The opportunity to discuss puppies is sweet reward to a guy who loves retrievers to a fault. With four dogs already in my kennel, I don't need a new puppy, but I can help you zero in on the next winning retriever.
The process of picking a puppy has less to do with the breed than it does the breeding. A number of quality breeds are capable of satisfying the need for a fetching dog. Everyone has a favorite breed, so I'm not going to recommend one breed over another. Instead, I want to discuss methods to help hunters avoid the common pitfalls associated with selecting a pup.
The No. 1 consideration in choosing a puppy is selecting dogs from good breeding stock.
"When both parents are capable and proven hunters, the offspring produced have the correct genetic characteristics to excel just like their parents have excelled," said Ron Taber, a breeder of pointing labs in Sand Lake, Mich.
"An accidental breeding or breeding that was poorly matched can and does create young dogs who are starting life with a toolbox that's half empty. The problem is, to the untrained eye, these genetic shortcomings are not obvious or easily avoided."
All puppies are adorable, and it is easy to get caught up in the emotions associated with visiting and handling young dogs. It is critical to stay focused on the task of selecting a pup and working toward the goal of choosing the best of the best.
Good breeding produces dogs with capable hunting instincts, and also ensures that vital physical and emotional characteristics such as eyesight, enthusiasm, drive and the desire to please are present. I can't emphasize enough that researching the best breeding is the fast track to making sure puppies have all the tools they need to become capable hunters and long-term hunting companions.
Searching for a litter of puppies from parents that are both accomplished hunters weeds out the majority of the litter options. This simple step removes breeders who are breeding dogs for money instead of the love of hunting and hunting dogs.
"One of the easiest ways to determine if the parents are capable hunters is to check to see if both parents have competed in and excelled at standardized hunting challenges, including field trials and hunt tests," recommends Bruce Denton of Pine River Kennels in Tustin, Mich. "These events require dogs to meet a specific standard that in turn allows a hunter to accurately evaluate a specific dog's skills in the field. The dogs that excel at these events are also top candidates for breeding. When two outstanding dogs are bred, the offspring are nearly always top-drawer pups!"
If a breeder has not participated in field trials or hunt tests, an alternative is to watch the parents actually hunt. Game preserves make it possible to drop a dog on the ground in bird-rich habitat at almost any time of year. If this option isn't possible, ask if the breeder has some video of the dogs in hunting situations. One way or the other, it's important to confirm that not just one, but both parents are qualified hunters with considerable genetic strengths to add to the mix.
Breed two great dogs and the results are potentially going to be great puppies. The key word is "potentially," because without being properly socialized, even dogs from a great breeding can turn into nervous, high-strung and difficult individuals. From birth, it is critical to handle each and every puppy so the dogs get used to the touch, feel and smell of humans.
Socialization should start slowly, with a little daily handling. By the time the dogs are five weeks old, each pup should get considerable attention, copious amounts of interactive play and the opportunity to be handled by numerous people.
If this critical socialization process is not performed, the dogs are at risk of becoming anti-social and potentially very difficult to train and handle. Avoid any litter of puppies that has not been correctly socialized and exposed to people often in a non-threatening environment.
MAKE MULTIPLE VISITS
The typical hunter visits a litter of puppies, plays with them awhile and makes a purchase decision on the spot. But it is hard to determine specific personality traits in puppies by watching them for only a few minutes. Worse yet, these tendencies change as the dogs mature. One week can make a huge difference in the development of a puppy.
A better approach is to be patient on the purchase decision and to visit the puppies several times over a period of a week or more before picking a pup. By five weeks, most pups are very active and interacting with their littermates constantly. Between the fifth and seventh weeks, the personality of individual dogs becomes abundantly apparent.
Making a personality decision on a five-week-old pup is a slippery slope. By the time the pup is six or seven weeks, temperament traits are easier to isolate and quantify. Desirable traits become obvious, and less desirable traits also manifest. For example, overly aggressive pups are likely to grow into hardheaded adult dogs. Pups that are overly meek are just as undesirable because they will not have the drive, determination and self-confidence to push through difficult training tasks and high-pressure situations.
Watching the dogs develop over even a short period makes it much easier to see reoccurring personality or temperament traits.
Puppy buyers tend to gravitate toward the larger dogs in the litter. Ironically, the smaller dogs are often easier to handle, require less food and leave smaller piles of waste in the backyard. Even a small-framed (50-pound) Lab is capable of picking up the largest Canada goose and retrieving it without hesitation. A small dog is also easier to conceal while hunting and easier to get in and out of a duck boat or blind.
On average, larger dogs suffer more from joint and muscle injuries. Because a large dog has to move more mass, they tend to become fatigued and potentially overheated more rapidly on long retrieves compared to medium or smaller dogs.
