Evaluating Your Litter:
Tips and Insights from Top Breeders (Part Two)
By Arliss Paddock
Learning how to evaluate your puppies is one of a breeder’s most daunting challenges—and no matter how long you’ve been breeding, there’s always more to learn. In Part One, several top breeders shared their comments on puppy evaluation. Following, we continue as more breeders offer their thoughts and advice on this important topic.
Grading the Litter
2008 AKC Breeder of the Year Joan Savage, of Banks, Oregon, has bred more than 60 AKC champion English Setters under the Stagedoor kennel name. Her Ch. Stagedoor Rock It Man was Best of Breed at the English Setter Association of America’s national specialty in 2006 and 2007, and he won Best in Show at the 2007 World Show held in Mexico. Savage is also an AKC Delegate and judge.
As do many successful breeders, Savage “grades” each litter when they’ve reached a certain age. “I like to officially grade the pups at 8 weeks. Of course, I watch them interact and move in their pen before that. I do table stacking and take digital photos, including stacked shots of the head straight on, side view, and rear. I can easily e-mail the photos to others on the same day. I also watch them move.”
Like many skilled breeders, over time Savage has developed an “eye” that allows her to quickly assess each puppy in terms of specific important qualities. “The first thing that strikes me is the puppy’s balance, muscle tone, and athleticism,” says Savage. “I also look for good head planes, good bite, topline, and attitude. A good show dog and breeding prospect has to have the attitude to go along with the good body and head.”
Savage observes each puppy’s temperament and personality from early on. “I watch the pups interact with each other as they grow,” she says. “Personalities start to show at 6 weeks. The pecking order starts to become evident as they play and tussle with each other. English Setters generally have great temperaments, and extreme dominance isn’t an issue. Some are more sure of themselves, and others can be timid. I like the outgoing, confident pups for my breeding-showing program.”
For Savage, certain structural flaws quickly eliminate a puppy from consideration as a show or breeding prospect. “The bite has to be scissors, and both testicles must have dropped by 8 weeks. Serious flaws include a pup that is not balanced, is weak in the front or rear, has a bad topline, or has a weak head (lacking sufficient muzzle or having bad planes). These are not show prospects. I am pretty picky about which ones I determine to be show prospects. I would be slightly forgiving of a mismark (a body patch).”
“If a pup is lacking in balance at 8 weeks, it will not improve,” she continues.
“Generally they grow into what they were at 8 weeks. Of course, they mature at different rates, but if they were nice at that age, they will mature nicely.”
Rhodesian Ridgeback pups. Courtesy Sandra Fikes.
8 Weeks: A “Magic” Age for Many Breeds
Sandra Fikes, of Mobile, Alabama, is an AKC judge and longtime breeder of Rhodesian Ridgebacks. She competes with the breed in both conformation and performance events. The many champions bearing her Kalahari kennel name include Ch. Wetu of Kalahari, winner of multiple specialties and Bests in Show and first in the Hound Group at Westminster Kennel Club in 2002.
Like Savage and many other experienced breeders, Fikes has found 8 weeks to be a key age at which to assess a puppy’s structure, both in terms of specific traits and overall balance. She has learned that topline is one of the traits that can be reliably predicted at this point for most dogs. “From 8 to 12 weeks,” she says, “toplines remain fairly true and probably represent what the dog will have as an adult. Topline faults that are apparent at 8 weeks will persist in the adult to some degree.”
She finds that substance, too, can be assessed quite reliably at this age. “Substance is made up in both bone and muscling,” she notes. “Good muscling on the inside of the leg will give a rounded look to the leg, even though the bone is oval. Too light a muscling is an indicator that the puppy may be too refined as an adult.”
Other structural aspects that Fikes evaluates at 8 weeks include head, rear, tail-set, front assembly, and depth of chest.
“I like to see a good width of chest and fill between the front legs,” she says. “The elbows should hug the ribbing when standing and moving. This requires adequate angulation between the shoulder and upper arm, as well as a good layback. In my dogs, puppies at 8 weeks have the depth of chest they will have as adults. As they grow, they may get a bit shallow as teenagers, but it does come back to what they had at evaluation. In some lines, the chest may drop as the dog matures, but the ribbing should remain about the same.”
Finding the Right Balance
Attention to the strengths or weaknesses of specific areas must not distract from the important consideration of overall proportion and balance. “Proportion in an 8-week-old pup is a good indicator of what it will be as an adult,” notes Fikes. “A balanced puppy will become a balanced adult. A square puppy will be a square dog.”
But what, exactly, is meant by balance? As Fikes describes it, “If you look at a puppy, whether it is standing still or moving, no one part of its body stands out from the other parts. Just let your eye settle on the pup, and see if something jumps out at you.
“I like to see a puppy that stands four-square in a balanced position when it is attentive to something,” she continues. “This is why you should sit with them in the yard-so that you can watch them in normal, relaxed surroundings, and observe each one’s natural stance.”
In her book Tricks of the Trade, AKC judge Pat Hastings describes many puppy-evaluation techniques in detail. Advice offered in the book—also shared through her Puppy Puzzle DVD and seminars—reflects her extensive research on the subject and years of experience (with her late husband) as a Doberman Pinscher breeder and professional handler. She provides the following tips on assessing balance in the puppy:
“Stack [the puppy] in as natural a position as possible. Remember, the shape of the puppy at 8 weeks is the shape it will grow into as an adult.
“Check the puppy’s proportions, in accordance with your breed standard. In other words, check the height in relation to the length, and the depth of the body in relation to the height of the leg. Make sure you are following your breed standard, as some standards require the dog to be longer than it is tall, to have a sloping topline, and so forth.
“With the puppy comfortably stacked, look at the whole picture. Learn to look for correct balance by visualizing three simple lines that apply to most breeds:
- Visualize a line along the entire topline. The head—jaw and all—should be above that line.
- Visualize a line up the front legs, perpendicular to the ground. The entire head and neck of the puppy should be in front of that line.
- Visualize dropping a plumb line from the point of the buttocks to the ground. The plumb line should land at the tips of the toes.
“Practice these visualizations … Pretty soon, these lines will come easily to your mind’s eye when evaluating puppies. Once they do, you will be able to look at the whole picture and immediately detect such significant structural weaknesses as a short neck or poorly placed front or rear assembly.”
A Continuing Education
You’ve hovered over the litter for weeks. As you watch them dash and tumble happily in the yard, you may already have high hopes for one or two of them. There are tough choices to be made: Should I run this one on for a few months? Which one should go to that good pet home next week? Which for the agility home? Without a crystal ball at your disposal, there’s much uncertainty involved-but with ongoing study, observation, and the help of breed mentors, your sense for how those pups are likely to turn out will continue to improve with each litter.
Arliss Paddock breeds and shows English Cocker Spaniels and is former managing editor of the AKC Gazette.
Reference and Recommended Further Reading
Tricks of the Trade, by Pat Hastings, with Erin Rouse; Dogfolk Enterprises, 2005 (revised edition). Includes detailed discussion of puppy-evaluation techniques.