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So, You Want to Get Your First Bird Dog?

Bringing home a gun dog and training them for hunting is a serious investment—here's your roadmap for your commitment.

So, You Want to Get Your First Bird Dog?

Having your dream hunting dog depends on your selection of both breed and breeder. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

You have been thinking about getting a hunting dog. This quickly morphs to you absolutely need a hunting dog. All sorts of rationalizations emerge. You shot down all the negatives except for the nagging things like what breed, where to look for a dog, how much to pay; all things you deem practical so as not to appear too naïve. But you overlooked the big question: Why?

Why do you want a dog? What prompted the desire for having your own hunting dog? Within the why you also need to ask what do you want the dog to do for you? Do you want a specialist like a pointer, retriever, or a tracker? Or do you want a ‘does everything necessary for hunting’ type dog? What do you want to hunt with your new dog: Upland birds? Waterfowl? All feathered game? Furred game? Or maybe all the above? When you can answer the why question and all the ramifications, you can start answering the question of what—as in what breed to get and what else do you want of your dog, like field trials or tests, show, live in your house family dog, and where should you look for a dog?

yellow labrador retriever puppy
Hunting dogs demand plenty of exercise, training, and engagement to be content. (Photo By: John Hafner)

Understanding Genetics

One often occurring scenario of why you want a dog is your hunting buddy has this great German shorthair that he is thinking about breeding. The dog is perfect: It checks in at the right moment, points solidly, retrieves perfectly from land or water, tracks down and retrieves every cripple. This is exactly what you deem an outstanding dog. Your buddy has looked at a female he knows about, feels she is a good match, and you are first in line to get a clone of the perfect dog. Unlikely. Your chances of that happening are right up there with winning the Sweepstakes when you didn’t buy a ticket. You can greatly improve your chances by going to the breeder of your friend’s dog and try for a repeat of the breeding that produced your buddy’s dog. But even that doesn’t come with any guarantees. The first thing you need to do is to get a nodding acquaintance with genetics and an understanding of how inheritance works. Then look for and select a line from within the breed you desire that possesses the qualities you want. Then, hope your pup carries all the qualities of the line, or at least most of them, and a perfect temperament so you can cultivate all the qualities.


If your dog is to be strictly your live in your house hunting dog, your choice of breed will be different from the dog used strictly for hunting quail from horseback, which will differ from a dog you want for retrieving geese from Chesapeake Bay. The intended major use should determine breed choice. The genetics and heritable characteristics package is the first thing to consider and what job the dog was bred for is a close second when answering the "why" question.

bird hunter with a pointing dog
Building a solid bird dog is an equation comprised of good genetics, basic obedience, and proper training. (Photo By: John Hafner)

Can You Handle the Commitment?

A very important consideration you need to make is your commitment to the dog. Ask yourself if you are willing to devote the time to train, exercise, and care for a young dog. Hunting dogs are athletes. They all are high energy and therefore require a lot of exercise. A leisurely 15-minute walk down the block and back home once a day will not do it. Breed dependent, your dog will need more like two hours each day spread over two or more walks/runs every day. Yes, even if it is raining, snowing, or dark of night when skunks are out foraging.

Also, because your hunting dog has this high energy level, he will need direction and management. This is an on-going thing aside from regular training. You must be prepared to be educated. You absolutely need to take your dog and you through obedience class before you do anything else with your dog. Your dog must be taught self-control and perfect obedience and you must learn how to do it with the individual dog you have. That will take more than reading a book or watching a video. You must learn to read your dog and understand that every dog is an individual who differs from every other dog which means individually aimed management and training techniques. Your responsibility to your dog is enormous. You are the care giver and the provider of leadership. Hopefully the breeder has done his part of the socialization process and care; now the ball is in your court. You need to handle it. An obedience training school can do that for you. Training techniques have changed in the past 15 years to almost total positive, reward-based training, with moderate correction when necessary. This will be a major change in thinking for lots of people who are products of the 1960s. Dogs seem to thrive on being paid for good work.

duck hunter with yellow labrador retriever
It is our sole responsibility to take care of our hunting dog from the very beginning. (Photo By: Bill Konway)

The best bet is to go to the breed club for the breed and for the dog you want. The more the breed club controls the breeding and rearing of pups the better. If a breeder and his dogs meet the specs set up by the breed club, your chances are up. A breeder who is off on his own might be a good breeder, but he marches to his own drumbeat. If his aims align with yours, ok. But his ideas can be off the wall just as well, with a good puppy pitch that is the envy of a used car salesman in which case you pay our money and take your chances. Check the references very carefully. If you are uneasy, it won’t hurt to run. You need to do all the homework, so your chances are maximized. You especially want to be as informed as you can be so an unscrupulous breeder (yes there are a few out there) with a flashy ad and a wall of ribbons and shelves of trophies can’t pull the wool over your eyes, but also so you ask the right questions and can evaluate the answers. This is a ten to twelve-year investment you are making. Make it a good one.


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