I get over 4,000 questions per year from viewers of my television show. Hands down, the most common one has to do with choosing a first hunting dog. In almost all cases, my answer is the same.
Get a Lab.
Order in the court! Calm down everyone! For many fans who see me hunting with my own wirehairs, a mixed bag of other pointing breeds and more and more often spaniels, my answer is a bit of a shock. (You pointing breed fans please bear with me – and don’t worry – I still believe wirehairs rock!) But my rationale is pretty simple.
- Training dogs is hard, especially the first few you own. Frankly, most of us risk owning a “pancake dog” – like the breakfast food, we often throw out the first one because we’ve screwed it up. Why not hedge your bets?
- The whole point is for you – and the dog – to have fun, bring home some game, and turn the dog-bird thing into a life-long passion. That happens sooner with a retriever.
- There are so few things you need to train a well-bred Labrador to do (or a good Golden Retriever for that matter), you can be hunting the pup’s first season (with some caveats).
Need more incentive? Watch one of my shows when my wirehairs were young. You’ll become a flushing-dog convert after a couple episodes. My gray hair was dark brown when I started running wires.
I remember trainer Rick Smith once saying there are really only three things you need a dog to do:
- Go away when you want him to.
- Come back when you want him to.
- Stand still when you want him to.
A Labrador’s entire reason for living is summed up in those three items. Loyal, affectionate, with a fanatical desire to please its human, this breed (again, also true for good Goldens) is hard-wired to perform the tasks outlined above. Thousands of generations of selective breeding put the odds in your favor, as does the sheer number of well-bred pups on the market.
So, what do you add to the dog’s DNA to hunt that first season?
- A healthy respect for the young dog’s joint health – no jumping, very little hard running, very short hunts.
- Some “fun retrieves” in the yard, and appropriate expectations in the field. Most Labs will take to retrieving naturally, one of the more prominent reasons I favor them for a first gun dog.
- Basic obedience training (see Rick Smith’s three basic skills, above).
- Training him to work close in the uplands. A dog that flushes birds out of gun range is not a hunting dog – it’s a lawn ornament.
There is one more good reason a retriever might be your best opening gambit in the bird-dog game: if it washes out as a hunter, you’ve still got a fantastic pet and lovable family member, content if he never sees the inside of a duck blind or roams a South Dakota prairie.