Choosing your next puppy

We have an article called “Is a Belgian Malinois right for me?” because there seems to be a lot of confusion about this breed being uncontrollable by the mere human. I wanted to write this article “Choosing your next Puppy”, to explain how I think you need to proceed when looking at getting a pup.

Dogs are so much more an important part of our lives now, it pays to invest more time and thought into getting the right dog for your needs.

Remember that a with good genetics, health, nutrition and a little luck, you will be taking this dog for upwards of 14 years, so don’t take this part lightly.Choosing your next puppy

I have heard people refer to the purchase of a car as the biggest investment a person will make other than say the purchase of their home. How many of us keep the same car or house for 15 years these days?

The Goal

First regardless of what breed you are going to get, you have to think about what your goal is for this dog. I don’t mean this only for people who aim to compete or work with their dogs, this is a point of consideration for everyone to make. Your goal might be to end up with a nice pet, that can accompany you everywhere, or a dog to help you keep fit and active perhaps.

Either way, just getting a dog and waiting for it to either meet your needs or discover the dog does not meet your goals is a big game of chance, and in my experience, I don’t like your chances of it turning out the way you hope unless you do some research and make the right choices.

Have a goal, be clear on it, have several side goals too if you like, but don’t over commit yourself or your dog.

Get the Right Breed

Choosing your next puppySome people feel champions are born, not made, others feel that the opposite is true. Personally, I would cover all bases by selecting a pup from a breeder who is skilled and understands what you want and what it takes to get there. Honestly not too many breeders fit this bill, but that’s ok! Why should they have to be experienced in every field?

Simply discuss your hopes and dreams with a trainer or behaviorist that you trust, someone who can help you take your puppy from baby to hero because they have done it for others many times.

It is common for people to come to me and tell me what breed they want and what they want this puppy to achieve, the problem is that the breed they have chosen may not be a good candidate for the career they have chosen, perhaps a Saint Bernard for an Agility career etc. or a Belgian Malinois as companion for an elderly person in a wheel chair. Whilst none of these goals are impossible, they are improbable and it probably is not a great idea spending your life trying to bend a dog that is not suited to your goal into a round hole.

Sure people say that they want to prove that a “insert incompatible breed” can do “insert goal here“, but really, trying to reinvent the wheel will very often leave other than the super experienced, disappointed, frustrated and lost.

When someone does end up with an incompatible breed in a sport, they are often far from the winners or podium regulars, but often either overlooked or encouraged / patronised by those that are winning.

The Temperament

The Breed rates over the temperament as the breed will also determine the structure. If the goal requires the dog to be athletic, the dogs structure needs to be able to cope with that long beforeChoosing your next puppy and long after the dogs temperament will. That isn’t to say that the dogs temperament is not important, to me it is highly regarded as one of the top priorities, but a dog with the right temperament isn’t much use of the skeleton fails.

To observe an 8 week old puppy and predict how it will turn out as an adult is not something you will ever learn from a book or video, nor should you try. It can only be truly understood by testing puppies and watching them grow through life under various handlers and training techniques.

Schutzhund / IPO was developed as a Temperament Test for the German Shepherd Dog in the early 1900’s. Today it is a sport that other breeds can also participate in and it certainly is a good testing ground for dog and handler. We must keep in mind though that a dog that achieves a sport dog title is combination of handler / trainer and dog. There are some trainers who live to train and compete in this sport and in reality can get less then ideal dogs, titled.

A good example is this little Border Terrier, here he is running the Protection Phase in Schutzhund, I am not saying this isn’t a cracker of a dog, but I’m sure that when Max Von Stephanitz (creator of the German Shepherd Dog and Schutzhund) designed this test, he certainly wasn’t expecting to see Border Terriers running the Protection Phase. This is a great demonstration of what a good trainer can accomplish. It also highlights that just because a dog has a title doesn’t make it a super dog.

Temperament testing in my view identifies the thresholds to the dogs drives and this helps me determine if the dogs are solid enough for the intended goal. Weak, thin or soft nerves are the primary reason for fear based and flight based behaviours in a dog, these are very difficult to overcome.

Drive Levels

This is a complicated one to explain, as a side note some people these days are saying the “drive” is the new buzzword and people have no true idea what it really is. Well people who have been training with me over several decades will know I have been buzzing this word for 20 years.

Drive is not a scientific or technical term, so many academics will say that it isn’t accurate or a real descriptor of a behaviour, perhaps that is true. But people who have been training dogs for all of their life, often very high performance dogs have been using the word “drive” to rate, define, identify and quantify a dogs temperament, so to me, academic or not, it is very important.

When someone asks me to temperament test a litter, I am going to rate the pups drives, thresholds to those drives and help the client decide if this litter has suitable puppies to meet their goals.

If you are looking for a “how to” so you can go pick your puppy this weekend, if you are at all serious, you need to take an experience person with you, rather than make a 15 year gamble.

