Are You Ready for a Hunting Dog?

It's one thing to dream about having the "perfect" hunting companion, but take your head out of the clouds and examine your real reasons for wanting to own a dog. Our expert explains.

By J. Michael Kelly

My wife and I will never forget the afternoon when we came home from grocery shopping to find Buffy, our six-month-old English springer spaniel, stretched out in the middle of the living room rug.

Or, should I say, what used to be the rug? During our two-hour absence, Buffy had turned that multi-colored woven oval inside out. Starting at one end, she and her needle-like teeth had separated the expensive floor-warmer strand by strand, until it was transformed into a jumbled heap of cloth spaghetti.

Many people, upon seeing such a sight, would have reached immediately for a phone book and dialed the local newspaper to place a "dog for sale" notice in the classifieds.

For our part, we just wailed piteously and reminded each other of how much we loved this recent addition to our family.

Keeping a hunting dog is definitely not for everyone. If you are thinking of getting your first, heed my words.

Although countless articles in sporting publications regale the reader with the advantages of having a four-legged field companion, darned few authors take a hard look at the flip side of the coin.

When you bring a dog home, you have tacitly agreed to nurture that animal and give it all the love, kindness, instruction and discipline it needs to thrive. More than one writer has compared the purchase of a pup to adding another child to the household. The major difference, of course, is that a dog, unlike the average son or daughter, never quite grows up and will always depend on you for its basic needs.

Before sealing a bargain with his local breeder, therefore, a prospective buyer ought to give sober consideration to the potential cons of dog ownership, as well as the pros.

Photo by J. Michael Kelly

Why Do You Want A Dog?
If your sole reason for wanting a dog is a belief that it will make you a more successful hunter, you'd better think twice. A well-bred dog, properly trained, may indeed add to the heft in your game pouch, but a dog with questionable parentage and no innate desire to hunt could make even a skilled sportsman regret the day he first looked in the classifieds.

Conversely, the hunter who goes afield only a few days a year, or who doesn't have the time to hold regular off-season workouts with his dog, won't get the full benefits of owning a hunting companion, no matter how impeccable the animal's pedigree. Instead of buying a pup, such a fellow would be wise to tag along behind somebody else's mutt or save his extra cash for guided hunts.

The proper motivation for dog ownership isn't the likelihood of easier sport. It's the desire to form a partnership with a creature that loves hunting every bit as much as you do.

We bought Harley, another springer spaniel, a couple of months after losing Buffy to a debilitating illness. Depressed by Buffy's passing, I knew the surest way to lighten my heavy heart was to strike up a new relationship with a different dog. From the outset, Harley and I hit it off. Like all loved dogs, she lived to please her master, and we quickly forged what can only be called a psychic bond. Quartering through goldenrod fields, she soon acquired the habit of glancing in my direction after each turn, altering her own path in response to simple hand signals. Moving at a methodical pace that matched my middle-aged ambulating, she seldom roamed more than 40 yards out and rarely flushed a ringneck out of range.

Today, I frequently hunt behind her without the need of speaking more than a word every 20 minutes or so. I know her, she knows me - in fact, I swear that dog can read my mind.

If you can honestly picture yourself having such a close relationship with a dog, start shopping for a pup immediately. You'll treasure the man-dog experience regardless of how many extra birds it puts in your freezer.

Where Will It Live?
Sometimes the hunt for a canine pal is properly aborted after the would-be buyer takes a long look around his neighborhood. Some places are not meant for dogs, and vice versa. Obviously, hunters who live in cramped urban apartments must overcome hurdles that don't confront rural sportsmen. That's not to say a hunting dog can't be happy living in the city. It can, provided it is able to get regular exercise and has adequate opportunities to fulfill its natural instincts in woods and field. City-bound hunters may be able to take their dogs for frequent walks in the park, or work on retrieving and obedience commands in a back yard. Keep in mind, though, that the most diligent home training will largely be wasted if productive hunting grounds are too distant to visit on October weekends.

