AKC eNewsletter

Spring 2009
Evaluating Your Litter
Part One: Tips and Insights from Top Breeders

By Arliss Paddock

The fun begins the moment you cradle the first newborn puppy in your hands and wonder, What will this one be like when he grows up?

As the rest arrive, one by one you compare them and make mental notes: Two liver and white girls so far, two black and white boys. I love this one’s markings! How nice and chunky this one is.

Even in the first days, as they wriggle in a warm pile, you are already assessing and comparing them with a keen eye.

The process actually began long before they were whelped, when in planning the breeding you considered the characteristics of the sire and dam and their parents, siblings, and other relatives. Knowledge of both positive and negative traits present in the pedigree provided a heads-up on some of the things you can keep a lookout for as the puppies grow.

Even more fundamental to making useful assessments of your puppies, however, is a three-layered understanding of puppy development—understanding what you’re seeing in terms of general canine conformation and personality traits, in terms of specific traits for your breed, and in terms of nuances within your own bloodline.

Cultivating all this knowledge is an ongoing project, one which you will fine-tune through study, observation of your own puppies, looking at other people’s litters (including litters of other breeds), and comparing notes with other breeders.

French Bulldog
French Bulldog. Photo by Mary Bloom.

Starting points: A few practical strategies
Keeping detailed records on each litter can be a huge help in building information about what you might expect in your breed and bloodline. It will allow you not only to see how one litter stacks up against another, but also to compare how adult dogs that are now “known quantities” looked at various stages of their puppyhood.

The first step is to keep a record of puppy weights at given ages. In addition to providing a baseline of size comparison between litters, tracking weights is crucial to making sure that the pups are growing at a healthy rate. You might wish to also record measurements of height at the withers and body length. Whatever time intervals you choose, be consistent in this regard from litter to litter. For example, you might plan to record every pup’s weight and measurements at birth, weekly through 5 months, and then monthly through 1 year.

While you’re regularly recording this data you can also write down general observations about the litter, such as All puppies are up on their feet this week. Comments about individual puppies, as in Red-ribbon puppy’s body seems long right now, can also be extremely useful for later reference.

As you continue to develop your eye for evaluating puppies, the knowledge that mentors and other experienced dog people can provide in this area is invaluable. Here and in Part Two, to appear in the next issue of AKC Breeder, several top breeders offer their perspectives on puppy assessment.

Catherine B. Nelson, 2004 AKC Breeder of the Year
Catherine B. Nelson, of Potomac, Maryland, has bred Dandie Dinmont Terriers under the Pennywise prefix since 1975. She has bred or owned more than 70 show champions, including five all-breed Best in Show winners and eight Best of Breed winners at 11 national specialties. Recently she was kind enough to share her responses to our questions on puppy evaluation.

At what age(s) do you like to evaluate puppies for show or breeding potential?
Three years. Seriously, at around 10 weeks I can be pretty certain which puppies in a litter I do not want to run on. After that, 16 weeks and 6 months are the next two benchmarks.

What evaluation methods do you use?
I table-stack a litter and examine all the parts, but decisions are based on observing the puppies out on their own—day after day after day—to focus on overall balance and to evaluate how all the pieces fit together, how the pup makes use of what he has.

What are the “basics” that you look for first in selecting the show/breeding prospect?
Soundness (of both mind and body), proportion, breed type, and attitude.

Never discount the value of an emotional bond with a particular puppy, as long as this doesn’t blind you to any conformation deficits. If I had to emphasize one thing, it would be that out of the pups one considers having potential, it is important to really like the dog you will be living and working with for many years—not just think of it as a slot in a future pedigree.

Roberta Lombardi, 2005
Non-Sporting Group AKC Breeder of the Year
Roberta Lombardi, of Camarillo, California, has bred Lhasa Apsos under the Rufkins prefix for 20 years. She has bred 99 conformation champions and bred or co-bred the top-winning dog and bitch in breed history and a two-time national-specialty winner. Lombardi graciously offered her insights as well.

At what age(s) do you like to evaluate puppies for show/breeding potential?
I evaluate puppies for show at 16 weeks and again at 6 months.

What evaluation methods do you use?
I table-stack them, observe them moving freely, move them on a lead, and photograph them moving and still.

What are the “basics” that you look for first in selecting the show/breeding prospect?
First and foremost is proper Lhasa Apso balance, then overall proportion and carriage, then attitude and soundness.

Which conformation flaws do you consider to be “forgivable” in puppies of your line or breed? Which do you deem so serious as to eliminate a puppy from consideration?
A head that isn’t perfect as far as expression but still has the proper proportion and fits the body style is forgivable. Heads are one of the easiest things to fix in breeding.

A bad topline, on the other hand, is not easy to fix and doesn’t improve with maturity. A dog with a bad topline most assuredly has a problem with front and/or rear construction, and this will not improve with exercise or conditioning. It takes five to six generations of breeding for a proper front to consistently produce it in the majority of the litter, and only one generation to lose it. It takes three to four generations to clean up a rear. For those reasons, fronts and rears that don’t match cannot be tolerated in either a show or breeding animal.

A dog who isn’t necessarily your ideal specimen, but can add a great deal to the gene pool, must be kept and carefully used to improve certain characteristics. You have to keep your eye on the big picture and assemble the pieces that most effectively achieve that.

How and when do you assess puppy temperament and personality?
Puppy temperament is constantly being evaluated, and it is a big consideration when choosing breeding stock and evaluating for show potential. Environmental factors play a big role in this, and it is important to work with each puppy so that adjustments can be made in its ongoing socialization.

Not all puppies are cut out for the stress of the show ring. Since this breed is by nature suspicious of strangers, it is critical to get them out early and observe how they react to new situations and people. All aspects of behavior play a role, including moms in the whelping box, as they ultimately raise the next generation, and much of imprinting goes on there and can last a lifetime.

The majority of what you produce ultimately ends up in a pet home, so soundness of mind has to take precedence over everything else.

In the next issue of AKC Breeder, more breeders of note will share their thoughts on puppy evaluation.

Arliss Paddock breeds and shows English Cocker Spaniels and is former managing editor of the AKC Gazette.

Ronald N. Rella, Director, Breeder Services
Email: AKCbreeder@akc.org
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