Picking Your Next Best Friend
September 23, 2010
Professional breeders/trainers share insight on things you should keep in mind when you select your next puppy
Puppy Selection: A Complex Problem
"Pointing dogs," Hank said, "are for people who hunt mostly in the uplands. Anyone who hunts mostly quail, pheasants, ruffed grouse, or woodcock will really enjoy shooting over a pointing dog."
Hank feels the choice between a long and a shorthaired dog depends on how much time a person is willing to spend grooming and de-burring. Beyond that, breed choice is a highly individual matter. Each person should study the various breeds and then select the one that most appeals to him.
Range, according to Hank, is not as important as many people claim. This is especially true for those who will hunt their dog frequently and for long periods each day. Such dogs learn to shorten up and hunt at a more leisurely pace so as to conserve their energy for the long haul.
"You watch a field trial," Hank said, "and you think, 'Oh my, I don't want a dog that runs that far ahead.' But, remember, in a trial each dog only runs 30 to 60 minutes, and they're programmed to run big for that short period. Hunt one of those dogs hard for a few days and he'll shorten up nicely."
He recommends that a newcomer with little knowledge of how pointing dogs work should go to a professional trainer and ask to watch him work some of his dogs. That way he'll get to see dogs at various stages of training. Hank also recommends that such a person spectate at field trials, but only walking trials, where ranges are not extreme.
Once the person has picked the breed and type of worker he wants, he should look for breeders who regularly produce that kind of animal.
This tip is from Hank Rozanek of Rozanek Kennels. Hank has been training professionally for 38 years, specializing in pointing breeds, especially vizslas, for hunting and field trials. He competes in both AKC and American Field field trials, and has earned more titles than he can remember. He judges both AKC and American Field field trials and has judged many championship trials. He breeds vizslas.
"If you plan to have your dog professionally trained," Hank said, "you should contact a pro trainer and ask him to help you find a litter and select a puppy. The trainer, knowing he'll eventually get the dog to train, will steer you in the right direction. Even if you don't plan to have your dog professionally trained, a trainer would be your best source of information about reputable breeders."
Hank feels that the newcomer who cannot get professional assistance is at a serious disadvantage in selecting a breeder. But no matter how he finds them, he should visit each breeder's place and watch his dogs work. He should also request several references from other hunters who have purchased each breeder's puppies.
"When watching good dogs work," Hank said, "remember that many dogs do not reproduce themselves. If you see a dog whose work you really like, you don't necessarily want one of his offspring. Instead, you should go back to his sire and dam. Since they produced him, they are far more likely to produce another dog like him than he is himself."
Hank pointed out that, although he is using a lot of "he's," "his's" and "him's" here, what he says applies to females as well.
"In each breeding," he said, "the female contributes at least half, and sometimes it seems like she contributes more than half."
Once a person has selected a breeder and a litter, Hank recommends buying whichever puppy he feels most comfortable with. He should play with each pup, and then buy the one he likes the most.
"In a well-bred litter the puppies should be quite similar in working ability," he said. "So why not take the one you like the most? You'll probably be happier through the years with a dog whose personality naturally suits yours."
For that reason, Hank recommends that the buyer leave the family at home while picking out a puppy. If the spouse and kids come along, they may unduly influence him to take a puppy he really doesn't like. True, he might be able to make a good worker out of such a dog, but he will probably never enjoy hunting with it as much as he would with one he picked out on his own.
"In training and hunting with a dog," he said, "rapport is everything, and rapport is a personality thing, so pick the puppy you. . .and maybe you alone. . .really like."
Look Before You Leap
"So many puppy buyers," Gabe said, "and especially first-timers, rush in almost totally unprepared. Many spend far less time in selecting a puppy than they do in picking out the right shotgun!"
Gabe advises the newcomer to spend plenty of time preparing himself mentally for the puppy acquisition process before visiting any litters. First off, such a person should consider both the time and the money commitments he must make to raise and train a puppy into a working retriever. Money? This involves not only the puppy's purchase price, but also the cost of food, vet bills, training equipment, housing and so on. Time? Training a retriever takes lots of time, week in and week out, especially for the first two or three years. Only when a person is comfortable with these time and money considerations should he proceed.
This tip is from Gabe Withrow of Withrow Kennels. Gabe has been training professionally for five years. He specializes in training retrievers for hunting, hunt tests, and field trials. He is VP of the Texhoma Hunting Retriever Club. He doesn't breed dogs, but does offer his Labs at stud, and helps clients find
Gabe recommends that the person who has cleared that hurdle should next begin attending hunt tests and field trials. This allows him to observe firsthand what serious retriever people expect. . .and get. . .from their dogs at various levels of training. He'll see partially trained dogs in the lower levels and fully trained dogs in the higher levels. Seeing such work will give him an inkling of why retriever training is so labor-intensive and time-consuming.