The drives I will often report on are: –

Prey: – the inherent desire to chase and bite prey or prey like objects.

Food: – the high desire to obtain food.

Pack: – the level of value the pups place on each other, the breeder and how they interact with me.

Avoidance: – What it takes to raise the puppies concern. I avoid writing the more accurate “Flight” here because people will interpret that is me applying pressure until the pup runs away. This would be harmful to the pups psychological profile and is not to be done, ever.

Defence: I never try and stimulate or produce defence in a puppy, but some dogs bring it anyway.

Rank: The pups desire to control other pack members, perhaps the breeder and me.

All of the above are my descriptive terms as in theory we really only have Prey and Defence drives to identify with. Food and Pack may be considered categories of Prey and Rank and Flight may be considered categories of Defence. Rank also being influenced by Pack drive in my mind.

Having these categories helps me identify what I can motivate the pup with and to what extent (Prey, food and pack) and what will raise the thresholds (make it harder to trigger) these drives.

When a dog has a low threshold to Avoidance, this will raise the thresholds to Prey, Food and Pack. An example may be a dog that will chase a ball and play tug in your back yard, but will not cross the thresholds of these drives (display them) in a new environment. You can see why this is a huge problem, all the useable drive at home, but can’t be used when you need it.

There may also be other problems that arise with dogs with a very low threshold to Defence. These dogs view many normal situations as a threat and react with aggression. Let me give you an example of a very basic temperament outline: –

You have two German Shepherds, lets call them Cuff and Link.

Temperament test results CUFF

High threshold to prey, food and pack drive.

High Threshold to Defence, Avoidance and Rank.

(NB: Remember High Threshold means that it takes a LOT of stimulation to trigger these drives, in short, very hard to get drive out of a high threshold dog.).

Temperament test results LINK

High threshold to prey, food, pack and avoidance.

LOW Threshold to Defence and Rank.


Both dogs are loose in your yard, an unknown person walks into your yard.

Cuffs’ response:  – He notices the person in his yard, he doesn’t get up, doesn’t bark but puts his head back down and goes to sleep.

Link’s response: – He jumps out of his bed, starts to bark and rush the person. The person threatens Link and Link attacks.

Note the huge difference in response with two dogs from the same breed, home and trainer. Now with training, these thresholds can be altered up or down to a degree, but for example Cuff will really never be a dog that will protect you.

His prey drive is high threshold, this means it is hard to trigger, so we can not teach him to like biting. His threshold to Defence, Avoidance and Rank is also very high, so he doesn’t feel threatened easy, he doesn’t also feel challenging other pack members is rewarding and he isn’t interested in fighting.

Whilst he might “fail” a temperament test as a protection dog, he would make a great therapy dog!

Generally, if you have a high threshold dog to all drives, they are quite inactive, unmotivated dogs that don’t do much wrong, but also have limits on what they can do.

Low threshold dogs are very much more complicated, if a dog has low thresholds to all drives, these dogs are often hectic and unpredictable as their brain darts from one stimulus to another. Low threshold dogs can at times be trained to amazing levels, but usually by the more experienced handler/trainer.

What I try and breed are dogs with low thresholds to some drives and high thresholds to others.

My ideal dog: –

  • Low Threshold to Extreme Prey Drive.
  • Low Threshold to High Food Drive.
  • Low Threshold to High Pack Drive.
  • Moderate Threshold to Defence Drive
  • Moderate Threshold to Rank Drive
  • High Threshold to Avoidance / Flight.

This is the dog that I like for my goals, but they will not suit everyone or every goal. To break the above down a little for you, the above dog would be easily capable of: –

The Great

Highly Trainable with any type of motivation, toys, balls, tugs, food, affection and can dominate any job, sport or goal. DOMINATE.

Very fast to guard your home / territory. Tell your friends to knock before walking into your home!

With minimal training it will defend against an attacker outside your home and it will not run from a threat/fight.

The Not so Great

With no training it will chase everything that moves, maybe even develop an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to chase other animals, shadows or anything that moves.

The Ugly

The dog with no rules and boundaries, no stimulation or training will do something wrong. If you attempt to hit this dog to physically punish it, it will destroy you.

This isn’t because the dog is a Belgian Malinois, it is because of the genetic thresholds it has that have been developed either correctly or incorrectly and would be the same regardless of breed.

I describe my pups as having “Huge Potential”. You need to shape that “Huge Potential” into what you want it to be…

Choosing your next puppy
Steve’s Malinois Venom

The Health

The health of the breed and lines you choose is an important underlying factor. When you select a puppy of course it wont be sick and ideally nor will the parents, but you need to be aware that some breeds have health issues within their genetic code. This means to me that I want to resolve any concerns I would have with the breed of choice ensuring the breeder is health testing their dogs.

