Eventually, as the joy of having a new litter of English Cockers
begins to moderate, we all desire to pick, sort, grade, or evaluate the puppies.
In this article I will cover some of this evaluation process as it has evolved
for me over the past twenty-three years and sixty litters. Because most pet
puppies move to homes by nine weeks, I have limited my comments here to the
first eight weeks in the puppy's life.
Despite protestations from other breeders who claim one hundred percent
success, I have never subscribed to the "pick 'em wet out of the sac" school
of puppy picking. Usually at this time I am much more interested in the
puppies arriving in the world safely, and in the bitch whelping with the
minimum of distress. There are, however, a few observations that may be made
as the pups arrive. I generally feel I can get some idea of a long-ribbed
puppy whose rib extends well back. Long necks are fairly recognizable then
- before the pups take on too much food. The lovely "pansy" face (look closely
at a pansy flower and locate the eyes, nose and smile) of a broad, deep head
with lots of "mush" and cushioning is also recognizable at this time.
At birth, of course, for breeders of parti-colours, markings are always
exciting. The last variable I observe is weight. Since 1960 there has been
a fairly definite increase in birth weight of my puppies. In those early
days I generally felt seven to eight ounces were good-sized puppies. Yet,
nowadays, a litter of five or six usually weighs in at nine to fourteen ounces.
I have not observed, despite years of keeping records of weight and growth
rates, any SIGNIFICANT correlation between adult size and birth weight.
OBSERVATIONS: 0 - 3 weeks. I do little to select pick of the litter
candidates at this age but prefer to concentrate on the growth of healthy
puppies. Weighing daily and maintaining a careful record of gain is an instant
warning of a pup which may be in trouble. I expect a minimum one ounce increase
daily after the first forty-eight hours and usually see gains of about two
ounces. In addition, this handling and close monitoring of puppies helps
me keep on top of tails and dewclaws healing (we remove these before the
pups are twenty-four hours old) and toenail clipping to prevent painful eye
infections or discomfort for the dam.
The main observation I have found useful at this stage is to identify
a certain "feel" to a puppy which is strong and thriving. When you pick
up such a puppy, he fights and squirms; he is solid with a substantial rib
and firm strength.
3 - 8 weeks. This is the very rapid stage of development and dramatic
changes. Pups are starting to be fed, eyes are open, first clumsy attempts
to stand progress to deliberate movement, and genuine play begins. At this
stage I spend a considerable amount of time watching and observing. Invariably,
a pup will catch my eye by a brief flash of style, outline or alertness.
Often I find that it is the same puppy I keep picking out. He is the one
to make special note of and remember. Gradually heads begin to lengthen and
as fat and wrinkles disappear I start checking for length of head, balance
of muzzle and head, good depth of muzzle, width across the bridge of the
nose and fairly large, well-opened nostrils. I find that looking straight on at a puppy at nose level gives a clearer idea of muzzle quality and under-jaw.
Avoid too narrow an underjaw - those lower incisors need room to come in
I pay little attention in the early weeks to height or length of leg
as most pups this age appear short. Be alert at this point to the shallow
pup lacking depth of rib at the elbow as he may appear deceptively up on
leg. The big-ribbed, study pup with sternum to the elbow can sometimes look
dumpy but later proves to be more balanced.
Coats begin to change at this age - any tendency to curl can be recognized
now and it is possible to spot the very flat, smooth-coated pup that will
have a glorious flat coat that is so easy to care for (but may also be the
despair of the handler who complains he can never get enough coat for show!).
I begin to evaluate at five to six weeks by stacking pups. Usually this
is done on the kitchen table on a firm, secure bath mat. Much time is spent
handling, playing, and posing the pups. This early training is extremely
important in later show training sessions. In these early play-sessions I
tend to look less for specific details of the conformation and more for overall
general impression and balance. I try to identify the balanced pup with a
short back, pleasing length of neck, gently slopping topline and correct
tailset at the croup. Please note that firmness of topline at this age is
unlikely to disappear later, although it could definitely come later if it
I pay particular attention to rears when doing this stacking. Do avoid
the pup that is tight or narrow when he is "cupped" between the legs. Don't
pose the legs where you would like to see them but gently allow the hindquarter
to drop into its natural position. I like to see a firm rear with good extension
out behind the dog so he is standing over a fair bit of ground. I also look
for width and roundness over the hindquarters and upper thigh. Amount of angulation
through the stifle can be evaluated fairly reliably now. Personally, I avoid
extremes in anything and excessive angulation is one extreme I dislike. Look
for "short" hocks in the pup that stands square with moderate curve of stifle
and width between the legs.
