Picking a gun dog puppy. The writer Charles Fergus called it "the burden of choice." Truth is, if you pick the right breeder ahead of time that moment standing over the whelping box doesn’t have to be as nerve racking and difficult as some might have you believe.
In fact, determining what type of dog - retriever or pointer -- you want to share the field with for the next decade or so is actually a tougher decision. Regardless of what breed you deem right for you, know that the gun dog of a lifetime all starts with a suitable sire and dam.
Occasionally, some pretty good gun dogs are born from backyard litters of unpapered, unproven dogs. But consistently good hunting dogs come from dedicated breeders who’ve invested a large portion of their time and money developing a particular line. And that’s really what you end up paying for, that expertise and a proven track record of consistency.
Sporting dog enthusiasts remain at odds as to what exactly constitutes the greatness of a particular line. Some breeders rely on all the ribbons, trophies, and titles associated with field trials and hunt tests. Others, such as the setters of Old Hemlock fame, are strictly hunting dogs.
Titles are a desirable thing; just don’t go overboard. Too often you hear stories of the casual foot-hunter who plunks down a small fortune on a puppy with bloodlines better than his own -- championship bloodlines -- only later to find himself hopelessly over-dogged.
That is not to say the average hunter has no business owning a puppy from championship lines. On the contrary, titles and hunt test ratings demonstrate a dog’s athletic ability, trainability, and overall intelligence. But think of field trial champions as a lot like thoroughbred horses. It’s hard to justify owning one if weekend trail rides at the dude ranch are the only action you ever show them.
The breeder should have a pedigree to show you. More important than titles and hunt test qualifications is make certain the sire and dam - and preferably a couple generations back -- both have OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) and CERF (Canine Eye Registration Foundation) ratings. This indicates a healthy line, which helps prevent heartbreak later on.
Ask the breeder if they hunt their dogs; you’d be amazed how many don’t. Ideally, they should hunt the same kind of game birds in the same kind of cover as you. It’s a bad idea to try and make a woodcock and grouse dog out of a puppy that’s been bred to run sharptails and Huns on the wide-open prairie. Also, go visit the sire and/or dam. Doing so enables you to witness their style, drive, and conformation firsthand. If it’s too far to travel, ask to see a video. Many breeders already supply them. Videos lend something pedigrees and still photos don’t.
Breeders commonly talk up their dogs, but the good ones aren’t bashful about their line’s pitfalls. Top breeders have waiting lists for their pups. They don’t badmouth others in the business. In fact, if you decide a match just isn’t there, don’t be surprised if they steer you to "the competition."
Finally, after checking all breeder references and narrowing it down to one, go ahead and tell them exactly the kind of dog you want. Tell them whether you’re looking for a male or female, a hard-charger, or something more subdued. After spending seven weeks with the litter, the breeder will know better than you the temperament of each puppy in the lot, which may make the final choice that much easier.
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Before turning to freelancing fulltime, Bob Butz was the managing editor for The Pointing Dog Journal and The Retriever Journal. He writes lifestyle, interview, and sporting articles for numerous publications. Just recently, his by-line has appeared in such publications as Sports Afield, GQ, New York Times, BOOK Magazine, and Land Rover Journal. He teamed up with photographer Lee Kjos to complete the book -- Season’s Belle: A Labrador Retriever’s First Year -- from Silver Quill Press.