Congratulations! You got permission from a spouse, moved to a bigger place, or finally decided it’s now-or-never time. You’re ready for a hunting dog.
Now, the real work begins. Sure, you can pick a squirming pup from a box in front of the grocery store and get lucky. Truth be told, some of my favorite hunting dogs have come from the cardboard kennel! Missy was a Lab-Brittany mix who hunted until age 15, putting birds up even when deaf as a post and blind as a bat. Ruby is a Lab-wirehair loyal to a fault and solid on pointed birds and a vacuum-cleaner of a retriever. Buster was a Lab, until we learned he was a Chessie and Pointer. They, and many others of questionable breeding have their parking places permanently reserved in my heart.
But this is your first of many opportunities to hedge your bets, play the odds, so being more careful will ensure a decade or more of quality companionship and performance in the field. So put your wallet back in your pocket, get your hand out of that box, and let’s get started.
Well before you go puppy shopping, consider your own personality, what birds you will most often hunt, and start learning about the wacky (and wonderful) world of bird dogs. Are you intrigued by quiet mornings in a marsh? Are you an Action-Jackson type, who can’t stand still? What else do you do in your free time (besides honey-do’s) that you enjoy, and why? What do you really want from a bird dog? A fellow couch potato, or a running buddy, lean, mean hunting machine or occasional blind buddy … all are legitimate as long as your expectations are fully met by your choice of dog and your hunting style.
Start your homework by learning the game. Read, watch videos and TV shows, subscribe to the magazines and most importantly, join a local chapter of a dog-training group. Get involved as a volunteer and put those new boots on the ground at training days and hunt tests, field trials and meetings. Learn the lingo, watch the various dogs in action, understand field protocols, and build your knowledge base. Ask all the dumb questions, find out who breeds good dogs. Make a study of the well-trained and high-performing dogs, learn from them and their owners. That may lead to the next important step: go hunting with experts.
Whether it’s a professional outfitter or experienced and generous amateur from your new club, dip your toe into the hunting water by watching others, their dogs, and sampling the sport. If your spine tingles when a dog points, or your adrenaline floods when a pheasant is flushed, yep, you’re a good candidate for both hunting and a four-footed hunting companion. If neither trips your trigger, stick with video games or knitting.
Then get philosophical. Are you a Type-A workaholic, or a laid-back kinda guy? Perfectionist, or is close-enough-for-government work okay? There are dogs, breeds and testing groups for each. Are you up for a schedule rich in training, conditioning and striving for the next level, or do you simply want a loyal companion that enriches your days on the couch as much as those in the field? For some of us it’s a lifestyle, for others, a hobby on par with occasional card games and watching football. Be realistic.
Then, get practical. If you’re living in Louisiana and expect to hunt ducks most often, you can narrow your search to retrieving breeds. Pheasant country residents might consider flushing breeds, and so on. Then, there are the diehards leading eat-sleep-hunt lifestyles for a variety of birds. That’s where the more versatile breeds rise to the top of the list.
This is serious stuff, folks. A hunting dog needs birds, training, attention, conditioning, your time and emotional commitment. Whoever said “You may have many best friends but your dog only has one” was absolutely, positively correct. If you’ve been around dogs as long as I have, you know they’re constantly evaluating the humans in their midst. Puppies wobble away from littermates toward one person, adult dogs have a sixth sense, all are pretty good judges of character. We should do the same. Being a best friend to your bird dog starts with carefully picking the right one.