Tips on choosing your next gunning partner.


Question
Please give me a hand with picking a pup that should be easy to train to make an all-around hunting dog. I’m not too familiar with all the breeds but have done some reading on a few and know you should get them at 49 days of age. So I’m not asking how you pick the best pup in the litter, but which breed is the best bet and suggestions about what you favor when you go puppy shopping. Thank you.
–Massachusetts

Answer
Being well aware that I am neither angel nor wise man, I’m forced to tackle an attempted explanation of the impossible with no celestial or intellectual back-up. Because the term “all-around” means so many different things to many different people, it has no specific meaning. Synonyms are “multi-purpose,” “all-purpose,” “versatile” and “jack-of-all-trades.”

Seven weeks of age may be as good a time as any to take a pup home and start acclimating him to you and yours. But a normal pup of any breed separated from dam and littermates and paid attention to by the folks who acquired it between the ages of five and 16 weeks ought to turn out okay.

The pup taken before the recommended seven weeks is more likely to turn out incompatible with other dogs and (lacking the romping exercise and personality conflicts furnished by littermates and disciplining by the dam) may wind up with physiological and physical problems, including early-onset hip dysplasia.

On the other end, if you wait until he or she is more than four months old to bring home your pup (unless the litter owner and his family just like messing around with puppies) there’s a strong chance you’ll wish you’d picked the Easter Bunny to try out your training skills…or you don’t mind non-compatibility or spookiness and have the dogged determination required to coax a cat through an open door before she makes up her mind to go through on her own.

Since this is the annual “puppy issue” of Gun Dog, I’m reluctant to rain on anybody’s parade. You didn’t mention whether you hunt mostly feather, fur, waterfowl or big game or any combination thereof. In the U.S.A. we tend to be specialists. Therefore it is possible to consider one dog or breed a “multi-purpose” dog when it hunts a variety of gamebirds in whatever manner.

This is oft equated with the “versatile” pointer/retriever/trailers, stemming from continental Europe, whose broader duties involve both fur and feather. What and how you hunt and your basic style of hunting will color your definition of terms. Individual dogs will vary as to what facet each does best and how it performs on various huntable species.

You’d be best served if you would extend the definition of a pup to include a dog up to 11⁄2 years of age (late teens on human scale) that is represented as a “started” young dog and can be better judged on performance and appearance than during the infancy to childhood “puppy picking” time prescribed. Don’t be bashful about asking the seller of a “started dog” to demonstrate its abilities, thus proving to your satisfaction that the dog performs as claimed. This is the only way to sort out the duds from the acceptables to the few rare jewels.

From four months of age onward (five to seven years old by human comparison) puppies show much more that can predict their potential. Between then and maturity at age 21 (two years in a dogs’s life) a dog is still malleable and the amount of time spent with him will be reflected in the demo the seller puts on for you. Depending upon circumstances, you could luck out and acquire a good and predictable prospect you can develop further or even a gem of a gun dog that meets your requirements as a useful hunting dog.

If the young dog’s performance satisfies you, don’t quibble about a price that should be higher than the “childhood” puppy price for pups up to four months of age. No matter how much you know about dogs, when choosing your dream dog as an infantile puppy, you are truly betting on the outcome. The older the pup is — if his introduction and acclimation to a hunting dog’s life have been properly handled by dog-knowledgeable litter owners — you have something tangible to evaluate beyond “luck of the draw” good breeding.

You may even get a monetary bargain if the older pup has been neglected, for whatever reasons, but you spot something in his personality that pleases you and you’d like to try to develop. Again, whatever the reasons, this neglected dog may be just an unwanted dog the owner never got around to working with; or as often happens with a large litter (during that saleable age) the pups didn’t move very fast so the leftovers can be had for less than the original higher asking price.

Puppyhood and old age are the most costly times in a dog owner’s life. If you go with a young started dog, you’ve eliminated the first of those. Plus, you have a good idea of what your pup will look like when mature and a good line on what the response will be when you start working together.

About a decade ago, for virtually nothing, my son Mike acquired a chocolate Labrador he planned to train, breed and sell. Since he already had three German wirehairs of his own in hunting competitions, he anticipated needing some cash and commented, “I just saw something about her I liked.”

The long and the short of it was, she wasn’t much to look at. She required considerable acclimating to both people and other dogs, hadn’t been in the water or shot over, had never seen a bird or retrieved a dummy, and her breeding was nothing remarkable — the best that could be said about it was that she was a purebred.

But with perseverance and training (plus well-hidden talents possessed by the year-old youngster) Daley turned out to be a wonderful upland game and waterfowl retriever, loving the water, quartering for and pointing upland scent for as long as the bird held, breaking when the bird ran, producing in-range shots and retrieving to hand. Prompted by strong instincts, honed by lots of attention, work and sensible training, this “natural” got better with each gunning experience.

Mike never sold Daley. Each time we shoot over her, he needles his old man about questioning Daley’s potential and my oft-expressed dim view of breeding done to produce a specific color, as in the case of chocolate Labs. Little does he realize that when he leaves Daley with me for a month while he’s bow hunting for elk in the far west, I apologize daily to Daley and spend some time sweet talking her.

