Thinking about getting a puppy?

The following are some things I think everyone should probably know before getting a pup.  First know who you’re dealing with, especially if you’re paying significant money for this pup. Even if you aren’t, remember this pup will be a family member so prepare to choose well. I expect you to keep the pup you chose for their whole life. Most of the dogs in shelters were free or low-cost dogs – unfortunately price makes a difference in how we think.

This is advice I’d give a friend. But actually the best advice is to take someone along who really knows dogs, and have all the pieces ready (crate, kennel, gates, training plan and clear idea of what you want). Do not make this choice an impetuous decision.

Who am I to talk? I was a breeder of Airedale terriers, registered, championship pedigree, active in competitions in conformation and obedience, titled, healthy dogs back in the 80s and early 90s when it was still great and quite acceptable to breed purebred dogs.

Hickory was Best of Winners, I'm handling this home-bred, owner handled airedale. He was a great dog!
Hickory was Best of Winners, I’m handling this home-bred, owner handled Airedale. He was a great dog!

Why did I breed puppies? I was aiming for the next champion, next titled versatile Airedale and it helped pay for the cost of showing, being active in dog competitions, and doing stuff with the dogs. It was a hobby, a sport and a passion for dogs. I did the daily handling, early training, environmental enrichment for the puppies, but still my main focus was not the production of family, stay-at-home pets. I wanted smart, healthy, temperamentally sound dogs and they were, but maybe too much dog for the average family.

Sage looking a bit worried about kendra's show stacking abilities.
Sage looking a bit worried about Kendra’s show stacking abilities.

And depending on the breed, being too intense and purpose driven is probably true of lots of dogs from competitive purebred breeders (at least most of sporting, working, herding, hound and terrier categories). Why? Because these dogs were bred with a purpose in mind and most families don’t buy them with the idea of using them for that purpose, because, dog people do or they have a reasonable replacement activity for the dogs.

Dan successfully competing in obedience,  circa 1980, with Whiskey. He also did a lot of bird hunting with this Airedale.   Photo by Jeanine Renzoni
Dan successfully competing in obedience, circa 1980, with Whiskey. He also did a lot of bird hunting with this Airedale. Photo by Jeanine Renzoni

Why did I stop breeding? Several reasons: the most abrupt was my next star puppy female got hit and killed by a car and I didn’t have the heart to try for another, I was working more away from home and raising dogs takes being there, and finally several of the pups I had placed had bad ends.

As a breeder, people know they can call and cry, it’s sad – sad for them, sad for me. The more years, the more dogs placed, the more deaths – several hit by cars, one died of an aggressive cancer, one had liver failure (probably poison), one the owner put through all sorts of stuff because they were sure it had allergies (despite my telling them it was very unlikely) before they found a vet who took it off the meds – voila no more skin problems, and one ended up with a psychotic woman who bought high-end pups and turned them over to shelters to be euthanized (made me wonder about my ability to read people).

The negatives weighed heavily despite the many happy photo Christmas cards with Airedales in Santa hats or bows I received annually. The tide was turning against breeding dogs too and so many of the very good small breeders got out.

Those things decided my path. I still had adults, my last homegrown dog died at the age of 14 in 2006.

Simba, our last Airedale in his later years, canoeing. He was a good boat dog.
Simba, our last Airedale in his later years, canoeing. He was a good boat dog. Photo by Dan Renzoni

And that was the end of my Airedale  breeding saga. In 1996 I got a Bouvier de Flanders pup – lovely dog and one of the easiest dogs to live with I’ve ever had – it was like she was pre-trained. I temperament tested the litter and she fit my expectations probably too well, I like more challenge.

Bouvier de Flanders pup, Raven, at 9 weeks. She was amazing, social, wonderful with other dogs. She did demonstrations at nursing homes. But she was a big girl - 94 pounds as an adult and was willing to eat anything yucky..
Bouvier de Flanders pup, Raven, at 9 weeks. She was amazing, social, wonderful with other dogs. She did demonstrations at nursing homes. But she was a big girl – 94 pounds as an adult and was willing to eat anything yucky (occasionally a big flaw)..

