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What To Consider When Selecting A Sporting Dog Puppy

Written by Josh Miller of River Stone Kennels

A lot more should go into selecting a new sporting dog puppy than simply responding to an advertisement. Defining your wants and needs, doing research, and being patient are also critical.

GSP and black Lab puppies running through field

Every puppy is cute. There is no question about that! But sporting breeds live for 10 or 15 or sometimes more years. Your puppy selection determines how much satisfaction you’ll have, so careful consideration of that decision is important. It’s a process, and the more time you put in, the better off you are. Selecting a puppy begins with a broad approach and constantly drills down into details specific to the actual choice. Not all questions can be addressed here, but let’s look at some considerations:

Puppy selection is both personal and specific.

There never is a shortage of puppies, but oftentimes there is a scarcity of “the one.” Before you begin looking, give careful and honest thought to what you want out of the dog. Will the dog mostly be a house pet or companion? Will the dog hunt upwards of 60 days per year and, if so, what species of game will you target? Is competition a factor? The most important part of the equation is that you be honest with how much time will be spent in the fields, on the water, or in the home. Clarifying these goals will refine your focus on what breeds you should consider. After that, you’ll have a sense of what to look for in a puppy.

Pick a breed.

Breed selection is pretty easy, particularly since most folks already have an idea of the kinds of dogs they like. Think about what the dog will hunt. Will it be for upland birds or waterfowl, or both? Do you like dogs with a lot of drive, or are more laid-back dogs your style? Breed myopia—or the very focused attention given to a single, preferred breed—is fine. But be open-minded in regard to other breeds you may not have considered. That ultimate pup may be one you haven’t thought of.

A breed within a breed.

When I first started training professionally, I frequently encountered English pointers, English setters, and Labrador retrievers. It’s very different now, particularly since versatile dogs have become more popular. These days, everyone has shorthairs—they’re now the sixth most popular dog in America. There are tremendous numbers of wirehairs, griffons, and the like. But some breeds have nuances that might just figure into the final decision. Take English setters, for example. Some are horseback dogs, and they’ll run big. Some compete at the Shooting Dog level, others on the Cover Dog circuit, while still others hunt inside of 40 yards. That’s a tremendous variety within one breed, and you’ll see a similar diversity in character traits in other breeds, too.

Find a reputable breeder you can trust and rely on.

Good breeders can be invaluable. You’re working with the breeder to find the right pup, so trust is important, if not critical. A good breeder who works with you has a common goal, and that is to place the right pup from his litter with the right owner. The more experience the breeder has, the better.


You might not care how many CH or RUCH titles a dog has, but they are good indicators of a successful breeding program. Field trials and hunt tests provide a defined standard, and prospective customers can go back through the dog’s lineage to see how the dams and sires ran, how the grandsire and granddam ran, and so on, to get a better read on what the pups will probably be like than if those pedigrees are unavailable. As well, pedigrees reveal a lot of other useful information about temperament, health, biddability, and other characteristics.

Watch the dam and sire work.

Being present to watch the dog work is the ideal, but just as football players study film, prospective new dog owners can as well. If the logical information is coming together, cross reference it with the most practical approach, which is watching the dog’s dam and sire work. You might think that you want a dog to tear along the Montana prairies, but the reality is you might need a horse to keep up with such a dog. Watching actual dogs work or watching film of them shows what being behind the dog is really like, so learn about the dam and sire and you’ll have a better sense of the pup.

Be patient.

If the pup of your dreams is from a litter on the ground right now, then all is good. But sometimes you’ll need to wait for the right litter to be bred and for pups to be born. You may want a pup in January, but that litter might not take until another time of year. Time of year isn’t the issue with getting the right puppy is. That might mean being on a waiting list for a while, which is a good indicator that a breeder’s pups are of high quality and in demand.

The right pup.

Some breeders make the actual selection of the pup from the litter on the ground. They do so based on their understanding of the customer combined with their intimate knowledge of having watched each pup from the time they were born. Other folks pick pups based on what they see, be it responsiveness, natural ability to retrieve, attentiveness/focus, energy/drive, and the like.

Health testing.

There are numerous genetic tests that focus on the skeletal system, hips, joints, and so on. Ensuring that your pup is healthy is important, particularly since you want to start off life on the right foot. Be sure that testing is done to the level that satisfies you, and know that, just as with people, the tests are just indicators of things to come. They do not forecast the future, but serve as another reference point.

Price shopping doesn’t work.

You’ll have a dog for 10 to 15 years. You’ll have food bills, vet bills, and training bills throughout that time. As a result, the purchase price is the lowest amount you’ll ever pay in the dog’s entire life. Buy the best pup you can afford. The odds are you’ll save money on training later on.

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