In the world of bird dogs, picking exactly the right puppy is a quixotic venture, an idea that is forever tempting but somehow, maddeningly, just out of reach.
I've heard a lot of those ideas over the years: Turn a pup on his back and if he submits he'll be easy to train. (For the record, I can't remember the last pup I turned over who didn't fight me.) Or pick the dominant pup in the litter, fhe'll be bold in the field. No, wait! Pick the submissive pup, he'll be easier to train! Drag a wing through the litter and see which of the pups points it. And so on.
I don't doubt people have used these and similar methods to pick pups who did indeed mature into fine bird dogs. But is it because of their selection process? Well!!
Let's look at the typical eight-week-old pointer, the age most pups are being farmed out to new homes.
In a couple years, that cute, wriggling little ball of fur will be a muscular, hard-hunting athlete, but at this tender age, those future qualities are nascent at best, and in some pups are non-existent. Instead, you have a little guy who's been in the world less than two months, who doesn't see or hear that well, and whose singular focal point is feeding time.
But wait, you say. I put a wing on my fly rod and little Buster pointed it at seven weeks of age! Doesn't that indicate talent and prey drive?
Many puppies will point anything they see within their limited range of vision. A pup pointing a wing is showing you the right stuff. But does that mean the other pups in the litter, have less potential?
Not at all. In my experience, those who don't point at that age are at least as common than those who do. Nine times out of 10, in five or six months all the pups will be pointing and in roughly the same spot.
Bar the Door
My setter Scarlet is approaching the end of her life. She was never a great bird dog for reasons that aren't pertinent here. But one thing she never lacked was a solid point and prey drive. It's been a long time since I got her 14 years, to be exact, but to the best of my memory, her point and prey drive didn't emerge until she was five or six months old.
But when it did, Katy bar the door! For the rest of her life, she pointed every living bird she ran across, and her prey drive was so strong it sometimes overwhelmed every other facet of her personality. Clearly, being a late bloomer didn't slow her down a bit.
So will dangling a wing on a fly rod over a pile of barely sentient puppies tell you much? Not really. Will it hurt? Not at all. I still do it, simply because it's fun.
Is there anything you can do to help you make a selection? Sure. First, pick an established breeder who has a reputation for breeding good dogs. And second, pick a puppy you like. Even at seven or eight weeks of age, a pup's personality will show, and if it's a good fit, go for it.
A dominant, headstrong pup will in all likelihood be a dominant, headstrong adult. A shy, submissive pup will probably develop into a shy, submissive adult. Neither characteristic presents a big problem (assuming you're a good trainer or are going to hire one), but buy a pup like either of these with your eyes open.
Now that you've got a pup, should you have it spayed or neutered? There are plenty of opinions on both sides of that issue, including whether or not you may want to breed your pup in the future. In the last 30 years, I've owned predominantly spayed females because they're easy keepers, no peeing on the shrubbery, no embarrassing faux pas with a guest's legs.
Fixing a dog carries certain risks, at least according to some of the research I've read, but find a good vet and rely on his or her opinion. Spaying or neutering your dog will not decrease its hunting drive.
Many people, after having lived through several cycles of raising puppies to adulthood, have had enough and decided to buy started dogs. Having been through more than a few of those cycles myself, I understand.
But that process carries risks as well. To wit: there's no standard definition of what a "started dog" consists of. Is it a dog that has been trained to whoa, come, and back on live birds? Or is it a dog that has had minimal exposure to live birds and virtually no yard training?
I've seen them both ways. Furthermore, I've yet to hear of a started dog which has been housebroken, so if you're thinking of dodging that particular bullet, you may want to reconsider.
Still, a started dog can be a good investment if you find out from the breeder (or trainer) exactly what it's been trained to do, and then have him demonstrate what the dog knows. A number of people I've met over the years who own started dogs have been quite happy with them. Caveat emptor.
So, puppy or started dog? Exactly which adorable pup in that squirming pile of little bodies will give you the laser-nosed, hard-hunting partner you want? Those are questions for which there are no certain answers.
However, there's one more thing you can try if you're still undecided. My friend Mark breeds the English pointers I own (superiorpointers.com). Mark and I met years ago when I interviewed him for a magazine article. We've been friends ever since and have hunted and trained together. He knows exactly the kind of dogs I like to hunt over.
When I was at his kennel and in the process of selecting my last pup, a little firecracker I named Suki, I paid her scant attention; she was the runt of the litter and I had my eyes on another. However, based on what he knew about me, Mark suggested that I give Suki a hard look, and reluctantly, I did. Over the course of the next few days she grew on me, and eventually I took her home.
It was, and has been, a perfect match.