Evaluating a Litter


My veterinarian asked me how I knew which puppy to keep…..what did I look for? Then I got a post asking me how to evaluate a litter. Hmmm, well, here’s some things that I look at: ( Most of this will be understood by  "dog show folks", except maybe the rank beginners.
What to look for in evaluating a litter. If you aren’t sure of yourself, anyone with a bit of skill and experience or  even just a good eye for a dog can come and help you grade your puppies. After all, shoulder and rear angulations called for in most breeds are going to be similar and that’s the hardest thing to see for most new people. Even if you are skillful, it’s always a good idea to have a knowledgeable dog person look at them, too…..after all, we do have a tendency to have some favorites….and they might not be a good as we’d like to think.

You can evaluate the pups against each other to determine the best, but it’s going to much harder to decide whether that puppy will have enough promise to be considered finishable.  Relative evaluations are easier because you have an available standard for comparison--the other puppies. The "finishable" ones are much harder because you are trying to compare the  puppy with what you think it will become and then compare that idea with your "ideal" of the standard.

After assessing ridges and amounts of white, the basic thing I look for is balance.(See a visual of "balance" here.) A balanced puppy will become a balanced adult. All good puppies will have it. What does balance mean? If you look at a puppy, whether it is standing still or moving, no one part of the dog’s body stands out from the other parts. In other words, all the pup’s parts seem to be in proportion. Proportions in 8 week old pups are a good indicator of what they’ll be as adults.  Don’t try to over-analyze it, just let your eye settle on the pup and see if something jumps out at you. If you don’t know what you’re looking at or why…..then that’s why you have someone over who does know and can point it out for you. A square puppy will be a square dog. Since RRs should be SLIGHTLY longer than tall, they should have some forechest, even at this age, and appear  overall to be a bit more  rectangular  than square. (Short legs can make them look rectangular, so here again is a good reason to have an experienced eye help you.)

 I also like to see a puppy  that stands four-square in a balanced position when they are attentive to something. This is why you should sit with them in the yard , so that you can watch them in normal , relaxed surroundings and observe their natural stances. I don’t like to see a puppy stand with its rear feet under itself - sometimes they will all stand like that - but some tend to naturally stand that way. Huh? Watch for this…..

It looks like the way Bassets stand in the rear…..hind feet almost directly under the stifle….sorta sickled legged. The shape of the leg from the pastern up looks like a farmer’s sickle. This is not to be confused with hocks that don’t flex, which is also called sickle hocks .Some pups do this consistently and I find these usually have either an imbalance of  the bone lengths in the leg or of angulation and they usually do not have a good, free  "kick" in the rear when moving.

When you stack them up on a table, gently drop the front and see that the front legs are placed naturally, straight and true, and not east-west . ( As puppies have rather large front feet in comparison with their bodies, you might think some are east-west or fiddle-fronted. Again , this is where another person, familiar with the growth patterns of larger dogs will be an asset to you.) You will also have a good idea of the final "substance" in a dog. Substance is made up in both bone and muscling. Good  muscling on the inside of the leg will give a rounded look to the leg, even though the bone is oval. Too light a muscling is an indicator that the puppy as an adult may be too refined. ( All leg bones are oval, not bladed. An example of "bladed" bone is the scapula and the pelvic assembly.)

Gently drop the rear in the same manner to see where the puppy  naturally stands. They should not be cow-hocked  nor bow-legged from the rear. Rear legs should  be straight and true from the back view. Any deviation from the  straight column of support wastes energy moving and puts stress on the joints over the lifetime of the dog,. The movement you see in a puppy will be reflected in the adult, so telling yourself that the puppy will outgrow  faults like weak pasterns, cowhocks, out-at-the elbows, etc. is just so much wishful thinking.

However, the rear legs, from the side, should show  a good bend of stifle and hock. Angulation should be obvious in the  puppy because while the dog may end up with the same angulation the puppy has at  this stage, as adults, they rarely will  have more angulation. Dogs with a good  bend to the stifle get more push with each stride making their movement is more efficient.

If you have a hard time seeing this, try holding the puppy upright with it’s rear feet on the table. If you can see the angle of the hock, that’s good.  If you can’t, then the rear angulation is too straight.

