How do you choose a puppy?

My mom would tell you that your puppy will pick you. That you should just sit down and see which one wanders over to you, or which one curls up for a nap in your lap. Or say the name you want to give your dog and see which puppy responds. She’d also tell you that a puppy that lets you flip him over and hold him in your arms on his back is a great dog. And that, if your puppy is a golden retriever, he will grow up to be the same color as his ears. She would tell you to talk excitedly, whisper quietly, shout happily or speak sadly and see which pup tumbles over to hear what you have to say.

I was decidedly less zen about the choice.

cute puppy

Pick me!!

I would tell you to determine the type of dog you want. Active? Calm? Assertive? Submissive? And then use the Volhard test to narrow down your selection BEFORE employing my mom’s soul-mate/puppy-fate instructions. The Monks of New Skete (these awesome monks who have written a few great dog training advice books) use this test to place the german shepherds they breed. You basically put a 7 week old puppy through a series of activities, calling him, opening an umbrella near him, dragging a dishcloth around him, etc and rank his reaction on a scale from one to six. His scores will define the personality you can expect from him when’s he grown up. (You can also use a truncated version of this test to see the personality of older dogs if you are adopting!)

monks of new skete puppies

The Monks of New Skete

For me, determining the dog I wanted was easy. I wanted a big guy. A lazy guy. Easily trainable, non-aggressive, block headed, dopey and lovey. Mostly I just wanted a good dog. Honestly, I wanted Suds reincarnate. If you knew him, you would too.

It seemed to me that a puppy who consistently slept a lot, more than his litter-mates, and scored a lot of fours on the Volhard test would be the one for me. I say “consistently” slept a lot because I know that sometimes you’ll see a bounce-around-the-room puppy right when she’s winding down. Or calm puppy who just got up from a nap and is ready for 15 solid minutes of frolicking. It is definitely important to visit the litter a lot, and be sure each pup has on a different colored collar to make sure you know which one is which. They DO have VERY telling personalities at that age!

how do know what kind of dog your puppy will be

This puppy, Gordon, with the black color, was an observant little man. And still is.

I couldn’t visit the litter until I took my puppy home, they were in New Jersey I was halfway across the country, so I enlisted a crew to investigate the litter for me.

My mom, my dad, my mom’s friend Gail, her daughter Emily, my aunt, my cousins, my cousins’ friends, etc. (I had a pretty huge puppy picking brigade) visited the litter at least once a week for me. We’d video chat while they played with the puppies.

picking a puppy

Face-timing with the puppies

Around week 7 they did the Volhard test for me. They weren’t really steadfast believers like me, and hadn’t done all the reading I had, so they weren’t 100% on the ball. For instance, I don’t think anyone brought an umbrella to Volhard Testing day. But both of the big males in the litter scored well, so, in the end it was just up to my mom’s puppy choosing techniques. And I just had to choose, which one would be the one we would love for the next decade or so?

The hardest part about choosing one puppy is that, in choosing one, you reject all the rest. That’s how it feels. And, really, that’s how it is. All those watery little eyes look up at you and you can’t help but love each and every one of them. It makes it almost impossible, but you just have to accept that fact and make the choice. You are allowed to love them all. But only one can go home with you. (Ok maybe two…)

how to choose just one puppy

Here are the three boys with our puppy picking brigade! (We picked the one looking away)

And there’s always that question in the back of your mind, what if that other puppy would be a better dog? But don’t worry, I have the answer: there’s no such thing as a better dog. There is only your dog, and everyone else’s. Once your puppy is yours he’s yours, and just that makes him the best dog for you. So you just have to make the choice, and once you know he’s yours it gets a whole lot easier. That’s a big fat lie. It gets really really hard. But at least choosing will be over and you can get down to training and 3AM potty breaks.

Ultimately Bender just ended up being the one my aunt and Gail fell in love with on choosing day. I guess your heart just kind of tugs you slightly more in one direction than the other. He was the calmest, snuggly-est one. And once they felt that tug they just went with it. The next day my parents visited and felt it too.

adorable dopey puppy

Dopey puppy? Yes.

