Well with spring break now in our rear view. I figured it would be a good time to touch base on some off season topics. Let’s start with dog training and purchasing. A little about my background here. I have trained hunting dogs… well, for as long as I can remember. I assume, I technically started at twelve years old. This is when I received my first dog of my own to train. It was a nice new Britney male pup, that came out of one of our litters. He was akc registered with championship blood line on both sides. He was a great dog, and had one of the best noses I’ve ever seen. Since then, I have trained wirehairs, setters, labs, goldens, pointers, weimaraners, Britneys, and even a miniature pincher to hunt. The training has been for upland game and waterfowl mostly, and one or two for search and rescue. I actually owned and ran a kennel for two years, offering professional training and breeding. I enjoyed training hunting dogs, not trial dogs, which (in my opinion) in order to be successful, (and rely on as a income for a family of six) you have to train, compete, and sell litters.
Why the trials turn me off. First and foremost they are not realistic in anyway or fashion. Ukc is better than Akc, but both have strayed from what I call realistic hunting situations. First and foremost is the retrieve. Two hundred yard blind retrieves just don’t happen ever! I know you could make one happen, but realistically the hunter is going to travel to last sight then release the dog. Certain situations might arise, like hunting grouse on the edge of swamp, flyer is winged over swamp, glides down over 100 yards in. Rare, but could happen. My thought here is the hunter needs to take responsibility for all wounded game. Meaning that, I shouldn’t rely on my well trained dog to make up for my inability. If I did rely on my dog, complacency would set in, which in turn would only make me a worse adversary. So any game bird I wound, I torture myself, and make it as easy on the dog as possible. If this means pulling groins going through knee deep swamp, so be it. I bet I don’t take that irresponsible shot the next time. 🙂 Second, the damage to the breed. Field trial dogs are bred to be robots with an unsurpassed, almost nuclear, high energy supply. They make great hunting dogs, and many times losey pets, or family dogs. Before everyone rips me here. They’re certainly are many dogs that fit both bills here and do very well. I’m not even saying that most are this way. Yet, I will say that a perfect trial dog will most certainly need to have some large energy release daily, or you will have a stir crazy basket case on your hands.
I could write a book, or even a volume to cover all the aspects of training, buying, and choosing a dog to fit your needs. My intention here is to give a layman’s version of tactics when dealing with the process of owning or buying a hunting dog.
First, take time to research the breeds, and I mean time. Months should be taken here. Research all aspects of what you might want in a hunting dog, pet, and friend. Key points are common ailments, ability to train, social aptitude, and temperament. Case and point, goldens are great all around hunting dogs, but need to be social, they don’t do well in a kennel, or left at the ranch for days on end. Likewise, a german shorthair might not be a good pick for a novice trainer with young children. I wouldn’t try to have weimaraners in a small apartment. Some common sense here, but much more can come to play, and research will allow you to find it. Some things I’ve found through the years that you might not know.
Females generally need to be coddled more than males, yet the female has a better tendency to catch on quickly. While your dominance is a very important aspect of training, females you seem to earn it, while males you almost have to take it. (we will get into this later). Typically, the males will have a better nose, especially within a litter. Meaning you might get a female from one litter that has a better nose than a male from another, but within the same litter your males will mostly have superior scent handling skills.
Watch out for differences within breed. For example, Black, yellow and chocolate labs are all completely different dogs. My favorite has always been Chocolates, but you really have to look at the health tests very closely. Again, research and narrow, then research some more.
Ok, so you have determined what your intentions are, and what breed best fits your needs. Next on the agenda is finding some where to buy a dog. If you want a trial dog, stick with top breeders. Simply if you are looking for professional quality, find a professional quality breeder. Chances are they will have many different strands within the same breed, so you can narrow to best fit your situation. This might be the way to go, for just a good hunting dog also, depending on the breeders capabilities. High energy is one of the must haves for trials. If I were buying for trials, I would ask the breeder, to see both the dame and sire work. Spend some time here, offer to pay the breeder for his time, and if the breeder refuses to honor your request simply find one that will. Make sure all health tests are done and all register forms are in order. Breeding rights is an important question to ask here. Most top breeders will allow breeding rights, but you must enter into a contract specifying the requirements of the breeder. This is becoming common, and I wouldn’t let this break a deal on a great blood line. Although, don’t break the contract, this can and will cost you BIG time. You might lose your pup’s, and pay a hefty penalty depending on your contract. This all being said, if you don’t intend to breed, I would never spay or neuter a hunting dog. While they still can be good, more often than not it either shortens their prime hunting abilities and many cases just makes them lazy.