Fronts I have found to be a little less reliable to evaluate accurately
at this age. Knowing your stock is per-haps a better guide to final outcome!
I do find, though, that I can identify pups that will be straight in the
shoulder and out at the elbow with accuracy at this age. A pup which toes
OUT at this age has promise for improvement but the out-at-elbow, toeing
IN pup will flap elbows and pintoe as an adult. One tip here is to be critical
of the kind of rib you see in your pup. I want rib that, as an adult, will
be sprung but well let down and that extends well back on the body. A round,
barrel hoop-shaped rib does not give the lung room that is provided by an
oval rib. With poor ribbing, both too wide and too narrow, you will see movement
faults in front. Desirable rib in the puppy is best assessed by standing
directly over the pup and feeling the rib cage with the palms of the hand,
fingers directly perpendicular to the ground. The palm should be rounded
by the gentle curve of the rib.
Some measure of bone can be made at this point al-though the changes
that occur seem to vary with different breeding lines. Because I like a moderate
sized spaniel with bone in proportions, I do not like extremely heavy boned
pups with large, spreading feet. Feet should be firm, well-cushioned and deep,
a natural extension of the leg.
While eye colour is a little indefinite at this age; I try to look for
a pup with an eye that is not too small, not bulbous, and that has a soft,
gentle expression, never hard or mean. This cockery expression is hard to
describe and is obviously part and parcel of what the breeder feels is correct.
For me it is achieved by a combination of factors including eye position in
skull, slightly oval shape, dark eye colour, chiseling beneath the eye, sufficient
stop, flat sides to the skull and nearly parallel planes of the muzzle and
back skull. The amount of stop is useful to assess now, but be prepared to
be surprised by some changes as skull bones alter and the stop "breaks."
Don"t delude yourself, though, that a pup with very little stop will ever
acquire all you desire! As you are assessing heads don't forget to look for
correct occlusion of upper and lower jaw. While jaw line will often alter
depending on a variety of factors, it is still important to know what you
are starting with.
One of the habits I've acquired at this stage of the selection process
is taking pictures. I frequently use polaroid because I am impatient for
results but it never ceases to amaze me how seeing a photograph of a pup
I perhaps rejected changes my assessment of him. I also must see a pup posed
from a distance and for this I rely on someone else to stack the pups in
turn while I sit and watch the changing outlines. Sometimes swans turn into
geese when viewed thirty feet away! But then, the reverse is true, too!
It may appear I've emphasized spending a lot of time stacking and posing.
It would be erroneous to leave that impression. A great deal of time is
spent watching pups play either on the lawn or on the living room carpet
(green, too, and most long suffering). Now I'm watching for front and rear
action, reach, and ground-covering movement. I pay particular attention to
what I call the "natural trotter." He is the pup that trots around, head
high, often carrying a twig or leaf in his mouth. He does not break into
the"galloping galumphs" (not one of Rachel Page Elliott's terms but any-one
who has had ECs knows what I mean) as do his less nimble siblings. When you
call the "trotter" he trots effortlessly toward you. This pup should be watched
closely for the future.
Tail carriage can be unstable. Although terrier tails should be avoided,
butterflies and sundry exciting things can have strange effects on a tail!
It is also at this time I pay close attention to personality - the cocky,
self assured pup that has that little extra brashness and curiosity is always
the one to follow.
Hopefully, by now you've developed a tentative "sort" of your litter.
Though I've not really discussed the influence of the sire and dam in this
article, you must, in making these evaluations of your litter, keep clearly
in your mind the strengths and weaknesses of at least the sire and dam and
immediate grandparents. If I've tried to work on a particular problem in a
breeding I've done, then I focus especially on that problem to see how successful
I've been in what I set out to do. Do not, however, lose sight of the WHOLE
dog - fault hunting can be hazardous to your stock.
For the purpose of this article I've chosen not to go beyond the preliminary
assessment which will select any obvious pets and make an initial identification
of pups to run on. The further assessment of the latter group is continuous
and on-going. Later developmental changes in the youngsters such as final
size, adult teeth, muscling, and final assessment of movement are topics
for later discussion.
Reprinted from the ECQuarterly Fall 1983