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How to Pick A Puppy

Here are some helpful guidelines for finding the best young gun dog to match your lifestyle.

How to Pick A Puppy

A prospective buyer should be sure that the entire litter of puppies he's choosing from has been well socialized.

Do Your Homework

"The most rewarding way to pick a gun dog puppy begins way before the pup is born," says Dr. Jim Rieser, a veterinarian and owner of the Shooting Starr Kennel in Franksville, Wisconsin."Locating a promising puppy means first finding the best breed for your hunting purposes, then researching the backgrounds of breeders who produce the kind of gun dog for which you are looking," Rieser advises.

"Though this process may sound simple enough, you might spend many days or weeks or months reading magazine articles and books on the subject and lots of time studying breed-specific Web sites. Do all this before making phone calls to breeders. A prospective puppy buyer who has done his homework and knows about the breed he is interested in will get a more positive reaction from a breeder with pups for sale," Rieser emphasizes.

"Most breeds of gun dogs are represented by national clubs or organizations that have Web sites featuring a detailed description of the breed and its general history and background. Many sites also have a list of club members with addresses and phone numbers so that anyone interested in this breed of gun dog can call club members for information or maybe even see their dogs in person. Some sites will also have a list of breeders with announcements of existing or expected litters. Going to these information sources is obviously a good idea," Rieser says.

Don't make an impulsive decision and take the first cute pup you see.

Picking A Pup With Credentials

"I always advise anyone searching for a pup to look at litters from parents with quantifiable hunt test or field trial scores," says Clyde Vetter, a full-time professional hunting dog trainer from Wisconsin. "As a gun dog trainer, I am often asked by clients for help in selecting a puppy. My advice is to look for litters from parents that have been judged in the field according to some formal system or standard, which will give the puppy buyer some measurable and concrete information.

"Though field trial scores may not always directly relate to an adult dog's potential as a game bird hunter, results of AKC Hunt Tests or scores from North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) testing procedures are more conclusive and meaningful for most gun dog breeds," Vetter states. "The same goes for statistics from the Hunting Retriever Club or the National Shoot To Retrieve Association."

Look At The Pup's Parents

"One of the best ways to judge a puppy's future as a gun dog is to see its parents," says Curt Shreve, a Large Munsterlander breeder from Prior Lake, Minnesota. "When I add a new pup to our line or help someone choose a puppy, I always like to actually see the young dog's parents…for all the obvious reasons."

If you can't see the pup's parents in person, Shreve suggests asking the breeder to send a video of them in a real or simulated hunting situation. "With my breed, I like to see the adult dogs point a live bird such as a pigeon, track a running wild or pen-raised pheasant and fetch any species of game bird on land and out of water," Shreve says.

"With all the inexpensive cameras on the market, most gun dog breeders can own one or at least borrow one to make a short video of their adult dogs in action. One good video sometimes is worth 10,000 words in deciding if the puppies in a litter have come from good hunting parents."

To make an intelligent choice about what kind of puppy to buy, a puppy buyer should do plenty of research before making a decision.

Ask The Breeder For Help

"Most breeders of well-bred gun dogs will ask prospective puppy buyers lots of personal questions," says Jim Julson, a Small Munsterlander breeder from Colman, South Dakota. "In most cases, the breeder wants to get sort of a profile of that person's experiences with gun dogs in general, hunting with them, training them and maintaining them on a personal level.

"The idea is to match individual pups from the litter with the hunting lifestyle of the buyers so that the new puppy owner will have a gun dog best suited to his expectations and needs," Julson feels. "If a breeder spends most of the time making a sales pitch about his puppies and gives little attention to the buyer's personal background as a hunter and gun dog owner, the buyer should be wary," Julson warns.

Judging Temperament

"Don't believe any puppy seller who says you can't make some general judgments about a puppy's temperament at seven weeks of age. Anyone who says that probably hasn't spent enough time watching the pups at play or personally handling each individual pup," says to John Luttrell, a Labrador breeder from Clark, South Dakota.

"Sure, you can look at a litter of 10 black Labs as they charge around the yard and chase each other then decide there is no obvious difference in the temperament of any of them. But spend several hours watching them eat, play and have mock fights with one another and the pecking order will appear, along with some insights about the personality of each individual pup," Luttrell adds.