If you are like me and just want a good hunting dog it opens your options to private sellers. Key points here to make sure all warranted health tests are part of the deal. More than worming and shots, some breeds need eyes, hips, hearing, and other checks. Again, do thorough research before hand. Same holds true to see both the sire and dame, and if possible see them in action. Socialization come more into play here also. Many hunting dogs are family pets also. So for me, I want to see them in the field, at home, and in the park. Check their domain. If it is a backyard, look at it, it’s probable yours will look a lot like it. I.e. holes dug, fences torn up, flowerbeds trampled. Genetics play a huge role and you can’t change them, if both parents are diggers chances are the pup will be also. Some are escape artists. Case in point my best hunting Britney ever, literally would leverage himself so he could break the cedar planks of our privacy fence. He would do this by reaching a paw under the bottom and pulling back. It was remarkable to witness. Remember, typically a good hunting dog is smart, and the smarter they are the more creative shit they come up with. My English pointer, devised a plan one time to knock down our banana trees to create a ramp over the 6 foot fence, then jump 5 feet to a trailer I had parked on the side. Took me a week and a game camera to figure out the escape route. If your dog is going to be a house dog, I would discuss this with your breeder. I would never buy a trial dog for a house pet. Well, that would be if you valued your furniture. Again, not always true here, but I would say you have 50% chance. Which I’m not gonna take on a 8 to 20 year investment. Also, many behaviors can be trained out, but it’s so much easier to just purchase the correct dog in the first place.
So you have chosen the breeder, now how to chose the pup. First and foremost, pay for the right to choose your pick of the litter. If you can’t, wait for another litter or find a different breeder. First, start with the paper work. Look at the dogs health checks, a good breeder will have birth info also. Such as breech, natural, revived at birth, defects, and so on. Again, this investment is long term, so I look for as little possible problems. I’ll take a dog that was breech at birth if no other ailments are present, and it excels in my tests. I also try to eliminate as many pups as possible here. This helps me not fall in love with a pup that excels in the tests, but has other limiting health issues. Cull the litter down to the pups that have passed so far.
Now the test. I like to do this all just before a feeding, then carry through to after the feeding. Many times I let the dogs pick me. Just sit down close (3-5 feet) to the free ranged remaining litter and see who comes up first. Don’t coex them, just let them roam, play, and go through their normal routine. This is not a deal breaker, but many times I find the first dog that comes to me is the one that fits the best in the long run. Have pad, pencil, and take notes. Puppies are cute and cuddly which doesn’t help in the field. So, eliminating as much of this emotion is a good thing, at least at first. Next, we just observe the pups before, during, and after feeding. You should be able to pick out the playful ones, roamers, dominant, mischievous, social butterflies, and lazy ones. Depending on what I’m looking for playful active is normally my pick. Trials, I would go dominant active pup. Pheasant in Kansas I might look more for a roamer active. The key here for me, is I don’t want lazy and definitely not the one chewing on everything in site. Although, at this point I still don’t eliminate pups. Just keep good notes.
After they feed let them rest for 10 minutes or so. Many may fall asleep, and this is ok. Just work first with the ones that are up. Separate pups and now work one on one. Stand about 10 feet away and get down on pups level. Call the pup to you. I’m looking for attention span, curiosity, enthusiasm among other things here. Again, full belly they are typically at their laziest. So pay close attention to energy level. The one that is still bouncing off the walls might be a red flag here. Next, I give the pup a piece of soften kibble from their food dish. Basically, just to let them know I have food. Remaining at their level is important through all of these tests. You don’t want to tower over the pups as it could make them act uneasy and skew your results. With a piece of kibble in a closed fist, I hold it slightly above their head. Does the pup sit, actively pursue it, jump and scratch. I NEVER purchase a pointing dog that sits all the time. A real pain in the ass to train out later. Retrievers on the other hand sitting and waiting patiently is a huge plus. Here we are not training just observing so don’t try to teach any behaviors. You just looking at what blank canvas you are getting yourself into.
