The enjoyable process of selecting a new family member
By Tom Davis
From the moment you decide that the time is right to the day you bring home the newest member of the family—from conception to delivery, if you will—picking a puppy is one of the most rewarding endeavors you will ever engage in. It’s a process, really, an extended series of interrelated acts that have a little of everything: anticipation, excitement, apprehension, the fear of failure, even the thrill of the chase. Think of it as puppy “hunting,” and you get the idea.
Like hunting, too, picking a puppy is supremely enjoyable —but it’s also serious business. A puppy represents a tremendous commitment of time, money, energy and, last but by no means least, emotional capital. Not just during the first few months, either; Lord willing, that pup is going to be a huge part of your life for the next 10 to 15 years. As they say at the poker table, when you buy a pup, you go “all in.”
And as with most investments, the decisions you make early in the game are the ones that will most profoundly affect the ultimate payoff.
Your first decision, of course, is the choice of breed. In the words of Bob West, the eminent professional trainer who is among the most knowledgeable, experienced and respected figures in the gundog world: “I always advise prospective puppy buyers to step way back and ask themselves some pretty basic questions: Is this going to be a house dog or an ‘outside’ dog? Do I want a small dog, a large dog or something in between? Do I intend to hunt waterfowl, upland birds or a combination of both? Would I be better served by a pointing breed, a flushing breed or a retrieving breed?
“Once you have determined the answers to these questions, you’ll be in position to zero in on the breed that makes the most sense for you. You should never forget that when you buy a puppy, you’re making a 10-to-12-year commitment, so you need to start out with a very clear idea of what you’re looking for.”
Reams of copy have been devoted to the subject of choosing the breed that’s “right for you.” The topic is vastly beyond the scope of this article and is bound up with all sorts of aesthetic and even romantic issues in addition to the functional concerns. It’s been observed that if you boiled it down to pure functionality, you could cover all of the bases with just two breeds: the Labrador retriever and the pointer. By that same calculus, there’s no wingshooting situation that can’t be handled by a 12-gauge autoloader with interchangeable chokes. But who wants to live in a world with only one choice in smoothbores and two in gundogs?
The point being: It’s OK to leave yourself a little wiggle room to factor in personal preferences and, in particular, the matter of style.
Having said this, there are several excellent reference volumes you can consult for sound, basic, objective information. At the very least they’ll help you narrow your focus and develop a “short list” of the breeds in contention. If I had to pick just one, it would be The Encyclopedia of North American Sporting Dogs (Willow Creek Press), which includes detailed profiles of all of the relevant pointing, flushing and retrieving breeds (even some pretty obscure ones) along with insights from such acknowledged authorities as Ben O. Williams, Steve Smith and the late Bob Wehle. Another excellent reference is Gun Dog Breeds (Lyons Press), by longtime Shooting Sportsman contributor Charles Fergus; a third, also from Lyons, is The Ultimate Hunting Dog Reference Book, by Vickie Lamb.
As sympathetic as I am to the idea that this shouldn’t be approached with the kind of scientific rigor you’d bring to bear on an engineering problem, I’m willing to state for the record that if you decide on a non-mainstream breed, you’d better have a darned-good reason for doing so. (I didn’t know Michael McIntosh well, but in one of our few exchanges he shared his impression that the less someone knows about dogs, the more likely he is to be attracted to the rara avises of the canine world.) There isn’t a thing wrong with Nova Scotia duck-tolling retrievers, Spinones or Clumber spaniels—just to mention a few breeds you don’t encounter very often afield—but if you opt to go in that direction, you should have, again, a very clear picture of what the different breeds bring to the table. And what they don’t.
To put it another way: You need to understand what their “skill set” is and adjust your expectations accordingly. Expecting your dog to perform tasks its breed wasn’t developed to perform is terribly unfair to the dog. You’re not only setting up the dog for failure; you’re setting up your entire relationship for failure.
The ironic twist to all of this is that, as a general rule, the overall quality of less-popular breeds tends to be higher than that of the more popular ones. Popularity in dogs is a double-edged sword, as the demand for the “product” opens the door to breeders whose motives are mercenary and whose standards are suspect—to the extent that they have any standards at all.
