Choosing A Bird Dog…

During next month’s “Woods-n-Water News” Outdoor Weekend, I’ll be able to stroll through the puppy tent without regret. Now, I didn’t say “without temptation,” and I didn’t say “without falling in love and having my heart broken a couple times.” But my regrets as well as my wallet will remain in my pocket because I’ve done my homework.

For reasons that probably have more to do with emotion than logic, I’ve decided that after four English setters in a row, I needed to start working with a different breed. Over coffee one morning at the Shamrock Pub in Utica, I was explaining to my buddy Joe the things I liked about the new breed I’ve decided on, the contrasts between it and English setters, and some of the considerations that came into play.

“Wow,” he said. “I didn’t know that so much thought has to go into choosing a hunting dog.”

If you’re going to do it right, yes indeed, it does take a lot of thought and mental preparation to make a wise choice of a hunting dog puppy. And it occurred to me that I might have been taking for granted some things a perspective hunting dog owner might otherwise need to be reminded of. So I thought I’d share.

We’ve all heard stories of someone’s mixed-breed, stray, rescue or farm dog that turned into a great hunter. But people who wonder, “What kind of hunting dog should I get?” are probably thinking in terms of a purebred dog. And those people can usually start to find an answer by asking themselves what kind of hunting they will probably do the most. That sub-question will evoke one of three general responses: waterfowl; pheasant; or grouse, quail and woodcock.

And coincidentally, those “types” of hunting will help you understand the three general categories of hunting dogs based on their primary functions: retrieving, flushing or pointing.

The strength of a retriever is to recover the birds that you’ve shot. A flusher will find the birds and make them fly for the shooter. Pointing dogs locate the birds and stand still or “on point” until the hunter (or a flushing dog) makes them fly.

Notice I used the word “strength” when defining what the dogs will do. Because of their intense hunting instincts and desire to please, Labrador retrievers also make excellent flushing dogs. Some flushers become excellent retrievers. And some breeders of pointing dogs tout their “natural retrieving” tendencies. So those terms are mainly presented to help you classify the various breeds available according to their most noteworthy capabilities.

For example, would anyone really want a Lab that flushes well but doesn’t retrieve worth bones? On the other hand, the late wildlife artist Jim Foote liked to quote a guy who had never been able to teach his setter to retrieve. The guy had said, “I drove 300 miles to watch that dog point the bird; I can bend over three feet to pick it up.”

So one “chief” talent might be more important to you than others. And that talent might be determined by the bird you prefer to hunt. For example, pheasants will generally run and flush rather than hold for a point. And they are notorious runners after they’ve been hit. An excellent retriever is as essential for them as it is for waterfowl. But it might be less important to have a retrieving dog for the grouse hunter. Stuff like that.

Based on my absolutely nonscientific observations and limited experience, I’m guessing the most popular breeds used for bird hunting in the U.S. are Labs and German shorthaired pointers. They are strong in both the finding and the fetching of the birds. Labs will flush. Shorthairs will point.

Obviously, there are dozens of other breeds that do the same things, and that’s where research into the tendencies of other breeds is important. Even more helpful is to be able to hunt behind the breed you are considering, the opportunities for which you might be able to line up during this fall’s bird seasons. But you also need to get the true scoop on the sample dog if you do: How old is it? Were there any negative tendencies associated with the breed that had to be overcome? Did the owner train the dog or turn him over to a pro?

Some dogs are known to run wider than others. If you plan to hunt the Great Plains for sharp-tailed grouse that might not be as critical as it is if you mostly will hunt aspen stands in the Upper Great Lakes for ruffed grouse. Some are known to be “softer” or more “hard-headed,” so that might be a consideration if you know what kind of a trainer you will be, easy on the dog or gruff. Some dogs are better as family pets than others, an important consideration if you have children.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and certainly how a dog looks might help to narrow the field. My wife Maureen doesn’t like black dogs. I usually prefer dogs with black noses instead of pink (although our old Lucy dog proved how that preference had no basis whatsoever in how well the dog hunted).

One friend of mine – a setter man who had gotten stuck and needed a dog fast – latched onto a wonderful little Brittany he just could never warm up to because “his tail isn’t long enough.” And believe me when I tell you that a very important consideration is the length of the dog’s coat. If you’re going to be hunting 80 percent of the time in warm or hot weather you’ll want a dog with a short coat – or one whose coat you’re willing to cut low for the season. And by the way, the less hair on the dog the less square footage there is for burrs, thorns and sticks to cling to. So sometimes it’s a good idea to get a “field cut” for a longhaired dog just for that reason alone.

Another consideration I’ve only recently been introduced to as a determining factor is the dog’s size. Check that. Not so much the dog’s size as the size of your living quarters. A friend of mine is tired of not having a hunting dog any more, but because of his job he lives in a small apartment in the Minneapolis/St.

Paul area. He’s also a pheasant hunter. So he needs a dog that will flush and retrieve the birds and that will be comfortable in the small abode. He’s done his homework and has found out the breed he wants is … a cocker spaniel. Great choice.

The point is if you’ve decided to get a bird dog, and if you aren’t locked in to a specific breed or breeder, it’s important to do your homework before you ever let a set of puppy eyes of any breed turn your resolve into jelly. As my friend Joe at the Shamrock observed, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a hunting dog breed. The more you know about yourself and can clarify the situations into which you’ll be putting the dog, the clearer your mind will be when the time comes to start narrowing your choices.