Puppy EvaluationsMay 4, 2013
I often get asked about how I evaluate puppies and line them up with their forever homes. Evaluation begins the instant the puppies are born, but it’s nearly impossible for one person to have a clear, unbiased view of a dog’s many traits. It takes a team of people to assess various traits - structure, temperament, trainability, birdiness, prey drive, etc. I prefer to have people that specialize in these areas help me make the final list of qualities associated with each puppy. Homes that plan to hunt with their dogs will need a high-drive, birdy dog. Families with older kids need a quieter attitude (I will not sell Vizsla puppies to homes with young children and I personally feel these homes need to look for another breed). Agility dogs require high prey drive, great working attitude, focus and trainability, and they need a sound, solid temperament so they don’t get easily intimidated or distracted. Any performance or show dog will also need excellent structure. A show dog, in particular, needs a pretty “headpiece” and a correct topline and tail carriage. Obviously, a hunting dog doesn’t need a pretty face, but a high tail carriage is more suited to the field than in the show ring. Good movement is critical for the show ring, with plenty of reach and drive and a nice straight way of going. An agility dog needs a wirey, easy-to-maneuver structure, so it can bend around poles and attack jumps from various angles. Shorter bodies (length-wise) tend to not have the bendability of a longer loin. A show dog can have a tiny bit of white on the chest or the toes, but a hunting dog judge isn’t going to care about how much white is on display. Structure is a matter of angles and proportions. Good structure is going to be important for a performance or show dog, but some variations of angulation are preferred by some show judges - and may not be quite as appreciated in performance events (angled pasterns and shoulders make excellent shock absorbers for a jumping dog, while I see many show judges prefer straight pasterns and straight shoulders that make a dog appear taller and more self-confident). A nice broad and deep ribcage allows for more air to fill the lungs, but too much ribcage forces the elbows to push out. Field trial judges love an “11:00” or even a “12:00” position tail set so the hunter can see the “flag” out in the scrub brush. In the show ring, that would be a negative - here the straight (not curved) 10:00 position at a standstill is preferred, and a 9:00 or 10:00 position while moving is the optimal. In theory, the tail carriage preference has something to do with the angle of the hips, but I’m not personally convinced of any evidence to support that idea.
I generally have another person, or people, do the evaluations on structure. It needs to be someone who has shown many dogs, preferably of different breeds, and who is familiar with the breed standard in Vizslas. I like to do the formal evaluations at 8 weeks, although my local Vizsla community, including myself, start looking at the puppies around 5 weeks of age and as a group we watch them progress. We are always amazed at how much puppies can change over the course of time. As a group, we are generally pretty good at picking out which pups are destined for the show ring. We look at the puppy standing in a show stack position - and we also hold the puppy in the air to see how gravity plays with their angles.
Birdiness is determined over the second month with the breeder. The puppies are introduced to bird wings on a fishing line, and then on live birds, to see how they react. Most Vizsla puppies love birds, but some are more intense than others. I also like to see how bold - or shy - the puppies are around a moving bird. Some puppies are very intimidated and reserved, while others go into a staunch point from the start.
Temperament is determined by a certified and experienced dog trainer. The puppies are each placed in a strange room with a variety of “stations” - each station is a different test. How does the pup react to a mirror? How does the puppy react to a sudden loud sound? How long does it take for a puppy to figure out how to go around a barrier to get to its target? How strong is its prey drive? It’s important for these tests to be done without the breeder in the room - we want the puppy to be in a new environment with strange people. Is the puppy stressed? How does it react to stress? As we have learned through experience, prey drive is a very important aspect of a puppy’s temperament. Great prey drive says great hunter or agility dog, but it also spells danger for a dog that is going to join a family with active kids. We like to see a dog that wants to learn and figure things out. Some of the tests are more about thinking through puzzles, and some are looking at how well the puppy offers behaviors - and what kinds of behaviors. All puppies will startle at a loud sound, but some will sit back and observe while others run over to check out what it’s all about.
Many factors go into evaluating a puppy, but in the end, it’s critical to match the puppy with the right home. This is why responsible breeders will pick puppies for their puppy homes. My dogs Q, Cassie, and Bindi were picked out for me - and I purchased each of them before meeting them. They were excellent matches for me, thanks to Marge Mehagian (Q), Judy Hetkowski (Cassie), and Meg Farmer (Bindi). They tell me that no dog is perfect, but I think each one of my Vizslas is perfect in his/her own way. Hopefully, I will match up my puppies with homes as expertly as these three did for me.