Hunters offer advice for choosing the right retriever puppy

DULUTH -- Each of the three Lab pups had a jawful of a stuffed toy that looked like a bone. The pups were just 6 weeks old, tawny and pudgy and over-pawed. Each thought he or she deserved complete control of the bone. They tugged. They yanked the...



DULUTH -- Each of the three Lab pups had a jawful of a stuffed toy that looked like a bone. The pups were just 6 weeks old, tawny and pudgy and over-pawed. Each thought he or she deserved complete control of the bone.

They tugged. They yanked their heads back and forth. From somewhere in the mini-melee came a soft growl.

The pups were among six in a litter owned by Duluth’s Bob Owens that are ultimately destined for hunters somewhere. Three already were spoken for. Three remained available.


But how does a hunter look at a litter of pups like Owens’ and decide which one is right? We asked three members of the Duluth Retriever Club - John Nichols, Jim Watts and Mark Helmer - for their thoughts on selecting a puppy. While they are most familiar with retrievers, their advice applies equally to pointing breeds as well.


Get health assurances

All three hunters urged puppy buyers to make sure that the sire and dam (father and mother) are certified through testing to have healthy hips, elbows and eyes. Pups should be tested for heart murmurs.


Seek a responsible breeder

“You need to invest most of your effort into finding a breeder that you trust,” Nichols said. “That will go such a long way toward maximizing the chances of some success.”

“Talk to someone who’s been involved in a specific breed,” Helmer said. “They’ll know the trusted breeders.”


“Reputable breeders really want you to be happy with your dog,” Nichols said. “That’s one of the hallmarks of a reputable breeder.”

Owens said he tries to match his dogs to people who buy them. He’ll try to steer a less physically active buyer away from a high-energy pup, for instance.


Know your pup’s sire and dam

If possible, Watts said, hunt with the sire and dam of your pup or at least one of them. How are they as family pets as well as hunters? Nichols bases more than 50 percent of his evaluation of the pup’s parents on the female.

“Good, proven females are hard to come by,” he said. “It’s pretty much a given that you can find a proven male to breed to.”


If at all possible, visit the kennel


Visit on more than one occasion if you can. Pups change as they age. The pup you saw at 6 weeks might be a different dog by 8 weeks.


Look at the litter

Dog books are full of tests you can perform with puppies to detect dominance, passivity and other qualities. These hunters don’t stress those tests. Just watch the dogs, they say.

“I want to see a dog that’s curious,” Helmer said.

“I would be leery of any dog that seemed to be fearful or standoffish or insecure,” Nichols said. “I’m looking for bold, confident, inquisitive puppies. Whether they come to me or wander off, I don’t care.”

“The most important thing for me is eye contact, (a pup) that doesn’t look away or seem disinterested when you make a noise, one that’s always attentive to what you’re doing,” Watts said. “If you can find a puppy that will make eye contact when it’s young, it’ll usually look at you for the rest of its life.”



Make sure the pups in a litter are well socialized

Have they been handled and played with? They should have exposure to as many people and other dogs as possible, Nichols said.

“You want to make sure they’re not stuck out in a barn somewhere,” he said.


Are the sire’s and dam’s titles important?

Dogs that have performed well in hunt tests and field trials earn titles, expressed as initials before their AKC (American Kennel Club) names. Titles don’t guarantee excellent offspring, but they do indicate several qualities, Nichols said.

“These dogs are not only tractable (easily managed) and have prey drive and typically high intelligence,” he said. “These are dogs that have a physical makeup that can stand all of that training. They’re put together well.”



Let the dog pick you

Assuming you’re working with a responsible breeder, many puppy buyers let the puppy choose them.

“There’s always going to be a pup in the litter that’s endearing or that you take notice of,” Helmer said. “That’s why I say, ‘Let the puppy pick you.’ ”

“If you’ve got three or four to pick from, one of them is going to end up picking you if you sit down with all of them,” Watts said.

Owens says that’s the way many of his clients choose their pups.


How much can you expect to pay?

Expect to pay $750 to $1,500 for a puppy with good blood lines from a reputable breeder, Nichols said.


Everybody who buys a puppy has his or her price range.

“You buy the best breeding you can find in your price range,” Watts said.

Nichols agreed.

“Just get the best dog you can afford,” he said. “The purchase price, in the long run, is the cheapest part of the whole thing.”


For more info

John Nichols of the Duluth Retriever Club recommended the following websites for those seeking reliable breeders.

  •  Retriever Training Forum Classifieds -
  •  Retriever News Classifieds -
  •  This website explains the abbreviations for titles that dogs can earn: AKC titles and abbreviations -
  •  Another puppy-shopping website, recommended by Bob Owens, is Click on “Weekly Winners.”


744504+051914.O.DNT_.Puppies 4.jpg
Bob Owens of Duluth holds two of a litter of six yellow Labs. The puppies are 6 weeks old. Bob King /

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at
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