Are You Ready For A Hunting Dog?

There is more to owning an upland or waterfowl dog than meets the eye. Our expert explains how to pick a dog to suit your hunting (and household) needs. (June 2007)

Photo by Joe Richard.

"That's beautiful," my friend and avid retriever trainer, Dawn Shewchuk said last fall as Boomer, her 7-year-old golden retriever, came bounding back after picking up a pheasant she had shot.

Her simple phrase sums up how most avid bird hunters feel when their dogs find, point, flush and-or retrieve pheasants, grouse, ducks, geese, quail and other game birds.

Next to a well-fitted shotgun, a trained hunting dog is one of the most important tools for bird hunting.

Most hunters looking to buy a hunting dog spend hours studying the various dog breeds. Waterfowlers look at the finer points of Chesapeake Bay, Labrador, golden and other retriever breeds. Pheasant seekers debate whether to get a pointer, setter or spaniel.

But during the breed search, it's easy to overlook some of the key points that all hunters need to investigate thoroughly.

DO YOU NEED A DOG?

Perhaps the hardest question to answer is: Do you really need a dog?

In many states, pheasant season is a mere four weeks. Duck hunting seasons are often split into short two- to four-week seasons.

With short hunting seasons in most states, can a hunter justify the cost and commitment of owning an expensive specialty hunting dog?

In order to make an affirmative reply, consider, too, that your dog will probably end up being more than just a hunting dog. Buying a dog now means you're making a 10- to 15-year commitment to your new best friend.

The costs of owning a dog are also significant. Purebred hunting dogs from quality field lineage cost between $700 and $1,500 depending on breeding.

In addition, the hunter can expect to spend another $800 to $2,000 per year to feed, house, train and care for the dog.

Along with the above, hunters can realistically expect to get about eight to nine years of effective hunting from their dogs. Most bird dogs miss their first year of hunting (or don't perform well) because of youthfulness and lack of training.

Some exceptional dogs will hunt like pros at 6 months or one year, but senior citizenship hits dogs quickly and most dogs are retired from hunting when they reach the age of nine or 10. At this juncture, hunters begin to think about adding a second, replacement dog to the mix.

Assuming you decided that the costs of owning a hunting dog fits your salary, your next step is to evaluate your lifestyle during the off-hunting seasons.

If you plan to train the dog yourself, you will need to schedule the time to accomplish that goal.

Typically, the hunter begins his dog's training program by going to a local dog training facility to take a class that teaches basic obedience. Then, we pore over training books and spend several more hours each week working on field training.

Hunters working nine-to-five jobs may find field training difficult because nightfall comes early in spring, winter and fall. Thus, training regimens are concentrated on summer weekends where family pressures can interfere with planned lessons.

Hunters with cramped lifestyles may want to consider sending the dog to boarding school for training. While this option certainly saves time, it can be costly, often exceeding $400 per month. And you'll lose that close, personal touch that comes with owning and training your own hunting dog.

If you have the money, the time, the commitment and the space, a hunting dog should be in your future. Those lacking the time and money can still acquire a dog.

One dog owner I met bought a golden retriever with his income tax return. Another hunter opened a Christmas club account, which yielded enough money at the end of the year to buy his German shorthaired pointer.

FAMILY MATTERS

The family will play a major role in the hunting dog decision. First and foremost, if your partner does not like the dog idea, it is best to delay the purchase for better times.

Also, spouses and children command most of your attention and finances, thereby reducing your ability to train and fund a dog. It can be an uphill battle if you're the only one who wants the dog.

One way to fulfill both family and dog obligations is to integrate the hunting dog into the family as a pet. Hunters planning to work this angle need to make some informed decisions on the best choice for a family hunting dog.

Some high-stung, highly bred field dogs make poor house pets. These dogs are hyperactive and over-enthusiastic. Counter tops, tables and furniture exist merely to give the dog something to jump on.

Conversely, lumbering "show-dogs" usually make mild-mannered house pets but lack the birdiness or fortitude needed for hunting.

When you finally select the desired hunting breed and pick out a breeder, visit with the puppy's parents and grandparents. Behaviors (good and bad) are passed down through the generations.

BASIC TRAINING -- FOR YOU!

