A complete guide on how to pick a healthy puppy from a litter

So, you’ve decided it’s time to get your new furry family member. Yay, I’m so excited for you! ☺️ There are a lot of factors to consider before you get a new dog. By now you’ve probably done your research, you know the specific breed you want and you have found a local breeder. The excitement is building… hopefully, now you get to meet your new best friend for the first time!

But which one is the perfect dog for you? How can you pick a puppy when there are several adorable smushy faces running around? And how do you know if those puppies are healthy?

Believe me, I know exactly how you feel. Been there, done that, brought a puppy home 🙂 To help you with this challenging task, here is my step-by-step guide on how to pick a puppy from a litter.

And to make it even easier here is a free Puppy health assessment checklist you can print at home and bring to the breeder ☺️

Ready? Here we go…

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. Please see my full disclosure for further information.

While I am a veterinarian, this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. If you have any medical concerns about your pet, consult your vet immediately. Always seek professional assistance if you are unsure of your pet’s health.

dalmatian puppy sleeping

Find a responsible dog breeder

Make sure you find a reputable breeder. I can’t stress enough how important this step is.

There are a lot of scammers and puppy dealers who are in it only for the money. They don’t care about the animals. Trust me, you don’t want to buy a puppy from someone like that.

Sadly, there are many puppy mills all around the world. The animals are held in appalling conditions with no concern for their well-being. They don’t offer healthy puppies. Their animals are stressed and often very sick.

So please, never ever buy a puppy online without seeing it first. 

Note: I’m not saying a responsible breeder has to have an official kennel and be registered. It can be simply a responsible owner who has puppies.

For me as a vet, there’s not much difference between a licensed and a non-licensed breeder. I know dog owners who take great care of their puppies and follow strict breeding and health guidelines to make sure they have healthy pups. They’ve never been in a show ring, and they don’t have a registered kennel. But they are better breeders than some “real” breeders I’ve met 🤷‍♀️

How to find a responsible breeder/owner:

Do your research:

Do your research before you call him and make an appointment to see the puppies.

Go on Google. Could you find anything online? Some breeders have an established online presence, and some do not. Now, this doesn’t mean a lot, but sometimes you can find other people’s experiences on forums or on Quora. 

Google the contact number – puppy dealers often use the same contact for multiple ads. 

Make an appointment to inspect all puppies and their mum:

How did you feel when you hung up the phone after making the appointment? This sounds silly but trust your instincts. If something seemed off, make a note about it. 

Does the breeder have a problem with you coming over to see the whole litter AND the mum? Or did he insist on bringing the puppy to you? If at least one of the answers is a yes, I would highly recommend finding someone else. 

A good breeder/owner shouldn’t have a problem with you seeing his puppies and the mum in their home. This is a huge red flag.

Most puppy dealers will try to sell you a puppy online without inspection or they will try to bring it to your home or a parking lot. They will tell you that it’s just for your convenience (they live too far so you don’t have to travel, they will spare you the time and travel costs…), they’ll try to persuade you that it’s normal and ok. 

Ask questions about their breeding practices, health clearances, and medical records.

→ Inspect the space where the puppies and their mum live:

You should be able to see where the puppies spend their days. Again, while some puppy dealers will let you in the garden to inspect the mum and puppies, they will not let you see the space where the animals actually live. 

Is the puppy pen big enough to comfortably accommodate all puppies and their mum? Is the space clean? Is there fresh water available? 

→ Ask about the father:

Is he present? Is he somehow related to the dam? If the father is closely related to the mother, there is a high risk of inbreeding and hereditary defects and I wouldn’t buy those puppies. 

→ Ask him to sign a Puppy contract:

Does the breeder have an official Puppy contract? If not is he ok with signing one?

You should always have a detailed Puppy contract when buying a puppy. Mostly, breeders already have their own agreement you need to sign before you buy their puppy. I won’t go into detail about what should a proper Puppy contract contain, you can easily google it. 

You can often tell right from the beginning if the breeder loves his animals or not. 

