Picking a Puppy: Advice for First Timers and Salty Dogs

“Fetch it up!” In amazement, I watched the sleek black lab thrust its nose under a clump of grass, nab the wounded duck hiding there, and trot back to heel beside my buddy, head (and duck) held high. If you’ve hunted with a trained dog, you’ll understand why so many of us love them! After seeing the benefits of a gun dog firsthand, you may want one of your own. The rewards are many, and the loyalty of an always-ready hunting buddy is priceless.

Buying a puppy is a daunting task. Deciding to get my first puppy was the easy part, but I didn’t know where how to start. I knew nothing about working dogs, and I needed to do this right. Making a poor puppy pick could result in years of frustration, remedial training or worse—a non-hunting dog! But picking the right dog and investing time to train it would bring a lifetime of wonderful memories.

First Steps

 There are so many questions to ask before buying a hunting dog. Which breed should I choose? How do I find a breeder? Female or male? How do I pick an individual puppy from the litter? We’ll cover all these in the article.

Many dogs are family-friendly if well-socialized from a young age, yet there are differences between breeds and individuals. If you have young children, this is an important first consideration.

Some working dog breeds are multi-taskers, and others are specialists, so learn all you can about the breeds that interest you. You’ll notice national organizations for most breeds, which have a wealth of information and are a good starting point. Local breeders can also answer breed-specific questions. Better yet, by attending field trials and hunt tests, you can see dogs in action and introduce yourself to a community of like-minded gun dog owners.


 The price of a hunting dog often varies with the reputation of the kennel and its bloodlines. Usually, you get what you pay for, but like designer labels, some dogs command a higher price because of the number of titles in their pedigree. Does that make them better? Not necessarily. Puppies from good working dogs will also have the instincts and drive necessary to be excellent hunters. Pick a litter within your budget and use positive genetic traits and good health as your guide.

A word of caution. Even a dog with the ‘best’ genetics may not hunt well if they lack adequate training and consistent reinforcement.

Finding a Reputable Breeder

Picking a puppy starts long before the puppy is born. Once you’ve selected a breed, look for breeders recommended by gundog owners—the best breeders will have a reputation for producing quality hunting dogs. Check out their websites, and if you like their dogs, call them.

Ask the breeder about the essentials like deworming, first vaccinations, Kennel Club (or breed) registrations and microchipping. Also, ask how the puppies are socialized. Puppies that are regularly handled enjoy people and will be much friendlier than those that don’t receive attention and affection.

The introduction of new scents stimulates developing doggie brains and familiarizes them with a wide range of smells. Even before their eyes are open, pups can identify different smells. Many gundog breeders enrich their puppies’ experience and encourage brain growth by introducing new scents.

Breeders who willingly share information and help you—as a soon-to-be dog owner—through the process inspire confidence in their kennel. I’ve noticed some breeders are keenly interested in the success of past litter’s puppies—another sign they’re fully committed to quality dogs. Ensure your breeders have high health standards and hip/eye/elbow certification. Many breeders offer reasonable guarantees against health defects.

Pick the Litter

 Honestly, selecting the breeder is the hardest part. If you trust the breeder, you’ll know they’re pairing the dam and sire for quality puppies. Dogs who produced proven progeny from a previous mating are an excellent choice for future litters. Good genetics pass desired characteristics from the parents to the offspring, like soft mouth, calm temperament, love of water, good nose and birdiness.

A reputable breeder wants a good fit for their puppies, so they’ll likely have questions for you too. Some breeders have breeding contracts; make sure to chat about that upfront.

Picking the gender of your new puppy is mostly a personal preference. Male dogs are typically bigger than females if size matters. Do you plan to breed your dog? If a litter of puppies isn’t of interest, neutering (spaying) changes hormone production and eliminates some undesirable behaviors. There’s evidence that delaying neutering (spaying) until after the dog is fully grown has long-term health benefits.

Pick a Puppy

 Randomly picking any puppy from the right litter will turn out fine if we’ve done our part by picking the breeder and the litter. For some, picking a puppy—which is part science and part gut feel—is half the fun.

Choosing an individual puppy can be tricky. I like a puppy that’s curious but not aggressive and bursting with playful energy. Most characteristics are best noted by the breeder, who will spend lots of time with the new pups in the first few weeks of life.

My first dog’s breeder loved tracking growth stats and recording behaviours. We settled on the unnamed puppy with a yellow collar based on these graphs and reports. We arrived confident in going home with ‘Mr. Yellow’, but after watching the pups playing with bird wings, we noticed one of the quieter puppies was more interested in the pheasant wing than the others. That curious wing-chasing puppy trotted over and untied my shoelaces. The rest is history. My gut told me this was the dog for me! And little red—our 2nd choice on paper—turned out great.

Many breeders take pride in helping pair individual pups with their new owners’ hunting lifestyle. In a way, this makes more sense, especially for inexperienced dog owners, and takes away the stress of the process. Rest assured that you picked a good litter, and any pup will turn out great.

Once you pick the pup, it is the right one!

Puppies go to their new homes around the 8-week mark. At this point in a dog’s life, they are old enough to know they are dogs but young enough to join their new ‘pack’ and bond with their human pack-mates.

Final Thoughts

Picking a puppy isn’t easy. Doing your homework and picking a breeder, litter, and puppy takes time, but it’s a sound investment!

The final step is training your pup—gently shaping their raw talent and instinct into a hunting partner. It’s a critical step and a great bonding experience for both of you. Training a dog from a squirming puppy to its full potential is satisfying, knowing you played an essential part in its development. The day my first dog charged into the water and retrieved a duck on command was a day I’ll never forget. The culmination of time and effort made it all worthwhile!

Now, years and dogs later, the hunt has different dynamics for me. I get pleasure watching my dogs work and our bond together. My dogs are born hunters. They live for the hunt. And picking a puppy was one of the best hunting decisions I’ve made.

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