How We Evaluate a Litter and Decide Placement
by Cara Ryckman
We frequently have the question of how do we evaluate a puppy – how do we decide if a puppy is the right fit for a certain home. This article will not be about the show puppy or deciding who I will keep for my program. The show puppy may have completely different characteristics than what you are looking for in a pet. I have a show dog here at my house who is hard to have in our room at night because he is such a busy boy and keep us up all night. Our standard says “terrier-like” temperament – some people want a couch cuddler who is going to get along with all of their other dogs; sometimes the show dog is just not what the pet owner is wanting at all. I had a phone call the other day asking for the “pick of the litter” - that is an archaic term, as the “pick of the litter” is the dog that is best for you and your unique situation – this dog will be different for you than it will for me or your next door neighbor or your teacher or the policeman who lives down the street. When it comes to a pet puppy, it is most important to me to get the right fit for your home.
There are “breeders” out there who sell puppies at birth, when their eyes are not open; or they take deposits on puppies who aren’t even born. I do not agree with this and it is definitely not something I will do. First of all, with an unborn or infant puppy, you have no idea what the personality will be like – the personality of the puppy is going to be the most important in finding that right fit. You may think you love white longcoats, but when I start posting videos you may see a fawn smooth and fall in love because the personality is just like a dog from your childhood. Puppies are cute when they are born like any baby animal, but it is not the time to choose your forever pet. It’s ironic, you can look at puppies of many different breeds and the average eye would have a hard time knowing what breed it might be; certainly these puppies will turn into dogs that are extremely different. The infant puppy cannot see or hear, so you can’t even see how the puppy responds to voices.
Eyes open at somewhere between ten and fourteen days. Hearing develops at 2 to 3 weeks. Before this time they are nursing little potatoes, blind and deaf to the world. Yes they are cute, but you just can’t tell anything about them at this time. We handle them every day so they are used to human touch from the beginning. Mom keeps them clean. We keep the area clean.
At four weeks you really start seeing a change in the photos I put up. I put photos up every week prior to this, but this week you start seeing expressions. Most of the expressions are, oh my gosh what are you and what are you doing? We are still touching them every day. They are hearing the sounds of my circus-like house – many different types of voices talking, the vacuum cleaner, other dogs running around barking and interacting. They probably hear the larger dogs in the other part of the house or outside. They may even hear our donkey Queso hee-hawing outside, vehicles moving past our bedroom, television, music. Still, this isn’t the time to make hard and fast choices. This is when I start getting people really wanting to put down a deposit, but we don’t do deposits until final evaluation and we make the mutual decision it’s the best fit. You still can’t see the personality of the puppy. You still can’t see if a puppy is sound sensitive, or afraid of strange objects – or maybe he just startled and he’s figuring it out. You can’t determine basic personality traits like if a puppy is a quieter guy who would prefer a calmer home vs. the social butterfly type ready to go meet everyone as you do your errands.
Five to six weeks is better…you will start having some thoughts about the puppies and at this time we may see a puppy recoiling from touch or afraid of sounds or “weird’ stuff. This is when Lexi kicks in with her bag she wears around her waist. She will start carrying puppies around with her, handling them, touching them, safely exposing them within our house to many other sounds, sights, and people. We do not let anyone handle our puppies except family until after 2 sets of shots. Lexi does a VERY good job with desensitizing puppies to things they might be worried about and this could start as early as 5 or 6 weeks to starting later (even as late as evaluation). We do our best to give the puppy the best chance at normal, to give the new home the best chance at the puppy they are looking for. Some puppies do not need extra work like this at all, but Lexi is ready for (and loves helping out) those who do.
Seven weeks takes the puppy further into personality traits, but also a fear period can start around this time. While in my younger days, people always said 7 weeks, the internet now says 8-10 weeks. I still go along with the 7. I can see traits at 7 weeks that are not there anymore at 8 weeks. I can be worried about a puppy at 7 weeks and then wow, the puppy is dynamite at 8 weeks. We do not make any decisions or do any extreme desensitization at 7 weeks.
