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How to Choose the Right German Shepherd Puppy From a Litter

Choosing a GSD puppy can be a difficult and overwhelming decision. I can tell you from experience that it’s difficult to look at a litter of puppies and not have the desire to take all of them home.

But the fact remains that you most likely will only be taking one of them home, so it’s very important that you go about your selection in a well-informed and methodical manner.

When we think of picking out a German Shepherd puppy from a litter, what often comes to mind is that we want the biggest and healthiest looking dog there is.

While there is merit in choosing a dog with a great physical stature and an excellent coat, there are some other things that you should consider in addition to these.

Specifically, you should be assessing the puppy’s tendencies and personality.

Just like people, German Shepherds are highly individual. And just like people, some get along with other people and animals better than others.

How they interact with others largely comes down to their respective personalities. People who are motivated by the same things, and view things in the same light often get along better because they have an easier time communicating with each other.

The same is true for you and your GSD. While the two of you may not be able to have a conversation (a 2-way conversation that is!), if you are a good match with your puppy, it will require much less training and much of your interactions together will be highly intuitive and come naturally.

Communication is key, so it’s very important that you pick the best puppy for you, and not what you think is the best puppy based on any specific physical characteristics.

The best puppy of a litter may not be the biggest and best looking, but the one that is best for you.

Where do I start?

The first thing that you have to do before you can pick out the best puppy, is to pick out the best breeder.

This may come easily, as you may already have a breeder in mind that you trust and who has a good reputation. But chances are that you will have to do your research. And there is also a good chance that you may need to travel some distance to the right breeder.

It’s very important that you do not select your breeder based on how geographically convenient it is for you to reach them. Even if the breeder is several states away, consider making the trip.

Getting a new GSD puppy is a significant life commitment. The effort and time that you invest now in going about this properly will pay off for years to come.

Here are some important things to look for in a breeder once you locate one that you are interested in pursuing.

Call the breeder and have a conversation

The first thing to do is call the breeder and have a conversation. A quality German Shepherd breeder will actually require this. They will not permit someone to just show up and purchase one of their dogs and take it home.

They will ask you questions such as:

  • Why do you want a GSD puppy? They will be asking this to see for what purpose you want a GSD – pet/protection/show. This will aid them in helping you choose.
  • Where do you live, in an apartment or in a home? They will want to ensure that the puppy will not be in a cramped space.
  • Do you have a yard, and is it fenced-in? They will want to make sure that the puppy will have adequate room to exercise as it grows.
  • Do you have children in your home? They will want to make sure that you understand the importance of socialization and training to keep your family safe.
  • Do you have other pets in your home? They will want to make sure that you know how to properly introduce the puppy to other animals, and whether any other pets you have may actually be a danger to the puppy.
  • What type of work do you do, does it require you to be away from home for long periods of time? Because GSDs do not do well alone, they will want to make sure that you have adequate time to devote to your dog.
  • Are you financially prepared to take on a GSD? While this may be a bit of a personal question, it is important to know that you are financially able to care for a GSD. They are expensive to care for, and it is fair for a breeder to ask this question.

If a breeder does not ask you some form of these questions, then perhaps think twice. It may be an indication that they are more interested in profit than raising a quality puppy that they care will go to a quality home.

Questions for you to ask the breeder:

  • How many different types of dogs do you raise? If it’s more than one breed, you should likely stay away. 
  • Can I meet the puppies’ parents? The breeder should allow you full access to the puppies’ parents.
  • Can you provide me with a pedigree of all of your puppies? A pedigree is essentially a family tree for your puppy. A good breeder should have a detailed pedigree for any dog they sell. Beware of any breeder that wants to charge for this or says that they will provide it at a later date.
  • Do you have references? They should provide you with several without thinking twice.
  • Do you guarantee your puppies’ health? All reputable breeders will offer this guarantee in the form of a written contract.
  • Do you breed your females more than once a year? Female GSDs should not be bred more than one time per year. This allows for adequate recovery time and maintains good health.
  • Can you provide me with a detailed medical history for your puppies? Health screenings are essential for puppies, and a reputable breeder should be able to provide proof of these.
  • Can you explain any potential health issues for GSD which may come up later in life? A knowledgable breeder should be able to clearly explain conditions like hip dysplasia and other health issues more common in GSDs than other dogs.

If the answer to any of these questions comes up as unsatisfactory, move on. It is simply not worth the risk of pursuing the breeder any further.

Unfortunately, there are far too many unethical breeders who take a lot of shortcuts which results in dogs prone to both health and behavioral issues.

I’ve heard that puppies have to be 8 weeks old before they can be sold. Why is this? 