Adopting (aka buying) from a shelter Then in 2006 I began  a search to acquire a dog from a shelter,  mostly because many of the people and dogs I trained were dealing with different shelter-dog problems. I wanted to see what the differences were and how the experience was.

I wasn’t happy in the process. I filled out the forms (after the first one it’s easy), I did the visits, I was treated as if I was a potential dog abuser and the staff apparently knew very little about the dogs they housed. Oh well, I still got a great dog (after visiting multiple times) – but of course he had problems. Problems I would have avoided had I had him as a youngster.

Max jumping on a ?
Max jumping on a ?

I tend to believe in only choosing adults at shelters because of the lack of being able to forecast traits and physical capabilities when looking at pups – my dogs do major physical activity. This isn’t much of an issue because pups at shelters are fairly rare and young adults are quite common. I also don’t like early neutering because of the changes in body conformation it seems to cause, so that also makes choosing a young adult my best option. Puppies at shelters are in high demand, I guess people are gambling on mixtures providing a mild temperament and healthy body – I’m not that much of a gambler.

For someone else the above requisites may not be important, early neutering may be seen as a benefit, many dogs never get to run free, nor do they do much physical activity. Choose based on your real activity traits, real living situation and real likelihood of providing training.

What else do I think people looking for a pup should generally know?

Two pups we purchased in Washington state back in 1981. The one on the left (Brillo) had a successful show career, the one on the right  (Aztec) died from a reaction to anesthesia at 1 year old.  Photo by Dan Renzoni
Two pups we purchased in Washington state back in 1981.  Note I’d never get two at the same time again, but Dan and I split the training between us. The one on the left (Brillo) had a successful show career, the one on the right (Aztec) died from a reaction to anesthesia at 1-year-old.                             Photo by Dan Renzoni

Know yourself and your family. It is up to you, the buyer, to know what is best for you – how much exercise and activity you will actually do with a dog, how much grooming, how much training, how much time, and how much money. The dog breeder loves the breed they have, but they don’t know you and they don’t really know why you want the breed or whether you can handle it. Only you know that. The breeder can tell you how active, how driven and how much training his dogs need. The breeder provides those activities for their dogs as a matter of course. They can’t know if you will actually give it. (There are several sites that offer dog breed selector quizzes – search dog breed selector quiz –  and these are worth taking with your family, such as: , or , which I like because of the clarity of the questions.  Try more than one version and then do your homework on the breeds it suggests – has pretty good resources, but includes some errors which you’ll notice from their written accounts disagreeing with some of the things said on their videos, AKC is more accurate but doesn’t have the negatives about breeds included, DK dog encyclopedias have it all and are usually available at your library).

Despite the rhetoric people who breed dogs for competition, hunting, companionship and some money are just like everybody else – some great, some good, some mediocre and some bad. It’s wrong-headed to think people who like/love dogs are more special or conversely more evil than any other group. You need to have done your homework so you can ask good questions. The answers you get, the stuff you see, the dogs themselves will tell you in what group to classify the breeding operation you’re visiting.

Deal only with people you feel you can trust and then trust them. This is one reason why bringing an expert or at least longtime dog owner along is a good idea.
*Wisconsin law states that pups cannot be sold/separated from their dam (mom) before 7 weeks. Why? The mother dog and litter-mates offer key socialization experiences creating a pup that better understands doggy social structure/language. Litter owners who don’t know this also don’t know other important things about early puppy socialization.

Craig’s list seems to be the most active dog selling site on the web. It is a mix of honest people, dog flippers and scams, so beware and when going to see a dog/pup take care (and a friend). Dog breeders are not supposed to use this list as a selling outlet, but some do, and then they are flagged off – often fairly quickly. So if this is your choice you’ll have to check it often and write down the information (as it may not be there the next time you look).

eBay classified has dogs and pups for sale by region/city. Usually these are higher priced than those listed on Craig’s list. Generally this is a slower paced system which is better for thoughtful purchasing.

