There is a lot to think about before deciding on a new pup, but there’s one thing above all else you need to remember—do not go look at a litter before doing your homework. A rolling pile of sausage-legged Labradors or sleepy-eyed golden retrievers can turn the toughest waterfowler into a mountain of mush. Even if your intention is only to look over a litter, odds are you will cave in to the cuteness. The pup you pick might turn out to be a duck-hunting machine, or a dud. Avoiding the washouts and selecting the perfect dog is a process.
Your first task is to make a list of intended purposes for your new friend. For example, will the dog double as a family pet when it’s not staring skyward from a duck blind? If it will, do you have kids or are you planning on expanding your family in the coming years? Is the dog going to hunt strictly waterfowl, or will it also need to point upland birds? The list can be as long as you want, but the goal is to narrow down exactly what you expect from the dog before going forward.
Regardless of breed, the No. 1 priority is to make sure you’re buying the best pedigree you can afford. Picking from the top bloodlines ensures a much better chance of getting a trainable and intelligent pup. Of course you want a pup that is highly trainable, because that makes your job easier when going through drills in order to piece together a perfect hunting machine. However, trainability in the field is just one aspect. Potty training, tricks for the kids, and obedience stems from lineage, and you want a pup that will quickly take to new commands and grasp what you’re asking of it.
To identify top pedigrees, look for the initials FC (Field Champion), AFC (Amateur Field Champion), NFC (National Field Champion), and NAFC (National Amateur Field Champion). I often hear from prospective puppy buyers that they don’t care about field champion heritage because their dog is not going to run field trials. On the surface this makes sense, but dig a little deeper and it doesn’t hold water. A dog that can earn a field champion title of any sort is highly trainable and must possess a decent level of intelligence.
Breeding pairs where both are field champions virtually ensures a litter of pups possessing those same traits, which is a win-win for anyone looking to turn one of those pups into a hardcore duck dog, a family pet, or both. You may also run into the initials JH (Junior Hunter), SH (Senior Hunter), or MH (Master Hunter). As with field champions, these hunter designations are a great indicator of the quality of pup you’re considering.
Bloodlines also nearly guarantee retrieving desire. You want a puppy that has a strong drive to pick up and carry things around in its mouth—namely birds. Your pup won’t know why it’s carrying random household objects around, but it will be a vital piece of the puzzle once you’re in the blind.
If the process of weeding through the various initials and bloodlines seems a bit daunting, consider using a breeder, trainer or other industry insider to point you in the right direction. Their expertise can clear up the process quickly and alleviate the headaches of making the proper choice.
Battle of the Sexes
Aside from settling on a breed, choosing a male or female is a major consideration. I have some general thoughts on both sexes, but nothing is a guarantee. Male puppies tend to mature slower than females, but also seem to be able to endure more discipline in most cases. Males are also a bit more rugged overall, so remember that if most of your hunting is done in extreme weather conditions. Somehow males have gained a reputation for making poor family pets, but in my experience this is completely false.
Since female puppies usually mature faster, it can make early training easier. They also require less discipline, but can have a softer personality, requiring a lighter touch. Keep in mind, if you do choose a female and don’t get her spayed she will come into heat, which can make for a long week.
Stuck in the middle
After nailing down a particular litter through bloodline research and deciding on the desired sex of the pup, it’s time to make the pick. Make sure if you’ve decided on a male, you only evaluate the male puppies, and vice versa for females. The puppies should be six to seven weeks old, the point at which they are developing individual personalities.
Spend time with the litter, take note of dominance, and keep an eye out for a middle-of-the-road puppy. This type of puppy will tend to be friendly, confident, and desire attention without being overbearing. Steer away from the most aggressive and shy pups. Overly aggressive puppies can be trained, but are best left to someone with extensive experience. Extremely shy puppies also require a well-qualified trainer because they tend to have socialization issues, presenting major challenges.
