March 25, 2023
By Tom Dokken
Waterfowl seasons across much of the country are coming to a close. Much of the far northern water is iced up, and even the southern reaches of the migration are facing the inevitable end to another year of duck hunting.
This is the time when a lot of us deal with cleaning and packing away our gear. It’s also the time when a lot of us look to our retrievers and do a little mental math on how many more years of hunting they might have left.
While we might not want to face the reality of an aging retriever, that doesn’t make it disappear. At some point all of us need a new puppy, but the big question is always—when? When should you bring in a fresh recruit to start the training process over so you never have to face a season without a capable duck dog?
Timing It Right
Getting a new puppy is obviously a personal decision, so I’ll start with my rules. I like to start a new pup when my primary retriever hits the age of eight. I figure an eight-year-old retriever has two solid years of hunting left, before the inevitable decline. I also, not coincidentally, figure that it’ll take me two years to really round out a new puppy training-wise. My biggest fear, always, is that I’ll enter a duck season without a dog that knows how to be steady and perform the duties necessary to ensure we don’t lose cripples, or miss out on great hunting because my dog power is lacking.
While those are my thoughts on the whole thing, I also see a lot of people do something totally different. They wait until their retriever is 10 or 11, or even passed away, and then they start looking for a new pup. The problem here is that going from an old dog to a puppy is a shock to just about everyone.
This is true for your home life, but also true for your hunting life.
Some people go the other way with it, and get a pup when they have a young dog already. This is usually a recipe for rough training sessions, and can result in having two dogs aging out at the same time.
Worse than that, in my opinion (far worse), is getting two puppies at once. This is a scenario that almost never, ever works out for anyone. The pups bond to one-another, and having two of them at the same time makes training nearly impossible.
The best bet to avoid nightmare scenarios is to consider all of this well before you really need to. If you have a prime-age retriever, be honest about the amount of good years left and what it’s going to take for you to get a puppy trained to a comfortable hunting level. Then, you need to consider yearly timing on when to get your new recruit.
The big thing to think about when you’re shopping for a new pup is how soon you’ll need it for hunting, and what the availability of your chosen litter(s) should be. I urge people to give themselves a lot of time for this task, because well-bred dogs are rarely available on short notice. Now I know everyone knows someone who picked up a $50 dog from a farmer or at the pound that turned out to be the best retriever in three states, but those stories are the exception, and not the rule.
You will want good blood, for health reasons, trainability, and hunting instincts. Good blood isn’t everywhere, so the litters that contain it, usually have some waiting period. You might need to drop a deposit down on a litter that won’t even be conceived for six months or more. Factor this into your thought process, because it’s better to plan ahead than to settle for a pup later because you need one.
You’ll also want to think about whether you need a late-winter pup because you plan to hunt with it this season, or a whenever-pup that doesn’t need to be gun broke by September. If you need a pup to hunt with this fall, the earlier you can get him in the year, the better.
The Old-Dog Myth
Something else on this topic that is worth noting is the myth that old dogs train pups. This is more common in the upland fields than the duck blinds, but it is out there and it isn’t doing young dogs any favors. Your seasoned duck dog that is a hard charging eight-year-old definitely doesn’t look at your new puppy like it’s a pupil.
It looks at it like competition, and maybe a distraction. Two dogs are tough to handle, and they both deserve their own training. This goes back to the beginning of this article in that I want a dog that is so good and experienced that it only needs maintenance training when I introduce a pup. This is because the young dog is going to need a heck of a lot more than maintenance training. And there is only one creature who is going to train it, and it’s not my other dog.
It’s unfortunate that dogs don’t live as long as we do, but that’s just nature’s way. We get a couple years of foundational training, maybe six to eight years of really enjoyable hunting, and then it’s time to start over. That’s how it goes, and while there’s a lot of work involved in finding a new puppy and then getting it hunt-ready, it’s much better than suddenly finding yourself without a retriever worthy of sitting in the boat or blind next to you.