation Arkansas cattleman whose family has been breeding Border Collies for use with their cattle since the time of his great-grandfather. Caleb Cunningham now has himself an English Shepherd called Grace, and he told me at our first meeting, “She’s the best cattle dog I’ve ever seen. I haven’t put a stitch of training into her and she is the best. Could she benefit from some training? Yeah, absolutely, but she’s useful and capable even with me having been lazy about doing anything formal.”

He’s about to get a second English Shepherd puppy from me and was thrilled when I described the one I thought he ought to take. We got talking about what we both like to see in the whelping box, and we were in agreement on just about everything.

No matter what job your prospect might grow to learn, there are certain intrinsic traits that can be measurably seen at around 7-10 weeks of age, sometimes even earlier, that can help you learn how your puppy is hardwired. This in turn will help you decide what “software” (aka, training and socialization work) you will have to install.

When I worked for Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, we used the Volhard test at age 7 weeks. There were many components to the test, most of which I felt were fairly useless in telling me much about the pup’s eventual adult tendencies. A few parts, though, really did carry through to adulthood.

We used mostly Labrador Retrievers, some Golden Retrievers, a few German Shepherds and some crossbreeds (Lab/Golden, Lab/Standard Poodle) and we did take into account breed tendencies that made reactions a little different. Our breed will look a little different in the details of their reactions, probably more similar to the German Shepherds that I saw and less like the Labradors.

During the first part of the test, we brought the puppies to our center and brought them one by one into a large meeting room they had never seen. The people administering the test were unknown to the puppies. We would then carry each puppy into the room and place them in the center of the open floor and quickly step away.

There were generally three types of responses:

Puppy shrinks to the floor, remains motionless for a moment, looks around, sniffs a bit, then comes up on its feet and begins slowly exploring the room, gaining speed and confidence as the seconds ticked by, covering lots of area. We would consider this the ideal response. It showed that the puppy was reasonably careful, thoughtful, but had a good recovery and made good judgments about its safety. It showed an internal confidence and good adaptability.

Puppy shrinks to the floor, looks fearful, scuttles to the walls and explores, but with a lowered body posture and obvious fearfulness, spending the first few minutes near the wall or underneath things, and not covering much area. Puppy might eventually start to explore confidently, but it would take a much longer time. This is not an ideal reaction, as is shows that the puppy is overtaken by its concerns and has a less than ideal recovery from confronting new things. It shows a lack of confidence and thoughtfulness and a somewhat more reactive (to emotion—fear) demeanor.

Puppy gets put down on the floor and hits the ground running, charging around fearlessly, covers the whole room, grabs stuff with its mouth, etc. This is also not an ideal reaction, as puppies like this were often less thoughtful and deliberate than they should be for the work they were going into.

The thing that I noticed after working there for six years and seeing hundreds of puppies growing up, meeting the Puppywalkers once a month to coach the people and to evaluate the puppies, is that this response STAYED THE SAME throughout the life of the dog.

We did not reject puppies at this stage, but we used the information we learned to coach the Puppywalkers on things to do to bring out the strengths in each puppy.

For the puppies that responded with crouching and exploring the walls (#2 on the list above), we taught their handlers how to socialize to the Nth degree in such a way that the puppy had plenty of time to absorb new environments. If we lucked out and had a great Puppywalking home, these puppies often could go on to become Guide Dogs, but usually had to be placed with a Guide Dog user that had a very solid routine, was a confident handler, and had good orientation and mobility. Puppies like this did not often grow into adults that could work in large city centers with heavily stimulating environments, like big cities with lots of traffic and noise. It was proven to us time and time again that the response we saw at 7 weeks was the response we would see for life when the dog was confronted with something really new. You can socialize to the point where the dog rarely sees anything new—but if it does encounter a truly new and challenging environment, there will be difficulty in adjusting. A Guide Dog user in a suburban environment that walks to the post office every day and to the coffee shop and to the bus stop to pick up kids might be just the right fit for a dog like this. An office worker in Toronto who uses public transport every day during rush hour definitely would not have a good chance of having a dependable dog with this type of personality.

For the hard-charging dogs (#3 in the list above), we started right away coaching the handlers on teaching impulse control and placed a heavy emphasis on reinforcing calm, relaxed behavior. We taught the handlers to be very aware of excitable behavior, and to never reinforce excitement as the “right” way to handle things. Specifically, we did things like on-leash settling on a daily basis, where the handler would sit and watch TV or check emails for half an hour or so with the puppy on leash at their feet. We had some real bucking-bronco type puppies at first! It was important to teach a puppy like this how to be thoughtful and choose calmness instead of restlessness or agitation. These puppies often had a trait that went along with what we saw in the test—they were often less likely to turn to the handler or respond to the handler, preferring instead to struggle against direction, and trying to solve their problems “their way.” It was important that the handlers were aware of this behavior and took steps to avoid allowing the puppy to be successful in blowing past the handler. We wanted these puppies to learn to make eye contact, to relax and accept the fact that the handler was in charge. These dogs were often bomb-proof and could handle big environments as adults, but usually were distractible (dog distraction and people distraction) and needed handlers that could deal with getting a dog back on track after a distraction. Dogs like this were hard to place, honestly. Just imagine being blind and having your dog go nuts because someone is walking by with a Dachshund, getting turned around and tangled up and having to re-orient to continue in the original direction! The handler might end up facing the opposite way, off the sidewalk, and have to not only re-orient but also get the dog focused on his work again.

