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Pick a Pup

Do your homework before you look for a new hunting dog.

By Henry Chappell

Hunting dogs are born, not made. Pointing and retrieving tendencies, scenting ability, intelligence, trainability, drive and mental toughness are inherited. Rigorous training and experience can sharpen skills and partially compensate for slight deficiencies in pointing and retrieving instinct, but no amount of love and patience can instill hunting desire.

Picking a pup involves three choices: breed, litter and the individual pup. Most waterfowl specialists will be happiest with one of the retriever breeds such as the Labrador, golden or Chesapeake Bay retriever. Hardcore upland bird hunters — especially in Texas — usually hunt over pointing dogs such as the English pointer, English setter, German shorthaired pointer or Brittany. For an overview of the sporting breeds, check The Complete Guide to Bird Dog Training by John R. Falk (The Lyons Press), $22.95, or Gun Dog Breeds: A Guide to Spaniels, Retrievers, and Pointing Dogs by Charles Fergus (The Lyons Press), $16.95.

Choosing a litter means choosing the sire and dam. The fact that a dog is purebred or “has papers— means little. Mediocre dogs usually beget mediocre offspring. Yes, backyard breeders sometimes produce excellent pups; reputable breeders do so consistently.

What makes a breeder’s reputation? In short, field champions — dogs that have accrued enough wins or points in field trials or tests to earn the title of champion. “We need field trialers because they are aggressively breeding for nose, style, desire and intensity — everything we hunters are looking for in a dog,— says James Collier, a veteran professional trainer based in Decatur. “They breed the best to the best.—

Collier recommends that prospective litters boast champions in at least three immediately previous generations. Pup buyers should learn to evaluate pedigrees registered with the American Kennel Club http://www.akc.org, United Kennel Club http://www.ukcdogs.org and Field Dog Stud Book http://www.americanfield.com. Local AKC- and UKC- affiliated breed clubs and field trial organizations such as National Shoot to Retrieve Association http://www.nstra.org can help guide newcomers through the maze of trials, tests and titles.

Hunters beware: Bench (show dog) championships say nothing about hunting ability.

Now, how do you pick from that roiling pile of tails, paws, plump bellies and quivering noses? “I’m looking for the pup that’s outgoing and people-minded, one that comes to me and likes to be petted,— Collier says. “I’ll turn the litter loose, move the mama dog, and get down and play with the pups. Then I look for the one that retrieves. Retrieving is a sign that the pup wants to please.— Collier recommends tossing a knotted handkerchief or small stick a few feet in front of the pup. “I’ll tease him with it first, hold it, and rub my scent on it. I want the one that’ll run out and pick it up. He doesn’t have to bring it right back to me – he’ll learn that later.—

Collier warns against taking two pups from the same litter. “If those pups stay together, they’ll become more dog-oriented than people-oriented.—

Picking a pup means choosing a partner for a decade or more. Choose with cold objectivity. Then throw your heart into the partnership.

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