“You get what you pay for” is an old and well-worn phrase that has become an American byword against buying less expensive products. But is it really true? In our 21st century world, is quality always related to cost? The answer is usually a hedge of yes and no, or it depends on this or that variable. And nowhere is this uncertainty more alive and well than in the minds of hunters pricing gun dog puppies.
Let me be upfront: You won’t find puppy prices—whether high or low—in this column. Prices vary so much between breeds, breeders and regions of the country that trying to get a handle on them is pointless and often misleading. Within a single breed, the cost of a pup in one locale might be substantially more than a comparable pup in another locale. Even trying to assign a price range to pups isn’t reasonable—again, it ends up too broad to be useful.
“Do you get what you pay for?” is an equally wide-ranging question, though most hunters that pose it are really asking if high-quality breeding is worth the price. I might be going out on a limb, but I’d guess that an overwhelming majority of knowledgeable dog people would answer this question with a resounding yes, top quality is worth the price. But I suspect that many of these folks would leaven their answers with the warning: “Be sure you know what quality is.” And therein lies the rub. Quality of breeding is often a vague notion that for most sportsmen is based less on knowledge and fact, and more on opinion and, as much as anything, the reputation of a kennel. The fact is that few people in the hunting community know enough about gun-dog breeds and bloodlines to honestly judge the genetic quality of an individual pup or the line of dogs it comes from.
“Different people have very different ideas of what quality in a gun dog means,” an experienced breeder told me a few years ago. “For some, quality is little more than a dog that doesn’t bite them and occasionally finds birds; for others, it’s a hunter that comes from a line with a demonstrated capability of doing all that the breed should do and, with proper training, does it with style. For most sportsmen, however, expectations of high-quality breeding means a dog with traits somewhere between these two extremes.”
How Much $$$?
But what is a “fair price?” In general, it’s the highly variable line between what a breeder must charge to cover costs and make a profit and what a prospective buyer is willing to pay. The cost of a hunting dog puppy of any breed is governed, to some degree, by the same overriding force that adjusts the price of other salable items—what the marketplace will bear, though some markets have higher price ceilings for pups than others. Be aware that certain breeds typically command higher prices than others, though the added cost is not necessarily an indicator of quality.
Pups from breeders in particular regions of the United States can also be comparatively costly. Often, elevated prices reflect the greater cost of doing business in certain areas. Everything from land and materials for facilities, to property taxes, dog food and canine health care influence the price of a puppy. Simply to keep their kennels afloat, breeders in more expensive regions must charge more for their dogs. Does this mean buyers are getting proportionately better pups? Not necessarily. That depends on the quality of the kennel. Buyers might end up with a fine pup or pay top dollar for an average dog that costs less elsewhere.
From a slightly different angle, look closely at kennels offering pups at the high end of the price scale without a solid reputation and demonstrated performance behind them. “Some kennel owners,” a breeder friend told me, “have an inflated opinion of their dogs’ quality without the proof to back it up. Most breeders are ‘kennel blind’ to a degree—we all think our dogs are the best—but a premium price should buy premium breeding.”
The reputation of a breeder is an important determinant in where hunters buy their dogs as well as in setting the price of pups. Understand that nationally recognized professional breeders have invested much of their lives and money developing particular bloodlines and must charge more to recoup their years of effort. On top of that, well-known breeders whose dogs are in constant demand, particularly as field-trial competitors, can charge a higher price per pup because the marketplace—hunters and trialers—accepts the increase as legitimate.
I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating: The purchase price of a pup—even an upper-end pup—is the cheapest part of gun-dog ownership. Over a dog’s lifetime, the cost of food, vet services, housing, maintenance, training equipment and related travel expenses will each build to a higher level than the original price of the dog. Added together, these costs will often tally more than a pup’s initial price within a year of bringing it home.
Given that during the 10-15 years of a dog’s life the monetary outlay can be substantial, increasing numbers of hunters don’t quibble about the price of a pup from a respected kennel with a history of producing top-quality dogs. Although luck of the draw might allot them an acceptable dog from a marginal bloodline, as much as not the upfront money they saved buying cheap will come back to haunt them in hidden costs and lost enjoyment.
Here’s another caveat: Think twice before buying a pup with traits you neither need nor want, no matter how good its lineage. For example, a friend of mine who was a casual hunter paid top dollar for a first-class Brittany from a kennel noted for big-running field-trial dogs. Almost from the get-go it was clear that the pup was more than he could handle. He saved himself and the dog years of grief by selling it to an experienced field trialer, then buying an equally well-bred pup out of a line of closer-working Britts geared for foot hunters.
The lesson here is don’t be scared off by the higher price of a fine pup, but do your homework before investing and understand that one person’s top dog might be another’s nightmare. Know what you want from a dog; define your bird-hunting expectations and what breed characteristics will fulfill your needs; and ask breeders if their dogs can meet those needs. Then you must decide: Is the price of a given level of quality worth it to you?
The point of purchasing a pup with high-quality bloodlines is to increase the odds of owning a gun dog that can meet your personal demands in the field. Although finely bred pups with great potential don’t come cheap, and cost alone can’t guarantee top performers, upper-tier dogs from reputable kennels often make the case you can, indeed, get what you pay for.