When buying a puppy there are many factors you need to consider. Trainer Margaret Allen gives some advice.

As we look towards the coming season and our dogs are enjoying a bit of R&R, this is the time to reflect on whether you have enough “dog power”.

If you have only one or two days of picking-up a week, you may manage with one dog. But if you do more than two days, a single dog isn’t enough. It’s tiring work and two days a week is plenty. In practice, you often need a third dog. When you have sent one dog for a runner and another bird falls that needs swift recovery, a second dog can go for it.

What if your dog is injured or comes into season? You cannot pick-up without a dog. Or it may be that age is catching up with your old faithful; perhaps it is time to think of a successor?

A beater can manage without a dog but the job is more rewarding with one. Having more than one dog means you can rest and work them in turn, so you never exhaust either. A roughshooter must have at least one dog and a second in case one is out of action for any reason.


A roughshooter should have more than one dog in case any is out of action

To buy or to breed?

Keeping a dog is expensive and two do not live as cheaply as one, but if you agree that you need more than one dog and decide that a puppy would suit you best, how should you set about acquiring it?

Breeding your own may be an option, but there are many issues to consider — health checks for both parents, the mating, whelping and rearing, and finding homes for the surplus puppies.

When I first became interested in working and breeding gundogs, an experienced breeder said to me: “It’s the wise who buy and the fools who breed.” How true this is. If you breed, you have perhaps five or six to choose from; fewer if you want a particular colour or markings, fewer still if you want one sex. But if you set out to buy a puppy, you can take your pick from hundreds. It is easy to find many litters to choose from on the Internet or in magazine advertisements.

Having established the breed, colour and sex, you should try to see both parents; perhaps you will have been lucky enough to see them in action in the shooting field or in field trials. It would be good to hear that they have won awards in competition.

Ideally, you should meet them and weigh up their character. Are they happy and friendly? Is either of them nervous or noisy? Do they retrieve nicely to hand? Do you like them both? What did the breeder hope to achieve by putting the two together?

springer spaniel

You need a biddable puppy that can be trained to retrieve to hand in the field

When you are looking at puppies, don’t just buy the first one you see — it is easy to be tempted as they are all so enchanting. Take your time and, if possible, have someone knowledgeable with you. Ask the breeder to put away the ones that are not the colour, markings or sex you are after. Watch the rest to see what each puppy does: one may make straight for the feed shed, while one jumps up at your legs, or hides in a corner. Don’t dismiss any at this stage.

What to look for

Ask if you can handle them and pick them up one by one. I hold each puppy up to face me first to see if I like its expression and if it has a dark eye. This does not apply to Weimaraners as they are supposed to have amber or blue-grey eyes and some liver- and-white spaniels have light brown eyes. I check to see if the front teeth meet in a scissor bite (the top incisors just overlapping the lower).

Then I turn the puppy to one side to see if that view is pleasing. I turn back the coat of the flank just in front of the hind leg: if it is thick here it will usually end up being thick all over. I check to see if thereis an umbilical hernia: this can be felt as a swelling protruding from the belly, about the size of a pea. A small hernia shouldn’t be a concern, but a larger one may need surgery. I then lay the puppy on its back on my lap; if it struggles to right itself and escape, it may not be as easy to train as a quiet, accepting animal.

When running about, the puppy’s legs should seem strong and it should move straight. I like to see good tail action (in the field, the tail tells you what the nose is finding out, which is why I don’t like to see a spaniel docked too short — there should be about one third left). A tail shouldn’t be held too high or curl over the back.

A puppy should look bright and clean. If this is not the case, it may not be well. If there is anything you don’t like about a puppy, don’t buy it, and if something about the vendor seemswrong, it probably is. It’s important to follow your instincts.

Make sure the paperwork is all in order, particularly with the docked breeds, and that the parents have had the relevant health checks for hereditary problems in the breed. The vendor should not object to your having a veterinary surgeon check the puppy over before you make the final decision. You may feel it fair to pay for this.

choosing a puppy

Weighing up the cost

As regards price, puppies vary greatly according to breed, where they originate from and whether they are Kennel Club-registered. This last might not matter to you, but the parents will probably not have had any health checks. Puppies from first-cross matings, such as springadors and sprockers, have their appeal and the parents may have had the necessary health checks, but these puppies and subsequent progeny cannot be registered.

Unregistered puppies are generally half the price of registered ones. Spaniels are usually cheaper to buy than retrievers or the hunt, point and retrieve breeds. Puppies from counties in the south, especially near London, are often priced higher than those from the northern counties or Scotland.

This is the best time of year to acquire a puppy, as it will have the summer weather to grow up in. It’s good for all of us to feel the sun on our backs. The long daylight hours are an excellent time for bonding and house training.

Choosing a puppy is a lottery because they change so much while growing up, but make sure you choose the puppy you planned to have. Remember, if you go out to buy a blue hat, it’s no good coming home with a pink one.

Margaret Allen runs a training kennel in West Dorset. Her first book, In the Bag! Labrador Training from Puppy to Gundog, was published in 2013 by Crowood Press.