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Picking the Right Retriever

Consider these helpful hints before selecting your next duck dog
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by Gary Koehler

Retrievers come in all shapes and sizes. Temperament and trainability also vary from breed to breed. Think about your lifestyle, and exactly what you are looking for in a retriever, before taking the plunge and purchasing a waterfowl-hunting dog. This simple exercise could save you considerable anxiety later on.

Size, for one, is an important factor. While some folks are not at all averse to having their dogs sleep on their beds, not everyone is equipped—or willing—to have a 60- to 100-pound retriever romping around the house. Large dogs take up a lot of space. They also eat considerably more than their smaller counterparts.

So, if you are pressed for room, instead of looking at husky Labradors, Chessies, and goldens, perhaps you would be wise to research some of the smaller breeds, such as Boykins, American water spaniels, or Nova Scotia tollers. I once had a German shorthaired pointer (a wonderfully versatile breed) that, although mainly an upland bird dog, performed admirably in the duck marsh as well.

If you plan to keep your retriever outside, the dog's size may not be a problem. But you will need space for a kennel of some sort, and a yard or nearby park or other open area where the dog can run around. Sporting dogs need plenty of exercise. Your schedule must allow for regular walks and at least some degree of training. If you are unwilling to tackle these chores, you may be better off without a dog.

Long hair or short? Yes, there is a difference among sporting breeds. I've got family members who are extremely fond of golden retrievers. One in-law has two male goldens. They've been great dogs. But their combined shedding would drive some folks over the edge. My Chessie noticeably sheds twice a year, in the spring and again in the fall. Picking up after her is plenty for me. Long-haired breeds require more grooming. This, too, requires a willingness to take the time. Know that going in.

If you are inexperienced with dogs, some breeds are better choices than others, if only because they are typically more biddable. My Chessie has never caused a problem at home or among strangers, is extremely loyal, and loves to hunt. But I cannot in good conscience recommend a Chessie to a first-time dog owner. They take a special hand, particularly where training is concerned. Fortunately, I had knowledgeable people steer me in the right direction.

Do your homework on the different retriever breeds available. There is no rule that says a waterfowl hunter must own a Lab, a golden, or a Chessie. While these three breeds are fine choices, there are many alternatives that may better fit your lifestyle and the role that you want your dog to play.

For example, perhaps you enjoy pursuing upland birds as much as duck hunting. A springer spaniel could do both, right? Many other breeds are also capable of double duty.

The more you learn about retrievers in general, the more educated choice you will make. Connect the dots. In the retriever world one size does not fit all.

Perhaps the best advice that can be given to those looking for a new retriever is to check out each prospect's parents, no matter what the breed. Are they hunting stock? What's their disposition like? How is their health? Are they within the breed standard in size and stature? Are they social or independent? These qualities are often passed down to the next generation.

What about a Started Dog?

Should you purchase a puppy or an older dog? That's a tough call. Puppies will require additional work, beginning with training the pooch to do its business outside. In addition, puppies must be socialized, introduced to obedience training, and more closely supervised. You can get a jump on these things by acquiring a "started" dog—a retriever that's a year old or so and has a good grounding in obedience as well as some field training. Price, however, is a consideration, as started dogs can cost significantly more than puppies. But what you're paying extra for is the early training. If the dog is from a reputable kennel and was handled properly by a qualified trainer, it should be ready for field work. Finishing a retriever can be a lot more fun, and less hassle, than training a pup from scratch.

More puppy selection tips »

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