Reasons For Producing A Litter

"Always ask any breeder why the two parents of the pups for sale were bred," says Larry Hansen, owner of a British Labrador kennel in Tracy, Minnesota. "What are the breeder's stated objectives and how will this pairing of dogs produce some specific pre-conceived results? Is this a repeat breeding and if so, why? And if there have been other litters out of this line of dogs, are there references from satisfied puppy buyers?" Hansen suggests these are all worthwhile questions.

Among the ways to evaluate a pup's personality is to hold the youngster on its back for a minute and see how he reacts.

If references are given, "Do get in touch in person or at least on the phone to see how the owners of these dogs feel about their purchases," Hansen adds. "Ask the same pointed questions asked of the breeder. And be sure to ask how much and what kind of hunting the referred persons do so you can get a solid sense of perspective on the pups you're considering."

The Breed's Health History

"Before picking any kind of puppy, make sure the lines of dogs from which it comes have certified sound genetics with major emphasis on normal hips and healthy eyes," advises Tom Dokken, a Labrador breeder from Northfield, Minnesota. "Joint and eye problems plague many breeds of gun dogs, so every puppy buyer needs to study each breed's genetic background for a history of chronic hip dysplasia or eye disorders as well as any other genetic-related problems.

"When buying any gun dog, get a guarantee in writing from the breeder that your puppy will be free from any major debilitating genetic disorders and that the pup you have bought is healthy," Dokken adds. "Take your pup to your vet as soon as possible for a complete examination for genetic soundness and good general health."

Having your new puppy thoroughly examined by a veterinarian is an essential part of getting off to a good start.

Pick A Well Socialized Pup

A socialized puppy is one that has been regularly handled by people, helping the young dog to become accustomed to the human touch and comfortable with human beings. "If a gun dog litter has had little or no contact on these levels, then the pups may be fearful and anxious around prospective buyers," notes Tom Roettger, an English cocker spaniel breeder from North Branch, Minnesota.

"Spooky puppies afraid of people are difficult to evaluate and hard to sell. So most responsible gun dog breeders make a specific point of spending time with any litter," Roettger finds. "The idea is to develop pups that are friendly, happy and at ease around anyone who wants to hold them, play with them or just watch them.

"With my puppies, my family and friends handle them a little every day from the birth of the litter, then play with them a lot starting when the pups are five weeks old. By seven weeks, our pups love to be handled by everyone, which means they can better be tested for temperament and other factors," Roettger says.

Conformation In A Puppy

"By the time most gun dog pups are seven weeks old, you can make some accurate predictions about their future physical conformity," says Chuck Wilson, a Llewellin setter breeder from Waco, Texas. "Main physical features such as head shape, body type and tail set are usually evident when most breeds of puppies are seven weeks of age and become more apparent each week after that," Wilson feels.

"Most experienced breeders of any kind of gun dog should be able to look at eight to 10 pups in a litter and tell with 75 percent success which ones will grow into small, medium or big dogs," Wilson believes. "And, even if the rough estimates aren't absolutely on target, the educated guesses should be close enough to be useful in picking a puppy."

Bird Finding And Fetching Ability

"Testing seven-week puppies for hunting potential may seem like a real stretch. But in our experience, there are some fairly consistent behaviors that can be identified to predict a young dog's hunting future," says Jean Rodriguez of R Place Kennel in Hartford, South Dakota.

Rodriguez and her husband Joe have tested dozens of litters of all breeds of gun dogs. In the process, they have developed a system that is relatively simple and effective and can be administered by anyone.

"We evaluate a litter of gun dog puppies in several categories of responses to physical stimulation as in other kinds of tests for canine temperament and learning aptitude," Rodriguez says. "What is different about our system is that there is more emphasis and focus on prospective hunting qualities. For example, each pup is exposed to a bird wing flipped on a string and a tethered live pigeon to see if there is a perceptible prey drive, self-confidence in a new experience and a willingness to pursue a moving object," says Rodriguez.

"No, we don't say this testing system is totally complete, but we have a pretty good history of predicting the hunting behavior of pups when they become adult dogs," Rodriguez claims. "Our evaluation program is not the only one available but it is the only one we know of with an emphasis on determining hunting potential in a wide range of gun dog breeds."


Picking a puppy is hard to do--if you do it right. Research into breeds and lines, quizzing breeders about their litters, evaluating a pup's parents and choosing one pup according to some practical standards--all of this takes time and effort and a great amount of personal involvement. But as gun dog owners everywhere know, picking a good puppy is worth the effort.

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