The Pick Puppy

Our litter of three arrived at 10:03 am on Monday morning, June 7. There were two girls and one boy. They are black sausages now and at three days old are already crawling around, sleeping piled up or under the rails in the whelping box. Their mother, Eva, stays with them, but wants to go outside to dig in the hole she started when the whelping was imminent. Her hole would have been a lovely home for new babies, wedged between the house, air conditioner and underneath a volunteer bush. Of course we, of the two legs and slightly bigger brains, intervened and moved her inside to have her babies in the third bedroom in a box made of corrugated plastic. She cares for the puppies like she has done this before. Fifteen thousand years of domestication and most can still whelp their own litters and care for them with little assistance from the humans who have caused the whole thing to happen.

The puppies are nearing a pound in weight and they are strong and active. They crawl and throw themselves around the box in search of their mother or each other. On Saturday we will put them all into a towel-lined dish pan and take them to our vet to have their tails docked and dew claws removed. A small trauma that will prepare them for lives as show dogs and family pets. These procedures are controversial in our breed now. With the hew and cry against such cosmetic indignities from the Animal Rights people and now the AVMA, we may find it hard to have this done in the future. Many breeders do it themselves, but while we will be there for the whole thing, we prefer the first little pain they feel to be administered by a stranger to them.

In the weeks to come we will enjoy their growing up and start to form opinions about their quality. Every breeder does the same thing. With the standard in mind, every nuance of each puppy is quantified. Some use measuring tape and seemingly sophisticated analysis to make their decisions. We use something far less scientific: instinct. As former Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart said, as he tried to explain what was poronography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . but I know it when I see it . . . ”

We believe in the Gestalt theory as it applies to puppies. A puppy is greater than the sum of its parts. When you look at a pup some just stand out more than others. Some have qualities those involved in evaluating players in other sports refer to as the “intangibles”. Of course we look for puppies that adhere to the breed standard closely, but there is room for preference of type in every puppy evaluation. No matter how perfectly we believe a certain pup fits the standard and our idea of a Kerry Blue, some show judge will see it another way. We look at pictures of old dogs from our line going back to our first litter in 1970 and can see subtle changes in our dogs. As journeyman breeders, my parents bred yearly to solidify type and correct faults in their emerging line. They spent less time studying breeding theory, and only slightly more with pedigrees, and relied on the vision in their minds’ eyes of the type of Kerry they wanted to breed. Traveling the circuits during summers, they walked the tightrope between pleasing themselves and producing dogs competitive in the ring. I never heard the term, “pick puppy” until I was much older and on my own at shows. My parents, and I suspect many old-timers, chose the puppy from the litter that just looked right.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that puppies go through an ugly stage and emerge as beautiful weeks later ready to be the apple of every judge’s eye. The cream in a litter rises early. At the traditional eight weeks, when many breeders do their first in-depth evaluation of their litters, quality can be seen easily . A high in the rear, slough-footed, straight fronted puppy won’t change. His better made brother won’t “fall apart” either by the time he is ready for the ring. The genius in finding the pick puppy lies in the breeder’s, or buyer’s, ability to see the puppy as it stands on the day the choice is made and ascertain whether the qualities expressed can be worked with. This is the point where the intangibles become critical. Probably more important than determining which puppy has the best topline or tail set is discovering which puppy seems the most interested in a bird’s wing, or seems to be the leader, or gaits across the yard to you instead of running like his littermates.

People contact breeders for a puppy hoping for different things. Potential buyers are usually clear as to their hope for their puppy. None of the buyers have seen the pups before and know that Purple Puppy has the best head, Maroon Puppy is a bully and all your breeder friends say Tan Puppy looks just like your big winner from the past. The buyer knows he wants a hunting dog for his own pleasure, an agility dog for his wife or a show dog to make his name in your breed. These buyers trust you to make the pick for them. You have seen your puppies for twelve weeks and have seen their mother and father for longer. Your skill in finding the “pick” puppy for each buyer will go a long way toward establishing your reputation in the breed. When you present a buyer with the pick puppy and tell them why he was chosen for them, you will be proving your worth as a breeder. The buyer will believe you and pass your reasoning on to his friends as he tells the story of how the puppy, sleeping curled up in his arms, came to live with him. As the puppy matures, and the intangibles nurtured, the pick puppy will serve his new owner well.

Our lease litter of last year turned a year old in April. We have heard from all the families of our pick puppies. Each time we do we are proud of the dogs they have become and prouder of their people. One youngster recently won her first dog show point at a show in her hometown. The owner called us crying. One is still the dandy of his neighborhood and the dog park, making friends and loving his urban home. Our dear friends of many years have an active family and their naughty puppy fits right in. And two of the girls live in the country with their owners who love them and keep them busy. Each one was the pick puppy. Better for each buyer because of things seen in the whelping box and as young pups.

In this new litter we will see them every day of their first few weeks of life. By the time buyers come to take them home and grow them the rest of the way, we will know which ones are the pick puppies.

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