Eight weeks is our evaluation. We are going to stack the puppy up on a table and take photos of the stack for us to look at physical characteristics. I’m going to look at the puppy’s teeth to see if the bite fits the AKC standard – this is not as concerning for a pet puppy, but for a show puppy it is a fault if the bite is off. I’m going to be looking at things physically that may not matter at all to the pet owner – I’m going to want to be as close as I can to the AKC standard – if the ears are not set correctly by the standard, this may make the puppy a pet instead of a show dog. If the growth rate of the puppy leads me to believe that the puppy may be oversize or very tiny, this will lead me to classify the puppy as a pet. It does not at all mean it is a “bad” puppy or not a quality pet puppy. These are minute things that are not going to affect the puppy as a pet at all, but that I do not want in the ring as a show dog. Sometimes I will place show dogs as pets – I have many show dogs in pet homes. Sometimes I feel the home I have in front of me is wonderful for that puppy and despite the fact he or she could finish a championship, I’d rather have the pet life for that puppy. Sometimes a dog is perfectly finishable but it will have a trait that I am trying to eradicate from my program, so it may still be available. Maybe it has the same fault that mom has, and I am more interested in another puppy in the litter who does not have that fault.
There are more components to our evaluation than physical. We take the puppies as a group to a room they have never been in (or perhaps have not been in within their scope of memory – often it’s my bedroom and they were there for the first few weeks,, but they weren’t out of their box and they do not remember it). I will note the reaction to the strange room – is the puppy out and exploring and wagging his tail, or is he just hanging out calmly on a pillow or is he afraid shaking and going under furniture? These would be three very different personalities. If he’s afraid and shaking, he’s going to be in Lexi’s bag and he’s not ready to find a home yet…we’re going to work with him to get him over being afraid. He is probably never going to be that purse puppy out meeting and greeting friends all day. He’s going to be happier with less new places and people, perhaps with someone who likes to stay at home – he will get used to that person and place and he won’t be stressed. Just a note – we usually have not seen these behaviors in the whelping box, or in the puppy play area as the puppies are used to those places and faces. They know each other. They know the toys and the feeling of the tile and beds we have down for them. We are going to try to see how they react to different floor surfaces, different types of toys, different sounds…what do they do when they hear a siren? What about a big dog barking, close up? What about toys and items they have never seen?
At this time I’m also going to introduce them to some different dogs. They are going to meet Daphne (my alpha girl) and see what they do with her. I also like to see HER reaction. She loves puppies and is usually wagging her tail slowly and letting them run around and check her out. They are going to meet one of my adult boys who is friendly and calm – how do they feel about him? They are going to meet a teen puppy who may be obnoxious and pushy – how do they react to that? This helps me a lot to know what the puppy is going to do when he meets your dog at home. You have already told me about your dog’s personality, so I am able to look at the reactions to my dogs here and I can see what the puppy does so I can have an idea on how that would go. What I do not want to see is the puppy acting aggressive to my adults or absolutely terrified and hiding. I want to see them meet and all being good with my known adults. When they meet my obnoxious teen, it’s ok if they back up but they shouldn’t completely freak out, either. A recent puppy chased my obnoxious teen playfully out of the room. Her brother was not terrified but he did fall into more of a creeping position and kept wagging his tail. Two different types of puppies.
I am also going to get some small treats and we’re going to try out some very basic luring for sit or paws up or something very easy to teach. I want to see how the puppy responds. For a performance puppy I want to see a high interest in people and a great willingness to please. A confident personality where the puppy is fine with all sounds, sights, dogs, people. I would really like to see the puppy food oriented or toy oriented or hopefully, both. We go into the new room and the puppy checks it out and runs back to me like, “C’mon mom, you have to go see this.” I want an intelligent puppy who wants to knock over a cup to find a treat and who will climb over a pillow to get to some interesting looking new toys.