Is he big? Yes. Lazy? Somewhat. Easily trainable? When you have treats. Non-aggressive? For the most part. Block headed? Yes. Dopey? Yes. Lovey? When he wants to be. Is he Suds reincarnate? Not yet. Is he a good dog? Of course!

He’s not exactly what I was expecting. He’s a lot harder to live with than I thought he’d be. But he’s still a puppy, and puppies are energetic and stubborn. More importantly, he is teaching me to be selfless, patient, fiercely loyal, and more cognizant of the world around me and around him. He’s making me redefine my parameters for unconditional love. Would a different puppy have been a different experience? Of course, but Bender is my dog. And he is the best dog there is.

Ok buddy, you're mine. And we're in this for the long haul.

Ok buddy, you’re mine. And we’re in this for the long haul.

So anyway, my advice is just to do all you can to determine the puppies’ personalities but, really, you can’t go wrong.

Zero to Sixty

Sigh. He’s sprouting like a weed. All of the sudden he has these legs that are way too long for him, he’s so tall he can barely lick the floor (one of his favorite hobbies), his bark is hilariously deep, and his puppy collar barely fits around his snout. He is almost 5 months old, and he weighs 49 lbs.

Bender, a golden retriever puppy, wearing a USC scarf and modeling his very long front legs.

Look at those legs! They don’t even fit in the picture!

On May 7th, 2013 my friend Tory was visiting for Derby Day (Derby is a big thing for us). We were chatting in the kitchen post-party when my computer dinged and I saw a gchat from my mom.

9:16 AM

Mom: Hey kid, I HAVE GREAT NEWS!!! are you there??

me: Hey mom, what’s up?

Mom: There is a grandmother in our family

me:  … what?

(No one in my family is the type to be popping out any secret babies.)

Mom: There is a grandmother in our family and it is not me 

(I’m an only child so, yes, I was pretty sure the secret grandma was not her)

me: Is it me??? Are there puppies?!?

Mom: YUP

me: Yay!!!!! That IS great news!!

Mom: but you would actually be a great grandmother

me: What’s the situation?!? Where are they?? How many??

(NOTE: I had been bugging my mom for years to orchestrate a litter of puppies from this family for me)

Mom: PUPPIES!!!!!!!! 3 male 3 female, born yesterday

(At this point I called her because she types like a grandma and I needed answers)

Puppies. 6 perfect little fuzzballs were squeaking around in New Jersey.

A very small puppy about 2 weeks old. He has just opened his eys.

This is one of the male puppies at just two weeks old. Possibly Bender!

In September of 2007 Bailey became a mother. The last puppy to leave our house was a little girl we’d named Champagne, when she was 9 weeks old she headed up to Hopewell, New Jersey.

Brady, an 8 week old golden retriever puppy in a red pick up truck headed to her new home.

Bender’s mom, Brady, on her way home

We didn’t hear from Champagne again until that day in May. My aunt ran into the man who had adopted Champagne (now called Brady) and he happily told her that Brady had become a mother the night before! My aunt called my mom, my mom gchatted me, and I devolved into a whirl of emotions.

Brady sits nursing her six golden retriever puppies in the whelping box

Brady with her litter of three week old puppies.

It started off with OMG OMG OMG I CAN’T WAIT TO GET A PUPPY OMG OMG!!! Then spiraled into holy crap I can’t handle a puppy, that’s a living being! What am I thinking?! I barely take care of myself how can I keep a puppy alive and healthy and well trained and happy?! My logical side was continually battling (and losing to) my emotional side (that seems to be a trend with me). Every time doubts crept into my head: how will you afford a puppy? do you know you’ll have to wake up every night to let him out? what will you do when he cries in the crate? are you going to leave him in Colorado when you go away for 2 weeks at Christmas? how will you ever travel again? what if you forget to feed him? what if he eats a rock and dies when you aren’t looking? what if he jumps on little kids and barks at everyone and humps the neighbors?

