by Seth Bynum, DVM
Those of us fortunate enough to share the fields and our homes with a bird dog understand the incredible joy and satisfaction they bring to our lives. With those rich rewards comes great responsibility and a commitment to train, feed and care for an athletic and fiercely driven creature that may well stand by your side for the next 15 years. It’s a decision not to be taken lightly nor one hijacked by impulsiveness.
Consider the purchase of a new bird dog an opportunity to finely hone your needs and wants, and match that list to your lifestyle as well as your hunting style. I have no regrets about the pups I’ve welcomed into my home over the years, but in my career, I’ve seen many regrettable situations where bird-dog buyers failed to do their homework. You owe it to yourself and to your future dog to learn from a few of these mistakes.
Be honest with yourself about the type and frequency of bird hunting in your life. You may pine for a rocket-fueled pointer, but lead a lazier lapdog lifestyle. Many of the owners and dogs that end up in mismatched relationships arrived there because of unmet expectations from one another. The serious upland hunter who covers open terrain out West may be better suited to a certain breed than the apartment dweller who hunts a local preserve a few times each year. While I consider this solid and timeless advice for those considering a gun dog, I also don’t disparage hunters who choose a breed based on aesthetics or anticipated future needs – as long as they understand the responsibility and implications behind that choice.
I fell in love with the German shorthaired pointer (GSP) long before I ever held a shotgun. My eye is hopelessly drawn to all things roan, and I remember the first time I laid eyes on the rich dimensions of liver and ticking when I lived on the plains of Montana. In fact, I’d never hunted over a pointing dog when I decided I’d like to own one. My waterfowling lifestyle was far more suited for a Labrador, but my eye was always drawn to the shorthair. I took the advice of a veteran trainer who told me to buy what I found attractive, as I’d be forced to look at the dog every day for the rest of its life.
Accept the grace that needs and interests change with time and experience. Owning GSPs has opened opportunities and exposed me to types of hunting I never knew existed, or would have been impossible to predict when I was buying my first bird dog. Assuming there’s an understanding of the energy and training requirements involved, a puppy buyer need not have carved in stone the type of hunting they plan to pursue forever.
Finding a quality hunting dog takes time. I consider it obligatory in your pre-purchase research to meet different breeds and breeders. Ask them about their history with the breed, their breeding philosophies and objectives. Their answers should include strategies for improving the health, conformation and performance of the breed, but also ways they’re selecting for stable temperament in pups that will most likely spend the majority of their lives in the home.
I recommend choosing a breeder you connect with on a personal level. Are they available for tech support or able to provide references? Does the breeder offer a reasonable health guarantee in writing, or make an attempt to vet you? The latter suggests they’re passionate about finding quality homes for their puppies. The best breeders will ensure you’re equipped to handle the range, energy and hunting style their pups offer. If it’s feasible, go and meet the sire and dam of the litter. Most quality breeders are more than happy to showcase the efforts behind their breeding program to would-be customers.
The majority of breeders allow buyers to choose their pup based on their placement on the reservation list, but some prefer to match their puppies to buyers. Either method works well, although some buyers find the latter method less desirable, as it limits their ability to handpick their new dog. Don’t let these policies deter you. Knowledgeable and reputable breeders have years of experience in gauging temperament in the pups they produce, and they have a strong incentive to place a particular puppy with the right owner.
While social media has revolutionized our ability to share information rapidly and efficiently, I encourage new puppy buyers to avoid being swayed by breeders with flashy and heavily curated feeds. While I appreciate good photography and well-edited videos, most of the best breeders don’t trouble themselves with frivolities like TikTok. Rather, they rely on word of mouth to keep their puppy reservation lists full.
Avoid the pitfall of making a choice based on finances. Too many first-time bird-dog owners overemphasize purchase price compared to other criteria when selecting a breed or a pup from a litter. Quality dogs cost money to make. Health and genetic screening, veterinary bills and hunt testing require sizable investments from breeders, and I assure you there are many uncompensated hours of late-night puppy care and cleaning wrapped up in the price of a new pup. Compared to food, gear, training and transportation, the price spent on buying a puppy (particularly when amortized over its lifetime) is by far the cheapest part of the investment in owning a bird dog.
Looking at my own situation – veterinary school loans aside – I’d rather not do the math. While spending more for a quality dog certainly offers no guarantee, it’s as close to an insurance policy as you’ll find for its future as a talented, healthy hunting dog and family companion.
Admittedly, it’s easy to allow the excitement that accompanies the decision to begin shopping for a puppy to spill over into panic and impatience. While serendipity does happen, it’s quite rare to stumble upon a high-quality, seven-week-old pup at the precise moment you begin your search. Keep in mind that a pile of cute puppies, no matter their pedigree, can greatly impair judgment in the moment. Make a chart of puppy must-haves and those qualities you’re flexible on, and prepare to add your name to a reservation list. I know very well that the wait is painful, but exercising restraint and patience for a top-shelf hunting dog pays dividends down the road.