The prospect of buying a puppy can make you dream dreams. Dreams of a dog with unprecedented potential. A dog that trains easily and retains his training for life. A dog that never hits a baffling training roadblock. A dog that marks as if guided by GPS. A dog that handles as if he were reading your mind as well as your signals and commands. A dog that's a delightful companion, whether training, hunting, or just hanging out around home.
Like most of us, you may never have such a dog. Nevertheless, if you select your next pup properly, he'll probably come close enough "for all practical purposes."
Why Buy a Dog?
This should be a largely rational step. Granted, it has unavoidable emotional overtones, which you must control if you hope to end up with the right puppy.
Experienced retriever folks can skip this step, unless they are changing their goals in a major way, like from weekend waterfowling to field trialing. Unfortunately, too many beginners also skip it, or simply nod at it in passing. If you're a beginner, give this step lots of time and thought, along with in-depth discussions with more experienced dog people.
A beginner once asked me where he could buy a good Chesapeake puppy. In the ensuing discussion, he said he lived in Oklahoma and hunted mostly quail, but also did some farm pond duck hunting. I suggested that he might be happier with one of the Continental pointing breeds. That possibility had never entered his mind, but it was really what he needed to consider.
If you do both upland and waterfowl hunting, you should consider, in addition to the several retriever breeds, the several Continental pointing breeds and certain spaniel breeds. AKC has recently allowed many of these to run in retriever hunting tests, which shows that they have the required natural talents for retriever work.
If you're a beginner, you should write down, in order of importance, everything you expect of your dog: Various kinds of hunting, dog games (field trials, hunt tests, and so forth), family pet, watchdog, and whatever else. When you're satisfied with that list, talk to several knowledgeable dog folks, especially pros, to learn what breeds can satisfy your requirements. If your list contains conflicting functions that no one breed can perform satisfactorily, you must choose between multiple dogs or fewer functions.
This decision should be highly emotional, ergo lots of fun. You've already developed a list of your specific "can-do" breeds. Now you simply have to select one from that list. In doing so, you may not even know why you select one particular breed over all others. But somehow your tummy will tell you which breed is right for you.
Granted, the experienced person, having a long history with and commitment to one breed, can skip this step, unless he's significantly changing his goals. But a beginner shouldn't skip it, or even opt for the breed his buddies prefer. Another breed just might suit him better.
To get a quick snapshot of each breed on your list go to the website for the national breed club for each one. To find these, go to the AKC site (www.akc.org) and find its member clubs listing. Each breed club website will tell you a lot about the breed and give you contact information for various club officers and field-oriented breeders near you (more or less).
Next, contact two or three breeders for each of your can-do breeds. Talk on the phone. Go for a visit. See their dogs work. Listen to your tummy.
But stay away from litters of puppies!
At this stage, when you're so excited and emotional, you're too apt to buy the first puppy that snuggles up in your arms and licks your face. So stay away from puppies and concentrate on watching grown, trained dogs work.
If possible, you should also spectate at hunting tests and field trials for your can-do breeds. There you'll meet many knowledgeable people who can help you.
After you've watched dogs from each of your can-do breeds work, your tummy will speak, and you should listen to it — not to anyone else or anyone else's tummy.
By now you should have made contact with at least two or three breeders within your selected breed, who regularly produce good working dogs. To pick one of them, you should consider the following factors:
First, will he have a litter available for you within a reasonable time frame? If all his pups are already reserved by others for two or three years, you might not want to wait that long. Also, if several pups from his next available litter are already reserved, you probably won't have many pups to choose from.
Second, will he let you select your puppy or will he insist on selecting it for you? Both methods work, but you may have strong feelings about one or the other. Frankly, most beginners have a better chance of getting a suitable puppy if they let the breeder do the choosing. The breeder knows each puppy in the litter and after spending a reasonable amount of time with you, he'll also know you well enough to match you with a suitable puppy.
Third, what sort of health guarantee does he offer? This can be very important in breeds prone to hereditary health problems.
Fourth, do you just plain like him? Good rapport with your pup's breeder counts for a bunch, especially during your pups first year, when you may have lots of questions and need plenty of help.
When you're comfortable with the answers to those questions, you can select a breeder.
This is a totally rational step. If you've selected a breeder of consistently good pups, you can simply reserve a puppy from the next available litter and then wait anxiously until that litter arrives. If you've selected a lesser breeder, perhaps you should re-do the previous step.
This is an emotional step. It's even more fun than the breed selection. So relax and enjoy.
If your breeder allows you to select your puppy, stay away from the litter until selection day, lest you fall in love with a puppy that someone else takes before you get to choose yours. On selection day, play with each available pup individually somewhere away from the litter. Then, select the one that appeals to you most. You and that pup will hit it off quickly, bond strongly, and enjoy each other for years, in training, hunting and just hanging out.
If your breeder is to select your puppy, visit him frequently before selection day so he can get to know you. The better he knows you, the easier it will be for him to select the ideal puppy for you.
A Word of Caution
Every puppy, no matter how well-bred, is a gamble. The steps I've laid out will minimize your chances of ending up with a dud. But it won't completely eliminate them. I once picked a puppy so royally bred that I felt I should bow deeply whenever I passed her kennel run. But somehow she just didn't work out.
If for any reason, you can't take that risk, you should opt for a risk-free (but more expensive) "started" or "fully trained" dog.
Verba sapientibus! (Words for the wise.)
Jim Spencer's books can be ordered from the Gun Dog Bookshelf.