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Pointing Breeds, Retrievers and Spaniels: Avoiding Puppy Selection Mistakes

The latest training and pupply-selection techniques for pointing breeds, retrievers and spaniels.

Pointing Breeds, Retrievers and Spaniels: Avoiding Puppy Selection Mistakes


This tip is from John Mooney of L'Escarbot Kennels, ; website John has been training professionally for 15 years, training both pointing and flushing dogs. Mostly he trains gun dogs for hunters, but he also trains an occasional dog for field trials or hunt tests. He has run pointing dogs in field trials both in this country and in France. He breeds French Brittanys (Epagneul Breton).

"Pointing dogs are quite versatile," John said, "but they can't suit every hunter. For example, if you're a dedicated waterfowl specialist, you'd be better off with a retriever. However, if you hunt both upland birds and waterfowl, you'd find a pointing dog delightful in the uplands and adequate for moderate-weather water retrieving."

John doesn't recommend puppies for everyone. Certainly not for the person who can't (or won't) take time to bond with a puppy and work with it regularly. Nor for the hunter who has lost a good dog shortly before hunting season. In both cases, the person would be better off with a started or trained dog.

"Perhaps the best, and most often ignored, piece of puppy-buying advice every given," John said, "is stay away from litters until you've done all the necessary research. Puppies are so cute that few people can visit and play with a litter without buying a pup. But, until you've done your research, how can you know whether those irresistible puppies are well-bred or even the right breed for you?"

John recommends researching the various breeds in your local library and on the internet. Both AKC and UKC have websites loaded with valuable breed information. Attending field events will allow you to see dogs of the various breeds in action. Once you've selected a breed, you must next select a breeder. Here too the internet can help you greatly. Most serious breeders have websites you can visit. But before contacting breeders, you should learn to read pedigrees in your chosen breed so you know what the various titles mean.

"A dual champion," John said, "has both field and show titles, so it is a good worker that is a good physical representative of the breed. The various titles from NAVHDA tests, Shoot-to-Retrieve trials, and hunting tests indicate different levels of working ability."

John said the entire pedigree matters, but the parents and grandparents of the sire and dam are most important. You should ask each breeder to explain the various bloodlines involved and why he selected this particular sire and dam.

"To avoid unsuitable breeders," John said, "get at least three references from each one you contact. And then check those references out."

John feels that any reputable breeder should offer you training advice and perhaps even lay out a training program for you. A breeder who is also a professional trainer can guide you through the puppy selection process and later through the training process.

"Price?" John said. "Price depends on the specific breed and the type of breeder. A rare breed puppy might cost significantly more than a popular breed puppy. Extremely popularity can drive prices way up or way down. Puppy-mill prices are quite low. Backyard breeder prices vary widely, and they frequently have to give puppies away. But serious breeders, who select their sires and dams carefully, charge respectable prices, and even so, they usually have waiting lists for their puppies."

John recommends that, after you select a litter and before you select a puppy, you visit the litter several times to become familiar with the personality of each puppy. If that isn't possible, you should rely on the judgment of the breeder to match you up with the pup that will best suit your personality and needs.

"Communication," John said, "between the buyer and the breeder during the puppy picking process is of utmost importance. A serious breeder wants to place his puppies properly, and he can determine through conversations with you which pup will suit you best."

John's final thoughts: "Choose a breeder who specializes in one breed. He will be highly knowledgeable about his breed and its training."


This tip is from Luann Pleasant of Red Rover Retrievers Kennel; Luann has been training retrievers professionally for 18 years. She trains retrievers for field trials, hunt tests, and hunting. She is a regular competitor in retriever field trials. She breeds an occasional litter of Labradors.

"Very few hunters," Luann said, "would make a mistake by choosing a retriever. However, if you hunt upland birds exclusively, especially in a hot and humid climate, you shouldn't get a retriever."

Luann stressed that puppies aren't for everyone. For example, the person who wants to buy a dog one day and hunt with it the next, or even sometime soon, should forget about puppies. Taking an untrained puppy hunting will not only ruin the hunt for everyone involved, but it won't do the puppy any good either.

"If you buy a puppy," she said, "you have to go through all the puppy-raising chores. Then, whether you train the youngster yourself or turn the job over to a pro, you won't have a dog to hunt with for a year or so. If that's a problem, buy a started or trained dog."

But if you don't mind the work and the delay, you'll enjoy watching a puppy grow and develop. You will, that is, if you choose the right breed, the right breeder, the right litter, and the right puppy. To pass through all these hoops unscathed, you need to do your homework before you visit a litter of puppies.

