While the specifics of this article regard the Saint Bernard dog in particular, the general process can be applied to any breed using that breed’s Standard of Excellence as a guide. The process that one goes about in grading or evaluating a litter is the same regardless of the breed. Read this article as an important step in learning to evaluate and rate your puppies.
The grading of litters is an art form—one in which almost everybody involved with dogs needs to become more skilled, writes Stan Zielinski in Saint Bernards from the Stoan Perspective. Whether you are looking for breeding stock, a show animal, or just a family pet, you will increase your chances of getting what you want if you improve your skill at picking puppies. (This applies to any breed.) A very smart lady once told me that “to succeed as a breeder you must develop some skill at grading litters, for if you continually part with your best stock, you progress will be excruciatingly slow.”
Stan continues: It has been almost thirty years since we picked our first puppy, and I still make mistakes. Nevertheless, these words are meant to share some of what I have learned. An honest job of grading a litter cannot be accomplished before the pups are seven weeks of age. A more complete job can be done when they are nine weeks old, and that is what I recommend.
First, check for totally unacceptable conditions: Do the males have two testicles each? Are any pups deaf or blind? Do any have either a blue eye or a brown nose? Next, observe the litter as a whole. Is any pup aggressive or timid? Divide them into males and females and put them in order from best to worst. Start with the head. Are the eyes dark and set more to the front than the side? Is the muzzle substantial? Does the skull look wide? How are the proportions, both with respect to parts of the head to each other and to the head size fitting the body? Reject any undershot mouths at this age!
Check the length and diameter of the neck. Avoid thin necks for these pups will grow to be thin dogs. Check the shoulder blade and upper arm. A short upper arm is a common problem you want to avoid. Feel the substance of the front legs. They will never have heavier bone (in proportion to body) than they do now, so it better be adequate at this point. Next check the overall width of the puppy. The pup should feel wide at shoulders, ribs and hips, but do not confuse a barrel chest with the width for which you are looking. Pick up the puppy. Does he seem dense and somewhat heavy? You are looking for a massive adult, not fluff.
Next comes the important part—the rear. The amount of muscle on the ham is only slightly behind the quality of the head in importance when determining the overall quality of the puppy. Avoid any puppy that lacks significant and impressive muscle mass on the upper thigh!
This completes the examination by feeling the puppy. Now get down to eye level with the puppy as he stands naturally and get a real sense of his proportions. If he is not as tall as he is long (withers to ground equal to sternum to pinbone), the pup will never have correct Saint Bernard proportions. Observe the rear angulation, for it will never get better than it is right now. Avoid weak pasterns and flat feet.
Now comes the really hard part. How does the puppy move? Some aspects of puppy movement are accurate predictors of adult performance. Others are practically useless. For example, adult length of stride usually correlates pretty well with what it was when the dog was a young puppy. On the other hand, rear action is different. Usually a hackneyed or high-stepping action in a puppy will be the same when he becomes an adult. Likewise, a sickle hock is that way forevermore. I fear for the puppy that slides his feet along the ground or moves with a roached back. Even more frightening is one with a hopping motion.
Now that you have looked at all the pieces, consider each puppy as a whole. No matter how lovely the pieces, you can’t highly rate a puppy that is going to grow into a fear biter. A beautiful head and great movement are not sufficient to make a show dog out of a pup lacking substance.
Finally, rate your males and females from best to worst. Now that the litter has been evaluated, the breeder must go out on a limb and decide if and where the term “show quality” applies. I have seen litters where no member was show quality and others where most of the puppies were destined to become champions. Most well-planned litters fall in between these two extremes. Most poorly planned litters have no show quality pups, and most litters fall into this category.
Always bear in mind that grading puppies has no resemblance to scientific procedure. The entire process is only an educated guess at best, and an exercise in the breeder’s self-delusions at worst. No matter how it is done, picking out the future show-stopper is a gamble, and as gambles go, not a very good one. That is why you pay three to eight times as much for a show-quality adult as you do for a show quality puppy. If you want to calculate the numbers, you will soon discover that buying show-quality adults is a lot better deal than buying show quality puppies.
Condensed from “Saint Bernards from the Stoan Perspective,” Chapter 21, Grading the Litter. In the following chapter the author deals with selecting the right dog for you, finding a reputable breeder, seller responsibility and buyer’s rights. See more at our website or visit the Stoan blog site