We've all heard stories about picking a retrieving pup from a farmhouse litter that turned into a world-class hunting dog. Such tales endear themselves to us. Who doesn't love a rags to riches story? But the reality is for every success there are countless failures.
Picking a puppy is a gamble, and if you don't do everything in your power to stack the odds in your favor then you are likely to lose.
There is no other way around it. If you're thinking about a new four-legged addition to the family, focus on bloodlines first and forget about everything else. Without proper pedigree, you could be setting fire to a big chunk of cash, and suffer through years of frustration.
The reason I place such importance on pedigree is because instincts, intelligence, and pure ability can all be passed down from generation to generation. It's not very romantic, but in essence, pre-pup research should focus on the fact you're buying a piece of paper more than a puppy. Let me explain.
Most of us are not qualified to look at a litter of pups and recognize innate bird hunting talent, nor can we look at the mother or father of the litter and decide they have passed down the magic formula. It's just not possible.
I can't tell you how many times someone has said to me they picked a puppy because of its behavior when they went to look at a litter. Things like, "he just tugged and tugged on my shoelaces," or "she laid right down and let me rub her belly without protest" come to mind. Choosing a puppy based on a seven-week-olds behavior is like looking at a newborn flailing his arms and deciding he is destined to be an NFL quarterback.
A better bet is to engage in serious research while focusing on a specific list of questions that require the right answer before making the commitment. For starters, decide what you plan to do with the dog. Are you going to hunt big water with the pup? Or perhaps endeavor to win a pile of blue ribbons at field trials? Both?
Either way, you'll need the best dog possible. However, what if you plan to duck hunt only a few weekends a year? This type of hunter needs a good dog as well, in fact, this type of hunter often needs a phenomenal dog to keep sharp in the long periods between hunts.
Essentially, every one of us should try to find the best puppy possible. Unfortunately, those often have the highest price tags. But the difference between a well-bred pup and a farmhouse gamble can be $300 or $400. In other words, spend as much as you can afford. Bargain shopping for pups is like cheaping out on waders.
Digging into specific litters will uncover certain breeding and pedigree aspects you should be aware of. No matter what breed you're looking for, you need to make sure there are guarantees on its health. Hips, eyes, elbows, and EIC (Exercise Induced Collapse), should all be tested and cleared.
Dig further into a litter's history and you'll notice (or should) initials in front of the parent's, grandparent's, and great grandparent's names. For example, you might see FC (Field Champion) or NFC (National Field Champion) or CNFC (Canadian National Field Champion). All of those are good.
You may also see MH (Master Hunter), SH (Senior Hunter), or JH (Junior Hunter). Again, all are good and what's important to remember is even if you never plan to compete with your dog, you still want a pedigree that includes field trial champions or master hunters. You will be buying a dog out of proven stock, which is very important.
Field trial and hunt test competitors have a high degree of desire and trainability and should catch on to commands quickly. This is desirable in a puppy, although it goes far beyond hunting-specific qualities. A well-bred, intelligent dog, will take to housebreaking quicker, and train easier.
It's important to note you can do all the research in the world and still end up with a block-headed dud of a dog. There are no guarantees, which is why it's best to attempt to stack the odds in your favor. Keep an eye out for those initials that appear in front of a dog's name. Some will have a CH.
This signifies a show dog or show-related accomplishments and doesn't have anything to do with field trials. There is a big difference between what is required of a show dog and a hunting dog.
As a professional trainer, there is nothing tougher than when someone brings a dog to me that is supposed to be a hunting machine, yet lacks the desire to retrieve or hunt. It is extremely difficult to try to instill a greater level of retrieving or hunting desire in a dog, because what is not there may never be.
It's much easier to rein in a dog with an exceptional amount of retrieving instinct or natural hunting ability to meet the needs of the owner.
To ensure the desire to retrieve, hunt, and be a good, trainable companion, spend your time looking into litters. Pay attention to the accomplishments of the parents, and more importantly, the grandparents and great grandparents to decide if the pups in the litter are likely to operate at the level you wish. Soon enough, all of those initials will start to make sense and the right combination will present itself to you.
After that, don't be afraid to spend a little extra cash. After all, whatever the extra expense is will quickly be offset by ease of training, and far more successful days in the duck blind. And that, as we all know, is priceless.