Because there was money to be won for owner/trainers, not just fame and trophies as in field trials, Mike long ago gravitated to the increasingly popular hunting contests in which released gamebirds are hunted for a limited time by a pair of shooters and their dog, each team being scored on birds found an
d retrieved, with as few shots as possible within the time allotted.

Plan Revival
Once it was ascertained that Daley, despite her neglected background, had the right stuff, Mike revived a plan to compete with her in the bird shooting contests.

There are two classifications in the simulated hunting events, those for pointing and flushing breeds. Mike had been very successfully competing in the pointing dog events with his wirehairs and found in Daley a flushing dog with which he could compete.

She “done good.” Mike’s investment paid off and she became highly saleable. But she’d become almost too dear to sell…a real keeper. So she became a producer. From a hot-blooded sire, she popped out a dozen pups.

Except for the one Mike kept for his wife, Marcie, the pups all were picked up in the normal picking time, reasonably priced, not returned or complained about. But the”keeper” from the litter was an absolutely indefatigable bundle of pernicious energy who harried his stoic mother incessantly and bedeviled all my kennel dogs when both dam and offspring stayed with me during one of Mike’s trips.

He was more irritating than pleasing and his knot-headedness was aggravating. A fool’s boldness, energy and water work were his assets. He lost his keeper-status, “before he drives me nuts,” Mike explained, and with some trepidation he offered the 10-month-old started retriever for sale.

When a potential buyer phoned from the West Coast, Mike described the dog honestly and the buyer replied that this just might be the dog he was seeking for work at a gun club where the waterfowl shooting was so hot and heavy it was wearing out dogs.

Two weeks after the questionable outcast was shipped, the new owner called. He rattled off the extraordinary numbers of ducks and geese being retrieved at the club by the young Lab and confirmed he was tickled with his purchase.

Such happy match-ups don’t always occur. But because my reject may be the answer to your prayers or your keeper may be my discard, when you select your gun dog pup during its childhood (two to eight months) or adolescence (10 to 12 months) you should do an honest self-analysis of your own personality, your needs and your wants…as did the West Coast buyer of Mike’s high-powered Labrador.

Now trying to comply with your request for a straight answer to the best bets among the various breeds of gun dogs, I’ll try not to make a bumptious fool of myself with what are personal generalities. There are three specialty classifications of gun dogs: flushers, pointers and retrievers. These can be further differentiated as spaniels (land and water); pointers (long- and docked-tailed); and retrievers (water and land).

All-purpose pooch
Personally, I don’t believe there is a breed producing more potentially “all-purpose” dogs than English springer spaniels, although they are perhaps equaled by Labrador retrievers, providing it is presumed that any dog that works more than one gamebird species is considered versatile.

If you have trouble deciding between Labs and springers, consider this: If most of your hunting is on waterfowl, particularly on geese or under extreme conditions, and your uplanding is occasional or casual, go for the retriever to be used either as a flusher or pointer, now that pointing Labs are in vogue.

On the other hand, if uplanding is your love with a “now and then excursion” for ducks, particularly field and jump shooting, the springer will give you more hustle and excitement and still assure few if any shot birds are lost.

The “continental” pointer/retrievers lay claim to the “versatile” dog description with just cause. They are touted for pointing the upland game on which they are used, all species of birds, strong retrieving instincts plus hound-like trailing of large and small game animals.

The vast majority of U.S. bird-doggers, however, don’t do mixed bag shooting of both feathered and furred game. But pheasants and waterfowl are a favored combination; and for finding, pointing and retrieving roosters and among pointing breeds for use on released game at shooting clubs, German wirehairs and German shorthairs can’t be beat.

They also “take to water” more naturally than any other bird pointers. Like stoic soldiers, they respond very well to military-type discipline and are successfully trained for waterfowling work out of blind or boat if conditions are not too extreme as well as handling waterfowl fetching while on the move in marsh and field.

The long-tailed British Isle pointers and setters are the least likely candidates for multi-purpose, practical “mixed bag of meat” gun dogs. They are essentially bird specialists, even refining that in some instances to top performance on a single wild bird species — quail dogs or grouse dogs, for example.

But they can be expected to find and (hopefully) retrieve any North American wild bird species and do it with the style and class that makes their adherents eschew anything else for a bird dog. Lack of this style and range contributes to the rejection of jack-of-all-trades gun dogs by shooters and field trial contestants who are more interested in a prescribed dog exhibition than in shooting a coat full of birds.

American-bred pointers and setters are outstanding as competitive specialists, but not very impressive as versatiles; natural capabilities are limited and they haven’t been bred for wriggling or busting through dense thickets and deep marsh grass. But they can put a lot of acreage behind them when turned loose to run the edges in big country.

Expect more from your setter in the water and wet going than your pointer and expect more ground traversed, higher heat withstood, more stamina displayed and more birds pointed by the short-coated bird finding machine. But look for your companionable setter to be more willing to “naturally” take to duck fetching and easier to control when searching. Above all, pointers live to hunt; setters to please the hunter.

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