Picking a Pup

Be sure to do your homework before beginning your search for a new retriever

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Photo © Samuel Strom

By Gary Koehler

In many respects, picking a puppy is like selecting a new vehicle. In both cases the choices are seemingly endless, and a premium is placed on qualities such as dependability, versatility, durability, performance, and ease of handling. 

But puppies do not come with warranties, and no two dogs are ever exactly alike, whether they come from the same kennel or even the same litter. The long-term commitment involved in dog ownership raises the stakes higher still, so you have to do your homework and choose wisely to reduce the chances of buyer's remorse.

Here are several important things to consider when seeking a new puppy.

[1] Don't go it alone.

If you're inexperienced with the ins and outs of retriever ownership, be sure to talk with people who are more familiar with hunting dogs. And by all means take along a friend or family member when visiting kennels to help you survey the field of available puppies. 

[2] Evaluate different breeds.

Size, energy level, temperament, trainability, and versatility are all factors to consider when choosing a particular breed of retriever. For most of us, the dog will serve not only as a hunting companion, but also as a family pet for the greater part of the year. Do you have the living space for a larger breed such as a Lab or Chessie? Or would a smaller dog like a Boykin or American water spaniel better suit your needs? Do some research and choose a breed that best fits your lifestyle.

[3] Check out the pup's parents.

Are they big or small? Genetics will likely determine the ultimate size of your new dog. Many personality traits are also inherited. So be sure to check whether the sire and dam are friendly and good-natured. Walk away from any pup whose parents appear to be ornery or aggressive. Temperament is an extremely important consideration. No one should have to endure persistent growlers or biters.

[4] Choose a reputable breeder.

Ask for references. Talk with hunters who have acquired dogs from each breeder. Inspect the kennel—it should be neat and clean. Look over the pedigree. Are the pup's parents and grandparents gun dogs or show dogs? In most breeds, there is a huge difference between dogs bred for hunting and those bred for show. Do not rush the process. Observe more than one litter.

[5] Gauge the pups' receptiveness.

Pick up each pup in the litter to see how it reacts to your handling. Ask the breeder about the pup's socialization. Has the dog been played with regularly? Introduced to other people and other dogs? The more the pup has been allowed to mingle with strangers, the better. If the pup is handled gently, such interactions help alleviate fear of humans.

[6] Watch littermates interact.

You will see bossy pups that seem to take charge of everything around them. Others will appear to be more submissive. And some may even be shy. Each pup is different, and the way they interact with each other may offer a window into their individual personalities. Confidence and playfulness are always good qualities to look for.

[7] Don't expect perfection.

Understand from the get-go that not every retriever puppy is going to develop into an outstanding hunting dog. Again, the pup's genetics will play a big role in its potential as a canine athlete. Some dogs are simply going to be better than others in the field. If given a solid training regimen, however, most retrievers from good hunting stock will develop into serviceable duck dogs and fine pets. 

[8] Get your entire pack involved.

Make sure your family members are on board with acquiring a puppy. Raising a retriever can be a successful one-person exercise. But surprising your significant other with a dog is a risky venture. Everyone in your household should know what to expect, not only when you first bring the puppy home, but also throughout the various stages of training and development. 


Gut Feeling

Sometimes a prospective dog owner automatically connects with a specific pup. It's not a bad thing to trust your intuition.