Which is to say that if you’re inclined toward a popular breed like the Lab, the golden, the Brittany or the German shorthair—all of which have a lot to recommend them—you’ll have to vet your prospects more thoroughly than if you’re leaning toward, for example, a Chesapeake, an English cocker or an Irish setter.
This brings us to the dictum that, during the past 25 to 30 years, has been repeated so often it’s become a virtual mantra: Pick the litter, not the puppy. Or, to paraphrase the living legend Delmar Smith: Don’t pick the puppy; pick the puppy’s parents.
I think of it as the Iceberg Principle: 90 percent of your effort, if not more, should be devoted to behind-the-scenes stuff—researching bloodlines, kennels and breeders and identifying those that have a proven track record of producing the kind of dog you have in mind. Ten percent of your effort, if not less, should be devoted to selecting the individual pup.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this. If you asked 100 top-notch dog people whether they’d rather have the last choice from a conscientiously bred litter or the first choice from an indifferently bred one, the vote likely would be unanimous in favor of the former. The record books are filled with examples of “leftover” pups from well-bred litters that went on to fill game bags, make memories and even write history.
“My advice is always to get a pup out of the best bloodlines you can afford,” said Tom Dokken (www.dokkensoakridge kennels.com), the highly regarded pro who is familiar to many as the inventor of the DeadFowl retrieving dummy. “I like to say that when you buy the best, you only cry once.”
As the old-timers used to say, it costs as much to feed a “potlicker” as it does a world-beater.
Dokken puts a spin on this that I hadn’t heard before but that makes a hell of a lot of sense: “I hear a lot of guys say ‘I’m not that serious a hunter; I don’t need a really good dog.’ My response to that is: ‘So you’re saying that you don’t need a dog with the brains to catch on quickly to training and the natural ability to make your hunting as successful and enjoyable as it can be?’
“I’d argue that the weekend hunter needs a dog out of top bloodlines even more than the serious hunter does. If you hunt only once in a while, you want a dog that’s ready to perform at a high level right out of the box, not one that spends half the day re-learning everything he’s supposed to know. That’s a luxury you can’t afford.”
Bob West echoes this. “You want to stack the deck on the side of maximum genetic potential,” he said. “The more things that pup’s equipped to do genetically, the smoother it all goes—training, hunting, the whole ball of wax.”
Just to give you an example of what we’re talking about, I own a smallish orange-speckled English setter by the name of Tina. She’s a sweetheart, and I daresay that most of the folks who’ve hunted over her (including Bob West) would tell you that she’s an awfully nice dog—a classy little bird-finder who covers the ground, goes to the right places and looks good doing it.
But here’s the thing: The first time I laid eyes on Tina was when I took delivery of her from a friend of the breeder’s. (The breeder lived in Maryland at the time, I live in Wisconsin, and the friend brought the pup to Michigan.) Was it the ideal scenario? Of course not. But I knew her bloodlines, I knew that her sire and dam were both tremendous performers and producers, and while I didn’t know the breeder personally, a mutual friend whose opinion I trust—and who knows what I like in a bird dog—assured me that he was the “real deal,” a person motivated by a sincere desire to produce superior dogs and (hopefully) improve the breed.
My conversations with the breeder only reinforced this impression, the upshot being that I had no concerns whatsoever that my puppy might not have the right stuff. Whether I had the right stuff as her owner, trainer and partner, on the other hand, worried the hell out of me . . . .
So how do you pick the right litter? Well, as Bob West put it, “If you’ve hunted with dogs you like, find out where they came from and go there. Otherwise, you need to drill down and look for the bloodlines that have consistently produced field-trial and hunt-test winners. That tells you not only that the pups will have the inherited characteristics necessary to make good hunters, but also that they’ll have the intelligence to take training and display the appropriate learned behaviors.
“One of the reasons I’m such a fan of NAVHDA [the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association] is that you can look up any sire or dam in the system and find his or her performance and production records. That cuts the element of chance out of the equation.”
