Adding a puppy/dog to the family unit, whether it's just you, you and a significant other, or a whole family unit, is an exciting time and can be a little overwhelming. In order to not make a rash decision and have buyer's remorse and the associated feelings of guilt, I invite you to learn from my experiences and hopefully avoid some of the painful lessons I have learned.
Be honest with yourself about who *YOU* are to find the best breed for you.
Puppies of almost any breed are adorable. It's kinda hard not to fall in love with all of them. However, keep in mind that you are looking at a 10-15 year (sometimes shorter or longer with some breeds) relationship. Be honest with yourself about who you are NOW, not who you could be if you had a dog, but who you are at this very moment.
For example, if you wake up every morning and jog 10 miles every day, then, by all means, get a dog that can do endurance-type things. If, however, you are a person who likes to come home from work and hang out on the couch until the "weekend warrior" comes out, then look at breeds that are medium/low energy. If you have kids, then research the family-friendly breeds, but also keep in mind that you will be the primary caretaker as the parent. Your vote holds the most weight.
Get your village in order
Should You Go with a Dog Breeder or Dog Rescue?
I usually go through a breeder. I do K9 sports with my dogs, so I'm looking for particular criteria in my sports prospect. While not impossible to find this dog in a breed-specific rescue, it'd be very time-consuming and expensive for me to travel the country looking for it. For the average pet owner, though, I leave that decision to you. Plenty of rescues have puppies, plenty of breeders have puppies too. I'll walk through puppy selection as I do it further down the list.
DON'T RUSH INTO ANYTHING.
Again, this is going to be a long-term relationship. Challenging as it is, try to keep rational. Whatever money you plunk down for the purchase of your puppy (whether from a breeder or rescue) is just going to the first in a long series of financial expenses, from run of the mill vet exams to food, toys, boarding fees, grooming, training fees, treats, the unexpected, etc.
Prepare yourself. If you've found the breed or mix of breeds that seem to resonate with you, go out and meet them. There are breed clubs, working dog clubs, rescues, etc., that'll have plenty of your choice. Meet them and see if they'll fit with your lifestyle (again, be realistic about who you are now). If you have young children, I suggest you leave them at home. This is a serious decision, and you'll want time to focus with no distractions.
What You Should Know if You Go the Breeder Route
Learn from my lessons and hopefully save yourself some pain and heartache. Find out why and what they are breeding for. I know you're looking for a pet, not a working or show prospect, but here's why it's essential: a breeder that is breeding with a purpose in mind is selfish. This sounds like a negative thing, but it's actually a positive. They are breeding to increase their chances of success in whatever their goal is, whether that's showing in conformation or in some working competitions.
This means that they are 100% invested in making sure that the stud (father of the litter) is a worthy addition to their breeding program from workability, health, conformation, temperament, and that he has proven it through an impartial third party (judge), etc. The mother of the litter also has gone through the same criteria and was kept in top form during her pregnancy. The puppies are raised to the best of their abilities, and a massive effort is put into the care and well being of everyone involved in getting these puppies from conception to the time they leave for their permanent homes.
Why? Because puppies change *dramatically* over the first eight weeks of life. The breeder will be analyzing these puppies critically from about three weeks (eyes and ears open so personalities develop) on, testing and evaluating, looking for the one that best suits their needs. The rest will either go on to other working/show prospects, and the ones that just don't fit the criteria to these incredibly high standards become pets. Your next buddy may be perfect in every way except that they have ears that are 1/2 inch too long. It can seriously come down to just that.
A mistake I find many people make (I will include my younger self in this) is they only look at the fathers of the litter, especially if you are partial to males (like me), and disregard the mother of the litter. Nowadays, I go as far as making sure the male has some sort of career and is health tested for the common problems my breed of choice has, but I mainly focus on the mom. The puppies have spent most of their lives with her, and as a single parent, she is responsible for giving them their first impression of life. I want to know if she's sociable (likes people/dogs), what's her demeanor is like (is she twitchy, shy, nervous or bold, confident, happy go lucky, etc.). If you like what you see, then move on to the litter. I put a lot more stress on meeting the mom, but I like to meet the dad. If the breeder is outside my reasonable travel radius, look at previous litters and talk to those puppies' owners. If it's a first time breeding for the female, look at the male and see what he's produced and if there is a consistency. Very rarely does a breeder do a first time for both males and females.
