Puppy Pickin' Time
By Tom Hayes

About every decade or so, the bittersweet time comes when those of us who hunt with dogs must bid farewell to a trusted friend and companion and face up to the fact that it is time to start over. The better the old dog was, the harder it is to feel good about the prospects for the future. In all seriousness, for a change, it can lead to a sense of pressure and anxiety. In addition, there is the added stress of being in mourning.

Most breeders try to plan to whelp their litters in the spring of the year so April – June typically turns into “Puppy Pickin’ Time.” It can be a blessing to a family who may have lingered through winter with no more than memories of the One Who Has Passed On. With some good fortune the New One will be able to experience the first fall with a few basic lessons in their walnut sized brains and have it be a joy for all involved.


Gem (Classic English Setter) with her young litter

The process begins with some serious consideration of what one plans to hunt and the breed of dog to buy. Many of us import a definition of “good dog” from our childhood or acquire one from hunting with buddies who have dogs. Sometimes the preference is learned through negatives – “I would not have one of those darn wire haired flushing things around after that week in South Dakota with Lefty.”

Generally speaking, I adhere to a fairly simple idea that my family and I will fall in love with whatever puppy we bring home. We might as well love a puppy with good potential for being a worthwhile hunting companion rather than take the risk of getting something that will eat our food and mess in the yard for the next 10-15 years and not hunt. Which is not to disparage in any way those who choose to go to the shelter and save a life. I have good friends who do that and I admire them for it. None of the friends who do that, however, go into it with high expectations that Spot will be a treasure in the pheasant fields or the duck slough.

 One of the better dogs I’ve had was the pup of a friend’s dog that I had hunted over and what was a breeding of convenience worked out just fine. I knew and hunted over both parents so even though nobody’s livelihood and reputation was on the line, I figured I had the odds working for me. Most books will warn against getting a dog from a breeding of convenience from the guy down the street, however. Again, it goes back to how serious about living with a marginal versus good dog one is.

By the time they got done with me at SD Tech, I was schooled in the Scientific Method, among other things, and took my training and education seriously. I did not study dog stuff, but science and math prepared me to be objective and analytical and bent on making logic-based decisions. 

Years later I had to put my dog down in August, which left me dogless for the fall and winter. I used the anticipation of getting a new puppy as therapy to get me through that time. I bought some books and read what people who write books have to say about choosing breeds and breeders and selecting individual dogs from the litters. 

Locate a variety of breeders, they say. Get references from the breeder and contact those people and hear their stories about the dogs and how the breeder treated them, they add. Don’t let the asking price for the pups be your first concern. Decide if you want a male or a female. Decide if you want a dog that is toward the large or small size for the breed or right in the middle. Visit several breeders and look at their breeding dogs and any started dogs they might have. Ask yourself if you are in the market for a puppy or a started dog. The list goes on and on. It was a lot of reading that winter and I experienced some interesting phone calls. 

A Good Go Ing bred Lab puppy showing her natural ability for retrieving.

In the end, I made the decision on a breeder based on the recommendation of a hunting companion who was known for always having good dogs, but I did do the homework in getting to the decision. I put down some money and counted the days until it would be Puppy Pickin’ Time. The weeks finally passed and it was time for the next phase.

My daughter, Tami, (age 8 at the time) and I drove to the breeder’s place to look at some young litters with the idea we would try to pick a litter first, then go back to pick a pup in a couple of weeks. We chose a litter of greatest interest by how the Momma looked and how she behaved around us in the presence of her babies and also how she moved when the breeder took her out for a short romp away from the puppies. We played with the puppies and decided that among them there should be no problem choosing one. I paid the breeder some additional down payment to hold my position in the selection process – I got second pick.

At the appointed time, we drove to the kennel to collect our prize. The breeder brought the litter out to the play area and the process, by the BOOK, began.

First, I watched the puppies play with each other. I ruled out the little timid one that sat back from the pack and watched. I ruled out a bully pup that seemed to want to push around anyone and everyone in his line of sight. The breeder took them back into the barn. Among those remaining, all were reasonably equal and sociable. I dug a sock wetted with pheasant scent out of a plastic bag in my pocket and tossed it into the pile-o-pups. Most hopped right on it and played tug-o-war. I retrieved the sock and held it up close to me and shook it. Four pups came right over to me and wanted to play with it.

My daughter was systematically picking up and petting each pup as Dad applied the Scientific Method to this weighty matter of picking a puppy.

A pair of young English Pointers demonstrating their natural abilities for pointing.

I got it narrowed down to two. I picked up one to see if it was plumbed female – my preference at the time. Nope, male. Just as I picked up the other one, Tami held one up and said, “Daddy, is this one a boy or a girl?”

“It is a girl,” I told her.

I went back to look at the other dog of my greatest interest. I picked it up to check its gender when Tami said, “Daddy, I want this one.”

It was not one of MY “Preferred Two.” I did not even know which one it was except it was not either of the two that were removed to the barn!

Oh, Oh!

“Daddy, can we call her Daisy?”

“But, but, but.” I stammered.

“Oh, Daddy, Daisy is soooooo cute. I think she loves me. Yes, yes, she does! She just kissed my nose. Daddy, this is the one we want. Daisy.”

Nowhere in all the books I read over the winter and spring did it say to leave the kids home. Nowhere!

Daisy did it all like a trooper. She had a good (not Great) nose. She did not know the meaning of quit. She had a soft mouth. She never met a duck or a pheasant she did not want in her mouth (a big old Canada bit her nose that gave her cause for pause early on, though). She whelped two litters that went on to be good (not Great) dogs in their turn. 

It is just like making human friends:
Go to a place where good people hang out, 

Be slow to befriend the ones who define themselves solely by their relationship to others (the wallflowers and the bullies),

Be a friend to have a friend,

Let nature take its course.