Avoiding Puppy Selection Mistakes

The latest training techniques for spaniels.

"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."

This tip is from John DeGroat of Lakota Gun Dogs Kennel, 327 Leonard Road, Stafford, CT 06076; (413) 374-5859 or (860) 306-3957; e-mail schneiderdegoat@cox.net. John has been training professionally for 10 years, specializing in training flushing dogs for hunters. He does not breed dogs.

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