ASSESSING PUPPIES AT 49-DAYS
TO DETERMINE INHERITED CHARACTER AND WORKING APTITUDE
Graham Mabbutt, Cynologist and author of "A Passion For Dogs, A Journey Of Discovery"
For those whose aim it is to
found a strain to preserve good character and working aptitude assessing
individually in unknown surroundings at 49 days is the only true guide, as it is
at this time when senses and instincts are ‘wired-in’, (nerve cells
interconnected) with little or no influence of environment, training/teaching
and experiences over time taking part in the overall picture.
If a puppy under such an assessment (as I will describe) and separated from its
litter mates is calm, confident, and bold, investigating widely, playing like a
kitten, carrying play/prey toys, recalling, and most importantly recovering
easily when startled etc. etc., a walker or handler has no alternative other
than to accept that if the puppy at puberty is found wanting, theirs is the
responsibility, not the breeding.
In a breeding program what is innate (born) and not made are the only
traits which can be passed on through the genes.
This fact is why founding a working strain over pedigrees burdening with Working
Trials Champions all too often is a disaster.
All behavior displayed by the dog in its lifetime is controlled by
emotions, whether it is sleeping, feeding, aggressive behavior or the display
of learnt behavior on command. Behavior is purposeful motive and emotion
coordinated through the nervous system. As long as an animal is alive, and the
nervous system controls the signals and commands and the muscles work, the
animal shows behavior. Sleep is behavior as is feeding.
All mammals learn, think and have emotions. Motivation is an emotion and mental
attributes which to think, to need or desire and make choices and decisions. As
in humans, in the dog there are species similarities, breed differences and
individual differences. Individual differences can be marked even between
If however, at the time of the assessing a litter for good character and desired
working aptitude, the pups are as alike as peas in the pod, a breeder can be
satisfied that those traits, with line breeding through succeeding generations,
will be ‘fixed’ (inherited) within the family (strain) although ownership,
environment, incorrect socialization and/or training and experiences over time
can make it appear otherwise.
49-Day-old Puppy Assessment.
The worth of such an assessment is dependent on an assessor‘s experience of
whelping many litters and sitting beside them through the first 14 days of their
lives. Then following their behavioral development through the socialization
stage. An assessor must also be able set down in writing his findings and a word
picture of what he sees.
A standard of excellence based on one hundred points is not logical, although I
use the symbol = to indicate within the limits of normality and plus + up to
five for excellence and minus – down to five to the opposite degree.
By 7 weeks of age a complete genetic predisposition has developed as to
character and behavior without being influenced unduly by environment,
handling/teaching, or experiences over time. For anyone founding a family or
strain within a breed it is this information which is vital.
From 8 weeks onwards a perfectly natural period (I prefer to call it reticence
rather than fear) develops where awareness of a threat increases. At this time
pups are left alone close by a den to flee to whilst their dam is away hunting.
However, experience tells me that a bold puppy from eight weeks to twenty weeks
does not develop servility and fear where he cannot face the world. In this the
socialisation phase, a pup of sound character learns to cope with fear. Fear
leading to flight to evade a threat can be a life-saving emotion from which a
bold pup by nature recovers.
Pups during the
socialization stage must be subjected to negative experiences
through exposure to life, and in so doing learn to deal with them on their own.
Wrapping a puppy in cotton wool (over protecting) prohibits a good start in life
and prevents the reaching of full potential.
However, remember at this time trauma is most likely to make an indelible
impression and is the reason why a puppy should be settled in a new kind loving
home and a new environment by eight weeks of age.
At 20 weeks the juvenile phase begins where the dog practices the skills he has
learned to deal with life and rehearses them. The juvenile phase ends with
puberty when dominance can be assessed, rather than earlier when an educated
guess only is possible.
An assessment requires an enclosed area of open lawn or grass land where dogs
rarely frequent (a) and in-doors, a room with two or three chairs grouped
around a clear floor space where that number of by-standers can observe (b). There
also needs to be a table on folding legs which rocks easily. Both (a) and (b)
must be unknown to the pups which presents a problem for most breeders unless
they are prepared to travel. On my reckoning an assessment takes approximately
half an hour for each pup.
