Last time I chose a puppy I was fresh out of school, only a dim view of the years ahead and a bank account teetering on empty. At the time it seemed like a great idea, introduce a young dog into chaos and hope for the best.
I knew little about training, obedience, nutrition, genetics, breeding programs……… it’s pretty difficult to recall anything I actually did know. But I knew I wanted a puppy and was able to find a litter within a couple hour’s drive. Off I went with a friend to pick the biggest pup in the bunch.
We shuffled into the breeder’s basement where he released the hounds. Looking back, he had a decent breeding program but these weren’t hunting labs by any standard. No matter, that became a lost notion once those fur balls came rambling across that cement floor.
After tussling and eyeing this group for 15 minutes, my buddy and I narrowed the selection to two of the bigger puppies. Then we watched to see which one showed the least amount of fear and took the least guff from litter mates. That was the entire science behind the pick.
I handed over my last dollars and walked out the door with a male yellow lab pup. After wrestling to exhaustion he curled up in the passenger-side floor and slept for the return trip. That may have been the final peaceful moment I had for the next decade. Of course we picked the alpha male in the litter and I was woefully unprepared for what that meant or how to deal with it.
It was trial by toothy destruction. For the next six years this lab grew, ate the bulk of my furniture, destroyed a couple apartments, challenged any and all authority, and proved to have no interest in hunting. To be fair, he also was a great companion, great with kids, protective of the properties he destroyed and people he knew. And he was one helluva a swimmer and retriever — if only I had the skill set to channel that back then.
None of those challenges were that dog’s fault. That lays squarely on the limited knowledge and resources of the idiot who raised him.
And that was the last puppy I picked.
The opportunity for new bird dogs happens fairly infrequently for us, once or twice every six years. I’d guess that to be pretty standard for most bird hunters without large kennels, breeding programs or infinite space for running and training.
I’ve not had a say in the selection of my last three dogs. All choice has been stripped away for one reason or the other. Finn, the shorthair, was the only female available in the litter.
Wyatt, the lab, had a physical defect and was the last, unchosen puppy in the litter. All of his siblings had already headed to their new homes when we made the decision. We had no intention of breeding him so the fit seemed too good. And the underdog story was too palpable.
Rio, the setter, was again the only available female in the litter. No choice.
There seems a hefty portion of ego involved in picking a puppy from a bird dog litter. One must believe in an ability to predict the future of a puppy’s skill in the field based on their actions when just a few weeks old. That’s a tall order. Just think of going to a daycare, looking at a classroom of toddlers and being able to pick the one who will become the best outdoorsman when they turn 35. Good luck.
But if you have a toddler, take them to the woods with you while they are young. Tell them stories about the mysteries of wild places and wild birds. Teach them to shoot. Take them hunting when they are teens. Let them breathe unfiltered air and feel the rush of flushing birds. There’s a good chance they’ll end up more proficient in the outdoors than many of their peers.
That’s one thing we do know about dogs based on work by psychologist Donald Hebb in the 40’s and expanded by researchers; puppies exposed to stimulating environments change their brain physiology. It can grow larger and develop new neural connections. These brain changes can spark faster learning, better problem solving and less fear in adulthood.
And that’s how I’ve made bird dogs. Take them to the field, expose them to new places and new people. Let them fail. Watch as they adapt and learn to hunt alongside us.
We’ve been really fortunate to pick good breeders, pick good genetics, pick hunting lines…..all things that can certainly hedge bets on aspiring bird dogs. But not having the pick of the litter and then molding the puppy cast upon us by fate has become somewhat defining. It’s made selection seem meaningless.
Until tomorrow. Tomorrow I pick our next bird dog. Let’s hope I can get out of my own way and let providence prevail once again.