One of the most talked about topics when retriever people get together is how to pick a puppy. In fact, it is one of the most common questions that people ask me. As with many topics, there are many opinions. Some people say, and this is especially true of the old timers, the best way to pick a puppy is to just walk up to the liter, bend over and grab a puppy and take it home, and hope for the best. The idea being that picking a puppy is virtually impossible, and so your chances of getting a good puppy by just grabbing one is as good as anybody else’s method, i.e.. it is all luck any way.
Then are those that are very scientific in their evaluation, they have a whole list of tests that they believe will give them insight into which is the best puppy. These are things like stress tests, holding the puppy upside down and seeing which one squirms the most or least, putting the puppy on smooth surfaces, uneven surfaces, different surfaces etc. putting the puppy in mazes, isolating the puppy from its liter mates so on and so forth.
Then there are those that strictly look for the most aggressive puppy. They want the boldest most outgoing most energetic of the liter, thinking that somehow that this puppy will have more to offer than the others. Then there are people, especially people that are not particularly performance oriented, that pick the sweetest puppy, the one that comes to them, the one that is the most loveable, the one that wants to be held the most, thinking that in the end this is the puppy that will become part of the family and have the best temperament for their kids etc.
Also there are those that are looking for the most independent puppy. The one that is off by themselves, that seems to enjoy being alone who seems to be his own little person and is basically uninterested in the other puppies. The thought being that this is the character that will be able to handle new situations, to be comfortable with new places, etc. Even though it may seem obvious to some that this type of puppy may indeed be the hardest to train.
I suppose that there is some value in all of these ideas, but when I carefully thought about the way that I pick puppies it seemed to me that I was somewhat different from the thoughts that I have just mentioned. First of all the single most important factor to me is to determine which of the puppies will look me in the eye. In other words, which puppy do I have eye contact with. This to me is a characteristic that is difficult to describe but I know without it, I will have my hands full in the training process. That one characteristic somehow seems to balance the temperament and intelligence and the probability of a dog that is the easiest to train. Secondly, the structure of the puppy, I want to look at each puppy and see if they are any distinguishing characteristics in their movements and they way they are put together physically. Probably the most important is the balance and the fact that I want their front legs under them, not pushed out to the side like a bulldog. I want to pick a puppy that seems balanced and coordinated in his movement. Certainly you don’t want to end up with a puppy that is somehow physically deficient. Thirdly, in many litters you are trying to in some way duplicate the characteristics of either the mother or the father, so if you have a really strong attraction, as an example for the father, don’t pick a puppy that looks just like the mother. This seems a little odd, but over the last many years I have seen this pattern, i.e.. the way a puppy looks many times gives it many of the same characteristics of the parent that it looks like. Lastly, and something that is hard to explain and maybe can only come with a lot of experience, is to use your instinct. There is no way to describe this, but many times I have been lead to pick a certain puppy, strictly by instinct. It is almost a force that guides your hand towards a certain puppy. A feeling that the one your are reaching for will be the dog of your dreams.
A couple years ago a well-known professional commented to me that based on the number of successful puppies that I have started, I must have a huge percentage of washouts. The truth is I have almost none because I firmly believe that every puppy has ability, especially well bred puppies. The idea of train is to devote yourself to a project that will bring out the best in each puppy. This is complicated and involves the word that I just used, devotion to the training process. That means discovering a weakness and trying to make it a strength, seeing something that you don’t like and turning it in to something that you do like, keeping a strong and positive attitude, having patience, developing skills, and then practicing until you have developed a dog that you have always been looking for.
Lastly, as far as the training process is concerned, one of the best sources of info is a publication called Retrievers ONLINE.
There is more sound training information here than any other source that I am aware of, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to win a field trial or have the best dog at your hunting club.. . . . . make sure you’re giving your dog it’s best chances. www.retrieversonline.com