Like city-dwellers, suburbanites often find it difficult to come up with good places to exercise and train their pups. Local ordinances may prohibit dogs from running loose in parks, and even if there is a public place for such exercise, Little League ball games, group picnics and other activities may distract Fido from the task at hand.

Country residents who have big back yards and friendly neighbors would seem to have it made where issues of dog ownership are concerned.

However, no matter where a hunter lives, he must decide whether there is room for a dog in his own household. Should you lodge your dog in an outdoor kennel, or allow it to live indoors as a virtual member of your family?

Despite that rug-chewing incident (and a couple of other episodes I won't get into), my wife and I have always permitted our dogs the run of the house, with a couple of exceptions. Harley, according to Kelly family tradition, has access to one rather beaten-up old chair but is sternly forbidden from snoozing on any other pieces of furniture. She may watch us eat from an adjoining room but may not beg for snacks.

Every night, Harley curls up on the floor beside our bed and does not retire to her favorite chair until we are fast asleep. You might say that our dog has relatively few boundaries; however, I can assure you the lines that exist are firmly drawn.

As a reward for treating Harley as a beloved pet, I have a working dog of exceptional devotion and reliable obedience, a hunting partner who likes nothing better than spending time with me, at home or in the field.

Admittedly, I have friends who hold to a much different view. Two, in particular, kennel their dogs outdoors at all times and allow relatively little interaction between dogs and non-hunting family members. They get very good results during pheasant season, yet it seems to me that they are missing out on what could be wonderful year-round relationships with their hunting associates.

Kennels also pose some practical problems. First, a kennel must have a run long enough to permit its occupant a reasonable amount of exercise. Such a facility will take up a significant chunk of the yard, and if it is not meticulously maintained through regular repairs and repainting, it may quickly devolve into an eyesore. The likelihood of such deterioration explains why some communities specify the dimensions and materials for backyard kennels, or zone them out of existence.

For some hunters, the decision to confine a dog to an outdoor kennel is made by a spouse or other household member because of concerns over allergies, shed hair, tracked mud, and similar health and hygiene issues. Some fastidious folks simply can't tolerate a messy house, and if you or your significant other is part of that faction, you should resolve to build a kennel. Be aware, though, that keeping a kennel clean can be every bit as time-consuming as vacuuming hair off the family room rug. As for allergies, if dogs make you sneeze or break out in hives, you won't be comfortable with one of your own, no matter where it is kept.

Before moving on to the next subject, let me demolish one canard about dog housing. Namely, keeping a dog in your home will not make it fat, lazy, disobedient or spoiled. Conversely, housing a dog in a kennel will not make it leaner, more biddable or better disciplined. Poor conditioning and bad behavior are the result of inadequate exercise and shoddy training rather than living arrangements.

Will A Dog Fit Your Lifestyle?
It amazes me how many first-time dog owners forget to ask themselves what they will do with their pet when they leave town for a vacation. This is no small issue. In my part of the country, boarding a dog at a suitable kennel or even a veterinary office costs at least $25 per day, but money is only part of the problem. Because most pet-boarding facilities are part-time operations, their owners typically require that a dog be dropped off and picked up at specific hours of the day. Depending on where you are going and how you plan to get there, meeting the pet-boarding facility's schedule may delay your own departure or even hasten your return, meanwhile costing that much more money.

Instead of booking a cage at a kennel, you might elect to contract with a pet sitter - a paid professional, a family member or a neighbor - to feed and walk the dog once or twice a day. That arrangement could work to your satisfaction. Then again, it might not. I remember coming home after one long weekend to find a frantic dog and several stains on the floor because my sitter thought we were returning a day earlier that we actually did.

Vacations aren't the only occasions when you'll have to alter your lifestyle to accommodate the dog. When it has to go, it has to go. Yes, an obedient pet will try its hardest to cork its bladder until you finally get around to letting it out, but sooner or later the dam must burst.

