The Iceberg Principle: Which Pup to Pick

  • 04/21/2016
30bf3ec9-0bca-4af4-b966-42b887c48c82 I call it the Iceberg Principle. In the same way that 90% of an iceberg lies beneath the surface, 90% of your effort in selecting a puppy should be devoted to the behind-the-scenes stuff: researching bloodlines and breeders, talking to other hunters and dog people, attending field trials and hunt tests, gathering as much information as you can from as many sources as you can. Your goal is to identify a specific breeding, and a specific litter of puppies, that’ll give you the best possible chance for getting the kind of dog you’re looking for.
As the legendary Delmar Smith puts it, “Don’t pick the puppy—pick the puppy’s parents.” In other words, when you first lay eyes on a litter of puppies you should already have taken the necessary steps to ensure that one of the pups has your name on it. If you want to play it cool and make it a surprise to your kids, spouse or significant other that’s fine; it just means you’ll have to do your “homework” in secret.
So let’s assume you’ve done all this, and that you’ve put a deposit down to reserve your pup. There’s still the question of which one to take home. Given that this pup will be your partner in the field and a companion to your family for the next 10-to-15 years, it’s a matter of some importance.
Your first decision (which you’ll probably have to make when you reserve your pup) is whether you want a male or a female. Females tend to develop a little more quickly, but in terms of hunting ability, there’s ultimately no difference. Ditto with overall trainability and biddability (willingness to follow commands).
My experience has been that females are as likely to be hard-headed as males are, and that males are typically every bit as affectionate as females are. Heat cycles can be a nuisance, but if you don’t intend to breed your female, spaying is a safe option. It won’t affect your dog’s performance and may decrease her risk of developing mammary tumors. Just don’t be in a rush to do it; ideally, you should wait until your dog’s completed at least one heat cycle and is more-or-less fully grown. The point being that you really can’t go wrong on this score. It’s entirely a matter of personal preference.
It’s the same with color. Obviously this is a moot point with “self-colored” breeds, but if you have a choice—and, again, if you’ve picked the parents—it’s purely a matter of aesthetics. If you prefer a yellow Lab to a black one or a white-and-orange English setter to a tri-color, go for it.
Assuming, that is, that by all appearances the pup is happy, outgoing, alert, inquisitive…for want of a better term, normal. I’d personally avoid a pup that’s significantly larger or smaller than its littermates (despite being a sucker for stories about the runt who defies the odds to become National Champion), and, in the same vein, I’d pass on any pup that seems extremely aggressive or unusually timid. Bullies and shrinking violets need not apply.
Some pointing dog guys put tremendous stock in whether or not a puppy will sight-point a wing—they argue that it’s an indication of “birdiness” and precocity—while others will tell you it’s nothing but a parlor trick. Here’s where I stand: If I’ve singled out the pup I like, I’m not going to change my mind because he/she doesn’t point a wing. But if I’ve narrowed the field to two pups, one of which points a wing and one of which doesn’t, I’ll lean toward the wing-pointer.
With the flushing/retrieving breeds, as nice as it is to toss a puppy-sized bumper (or even an old glove) and have one of the pups carry it back, the important thing at that age is simply that they want to chase it down and put it in their mouths. A pup that doesn’t appear interested in chasing a thrown object is a pup that you want to let someone else take home.
Speaking of age, while seven weeks is often cited as the “ideal” age to bring a puppy home, this isn’t chiseled in stone. As long as the pup’s weaned and has enjoyed plenty of human contact, six weeks isn’t too young. And if circumstances are such that you can’t get your pup until its a few weeks older, don’t fret. Puppies are by their very nature flexible, adaptable critters, and if you give them what they need—food, shelter, lots of attention—they’ll bond to you faster than you can say Quit eating that!
Indeed, the Brits, whose reputation for developing superb gun dogs is second-to-none, prefer to obtain their pups at around 10 weeks of age.
All of this, of course, is intended as a general guideline. What often happens in the “real world,” especially if you’re in a position to make repeated visits to the breeder and interact with the pups as they grow and change, is that one of them picks you: eagerly making eye contact, all but climbing up your pants when you enter the puppy area, and leaving no doubt whatsoever that your choice, and your trust, will be repaid by a lifetime of devotion.
If you find a puppy like this—or should I say, if a puppy like this finds you—count yourself fortunate. And write out the check as fast as you can.
Story by Tom Davis
Photo Credit: Steven Arnold