Bringing home a puppy is a big decision. It's a commitment that we make that will affect us for at least a decade. The best way to ensure that you and the puppy you take home are happy, is to educate yourself on how to properly select a puppy that fits your energy level, free time and lifestyle.
First things first. Never buy or adopt a puppy because you feel sorry for it. If you buy a puppy you feel sorry for, you're funding future breedings of the same type, in the same conditions. If you adopt a puppy simply because you feel sorry for it, it may not fit your lifestyle and household. Your empathy is admirable and a sign that you have a good heart, but in the end, it can put you and the puppy in a position neither of you are happy with.
Adopt a puppy based on these three attributes.
1: Mental stability.
2: Health (to the best of your knowledge).
3: Drive level.
If a puppy isn't mentally stable it has irrational fears, that can lead to an adult dog that is a fear biter. A dog who is afraid is easier to push into fight or flight. A dog who chooses to fight when afraid can cause serious injury to yourself and others.
A puppy who isn't healthy may make you pity it and adopt on impulse. But you have to be honest about your capabilities. Can you afford vet bills into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars? Do you have the time to nurse a puppy that may need around the clock care back to health? Are you able to care for a dog with a chronic illness or disability? If the answer is no, pick a puppy that you are confident that you can provide for. Because once you take a puppy home, proper medical care for it becomes your responsibility. Thousands of dogs are surrendered because their owners can't afford proper medical care.
Drive levels (which you can use synonymously with activity or energy levels in this instance), can make or break your partnership with your dog. One of the main reasons dogs are surrendered is behavioral issues, many of which are drive related. High levels of drive can manifest in compulsive behaviors, chasing cars, people, other animals, hyperactivity, incessant barking, chewing and other destructive behaviors if not managed correctly. Dogs with high drive have an increased need for mental stimulation, training and exercise to prevent anxiety and destructive behaviors. High drive dogs are a perfect fit for active families, people who compete in obedience and protection dog sports etc. But such dogs are a nightmare for quiet families that aren't so active, people with limited training knowledge and people with certain disabilities and physical limitations. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people have also surrendered dogs because they're "no fun" and won't go on hikes or play fetch with their owner or family because they're too low in drive. Pick a puppy with an activity level that suits your household, because you will be sharing your home with them for years to come.
Purchasing a puppy is different than adopting. You should be more demanding of a puppy you intend to purchase over one you adopt because when you're purchasing a puppy, you're funding the breeding program that produced that puppy. Purchase a puppy based on these attributes.
1: Mental stability.
2: Health (including genetic health testing).
5: Suitability of your specific needs and purposes.
A puppy you purchase shouldn't be anything other than unafraid and have a rock-solid temperament. The puppy you select and every puppy in the litter should be confident and happy-go-lucky.
As far as health, your puppy should be vet checked and come with a certificate of health. You should also ask for and receive the results of genetic tests ran on both parents. In the case of German Shepherds, you should at the very least see passing scores of OFA, PennHIP, or the European equivalents, certifying that neither parent is dysplastic in the hips and elbows. Even better, research the hip and elbow scores several generations back. Your puppy should also come with a health guarantee in writing.
Drive will, again, depend on what you plan to do with your dog and your training abilities. If you want a healthy, active house pet, a dog with medium drive should be fine. If you want a canine athlete to participate in IPO, obedience, French Ring, Mondio Ring, detection or protection work, you will need a dog with high drive. The higher the better in fact.
Conformation should be part of your decision. Part of being a good breeder is balancing working ability and conformation as outlined by the breed standard. You should expect your puppy's parents to be conformationally sound.
And lastly, suitability for your specific needs and purposes. A dog with extremely high drive might not make the best seeing eye dog. But a dog who would make a great seeing eye dog might not make the best IPO competitor. And neither may make the ideal pet for you. Take time to think these things over before you even begin to research different lines and breeders.
You know what traits to look for, but you may be wondering what you can do to get puppies to show those traits. There are many standardized tests that you can research online, but this is a simple battery of tests that I run.
1: The key/bowl test. I will put every key and keychain I own together in one jumbled mess. Or I will bring a metal dog bowl with me. Without saying a word, I wait for the puppies to become preoccupied and I'll toss my keys or the bowl onto the floor. Puppies may act startled and that's fine. But puppies who run away in fear with their tail tucked are puppies you should never pick. You want puppies who ignore it completely or go towards the keys/bowl to investigate. That shows strength of temperament, sound nerves and mental stability.
2: Separation test. If a pup is with its litter, separate it. Ideally you want to see a confident puppy who follows you around and comes to you when you coax it to. A puppy who is fiercely independent will likely be difficult to train. A puppy who is afraid and tries to run back to its litter lacks confidence.
3: The drive test. I will bring a puppy tug, ball on a rope, or even a rolled up hand towel with me. I'll move it around to get the puppies interest and when they come to investigate, I'll move it away from them a small distance. A puppy very active in chasing it has high drive. A puppy who is uninterested doesn't have much drive or is afraid or stressed. If you want an active pet, obedience competitor, sport or working dog; you want to pick a puppy with high drive. If not, one with low drive may be better suited for you.
Be honest with your abilities. Think long and hard about what it is exactly you want in a dog. Don't make excuses for a puppy. If it fails to meet your requirements, walk away. There are other puppies and litters. Selection test is for a puppy that suits your needs, not somebody else's. When buying, you should be given the results of genetic health testing of both parents and a guarantee of health at a minimum. Many breeders offer guarantees for working ability if you're looking for a working dog. Realize that dogs you adopt likely will have had no genetic testing on their parents and will almost never make a good working dog, nor come with any guarantees. If you keep all of these things in mind, you're more likely to bring home a companion that will mesh well with you, your family, what you want to do and your lifestyle.