Bender at 10 weeks chewing on a bike pedal

Just the occasional chewing on a bike pedal

I thwarted these mostly logical (slightly sensational) arguments with one answer: I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. I’m not very good at preparing for disaster. I do a lot of “winging it”. Nate is decidedly more of a preparation guy and forced me to at least create a budget. While I was dreaming of great dog names — Mason, Duffman, Porter, Lager, Spuds, Tank — Nate was having nightmares about $5000 a year vet bills and 40lbs of dog food a month (and chewed up computer cords, pee in the house, never getting to go to happy hours again blah blah blah — like I said, slightly sensational). Nate had never had a dog before so our friends’ stories about machine gun diarrhea around the living room and the complete destruction of their possessions really hit him hard. I assured him that our dog wouldn’t do those things (convincing myself it was the truth or whispering under my breath “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it”).

Bender at 10 weeks in a basket of clean laundry

Searched for a few minutes and finally found him in here.

So after a lot of coaxing he agreed to bring a dirty, cuddly, chewy, loving, stinky fuzzbutt into our house & hearts. I woke up 3 times to let Bender out the first night we brought him home. We moved into the guest room the next night because we had less possessions in there for him to destroy. With no socks and hardly any furniture in the guest room he set about ripping apart the box spring from under the bed. We didn’t sleep a lot. In some of my gravest hours — 4am watching Bender pee and bolt around the yard with no chance at going back to bed — I thought maybe I’d made a huge mistake. This will pass I thought. This is me getting to the bridge and crossing it I thought. Soon it will be over I thought.

Bender at 11 weeks, lying on the floor in front of the fireplace trying not to sleep

4AM fighting sleep

That seems like a lifetime ago. Back then I was deliriously googling “how to get my dog to sleep in” in the wee hours of the morning. Now he sleeps through the night till at least 7 — sometimes 8 or 9 on the weekends! — and now we can let him out without watching his EVERY move. We have to watch a lot of his moves, but not every single one. Now he comes when we call him. He only chews on underpants he finds lying around (and has only successfully eaten half of one pair – which led to lots of purple poops).

Illustration of purple fabric stuck in some poop

I won’t include a real picture…this gives you an idea….

And in the last few weeks he has started losing his baby teeth like it’s going out of style. He had these huge purple mounds in his gums where his molars were coming in and they have finally burst out of his gums. It must hurt so much! It’s a wonder he’s not just whining all the time. Luckily this teething stage has not lead to any chewing on our possessions. Just a few bloody raw hides when his old teeth fall out.

Bender, open mouthed, with his new teeth poking through his gums

New teeth poking through his gums

Occasionally I miss the days when he could cuddle comfortably on my lap, (now he’s a tangle of legs and a tail too long). But mostly I’m excited to see what kind of dog he matures into. He’s an observant, calm, intelligent and loving puppy, I’m sure his adult self will be just as wonderful, and I’m excited to see him grow up.

80% Perfect, 10% Jekyll, 10% Hyde

Bender sleeps like 80% of the day. The other 20% is split into two states. He is either a half drowsy, wonderful, cuddly puppy who just sits and observes the world going on around him, or a bitey intolerable monster that cannot sit still and wants to eat every rug, foot, sandal, pant cuff and lint ball that comes within five feet of him. He even finds and eats those horrifying balls of my hair that I gag about when I find them under the couch or stuck to my recently cleaned t-shirts.

Before Bender finally arrived at our house and stole our hearts I spent a weekend digging a bunch of weeds and plants out of a tiny polygon of a garden. The deck behind it was about 8 inches off the ground there, plenty of room for a curious puppy to crawl through and get stuck under. So I shoved some logs in the space and dumped like 5 bags of mulch on top for good measure. It looked really nice when I was done! After a year of looking at a gnarly rose bush and a mass of snap peas surrounded by dirt and dead leaves, it was great to see a few irises poking out of a nice clean bed of mulch. Sigh.

bender chomps down on some irises; 9 week old puppy eats flowers and destroys garden

It didn’t take long for Bender to decide the irises were a formidable and dangerous enemy that must be vanquished.

After his successful iris conquest he must have decided that they were guarding some kind of secret gateway, because now he’s made it his mission to dig through as much mulch sand and dirt as it takes to see what lies beneath the irises.

Bender digs a hole in the garden

He’s persistent, we’ll give him that….

12 week old puppy sleeping on top of the hole he's been digging, with a grumpy look on his face

When he’s not digging to China he guards his progress ferociously.

