Field Training Articles

It’s Magic! Picking the Perfect Hunting/Field Puppy

By Ann Strathern

Everything important has a little magic. In the field of hunting retrievers, magic is involved in picking the perfect puppy. Nearly everyone has a system. The most common method seems to be to “close your eyes and reach”. A retriever trainer on the west coast used the most elaborate system I ever encountered. He released his five week old puppies in a field with 200 pinioned ducks and kept the puppy that chased the ducks the longest!

Maybe you don’t have 200 ducks. Or, maybe blind luck is not your idea of a fail-safe system. How can you work a little magic when it comes your turn to pick a puppy? First, I have three words of wisdom: Pedigree, Pedigree, Pedigree. Second, there are some reliable indicators of temperament and trainability that can be tested in puppies. Third, consider your intended goals for the puppy. I will treat these areas separately, but they are all ingredients in the potion.


Computer specialists have a term: GIGO. It means garbage in, garbage out. We might say genetics in, genetics out. Retrievers have developed into the marvelous animals we enjoy today because of about 100 generations of breeding focused on the qualities we cherish. You can learn a great deal about the past 3-6 generations of the puppies that you are considering merely by studying their pedigree. A pedigree is a genetic recipe that details the ingredients combined to produce the resulting puppies.

Reputable breeders keep accurate records of their dogs’ accomplishments and the progeny that they produce. Most take great pride in the abilities that they have been able to reproduce in their breeding program and will be happy to show them to you. The AKC validates titles earned and includes them on certified AKC pedigrees. The GRCA titles that relate to field ability, called Working Certificate (WC) and Working Certificate Excellent (WCX), are also documented with a certificate. There is also a designation for Qualified All-Age Field Trial dogs as well (QAA or ***). These titles reflect not only natural ability but, especially in the higher titles, trainability as well.

Train yourself in the skill of reading pedigrees. It is not a difficult task and the wealth of knowledge you gain will, in the end, be more than worth the effort. “Depth of pedigree” is a necessary factor in the pursuit of perfection. Field and obedience titles on the sire and dam are nice, but the pedigree is strengthened when the grand-parents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents, etc., also have these titles. You are then dealing with a known commodity. A pedigree with a few field titles scattered here and there does not necessarily show ability, but maybe only determination by a few owners. While a lack of titles does not necessarily mean lack of ability, such pedigrees give you no in depth information. Look for the Hunting titles, Senior and Master, as well as the WCX and Field Champion or QAA dog. These are proof that the ancestors have the natural instinct as well as the all important trainability factor that you are looking for in the gene pool of a puppy. The more working titles in the pedigree, the greater the chance that the puppies will be intelligent field dogs and easy to train!

Great potential combined with physical ability and stamina are the traits that make a great hunting dog. Conscientious breeders have learned that to lower the probability of producing puppies that might end up dysplastic or have limited or no sight, their breeding stock must have health clearances. Hip dysplasia free is indicated by an OFA number or PennHip rating. A disease-free eye certification number (CERF) should be obtained yearly on breeding stock. Heart disease is a concern for our breed and can be checked by a board certified cardiologist. As before, the greater the depth of health clearances in the pedigree, the lower the probability that puppies will end up with genetic problems. All breeds have genetic problems which must be researched by an educated puppy buyer.

Temperament & Trainability

We now have the basic ingredients for finding the perfect hunting companion. How do we finally pick him/her? I became familiar with the idea of methodical puppy temperament testing from a battery of tests applied to potential guide dogs by Clarence Pfaffenberger who contributed articles to the AKC Gazette in the 1960’s. Dan Browning, the beloved breeder of Goldens who introduced me to retrievers and field trialing, adapted the guide dog test to retriever puppies. Puppy Aptitude Testing (PAT) has become a standard part of the process in placing and selecting my own puppies. The first battery of tests were published in the AKC Gazette in 1979 by Melissa Bartlett. I have since used this testing procedure on over 40 litters, mostly retrievers, but also Siberian Huskies, Dachshunds, German Shepherds and Fox Terriers. The owners of these litters wanted a good indication of the temperaments for placing them in the right homes. I have added to and modified the tests to monitor the features I believe important in picking a puppy.

