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What is a Pedigree?

Understanding your puppy's family tree to predict performance.

What is a Pedigree?

Looking at a puppy's pedigree is important, but renowned breeder and trainer Robert Milner recommends viewing the parents of the pup as well. (Photo courtesy of Robert Milner)

While breeding is an imperfect science, those seeking a puppy are looking for every advantage, and pedigree plays a big role. While there are many ways to pick a pup, the odds of getting a good one dramatically increase with pedigree. “Buy the best you can afford” goes the adage, to increase the likelihood of quality.

Source puppies as you choose, but the best approach comes from defining what you want from your pup. It’s a broad range that spans from competing at the highest levels to a family pet that occasionally hunts, and all points in between.

Where to Find a Puppy

When searching for a puppy, it’s important to recognize the various places they can come from and what this means for their pedigree.

Boutique breeding programs are the cornerstone of the gun dog world. They are run by experienced professionals well-versed in breeding for consistently excellent results. They may not have a lot of litters on the ground each year, but the ones they do are of the highest quality. Pro trainers and field trialers looking for the puppies of the highest standards fall into this category.


Large scale breeders have a number of litters each year. They’ve got up to a dozen dams and several sires and their dogs are of high quality. The genetics might not be strong enough to win the National, but if you’re looking for a top-notch gun dog, they’re likely to be a good fit.

Girl holding an English setter puppy
Puppy selection is not an exact science but studying a pedigree to find the right genetics certainly helps. (Tom Keer photo)

Private breeders are another popular puppy acquisition source. You’ve heard it before; ‘you’ve got a good dog, I’ve got a good dog, and together we’ll have great dogs.’ That might work, but without reviewing a pedigree you might get this result; ‘I’ve got a great clam chowder recipe, you’ve got a great beef stew recipe, so let’s mix them together for a great soup.’

That being said, a number of high-quality gun dogs come from selective breeding. These folks are looking to continue a lineage they’ve developed with an eye toward keeping a pup for their personal string. If they’re studying pedigrees, then they are likely to whelp a really nice litter. Their experience and discernment are key.

Rescue groups are a mixed bag. For general pets, the odds are high that a pedigree doesn’t come with a purchase. Most are drops, the result of an accidental lock between two different breeds. Rescue dogs make folks feel good, but when it comes to performance and overall health, those litters are usually a crap shoot.

Sporting dog rescue groups are totally different and may offer a good solution with gun dogs looking for new homes. Some dogs are highly pedigreed and well-trained. They’re on the market because an owner may be aging, or a dog used in a commercial hunting operation might not have had the chops to handle the workload. If you’re looking for a solid, well-trained dog then you might look for one here.

Reading a Pedigree 

Pedigrees are a family tree that shows the history of how the litter came to be. The top half of a pedigree shows the sire’s lineage, while the bottom half shows the dam’s lineage. As you read back in time the male dogs are on top of the pairing while the females are on the bottom. Some sires and dams may be of different coloration or with different markings, but so long as the matches are of the same breed, you’ll have purity. You can trace that through the registration numbers listed in each match.


The names of the dogs are called registered names, and those reflect the kennel from whence they came. Registered names are different from call names used in the field. Matching up the registered name with the call name is easy if you study the dogs.

Depending on registry, pedigrees may include certain designations like CH (Champion or Show Champion), RUCH (Runner Up Champion), FTC (Field Trial Champion), JH (Junior Hunter), MH (Master Hunter), or MNH (Master National Hunter) to name a few. In the popular North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association registry, there are designaitons for passing certain tests such as their NA (Natural Ability) and UD (Utility Dog). These designations show that the dog has achieved a particular level of performance and stands out from other dogs. The prefix indicates performance and level achieved.   

Sample of a dog pedigree
Once you understand that a pedigree is like a puppy's family tree it becomes much easier to read. (Photo courtesy of Thor Kain)

Poised for Perfection

Pennsylvania’s Thor Kain is an amateur field trialer and co-owner of Cover Dog Setters, a boutique kennel. The kennels’ breeding goals are to elevate the quality of performance English setter cover dogs that are campaigned and competed with the best dogs running in the woods. One look at the groups’ dogs and wins and you’ll easily see that their program is a success.   

Kain looks carefully at pedigrees. “You’ve really got to look beyond the piece of paper,” he said. “I look at the past dogs’ wins, their overall size and frames, how they run and handle, and their level of overall bird smarts. Breed enhancement is the goal of field trials, and pedigrees show me characteristics and traits over time.”

“A pedigree shows two important things. The first is when you see a particular dog appear in different lineages. That’s called line breeding. The goal of line breeding is to pass on the dog’s best qualities to the next generation. Pedigrees are important because they show the tightness of those lines. Lines that are too tight produce inferior dogs, but we push that edge to achieve a great dog. Pedigrees also show out-crossings. Out-crossings bring strengths from another line and build on a female’s strong characteristics. Pedigrees can reveal potential health issues, so they’re helpful for increasing the odds of whelping a good litter.”

“Use the pedigree to narrow down your selection. If you’re a hunter, look for dogs from hunting or field trial stock. These dogs come from sires and dams with stamina and bird smarts as well as the strength, so they won’t fold up under training pressure. Studying a pedigree is important, but it’s critical to see the sire and dam run, that way you’ll have a solid idea of performance.”

Field trialers with field trial champion English setters
Thor Kain attributes success in the trial circuit to paying close attention to pedigree. (Photo courtesy of Thor Kain)

Inherently Inexact

Pedigree doesn’t matter a lick says Robert Milner, founder of Wildrose Kennels, owner of Duckhill Kennels, and author of several training books. The pro trainer says, “The only meaningful data in a pedigree is the behavior of the parents. That behavior is not observable until after the pup reaches puberty. I look at pedigrees just to see who was in the lineage, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to focus on the sire and dam’s characteristics. Breeding based on pedigree is a crap shoot, which is why I look for tangible measurements.”

“When breeding dogs, I look for four attributes:

  1. Sires and dams must have game-finding initiative. That is measured by their persistence when hunting. I’m not interested in how fast they run or how high they jump but how they find birds.
  2. The parents must have a calm, pleasant disposition. 90 percent of the dogs’ job is to be a good companion.
  3. Intelligence and ease of training. Smart dogs are easily trained and quickly master commands.
  4. Natural delivery to hand. That’s important for all dogs, but critical for the retrievers I breed.”

“Puppies frequently don’t approximate their parents of past lineages, so if you want a guarantee that you’re getting the best pup in a litter then buy the whole darn litter. If you pick one, then you’re hedging your bets. Characteristics and behavior of parents are fixed, whereas breeding based on past generations is not. That’s because generational characteristics may or may not carry forward. Puppies will exhibit various degrees of that behavior of the extended past.”

Define Your Objectives

Before looking at a pedigree, it’s important to clarify your goals. A family dog that occasionally hunts is very different from a hardcore gun dog which is different from a field trial dog. Narrowing down a breed is important, so consider what kind of birds you’ll hunt, as well as your intensity level, anticipated range, your access to training and hunting areas, and how much time you’ll devote to both training and hunting. A dog’s size, disposition, trainability, and bird smarts are far more important than looks. If you can get a handsome pup that has all of the core ingredients, then you’ve got a dream dog.

English setter on point
Once you've settled on a breed, do your homework to find a good breeder and have a look at a pup's pedigree to help make the right choice. (Tom Keer photo)

Define your objectives, narrow down the field of options, and arrive at a breed of choice. Reading a pedigree is only one piece of the puzzle designed to help you get closer to your end goal—which is to locate and build a relationship with your next favorite, perfectly-matched hunting buddy.

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