Character assessing whether it be for puppies, the young adult or at a survey is
not a spectator sport as it is deemed by some and all too often, by breeders as
a means of obtaining accolades to advertise a prospective stud dog or a brood
Transporting puppies over a distance is considered by many as unfair on them. Of
the numerous litters of all breeds that I have assessed I have not found this to
be so providing they are crated to snuggle together as a group. Very
occasionally one may be affected but without the excess salivation of travel
sickness, merely the bringing up of an early morning breakfast.
My advice is not to feed puppies at all on the morning of the assessment. It is
the nature of life that pups miss a meal from time to time. We sometimes forget
that the adult stomach of the canine is programmed for feast and famine, and in
this modern world of ours a dog’s stomach is often crying out for a rest, diarrhea or gastritis usually being the result of too much or improper food.
On their arrival each pup wearing an identifiable
colored collar as a group are
carried to an enclosed grassland area unfrequented by dog’s where they can
relieve themselves. Whilst this is no part of the assessment proper it always
gives me great pleasure to see a well reared litter playing happily together
bright eyed and bushy tailed. I always take note of their faces which should be
firm of a good colour with little or no smell.
The litter is then returned to their traveling crates and one only is returned
to the wide expanse of grass land for what I will call Facets 1 to 5.
Awareness: To obtain a rating (remembering it is not an accruable score) of plus
+ 3 to 4, I expect the puppy to be up on its feet immediately with its tail
raised setting out to investigate widely, alert to every sight and sound (sharp
and showing initiative) using its nose from time to time. As throughout the
whole assessment I look for calm confidence with verve. A ‘tucked’ tail, raised
hackles or any sign of nervousness alters the rating to minus as does excess
excitability. It is rare for me to award + 5 although I am always hoping for
Recall: over at least twenty paces to breeder (bearing in mind a puppy no doubt
since weaning has been called at feeding times). Here I expect an immediate
response despite the many distractions, fast and accepting of hands that hold it
to the front. Recall from breeder (The puppy held lightly at ease in the sit
position.) to assessor. As above, even though the assessor is a stranger.
Following the breeder. Puppy follows closely, gives eye contact and finds hand
movement attractive, does not jump at the back of legs, a sign of excitability
Follows assessor with the same ease and pleasure as above.
Scenting an ox shoulder blade (or whatever tasty thing) that is suspended from
and within the low spread branches at the base of a lime tree (or whatever you
have). Puppy wind-scents at a distance (and) without backing off seizes the
gently swinging raw meaty bone and hangs on, demonstrating instinctive behavior.
Should the weather be inclement, the above out-of-doors part of the assessment
is best dispensed with; there is no sense in expecting a puppy to behave
normally when thoroughly wet and facing rain. The assessment then proceeds
indoors, to give the opportunity to observe the puppy’s reactions more closely,
particularly in relation to calm confidence.
Play/Carrying. Whilst the puppy is widely investigating and greeting people
warmly, a small ball is thrown, at which the pup dashes forward, in some to nose
it with an invitation to play, in others to pounce on it and carry it around
with tail held high waving from the root.
A puppy who does not play like a kitten and carry and play gentle tug-of-war
with possession cannot receive a plus rating. The highest rating is received for
those that when called, deliver to hand and release easily. Various other
play/prey items (e.g. a toy mouse, a miniature dumb bell) are introduced. The
interest in play and carrying should not wane. Hunting strongly should be a
To be vocal or aggressive (miniature growls) with or without raised hackles
indicates fear and merits a rating of minus.
Reaction to sudden movement, sufficient to startle and not scare. I flick open a
child’s parasol while breaching critical distance but not too close. I expect
instant reaction but no flight or lowering of the tail. Should flight occur,
recovery with investigation negates fear and is a sign of intelligence showing
the ability to forget an unpleasant experience.
Constriction/body sensitivity. Play/prey objects having been removed the
assessor calls the puppy who on arrival gives and accepts direct eye contact,
giving rapt attention to talk and pleasure in being fondled.
Next the pup is gently
molded in turn to the three positions ‘Sit’, ‘Stand’ and
‘Down, finally to be rolled on its back, held there by a hand lightly resting on
its chest, all the time calm and confident.
Mild struggling to submit with a hint of steel is acceptable. Medium body
sensitivity gives ease of teaching/training and is a sign of intelligence
(learns easily and remembers). Direct opposite is resistance accompanied by wild
struggling, and worst of all the panic-snapping (the fear biter).