After evaluating all of the puppies and identifying the right one, ask the breeder about his feelings on the pup you’ve taken a liking to. Find out what he has to say in regards to the pup’s nature. The breeder is going to be familiar with the entire litter and tuned in to all their personalities.
There also may be other factors influencing the pup’s behavior at the exact time you’re evaluating him. For example, if you’re looking for a somewhat aggressive puppy, you may overlook a few that are snoozing away. This may seem like a no-brainer, but in reality that individual pup may have played hard with two or three families earlier in the day while they made their choice. Ask the breeder if anyone else has interacted with the puppies before you, and be specific in explaining exactly what traits you are looking for.
If it comes down to a few different litters, find out which have been exposed to families with children. Puppies raised around kids will be more adaptable and socially connected. This may not seem like a huge deal, but it’s another aspect that can make training much easier, and smooth over some of the inevitable speed bumps of introducing a new pup to your household.
In this day in age, with immeasurable amounts of information at our fingertips, it’s entirely possible you will find the perfect litter halfway across the country. If you’re confident your research is solid and the pup fits the criteria, consider making the purchase. This involves putting your faith in the breeder.
Before making the pick, communicate all of your desires so they know exactly what kind of dog you’re looking for. Go in-depth on temperament and personality, eliminating any confusion about the kind of pup you would like. There’s more risk in this method, but if you’ve done the homework and thoroughly communicated your desires, buying sight unseen can be the right option.
Picking a pup is supposed to be a fun experience, and it certainly can be. However, it’s also important to remember a dog is a serious commitment. It’s not something to be taken lightly. Conduct the proper research, take your time, and choose the pup that is going to offer you the best chance for overall training and hunting success, and if necessary, become the next member of your family. You won’t regret it,
In sheer volume, no breed is more popular than Labs, especially in the duck blind. Labs of all color phases dominate the waterfowl world for some very good reasons. For starters, Labs are highly trainable. This comes in handy for the professional trainer, but is better for amateurs looking to put in minimal time for maximum reward. Part of the ease in trainability is the overall personality of Labrador retrievers, which borders on manic hunting drive and overjoyed at the thought of waking up each day. They are great with children. For those looking to minimize coat maintenance, Labs are the perfect choice, but they do shed, and you’re house and truck will be full of dog hair. A small price to pay.
Lovable beyond belief, goldens might just be the most underrated duck dog out there, though they are a distant second to Labs. I know some die-hard waterfowlers who swear by goldens even in the harshest conditions. As family dogs, they are topnotch. If you’re in the market for a dual-purpose pooch, this might be the best choice. The downside to goldens is their coats are magnets for cockleburs, stickers, and general debris, which requires extra maintenance at the end of a hunt.
Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
Two or three decades ago, we used to train quite a few Chessies, but not so much anymore. Their reputation as nasty weather go-getters is sound, but it seems these days more and more folks are picking up Chessies for pure family dogs. It’s a tough call to give them a full-on endorsement for a family pet, because they can turn into a one-person dog, but that’s certainly not the rule.
This breed is also notorious for needing excessive pressure and discipline for training, which is untrue. In fact, going the opposite route through patience and repetition will result in a much better dog. Too much discipline and they will regress quickly, which is never good. Chessies also require a fair amount of coat maintenance, but if you routinely hunt harsh conditions, this is a breed you must consider.
Flats & Curlys
If you want to break from the norm, flat-coated or curly-coated retrievers are an option. I’m of the opinion that flat-coats should be more popular. They possess an excellent temperament and a high retrieving desire. Most are black, which might be why they have not broken into the mainstream. It seems if folks are going to choose a black dog, they opt for a Lab. The downside to flat-coats is their gene pool is somewhat limited given the breed’s rare stature. If you go the flat-coated route, conduct plenty of bloodline research.
You may have never seen a curly-coat, let alone considered purchasing one, but they do make excellent waterfowl dogs. Curly-coats can hunt upland birds as well, making them an option for a good dual-purpose dog. If you should take the plunge, expect to exhibit a serious amount of patience and repetition. while training your new pup.