Sorting Our Litters

There are many different sorting strategies, but here are some tips for your breeding program.

As breeders we all feel a sense of excitement and anticipation when each new litter comes along. After all, the dog of our dreams might just be waiting for us in the whelping box this time! Many of us watch our puppies closely from the time they are born, spend hours and hours interacting with them and use our experience to begin to sort them at a very young age. Others pay little attention to early individuality, preferring to choose at a specific age. Eventually the time comes when we make decisions about their quality, health and temperament, and we decide which stay and where the others will go.

Undoubtedly, different breeders raise their litters in many vastly different ways. The small hobby breeder who keeps only a handful of dogs most likely has the whelping box in a bedroom or a dog room and is always close at hand. Breeders who keep a somewhat larger number generally have a kennel, and puppies are often born in a run that is specialized for whelping use or in a separate room in the same building. These people are most often their own “kennel help,” so they spend a lot of time with their litters also. Larger, more prolific breeders (which still exist, though their numbers have dwindled), probably have full-time staff that whelp and care for their higher number of litters, and they may not even see their puppies daily. Some performance breeders raise their litters in a kennel with a minor amount of socialization and temperament test them at 7 weeks of age because they want to choose puppies on the basis of inherent skills not influenced by heavy socialization. Obviously all of these methods, when applied correctly, can produce healthy, sound, high-quality animals. So what tools should we all be using to properly sort and place our puppies?


Sorting the Litter

I have never really understood the term “grading a litter.” To me that means ranking the puppies in a litter in order of quality, and the top-ranked ones are considered the good ones. But I’ve seen many litters (and definitely some of them were my own) in which I thought there were really no puppies of high enough quality to be considered strong show prospects. So, to me, ranking a litter is of little use unless we are smart enough to realize when the puppies are mediocre, regardless of where they rank in the overall quality of the litter. I also don’t get the concept of “pick puppy” because the one that I pick for myself often is not the one that another good breeder would pick. Priorities vary among us, and my “pick” might be uninteresting to someone else.

Obviously when choosing puppies to show, their adherence to the breed standard must be our strongest consideration. To me, that adherence to the standard must be apparent when the puppy is on the ground, both standing and moving. Other breeders choose based upon the picture that the puppies make when stacked on a table. Both are important, and I like to photograph and videotape my puppies on a weekly basis once they are up on their feet, as I find it amazingly informative. I personally like to make final decisions on type and structure when they are 9 weeks of age. It works for me, in my breed. Other breeds are mostly chosen between 5 and 6 weeks of age, and the day the litter turns 7 weeks old, off they all go to their new homes. Yet other breeds are not sorted until they are several months old.


Determining Show Quality

What exactly makes a puppy “show quality”? There are so many varying responses to this question. Some breeders will go forward with a puppy only if it demonstrates the highest quality that shows improvement and forward movement in a breeding program. Others will designate virtually any puppy that doesn’t have a disqualifying fault as “show potential.” These varying philosophies are what create the great divergence of quality that is seen in our breeds in the show ring.

When we have people who want to buy a show puppy from us, it is really important that we make every attempt to sell them a puppy that is good enough that we would keep it, show it and breed it ourselves, not just hand them a puppy that would be considered “showable” but not much more. Some breeders want only the very finest dogs that they have produced to be seen in the show ring and used in anyone’s breeding program; others are more interested in numbers and will finish themselves, or sell to others, anything that can be made up to a champion, regardless the effort required. This, again, influences the general quality seen in our rings.

There are other tools that enter into the equation as well. In breeds with genetic health issues that can be tested for in young puppies, we certainly should be using those tests to determine which puppies are showing and breeding candidates. Some breeders say that they only test the ones that are going to be shown and bred, but isn’t that saddling our pet buyers with unknown possibilities for problems down the road? It also leaves huge gaps in the health records of our family of dogs, which cannot be good for the future of our breeds.

Do you temperament test your litters? I don’t because I raise my puppies underfoot and spend countless hours with them, each and every day, exposing them to new sights, sounds and experiences. Those of us lucky enough to be able to raise our litters in this way see each puppy’s individual personality emerge, and by the time our puppies are 7 to 8 weeks old, we know the confidence and energy level of each individual puppy. We know who the pack leader is, who hangs back and lets the others go first, who loves to be cuddled and who is too busy to waste time in somebody’s lap. But temperament testing can be an invaluable tool to people who don’t have the luxury of spending the majority of their day working with their litters.


Matching Puppies with Buyers

The Internet has allowed the serious pet buyer to become far more informed than ever before. When searching for the right breed, the right breeder and eventually the right puppy, these people spend hours doing their research, and they have many questions to ask that we breeders must be able to satisfactorily answer. They want answers about genetics, general health and overall quality, and especially temperament. These people know what issues can appear in the breed they have chosen, and we need to be doing our best to provide them with a puppy that will be problem-free.

Each family also has individual dynamics that determine if they want a mellow couch potato or a dog that wants to join in with a busy and active family. It is up to us to provide them with a puppy whose temperament fits their lifestyle. They want a dog that will be a family member, and we want our dogs to go where they will be for a lifetime, so matching each puppy’s personality and energy level to that of their prospective family becomes critical for success. A firecracker puppy handed off to a family that wants a calm, mellow family companion is a dog that is going to fail and have to be rehomed. Some dogs need a job in order to be happy. Others are happy to just be in the company of people who fawn over them. We should never just be “handing out puppies” to our pet homes after the show puppies have been chosen. Instead we should be carefully considering the needs of each family, and if we don’t have a puppy that is suitable for them, we should say so.

What about the people who come to us for a performance dog, be it Field, Obedience, Agility or any of the other activities available these days? A working dog requires both a temperament that wants to work and a body that will let it. While type may not have to play a big part in the success of a performance dog, structure and soundness certainly should. Intense performance people will often tell me that it doesn’t matter how a dog is made — the dog will work on heart and drive. To a point I believe that. But there comes a point when a dog’s poor structure can severely limit its ability. I’ve had first-hand experience with this.

A number of years ago, a dear friend of mine who is an outstanding obedience and field trainer came to me with a dog that was in serious field training and had a reoccurring pastern injury. She wanted me to look at the dog’s structure and see if I could come up with a reason why this was happening. As a matter of fact I could, and easily. The dog was bowlegged in front. He bent at the pastern with every step, particularly one leg, causing his foot to turn inward. The constant strain of hard pounding when running and jumping had severely injured his pastern. It took a full year of careful rehab to get the dog sound enough to run again. He became, I believe, the breed’s first OTCH, FTC, AFTC ever. But how much easier and faster might it have happened if his breeder had paid attention to more than instinct and drive when choosing him to put with this amazing owner/trainer?

Strong backgrounds in good hips, elbows, hearts, eyes and any other individual breed considerations all play a keen part in creating a dog that can go and keep going in a performance activity. And the same holds true for a dog in a family companion situation if it is to live out its life actively. Certainly good genetic background is necessary for any dog being used for showing and breeding. So whether we are producing puppies for show, companionship or performance, the same basic breeding principles, temperament observations and sorting strategies should apply.


From the July 2015 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine, or call 1-888-738-2665 to purchase a single copy.


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