As for movement, until the puppies are older, their true movement may be difficult to assess…for one thing, they are rarely leash broke enough for anyone to have a good look at them moving! Again, sitting in the yard with them, watching them move around will often tell new breeders which ones will NOT move well. The more you study and compare your pups at a young age versus adult, the better you will get. Someone experienced with larger dogs can be very helpful to you to assess your potential show puppies. ( and they won't be as attached to favorites as you are! )
From 8 to 12 weeks, toplines remain fairly true and probably   represent what the dog will have as an adult. Topline faults that are apparent at 8 weeks will persist in the adult to some degree.  Dips or roached toplines are not desirable. A puppy who displays a roached back (a back with an arch in it) will likely have a poor rear as an adult.  (Don't confuse an arch of back with an arch of loin! An arch in the back occurs over the rib vertebra. )

As one of the last areas to develop on a dog is the croup, which is formed by the pelvic bone and the muscles that overlay it, the tail set is influenced by the angle and  length of the croup and is why it changes as the dog matures. In my 8 week old puppies, I don’t want to see  much arch in the loin or a tail set that doesn’t come right off the backline. I find that as my pups mature and their loins get muscular and develop, the croup will take on the correct look. (30 degree tilt ) If I see an 8 week old pup who appears to have the correct "adult" look to their croup and tail set, they will have too low a tail set and possibly too much tilt to the croup as an adult.( A dog can have a correct croup and still have a tail set that is too low. )

Can’t see the tail set? Here’s a trick - look for a slight "shelf" behind the tail set.  The point just below and behind the tail base is the ischium / point of the buttocks/ end of the pelvic bone.  If this is not clearly visible, the dog's tail set is too low.

The same thing is true about breadth of chest. I like to see a good width of chest and fill between the front legs. The elbows should hug the ribbing when standing and moving. This requires  adequate angulation between the shoulder and upper arm as well as a good layback (angulation of the shoulder in relation to the horizontal ground) because without it, the shoulder assembly is positioned too far  forward on the ribbing and the elbows will be pushed out by the wider, rounder ribs at the front of the chest.  In my dogs, puppies have the depth of chest they will have as adults at 8 weeks. As they grow to maturity, they may get a bit shallow as teenagers, but it does come back to what they had at evaluation. In some lines, the chest may drop as the dog matures, however the ribbing should remain about the same.
In a well-angulated front assembly, the paws  sit under the withers (the tops of the shoulder blade).  If the paws are forward of the withers, so that they are closer to being under the neck, then the upper arm is too straight.  If this section of the front  sits incorrectly on the ribbing,   the dog will have some gait defect  when viewed from the front (coming at  you) and generally will lack forechest.

Rears and movement:
The angle at which the croup intersects the ground has a lot to do with  how well the dog reaches under himself and how well the " follow- through" is.  If the croup is too flat, the tail set is usually  high and the dog tends to kick up in the rear.  If it is too steep, the tail set is too low.  The dog  may reach under well but lack follow through. If you think of the rear leg as  a pendulum, then, you want an equal swing to both sides of a vertical line that is perpendicular to the ground.
 Estimating size is an important ability.  Puppies offer many cues, beginning with the length of the pastern and the size of the feet.  In  puppies, the pastern comprises a   disproportionate amount of the total leg length.  The longer it is the longer the   leg will be.  Feet, ears, and tails grow to adult length before anything else, so  they, too,  are indicators of future size.  A puppy with a short tail will have an  even shorter one at maturity.  Dainty feet on a youngster mean growth is close to finished. ( I’ve heard that final size can be best estimated when the pup is 16 weeks - just double the weight of normally sized pups.)
 Bones do not grow along their entire length but from the ends.  As the  body prepares for this growth to occur, the plates at the end are enlarged.  This degree of this enlargement can give you some idea of the dog's eventual size and whether growth will continue.  Of course, the most obvious site in the puppy is wrist, just above the pastern.  Puppies that are going to  be very large have huge knobs here and may even look deformed. As the dog grows, these   reduce  in size and flatten.
 The head really is the last   thing to develop and may even grow into the dog's fourth year. Dogs who have an adult looking head as a 8-12 month old will have a head that continues to grow and as adults will be too massive. Feel for the bumps on the pups heads. Conversely, if you have a young dog with a relatively smooth head, it's not likely to fill out much more.
So much for the "basics"...now here's so extra tips for correcting seeing your pups.

I like using a photo to help assess the pups….as the saying goes " the camera never lies". You can often see faults clearer , for one, the pups are "frozen" in the photo and you have all the time in the world to study the angles of that real squirming, wiggling puppy. For instance, you can study the relationship of the shoulder to where the legs and feet fall in a photo. This may  often tell you more about adult movement than trying to see it in a moving puppy! You’ll need a good photographer with an eye for the right angle and moment!

A good photo, a helper(s) with a good eye for a dog and a bit of luck and you're ready to grade that litter!