Breeders websites (do a web search based on breed and state) these sites give the most information, but remember the information may be fantasy … get referrals from breed clubs, AKC site or someone you know. Usually you will need to fill out a form similar to the shelter sites in order to be put on a list to get a puppy.

Back to more like Craig’s list: There are other listing sites: pupsnow, nextdaypets, etc. but they are inconsistent, seem not well used, and seem to mostly show pictures of very young pups, which tell you nothing. AKC has a breeder listing. Oodles has brief, uninformative listings that may or may not be current.

Newspapers, which used to be a common way to sell pups, now hardly have any, but occasionally do. In our area these are limited in breed selections – labs,  goldens, border collies, heelers, shepherds and some crosses and mixes.

Dog Magazine Dog Fancy Magazine, now Dogster, still has breeder listings in the back pages of the magazine.

The first cost of a pup is one of the least expensive things about owning a dog. Yes, I do consider cost, but health, is more important and knowing the pup’s background gives me a better chance of forecasting life expectancy and physical wellness.

*People selling mixed breeds or cross-bred pups (this includes shelters) have no breed standards, no breed clubs, no competitions, no health testing for genetic problems … this doesn’t mean their pups are healthier, genetically free of problems or  lesser dogs.  Frequently there is no history, no research, no pedigree .. . so then what would I be paying for? This is why, traditionally, low value was assessed for these dogs.

People selling pure bred dogs, but who don’t do any breed specific activity/sport means, for many of them, achieving more net profit for less effort. What are their values? Why would these dogs be a good choice? Do they have testimonials of satisfied customers? Prior litter examples of success? They may have healthy dogs with wonderful temperament, which is just what you want or not.

Expect good business standards. Dog selling is a business (both for profit – breeders, and non-profit, shelters).

Crosses are a mix of two breeds, if both breeds are likely to have a genetic disease, the pups are likely to also. For example: both Golden Retrievers and Standard Poodles are at risk for hip dysplasia, so crosses – Goldendoodles – are at risk and so the parents should be OFA  ranked. (Note the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals has information on common problems with certain breeds so it is a resource).

Mixes (3 or more breeds) tend to have greater genetic variety, so the gamble is this will lessen the chance of an inherited problem. Mixes may be less intense dogs, because they were not bred with a purpose in mind (like hunting or herding or killing vermin or guarding). This lower level of intensity is a good thing for indoor, less active families or for newbie dog owners.

*Note there have been registries popping up to offer papers with the pups, kind of like a mail-order degree. Registries that have breed standards and competitions to prove the dogs can do what they were intended to do are American Kennel Club (AKC), Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) are the most common ones in this area.  But just being AKC or KC or …. registered is not a guarantee of quality, it just indicates the parents were also registered.  Even if it’s not a championship pedigree, the pedigree can give you clues to the type of breeding in the pup’s history – how much in-breeding, how many out-crosses. So you want to see a multi-generational pedigree (not just 3 generations) because the more in-breeding the higher the chance of recessive genetic problems.

*If a person is a knowledgeable dog breeder they will not be advertising ISO stud dog for my female in heat. They will have done the research, gone to the competitions, looked at pedigrees and done the health testing for their breed’s most likely genetic problems. So a question about why they chose the stud dog they chose is a valid one and why their female was a good choice is even more important.

*Even if the health testing and research has been done it is better to get a pup from an older, healthy bitch and stud dog. Why? because soundness produces soundness. By 5 or 6 years old, if a dog was going to have an early onset health problem it would be there. The breeder/seller should offer some sort of guarantee.

*Look at,  pet/interact with,  the pup’s parents first before the puppies. If you wouldn’t want the pup’s mother as your dog, don’t buy one of her babies. (Remember, she just had pups so saggy belly/teats, somewhat skinny, coat looking a bit scruffy is not unexpected). The father (stud) should look great – andshould be the kind of dog you wantto be yours (note the stud often is from an outside breeder, so you may only be able to see photos or video).