I’ve been observing the puppies the whole time, but occasionally I will be surprised at their reaction to the “new.” Sometimes I may be surprised because a puppy who I thought was going to be anxious passes with flying colors – Lexi has done her job and the puppy is past that fearful time and the puppy is raring to go. Sometimes I am surprised because maybe a puppy I watch in the puppy area being the star personality comes over to the new area and has some apprehension, and maybe needs some new work.
After the evaluation, I sit down with a list I have made where each puppy has a column with those who have expressed interest during the growing up period of the puppy. There is usually a family standing out to me from what I have observed. I will go back and look through the emails and I may have questions for the family on something I saw with the puppy. I will go over everything I saw with the family I am thinking is the best fit, and make sure there is nothing that we saw that eliminates the puppy for them. We have definitely at this period found things about the puppy that did not fit what the family had in mind, and I have let them know about another puppy that I have who is a better fit or even brought them to another breeder who has a puppy who seems to fit. Some have decided to wait for an upcoming litter with a parent that is more like what they are describing.
I hope that the family I have chosen has been doing a lot of thinking and very clearly knows what they want. When I offer the puppy, there is a very small window and if I do not hear back from them or if they “have to talk with the spouse” or if “they have to think” then I will move on to the next family I feel is a good fit. If there is no family I feel is a good fit, I will put the puppy up on my Available page. This rarely happens. We feel if someone has gone through the process and they are ready for their puppy, this is much better than an impulse buy. Some people get very upset I do not have a storefront of puppies ready to buy at that instant, but this is not what I want to do. The fit is the most important thing to me.
There will be people who do not want to wait for this evaluation process, who keep demanding “What’s available?” regardless of my sending the process letter. There are those who say they don’t want to take the time to wait, they want one NOW. There are people who want to talk hours on the phone about “more information” on a puppy instead of getting the information as the puppy grows. These people are probably just not a good fit for Terlingua. I rarely have “available puppies” except those who are available to the families who have gone through the process. I don’t have “more information” than I post weekly as the puppies grow – what “more information” could you want? I do answer any specific questions by email or messenger but I just don’t know what “more information” you are looking for past the process letter that explains everything. With this process we do, a person really has the time to fall in love with a particular puppy and to get all of the answers they want. A person can find out information that will completely change their mind. Someone may come in thinking they want a longcoat girl and may leave the process with a male smooth coming home; but they had all of the information on the puppy’s personality to make the right decision for fitting their family. The family leaves the process with a breeder who they have a real connection with – most of my puppy families send me photos and ask me questions way down the line. Many have multiple dogs from me. You don’t develop that type of relationship buying a dog impulsively.
Fictional chart – I make this for each litter. Note: to make it on this chart it’s a great home that I am considering. If not a great home, I don’t add it to the chart.
Black & Tan Smooth Male
Family A – (single woman works all the time, has small dominant female rescue chi who is wanting a companion while she is at work then she will interact with dogs in the evenings)
Family B – (large family with 6 children and 2 big dogs. Plan to keep puppy safe from big dogs and children are respectful and familiar with small dogs)
Family C – (couple who wants to take puppy out everywhere with them – he will travel and be meeting new people all the time.
Family D –(retired couple who does not leave home, will be home and loving on puppy all the time)
Family E - single man with 9 year old daughter, has boat and puppy will need to be social with his many friends
Cream Longcoat Male
Family A – family with 3 kids with small dog experience, 2 loving older chis
Family B- single woman who just lost her elderly chi, wants this guy to come sit in her lap and watch tv
Family C – woman wants to carry him in a purse out and about, needs to be very social.
Family D – couple who lives on golf course wants this guy to come hang out in the golf cart with them every day, 20 year chihuahua owners.
White Smooth Girl
Family A – woman wants this girl to be an obedience competitor and possibly agility. She has been waiting a year for this personality.
Family B – man who owns store just lost his 15 year old Chihuahua. Wants this baby girl to come to work with him at store every day.
Family C – kind elderly gentleman lives in a senior living facility who allows 2 pets. He has an elderly male Chihuahua, neutered. She would need to ride in wheelchair with him.
Family D wants this girl for their 10 year old daughter. She has been around Chihuahuas her whole life.