Don’t Use Puppy Mills
FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY AVOID PUPPY MILLS/PET STORES/BROKERS
If you don't know how to distinguish a puppy mill/broker from a good breeder, ask about health certifications. Every breed has its fair share of health problems. Ask for proof that the parents have been health checked and then verify before you buy. If the breeder can't justify why they have bred their dogs (or are breeding 'pets'), then you have yourself a good old fashioned puppy mill. If you can't meet at least one of the parents, you have a puppy mill broker (unless some unfortunate accident has happened to the mother).
Seriously, I can't stress this enough. I have stood with owners who have had to put down their puppies (as young as 14 weeks) because of health issues. Not every puppy that comes out of a puppy mill is genetic garbage, but it is truly just an assembly line of breeding dogs, having puppies, breeding dogs, having puppies, and the behind the scenes is atrocious and sad.
Opting for Dog Rescue: Going the rescue route
If you decide to go the rescue route: congratulations! You've helped a puppy in need. You still want to meet the mom, if possible, with the criteria as mentioned above.
If you can't, ask to see her vet health record: was she in good health (outside of being underweight due to neglect or injury). Find out where she is and when you can meet her. If you can't, find out why. Again, she's influenced these little fatties for the first weeks of their life; take the time to see who she is. If you like her, then chances are she's been a good influence on her babies; if you don't, then again, chances are her puppies will follow suit. If she had some sort of illness, remember she'll be passing that to her puppies.
I'm not saying you shouldn't get a puppy from a sick litter - honestly, my hats off to you if you do - just know that not only will you be adding additional vet bills, specialized care, meds, food, etc but also possibly missing out on critical socialization windows. Make sure you are up to the task. You deserve a medal if you can do it; stand with me in the no judgments lane if you can't. A lot of the time, though, it's just a normal pregnancy and fat healthy babies despite the mother's struggles. It's always possible the mother has been adopted out; see if you can talk to the new owner and find out their impressions of her. You can get a pretty good description of temperament from that.
Finally! Selecting the perfect puppy!
As I said earlier, I go through breeders because I'm looking for specific criteria, and while there are a few aspects that are imperative for the sport that I do, the rest is simply because I'm not working my dog 24/7. I want to be able to hang out with him and enjoy our downtime.
- Sociability: I never want to *just* see the individual puppy. I want to see the group dynamic. How does the puppy behave with its littermates? It's lived with these guys for several weeks 24/7. How does he take social cues: if his littermate has a toy, does he fight and bully them mercilessly, or does he take the hint and walk away. Does he cry and act overly sensitive, or does he get over it and move on to something else. If he has the toy and his littermate encroaches, does he fight with this littermate excessively, or does he make a point and resume his play? Ideally, I want the happy medium. A puppy who doesn't go to "beatdown town" on its littermate but also doesn't get run over by its littermates. These characteristics reflect who your puppy has a strong possibility of growing up to be, and no, you are not a magician and will change genetics.
- Food Drive: I want to know who the hungry hippo of the litter is. Sometimes it's hard to tell if you have the typical food motivated breeds (retriever group, I'm looking at you). Though, for teaching puppies, I use their essential food. Knowing that my future puppy will not be picky about their food goes a long way toward laying down a proper foundation for future behavior.
- Play Drive: This is a biggie for me because, again, sports. However, if your puppy isn't huge on toys for the average pet owner, then I guess you won't be running to the pet store and blowing your life savings on all the toys in the world. It's nice to know this in advance.
- Environmental Soundness: Basically, how does your puppy react and, more importantly, recover from things that startle it/new experiences. I'm not suggesting you run around popping mufflers and banging pots and pans unless you want to create a neurotic dog. But you can do something like drop a toy, put it on an unfamiliar surface (I brought a piece of artificial turf with me), play a sound that they've seen or heard before in the general area, and see what happens. Are they curious, afraid, shrieking in terror, and when it's over, how are they acting? Are they cowering and inconsolable, or are they like WTH and move on in a reasonable amount of time. Ideally, I'm looking for a puppy that recovers in a decent amount of time. I work with weak nerved dogs all the time. I don't want to come home to one too. I like boldness and confidence.
- Engagement: People tend to think that puppies love people. That's not always the case. The shaking puppy lying in the corner watching the activity and not engaging is nervous. These are going to be the more difficult dogs to train down the line. If you like a challenge, then, by all means, have at it, but if you're like me, you want a dog that makes you feel good about paying out for vet bills, food, toys, and time. These puppies care and want to be with you not out of insecurity but out of genuine companionship. That's the type of friendship I want with my dog—one of mutual respect. I also use a toy to check engagement. I'm going to be doing a lot of food and play training with my puppy, and I want to make sure that my puppy is up for the task.
You will still have a lot to teach your puppy when you get it, but if you have a plan in place, you've just set yourself up for success regardless of your puppy's origins.