Perfect Puppy Picking

Your mission: To find and acquire your new best buddy.

Buying a new pup is one of those landmark moments in life. It’s full of emotion; excitement, sure, and trepidation. Often sadness, as we seek to replace a dog we know can never be replaced. And heart-gripping infatuation; one look at a litter, and we’re in puppy love. We want them all.

Elhew pointer breeder Rick Glover, believes you can find genetics with performance and style, too. He breeds for the “high-tail look.” Photo courtesy: Yellow Rose Kennels

Not. This is serious business, demanding a methodical, objective approach, as if you’d have to live with your decision for 14 years or so.

OK, so it’s both fun and serious. Your seriously fun mission, then, is to find the best possible new best buddy. Here’s what I’ve learned, from more of these unforgettable moments than I can remember and interviews with some leading experts on the topic.

Job 1 is to boil down your options — breed, sex, appearance, performance — and decide what you want. This may seem obvious, but wait a minute! Did you decide on a pointer because setters are too soft, or on a setter because you couldn’t keep up with a pointer? For or against a male or female for whatever reasons? Is color and style that important — important enough to risk compromising performance? We hunting dog owners are as opinionated as they come and too easily succumb to the many myths and misconceptions out there. But that’s beyond the scope of this article; I’ll just suggest you take a moment to clear your head, research and rethink it all.

Quality & Price
We’ve all heard of the proverbial mutt who rose to star hunter status, and that proverb does occasionally pan out. My first shorthair was from show stock, rescued from a non-hunting suburban couple who had come to realize a bird dog was not the best choice in livingroom decorations. I saved some bucks and got what molded rather easily into a fine bird finder, pointer and retriever.

But I was lucky. I’ve since realized that a serious pointing dog owner picks the best pup from the best litter available. The couple hundred dollars difference between outstanding and marginal stock is insignificant in the overall cost of this long-term investment. There’s a moral / philosophical question to consider, too: Shouldn’t we all contribute to making our dogs the best by supporting breeders of the best?

This is especially true if you hope to grow your own pups someday. It doesn’t take trigonometry to figure out that litters of $500 pups you’d get from a $500 bitch, compared with $250 pups you’d get from a mom of that worth, will justify buying the best.

Puppy Picking Customs
Certain procedures and customs apply in buying a top-grade pup, which consists of researching breeders, picking the right litter, and selecting the individual pup. You may do so over the phone or by one or more personal visits. You have a right to expect the breeder to provide health and pedigree documentation; photos of the pups, maybe even video to help you make your decision, especially if the transaction is a long-distance affair. You should also expect to see one or both parents in life or in photos.

“Buyer beware” always applies, of course, but reputable breeders deserve some faith. They have strong motivations for their puppy placements to be successful; their reputations are more important than a sale. Define in your mind what you want, refine how to communicate that, and ask lots of questions. You may be able to negotiate guarantees.

Better breeders have little trouble placing their pups. You secure a selection by paying the full or partial fee up front. At this stage you determine the picking procedure: pick-of-the-litter, first-pick / female; third pick / male, etc. The higher picks may command a higher price, but not necessarily. If selection is important to you, it pays to be first in line.

Plan to bring your pup home at seven weeks of age — the ideal time for him to transition from a member of a litter to a human companion. Be very wary of buying from a litter much older than this unless pups have been separated and started serious human imprinting.

Keep timing in mind. Most litters are born in late winter and spring so those pups will be about six months and, if handled correctly, ready to hunt by fall. A summer pup will be too young; it shouldn’t even tag along until it’s had some basic training, to avoid traumatic experiences.

Picking The Litter
If you’re not a pedigree expert, search out advice from someone who is, such as members of a local pointing dog club. They also may aim you in the direction of some good litters.

“Which isn’t very often in the local classifieds,” a pointer trainer pointed out to me. “They’re often as not backyard breeders who don’t know what they’re doing. Those you find in national hunting dog publications do, and they care about things like reputation and where their pups end up.”

Picking a pup is one of those special moments in life. It’s wondrous and fun but needs a serious approach. Photo by Mike Strandlund. (Photo is Bradley Strandlund with shorthair Zeke, at 9 weeks.)

Follow up your research with phone calls to the breeders and their references. The idea is to identify breeders of your ideal type of dog. For an average bird-dog buyer, that means eliminating the show lines, eliminating the field trial lines, and searching for dogs bred to perform for foot hunters in a variety of conditions on a variety of game. Within each breed of pointing dog there are lines generally considered superior for the average hunter. The setters have their Llewellyns, the pointers their Elhews, and the shorthairs their German direct connections or “KS” dogs. Of course, there are other specialty lines and fine pointing dogs can be found outside of these parameters, but it’s hard to go wrong with a dog designed for your purpose.

“Look for a dog bred specifically for what you want,” said Bob Bailey, owner of Straight Creek Kennels in Kentucky. “For example, our dogs are bred to be a foot-gundog that will range considerably closer than an English setter.” He believes in narrowing that down further to breeders who also are professional trainers. “A breeder who also trains is putting his own dogs in the field and he’s going to be trying to produce the cream of the crop,” said Bailey, a Llewellyn breeder and trainer himself for over 10 years.

Unlike some breeders, Bailey believes that color, conformation, and style are important traits, but cautions that, “every time you breed to bring something out, you sacrifice something else.” In picking his breeding stock, he looks primarily for dogs “that are sensible, which translates to trainable, with a good nose,” and suggests those as the two characteristics to seek in a pup’s pedigree.

