How to choose a puppy from a litter

Choosing your puppy is a big decision. Pick a healthy, happy dog and you should be together for years to come.

This guide is focused on visiting a breeder to check, and potentially agree to buy, a puppy. It covers what to look out for and explains the warning signs that should make you walk away.

Don’t forget, our centres sometimes have puppies looking for new homes. See our rehoming centre pages to find your nearest one.

Going to visit the puppies – what to check

Once you’ve found a breeder who seems responsible, and has puppies available, the next stage is arranging a visit. It's vital to see the puppies, with their mother, in person. Be wary if the breeder says that's not possible, or that you can't see the pups with mum.

When you meet the breeder, don’t be afraid to ask for more information. Our handy printable checklist will remind you of the main questions to ask and things to check.

A responsible breeder will expect to be asked questions – and will want to know more about you.

If something doesn't seem right, you could end the visit early. Legally, the puppies should be in the same place they were bred. It's important to check where they were born. You need to be as sure as you can be that they haven't been farmed or smuggled.

A responsible breeder should let you see the puppies more than once before you decide. They should also expect you to ask questions, be willing to answer them and want to find out more about you.

A suitable and safe environment

What can you see, and how do you feel, when you walk into the space where the puppies are kept? Does it seem clean, safe, and comfortable? Ideally it will be a house. If that’s the case, does it feel like a home – somewhere that’s lived in? Some irresponsible breeders may rent a house specifically to sell the puppies from.

Consider:

  • the temperature of the room
  • the size of the area – is it large enough?
  • noise levels: quiet and relaxing or noisy and distracting?
  • is there fresh water for the puppies and for the mother?

How does the breeder seem with the puppies? Do they show care and concern?

In all four UK nations, owners must by law meet five animal welfare needs. They are the need:

  • for a suitable environment
  • for a suitable diet
  • to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
  • to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

Is the breeder ensuring that the mother and puppies’ needs are met?

Do the puppies and their mother seem healthy?

Once you’re with the pups, check them if you can for:

  • clear eyes with no redness or discharge
  • a clear nose with no discharge
  • clear breathing with no wheezing or coughing
  • clean ears with no redness and obvious wax or discharge
  • healthy-looking skin with no scabs or sores
  • shiny and soft fur with no evidence of fleas
  • sturdy legs with no signs of limping
  • ribs: these shouldn’t be visible
  • a clean and dry bottom.

Look at the mother, too – does she seem healthy and happy? Is she a healthy weight? Interacting with the puppies? Does she seem comfortable with people?

You could also ask again some of the things you checked before your visit, to confirm they’re correct. This includes:

  • the puppies’ age (they’ll need to be at least eight weeks old before rehoming)
  • the mother’s age and how many litters she’s had (should be fewer than six litters)
  • what the puppies are eating.

If the puppies (or mother) seem unwell or uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to walk away. If you’re worried about their welfare, you can report the breeder. See the section on how and where to report below.

How are the mother and puppies behaving?

It’s worth watching the puppies and their mother together for a while to see what they’re doing. Don’t allow yourself to be hurried. Things to check include:

  • whether the mother seems healthy and happy, or reserved and withdrawn
  • if the puppies seem active and alert, or subdued and listless
  • whether the pups are interacting with each other, and their mother
  • if there are dog toys nearby, are the pups playing with them?

Do the puppies show any interest in you, such as coming closer to give you a sniff? Healthy puppies are active, curious and interested in the world around them.

Now’s an ideal time to ask any questions you want of the breeder.

Are the puppies used to people and a home environment?

If you want a dog as a companion, it’s important that they’re well-socialised and used to a home environment. This will give the puppy the best chance of settling with you and being resilient and robust in the future.

Your visit is the time to check whether the puppies are inside the home. This is important if you’re looking for a pet dog. As well as being able to see the puppies interact with their mother, if they’re less than eight weeks old they should be living with her as well.

Questions you could ask include:

  • are the puppies used to, and comfortable with, the sight and sound of household appliances such as the vacuum cleaner and kettle?
  • have the puppies heard noises associated with visitors, such as the doorbell ringing, and conversations?

  • do the pups get a chance every day to interact positively with people? Are they comfortable being handled?

Checking the puppy’s paperwork

It’s best to check with the breeder before your visit that the relevant paperwork will be available for you to view. There’s more information about what to ask for on our getting a puppy page.

Which puppy? Making your choice

When it comes to choosing your furry friend, some preparation helps. Knowing what to check for can make a big difference to your experience.

You may start off with a fixed idea about having a male or female dog, or how you want your pup to look, but keep an open mind. You don’t know yet which dog will appeal to you or fit with your family.

Once you’re satisfied that the breeder is responsible and the puppies are healthy, the final choice is up to you. Remember, you can walk away at any stage and report the breeder if you have concerns.

If you’d like to move forward with buying the puppy, talk to the breeder about buying your pup using the Puppy Contract. This free toolkit, developed by the Animal Welfare Federation (AWF) and the RSPCA, helps people to buy and breed puppies responsibly.

Concerned about the puppies or their mother? Report the seller

In the UK, dogs suffer from irresponsible puppy breeding, farming and smuggling. They can be bred, kept and transported in poor and sometimes terrible conditions.

If you have concerns about the welfare of the puppies or their mother, you should contact the RSPCA (England and Wales) or the SSPCA (Scotland). In Northern Ireland, you should contact your local council.

If you have any other worries about the way in which the puppies are being sold, you can contact Trading Standards for the seller's area.

Dogs Trust works with policymakers to find a solution to dog welfare issues. These include puppy smuggling and irresponsible breeding. Read about our latest campaigns to find out more.

Time for training

Now is the ideal time to book in some training for your puppy or dog. Secure your place on one of our reward-based classes today.

Check out our Dog School