Height sensitivity. The pup is lifted allowing its legs to drape under its body,
(if they are drawn up it is a bad sign) and placed standing on a folding bench
type table. It is another bad sign if the puppy does not stand firm and/or
shrinks away from height and/or fails to traverse the tables length to
investigate a box of toys.
I have some reservations in making a prediction as to height sensitivity which
can develop for the first time (and not as a result of bad experience) at around
eight months of age along with nervousness in negotiating open iron grating fire
escapes and wide reflecting floor surfaces found in factories.
This sensitivity can go unnoticed even in IPO competing dogs so often that it
has become almost a breed feature of The German Shepherd who may be in all other
respects eminently suitable to be trained as a police dog.
Pain sensitivity which is linked to body sensitivity. I then sit on the edge of
the table nursing the puppy on my lap. Soothing with quiet talk while squeezing
gently a nail bed of its forefoot between my finger and thumb, gradually
increasing the pressure five-fold.
The puppy who acknowledges the pressure at one is sensitive to pain, jibs at
three medium-sensitive, unreceptive or ignores it at five, a ‘hard nut’ indeed.
Rarely does a seven-week-old (even a Rottweiler) react with pain induced
As for body sensitivity, medium pain sensitivity makes for ease of
Finally, the pups are reunited as a group, five in number the ideal or divide a
litter of eight or more into two groups, each assessed separately.
I then introduce a soft lamb’s rib bone or a freeze-dried pig’s ear, at first
gaining the attention of the group. Immediately there is a barging and shoving
until one makes off with it, usually to a corner where he or she is left to
enjoy the prize.
This procedure is again repeated to prove the point. Continuing, the pups one by
one gain status until such time as the remaining pups lie down together, gnawing
amicably - proof of their equal status.
Pup No 1 is usually a male, occasionally a female. Size does not determine
order. Determination and will to win does. I would emphasise that dominance
cannot be assessed with any certainty until puberty, however if a female at
seven weeks gains the No 1 spot, one can assume she is born to be an alpha
To create a Battle Royal to determine status would be stupid in a litter that
shows signs of fighting as early as four-weeks old (especially in the Bull
breeds) so much so that the most pugnacious have to be separated to form a
separate group from their milder siblings. All going to show how one can
in-breed for a particular trait.
This applies equally so to excitability, extra body sensitivity, inter-dog
aggression, or extreme possessiveness. Some breeds favour the trained aggression
brought about by what is known as ‘ragging’ (tug-of-war) in pup’s that ‘lock on’
answering back with growls. It is folly to train for aggression or any sort of
defence before the juvenile phase is complete even if the pup is destined become
a police dog.
Herewith a word picture representative of assessing any litter of puppies:
√ From first to last, puppies should be well up on toes, calm and confident, tail
always raised, waving from the root. Investigating widely with initiative,
irrespective of distractions, recalling fast and direct equally to the breeder
and to the assessor (stranger).
√ Follows closely and sensibly, attracted by hands. Does not jump at the back of
legs or show any other signs of over-excitability.
√ Gives and accepts direct eye contact. Interested in scent. Plays strongly like
a kitten and invites play.
√ Hunts prey images with drive. Carries articles with possession but recalls
gladly and gives to hand.
√ Learns easily and remembers. Willing and biddable.
√ Reacts instantly to sight and sound but continuing to carry and/or play, proof
of ‘Not affected by sound’. A child’s parasol opened suddenly above
its head, only shows mild interest, no sign of flight, continues to play and carry toys.
√ Verve a-plenty. Intelligent, learns easily and remembers. Accepts constriction
with a hint of steel.
√ Moulds easily to three positions ‘Sit’, ‘Stand’ and ‘Down’ and finally,
√ To lie on its back to be held there by a hand between its front legs while
relaxed and acquiescent.
This pup is born to be bold with defence drive and the will to win. Should ever
flight occur which is natural to all mammals when faced with a threat, once the
socialisation phase is complete, I predict this pup’s flight will be minimal
enough to assess the situation, recovering to face down the danger and if
necessary fight to defend itself and its handler.
Editor’s note: Explore dog training links below and check your local TV listings for America’s Top Dog series where you will see much of what this world-famous trainer has shared with us.
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