By the time the pups are five weeks old, differences in size start to become apparent. While it is impossible to look at a puppy and accurately guess adult weight, it is possible to determine the relative size the dog is likely to attain. Breaking this down into dogs that are small, medium or large in size is a good way to help pick a pup that is best suited to individual family life.
A person who lives in an apartment or modest home is going to be better suited with a small or medium-sized dog, compared to the proverbial bull in a china shop. Keep in mind that the typical hunting dog will spend far more time lying on the living room floor than chasing ducks.
Even at the tender age of five, six or seven weeks, puppies are already showing natural hunting instincts.
"Good breeders often use a pheasant or duck wing or a live pigeon to test puppies to see how curious and attracted individual dogs are to movement and bird scent," Denton said. "If the breeder doesn't have these valuable puppy-testing tools available, bring your own and test the litter to see which dogs are attracted to bird scent and which ones are indifferent."
Denton suggests starting with the litter grouped together and using a bird wing tied to a string and stick to tease the pups and observe the reaction. Eliminate dogs that show no reaction to the bird wing. Among the pups that react to the bird wing, try to evaluate which have a casual interest and which are fixated on the movement of the wing or the scent of the wing.
This simple test is not just to see which dogs are birdy, but can be useful in determining the ones that have natural marking skills, which are invaluable in a dog used for duck and goose hunting. Good marking skills are a natural trait that some dogs have and others never completely develop. The test can be the difference between picking a dog that routinely marks 200-yard drops and one that struggles to mark 100-yard retrieves.
Dogs are pack animals — just like wolves — and throughout their lives, these animals are in a constant struggle to determine dominance within their pack. Even after a puppy has been selected by a family and removed from the litter, the dominance issues continue. You can take a puppy away from its pack, but you can never take the pack instinct away from the dog. Essentially when you select a puppy, it is forced to substitute to become part of your new family pack.
Puppies in the litter form a pecking order that's relatively clear to see by the time the dogs are five weeks old. At the top of the heap, a larger and more aggressive puppy runs the show. At the bottom of the pile, typically a smaller and more docile pup takes its position in the pecking order. In between are pups of various strength and desire to be dominant.
It's generally accepted that the dominant pup in any litter is going to be a handful. Dominant dogs are strong-willed, stubborn and difficult for novice or inexperienced dog trainers to handle.
The least dominant dog in the litter is also a poor choice. Lack of dominance characteristics creates a dog that is meek to a fault and has little drive and determination.
Pups in the middle of the pecking order tend to have the right combination of drive and determination, tempered by a natural desire to please. These pups will be easier to train and will advance through training efforts more seamlessly than a dominant pup.
MALE OR FEMALE?
There is no credible evidence that male dogs are better hunters than females, or that females are easier to train than males.
Both male and female dogs are capable of becoming coveted hunting dogs. Choosing a male or a female boils down to personal choice and has little to do with the performance the dog is likely to deliver in the field.
It's also a misrepresentation to characterize a dog's adult size by sex. A lot of female dogs grow larger than male dogs. The size a dog eventually grows into has less to do with sex than it does genetics.
Obviously, a female dog is going to eventually come into heat unless the dog is spayed. The timing of this heat cycle can and does impact the ability to hunt the dog around other dogs.
Male dogs, on the other hand, have the annoying trait of marking their territory by urinating on everything in sight. Take your pick — both male and female dogs have pros and cons.
Credible breeders guarantee the health of the pups. Avoid any breeder who can't provide documentation that both parents are free from genetic vision and chronic hip dysplasia problems.
Also, avoid a breeder who isn't willing to allow you to take a selected pup to your vet for a complete health exam. The purchase agreement should be pending the pup's passing a complete physical by a vet of your choosing.
When visiting a breeder, ask how the litter came to be. Ideally, that conversation will confirm that the breeder has selected outstanding dogs to match up.
Also, ask if this is the first litter of the parents or if the pair bred successfully in the past.
Ask for references from past customers, and take the time to visit with those references and see those dogs in action.
Ask to see both parent dogs, and insist on seeing critical health documentation for eyesight and hip dysplasia.
DON'T BE PRESSURED
Picking a puppy is a personal, complex decision that should not be made in haste or because the breeder is applying pressure. Breeders who use pressure tactics are obviously more interested in the financial return than making sure you are satisfied with the puppy.
The dog you select will most likely be a long-term member of your family. Take your time. Research breeders who specialize in your breed of choice, pick from breeders who are matching up only the most outstanding male and female dogs, visit the pups several times before making a decision, test the dogs for birdiness and be sure the pups are well socialized. Once you've decided on an individual pup, don't make payment until the dog has passed a physical performed by your vet.
Make the best choice possible, and then let the joys of puppy training begin.
Mark Romanack and his kennel of waterfowl retrievers reside in Tustin, Mich.