Keep in mind that all hunting dogs are bred for athleticism, stamina and strength as well as for their birding instincts. Therefore, dog owners must allow time for the animals to exercise. Training your dog can displace some of that athletic energy.

But hunting-breed dogs need to run. On days when you are not training, allow time for the dog to just run off that pent-up energy.

Each year, thousands of dogs end up at shelters or are put out for adoption. One of the more common reasons is that the dog is too hyper and destructive. Daily exercise helps dissipate some of these problem behaviors and enables your hunting dog to develop into a valuable house pet.

Veteran bird hunters will often tell you that in order to have a good hunting dog the animal must be kept outdoors all the time. The belief is that a good hunting dog is more apt to maintain its natural hunting instincts and toughness by living in the "wilds" of an outdoor kennel.

That belief is a hunting myth. Dogs are socia

l creatures. They enjoy being close to their human masters. And closeness helps form a bond between dog and hunter that turns the individuals into a great hunting team.

When a dog is "stored" outside to enhance its hunting instinct, the bond between hunter and dog is weakened.

Part of the above outdoor myth is based on practical dog care ideas, however. Dogs need to acclimate to the cold weather. Hunters living in the northern regions will want to see that their dogs can be kenneled or tied outdoors for several hours a day from late summer through the end of the hunting season.

For example, how fair is it to send a retriever into the icy water after spending the year sleeping in front of the fireplace? Part-time outdoor dogs develop a natural immunity to cold weather because their fur thickens in response to the changing seasons.

Indoor dogs don't get a true sense of the incoming cold weather and therefore have trouble coping with freezing temperatures.

Time can also be budgeted. In our time-pressed world, blocking out one or two hours each day for dog training can be difficult. Work, long commutes, family activities and other commitments can erode dog-training time as well as hunting time.

At the very least, block out 10-minute training intervals each day. If you can spend 10 minutes in the morning before work, another 10 after work and then another 10 before bed, your dog will get 30 minutes of training per day.

With this formula, if you miss one or two time blocks during a given day, your dog still gets some attention, and should end up with about 90 hours of training per year.

Of course, owning and training a dog requires commitment and you cannot budget commitment. Remember the old adage for any activity: You only get out of it what you put into it. Put your heart into a dog and you will enjoy many years of exciting sport with your valuable hunting partner.

LIFESTYLE CHANGES

Hunters should evaluate their family lifestyles as part of the dog-buying decision. The average American works eight hours per day, gets a one-half hour lunch break and commutes 20 minutes each way.

With that schedule, a dog would be alone for nine to ten hours per day. While an adult dog could handle that quiet time, a puppy might not. Thus, before getting a puppy you need to arrange midday home visits on lunch breaks, or have family members or a dog sitter walk the dog during the work day.

Traveling salesmen and other careers that require lengthy travel trips must evaluate their ability to care for a dog. If you have such a job, you need to be honest with yourself about what is fair to your dog. Owning one may not be the best thing for you or a canine hunter. Don't get a hunting dog if you honestly don't have the time to train or hunt with it.

SOME OPTIONS

If your life situation prevents or dissuades you from getting a hunting dog, you still have some options. For example, consider buying a "started dog" from a professional dog trainer.

Waterfowl hunters will almost always pick a retriever. Buying one is not simple because all retrievers are not created equal.

Started dogs have already undergone the basic training needed to turn them into quality hunting dogs. You could spend $3,000 to $6,000 for a started dog depending on its level of training.

But the advantages here are that you're buying a one- to two-year-old hunting dog that is ready for the field instead of a puppy that needs to be housebroken, obedience trained and then field educated. If you put a value on your time, the started dog could actually be considered a bargain.

At this juncture, one might think that buying a hunting dog would qualify you for advanced psychological counseling. But, owning a dog provides rewards beyond the financial burden and time commitment. Your dog will be your best hunting partner. He will never laugh when you miss a bird not criticize your field miscues, nor stand you up because the weather is too cold, too windy or too wet.

Rover will always be there by your side --in the field and at home.

WHICH BREED IS BEST?

Once you make the decision to get a hunting dog, your next difficult step is to evaluate the breeds. Hunting dogs can be divided into three groups -- pointing, flushing and retrieving. These designations indicate what the dog will do in the field.