“Take a hard look at the female’s side,” Bailey said. “Everybody advertises the stud dogs, but the female is at least as important.”

Elhew English pointer breeder Rick Glover of Honey Grove, Texas, recommends line breeding that shows characteristics you’re looking for going back three generations. Ensure that by in-depth interviews with trainers and breeders; by pedigrees; by photos if color or conformation is important to you; and by personally checking out the puppies’ ancestors when available.

German shorthair breeder Kathy Urseth strongly recommends researching over the phone. “You need to be objective and that means doing all your homework over the phone first, before you even think of taking a look at the pups,” said Urseth, co-owner of Minnesota Horse & Hunt Club. “If you go to look at them, you’re sure to fall in love right away even if they’re not ideal for you.

“Check that the hips and eyes are certified — that’s in the forefront of what a buyer needs to research,” Urseth said. “Bad hips are not a major problem in pointing breeds and I’ve never seen retinal disease in shorthairs, but check them as far back as possible. If the breeder hasn’t had them certified, it tells you that other things may not have been taken care of.

“Of course, you need to ask yourself what you want your dog for,” she said. “If you want it for field trials, that’s fine, but if you’re looking for a foot-hunting companion, you don’t want your dog on point two miles away. A reputable breeder should be able to give you a very good idea of what to expect.”

Picking From The Litter
So you’ve narrowed down the litter, had a look or two at them already, and now it’s time to pick out your pup. You’re excited, but you can feel the anxiety begin to well. Some of these little guys have the potential for the perfect pointer. Some may not. How do you pick from this squalling mass the perfect pointer pup?

Much can be determined by studying their behavior. By now their personalities are developing. Some pups stay off by themselves; they’re liable to grow up timid or aloof. Those that growl and bite aggressively might become a better watchdog than hunter. Those that show both dubious traits can develop into a “fear biter” that’s a hazard to have around.

Most pointer owners want a dog that is intelligent, biddable, and energetic to a degree. These future traits are characterized in pups by curiosity and friendliness toward people. If one pup in particular is consistently the first to greet you it shows not just friendliness, but superior awareness — a rudimentary indicator of intelligence. Look for pups that carry objects, boldly explore, and display dominance of their litter mates. Check for tracking, possible hernias — their overall physical condition.

Beyond that, don’t generate too much worry over picking “the best” available puppy. That is impossible to identify at this point and chances are there isn’t one, anyway. Most breeders I’ve talked to believe too much importance is placed on “the pick.”

“Occasionally you have a puppy that everyone looks at and immediately says — That’s the star” Urseth said. “Sometimes it works out that way; sometimes it doesn’t. I firmly believe that if the breeding was a good one, they’re all pretty much equal. They all have the potential to be a star.”

Glover put it simply: Pick the litter, not the puppy. “You go with an outstanding male and female, and don’t worry about how the puppies will turn out.” Both he and Bailey say that because the genes are there, a person should concentrate on what he likes to look at: “I pick color most of all,” said Bailey. “My thing is style, the straight-tail look,” said Glover. They both like to see aggressiveness in a youngster.

“I take all the pups and put them on the ground, and look for the ones that run out and come back to you,” Bailey said. “Not necessarily the boldest, but never a pup that runs off to a corner.”

Pup picking, like most things, is a matter of personal preference. “Some say they want the quiet one, others want the big boss man,” Urseth said. “You have to ask yourself questions such as do you have other dogs, do you plan to keep it intact or neuter or spay. A reputable breeder will be able to guide you. And don’t think because you ended up at the end of the picking list, that you end up with the pup everyone else rejected. I’ve had litters where three or four were picked over the phone, and the one left over was in my mind fantastic. I’ve also had people tell me they want the runt because they feel a runt that can survive may be the toughest of all, and I don’t dispute that.

“You can’t pin it down to an exact science,” she said. “With a great gene pool, you can pick a great pup blindfolded.”

The pointer pup shopper has a method available to help determine his dog’s most important trait, the old wing-on-a-string trick. Dangle a bird wing from a pole in front of a pup’s nose and see if you get a precocious point. Bob Bailey says “anything from the wrapper off a piece of bologna to a piece of bright metal will serve the purpose, but when we do it, we usually use a quail in a harness.” But he adds that, “I usually don’t fool with it. If you’ve picked a breeder of class dogs, the pups will have pointing ability.”

The All-Important Homecoming
Too many people fail to realize that the dog they purchase may not be the one they end up with.

“So much can happen to a puppy between the time you pick it up and it’s six months old,” Urseth said. “Timidness and dominance are traits that tend to stay, but once a puppy is removed from the litter, if it’s not properly socialized, it can get timid. And I’ve seen some that needed confidence building, and because they were nurtured, they turned into real spitfires.”

Glover says that stage is critical with the Elhews he breeds. “I can guarantee my pups at six months, but not at seven or eight weeks because so much depends on what is done with them,” he said. “An Elhew is a dog with the temperament of a setter. You can’t be rough with them. If they’re not socialized properly, they can develop a squirrelly personality. They respond very well to kindness and personal attention.”

And that’s perhaps the most important ingredient of puppy selection — selecting his learning environment. Pup’s infinite ancestry is what determines his potential; but it’s what happens after his seventh week that decides if that potential is realized.

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