Puppy Evaluation: A Breeders’ Roundtable (Part One)
by Arliss Paddock
|Breeder-owner-handler Kim Byron: "On occasion you may find the goofy puppy who is just silly, silly, silly is the one to watch."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kim Byrd
A majority of longtime breeders will probably agree that the most enjoyable part of raising dogs is watching that new litter of puppies grow and wondering how each will turn out.
As the little ones tumble and play and learn to carry themselves, qualities start to emerge. Thoughts come to the breeder's mind about what the future will hold: Which one's head will be prettiest? How big will this one be? I love how that one moves...
Looking into the future isn't easy, and making more accurate assessments of what a puppy will be as an adult often entails extensive knowledge and experience. Breeders who have been "in the game" for a while can offer certain guidelines and approaches that help ensure better success in puppy evaluation.
Recently AKC Breeder interviewed several top breeders about the process, and in this and the next issue we share their tips and advice.
In this issue we hear from Alice Bixler, of Summerfield, Florida, who breeds Bearded Collies and Briards under the Bedlam kennel name. She is an approved judge of both breeds for the AKC and the Canadian Kennel Club.
Commenting on her history in dogs, Bixler says, "I first met a Beardie in 1966 and decided I had to have one. They were very rare at the time, and it was 1969 before I finally got my first one. Which was followed by another and another, and... well, you get the idea. In 1971 I acquired my first Briard and have had both breeds ever since. You might say I'm a pioneer in Beardies in North America, being someone who was involved with getting the breed recognized, first in Canada and then in the U.S."
We also hear in this issue from Kim Byrd, of KISA Kennels in Powhatan, Virginia, who has been breeding and showing Basenjis and Miniature Pinschers for over 24 years.
Byrd says, "I started with a rescued Basenji and went to my first dog show to find out about him. As a breeder-owner-handler I have been honored to handle two all-breed Best in Show winners and one national-specialty winner. KISA Basenjis have won local specialties and competed overseas, to include winning at the World Show and Reserve Best in Show. The aspect of breeding and showing I am most proud of is teaching others how to handle my breeds and what makes each of them the special breed they are."
Following, Bixler and Byrd respond to our questions.
At what age(s) do you ideally like to evaluate puppies for show/breeding potential?
Bixler: "I evaluate them at 6 weeks for body and running gear, but I look at the heads when they're born. I've found with my line, if the heads are good at birth, they'll be good as adults, no matter what happens in between. Conversely, if they're not good then, the same holds true later."
Byrd: "Since I am a steward for two breeds, Miniature Pinschers and Basenjis, I find evaluating them at different times warrants each breed.
"For both breeds, beginning at 6 weeks, much time is spent watching them move around the room and free-stand. Watching little baby toplines, side gait, and movement going and coming is paramount, even though they are ‘little baby versions.'
"With Basenjis, by 8 weeks you should be able to have ‘what you see is what you get.' They mature much faster than most breeds, and I believe it's because being ready to run is important to natural behavior in the jungle, as the breed's origins are in Africa. You can see toplines and side gait and pretty much get an idea of going and coming in a puppy manner. Head wrinkle will be there, although you should be aware it will lessen as the puppy grows into his adult shape. Eye shape, ear-set, and foot shape are pretty evident, too."
"With Miniature Pinschers, topline, side gait, and movement going and coming can be evaluated by 8 weeks. Remember, they are little babies and will change as they mature, but what they are at 8 weeks will give you a basic idea of what you have to work with. Head shape and eyes will change, but at this age you can get an idea.
"When evaluating puppies of any age, remember that their little bodies will continue to change.
I've had litters where I ranked them in one order at 8 weeks, and by 12 weeks my evaluation changed. Be flexible, and keep notes on each puppy. Having photographs works wonders."
What evaluation methods do you use?
Bixler: "Table-stacking, observing puppies at liberty, looking at still photos or videos of them — I use all of these, and then some. You can't really know too much, can you? I particularly like to watch puppies at play. It's very revealing (as well as entertaining) and offers a preview of temperament."
Byrd: "Watching puppies in natural play is the best. Even the shyest baby will stand so you can evaluate how he's structured. I use the Happy Legs method in stacking-training to help teach them to stand still, as both my breeds are busy, busy, busy. [Happy Legs is a set of four small, elevated platforms — one for each of your dog's feet — that you can use to help him learn to stack. For information, see happylegs.com.]
"Focus on the table is very important for my babies to learn a little teeny bit at a time. Learning how to stand still also gives you a chance to get them used to being touched all over their bodies, including their mouths."
What do you consider to be the basics or "must-haves" that you look for first in selecting the show/breeding prospect?
Bixler: "Good shoulder layback. Balance (all parts contribute equally). Strong head, with definite gender characteristics. Silhouette. (Imagine a side view of the dog as all-black — if you can look at the silhouette and immediately think ‘Beardie,' then you're on the right track). Nicely angulated rear."
Byrd: "Toplines, movement coming and going, and the pup must be ‘sassy.' I will forgive a not-so-pretty face, but they must be able to do what they were bred for, so structure and temperament are most important."
How and when do you assess puppy temperament and personality, and how significant a role does temperament play in your overall evaluation?
|Photo Credit: © AKC
"A major role. A show dog needs a ‘look at me' attitude. An obedience prospect must be quick and eager to learn, enjoy challenges, and accept (gentle) corrections without dissolving. Other venues require specific attitudes.
