Choosing a Dog Litter

Choosing a Dog from The Perfect Litter

Congratulations at making it to the third step of choosing a dog puppy.  Now that you have narrowed down your search to your ideal breed(s) and have found a great breeder you can trust to raise your new fur kid right, it starts to get exciting!  Sooner or later the breeder is going to offer you a choice from her latest litter, but there are a few important things to consider when choosing a dog before you jump in.

While your Perfect Breeder may do all the right things we talked about previously, not all the litters she offers you will be equal!  Why?  Because each litter will come from a different set of parents.


Our Perfect Match Puppy Will Not Come from an Inbred Litter

Inbreeding can have a limited place as a strategy in specialised breeding programs aimed at “breed improvement” for the show ring, but not in the production of healthy puppies as companion dogs.  So before choosing a dog pup you must see it’s parents’ pedigree papers.

What your check will hopefully reveal is that the mum and dad of your puppy have no ancestors the same – that is, they are not closely related to each other.  Now, if you go back far enough you’ll find that pretty much all purebred dogs of the same breed share ancestors in common.   But between the two parents of your puppy there will ideally be no ancestors in common for at least the 4 generations recorded on their respective pedigree certificates.

What if there are no papers available?  If the puppy you want is a cross-breed “designer” dog whose immediate parents are obviously purebreds of totally different breeds, this is not important, as there is minimal risk of recent common ancestors.  But if the parents are themselves “designer dogs” or cross-breeds, then who’s to say they aren’t brother and sister, or father and daughter?  You need to see some papers!

Here’s a quick lesson in reading pedigrees:

  • “Sire” means father.
  • “Dam” means mother.

The pedigree is basically a family tree that reads back through the generations from left to right, so the Sire and Dam in the first column are the dog’s mom and dad.

The name of each dog shown in the pedigree normally starts with the name of the kennel that bred it (mine is Ravensquill) followed by the name of the dog.  If it has been shown and earned a title of some sort, this will also show in front of its name e.g. CH for Champion, or AM. CH for American Champion and so forth.  The pedigree will also show who the registered owner of the parent dog is, who bred it, its color, and its date of birth.

When you are  choosing a dog puppy, most of the time the breeder won’t have any papers available for it, but hopefully will have papers for both its mom and dad.  So you will instead be presented with two sets of pedigrees, one for each of the litter’s parents.

When choosing a dog your job will be to put them side by side and check for inbreeding.  Start with one of them, say the dad (sire).  Take each name in turn for his ancestors and check the other (e.g. mom’s/ dam’s) pedigree to see if that same name crops up there as well.  If it does, then circle it in both.

Keep going with till you’ve checked every name in the first pedigree against those of the second and you’ll then be able to clearly see how much inbreeding has occurred to produce your puppy.

The closer that common ancestors are to your pup, the greater the risk of it inheriting genetic problems. 

For example, if the puppies’ mom and dad both have the same mother or father, the risk is very high as the common ancestor in question would have contributed ½ of each parents’ genetic material.

On the other hand, if the parent dogs of the litter only have one great-great grandparent in common, for example, the risk is much less, as the dog in question has only contributed 1/16th of the genetic material to each parent.  My rule of thumb for choosing a dog is that there should, at bare minimum, be no common ancestors within 4 generations of your puppy.

Need Help Interpreting Pedigrees?

Don’t take risks with the health of your next forever-home dog.  Get an expert veterinary assessment of the degree of inbreeding and likelihood of inherited disease BEFORE you commit to choosing a dog.  It could save you a fortune in veterinary expenses over the life of your dog and definitely safeguard your peace of mind.

To order an Inbreeding Risk Assessment click here.

I will need high resolution photos or scans of both of the parent dogs’ pedigrees.  This will allow me to calculate the level of inbreeding and the probable risk of inherited diseases cropping up in that litter.  You will have your answer within 2 working days (usually much faster).

Your Perfect Puppy’s Parents will Have Great Temperaments

To really get a handle on the likely temperament of a puppy, the most reliable information of its behavioral potential for some rather important traits can be gleaned from the behavior of its parents.