If you feel uncomfortable or pressured at any time, remember it’s ok to walk away. Actually, please do walk away if you feel something’s just not right.

Observe all litter mates in action

The next step is a fun one. To be able to pick the best puppy for you, you need to observe them all in their home environment.

If you ever observed a litter of puppies in action you know there’s a lot going on 🙂 so take your time, relax and just enjoy the moment. 

To be sure you get a healthy puppy, assess the whole litter first.

Are all puppies happy and active? 

Do they have shiny healthy coats? Do you see any bald spots or hair loss? 

Does any of them limp? 

Which puppy is more dominant? Which one is shy? 

Take notes if you need to, it’s ok 😊

How to pick a puppy from a litter: Find a responsible breeder Observe all litter mates in action Let the breeder help you choose the right puppy for you Thoroughly inspect your new puppy

Which puppy should you choose from the litter?

Well, that depends on what kind of dog you need. Resist the urge to fall in love with the first puppy that manages to lick your face. I know he’s adorable, but he might not be the best fit for you ☺️

There’s nothing wrong with picking a shy puppy that keeps running away and hiding. But again, if you are an extroverted, assertive, or active person, this pup might be happier with someone more introverted.  Similarly, the most dominant and biggest puppy might not be the best fit if you are a shy and introverted person 🤷‍♀️

Before you pick a puppy, you need to decide if you want a male or a female dog. Male dogs are often (but not always) more assertive than females.

If you have young children, you also need to consider that.

Talk to the breeder about your lifestyle and how you imagine your life with your new pup. An experienced breeder will help you pick the perfect puppy for you.

If you already have a particular puppy in mind, discuss with the breeder if he’s the best match for you.

A good breeder is an invaluable source of information and insights. Use it!

Top breeders choose new pet owners carefully and often pair them with suitable puppies to ensure their babies get the best new homes. 

printable puppy planner

How can you tell a puppy’s temperament?

Now that’s easy, assuming you have found a respectable breeder – just ask him! 🙂

He watched those puppies from birth, he knows them. He knows their most prominent personality traits.

There is even a temperament test for puppies for dog breeders, but most breeders know their puppies without any tests. Talk to him and don’t disregard his advice!

At 2 months of age, even you can already see signs of each puppy’s personality.

Some puppies are a bit of a bully, those are the most dominant ones.

Shy puppies usually need a bit more time before they come to you. Some puppies need more attention, and some are more independent. 

You can learn a lot just by observing them while they play. 

cute puppy

How to choose a healthy puppy

Choosing the right puppy for you is step one. Now you need to make sure it’s also healthy.

I recommend scheduling an appointment with your new vet the next day after you bring the puppy home. 

You can put a note in the contract that you can return the puppy and get your money back in case the vet finds any health issues. 

Here is a free checklist you can use. Take notes and bring them to your vet for your pre-purchase exam.

Ask the breeder:

→ Did any of the puppies have any health issues? If yes, what kind and when? How were they treated? Do they need a follow-up?

→ Did any of the puppies have diarrhea or vomiting? If yes, how many puppies had this problem, and for how long? How were they treated? Do they need a follow-up?

→ Does or did the adult dog have any health issues? Ask about both the mother as well as father.  

→ Are the puppies vaccinated? Puppies are usually vaccinated at 8 weeks, but some breeders choose to vaccinate at 6 weeks of age. Vaccinating too soon (sooner than 6 weeks of age) is not recommended. 

→ Are the puppies dewormed? Puppies should be dewormed every 2 weeks starting at 2 weeks of age. Which deworming products does the breeder use?

Inspect the puppy:

→ Eyes: Inspect the eyes and the area around them. 

  • Both eyes should be clear
  • There shouldn’t be any redness, drainage
  • There shouldn’t be any hair loss around the eyes
  • There shouldn’t be any crusts around the eyes
  • The puppy should not rub his eyes.

→ Ears: Observe the puppy – is he scratching at his ears? Carefully inspect each ear. 

