Selecting A Super Pup
The space provided by this format is not sufficient to fully explore all the nuances involved in picking a gun dog pup. However, I will endeavor to cover the basics in a five step process aimed at picking a four-legged shooting companion for life.
Step one involves selecting the right type of dog, choosing between flushing, retrieving or pointing dog categories. In choosing type, consider first the species of game and the habitat that you primarily hunt. All gun dog types are well suited to some tasks and poorly matched to others. Waterfowlers, for example, would be best suited to a retrieving breed; grouse, woodcock and quail hunters to a pointing breed, pheasant hunters may be split depending upon hunt style, habitat and personal preference; and rabbit hunters would opt for a hound type. There are versatile breeds that adapt well to different game for those who hunt a variety of species, and can only have one dog. If that is the case, consider which species of game you most often hunt when making your decision.
Once type has been decided, step two is to select a breed within that type. When selecting a breed, primary consideration should be given to temperament. Assertive, driven owners may be best suited to a breed that can survive their approach, while soft spoken, more genteel owners should perhaps chose a softer breed that will not own them. Of the big four pointing breeds, German Shorthairs and Pointers are generally tough minded with English Setters and Brittanies generally being on the soft side. Among retrievers, Chesapeakes are the tough ones, Goldens usually soft and Labs are somewhere in between. The dominant flushing breed, English Springer Spaniels, lean toward the soft side. Of course, these are breed generalizations, and certain bloodlines or individuals within each breed may vary.
Once type and breed have been chosen, the third step is to find the right breeder. First and foremost, it should be someone who breeds dogs specifically for what you do. For example, great grouse dogs have great grouse dogs as parents and ancestors. Do not accept excuses, and insist upon a field demonstration. See for yourself if the parents represent what you are looking for in a prospect. Finally, repeated conversations and a visit will tell you if this is someone you can trust.
Step four involves picking the litter. If more than one breeding is planned, pick the litter from the parents that best suit you, get your name on the list, then be willing to wait. Picking the right litter is far more important than picking the individual within the litter, and will make that individual selection much easier. Linebred litters are much more consistent and predictable than are outcrossed ones, and their parents represent about fifty percent of their genetic make-up.
The final step is to pick the pup from the litter. If you are a breeder, trialer, show dog enthusiast or otherwise looking for something specific, then go in that direction. However, for the typical person searching for a companion gun dog I recommend picking to the middle. Extremes in size may have a greater likelihood of health problems, and extremes in temperament may represent a greater training challenge than you can handle. The alpha dog prized by many competitors may not be right for most people. The most timid pup may be cute, but will likely develop behavior problems. You want a thoughtful pup with a solid, yet biddable temperament. You also want a physically well conformed pup that will stay healthy, and possess stamina in the field. From there, personal taste will dictate gender, markings, color and other characteristics. It is more advisable to pick an average pup from an outstanding litter than an outstanding pup from an average litter.
Hunting aptitude, conformation and temperament should be equally considered when selecting a companion gun dog. Your needs are different than the field or show competitor, not less or more, just different, Hunting aptitude is a product of genetics with parents and ancestors being your only guide in a young pup. Phenotype and temperament are also genetically acquired, but a knowledgeable person can pick which pups will have what kind of conformation and temperament by comparing them to each other using the parents as models.
Over the years I have seen mismatches that condemned the owner/dog relationship to failure. I have seen good quality pups ruined, good owners frustrated and on occasion, great gun dogs result when the right pup found its way to the right owner. Personally, I have had success over the years by choosing the correct type, breed and bloodline for my lifestyle. My setters fit what I hunt and who I am. A century of real grouse dog blood courses through their veins, and their temperament suits them ideally to my personality and my household. They are not for everyone, and that is exactly my point! Most every dog has its place. Put yourself in the group of owners with great companion gun dogs by taking a planned, thoughtful approach to selecting your pup, and getting the right dog in the right place.