Airedale pups in outside enclosure – grass, cement and gravel. Toys and obstacles to play around. Circa 1988.

*Puppies, when awake, should be clear-eyed, round, bouncy, inquisitive and appear healthy. Only buy a healthy appearing pup from a healthy litter. Always be willing to leave without a pup, if you’re not willing, then you’re not making rational choices.

*Puppy area should have varied play items, varied surfaces/obstacles and be reasonably clean. It is great if potty training has already started and pups can go out to go and keep inside potty-free. (or have an inside potty area).

*Clean water, clean equipment, clean bedding. The pups will have started solid foods back in their 4th week and by week 7, some kind of puppy chow is their mainstay.

*The mother dog should have access to the puppy area, but also have a way to escape the pups as she wishes. By 7 weeks most mother dogs have weaned their pups, but some will still let them suckle briefly. But the mom dog’s interventions are important information for the pups.

*Knowledgeable breeders (a breeder is anyone who has a litter of pups – planned, unplanned, pure bred or mixed) will have a puppy handling and socialization schedule to show you what’s been done already to help create the well-rounded, appropriately social dog you would want. Raised with kids, doesn’t necessarily mean it was a good experience for the pups. Pups born in or transferred to a shelter situation have/are in a very stressful environment – excessive stress is not a good thing.

*And of course they have, a worming schedule, initial vaccination(s), and a vet check (required if they are licensed), or they require you to go to a vet within a brief period after your purchase. Do they need to be licensed? Only if they sell 25 or more dogs/pups from more than 3 litters per year in WI.

*Crate training started and some basic obedience. Even though pups should be in contact with their litter it’s also reasonable to start some separation so it’s not as much of a shock on that first night with you.

What you do has a huge impact on your puppy. The first critical fear period is from 8-10 weeks old. This is also an enormously important socialization time-frame. Bad experiences, challenges that are too much and end unsuccessfully can have permanent repercussions. Painful experiences, elective surgeries, overly loud, overly anything should be avoided. However challenges that are met can be amazing boosts to the pup’s confidence and overall view of his world.

These first weeks are a time to do some good people socialization – not overwhelming the pup, not encouraging wild behavior. Many of the antisocial behaviors blamed on poor breeding are actually poor environmental choices by the new owner … genetics vs environment?

As a trainer, if I see one pup from a litter showing excessive fear or unreasonable aggression I have no way of knowing what the real cause(s) was/were – several pups … then I’m leaning toward genetic predisposition. Can this be fixed? It can be improved, many times it can be much improved. It does take effort though.

As a trainer if I get a whole bunch of pups in a kindergarten class from one litter, usually the pups have been separated from their litter mates and mom dog too early (at 4 – 6 weeks) and are excessively bite-y … so the people with them are worried, and they should be because what else didn’t the breeder know. Pups who don’t have good dog body language skills need mentoring and practice getting it right. Having them with their mom and litter mates longer is not a guarantee of good dog body language skills, but it makes them much more likely.

As a trainer when I see one of the (often GSD type) pups that has been kept isolated at home until 6 or 7 or more months and now everybody noticed how reactive it is to people and to dogs, I know the people didn’t do their initial needed socialization and they may never have the family dog they were wishing for, because the process to fix it is much harder now. The more wary, worried or territorial dogs need much more good socialization early and continuously or they won’t have the confidence to make good decisions.

As a trainer when I see a pup who is frantically wild offering displacement behaviors and an owner who is constantly scolding I know they need positive training, because the constant barrage of criticism drives the pup’s worried behavior that drives the criticism … and the cycle continues.

Raising a puppy well is a lot of work … and fun.