Long story short, you cannot come and go whenever you feel like it if you're going to have a happy, healthy dog.

Do You Really Have Time For A Dog?
Hunting season lasts only a few weeks each fall, but dog ownership is a year-round commitment. As with so many other things in life, you will get out of a dog what you put into it by way of affection, training and gentle but firm discipline.

A confession is in order here. Buffy, that springer pup I mentioned earlier, lived with us for 13 years. She was a devoted, lovable pet, but she never quite panned out as a bird dog, through no fault of her own. The trouble with Buffy was that her master and mistress were so tied up with raising two small children that they had precious little time left over for a dog. Buffy was reasonably fit from playing with our kids and the neighbors' children, but she typically didn't get more than three or four worthwhile training sessions prior to the autumn bird season. When the season arrived, she might be taken into the field on several occasions or not at all as my work schedule and family obligations allowed.

In those days, our local bird coverts were rapidly being plowed under by farmers or bulldozed by housing developers, and I did not have the wherewithal to explore licensed shooting preserves or wild habitats in distant counties. The end result was that Buffy accounted for only a handful of roosters in her career.

Fortunately, we did not make the same mistakes with Harley. To spur her development, my wife took two weeks' vacation commencing on the day we brought the new pup home. Each evening after work, I helped with Harley's basic training, and our then-grown kids augmented the lessons with plenty of play and exercise.

During the ensuing summer, I took Harley on runs at frequent intervals, and as hunting season approached I made sure she got a generous whiff of stocked birds at an area field trial location. She flushed her first rooster to the gun a week later. Since puppyhood, Harley has hunted at least a dozen days each season, and she has played the leading role in the demise of more than 250 game birds.

Can You Afford It?
The real cost of owning a pet is the first thing most hunters forget about when they consider the purchase of a dog. Yet, for the average American household, the money spent on pet food, veterinary bills and such will turn out to be a relatively minor consideration compared to the issues I've already discussed. In this hectic age, most of us can more easily spare a few bucks than a few hours.

In my area, I would expect to pay several hundred dollars for a six- or seven-week-old purebred puppy. Naturally, prices may vary by region, by kennel and according to the demand for and the availability of the breed you desire. Unless you have your heart set on a hard-to-find breed, you can safely assume that a brand-new dog will cost more than a week's groceries but less than a full set of golf clubs.

Not-so-new dogs, and I'm speaking here of animals advertised as "started" or "finished" by their breeders, may cost considerably more, but they won't necessarily be worth it. The age-old debate over whether it's smarter to obtain a grown, trained dog or gradually mold a pup in your own image is worthy of more space than we have here. Suffice it to say I much prefer to do it myself, and not for economic reasons.

In my state, an annual dog license costs less than dinner for two at McDonald's. A canine's food bill is not excessive, either. My 48-pound pooch consumes about two cups of commercial chow per day. A smaller dog will eat less, a bigger dog more. Food is hardly a budget-buster. Normally, veterinary costs won't be, either, but you can figure on a couple of hundred bucks each year for check-ups, shots, flea and tick treatments, heart worm medicine

and the occasional injury or illness. A minor operation, such as spaying a female or neutering a male (though this eliminates any chance to breed your outstanding hunter), could cost a few hundred dollars more.

Serious health problems can add up to serious money. I have friends who have spent thousands of dollars to have cancerous tumors removed from elderly dogs. When a car struck Harley at the age of 2, I did not hesitate to approve the emergency hip surgery recommended by her vet. By that time, my dog was no longer an investment or even a responsibility as much as she was a friend that I could not bear to lose.

Think long and hard about what you would do in such situations, because when you bring a hunting dog home to stay, you're on the road to some equally important, perhaps even more costly, decisions.

Any sportsman who is willing to give generously of his time and affection can look forward to reaping similar rewards from his hunting dog. That assumes, of course, that the animal comes from good field stock. Sad to say, no amount of training or love will make up for poor genetics or a shortage of desire on the pup's part.

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