The Younger The Better?

Few households with kids get by without the acquisition of a pet. For dog-loving homes, that almost invariably means a puppy. Why a puppy rather than, say, a shelter dog? (Not that you would shop for a hunting dog in a shelter — this is just an example.) It’s because humans believe pets “bond” with us.

puppy huntingWe can’t help ourselves. We’ve been weaned on movies like Walt Disney’s Incredible Journey, where an intrepid threesome of two dogs and a cat, separated from a family’s children, miraculously find their way home after weeks of wandering the wilderness. The movie’s culminating point is the arrival of all three pets over a hilltop, where, upon spying their owners, each runs to “their” child. It’s a tear-jerker if you’re a softie. It’s also total tripe.

If you’re considering owning your next hunting dog first as a puppy, get this through your head — dogs do not bond with humans. If you took a dog out of a home in which he’d been well-raised and put him in another safe and caring home, you would probably see some mopiness. I promise, this is not a dog pining away for his former masters. He can’t, because he simply doesn’t have the thought process to “miss” you or wonder when you’re coming back to get him. What you have is a dog uncomfortable in new surroundings, much as you were when you transferred to a new school as a kid. Give that “pining” dog a week or two; he’ll get over it.

That said, if you can get over the bonding issue, then you can ask again: “Do I want to start my next hunting dog as a puppy?” Well, there’s a lot to be said for taking in a pup, not the least of which is that they are tremendous amounts of fun, despite the puppy poop on the carpet and chewed chair legs along the way. These are memories you’ll hold dear, and the value of that shouldn’t be discounted.

But if your goal is making memories in the field, too, and you’ve decided a puppy is for you, move on to the next questions: How and when should I choose a pup?

Part of the answer to the first part — how — is to start anywhere but with the breeders. Breeders are trying to sell you something. You wouldn’t go to your car dealer these days without having read Consumer Reports, would you? No, Ralph Nader has never devoted his efforts to waterfowl gundog purchases (and Dr. Phil has no grip whatsoever on whether a litter of Chessies will or will not hunt), but there are sources to guide you in your purchase.

Start with the local field trial circuit. And before you begin with the protests, I’ve heard it all before. Time and again people say “but I don’t want/need the next world champion!” anytime the subject of field-trial dogs arises. Well, yes, yes you do. You may not want to actually compete your dog to such a title, but you absolutely want to choose a puppy that has that genetic potential. (Or at least as close as you can get. The truth: Most breeders who’ve built their reputations on winning dogs are going to keep the best pups for themselves. That’s how they maintain their reputations. What’s for sale to you is what’s leftover after the “cull,” so to speak.)

Start by talking with the people campaigning field-trial dogs. The NAHRA, AKC and versatile dog trials all have folks who compete seriously and know the winning lines in the current gene pool as well as they know their own phone numbers. Yes, many breeders are trainers and competitors, too, but the titles will speak for themselves. And those who are just trainers and not breeders can tell you which breeders you should consider.

Once you’ve narrowed the list of potential lines on the advice of outside sources who don’t have an interest in selling you something (it can even be from friends whose dogs you’ve hunted over, where you’ve witnessed their attitudes and abilities), then you’ll start to approach the breeders. Ask what dogs are currently being bred, when litters are due, how many puppies of those litters are spoken for, and which of those spoken for are males and females (if you have a preference). If you have your heart set on a specific litter and it’s already sold out, ask when the next breeding of that pair will take place — don’t be surprised to find litters from many reputable breeders spoken for more than a year ahead of time.

All other choices said and done, my final criteria for choosing a puppy is when I can take it home. I will always look for one that can go right after the first of the year. That way he’ll be old enough to hunt the coming season. I may not expect much out of him that first year, but I want him to have the experience. Birds make the dog, and a pup born in August loses a whole year of exposure, because at two, three or four months, he’s really too young to do anything but ride along — and with gunfire around, even that can do a whole lot more harm than good.

retriever trainingThe only other thing you need to know is that choosing a puppy is always a crap shoot. Even the best-bred dogs can end up with nothing worth leaving the front yard for. With a puppy, you’re betting on potential, and because most of us don’t have the heart to part with a dog that’s not working out (kids cry, wives cry, and he’s still your best friend), you have to live with that potential, gone right or wrong, for at least a decade. I’m not saying don’t place the bet, just be aware of the gamble.

Get Started

Most people don’t consider buying a hunting dog that’s not a puppy for one of two reasons — they think they need to bond, as discussed above, or they actually don’t know that it’s possible to buy a dog any other way. But it is. They are dogs known in the industry as “started,” and there are many advantages to considering one.

Probably the most important is that the started dog has already been taught some skills. Depending on the price, this can be anywhere from basic obedience to simple sighted line retrieves. Really, the potential is limited only by your wallet — you can buy one that not only has the beginning work completed, but one that’s been force-fetched, is doing blinds and has been introduced to the gun. In fact, you can buy a finished dog, and that’s not a bad move if you’re a good handler but not a good trainer yourself.

When shopping for a started dog, don’t let the prices shock you. Even a dog with just basic obedience can be a couple thousand dollars. But understand what’s behind the price tag before you go running back for the pup.

For whatever age dog you choose, your breeder/trainer has already invested all those months of his own funds in food, vet bills and what his normal training fees would be to a client who’d send a dog to him. These are all monies you would have paid had you started with a puppy. Now figure in the fair profit your breeder/trainer needs to stay in business. Could be a good deal. But are there other reasons to buy?

A started or finished dog is ideal if you have no place of your own to train (a normal suburban yard gets you only so far), or if you have no time. Make no mistake — getting a dog off on the right paw takes daily effort that first year. You have a job, a family, and other hobbies. Do you have that kind of time? More importantly, do you have the skills to teach a double blind, to get him comfortable swimming in swift waters, to teach him to mind his own business when there are other dogs around, or train him in the myriad other skills that must be taught? If you can’t answer yes to these, and if you aren’t willing to send your puppy off for six months to a year to a professional trainer because your family can’t take the separation, then a started or finished dog can be a very smart choice.

Another reason? When you choose a started/finished dog, you’ve eliminated all or most of the gamble that goes with a puppy. Your breeder/trainer will be able to physically demonstrate what the dog has already accomplished and can discuss his attitude and any problems/bright spots encountered along the way. Potential isn’t just potential anymore, it’s now realization. You will know what you’re paying for, rather than just hoping you’re getting your money’s worth. And if your time in the field with a dog matters to you like it does to me, that’s peace of mind worth buying.