Top Dog: A Hunting Companion

Although pups are the most common route to gaining a canine hunting partner, they aren't the only way to go.

Puppies work for some hunters but not for others, thus a good many sportsmen are weighing the pros and cons of pups versus dogs with varying levels of training. A pup is pedigree and possibility. An older dog is more of a known quantity, with the advantage of being able to hunt for you much sooner.

Once a breed is selected, hunters have four options from which to choose: puppy or introduced, started or finished dog. Many trainers lump "introduced" into "started," but the broader category isn't always clear about what constitutes a started dog. Here's an overview of the options as I see them.

Puppies—Few among us aren't charmed by puppies, but reality holds another side: Some health concerns—hip dysplasia and exercise-induced collapse are two—are difficult to foresee in puppies. Consider, as well, that not every pup is a born winner; a solid pedigree improves the odds of getting the dog you want but can't guarantee it. By the time you learn your pup has health or talent issues, you and your family might be so attached to it that trading it in on a new model isn't an option.

Conventional wisdom says that a pup is the cheapest path to a gun dog; true if you count only purchase price. But add a year of food, vet visits, birds and other costs, and you might have the price of a more advanced dog.

Hunters often buy pups so they can "bond" with them, but the way bond is meant here isn't accurate: Socialization is the key to a dog's capacity to form relationships. Puppies need human contact to develop normally, but the human doesn't have to be you. During their socialization period, as one veterinary website phrased it, pups develop "the ability to bond" and "routinely form new bonds with humans at all life stages."

QUICK TIP Some started dogs are reasonably advanced, while others have less basic exposure than introduced animals. Not all breeders are ethically upright— don't cough up the price of a well-started dog for one that knows little. Do your homework before writing a check; research the kennel, ask why the dog is for sale and for a demonstration of what it knows. Be sure you can return the dog during an agreedupon test period. Remember, the hunting dog marketplace is often seen as a handy dumping ground for problem dogs unacceptable to field trialers.

Introduced Dogs— Dogs at this level are usually 6-12 months old, an age when a number of health concerns can be eliminated and temperament can be assessed. A youngster's drive for birds should be apparent and, especially at the upper end of the age bracket, its general potential as a hunter should be fairly obvious. However, these dogs are what their name implies—introduced to a few key elements, but not trained to any degree.

Introduced dogs from reliable breeders should be well-socialized, with both people and dogs, and have a clean bill of health from a vet. Although what they know will vary between kennels, typically such dogs have been drilled on a few basic commands and are familiar with collars, leads and check cords. They've been exposed to birds and gunfire, and water in the case of retrievers. Some will have been run in training fields and will point or flush planted birds.

Along with reducing the chance of getting pups with defective health, temperament or natural ability, introduced dogs are primed to begin training to whatever level hunters desire. There's still a full range of work to be done, but breeders take some potentially serious questions off the table and put basic gun dog exposures in place. Introduced dogs are good options for sportsmen who can't deal with puppies but want to train their own dogs.

Started Dogs—These dogs run about 8-18 months old and have all of the features of introduced dogs, but with a number of extras added. Depending on age and price tag, started pointing dogs should have exposure to basic obedience, especially the "Whoa" command, and in some cases the e-collar. They should adequately cover ground in search of birds and hold point long enough for a hunter to flush game— don't expect them to babysit birds while you take a nap—but they will not be reliably steady to wing and shot.

Flushing retrievers and spaniels should have a jump-start on obedience commands, particularly the core command of "Sit," and might be collar conditioned. They won't quarter cover like a finished dog, but they should actively seek, flush and retrieve birds. Started flushers won't be consistently steady to flush and shot or handle on blind retrieves.

A started dog is a practical alternative to the time required to train a puppy to at least basic hunting standards. Dogs from reputable kennels, while by no means polished, typically have a solid training foundation. These animals might be "washed out" field trial prospects—they can make fine personal gun dogs—or be pups raised specifically for sale as started. Wellstarted dogs might meet the bulk of sporting requirements with no further training: The majority of hunters don't expect more from their partners than the skills offered by a started dog.

Finished Dogs—Truly finished dogs—not pretenders sold by unscrupulous hucksters—do it all well. They're usually 2-3 years old, developed by firstclass trainers, and carry hefty price tags that reflect the time, effort and money put into them. High-quality pointers should cover ground thoroughly, handle to voice and whistle, be firm on all commands, point solidly until released, honor other dogs, be versed in handling wild birds, be steady to wing and shot, and retrieve to hand. Finished flushers are similarly skilled; they hunt in range and use wind properly, are rock-solid to flush and shot, track moving birds but stop on command, retrieve to hand, and perform at least single blind retrieves. Nonslip retrievers are equally well-trained in blind and boat manners, are steady, and are capable of multiple blind retrieves.

The cost of top-quality finished dogs precludes the vast majority of hunters from considering them, but for the lucky few whose bank accounts can absorb the sticker shock and who want a high-caliber performer, a finished dog might be the answer.

Best Buy—All things considered, I give top marks for the best buy to started dogs. Good breeders/trainers roll the dice for you by selecting healthier, more biddable dogs with natural ability. In addition, these professionals handle early training demands, introductions and ever-present youngster-based hassles. Trainers have food, vet, housing, bird and travel expenses, plus their time—tally trainer investments and the price of most started dogs begin to look like bargains. A decently started dog might be a good fit with your needs and be all you require in the field, plus blend equally well into home life.