Do you need help choosing a dog or pup? I consult and/or actively help in the process.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. marlab412 says:

    I have a question for you! We have a great pitbull puppy that we rescued at the age of 14 weeks. Her past home was somewhat neglectful but she is very loving and a sweetheart. She is about 6 months now and is now exhibiting some behaviors we feel frustrated with. We have 5 children aged 10,7,6,3,and 2. She is never aggressive with them but she does tend to be a bit of a brute around them and doesn’t necessarily listen to them….unless there is a treat involved of of course. For example though, she will snatch a toy or food from them in a heartbeat, even if i means they get knocked down. She will play a bit rough with them as she would with other dogs. We can tell her no and she will stop and we put her up to “chill out”. We praise her when she plays well and more appropriately. We are trying to teach the younger ones to tell her “no” and “sit” when she is too hyper. She doesn’t listen to them though. We have had them all involved in giving her treats for following commands and they feed her and she can only eat when they tell her now (Vet’s suggestion). but she just simply doesn’t seem to respect them like she does us and our oldest. Any other tips you can give to try to teach her to play and be more gentle around the little ones? They give her treats frequently too. Sometimes it isn’t on her…sometimes they get too rough with her at times too so we are working on that on their end too! Thanks for any advice you can give!


    1. Hi, Thanks for the comment. So for advice – Puppies at 6 months tend to be very adolescent. Kids in the 2 to 7 age range tend to be impulsive, silly, random … and so they do things that escalate puppy behaviors that you don’t want and that they ultimately don’t want after they’ve gotten them started. I’m sure they steal stuff from her and she does the same to them, they give her treats randomly, sometimes before, sometimes after she does something and sometimes she just gets them because they drop on the floor. This is the time when pups start counter surfing, table hopping, garbage stealing, toy destroying, food taking, chewing with those new big teeth on and from where-ever so prevention is key. Prevention is also key on rough playing behavior – after the fact isn’t effective (which you’ve already realized).
      You’re on the right track getting them involved in training. If you’re using reprimands, punishment and threats as training tools she will be more anxious and more hyper, also of course little ones can’t do this and the positive stuff will be less effective. At this stage active supervision of all play sessions is a must, otherwise it is likely as she grows that she will reprimand them for wrongs they do to her. (Many times kids jump onto dogs, try to ride them, take their bones/food, try to dress them, run into them with wheeled toys – this stuff hurts, she’s currently treating them like other puppies, other pups would get growled at and/or nipped for such behaviors.) Active supervision means adult involvement – so it doesn’t actually matter at this point whether she listens well to them – you will be there intervening to keep things on an appropriate level. In your place I’d use a hands-free leash (one that hooks around your waist) to keep the pup next to me if I was distracted or busy and not in the mood to play with the kids and dog. There needs to be a place that’s hers – a safe zone (crate, gated room/bed where she can go and the little ones won’t harass her). Games that work well are hide and seek (have one or two kids hide and help her find them), fetch, target games, sniff it-find it and then of course tricks. No games with screaming games or chase – she needs to not be involved in at all, confine her if the kids are going to do these. Your 10 year old is old enough to do training with help/guidance from you, the others can be coached, but are not old enough to do it well. They could do jobs like refilling her water dish, helping brush her, getting her toothbrush so you can brush her teeth, sitting and petting her with you … When they consistently are gentle with her (and there aren’t rough/wild play episodes from them) she will be gentle with them. Teach them and practice -freeze/turn into statue if she gets too wild (you know red light/green light, but this would be red) and only start moving again if she’s moved away. That will work better than them saying NO or trying to get a sit. If there have been 3 months of rowdy play from them, expect that much time or more (if wild stuff randomly continues) of controlled, appropriate play and learning to settle (lay on her mat next to your feet) despite high activity around her to be needed to get her to the level you want. Young dog’s behaviors are quickly changed, but also are easily changed back … habits take age and a while to establish. Good luck.


      1. marlab412 says:

        You are spot on about her and the kids! We do our best to separate when needed but admittedly sometimes things get overlooked :/ love your advice though and I just know once we get past this stage , she will be one amazing dog. And yes, she actually jumps on the table like our cat will try too, haha! Makes me laugh a little but my husband is ready for her “puppydom” to pass haha. We love her so much and can see she is amazing already but just needs manners. Thanks again so much for your help 🙂


      2. Pit Bulls are great dogs! All the best to you and your training project (human and canine). 🙂


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