Puppy Selection Tips

How to select the best pup from a litter

Among the most frequent questions I receive pertain to how to select the best pup from a litter.

No doubt, selection of the right pup to meet one's particular expectations is extremely important. Making a correct choice can improve the odds of producing an excellent retriever with the least amount of frustration and perhaps even avoid disappointment.

The first and most important point to consider is that one must approach puppy acquisition as a genetic selection process rather than trying to utilize methods to select a promising prospect from a particular litter. Focus not so much on picking a pup, rather pick litters.

The way to pick potentially successful liters is to pick a breeder who has proven brood stock and a credible reputation for producing healthy pups genetically predisposed to perform in a manner you desire. Carefully consider your expectations for your future gundog. What are the desirable traits? What will the dog's primary functions include? What breeds interest you and why?

Once you decide on a breed and the desired traits are defined based upon your intended uses, then seek a reputable breeder who has experience producing pups which exemplify the traits that best suit your purposes.

Genes determine the reaction of the dog to its environment, as well as, confirmation and soundness. Genes are the building blocks of heredity and are passed from parents to offspring in a predictable manner. The topic of genetics can quickly progress into a lengthy discussion unsuitable for this article but one can count on knowing this - like begets like.

Total outcrosses, matings of unrelated genetics, may produce the occasionally exceptional offspring, but this is an unpredictable undertaking. 

The only way to gain predictability of traits is to seek an experienced breeder with proven bloodlines which produce successful progeny. This will usually involve some form of line breeding. The mating of similar genetic relationships (line breeding) is conducted to intensify qualities within the line and to improve upon the predictable traits within litters.

Line breeding is successfully practiced in all forms of livestock. Line breeding itself produces nothing, good or bad, it merely intensifies what is genetically there in the bloodline.

Most professional breeders use some form of line breeding as soon as they find a successful combination. In other words, outcrosses, random matings, despite the parents' apparent abilities and or titles, will not assure that the traits of the parents will be passed to the offspring. Only line breeding can offer this possibility.
 
Consider, too, there is often as much difference between litter mates in ability, temperament, and tractability as one might find between separate litters within a breed.

The chance factor remains, but the odds improve if the buyer:

1.  Buys from established, reputable breeders who know their business.

2.  Buys pups from breeders who specialize in producing the type retriever they desire.

3.  Buys pups produced by excellent gundog parents who have produced proven progeny from previous matings.

Other pointers:

  • Select breeders that maintain high standards for health an appropriate hip/eye/elbow certifications and who offer reasonable guarantees against health defects.

  • Select litters with strong mother lines. Dams should be trained hunting dogs and she should possess the qualities you desire in your dog, not just in the sire. Dams project more influence on the litter than the sire. Genetic inheritance is of course 50/50 from both parents, but mom has the pups with her 6 weeks and her influence is paramount. Good bitches are seldom mated to poor dogs, yet the opposite frequently occurs. A poor bitch is unlikely to produce good pups despite the virtues of the sire. Look closely for desirable traits and strength in the trailing bottom line of the pedigree That is the dam, granddam, great granddam, etc. Excellent mothers are important.

  • Don't pick litters based solely on the number of titles in the pedigree. These are impressive achievements to be sure, but they are not indicators of natural tractability, temperament, and gamefinding ability. Nor do titles indicate whether the traits may be passed successfully to the offspring. Evaluate parents of pups based upon gundog standards important to your needs and their demonstrated ability to produce good pups.

  • Seek out sires, dams and grandparents that project strong genetic traits that can be passed through to their offspring. Research has indicated grandsires and granddams prove to have more genetic influence upon the litter than the sire and dam.

Genetics can influence natural gifts such as:
  • calm temperament
  • tractability
  • marking
  • nose
  • retrieving desire
  • soft mouth
  • love of water
  • birdiness
  • intelligence
  • natural delivery to hand


  • Avoid negative heredity traits such as:
  • hyperactivity
  • shyness - gun, call, man, etc.
  • hard mouth
  • aggressiveness
  • excessive toughness
  • dominance


  • Positive genetic traits, accompanied by soundness and health, should be the goal of your purchase, not just confirmation, color, titles or size. Inherited gundog traits are what you really should be paying for in a pup.

    Once the background work has been completed, breeds are chosen, as is the litter, then, realistically most of the decision-making process necessary in puppy selection is complete. One could just easily just de-select by color and sex and randomly pick from the remaining pups with reasonable assurance of success, but that would take the real fun out of it now would it not?

    So, let's go pick that pup.

    Upon arrival, first examine the bitch. Is she healthy, clean, and does she possess the confirmation and temperament you expected? How about the cleanliness of the facilities, the puppy pen/nest and the pups themselves? Inquire about the health and inoculation program for the pups. If all appears in order, proceed. 

    Take a look at the litter together on the ground, if possible. Do the pups appear active, alert, friendly, and inquisitive? Do they appear well socialized to people, activity, and noises? You should expect to see clear eyes, a bright expression, high active tails and a clean nose.

    Now begin narrowing the selection. Pick up the undesirable pups by color and sex. This will leave the remaining choice for closer observation. As a matter of preference, I like to find a bolder pup which comes fearlessly but not the most aggressive nor the reluctant, lethargic wallflower that may shrink from activities.

    Clap your hands. Does the pup respond with interest or retire in apprehension? As they scamper about, which is prone to pick up objects (leaves, sticks, etc.) and run about? Pups can't see well enough at 6 weeks to respond to thrown objects, but they may well pick up things, even wings, and carry them. As they do, call the pup, does it come with the object as if willing to share? This is a very good sign. In selecting older pups, this becomes a strong indication of tractability and natural delivery.

    Which pups occasionally deviate from the group to explore something interesting on his own? You may have a real game finder here. Which pups are continuously using their nose to locate things of interest?

    Which prefers the company of people to the company of their litter mates? Desirable traits include straight legs, solid chest with depth of rip (an indicator of sustainability and endurance due to maximum air intake), strong short backs, high tails, and the correct placement of teeth (bite). Do not forget, any defects, physical or mental, in the parents/grandparents are likely to be present in their progeny.

    Breeders should not be about breeding out defects or having them suppressed through training. We should cull flaws out. Take a close look at those parents. Select the pup that will sit and look at you intelligently, not necessarily the dominate, hard-charging personality. Hard tail wagging is a good sign.

    Usually 6 weeks is the age to pick up your pup but at that young age, selection is certainly more difficult. Pups change a great deal in personality between 5 and 10 weeks. Some of the greatest labs ever have been the ones left behind including King Buck, arguably the most famous of labs and Mike Lardy's first national championship winner, Candlewoods Tanks a Lot. So much for "pick of the litter."

    Guide dog trainers for the blind have proven, though, that for optimum mental development, a pup needs to leave the nest at 6 weeks. Certainly, if at all possible, by 8 weeks. This also prevents the pack hierarchy from being too entrenched in the litter which may result in more pronounced dominant-submissive roles among the pups.

    The breeder should provide you with health records, pedigree, registration certificates and instructions as to diet. Initially don't risk immediate changes in the pup's diet. If you desire using an alternative feed, slowly make the transition and be sure to keep inoculations on schedule.

    Once selected, the fun really begins as you are on your way to building that perfect hunter retriever you have been dreaming about. Your new pup is the canvas on which to paint the portrait of this fine hunting companion. Now it is all up to you - the trainer.

    "Buy a pup and your money will buy love unflinching." -Rudyard Kipling