When I started training hunting dogs four decades ago, the general belief was waterfowl dogs should be big or they simply couldn’t get the job done. This meant that a lot of the Labs I worked with (especially males) approached the 100-pound range. As far as most hunters were concerned at the time, size certainly mattered.
Today, not-so-much. At least, not as much.
Most of the gun dogs out there these days range anywhere from 50 to 75 pounds, depending largely on whether we’re talking about males or females. This is due to one main reason: our dogs have evolved from being outdoor kennel dwellers to indoor couch sleepers. It’s a rare day to run across a duck dog that doesn’t also double as a house dog.
Even knowing that, there are still plenty of us who believe a big dog is the way to go because, theoretically, they’ll be able to handle harsher conditions and larger, goose-sized retrieves better than their smaller counterparts.
I’m not knocking larger dogs, far from it. I like solid, stout, athletic dogs and if they run a little larger than their littermates, that’s not a problem. But, size isn’t what I look for when choosing a puppy and I too want the dog that will bring me geese all day long and brave two-foot waves to retrieve big-water divers.
The dogs that can do that, and much, much more, are the dogs bred for top-notch hunting desire. I push the importance of pedigree to death, because it matters the most. If you want a dog that can handle a 10-pound honker, you’ve got to have a dog that is driven to complete such a task, not only in the field, but through countless training sessions.
I’ve seen 90-pound male Labs that couldn’t fathom retrieving a bird the size of a Canada goose, just as I’ve witnessed 50-pound females with drive to spare grab honkers all day long and bring them to my blind. It’s all about drive, and if a bird dog has it, you’ll find they can handle whatever you ask of them provided you’ve built the foundation for the tasks through proper training.
Just what type of training is proper is up for a little debate, but not much. It has to be the kind of training that allows any dog, regardless of size, to develop confidence in what it is being asked of it. Physically, just about any dog could swim through rough water long enough to conduct several typical-distance retrieves, but a dog that has never jumped into the waves is going to have a much harder time because it’s a new experience. Size doesn’t make a dog more willing to work through new situations, but hunting desire and drive does.
Now, if you prefer good-sized dogs and are willing to do the research to find a genetic rock star, then you can narrow down your focus.
I've heard dozens, if not hundreds, of ways for evaluating puppies over the years. The problem with these various tests, is that they involve looking at a puppy or observing demeanor and then making predictions for the dog’s future temperament and personality based on virtually nothing.
You can’t do this with any degree of real accuracy any more than you could walk into a hospital nursery and decide which newborns will end up with a college football scholarship or become a neurosurgeon in their 20s. You could, provided you met the parents of those babies, make an educated guess on some level of athleticism or intelligence. And likelihood of size.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. If you want a big duck dog, take a look at mom and dad and if at all possible, grandma and grandpa. If the dogs that produced a litter are both bigger than average, there is a solid chance the pups will be as well.
You might also be able to see some variance in size with puppies in the same litter, but a lot of times they’ll all be very similarly sized. If you do see a good discrepancy and there is one fuzzy giant in the mix, that’s probably the pup you should pick if size matters to you.
Again, I can’t stress this enough, this should only be taken into consideration after you’ve sussed out the best possible bloodlines for the kind of hunting and house dog you want.
If you’re looking for a Lab that is big enough to be mistaken for a Shetland pony, there are a few other considerations to make involving health. Puppies grow at a rapid pace, and that means it’s possible to run into tissue and joint issues. This is especially true if you ask your dog to jump into and out of the back of your truck or to run long distances on concrete or paved trails.
Dogs are tough, but young joints can only handle so much pounding, which is no more true than when you’re dealing with a dog that has a decent amount of body mass. This is not only an issue with fast-growing puppies, of course, and can affect mature dogs as well.
Another small consideration for anyone who is puppy shopping is the cost of feeding a big dog versus a smaller one. A 100-pounder is going to need more calories than one that tips the scales at 55, so the owner of the bigger canine will end up spending quite a bit more on dog food. For most duck hunters, who have no qualms against spending copious amounts of cash on calls, blinds, boats, decoys and all of the other waterfowl accouterments, the dog food bill isn’t probably much of a consideration, but it could be.
Size might matter to you, and that’s fine. Just don’t let your desire for a big retriever get in the way of the more important traits—drive, athleticism and brains. If you do your research correctly (or enlist the help of a pro for this step) and you’re comfortable that the litters you’ve found are chock full of potential-laden puppies, then you’ll have a dog that can do everything you will ever ask of it in the field and on the water, regardless of size.