Family E wants this girl to be a companion for an elderly mother. When mother passes away, they have a plan to keep this girl in the immediate family, same home.
As you can see from the fictional chart above, each of these families who are being considered may all be fantastic homes for the right puppy. In reading the descriptions, I hope you can understand that each family would need a very DIFFERENT puppy. They have fallen in love with a look. Say the Black & Tan Smooth Male is a really active never lay down moving constantly ball of energy – he is not going to fit well with the quiet calm home. If he is a dominant guy, he may not fit well with the Family A with the dominant dog already in the household or the big dogs who he may not interact well with if he has a really dominant personality. So, at that point my choices are Familiy C and Family E. So I am going to be talking to both of those fictional families about this fictional guy, and one family will stand out to me.
Say, my fictional cream longcoat male has a very quiet and calm temperament and doesn’t like loud noises. He doesn’t show particular interest in my kids, and he definitely shows a preference for women. I would probably not be as interested in Family A for this guy. Families C & D are wanting a much more social dog. I would offer this guy to Family B – he’d be perfect.
My fictional white smooth girl is VERY dog oriented. She LOVES my older dogs in the family. She is not dominant, she doesn’t want to play dominance games, she will show those dominant girls respect but she is not cringy submissive – they love her. This is not the right personality for my Family A, so they will still be waiting. Family B has no other dogs, and I really think this guy would benefit from a dog friend. Family C – well, he has another dog, but the dog is very elderly and I can’t see this active girl who prefers dogs riding in his wheelchair and giving him the attention the family has described his last dog did. Family D and Family E have no dogs. I look through my other dogs on the chart at the other approved families, and I realize that my Family A I had on the black & tan smooth male is actually looking for a puppy who will be a companion to her dominant friendly rescue chi while she is at work, then she will interact with the dogs when she gets home. I will contact her to see if she has seen this white puppy and I will tell her about what we are seeing with her.
It’s very hard to see this when you are really wanting a puppy and you don’t want to wait and you can’t imagine how many people are waiting for this particular puppy who are all wonderful homes. We just have to wait til we see the right fit for this particular puppy. We also want to make sure the puppy is the right fit for you. We want everyone to be 100% happy.
In the very real situation of our current puppies, we receive about ten to twenty inquiries a day. Some of these are not what I would like for a home for my puppies. Some are wanting something I just don’t have (I don’t work with the merle genes, I’m not going to generally have a “deer type” head as that’s something that is not desirable by our AKC standard, maybe they are wanting an adult and I am not planning to place any adults anytime soon). Sometimes we immediately have a personality clash – I do not respond to demanding people or anyone who starts showing an abusive aggressive side, or anyone who starts telling me how it is going to be. I am usually very happy to help someone find a puppy or dog if I don’t have it, but I won’t ever intentionally send abusive or aggressive type people as referrals to other reputable breeders. Maybe they are a phone person who wants a lot of phone time – I am not at all a phone person and I just don’t have the time to do that; this person will be happier elsewhere.
On my “real” puppy chart for Caroline’s litter, I have a home I have really identified for the black & tan boy that I doubt will change but we’re still watching his personality, I have 3 strong home contenders for the cream boy, and I have 8 for the black & tan smooth girl. I also have a list of people who I think are great homes that I am looking forward to future litters to see what we will have.
I hope this article helps everyone who has been asking questions about how we decide.
Terlingua puppies a few days old. Note they can't see or hear, this comes later. But aren't they cute!
2 week old Terlingua puppy. She can see now but probably not hear.
3 week old Terlingua puppy. Now he can see and hear.
This is that same puppy above at almost 5 weeks. Look how much difference between 3 and nearly 5!
This puppy is 6 weeks and look how much more aware of herself and the world she is. She doesn't have that anxious/amazed look as the boy in the picture before. She knows what is happening around her and has started showing her personality. Her personality will change and develop much more over the next few weeks.
This guy is 7 weeks. He has started to play hard with siblings and he shows a lot of his personality.
i8 week old puppy. This is when we evaluate!