Advice from the Breeder: Cathy Nelson, Pennywise Dandie Dinmont Terriers

5 Tips: Puppy Evaluation

Mentoring a newcomer on litter evaluation difficult. At its best, mentoring guides people to develop their eye for a breed and make confident, well-informed decisions. In other words, to understand that “my pick may not be your pick” but that both can be good selections. That one person keeps apples and another oranges is vital for the overall condition and diversity of the breed.

My own mentors laid out broad principles about establishing a breeding program that augment the evaluation of each puppy.

Patience is a virtue.

As with predicting the weather, the younger the puppy—the longer the forecast—the greater the gamble. All puppies are wonderful. Despite the fact that neonate Dandie Dinmont Terriers resemble elongated baked potatoes or eggplants, some breeders insist they can rate the litter at birth. More power to them! With newborns, however, my primary concern is that they are whole, healthy, and nursing. I take just a quick look at skull shape and body length.

Be sexist.

One fine mentor advocated that no one starting in our sport keep a male until in a breed for five years. Her rationale was that better mating decisions will be made with “rent a dog” than if one is tempted by the fellow snoozing on the sofa. Fortunately, a male pup who is a potential star doesn’t need to be lost forever; a contractual agreement regarding collection and freezing will make him available in the future without his being underfoot in the present.

Put away the wish list.

When a breeder has been hoping for a color-and-sex combination, and by golly, hooray, there’s one in the new litter, it is human nature to focus on that pup’s positive features and not see shortcomings. The chosen one is the first picked up, the first named, and the most cuddled. Small wonder that it seems to be the most responsive.

Don’t judge a puppy in its cover.

In my breed, Dandie Dinmont Terriers, puppies are born dark and slick and fluff up with a charming, dark-tipped, stand-off coat. By 12 weeks there is usually enough to efficiently turn them into a furry blob from nose to tail. To see the whole dog and how the parts found by your hands fit together, puppy needs the first stripping.

Check the blueprints.

At the end of the day, it’s important to hark back to the goals of the breeding. Is what appeared complementary on paper shown in the flesh? Did the combination improve on the bitch’s shortcomings and retain her virtues? Did the dog bring in the features hoped for? Think twice about keeping a pup whose attributes move the program sideways—or worse, backwards.

Finally, make sure you really like the keeper. If your personalities don’t mesh, even the most beautiful pup in the world won’t be a joy forever.

—Cathy Nelson, Pennywise Dandie Dinmont Terriers


Illustration: Dandie Dinmont Terrier Ch. Pennywise Gambit, a watercolor by Lise Casalegno Marro, commissioned by the AKC on the occasion of owner-breeder Cathy Nelson’s 2004 AKC Breeder of the Year Award.