We often placed our hard-charging “rejects” with Border Patrol officers or police departments to work as drug dogs and search dogs. We usually not reject them from the puppy program, waiting instead to see how they did with the professional trainers for a few months after they completed their puppy raising time, when the dogs were age 24 months or so. The traits that made them inappropriate as a Guide Dog often were highly valued and preferred in other types of work. I often joked with my boss when we saw a really hardcore puppy in the 7-week evaluation, “Do we really have to go through this? Can we call the police NOW?” These puppies were my most difficult to place properly with a puppy raiser and I usually had to do five times as much coaching with the handlers!

The ideal dog, #1 in the list, might have various quirks, might be a very laid-back dog or could be a dog with lots of energy, but could usually be molded into the Guide Dog role even if placed with a relatively inexperienced puppy raiser. They were more forgiving of handling mistakes/training mistakes, and most importantly, could recover and adapt well to new situations. They were much easier to socialize in general.

From a “Darwin” perspective, if we look at dogs primarily as evolved scavengers and infrequent hunters, the evaluation produces the same results. Puppy 1 grows up able to have a reasonable caution, assess safety, and go in for food. Puppy 2 lives a short hungry life because he is too fearful to risk himself to get a lot of food. Puppy 3 gets shot by a farmer or taken by another predator because he hasn’t got enough sense to be reasonably cautious.

The second part of the 7-week puppy test that gave me valuable information was the “recovery from a startle” segment. After the puppy had explored for a bit and we had seen the initial reaction to the room, we would casually toss a large set of metal keys on the floor BEHIND the puppy, about two feet away, and watch the reaction and recovery. We did not mind if the puppy had a large startle, but it was the RECOVERY from the startle we were interested in. We liked to see puppies that, after the initial startle, investigated the keys and decided there was no threat. What we didn’t like to see was a puppy that startled and then crouched or ran away, not investigating. Some of the “hardcore” puppies would just whirl around, run to the keys, and possibly even pick them up and run around with them! Bombproof, yes. Sensible? No! Thoughtful? No! Impulsive? Very much so! Pain in the rear to raise? You betcha!

Getting back to my conversation with Caleb, I told him about a puppy in my litter that I thought he would like. I described how, when an unfamiliar noise occurred, she was the first one to alarm-bark and also would then venture out to investigate. She had been doing this since her eyes and ears opened! Caleb told me, “I like this kind of reaction. My uncle always told me that a stockdog has to have a big bounce-back. If a dog is out working cows and gets kicked, you want them to get right back up and go back to work. He always told me that the puppy that reacts by sensibly investigating, that has a quick recovery, will do it later in life on stock.” As this puppy has grown and developed, she continues to display a curious and confident demeanor, and is a sweet and compliant personality with me. There are many other things about her that I like, a couple that I don’t, but I think she’s got all the traits she needs to be a truly great dog for Caleb’s situation. From what I can see she is a tough, confident self-thinker with a healthy dose of biddability and charm. She’s a go-getter, but a thinking one. She’s the kind of dog that I would not place in an average suburban home as a pet .

I very much agree with Caleb and his uncle about the puppy traits they like to see. It was really cool to hear about this trait from a stockman’s perspective.

In my own experience, with my first Aussie Vegas, he was the more hard-charging kind of dog as a puppy. He turned into a courageous and dependable stockdog, but BOY was it hard to get him there. We did so much—Superdogs, flyball, agility, stockdog trials, disc dog, competitive obedience, and he swallowed all of it whole. He could cope with being manhandled after a Globetrotters half-time flyball demo by hundreds of excited kids. He helped me teach growl classes and obedience classes. If he had a negative experience, it didn’t usually affect his outlook on whatever we were doing. He would heel a cow, but bite the hock instead of the fetlock, and got himself kicked quite a bit before he learned how to duck. This never stopped his drive to work. He was the dog of a lifetime and he taught me more about out-thinking a dog than I ever could have learned from an easier dog.

Could Vegas have been a successful stockdog with a farmer or rancher? I doubt it. Farmers and ranchers might be willing to spend some time training and developing a dog but they wouldn’t be willing to put the amount of work in that I did to get my result. That dog ALWAYS thought he knew better than me. Come to think of it, he probably DID know better than me…but it was hard to get him to comply. Vegas and I ended up bringing out the best in each other but I shudder to think what would have happened to him if he had been placed with a farmer that wasn’t a good dog trainer.

From a breeding perspective in the English Shepherd world, I myself want to produce thoughtful, deliberate dogs. I’d like to produce litters of dogs that don’t have huge extremes. Tish Toren expressed it very well to me by saying, “I don’t mind high drive if there’s thoughtfulness to go with it.” This sentiment echoes how I felt when witnessing the Guide Dog pups responding. High energy and high drive can be WONDERFUL as long as the dog is actively thinking as they go along. Laid back and low energy is great too! My personal preference is for a dog that is lower energy and more laid back, but I wouldn’t exclude a higher drive dog if I saw the wheels turning all the time.