You should never take home a puppy that is less than 8 weeks old.  More than half of the states in the U.S. have laws or regulations that mandate how old a puppy must be before it is allowed to be sold or adopted.

And out of those states, only 3 permit a puppy to be offered for sale under the age of 8 weeks. (D.C., Virginia, and Wisconsin allow for the sale of a puppy under 8 weeks old).

The reason for these laws is primarily so that puppies are properly weaned from their mothers and able to eat on their own.

In addition to weaning, puppies need to be initially socialized by their mothers as well as their siblings. Some behaviors like biting or just being aggressive in general don’t go over well with the family.

So a puppy will be taught that these things are bad during these 8 weeks. If you remove a puppy from the litter too early, they may not learn these lessons and develop behavioral problems as they get older.

Much like a spoiled child that never learns, often times the source of an ill-behaved puppy can be traced to a lack of discipline at a young age. 

So to ensure that you have a healthy puppy, that is also sold in accordance with state laws and regulations, understand that it must be 8 weeks old (see link above for exceptions – regardless of state law exceptions, waiting 8 weeks is good practice). 

Decide whether you want to male or female

You may have a personal preference for either a female or a male German Shepherd puppy. It is important however to not necessarily just go with your gut on this one. Take a moment and understand some general differences between the two genders.

I will explore this issue more in-depth in another post, but here are some important general points to consider.

Male GSDs

Physicality: Male GSDs are generally larger and more muscular than females.

Territorial: Males are naturally more territorial than females. This may give them more of a tendency to wander off in an effort to broaden their territory.

Very possessive: Male GSDs are generally more possessive than females. They may be possessive over food and bones, toys, and you!

Dominance: Male German Shepherds tend to be more dominant than females. This may result in more of a proclivity towards aggressive bullying behaviors to make sure that it is understood that they are the boss. Dominance requires training to keep it in check.

Singular bonding: Male GSDs tend to bond more closely with one person rather than a group of people like a family.

Female GSDs

Physicality: Female GSDs are smaller in stature less muscular than males.

Territorial: Females are therefore more welcoming and less territorial than males. They are also less likely to wander off as they have no desire to expand their territory.

Dominance: Females display less dominant behaviors than males.

Non-singular bonding: Females are more likely to bond with a number of people in a family rather than an individual person.

So, how do I choose between the two?

This question comes down to the purpose for which you want a German Shepherd. If you are looking for a dog to have trained in protection and are looking primarily for a four-legged security system for your home, then a male is a good choice.

However, if your primary interest is to just have a family pet that socializes well with others, then a female is probably right for you.

Testing the puppy

There is no better way to determine whether or not a specific puppy is the right one for you than to actually get hands-on and doing some investigating.

There are a number of interactions that you can perform with a puppy that you are interested in to get a better understanding of the puppy’s temperament and future behavior.

However, even before you begin any interactions with a puppy, make sure that you are testing the correct one. Never try and force any interaction, begin with puppies that are naturally drawn to you.

This should be the first thing that you do before you begin any personality/temperament testing. If a puppy is apprehensive to be near you, it’s likely a good idea to leave that puppy be and consider a different one.

It’s important that you do not get to hung up on a specific puppy perhaps because you like the way that it looks. Just like with people, you cannot force a match and expect fruitful results. So be patient and make sure at very least that the puppy is not aversive toward you before you being.

The tests:

  • Clap your hands: Does it run away or does it come? A puppy’s response to this will be indicative of how social it is.

    If it comes that’s a good sign, because it shows that it is eager to socialize. A more timid dog may, however, be apprehensive to approach.
  • Make eye contact: When the puppy is looked at, does it stare back at you?

    If the puppy looks directly at you, it is showing confidence. On the other hand, if the puppy does not, it could show that it’s frightened, anxious, or it may even have a vision problem.
  • Vocally call the puppy over to you: Does it come to you right away?

    If it does, that’s a great sign. If it does how not, however, this could show a behavioral issue or hearing problem, or it could be an indication of another illness as well.
  • Pet the puppy: How does it respond to your touch?

    If it’s warm and loving, again this is a good sign. However, if it meets your touches with biting or growling, then this is likely an indication of an uneven or bad temperament. It will not just grow out of this, it will have to be trained out of it.
  • Bring a ball with you to test with the puppy: Roll the ball and see what the puppy does. Does it follow it and then bring it to you? Or does it take it away for itself.

    A more dominant puppy will just take the ball and keep it for itself, reluctant to give it back to you. On the other hand, a more independent puppy may show no interest at all. And one that is submissive may actually be frightened.