I now will see if the pup will follow the hand with the food in it. Just hold it slightly in front of the pup and slowly move it away. Again, I pay close attention to attention span. The pup that stays on course the longest receives my highest marks. After I have gone through all my pups I move onto more hunting type stuff. I like crickets first. I purchase some from the bait store, and with my breeders permission I release one or two in front of an attentive pup (many times I add a drop of game scent to the crickets.) Just observe what happens. Does it follow, hunt, is it using it’s nose, eyesight, and hearing. Is it attentive, focused, and stalking. Again, I do this will all the pups and record the results. The next item depends on breed. Upland I use pheasant or quail , waterfowl I use duck. Both I use both. Woodcock is another good one because of the strong scent
I take a rather freshly thawed pheasant or quail wing on a string, and play it in front of the pup much like cat with a yarn ball. Does it show interest? Watch the nose, it it sharp and actively used? Once (if) interested drag the wing on the ground in front of pup allowing it to capture it. Does it chew on it? Retrieve it? Hunt it? Point? Flush? Again, all observations….no coaching. Next with the interested, I toss the wing maybe 5-10 feet. Starting from very close in front of face. Remember their eyes have just opened and the sight is still very fresh to them. What happens? Hunting? Trailing ground? Trailing air? Point? flush? retrieve? If the pup picks it up does it bring it back? Sit and chew on it? Run off with it?
The same as above with much more focus on retrieve, and patience. With Duck wing.
My final test… Maybe my most weighted. I bring chicken meat with me in a pan and hot plate. If outside normally the test is about 20 yards. After heating the chicken with a little water (sometimes I add game scent to the pot also) to steaming hot. I run the pan at ground level in a random course up wind. I like to hide the pot under a shrub or bush. Then bring out the pups one at a time and place them at the start point. I use a stopwatch, and will help a pup that gets too far off course by bring back to centerline downwind and closer to objective. I reheat and rerun the varying trail between pups, many times changing objective to eliminate the possibility of tracking previous dog or human scent. The pup I’m after nose will stay high in the air and will travel a very direct route to the objective. My best dogs in the past have done this test in mere seconds. If none do well, I thank the breeder for his/her time and give them some money for the hour or so we spent. I might even lose a deposit over this. See even a few hundred dollars isn’t worth being unhappy for the term of the investment. If they all fail terribly, I might look at the conditions and simplify the course, but never less than 10 yards. Chances are that you will have at least two out of the litter that do fairly well. With one that excels in most. If that is the case.
I tell the breeder I would like have some time to review my notes and then I will pick my pup. Once I’ve reviewed the notes and either have a clear pick, or multiple clear picks this is when I let emotions get involved. Typically, this is where I let the wife and kids get involved with the remaining candidates and make the final choice. This has worked exceptionally well for me in the past with three dogs now that have outperformed many hrc and ukc champion dogs. My old golden who has since left us, was once regarded as one of the best hunting retrievers in the southern Michigan area, he hunted ducks, pheasant, woodcock, and grouse all a championship levels. Completed the Chicken test in 18 seconds at 30 yards with a point and retrieve at six weeks of age. He was from a local family, that had a golden dame that was a family pet, but had championship blood on both sides, once or twice removed, and the sire was a ukc upland champion.
My final point that I failed to mention earlier, is my best all around dogs have all had championship blood lines. With one parent being a champion or once removed, and the other being at least twice removed from trial Champion blood. Good luck, and remember buying a hunting dog is an investment all the way. If you choose the correct one you will hunt because you love it, but more so because you love to watch your dog work. If you choose the wrong one …….you very well might quit hunting altogether. Good Luck.