No matter what your preference, it’s the thoughtfulness factor that is truly important in this breed. Impulse control can be taught, but an impulsive dog will always revert to impulsiveness as his default behavior when stressed or pushed, and you cannot change that inner instinct. Fortunately thoughtfulness is easy to find in our breed, and we don’t often see big extremes like the Labradors. I do think that when choosing a breeding animal, though, it’s important to really evaluate how a puppy deals with emotions such as fear. Do they keep their head through the experience, or do they go with the adrenaline response and have a poor recovery?

So how does this translate to you, the reader, picking a puppy? I’ll give you an example of what I do when I am looking at a litter of stockdogs that I myself have not raised. Keep in mind that English Shepherds, as a rule, are certainly not Labrador Retrievers and should be given lots of time to react. They are far more complicated critters than the average dog. I do a simplified version of some of the Volhard test, and I add a few things.

I like to take the puppies I am interested in to an area they are not familiar with. You can usually find somewhere they haven’t been at the breeder’s place. I then just watch them react to the new place. After I’ve seen the initial exploring, I try to get the puppy’s attention. Does it run to me/look at me and wag its tail? Or does it glance over briefly and go on exploring and ignore me? I like a curious puppy that readily explores, but then breaks off to run over and get petted, and then wants to explore some more if I withdraw my attention.

I always have something I can throw that makes a little noise, and I’ll repeat the key test and watch for the reaction. Sometimes things in the natural environment will cause a startle, too, like a gate clanging or a car starting. What is the reaction? What is the recovery? I don’t mind a big startle but I want to see a sensible, thoughtful recovery that is pretty quick. I’ll give a human example: I have PTSD, and if a car backfires right beside me as I’m walking along the sidewalk, I often cannot recover easily. My heart pounds, I start sweating, my breathing shortens, and it takes several minutes for my adrenaline to subside. This is not a good thing! A better reaction would be, like my husband, to jump to high heaven, turn around, see that it’s a car backfire and shrug his shoulders and laugh, “dang that scared me to death,” and walk on right away, unaffected. This is what I like to see with a puppy, too.

I like to pick up the puppy and hold it like a baby on its back and watch the reaction. Does it struggle/panic? How long does that last? Does the puppy make eye contact with me as I pet it and speak to it while it is on its back, or does it avoid my gaze? Does it frantically mouth me, or lick at my hands? A sensible reaction to me is a puppy that might object a bit at first, but then makes eye contact and shows supplicating behavior to me as I hold it. This tells me a lot about how easily the puppy will accept the direction of training and control as it grows up.

How does the puppy interact with his littermates? I don’t mind a bossy dog but I can’t stand a bully or a grudge-holder. I watch the litter for a long time and ask lots of questions to the breeder.

One of my personal favorites is seeing a puppy that observes and makes a decision before acting. Puppies like this can appear aloof in the litter, but think again. Is he really aloof, or is he just scary smart? I like me a scary smart little booger. Puppies like this might not rush to greet you with the mob of puppies. You will see them sitting back, looking, waiting for the time when the flurry of excitement/tumbling eagerness dies down. If he’s truly aloof you’ll find out when you handle him.

A while after I’ve thrown the keys behind the puppy, several minutes later, I like to show him the keys again and look at his reaction. I like to see a puppy that accepts the keys as no big deal and has learned from his previous exposure that they are nothing to worry about. A good English Shepherd doesn’t take more than one or two exposures to new things to file them under “things that won’t hurt me.”

When picking a puppy, it’s wise to think of some other things as you observe. Are the puppies sleepy or physically tired from heavy play? Are they hungry or thirsty? Are they bursting with energy because they’ve been penned up just before you got there? It’s wise to take your time.

It’s also wise to curb your enthusiasm about doing a lot of interacting when you go to see puppies. Watch them first. Observe. The worst thing you can do is get down on the floor right away and make judgments from that perspective. I’ll tell you a secret—the “hardcore” puppies, the hard-charging independent bombproof little suckers, are often the most charming in the puppy pile. People say “he picked me,” not realizing that it’s just the most hard-charging puppy in the litter who would have interacted with anyone or anything in much the same way.

The best advice I can give you is to know what kind of things you want in an adult dog before you look at a litter. Talk to your breeder about the parent’s personalities and get to know related dogs a little while you are there. Spend more time watching than “doing” at first. Be a thoughtful, non-impulsive critical thinker.

An old German man once told me how to pick a good stockdog. He said, “find two parent dogs that have great pedigrees and are the kind of dog you want working-wise and personality-wise. Breed them together. Then close your eyes and stick your hand in the whelping box and grab one. You’re likely to get a good dog that way.”

He’s really right. Every litter should start with those criteria! But knowing how to observe default reactions is a great way to further narrow down how well the puppy will fit with you. Whether you’re a pet owner in Suburbia or someone who needs a goat dog, these observations will help you pick the right puppy.