"I don't usually assess personality until the pups are up on their paws and bouncing around. I notice things like who's the first to try to escape from the whelping pen. While the basic personality is part and parcel of the pup, socialization makes a major contribution to the pup's personality."
"I closely assess temperament at 6–8 weeks. Temperament is very important in the Basenji and Miniature Pinscher. Both breeds have received a bad rep in the past as not always being good tempered. I've been breeding for temperament for many, many years and must say have been successful in that area. Temperament is just as important as structure.
"Both my breeds must be able to stand out on their own merit, so personality plays a huge part — although I must say on occasion you may find the goofy puppy who is just silly, silly, silly is the one to watch.
"Puppies are released in the yard to run and play as much as the weather will allow by 5 weeks. I put cardboard boxes in the yard, piles of dirt to dig in, newspaper to shred, padded cubes to rest in, and squeaky toys. Play, play, play
is their only job. I sit on the deck with a Mountain Dew and watch."
What flaws do you consider to be possibly "forgivable" in puppies of your line or breed? Conversely, which do you deem so serious as to eliminate a puppy from consideration as a show/breeding prospect?
Bixler: "Less-than-ideal markings are forgivable. High ear-set, also. Unforgivable would be a narrow chest, lack of neck (usually resulting from straight shoulders), straight stifles, bad bite, or lack of balance."
Byrd: "Possibly forgivable flaws are in eye shape for Miniature Pinschers and tail-curl for Basenjis. Those aren't integral in either breed doing the work they were bred to do.
"Flaws that would mean elimination for show/breeding? I'm pretty particular, but shyness. It makes a puppy not able to handle what the show ring (even obedience or agility) throws at them. To show, we ask them to do much more than they would do as a ‘normal' pet.
"I've had times when a whole litter just didn't meet my ‘big three' criteria of topline, movement coming and going, and temperament, so they make wonderful pets and I try again."
From your observations in your own breed/bloodline, which conformation flaws do you feel can improve with maturity, and which have you found to rarely or never improve?
Bixler: "In my observation, skeletal faults are not likely to improve, but exercise and muscling-up can improve such things as a sagging topline or sloppy gait.
"Strangely enough, I once ran into a situation where an undershot bite corrected itself into a perfect scissors. Many years ago I kept a Beardie pup whose bite appeared fine. Then before starting her show career I checked her bite as a matter of course, and I was shocked to find it badly undershot. Most people will tell you overshot bites can often correct, but never undershot. I was going to place her as a pet but didn't get around to it — and then when she was about 7 months, I found her bite had gone to even (level). So I kept her to see if this was a work in progress. By 9 months, she had a lovely scissors bite."
Byrd: "In my observations, coat color can darken and feet can tighten up, but what you see at 8 weeks out of my kennel is pretty much what you get, only more mature.
"Toplines and movement coming and going do not improve, in my opinion. In my breeds if the bones aren't lined up when they're babies, then they won't get better. Eye shape won't change, nor will length of neck, nor tail-set."
Are there any further insights on puppy evaluation you'd like to add?
Bixler: "In recent years, several of the breeders in my area have started having ‘puppy parties.' When someone has a litter to evaluate, everyone is invited to come and bring something to eat, and we all have a good lunch and then settle back to assess each pup.
"Each puppy is brought in separately, cuddled by one of the people there to see how he reacts to being held, and then he is stacked on a table. One by one, the invitees come up and go over the pup and share their appraisals, with one person writing down all the assessments.
"These are not people with all the same breed, but representing a variety of breeds. In our circle, most have herding breeds, but not all.
"It's easy for breeders to get too attached to puppies and too blind to faults and virtues to realistically evaluate their litters. And sometimes others can see things that might otherwise go unnoticed.
"The Puppy Puzzle DVD by Pat Hastings has been played at a few of the parties, and it helps those who are new to assessing pups in suggesting what to look for. I believe the parties are a good idea for the breeders, and a fun way to spend a social afternoon with folks who ‘talk the same language.'"
Byrd: "The following doesn't have much to do with evaluating, but it helps in placing and traveling with puppies: Our puppies are litter-box trained from the very beginning. Before eyes are open, I have small litter pans with litter set in front of their whelping beds. When their eyes start to open and the little ones begin to toddle around, they get the feel of the litter. Puppies naturally like to be in a clean bed, so they will pull themselves away to potty. As they grow up, they naturally go to the litter box, and they will continue to do so as long as there is a box for them to go to. I've had senior citizens who need to potty more often go back to using the litter box with ease."
We thank Alice Bixler and Kim Byrd for so generously sharing their valuable insights and advice. This topic will continue in the Spring 2013 issue, with several more top breeders responding to our questions as well.
"Choosing Your Puppy," Jack and Wendy Volhard's Puppy Aptitude Testing (PAT) program. (Downloadable/printable testing sheets and information: www.volhard.com
The following books and DVD are available through dogfolk.com, amazon.com,
and other vendors:
Tricks of the Trade,
by Pat Hastings, with Erin Rouse; Dogfolk Enterprises, 2005 (revised edition). Includes detailed discussion of puppy-evaluation techniques.
Another Piece of the Puzzle: Puppy Development,
by Pat Hastings and Erin Rouse.
(DVD), by Pat Hastings and Erin Rouse.
Arliss Paddock breeds and shows English Cocker Spaniels and is former managing editor of the AKC Gazette and current editor of Gazette the breed columns.
For an alphabetical list of breed-rescue groups, click here