Even though dogs of the same breed tend to have certain traits in common, such as the need for exercise or the tendency to snap, you can’t predict with certainty what kind of adult a puppy will grow up to be any more than you can predict what a child will be like. What you can do, however, is get a sense of a puppy’s personality and disposition. Puppies who are good-hearted and affectionate usually grow up to be goodhearted and affectionate adults. Dogs who are nervous and suspicious when they’re young will probably be that way when they’re older.
The best clue you’ll get is to meet the mother. By the time they are 6 weeks old, puppies have picked up an incredible amount of knowledge from their mothers about how to behave. The things they learn during this impressionable period tend to stick with them. And of course, some traits are inherited, and puppies get half their genes from their mothers.
When you visit a breeder, you may be able to see the father, too. Look at how the parents respond to people. Do they make friendly eye contact, or do they stare? Do they enjoy being touched? Do they show friendly interest in you without launching into over-the-top excitement? All of this tells a lot about the puppies as well.
It’s not always possible to meet the parents, but there are other ways to get a fix on a puppy’s personality. As a general rule, small dogs, especially the terriers, tend to be a little more excitable than larger dogs. And males tend to be more aggressive than females. Here are a few additional things to look for.
Check enthusiasm with a cheeseburger. Puppies should be enthusiastic and eager to play with people. A good way to test this is to give them a rubber cheeseburger. Most alert, playful puppies will look at a toy with interest when you pull it out and chase after it when you toss it,. Rubber cheeseburgers are a good choice because they make squeaky sounds that puppies like. This test also gives a sense of whether the puppy is inclined to fetch. Most puppies will be curious about the cheeseburger. Some, however, will be startled by the squeaky sounds. If they’re too frightened to play with it after a minute or two, they may be too nervous to make good pets.
Roll them over. Dogs don’t lie on their backs for just anyone—and they’re certainly selective about doing it with other dogs. Rolling them over is a good test. You want a puppy who doesn’t struggle much. Conversely, you don’t want a dog who’s so shy and timid that he urinates on the spot.
Tickle their toes. This is another test to determine how compliant a dog is going to be. Pick up a foot and see how the puppy reacts to having you handle it. Dogs dislike having their feet touched. Most will struggle a bit, but they shouldn’t struggle too much. This test has a practical purpose, too. Dogs’ feet need regular attention. You may not want a dog who refuses to let anyone trim his nails or care for the pads.
Look him in the eye. The way a puppy looks at you says a lot about his personality. Puppies who stare with intensity are going to be dominant and could be hard to handle. Those who avoid all eye contact are very shy, and it may be hard to establish a good relationship. You want a dog who isn’t nervous about meeting your eyes but who looks away when you keep staring.
Pay attention to mouth-play. Even though teething doesn’t start until a puppy is about 12 weeks old, some are chewing fiends almost from the time they’re born. A puppy who’s constantly putting things in his mouth—like your fingers—may turn into an adult chewer.
Watch how he treats his littermates. There are two puppies who should be your last choice in any litter: The one who seems to be the leader, who is usually the most rambunctious of the bunch, and the shy one who hangs back from the group. The ideal puppy falls somewhere between these extremes.
Get the family history. A dog who got his start in a whelping box in a family’s kitchen has a much better shot at the good life than one raised in a puppy mill—a breeding operation designed to churn out lots of puppies without giving them a lot of personal attention. When it’s time to choose, look for puppies who have been handled often and given lots of love right from the time they were born.