  • If the puppy yelps or tries to bite you, it might be a sign of pain. Puppies are very playful and often pull each other ears while playing, so you have to distinguish between playing and reacting to pain. 
  • Your puppy should have clean ears
  • There should be no scratches around or inside the ears
  • Both ears should be free of discharge or odor. 

→ Nose:

  • A slight clear discharge is ok, but there shouldn’t be any discolored drainage

→ Head:

  • Just like babies, the top of the puppy’s head may have a small soft spot, it’s called Fontanelle. It will close in time. However, if the area is larger than a coin, it might cause a problem in the future

→ Mouth: Gently open the pup’s mouth and look at the gums and teeth

  • The puppy’s gums should be moist and healthy pink. 
  • The top and bottom teeth should align. However, there are some breed-specific variations – a lot of breeds have breed-specific under-bites (French bulldogs, Bulldogs…)

→ Body: 

  • Can you see any injuries or cuts?
  • Can you see any deformities? (e.g. one leg looks different than the other)
  • Can you see any swelling?
  • Inspect the pup’s belly and navel – There shouldn’t be any redness around the navel. The area around the navel should be flat. If there is a protrusion, it may indicate an umbilical hernia – a condition that sometimes requires surgical correction 

→ Skin: Inspect the puppy’s skin

  • There should be no area with hair loss, redness, or pustules
  • Can you see any discolorations? 
  • Inspect the area around the anus – it should be clean
Puppy planner pink ad 1

Red flags when picking out a puppy

Sadly, there are many illegal puppy farms all around the world. The animals are held in appalling conditions with no concern for their well-being. They are shipped from one place to another, and many of them die in the process. 

Nowadays, scammers have gotten better at concealing that a puppy is from a puppy mill. They breed the puppies in one location and then ship them to normal-looking homes to be sold. So you need to be extra careful when buying a dog.

Even when the owner is not a puppy dealer, it doesn’t automatically mean he’s a good breeder. He might even be a licensed breeder and still not have healthy puppies.

Here are the most important red flags when buying and choosing a puppy:

  • The breeder insists on meeting someplace else (for whatever reason!)
  • The breeder refuses to let you see the whole litter and the mum
  • The breeder refuses to let you in to look where the puppies spend most of their time
  • Puppies have a dull or flaky coat
  • Puppies are not active and playful. Puppies have only 2 modes, on and off. Nothing in between. They either play and are full of energy, or they sleep. If the breeder tries to tell you that the puppies are just tired from all the play or whatever, don’t believe him. There’s no such thing. A tired puppy falls asleep. It doesn’t sit quietly for half an hour. On the other hand, a sick puppy does… 🤷‍♀️
  • You can see signs of diarrhea or other health problems (limping, scratching…)
  • If the puppy has a passport, is there a plausible explanation for why? 

How to spot a puppy dealer:

  • Google the owner AND the contact number he’s given you. They often use the same phone number on multiple ads for different puppies and different breeds
  • Google the ad description. They often use the same description for multiple ads for different puppies and different breeds
  • They won’t let you see where all the puppies live
  • They won’t let you see the rest of the litter and their mum
  • The breeder has many puppies and different breeds
red flags when buying a puppy

Key rules when picking out a puppy: 

Never ever buy a dog online without seeing the puppy, his mum, and where he lives first.

Always have a comprehensive legally binding Puppy contract signed by both you and the breeder. Make sure it has a defined probation period.

Schedule a veterinary pre-purchase exam the next day after you bring your puppy home.

Choosing a puppy is not something that should be rushed. You need to do your research to make sure you find a respectable breeder/owner.

However, once you find a good breeder, he’s an invaluable source of information. Take advantage of that! Talk to him about your preferences and your lifestyle. He will help you pick the best puppy for you.

Taking a puppy away from his mum and siblings is extremely stressful not just for the puppy, but also for new owners, especially for first-time dog owners. A good breeder will not just help you find the right dog for you, but will also help you with this transition.

If you want to know how to prepare your home for your new puppy, here’s a free checklist for you 🙂

Happy puppy parenting!

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