"At that point," Gabe said, "I start telling the person about bloodlines. More often than not, he'll respond that he doesn't care about all that, that he just wants a good hunting dog. I tell him that his puppy will be his family dog, his hunting buddy, and his training partner for many years to come, that he'll spend more time with this puppy than with his boat or shotgun, so he should spend plenty of time learning about bloodlines, so he can get a good puppy to start with."
Gabe says he has been accused of being a "pedigree nut" because he believes so strongly in pedigrees for evaluating the probable performances of puppies. He feels that titles earned in hunt tests and field trials by a litter's forbears, especially by those in the first two or three generations, mean so much. Such titles indicate that those dogs have exhibited the very qualities a good gun dog needs, namely, marking ability, birdiness, desire to please and trainability.
"Granted," he said, "not every well-bred puppy turns out to be a hunting machine, but the person who buys such a pup certainly improves his chances for success."
Gabe offered some cogent thoughts on price, too. First off, he pointed out that, over the dog's life, the owner will spend far more on dog food, vet bills, training equipment, and so forth than on the pup's purchase price. That said, he took the leap and talked in terms of actual dollars.
"A quality field-bred retriever puppy," he said, "will cost from $600 to $1000, and maybe even more, depending on the specific breeding. But reputable breeders usually offer a 26- to 30-month guarantee for various genetic problems, like those affecting hips and eyes."
Gabe advises the buyer to read the guarantee carefully and ask questions about any unclear points. That initial effort will avoid later disappointments and perhaps hard feelings.
"One last thing," he said. "Interview several veterinarians and select one who inspires your trust. I've been very fortunate to have an outstanding vet, one who listens and understands my concerns. In fact, she even makes house calls!"
"The first step in the puppy acquisition process," Jason said, "should be defining your goals. Sadly, too many first-time buyers don't do this adequately, and end up dissatisfied because they buy the wrong puppy, perhaps even the wrong breed."
Jason suggests some serious self-analysis. Do you hunt frequently, like every day for a couple of months in the Dakotas? Or every weekend during your own state's open season? Or perhaps just two weekends a year on a game farm? Do you have field trial or hunting test ambitions? How much time can you spend, week in and week out, training a dog? Or do you plan to have your dog professionally trained? Will your dog live in the house or in an outside kennel run? Before deciding to buy a puppy, did you seriously consider buying a trained dog?
This tip is from Jason Givens of Lighthouse Kennels. Jason has been training professionally for eight years, specializing in training spaniels for hunting, hunting tests and field trials. Since 2000 he has consistently made the spaniel field trial top 10 handlers list. He has judged field trials in both U.S. and Canada. He has judged both the Cocker Nat. Open Champ. trial and the English Springer Nat. Open Champ. trial. He won the 2003 English Springer Nat. Open Champ. with NFC FC Lighthouse Reverence. He breeds field-bred English springer spaniels.
After you analyze your goals, he recommends that you familiarize yourself with the various spaniel breeds: English springer, English cocker, American cocker, Welsh springer, Clumber, Sussex, field, and American water, each of which is unique both physically and temperamentally. (Of course, if you have field trial ambitions, you must choose the English springer, English cocker, or American cocker.) As you become familiar with the spaniel breeds, you'll find yourself drawn more to one than to the others.
To learn about the various spaniel breeds, Jason recommends an Internet search and a book search. Of course, beware of getting on the wrong side of the "breed split" (between show-bred and field-bred dogs) that exists in several of these breeds. As a hunter, you should stick with the field-bred dogs. (Nota bene: My own book, HUP! Training Flushing Spaniels the American Way, has a hunter-oriented chapter on each of these breeds.)
During your breed research, Jason recommends that you become familiar with the various hereditary health problems affecting each breed and how to avoid them. You should also learn how to read pedigrees, especially the meanings for the various titles before and after each dog's name. Jason feels that this knowledge is of the essence in the puppy selection process. Next, he recommends that you watch trained dogs of your selected breed work in the field. Check websites for breeders and trainers who have such animals. If possible, locate several, contact them and ask to visit their facilities during a training session. What you see at several such training sessions should either confirm your breed selection, or make you start it over again. Either way, it's time well spent.
Armed with all this knowledge and experience, Jason feels you should have little difficulty locating one or more reliable breeders, through websites or magazine ads. Ask for references and check them out. Ask each breeder lots of questions, both for information and as an "honesty check." Don't be surprised if the breeder asks you more questions than you ask him. Such a breeder wants his puppies to go to good homes.
"You may have to wait quite some time for a puppy," Jason said. "Reliable breeders usually have waiting lists. But the puppy you get from such a breeder will be worth the wait."
In picking a puppy from a litter, Jason recommends taking the one that most appeals to you.
"More and more breeders a
re selecting the puppies for their buyers," he said. "We do that. After raising them for 10 weeks, we know the puppies very well. Before we place a puppy, we get to know the person well enough to know which puppy will best suit his personality and lifestyle."
Ten weeks, you ask? Yes, Jason doesn't place his puppies until then.
"Forget the 49-day stuff," he said. "It's meaningless drivel. More and more breeders are waiting until nine to 12 weeks before selling their puppies."