For those who follow the Chilbrook Labradors on Facebook you know that this month my litter of puppies from Gillie and Cookie has turn 8 weeks old. At this age they are starting to leave for their new homes which means it is time for me to decide which ones from the litter will be sorted out to be the next generation of service dogs. I am often asked how do you decide which ones to pick? I have 5 general guidelines when picking a purebred puppy for the medical alert service dog work that I would like to share with you. Some of this applies to adult dogs and even rescues but I am focusing in this blog on the pups.
The first thing I look at is the pedigree; who are the parents and what do they represent and bring to the litter in the way of temperament, structure and trainability. The pedigree when analyzed will tell you the approximate size the puppy will end up being. It will give you hints of possible working traits that you might need for the particular situation the pup will be in training for. The pedigree will also be your best indication of inherited health risks. When you study the pedigree compared to the public database at offa.org you can see production records and gather information to help calculate the inheritance of traits. I get pretty serious about all this and yes it does require higher math skills and probably is a lot more than the average person wants to know but at the very least you can look at a pedigree and determine the following:
- Do all the parents and grandparents at a minimum have health clearances appropriate for the breed. 
- How many of the dogs in the pedigree have produced working service dog offspring?
- How many dogs in the pedigree have some sort of performance title or have been tested and certified for some other job?
The more dogs you see in the pedigree that have produced pups that have qualified as service dogs at some capacity, the better. It goes without saying that the more complete the health clearances on the relatives in the pedigree the better chance that a pup from the litter will be healthy.
The next thing I want to do is get the pups out into an area that they know and just watch them interact. The more distractions, obstacles, and things that the puppies can interact with the better you will be able to see something about their character. Here is a short video of the litter interacting with their environment.
When I am looking at pups in this situation I want to see who instigates the charge into a new area, who is confident-clumsy-careful on new surfaces, obstacles or around new people or dogs present. How are they interacting with the things they find? Do they give it a once over and walk away? Or do they stay and engage, exploring all the angles of whatever they have encountered. How many times does it take to learn a new behavior? If they fall or have a negative experience what do they do? I want a pup that is bold but not too bold, confident but not a bully, one that is a thinker and is not satisfied until they have learned everything about a new encounter, and one that is not too sensitive-who recovers well from anything that happens.
The third area I look at is how those same pups act now in a totally new environment. I will look for all the same things and compare to my notes from the previous area. Consistency of character speaks volumes to me and rarely do I find that a pup that is the same in all the testing situations will ever fail me in training.
Once I have done the above with the litter, I will bring the pups inside one at a time to a small area, preferably one they don’t know. Before the pup comes in, I will put out a smelly container of canned cat food someplace in the area where it is not too obvious. It is best if you can put it under a plastic milk crate or something similar. I bring the pup in, put it down, and say nothing. What I am looking for is the pup that once it gets its bearings, the nose starts and it just has to track down that tempting smell. The pup that does not stop until it finds it and then persists at trying to figure out how to get the food out from under the crate gets high marks here.
The final test is what I call the snuggle test.
We are all finished and it is just me and the pup, do they come and snuggle with me and settle down for a nap in my lap or beside me, or do they go off someplace away from me to do so? How does the pup look at me, what does the pup do to get my attention? A puppy that sits and looks at me in a thoughtful way, interacts by snuggling when I talk to them will get high marks from me in this area. Medical alert dogs are such a part of someone’s life they have to have that connection with people from the start to make the best results from the training. Sure, training and feeding a dog will help it bond with you but if the pup is connected to people strongly from the beginning before any training you are just that much further ahead. You can always pick out a headstrong independent dog with this little test and if nothing else, just being able to avoid a dog like that makes the test worth doing.