But, a more definitive approach would be to separate the hunter into one of three categories -- upland bird hunter, waterfowler, or a combination hunter. Which group best describes your hunting activities?

Your answer will help you pick the hunting dog that best fits your needs.

PICK YOUR POISON

Hunters who pursue upland birds like pheasants and quail, will do best with pointing or flushing dogs. Pointers are trained to stop and stick their noses out (point) toward the hidden bird. Then, the hunter moves into position to flush the bird out of its hiding place.

Flushing dogs zigzag through cover, finding and flushing hidden birds. Hunters need to stay close and pay attention to the flushing dog because birds can flush without warning.

Some of the more popular pointing dogs are true pointers (such as English or German shorthaired pointers), setters such as the English and Gordon breeds, or the "versatile" European hunting breeds such as the vizsla and Weimaraner.

If your dog is going to be a house pet in a family setting, setters may be the better choice. Single- or two-person households can select any of the above dogs without remorse.

Keep in mind that longhaired dogs such as setters require daily combing and hair maintenance while pointers generally have short hair and easily shuck off burrs and thorns.

Spaniels and retrievers are good flushing dogs. These dogs also tend to be fast workers, so plan on a good personal workout as you follow them around the field! It's important to teach such dogs not to roam too far or you won't be doing much shooting because they'll be flushing birds out of range.

Hair length can be an issue with spaniels and some retrievers too. Most spaniels have longer hair, as do golden and flat-coated retrievers. Brushing will likely be mandatory after a hunt. Labrador and Chesapeake retrievers have short, coarse coats that de-burr easily.

With short hunting seasons in most states, can a hunter justify the cost and commitment of owning an expensive specialty hunting dog?

Solitary upland bird hunters can opt for pointing or flushing breeds. Upland hunters who rarely hunt alone will probably want a pointing dog. Pointers and setters allow tandem hunters to utilize blo

cking strategies and work to force birds to flush ahead of the dog in open shooting lanes.

Waterfowl hunters will almost always pick a retriever. Buying a good water dog is not simple because all retrievers are not created equal. Sadly, the dog-show competitions forced some breeders to select dogs for their looks rather than field aptitude. This problem is most evident today with golden retrievers. Hunters can find some excellent golden retrievers. But retriever buyers need to evaluate the field lineage of any retriever before the purchase.

WHAT ABOUT RETRIEVERS?

Over the years hunters have debated the merits of English and American Labrador retrievers. Generally, English labs are short-legged, stocky dogs. They tend to be more docile and easier to train. American labs are taller, faster and more athletic. These dogs tend to be hyperactive and sometimes stubborn.

If you plan to hunt thick marshes, swamps and flooded timber, American-style labs may be a better choice. Hunters focusing on open fields and puddle-jumping small ponds may enjoy the English version.

English labs make better in-house family pets because they are content to sleep on the sofa when not hunting.

American labs tend to spend the day jumping at the doors and windows waiting for you to walk into the house!

Golden, Chesapeake Bay, flat-coated and other retriever breeds have their adherents. But, each breed has its advantages and flaws. Generally, goldens and flat-coats are great family dogs. Chessies tend to gravitate toward a single master.

If you hunt upland birds and waterfowl, your dog selection is not as limited as many think. Retrievers, with the right training, make great upland bird dogs.

Today, hunters can even obtain pointing labs that will point and hold on birds. When your retriever is not in the water fetching ducks, it can be sniffing the hedgerows for grouse, quail or pheasants.

Spaniels, especially the springer spaniel and the Irish water spaniel, are also great waterfowl dogs. These breeds have strong leg muscles allowing them to "spring" into action as they jump over fallen trees and crash through briar patches looking for birds. This physical attribute carries over to the marshes, too, as spaniels are very good swimmers and retrievers.

Hunters should always remember that hunting birds in today's world is a privilege, and with that privilege comes responsibility. Shot birds must be retrieved. A well-trained hunting dog will gladly and efficiently accomplish that goal.

After spending years training and hunting with dogs, I cannot imagine being without one. My dogs are a pleasure to watch as they work a field for pheasants or slosh through the mire to pick up a downed duck.

The canine enjoyment continues at home with happy tail wagging, unconditional affection and unquestioned loyalty. All of these make owning a hunting dog worth the money, time and commitment it takes to get started.

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