With the addition of four or more breeds to its registry in 2015, the American Kennel Club (AKC) brought its total number of recognized breeds to 184. Of those, dozens belong to the Sporting Dog Group, which includes the majority of our popular hunting breeds.
Choosing from among those breeds may seem to be a daunting task but once you're familiar with breed characteristics the job becomes much simpler. Do your research and, if possible, spend time around dogs of the breeds you're considering.
Keep in mind that while choosing a puppy as your new hunting partner is a time-consuming task it's definitely worth the effort.
Breeders and Bloodlines
Choosing a breeder requires research. While it is possible to make a successful first attempt based on pure luck, it is unlikely. The most likely scenario in which in-depth research won't be necessary is when you're already familiar with the owner of the bitch and stud.
This familiarity should go beyond a casual meeting in a field, however; you should be aware of the same information needed when tracking down a potential breeder from scratch.
Bloodlines are the most important part of choosing a puppy and are entirely dependent on the dedication and knowledge of the breeder or breeders involved.
A good breeder has a broad knowledge base of their chosen breed and of their dogs, specifically. They should be breeding with an eye to the furthering of the breed and the enhancement of desirable traits.
That means selecting the best possible matches for personality, conformation, and overall health. Simply throwing together a pair of nice dogs will not result in a litter of truly stellar future hunting dogs.
Health guarantees are a vital part of your breeder selection. In hunting dogs, joint and eye problems are the frontrunners for potential problems. This goes beyond a breeder simply claiming their dogs have good hips, elbows, and eyes; a true guarantee involves testing.
Responsible breeders will not only have done the necessary testing on the bitch and stud but also generations back. You should be provided with those results as part of the getting-to-know-you process; if they are not given to you, do not hesitate to request them.
Learn how to read the information contained within the code, whether it's for hips, elbows, eyes or other testing. Access the websites of the organizations involved in testing for information on how to read results.
For example, testing for hips and elbows is done through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). X-rays are taken by an experienced veterinarian, because if the angle is incorrect when the film is taken it will not be possible to properly evaluate the dog in question.
The test results should be listed on your potential puppy's pedigree and will look something like this: LR-145268E34M.
The OFA number listing results for hip dysplasia testing start with letters identifying the breed then progresses to a numerical code to indicate it is that number of the listed breed to be tested. Next comes a letter known as the phenotypic OFA evaluation: E (Excellent), G (Good), or F (Fail).
The final set of numbers refers to the dog's age in months when it was tested while the final letter refers to gender. Some results include "PI" or "VPI" to indicate the dog tested has a permanent identification method such as a tattoo or microchip. "NOPI" would mean no permanent identification.
What you look for in a particular bloodline is also breed-specific. Certain breeds have specific potential issues, and knowing what those issues are is your responsibility, which circles back to doing research.
Those issues can often be tested for as well, including Exercise Induced Collapse (EIC), which is most common in Labrador retrievers but is found in other breeds as well. Joints and eyes are the top issues to monitor but there are other factors to watch. And, of course, it isn't all about physical traits.
Personality can also be gauged by checking out a dog's bloodline. This is where dog-based nature-versus-nurture comes into play. It is true that environment and training play an important role in shaping your dog's behavior, but genetics do play a role.
When you're looking for a hunting dog you want a puppy from a bloodline known for a strong prey drive, good nose, and solid retrieving instinct. A good nature and a desire to please are also a must.
Your puppy should come from a line of dogs used for hunting. If you have the opportunity to see those dogs in action whether while hunting or during field trials, do so. Otherwise, ask if there are videos. Check their standing in trials and hunt tests.
The ability of the bitch or stud to perform translates directly to the puppy's potential — or lack thereof. Again, try to see the bitch and the stud, either in person or on video, and if it's possible to meet or see videos or pictures of dogs farther back in the bloodline, that's even better.
Seeing consistency of certain traits and how the dogs age over time is wise.
Make a Decision
It's the moment of truth. You've done your homework and found a trustworthy breeder producing healthy puppies from an experienced hunting line. Now you're standing by the whelping box or in the puppy room, and it's time to actually select a puppy from the wriggling mass of fur before you. Where do you start?
The good news is by the time you're at this point you've done the most important part. By carefully choosing a breeder and puppies from a good bloodline, you've laid the groundwork for a good hunting dog.
At this point it's a combination of having an eye for size and personality and going with your gut instincts. Take as much time as you need, but don't second-guess yourself. Your first choice is often the best one.
You should have had an open dialogue with the breeder as the puppies have grown to the going-home point, so use it. They will have noticed which puppies are displaying certain characteristics. Watch the puppies interact, but listen to the experience of the breeder. And keep in mind, there are degrees of drive.
Some puppies will be machines with an incredible working drive and while that might sound good at first, it could mean more energy than you have the time or ability to burn off. Others may display a solid drive with the ability to take it easy at times, which could be the perfect fit for your needs. It all depends on your own lifestyle and habits.
Check out their conformation and apparent health. Conformation is breed-specific but the basics apply to all puppies. Angle and straightness of legs and pasterns, uprightness of paws, and set of ears are all things to consider. There are other physical attributes to check which is where your breed research comes in.
Bright and clear eyes, clean and clear ears, a glossy coat, and obvious energy are markers of good basic health. They are not guarantees against other issues, however, which is why you should have your puppy checked by a licensed veterinarian without delay. Some breeder contracts will require you to do so within a set number of days either to keep the health guarantee intact or simply to ensure the puppy's well-being — or both.
The puppies should be well-socialized when you first see them. Puppies should not be spooky or frightened; puppies should be clamoring to see the newcomer. Some breeders get a good start on housebreaking which is both nice to have and helps ease the training process along.
The breeder should have an idea of each puppy's size potential. It's a skill requiring experience, but your breeder should have that experience, and more.
Ask about shots, deworming, and microchips. Find out what kibble they've been eating, how much, and when; an abrupt diet change can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Be prepared — don't take a puppy home without having the necessary supplies.
This is one of the most important parts of choosing your puppy: choose your own puppy. Only you know your needs for hunting and preferences for personality. The breeder can advise you, but your significant other, your kids or your dog-expert friend should not be choosing for you. If the puppies are in another state, make the trip if possible.
When it comes to choosing your future hunting dog, it's not going to be cheap, but it will be worth it. Putting effort into selection means the pairing you've always wanted: you and your best hunting dog ever, bagging your limit as a team.
That's what we all want, really. A gun dog as our hunting partner, because there is simply no better partner than the kind with four legs and unbridled loyalty.