So far I have dealt with the choice of a puppy, but many of the best dogs I have owned have come into my hands at varying ages right up to nine years. And I have acquired most of these because someone else could not cope. There are many advantages in starting with an adult dog, the most obvious being that you can see what it is, instead of trying to assess what it may become.
Pedigree does not matter so much, as you can judge the dog itself to a certain extent. But it can be a help. If, for instance, you want a dog for tracking and are offered one that has never had the opportunity to track, to me the deciding factor here would be whether the dog was bred from tracking stock.
The usual snag with an adult dog is that it has acquired some bad habits. Indeed it is usually because he has developed some bad habit that an adult dog is looking for a home. This may or may not create a big problem. It depends on what the habit is, how firmly it has become established and what efforts, if any, have been made to cure it. And it also depends on how good you are at training.
Many bad habits are the fault of the owner rather than the dog. I bred a litter of puppies by crossing an English Springer dog with a Bearded Collie bitch. The dog was from a show/working strain of very hard dogs. The bitch, Fly, was from a Scottish working strain and was really a Border Collie with a Beardie coat. She was a good sheepdog, had an excellent temperament and was harder than the average Border Collie. Her litter sister was a quite outstanding gundog.
One of the pups was dominant right from the start. In the end, however, after much observation, thought and discussion we chose one not quite so dominant, but still an extremely bold and friendly pup. This was because we were afraid the dominant pup might prove too hard to demonstrate how to choose and train a family dog. By then we had discarded the other pups and called these two Ben and Spot.
By the time he was nine weeks old we found a home for Spot who was by then a pretty rowdy customer. His new owner took him one afternoon and brought him back about eleven that night. He had ‘bitten’ his little girl and howled when left alone!
It is always unwise to rear two puppies together, as they develop an attachment for each other rather than for their human master. So for his own and Ben’s sake we were anxious to find a home for Spot. A dog in the village which spent its whole life roaming the countryside suffered a similar fate to many of its kind and one day failed to return home. The owners, having heard we had a puppy, came to see us with a big sob story. Their boy was heartbroken, they had learned their lesson and would never let another dog roam, etc., etc. So we let them have Spot. And being local we frequently saw him in the village. If there was a crowd of boys playing football, cricket or just being rowdy Spot was there, right in the middle of them. He was everybody’s favourite, he enjoyed life to the full, but he never seemed to be at home and we could foresee trouble.
Sure enough when he was about nine months old his owner arrived with him at our gate. He had dug his way into a poultry run and killed three chickens. The farmer was waiting to shoot him if he returned and if we did not take him back he was going to have him put down right away. So poor Spot was back again.
It struck me as an idea that I might use Spot to demonstrate how to cure a dog of chasing poultry. He arrived at night and when let out in the morning he went straight for Daisy, an old goose we had at the time. Quick as a flash my wife (whose reflexes, like mine, are conditioned to this sort of thing) threw a handful of gravel at him, simultaneously with a very severe ticking off. The effect was strengthened by the fact that, instead of fluttering all over the place as Spot had expected, Daisy simply stood her ground facing him. When we took him out later to see if he would chase hens he would not go near them!
By now he really was wild and my wife set about giving him some elementary training. Most dogs which have had complete freedom resent discipline for some time. And Spot was no exception. For about a fortnight it was more a daily battle than a daily training session. Then he gave in and was soon really enjoying his training. In quite a short time he was well above Novice Class standard often seen in the ring. And he would face thickest cover, seek back and hunt all day for a lost object, a quality Ben also inherited.
As I said, one can usually pick the boldest puppy but one cannot tell how hard or soft it will turn out to be. We found that our fears of Spot being too hard were unfounded. It was Ben who was rather softer than we really like. We would have liked to have kept Spot, but he and Ben had more than a bad influence on each other.
This time we tried to find a home for Spot where his talents would be appreciated and, through a mutual friend, met an obedience enthusiast in Plymouth. His Golden Retriever was getting on a bit and he was toying with the idea of having a young dog to replace him.
So he had Spot when he was just a year old and started off by doing quite well in competitions. We had advised him from the start that this dog would do well in Trials and he suddenly decided to have a go. After only one month’s practice he competed in his and Spot’s first Working Trial — and qualified CD Ex. From there he went on to qualify UD Ex., WD Ex., and TD Ex. So this ex-delinquent now leads a happy life and provides a great deal of pleasure for his owner who has become a very good friend of mine. There are many other examples I could give of dogs transformed from liabilities into valuable assets. The most important things to try to assess are the dog’s inherent capabilities and how bad are the bad habits.
Apart from pet dogs wanting new homes, the bigger breeders often have young dogs for sale. Frequently they keep two of the same age to see which turns out the better show prospect, and then they sell the other one. It will be less likely to have developed bad habits than the dog brought up in a home. But it will be quite uncivilized and dogs brought up like this take quite some time to settle in a new home. They miss the other dogs and have very often developed a close relationship with one particular kennelmate, which does not help. Often they are difficult to house train, depending on the system of the particular kennel. Recently we bought a young adult bitch from a well-known breeder. When she let several of the dogs out for us to see she was furious because some of them messed on her beautiful lawn. They should have done it in their kennels where it would have been more easily picked up! Not surprisingly the little bitch we bought is not very reliable about being clean indoors. In spite of all that, a good dog reared in kennels may be a lot better as a training proposition than a bad one reared in a home.
While you should always find out as much as you can about a dog’s background you can also judge quite a lot from the dog itself. First of all study the dog’s expression. He should look bold and alert, full of the joys of life, with a twinkle in his eye. Avoid the sullen, miserable-looking dog or one with a mean shifty look.
If you are a stranger the dog may not like you to begin with. Fair enough. You probably don’t want him to welcome strangers to your home. But once you have been introduced and accepted by his owner he should come up to you. Many people claim that their dog is suspicious of strangers when it is, in fact, terrified of them. I would never buy a dog which would not allow me to handle it if its owner said so.
For your purpose the over-friendly dog is always the best bet, especially if a youngster up to about eighteen months. Think very carefully before buying a six-month-old puppy which already shows a strong guarding instinct.
When you go to see a dog allow yourself time to study him carefully. Allow him to potter around his garden or, better still, get his owner to take him for a walk and allow him to run loose. You don’t want a dog that clings to its owner (especially if you have Trials in mind) but neither do you want one that never responds. If it sees something strange it should either bark at it or go to investigate but never run away.
Watch how he moves. I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about movement in both dogs and horses and get a great deal of pleasure just watching a good mover in action. But few people realize how much temperament affects an animal’s action. The gay, jaunty ‘Here I
come and who’s like me’ type always has a spring in its step which is completely missing from the one with a lethargic temperament. Of course, you must consider how fit the dog is at the time.
We now live in an age when dogs have many physical defects which were unheard of in the last century. Probably because dogs with PRA, hip dysplasia and all the others were promptly destroyed before they had the opportunity to pass on the defect. Because of this it is usually worth the expense of having a prospective purchase examined by a veterinary surgeon. This should be a physical examination only. Taken as a whole the veterinary profession’s ignorance of canine mentality is quite lamentable. Although many veterinarians are willing to give advice on this subject it is seldom worth having and certainly not worth paying for!