Today during a break from his tireless efforts to really destroy the only garden in our yard I’ve ever worked on, he bolted, feet a delicious mixture of mud and sand, into the house and down into the basement living room.

Lazily I stood up to retrieve him and take out of his mouth whatever possession of ours he decided to destroy. I got down to the basement to find a liter of water spilling out of a Nalgene all over the coffee table, tv remotes, and rug (narrowly missing one of our computers), and a muddy Bender, standing with all four feet proudly on the couch. What. A. Jerk.

muddy pawprints on our couch

Thanks buddy, great job redecorating the couch.

He jumped down about as soon as I found him there. I cleaned up the muddy paw prints and the spilled water, and then marched upstairs and took my revenge: I dumped an entire bottle of Tapatio in the polygon of kicked up mulch and dug out dirt. That’ll show him…

hot sauce sprinkled on the garden to stop the dog from digging

Tapatio on mulch looks suspiciously murdery

His Mr. Hyde self is not very pleased about this latest obstacle between him and garden destruction, but I’m sure he’ll find a way to overcome it. At least for now his Dr. Jekyll half is just snoozing happily at my feet. Dreaming of couches and irises yet to be ruined.

What happened to a good old thump on the noggin?

So I’m beginning to realize something here, this positive reinforcement thing is a real pain in the ass. It goes like this: your puppy jumps up on the couch, you lure him off with what they call a “high value treat” also known as a tiny stinky piece of a horrifying meat log made of beef lungs, turkey liver and potatoes. This meat log situation is seriously enough to make you rethink the whole pet ownership thing in the first place. Anyway, sooner or later your dog realizes that whenever you see him up on the couch and start coming for him he is going to get a treat so he makes the decision, on his own (read: tricked into it by me and my horrible meat treat), to get off the couch. Once he has started making that decision, you add the command “get down” “off” “stop ruining my couch you asshole” etc. and he starts to associate that command with his decision to get his dirty-from-digging-up-the-garden-you-worked-on-all-Spring paws on the floor where they belong. Before long every time he jumps on the couch you can tell him to get down and he will!

positive reinforcement doesn't seem to work on bender, the golden retriever puppy with two paws on the couch looking like he's done nothing wrong.

Don’t mind me…

Of course that doesn’t solve the problem of him jumping up there in the first place… Or the larger problem that I’m coming across: when he wants a treat he goes and jumps on the couch and then gets down and comes and sits next to me expectantly. So that’s awesome, I’ve successfully trained him to hang out on the couch for a few seconds. Bravo me!

Bender, two paws on the couch, looking like he's done nothing wrong

I’m just here for the treats

 What happened to the good old days where a thump on the noggin was allowed during dog training? Now it’s all about you manipulating him into making his own decisions. They tell you to be the alpha in the relationship, but doesn’t letting him make his own decision to remove his furry butt from my couch make him feel like he’s in charge? I guess only time will tell. And, to be fair, I trained him to sit using positive reinforcement: treat by his nose, back it up so he sits, click the clicker and give him a treat. And now he sits all the time without me asking. Maybe he’ll start not getting on the couch all the time one day real soon. Or maybe I’m just supposed to give him treats whenever he isn’t on the couch? That doesn’t seem very efficient….

Bender with a mouthful of white down comforter


But let me tell you the most demoralizing part. Sometimes, in moments of weakness, all I want is to hold that little furball on my lap on the couch while I rewatch the 3rd season of Futurama for the fifteenth time. I mean really that’s why I got a puppy in the first place right?! So I scoop him up from the floor by our feet, he yawns and, half-asleep, he flops into my lap hiccuping every few seconds. 

Bender in my lap for a few short seconds


For a few moments it’s fantastic, and then the other shoe drops, his hiccups wake him up more fully, and he realizes “Oh gross! I’m on the couch! This place is the worst!” and squirms his way back to the floor to sleep on cold tile with his head resting on a chair rung. I take this to mean that he’s just a treat-junky jerk who never even wants to be on the couch at all! At this point all my optimism flies right out the window and in my frustration I decide to write a grumpy blog post. 

bender with his head asleep on a chair rung

That’s more like it.

Disclaimer: No dogs were thumped on the noggin during this blog post. Or any other time.

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