"Regardless of breeding," Luann said, "every puppy is irresistible. And every breeder thinks his litter is the very best you can find. If you visit a litter too soon, you'll buy a puppy, perhaps one that lacks the hunting instincts or trainability you should be seeking."

Luann feels that, once you decide on a retriever, selecting the proper breed is quite simple. Just go with the retriever breed you're drawn to. On the other hand, selecting a breeder, a litter, and a puppy can require a lot of research. However, Luann recommends a shortcut

that will help you avoid the many mistakes you might otherwise make.

"As soon as you decide you want a retriever," she said, "contact a reputable professional retriever trainer to guide you through the entire selection process. Such a pro knows who is breeding what all over the country. Besides, a pro has a vested interest in guiding you properly, not only as a service in itself, but also because the pro just might be training that puppy someday, so wants it to be a good one."

Your chosen pro not only knows the various lines within each breed, but also has probably watched the forebears of most well-bred litters work in field trials or hunting tests. Luann feels you should limit your search to litters whose parents and grandparents have titles from field trials or the highest level of hunt tests. Then, too, by getting acquainted with you, your pro will be able to figure out what type of canine personality you'll find most simpatico.

Luann said that a well-bred retriever puppy should cost between $900 and $1,500.

Once you and your pro have selected a breeder and a litter, Luann recommends that you, and if possible your pro, visit the litter, ideally several times, to study the puppies. She advises avoiding the pup that just lies around, the one that runs off by itself, the bully, and the doormat. With those eliminated, take each pup aside individually and toss a toy for it to make sure it likes to retrieve. Then, just choose the puppy you like best.

"Personally," she said, "I like a pup that, when I pick it up, squirms a little, then turns, looks at me, and licks my face."


This tip is from John DeGroat of Lakota Gun Dogs Kennel. John has been training professionally for 10 years, specializing in training flushing dogs for hunters. He does not breed dogs.

"Frankly," John said, "for every hunter who makes a mistake by choosing a spaniel, at least one hundred make a mistake by not choosing one! American hunters are largely unaware of the versatility of the various spaniel breeds. Granted, the dedicated waterfowler would be better off with a retriever, but the all-around hunter will make no mistake getting a spaniel."

John said that raising and training a puppy is a wonderful experience, provided you have the time, patience and interest. However, lacking any of these "prerequisites," you'd make a mistake buying a puppy. You should opt for a started or trained dog.

"When deciding between a puppy and an older dog," John said, "keep in mind that it takes one to two years of training to get a puppy ready for serious hunting. If that's a problem for you, forget about puppies."

Like all experienced dog people, John realizes it would be a huge mistake for you to visit any litter of puppies before you've done all the preliminary research needed to select a breed, a breeder, and a litter.

"It's too easy," he said, "to fall in love with the first puppy you see."

John recommends that you contact a professional spaniel trainer as soon as you decide you want a spaniel. The pro can guide you through the entire process.

Breed selection is largely a matter of personal preference. All spaniel breeds are excellent upland hunters and quite good in water that isn't extremely cold. (Nota bene: The American water spaniel finds joy and fulfillment in very cold water, thank you!)

Selecting a reputable breeder is critical. Here a pro can be especially helpful, for he knows them all. Without a pro, you must rely on recommendations from spaniel owners and references from spaniel breeders. You also need to know how to read pedigrees, how to interpret the various titles. Show titles mean only that the dog is a good physical specimen of its breed; they say nothing one way or the other about field ability.

"Most breeds are split," John said, "into field and show stock. Some show breeders put working certificate titles (WC, WCX) or the lowest level hunting test title (JH) on their breeding stock, and then sell puppies as dual-purpose prospects. Let the buyer beware."

Obedience titles indicate good trainability, but say nothing about birdiness and so forth. John said that the titles you should look for are those from field trials and the upper levels of hunting tests. John feels that, while the entire pedigree matters, you should focus mostly on the first two generations.

"The novice hunter," he added, "should stay one generation away from field trial championship stock. Such dogs are high-powered and extremely challenging for a first-time owner to train."

Prices vary geographically, but you should expect to pay around $1,000 for a well-bred puppy. In selecting an individual puppy from a well-bred litter, John uses a simple test. He rolls each puppy over on its back and holds it there.

"If a puppy struggles a great deal," he said, "it's a dominant dog. If it struggles very little, it's submissive. If it struggles awhile, then relaxes, it's a good prospect."

John's final thoughts: "Puppies are a gamble. No one can predict which puppies from a given litter will and won't be successful. What's more, five different people would get five different results from the same puppy. You get out of a dog what you put into it."

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