How To Pick A Puppy Or Choose A Shelter Dog

Updated November 29, 2020

Welcome to the exciting path to getting a new dog. Please visit all three stages:

  1. Deciding which dog breed to choose
  2. Finding a good breeder or shelter
  3. Choosing the best dog from the breeder or shelter (that’s this one!)

You thought you’d done the hard part: choosing your ideal breed, then finding the right breeder or shelter, and then you get that phone call. “Please come between 9 and 12 tomorrow to choose which puppy you want”.

Suddenly, the pressure is on. How do you make a quick decision and not make a mistake in choosing a dog from a litter? We’ll get to that soon, but first a few special words about shelters.

Choosing Dogs From Shelters

With rescue shelters, it’s often a case of choosing from what’s available. That doesn’t mean you’ll be worse off; you have their considerable expertise to help guide you.

Any good large shelter will have clearly established procedures for matching dogs with owners. After all, they don’t want failures either. I can’t do better than to say:“go with their expert advice before mine”.

Smaller shelters with only a few dogs may not have such clear guidelines, but they have a person who knows each dog very well. Once again, you can usually rely on their assessment.

To get around the inevitable risk, many places allow a limited trial period with a no-questions-asked return policy if things don’t work out. However, any good dog requires work, and no shelter dog is perfect out of the box so use this offer wisely and sparingly.

Now let’s talk about choosing puppies in general. A lot of this applies to shelters as well.

Choosing Which Puppy to Take

You may not get a choice in every litter. Some are earmarked for breeding, some may have been reserved for a long time. Sometimes there just aren’t that many pups to choose from. If this is your situation, don’t worry; differences within a litter aren’t usually huge, and even the difference between male and female dogs isn’t that big a deal. However, if you have a choice, here’s what to think about:

Get there early

If you’re given a range of times, try to arrive at the start, not the finish. If you can’t be there, it’s probably better to communicate your wishes with the breeder than to send a friend. The breeder knows the pups far better than your friend, who really shouldn’t be put in that position anyway.

Be practical, not emotional

Don’t choose puppies just because you feel sorry for them. This especially applies to dodgy breeders and pet shops. If you buy that puppy, you support the breeding of more puppies in the same situation.

Watch the litter together

Look for puppies that are very boisterous and pushy over the others: these may always be the more confident and possibly headstrong dogs. Puppies who have separated themselves away need careful watching to make sure nothing’s wrong. Bear in mind puppies sleep a lot so sleeping means nothing.

Assess each puppy individually

Follow the breeder’s advice on what to do but I like to sit on the floor and have them passed to me. Each one should show interest in you and show minimal fear. None may be happy to separate from mum but ideally they will sniff and lick at you. If one seems especially timid, they will probably show up now.

Assess health

You’re not a vet but there’s a lot you can see. Size isn’t important (read here why it’s a myth that runts are less healthy) but body condition matters a lot. All the puppies should have the same ‘covering’ of fat and muscle: beware the thin, bony puppy. Other things to look for include:

  • No discharge from the eye or nose
  • Clean ear canals
  • Coats in good condition
  • Good movement and sitting
  • Formed faeces (logs, not cowpats)
  • Minimal breathing noises in short-faced breeds like pugs

Most breeders are great but don’t accept excuses like “their coats are dirty because it’s dusty” or “his poos are runny because we changed the food”.

Ask the breeder’s opinion

I’ve said it already: no-one knows these puppies like they do.

Beware survivors

If you hear of other puppies from the litter that died, be careful. One pup death is normal, more than that isn’t.

Think about gender differences

Males can be more active and strong-willed, even when desexed, though the difference is not huge and can be a positive. Females are slightly more expensive to desex (neuter). In general, relationships are more harmonious if you choose the opposite sex to your existing dog (if you have one).

Are two puppies better than one?

Unless you are very confident, it’s better to only take one, get this pup well-trained, and 6 months later get a second. Having two puppies together is often just too much.

What’s the best age?

The optimal age to bring a puppy home is 8 weeks of age. Read the evidence here.

What about older dogs?

Sometimes the breeder will offer you a dog they have held back for breeding, rejected for showing or had returned. Issues can include:

  • Socialisation. If this dog may not have been adequately socialised before 16 weeks of age to the expected stimuli in your lifestyle. If so, you may see anxiety in novel situations such as going out for walks, travelling in cars or using vacuum cleaners.
  • Family-friendliness. Special mention is needed for socialisation to children. If this hasn’t happened adequately, your dog may always avoid kids, or worse.
  • Toilet training. Older dogs who have learnt to toilet on concrete have a hard time relearning not to go on floors.

Many of these issues won’t apply if the dog lived in the house and was treated like a normal pet. They are more prevalent in busy breeding kennels.

On the plus side, older dogs that have been given a good start can be a lot easier for busy people.

Above all, don’t stress too much. Very few people make a bad choice. Even if you do, there’s still something we can do…

Make sure you book your free vet check for shortly after you get your puppy. We can’t find everything, but most problems will be picked up straight away and treated. If it’s something serious like a bad heart, better to know straight away than later.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

2 Replies to “How To Pick A Puppy Or Choose A Shelter Dog”

  1. Hi. I would like your opinion on purposely bred mixed breeds, for example, labradoodles or groodles as opposed to a pedigree poodle. I am somewhat anxious about making the best informed decision before buying a puppy.

    1. Hi Ann. When choosing a puppy, the ethics and professionalism of the breeder are much more important than the type of dog they choose to breed. The main problem with poodle crosses is the large number (but by no means all) originating from puppy farms whose origins are disguised or misrepresented. Therefore, if you can’t visit yourself, research the breeder carefully and be emotionally strong enough to walk away from situations that don’t pass the sniff test.

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