Forty-nine days of age has been shown to be the optimal time to test for future personality and behavioral traits. The tests are conducted on each pup individually, away from its littermates and in an unfamiliar but comfortable environment. The tests are designed to show which ones are dominate/submissive, forgiving, touch sensitive or insensitive, dependent/independent, willing to retrieve, sensitive to sound or sight, and structural soundness. Birdiness is tested with a wing or whole bird. The tests themselves are rather simple. For example: Have the puppy placed in the room with the tester. Is the puppy willing to come to the tester happily and follow him/her around the room underfoot? Or, does the puppy slink around, avoid looking at the tester and try to find a corner to curl up in? Or possibly the puppy has his own mission to seek out information about the new environment and pays no attention to the tester. By watching the puppies’ reactions to the tester, a rating of confidence, dependence or independence and social attraction can be given. This is also a gauge of how well the puppies have been socialized by the breeder.

Another test is holding the puppy on his back for 30 seconds. Some puppies go limp and avoid eye contact, others freeze, and still others kick and scream bloody murder! This is an indication of dominate or submissive tendency and how well they accept stress when physically dominated. This test is followed immediately by stroking their back in a seated position. Does the pup try to dominate the tester by jumping or nipping, does he pout or walk away or avoid looking at the tester, or does he lick the tester’s face indicating he has accepted the pecking order.

The retrieve test is done with a rolled sock and then with the wing. Some pups will not go out for the object and try to hide under the tester, others retrieve the object but take it and head in the other direction! Can the pup be induced to return with the object? How willing is the pup to work with a human? There is a high correlation between ability to retrieve and successful guide dogs, obedience dogs and field dogs. The result of the ten tests is a reliable indicator of the temperament of the pup as an adult. If weaknesses are found, they can be worked on when the pups are young, rather than finding our about them at a later age.

The objectives of this testing are to select the most appropriate puppy for the potential buyers, whether they are looking for a hunting partner, rescue dog, family companion or jogging buddy. The primary concern of most people is that they have a wonderful companion. If they are going to use their dog for hunting, it will only be a few months out of the year. Even if the dogs are entered in Hunt Tests to earn their titles or Field Trials, they are first and foremost a family companion.

A favorite “proofing” of puppies that I use, involves walking the puppies in pairs through modest cover, puddles, across shallow creeks and down steep embankments looking for their willingness to keep up. Most pups don’t mind going up a steep embankment, but hesitate on the way down. It is a good way to see how curious and independent they are as well as how responsive they are when you call them to you. In this type of testing, it is appropriate to ask the puppies to do things that might be beyond their experience or abilities and watch their response. I once threw a four pound Greenwing Teal for an eight week old (about 12-14 pound) puppy. To my surprise, and the delight of the man who had come to pick up a pup, the puppy grabbed the duck by the neck and, backing all the way, dragged the duck “to hand”. This puppy retrieved hundreds of birds in his lifetime and was a great source of pleasure and pride for his owner.

My household is a multi-dog, multi-people dwelling. In order for there to be a modicum of sanity, the dogs have had to compromise. By this, I mean that they are “house dogs” while inside, and all business when we are working. They amaze me with their seeming split personality. I have never had to compromise their eagerness and intensity in the field for their civility in the home. I encourage puppy kindergarten obedience training for my puppy buyers and do my own training homework! In selecting my own puppy, I look for several attributes. I like a show of independence as long as it is linked with a willingness to retrieve. I don’t mind some dominance as long as the touch sensitivity is average. I do not want any sight or sound shyness or lack of birdiness. Consider your needs. If you want a companion dog for an elderly parent, don’t pick the most aggressive puppy from the hottest field litter around. On the other hand, if you want a hunting dog that will help raise your kids, don’t select from an unknown background.

Don’t let the first puppy you see cast its spell on you. The science of picking a puppy is not all alchemy! Trust good genetics, define your goals and screen the pups for a compatible partner. First use your head, then let the magic happen!