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
Photo: Stephen Coburn/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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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.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

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

You might also like: The ultimate dog training tip and puppy socialization practices - and how they are lacking.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Westgarth, C., Reevell, K., & Barclay, R. (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems. Veterinary Record, 170(20), 517-517.

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