If you don’t have a sire, dam or specific bloodline in mind, you need to go into full-blown intelligence-gathering mode, picking the brains of anyone and everyone who’s in a position to provide useful information: fellow sportsmen, professional trainers, veterinarians, shooting-preserve operators, field-trialers, the list goes on. The Internet can help you locate kennels and breeders, but keep in mind that it’s also the greatest boon ever invented for con artists, flimflam men and people who simply want to portray themselves as something they’re not. If you’ve seen the movie Catfish, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
The goal is to find a breeder you trust and feel a rapport with, one who understands what you’re looking for in a puppy and is confident that he or she has a litter coming up or already on the ground that will fill the bill. If possible, you should visit the kennel and “meet the parents,” too, or at least the dam if she was bred to a sire off-site. If you’re not impressed, whether by the facilities, the dogs or the people, beat a hasty but polite retreat and take your search elsewhere.
When it comes to actually picking your pup, the consensus is that you should try to look at the litter more than once—and that you should look for a pup that’s in the middle of the pack in terms of its size and temperament. You probably don’t want the most aggressive pup in the litter, but that’s preferable to a pup that seems especially shy or timid.
As Tom Ness (www.oahekennels.com), the breeder and trainer of national champion cocker spaniels, put it in his characteristically blunt fashion, “I want a bold, friendly, outgoing pup—no wallflowers.”
Ness likes to toss a wing, glove or even a washcloth and see how the pups react. “I look for a pup that really gets after it,” he said, “and the more animated they are, the better.”
Tom Dokken, who’s a retriever guy first and foremost, echoes this. “I like to toss a wing,” he said, “and if the pup wants to bring it back, great. But as long as he has the desire to possess it, I’m satisfied that he has what it takes.”
Some breeders of pointing dogs like to show off their pups by inducing them to point a “wing on a string.” My take on this is that while I’d tend to lean a little toward a pup that points a wing, it’s neither a deal-maker nor a deal-breaker. One of the strongest bird-finders I’ve owned, an English setter named Zack, had no more inclination to point a wing than he did to write poetry.
One thing that is a deal-breaker is a pup that avoids eye contact. Said West, “A pup that won’t look you in the eye is like a person who won’t look you in the eye. You don’t want anything to do with either of ’em.”
A pup that won’t take its eyes off of you, on the other hand, is one that deserves your utmost consideration. It’s absolutely the case that sometimes the puppy picks you.
For the record, no one I know in the gundog world thinks much of the oft-repeated suggestion that you should roll a puppy onto its back, hold it down with your hand and, if it doesn’t stop struggling after a few seconds, eliminate it from contention for being too willful and hard-headed. Nor do they get all wrapped up in the whole “49-day” thing—the notion, popularized and propagated by Richard Wolters, that the 49th day of a puppy’s life is the day to remove it from its littermates and introduce it to its human family. In Ness’s words: “I’ve never seen anything in nature that’s always the same, and that includes the 49th day always being the best day for a pup to go to its new home.”
The ideal “window” for getting a pup, most agree, is between seven and nine weeks. That’s when the pup’s ready to leave its littermates and, as Dokken put it, “start turning into a person.” Having said this, however, as long as the pup is well-socialized and interacting with people on a regular basis (a given, assuming you’re dealing with the kind of breeder you should be dealing with), getting your pup a week earlier than that or two to three weeks later isn’t going to make a lot of difference—certainly not enough to get your knickers in a twist about.
It goes without saying that your pup should be free of parasites—both internal (worms) and external (fleas)—and that it should have received the appropriate inoculations. All reputable breeders—again, the only kind you should be dealing with—offer some kind of health guarantee, and while the specifics of this may vary, the important thing is that they’re clearly spelled out and understood by both parties to the transaction.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much covers it. All you can do is eliminate as many variables as possible and, as Bob West says, try to “stack the deck” in your favor. Beyond that you just have to ante up, play the cards you’re dealt and let the chips fall where they may.
Tom Davis is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.