By Gary Koehler

The decision to get a new retriever is seldom merely a matter of weighing the costs versus the benefits. Some folks can't imagine living without a dog, much less hunting without one. The choice often comes down to heartstrings as much as it does to purse strings. Nevertheless, all prospective dog owners should understand that the investment they're about to make will be significant. Here's a rundown of just some of the expenses you're likely to incur if you decide to take the plunge and get a new dog this spring.

The bare essentials of a retriever's needs are obvious, and food is certainly at the top of the list. When choosing a dog food, avoid the temptation to buy the cheapest bag in the store. Low-quality kibble may fill your dog's belly, but it might not meet the nutritional needs of a hunting retriever. Do your homework and purchase the best performance dog food you can afford.

There are many other expenses to consider. Structured obedience classes not only help establish a solid training background, but also enhance your dog's social skills. These classes are seldom free. The same goes for professional trainers. If you are inexperienced at working with a retriever, a veteran trainer may be a sound choice. Keep in mind, however, that having your dog tutored by a proven professional can be costly.

When it comes to equipping your dog for the field there is a wide assortment of accessories to choose from, and they all come with a price tag. In addition to basic items such as a collar and leash, you will also likely purchase a dog blind, retrieving bumpers, a bumper launcher, blank gun, whistle, neoprene vest, first-aid kit, and perhaps an electronic collar (for those inclined to use one). Add to the tab some stuff you will need to keep around the house, like a dog bed, crate, grooming brush or comb, nail clippers, shampoo, flea and tick treatments, and heartworm medication.

Besides immunizations and checkups, some dogs may need dietary supplements or vitamins. Others might require veterinary treatments for allergies, infections, teeth cleaning, eye or ear problems, hip problems, and other assorted issues. Cuts and abrasions are not uncommon and may need professional care. And you can consider yourself lucky if your dog makes it through life without any broken bones, skin or coat disorders, intestinal maladies, or worse.

Long hunting trips with your dog can prove costly as well. Commercial airline tickets for pets are pricey, and room rates are usually higher at pet-friendly hotels. Hiring a pet sitter or kenneling your dog when you go on vacation is another expense to consider.

And sometimes the unexpected happens. For example, a close friend of mine had a golden retriever that developed cancer late in life. A year into multiple procedures, the dog's vet bill came to nearly $3,000-a figure that many owners would find prohibitive. "He's a member of the family," my friend told me one day. "And I'm going to do everything I can to save him."

I understood my friend's sentiment. More than 20 years ago, I acquired a German shorthaired pointer on Christmas Eve. He was the runt of his litter, but he grew up to be a good-looking dog and a savvy hunter. At around age four, Nick blew out his left rear knee during a training exercise. He was retrieving bumpers at a small pond when his foot became caught between two large rocks. He pulled mightily and-pop-there went the ligaments. When we took Nick to the vet, a specialist was called in to handle the surgery. The tab came to more than $800, which was a budget-crushing blow at the time.

The bottom line is this: the original purchase price of a duck dog is just a drop in the bucket compared to the costs incurred over his lifetime. Then again, the companionship and joy we often experience in hunting and living with our retrievers can be priceless.