Do Gun Dogs Make Good Family Pets?

Can working pointers and retrievers pull double-duty as household companions?

Years ago, I hunted almost obsessively. But even then—with youthful exuberance and liberal seasons—I was hard-pressed to eke out 4 months afield. These days I’m lucky to work my dogs off and on for half that time. Let’s face it, for the bulk of each year our dogs are something other than hunters. The question is: What will that “something” be: a pet or kennel dog?

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There are two definite, and opposing, schools of thought on hunting dogs as pets. One opts for working gun dogs to double as first-class household companions, while the other says they should be hunters and nothing else.

Not many years ago, a widespread opinion––one that’s still prevalent in some circles––held that treating gun dogs as companions would ruin them for serious fieldwork; that only dogs kept in outdoor kennels and away from the influence of family members and good living could develop into top hunters. Some of this attitude originated in the belief that house dogs were “soft” or lacked a coat adequate for cold-weather work. (There’s no convincing evidence to support this. In fact, some authorities take the opposite slant; that constant exposure to cold wears down dogs and lowers their ability to cope with harsh terrain and temperatures.) From a more realistic angle, prior to modern internal and external parasite control, dogs brought these pests into the home. Mainly, however, there was a notion that to avoid developing bad habits, dogs should deal only with their trainers; no one else should have input on what they see, hear and do.

The latter idea was reinforced, especially among retriever enthusiasts, by the 1949 publication of the highly influential book, “Training Your Retriever,” by James Lamb Free. The outspoken Free advocated his training style with unequivocal statements such as, “You don’t want anybody else even to speak a kind word to him––much less fondle and pet him.” And, “He will be much better off, at least for a year or so, if you keep him in a proper pen out in the yard––and keep it locked, with the key in your pocket.”

Across the gun-dog spectrum, some professional trainers still promote this lock-’em-up-for-a-year advice, though others now profess the virtues of close contact with youngsters in their formative months. Contemporary trainer Robert Milner in his book, “Retriever Training: A Back-to-Basics Approach,” said, “If I had to recommend one thing to make retriever training easier, it would be to raise Pup in the house with your family.”

Not all “old-timers” were opposed to indoor dogs. Roy Strickland, a widely known and respected pointing-dog trainer of years past, in his classic book, “Common Sense Grouse and Woodcock Dog Training,” wrote, “If you possibly can, keep your dog inside your house, as your constant companion. You’ll go a long way toward training him simply by being with him. One reason why so many bird dogs are imprisoned in an outdoor kennel is because people don’t realize how easy it is to keep a dog inside.”

Twenty-five years ago, Ken Roebuck, an internationally known spaniel breeder and trainer, wrote in his book, “Gun-dog Training: Spaniels and Retrievers,” “I have always believed it to be essential … to keep a dog in the house with you for at least part of the day. To suggest keeping a young gun-dog-to-be in the home will ruin it is nonsense.”

In that vein, several professional gun-dog trainers have admitted to me that the dogs of experienced amateurs were often better trained than their own animals. “Dedicated nonprofessionals have a great advantage,” a well-known pro once told me. “They can keep a pup in their home and focus on its early education. That’s a huge leg up on accelerating a youngster’s learning curve.” He added that owners can be teaching a pup something most of the time; in effect, gently allowing it to “learn how to learn” and showing it that it must obey commands.

‘No Boo-Boo! Bad Dog!’
All that said, there are issues to be faced when you decide to bring up a dog as both hunter and pet. There are many “don’ts” in a companion dog’s life: Don’t take care of “business” in the house; don’t climb up on furniture; don’t counter-surf for food; don’t—well, you get the idea. The list of negatives is as long, short or flexible as an owner’s tolerance, though most of us fall between the “anything-goes” sorts who don’t mind a dog tearing up their house and the “nothing-goes” disciplinarian. Owners should set behavioral limits to ensure pups learn the parameters of indoor citizenship.

It’s also a good idea for family members to establish, and abide by, household rules that will help young dogs stay within their limits and prevent them from learning bad habits––habits that make living with a dog unpleasant and might transfer to outdoor training and work. These rules will vary among households and individual dogs, but similar to field training, they usually deal with commonsense issues such as consistency in commands—don’t say “Here” one time and “Come” the next—acceptable responses to those commands, and the avoidance of negative or contradictory training.

A good starting point is to understand if you don’t want a dog to do something outside of the house, don’t let it get away with it inside. As a broad example, a cardinal rule with any dog expected to retrieve is never allow children to play “keep-away” with it when it’s carrying something. Chasing a dog that has a ball in its mouth is great fun for youngsters, but teaches a pup retrieving is optional: It isn’t. Although children should be involved with a young animal kept inside, their involvement should always be supervised.

A sound approach is for a pup’s primary trainer to set the rules––where the dog is allowed in the house, where it sleeps, what treats it gets, what commands it hears and who gives them, and what is acceptable play. Raising a pup of any breed to be a fine companion and top field dog can’t take place in a fully democratic setting. During a pup’s formative months, one person should control what’s done to and with a young hunting and companion dog.

But living with a hunting dog doesn’t have to remain autocratic. After a young dog’s obedience and basic field training are in place, the rules can be gradually loosened. Most properly raised dogs soon learn to discriminate between playing with kids and serious work with the boss, and that’s when the benefits truly begin to accrue. Your dog isn’t only your hunting partner, but also a full-fledged member of your family with the enrichment that such companionship brings to all.


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