Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Getting a puppy? Ask to see both parents

When you're getting a puppy, it's best to see both parents if possible, according to a new study.

A Rottweiler mother suckles her cute puppies on the lawn

When people get a puppy, a standard piece of advice from many dog welfare organizations is that you should always ask to see the mother. This week, I’m reporting on a new piece of research that investigates whether or not this is good advice.

The study, by Carri Westgarth of the University of Liverpool, UK, was designed to find out if there is a link between behavioural problems, the age of acquisition of a puppy, and whether or not the owner had viewed the mother and father of the puppy before they brought it home.

It has long been suggested that improper welfare of the mother causes behavioural problems in puppies, and that seeing the mother is one way to ensure that the puppy is being raised in an appropriate environment. (See here for research on the long-lasting effects of puppy mills on breeding dogs).

The study was designed carefully to ensure that other factors – such as the likelihood of an owner seeking behavioural help – would not influence the findings. To do this, members of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors were recruited to identify participants that had been referred for a behavioural problem. These dogs were called the ‘case’ dogs.

Another set of dogs, the controls, were identified from the same veterinary practices that the case dogs came from; this was done so that they would match the case dogs as closely as possible, except that they had not been referred for a behavioural problem. The dogs chosen were ones whose owner probably would refer them if a behavioural problem arose. Both groups of dogs included pedigrees and mutts, and they were fairly closely matched for the type of dog (i.e. hound, gundog etc).

The most common behavioural problems were aggression towards people or towards other dogs. The average age of the case dogs was 2, and of control dogs was 5. This is not surprising, because adolescent dogs are more likely to be referred to a behaviourist. Both sets of dogs were equally matched for neuter status, with 28% being entire and the remainder neutered/spayed.

Puppies that were acquired at 6, 9 or 10 weeks were less likely to have been referred for behavioural problems than those acquired at 8 weeks. This is surprising, although some other studies have found that puppies homed at 6 weeks are less likely to have problems later. It could be that being rehomed earlier allows more time for socialization during the optimal period, but it could also be that if a puppy is in a bad environment (such as a puppy farm) it’s better to remove it at the earliest possible opportunity. No definite conclusions about the best age to get a puppy can be made from this study.

The headline finding is that if people had seen only the mother, the puppy was 2.5 times more likely to be in the case group rather than the control group (i.e. to have behavioural problems). If the owner had not seen either parent, the puppy was 3.8 times more likely to have been referred for a behavioural problem.

Amongst those people who had not seen either parent, reasons that were given included the puppy being brought to their home, the puppy already being in a second home at the time they got it, or they met the breeder at a hotel or some other location. These are all potential signs of a puppy mill, since puppy farmers can go to great lengths to disguise where their puppies come from.

Hence, in many of these cases where people did not see either parent, it is likely the puppy did not originate from a responsible breeder, although we cannot assume that this was always the case. Having said that, it sometimes happens that seeing the mother in a less-than-suitable environment doesn’t put people off acquiring a puppy; I know anecdotally of cases where people have still wanted it, often due to a stated desire to ‘get the puppy out of there’. It would be interesting for future research to follow people through the process of acquiring a puppy to learn more about their decision process.

Westgarth’s study was a retrospective one, looking back at how people had acquired their puppy. It’s possible that people who are better educated about puppy mills also have better knowledge about how to bring up a puppy, and so are less likely to bring up a dog with problems. Nonetheless, the finding is striking.

It is sound advice to say that prospective puppy owners should always ask to see the mother, and even better if they can see the father too.

What's your advice to someone looking to get a puppy?

Westgarth C, Reevell K, & Barclay R (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems. The Veterinary record, 170 (20) PMID: 22562104
Photo: Stephen Coburn (


  1. Very interesting. And nice blog! :)

  2. The problem with asking to see the father is that there is no guarantee the dog you are being shown is the actual father (short of doing a paternity test!). As the mother is usually still nursing, there is at least that visible cue (though it is still possible the pup is from another mother). From that perspective, seeing the father (or the mother, for that matter) is not as essential as doing a thorough job of researching the breeders from whom one is considering purchasing a pup. There are some good sources online for finding a good breeder, including

    What advice would I give someone looking to add a pup to their family? Don't purchase from a breeder, period. We have dogs, including puppies, dying in shelters all across North America and thousands more in foster care with rescue organizations. Until there are none, adopt one. :)

  3. Its so easy to convince your parents to get you a dog.. Firstly, you should be serious for that :)

    You should be passionate by contributing your pocket money for buying a puppy. I am sure, your parents will never take money from you but this will make them realize that you need a puppy seriously.

    Also, take emotional support from grand parents by telling them benefits of having a dog in your home. Good Luck!

  4. I agree that researching the breeder and/or shelter is the single most important thing a prospective puppy buyer can do. The problem is, most puppy buyers are easily "fooled" into thinking that an operation is a good one... education is the key, and this is one of the best puppy consumer education tools that I've seen (and I'm NOT associated with it in any way):

  5. Another problem with seeing the father - other than proof - is that most responsible breeders won't have the sire on site. They will choose the best match for their bitch, and he probably doesn't belong to them. He may be nearby, in which case the prospective buyer should be welcome to come visit. But he may be across the country - or even dead, now that we can freeze semen and do artificial insemination. There are always exceptions, but to me having both parents on site is a red flag - it may mean that they bred to the dog who was most convenient, rather than the best.


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