Choosing your next puppy
Wisdom having her after whelp check up with structural specialist Neil Barnsley

If I bred dogs that were aimed at being pets, were not known for any health or skeletal problems and parents were healthy, I would do only basic testing. Keep in mind that health testing is only mandatory for German Shepherds, to register a litter of German Shepherd Pups the parents both must be hip x-rayed and scored favourably by qualified readers approved by the GSDCA.

There is no legal requirement to do this for other breeds but many people who breed for sport or work do have their dogs x-rayed and scored to ensure they are breeding dogs with good structure.

I do feel that it is worthwhile to x-ray the hips and the elbows of the dogs I breed and I also have the dogs subjected to a full blood test prior to breeding. Our dogs are also examined by our structural specialists at 7 weeks (this is a service that we provide with all puppies), regularly throughout their life and before and after birthing puppies.

These are my benchmarks and I don’t suggest you hold other breeders to them, many may feel these are unnecessary, but they put me in a place where I feel confident that my pups are healthy and will not have any genetic health problems. So they are my choices, not everyone’s, or a standard or a selling point.

I recently chose the sire for our next litter is an outstanding male from KNPV lines in the Netherlands. Whilst I have observed his progeny (pups he has produced with multiple females) and these are all healthy dogs, he is also hip and elbow x-rayed as well as a full spinal x-ray clearing him of Spondylosis, a degenerative spinal condition that is more prominent in Europe and the USA than Australia. He was also subjected to an array of blood tests at time of semen collection.

I believe Health tests that a breeder chooses should be relative to what the dogs will be doing, they do not eliminate risks of your puppy getting sick or having a structural defect, they only clarify the parents don’t have these issues at the time of testing.

Hips and elbows can fail in a dog due to many reasons, many of these reasons are environmental. A dog that is pushed too hard in exercise before its skeleton has developed may produce undesirable results, just as a dog that is extremely overweight will also place undue pressure on these joints.

Dogs that are raised and fed a poor diet that is not appropriate for the energy levels can also fall over in the health department.

Choosing your next puppyI feed a Raw Diet to all of my dogs and have done so for the past 20 years, I have written an eBook on the subject (Raw Feeding Made Easy). I also feed my female dogs a special diet starting at least a month before mating that helps prepare her body for the changes that will be coming. She remains on that diet until 4 weeks after the puppies have completely weaned.

The puppies are offered food starting at 18 days, this will include raw components suitable for their age and digestive system and includes Puppy Gold by Animal Naturals. With very good birth weights, great growth and development I really can’t afford not to use this product.

The puppies leave me with a bag of raw food that is what they have been fed on for the past week, including Puppy Gold which I advise owners to remain on until the puppy is 20 – 26 weeks old.

Breeder Support

Breeder Support can swing many ways, some people feel that their breeder is always going to be the best source of advice, and that may be true, but keep in mind that all you really need to be a breeder is two dogs of either sex that will mate. They pretty much can do that on their own, but there are some breeders with extensive knowledge of the breed, training, behaviour and nutrition.

I have a number of breeders who recommend that their puppy buyers come and see me for training, I then design a program that can take the pup in front of me to the goal level.

You will need to decide by yourself how influential your breeder will be when making your life choices for your puppy. I don’t ever recommend ignoring any advice from your breeder but I also have seen people blindly follow bad advice given by breeders as the breeder was probably put on the spot to answer a question they aren’t qualified to answer. People often want others to think for them and then place all the responsibility on the person that helped them out, then blame them when it goes south.

Take responsibility for your own puppy and gain advice from the source that makes the most sense to you.

If being a good breeder means making money from litters and the relationship pretty much ends when people walk out the door with their puppies, then I am clearly NOT a good breeder. I stopped working when my litter was born, I spent hours with them every day and run tests and imprinting schedules on them seven days a week.

They were weaning onto a supplemented raw diet starting at 18 days and subjected to all types of stimulus until they left me at 8 weeks. We ran a 6 hour training/orientation day on pick up for all of the puppy buyers and they then received a few hundred dollars worth of equipment to get them started. They were offered our puppy raising program free and I have a conference call with all of those who can make it every two weeks or so on training etc. I would love to be able to maintain this throughout every litter I breed.


You need to make plans for the pending arrival, picking up your puppy and grabbing a few things on the way home is a really bad way to start. You will almost always end up with a really bad first day and the pup may learn that screaming is a great way to communicate with you.

You need to have a diet plan, food available, housing options such as a secure yard, crate and perhaps exercise pen all ready BEFORE the puppy arrives at your home.

When we allocate puppies, they receive the first part of  the 16 week challenge program. This covers what you will need to prepare your puppy for your home, what housing etc you will need so there is no need to make shift things when the puppy turns up.

There is not one category here that in my opinion is optional, nor is there one where I place most focus and ignore the rest.

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One comment

  1. Is the 16 week challenge program available somewhere? I can’t seem to find it. Thanks

    P.s loving all this material!

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