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 straight.
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 is not.
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
pin-toe 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
EC's 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.
© 2001 Virginia Lyne - Ranzfel English Cocker Spaniels, Saanichton, BC, Canada
Reprinted from the ECQuarterly Fall 1983