    If you are looking for a very sociable puppy, look for the one that brings the ball right back to you to play some more. The puppy that brings it right back is also an ideal candidate for training in retrieving and other exercises.

    An even-tempered puppy will show interest in and play with the toy, but it will also allow you to participate and take the toy back without showing you any aggression.
  • Roll the puppy over: Once the puppy comes over to you, gently roll it onto its back and hold it in place. Do not be forceful but be firm. See how the puppy reacts. Is it resisting, or is it just relaxing?

    A puppy with a more dominant personality will take the path of most resistance, and it may growl or attempt to bite at you.

    While on the other hand, a more submissive puppy will not put up any fight or resistance, and may even just curiously look at you as to why you’re doing what you are.

    And the even-tempered puppy is the one that may resist for a short time but then submit to what you are doing.
  • Pick up the puppy: Physically pick up the puppy by gently holding it underneath its chest with an open hand. Lift it up high, even above the height of your head and hold it there. What does the puppy do? Does it struggle, or does it stay relaxed?

    A puppy that struggles may be fearful or dominant. It is either frightened or it’s not ok with accepting that you are in control.

    On the other hand, a puppy that stays absolutely relaxed is displaying confidence in itself and trust in you.
  • Hold on to a paw and press it gently: This is somewhat similar to holding it on its back. If there is a response to be had, it will happen immediately.

    Resistance or pulling the paw away may show dominance and temperament towards aggression.

    However, if the puppy just accepts what you’re doing, it is showing more of a submissive tendency.

    The even-tempered puppy will be you curious as to what you are doing. It may investigate a little and might even lick you.
  • Make an unexpected noise: Whether it is banging a pot and pan together or just yelling, create an unexpected noise. See what the puppy does, does it show fear, interest, or aggression?

    A fearful puppy may run away or even whimper. While an aggressive-tempered puppy may actually growl and try to bite you.

    An even-tempered puppy will simply look surprised, and may even want to investigate a little bit further.

Meet the parents

A lot of breeders will have both the father (sire) and the mother (bitch) of the puppies on site. However, some of them will only have the mother because sometimes the father is on loan as a stud from a different breeder.

But the mother for sure should be on site, and you should get an idea of what she is like. In the case of my last German Shepherd, I was able to meet both parents. His mother was very kind and sociable and eager to be petted. While on the other hand, his father was clearly dominant, and not a dog to be messed with.

Because of my prior experience and knowledge, my GSD turned out exactly as I thought he would – fairly sociable yet wildly protective of me. This was all right because I knew what to expect and I was able to train my dog properly to take the edge off of some of his more dominance behaviors.

However, my choice was an informed decision based on years of experience. If you are new to owning a German Shepherd, this may not be an ideal combination.

I would recommend for a new German Shepherd owner to consider making sure that both parents are more docile, and possibly even lean towards acquiring a female for your first German Shepherd.

Visit the puppy on more than one occasion

Just like people, puppies have their on days and their off days. You will not be able to get a very accurate picture of how your puppy will be on one short visit. In fact, with my last dog, I visited him at least 4 times and stayed for at least 30 minutes with him each time prior to taking him home.

A good breeder will have no issue with you doing this, and in fact, will prefer it. They want their dogs to be well-matched with their new owners, so this is common practice.

If you have a family or even just a significant other that will also be living with the puppy, it’s a good idea to bring them along. The puppy should become accustomed to the people it will soon be spending its entire life with. So the more familiarity that you build now in this phase, the easier that puppy will transition to home life with you and your family. 

It’s also a good idea to bring along some treats, the kind you will be feeding your puppy when you bring it home. All of these steps are positive reinforcement for your new puppy and will build familiarity and a bond even before you arrive home.

Also, bring a small blanket or clothing item and ask the breeder to leave it with the puppy. This will allow your puppy to become familiar with the scent of you and your home. Making for a better transition. 

Ask for your breeder’s help

Nobody knows your puppy better than the breeder where you are getting it from. They will have spent the first weeks of your puppy’s life with it, and they also will have a very deep knowledge of everything about the mother and the father. So by default, this knowledge enables the breeder to be very good at placing the proper puppies with the proper personalities.

Final thoughts

As we’ve discussed, choosing the right GSD puppy can be a challenging decision. Remember to stay focused and not lose sight of your primary objective, which is to select the right puppy for you and your family.

If you take the time and care to do your research and ask the right questions, you will come together with the right puppy for you. But remember, this is just the beginning of a major life commitment. So take this step of choosing the right GSD puppy seriously, and you will have laid the foundation for a loving and rewarding relationship for years to come.