The old adage "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear" certainly rings true when it comes to purchasing a dog. If the necessary inherited genes dictating the drive for birds, the pointing or retrieving instincts or canine athleticism have been lost in the generic potpourri, the pup risks panning out as an inferior hunting companion. Far too often, by the time the owner, with visions of hunting dogs afield dancing in his head, has come to grips with the fact that Fido really won't make a gun dog, the dog has become a member of the family. Parting may not be sweet sorrow. In fact, it may be impossible. Now what? The head of the household votes an emphatic "No!" on a second dog, and the kids (and you) have fallen in love with the pup. This is a fine mess we have gotten ourselves into, Ollie.
Recognize right up front that there are no guarantees when it comes to dogs. Oh sure, there are breeders and purveyors of dogs who stand behind their canines -- reputable individuals and kennels that will replace the dog, or refund your money if your dog develops a hereditary crippler. What the most reputable, conscientious and ethical breeder in the world is incapable of knowing for certain is whether the pup will develop hip dysplasia, a heart murmur, or a multitude of other disabling health disasters. Crystal balls do not exist in the world of animal breeding. A conscientious and knowledgeable breeder stacks the odds in your favour, playing a game of low risk statistical roulette. However, the only thing that is certain is that there is no certainty when it comes to predicting the final taste of Mother Nature's soup. There are just too many ingredients, in this case in the form of genes and chromosomes that flavour the concoction.
In the world of canine genetics, there are some extremely fine ladies and gentlemen -- breeders who love their dogs, are knowledgeable about genetics and breeding and do everything in their power to improve the breed. These kennels keep up-to-date medical records, x-ray breeding stock, check the eyes and follow the development of prodigy in order to make educated decisions about future marriages. Their kennel operations are immaculate. The environment is sanitary and free from parasitic, bacterial and viral onslaughts. Nevertheless all of us dog people are a little "kennel blind" at times. We all have our idea of the perfect dog. I get a tingling feeling on the back of my neck and goose bumps on my arms when I am treated to a stylish slam-on-the-money point, a zeroing flush, or a tidal-wave water entry. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For you, or another breeder, the picture-perfect dog may exhibit entirely different characteristics.
I would be remiss, however, and less than straight with you, if I did not admit to one very distasteful fact. My fraternity of dog breeders and trainers, as with any other profession, has its share of scoundrels, scam artists, dishonest opportunists and just plain ignorant dog jockeys. Unfortunately for the buyer, there is no certification, mandatory education in genetics or ethics exam required for any individual to hang up a shingle saying "Seller of Dogs."
John Not-To-Be-Named brought his pup to the vet after the juvenile came up lame following an R & R romp in the fields. Bad news -- the dog was diagnosed as severely dysplastic. The heartbroken John called the breeder with this news. The breeder said the dog must have been dropped or stepped on. No warranty! No refund! Nada! True story!
I know of another incident when a dog was diagnosed dysplastic by the OFA. (The Orthopaedic Foundation for Animals is the recognized certifying organization for the rating of a canine's hips.) When the owner reported this finding, the breeder gave the maligned owner some hogwash about OFA being unfamiliar with the specific structural characteristics of his particular line of dogs and insisted that the dog was not dysplastic. Unbelievable!
The last less-than-shining exemplary anecdote involves another doozie. A friend of mine was thinking about purchasing an 18-month-old setter and cashed an IOU, asking me to take the dog for an evaluation period. I agreed and advised that he have the dog x-rayed first. The examining vet concluded that the dog was severely dysplastic and indicated that the dog would become very crippled in short order in the field. My friend returned the dog to the owner, passing on the results of the x-rays. Within the year there was an advertisement in the local newspaper announcing the availability of pups from the dysplastic bitch, a high propensity for a lot of broken hearts and tears for the buyers.
Okay, so there are a few rotten apples in the bunch. Buying a dog is not the only purchasing decision we should approach with an investigative buyer beware suspicion. However, there are many steps you can take to stack the odds in your favour.
Select a breed of dog that does not have a high statistical probability of hip dysplasia. Stay away from breeds that are known to have a high incidence of orthopaedic problems. Clumber spaniels and Boykin spaniels, for example, top the list for incidence of hip dysplasia in the bird-dog world. For breeds examined by the Orthopaedic Foundation for Animals with over 100 evaluations from 1974 to January, 1998, 48.8% of the Clumbers were diagnosed as dysplastic, while only 2.9% achieved a rating of excellent. Ranking #2 on the bad-risk chart for gun dogs is the Boykin spaniel. During the same period, 45.6% of the Boykins examined were found to be dysplastic. Only 0.4% were evaluated as excellent. Only 8.6% of the English pointers examined, on the other hand, came up dysplastic. Many of the German breeds, such as the German shorthair, the wirehaired pointing griffon, and the German wirehaired pointer, are below the 10% mark in the incidence of hip dysplasia.
Make sure that the parents have had their hips x-rayed and even better, the grandparents and great grandparents. But even with the precautions above, you cannot be sure that the pup will not develop dysplasia. Reality does not always conform to probability. Hip dysplasia can skip generations and then rear its ugly head unexpectedly.
Purchasing a young hopeful from parents who have good hips, from a breed exhibiting a low propensity for hip dysplasia and from a line of dogs from which you have seen brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or cousins is a smart investment.
If possible, buying a pup from a repeat breeding is a wise decision. Contact owners of dogs from the previous breeding. Ask them specific questions about the health, the personality, the physical attributes and the hunting ability of their dogs. Remember, however, everyone's dog is the world's best dog.
Before purchasing your pup, ask for a written copy of the breeder's warranty and ask for a period of two weeks to bring your new acquisition to the vet for a complete examination. On your initial visit to your vet, bring all paperwork pertaining to the new pup. The breeder should have given you a health certificate from his vet stating the pup was free of all visible indicators of health problems. The temperature reading should have been normal. The pup's heart should have been checked for arrhythmia or other heart dysfunctions. A complete record of all shots and worming should accompany the paperwork from the breeder along with the breeder guarantee, expressed or implied. Give all of the records and information to your vet. Your vet's job, in addition to prescribing a health program for the pup, is to be your ally in making sure you get what you paid for and expected.
A well-worn phrase in the dog world is "It costs just as much to feed a bad dog as it does a good dog." Actually, the associated vet bill will be substantially higher if the pup is unhealthy. That additional cost may well be more than the expense of a new shotgun or a February deep south quail hunt. Furthermore, if your pup lacks blue-ribbon genetics, it may be more difficult to train him. A pup lacking strong bird instincts may require tons more birds to "get going" before formal training. (Formal training implies correction.) Birds cost money. What you thought you were saving by buying a $300 pup versus one double or quadruple that price could be more than offset with training-time costs, bird costs and related medical expenses. Really, the initial cost of your pup should not be the deciding factor that steers you to a particular breeder.
The breeder's reputation, the appearance of the kennel environment, the past performances of other dogs from that breeder and the information garnered from comments of previous clients should carry much more weight. Call the breeder's vet. Tell the vet you are considering the purchase of a dog from the selected breeder. Ask the vet to tell you about the breeder. Read between the lines and go with your gut feeling.
The purchase of a dog is serious business. You hope to live with the pup for a long time and have years of enjoyment. Stack the odds in your favour, understanding that purchasing a pup has inherited risks.
With a little homework on your part the betting odds are that your pup will develop into a hunting companion that will bring you good times for years to come. Good luck.