The heritability of behavior in dogs has been measured by many researchers in several breeds.  What they found was that some behaviors are very strongly linked to genetics and some less so.  Traits that are predominantly inherited by a puppy from its parents are therefore difficult to change through learning and training.  Such traits are aggression and to a lesser extent, fear or shyness.

Aggression, for example, is very highly heritable in Golden Retrievers, with a heritability for aggression by dogs towards strangers of 0.9.  This heritability score of 0.9 indicates that 90% of any observed difference between Golden Retrievers in the aggression they show towards strangers has been inherited from their parents, and just 10% can be attributed to other factors such as experience and environment.

And studies that span several breeds (Liinamo et al. 2007) show that aggression is largely determined by genes in most dogs.  An interesting finding that is important to our quest of choosing a dog to be your Perfect Match Puppy is that aggression towards people is a distinctly separate genetic trait that bears little correlation to canine aggression towards other dogs.  The heritability score for aggression directed to humans is pretty high, at 0.77 and that for dog-directed aggression is even higher at 0.81.

This means that a dog that is highly hostile towards other dogs might be quite safe when it comes to people.   On the other hand it also means that you can’t do much to steer a puppy away from developing into an aggressive dog if it has been genetically coded to develop this trait.

Liinamo and his collegues found high heritability estimates on several aspects of aggression such as strange dog approaching leashed dog (0.85), family member grooming dog (0.83), family member approaching eating dog (0.94), family member removing food (0.95), stranger trying to touch dog (0.99).  Simply put, dominance behavior and aggression appear to be quite firmly under genetic control.

With a heritability of 0.5, fearfulness or shyness is a temperament attribute found to be influenced by genetics and environment in equal measure (Goddard and Beilharz, 1983).   In one study 59 descendants of an exceedingly shy Bassett Hound who was known as a fear-biter were traced and a large proportion were also found to be shy, unfriendly animals.

Positive traits such as friendliness, sociability and ability to cooperate with humans are also significantly affected by the genes a dog inherits from its parents.  The heritability of affability or friendliness in German Shepherds, for example, has been measured at 0.37 and of ability to cooperate in Labrador Retrievers at 0.35 (Willson and Sundgren 1997).  Other temperament attributes showed lower heritability suggesting they are more influenced by the dog’s environment than its genes.

The temperaments of the mother and father of your puppy are equally important to consider when attempting to predict its potential behavior as an adult.  Some people believe that the temperament of the mother has more impact than the father on the personality of puppies because of the close association between them prior to weaning.  However this “maternal effect” has been largely discredited as negligible or at best minor by research on the topic, particularly by the time a puppy reaches maturity.  Nevertheless, seeing the mother is certainly valuable in its own right when choosing a dog to ensure the puppy is being raised in a positive environment.

Meet the Parents!

In short, make sure you get to see the parents, both of them if at all possible.  Owners of dogs referred for behavioral problems (mainly aggression) as treatment cases to UK pet behavior counselors were surveyed on how they had acquired their dog and compared with similar dogs that did not have behavior problems.  A striking finding was that dogs whose owners had not seen either of its parents were nearly 4 times more likely to be in the case group!  And dogs whose owners only saw the mother were 2.5 times more likely to be referred for a behavioral problem!   All this points to the paramount importance when choosing a dog of dealing with a breeder who doesn’t hide either parent from you and gives all puppies good early socialization with humans.  Owners who unwittingly buy their puppies from puppy mills very rarely get to meet its parents first so it is not surprising this group experienced the most behavior problems.  Small non-commercial breeders – often disparagingly labeled as “backyard breeders” – usually own both parent dogs as family pets and the environment they rear them in consistently produces the most emotionally well balanced puppies fit to be part of normal families, unless of course maltreated by children.

So before choosing a dog meet both parents and interact with them.  Especially note how they interact with the breeder.  Though they may not be that friendly towards you, they may be very loyal and a great canine companion to their chosen people.  If you wouldn’t like a dog like them joining your family, you should rethink your decision to source your puppy from their litter.