Don’t leave it too long to source a replacement for your gundog, says David Tomlinson. At present, demand is outstripping supply – and then it will take time to train the newcomer
When to buy a gundog puppy is a question with a simple answer, says David Tomlinson: now. There is no time like the present. Though if you had not had to source a pup for a while, prepare yourself for a shock – as demand continues to outstrip supply.
When choosing your next companion there is also the matter of breed to consider. Read different gundog breeds: a break with tradition.
WHEN TO BUY A GUNDOG PUPPY
A friend, whose labrador is approaching its ninth birthday, asked me recently when he should start to think about getting a puppy to take over the old dog’s mantle. My reply was brief: now. With luck, his dog will be able to work well for another season or two, but by the time most dogs have reached double figures they have slowed down considerably, and relatively few can manage a full day’s shooting when they are 12, and that’s assuming that they are still fit and healthy.
It’s easy to forget how long it takes to train and bring on a young dog. Many make their debut in the shooting field when only a year old, but unless carefully supervised that’s much too young. Never forget the old adage that the quickest way to ruin a gundog is to take it shooting. Two is a much better age for a shooting dog to start its career, and only then if it is 100% steady and has good recall. We have all met (and possibly owned) many shooting dogs that never mastered those two essentials.
Even a well-trained three-year-old is still really an apprentice, but by the age of four a good dog is approaching its prime; with luck, it will continue to perform at its peak for three or four more seasons. All too soon comes the day when you realise that your old friend no longer wants to jump fences or hunt for birds it hasn’t seen fall. Retirement is fast approaching, which is when you should really have a promising puppy being trained to take over.
My labrador-owning friend was worried that introducing a puppy to the household would upset the old dog, which is also the family pet. Would the old dog resent his replacement? Fortunately, dogs don’t think like we do and I reassured him that the arrival of a puppy in the house would be unlikely to create any problems. Most oldies react favourably to the arrival of a puppy, clearly not viewing it as a rival to their No 1 status, which it is unlikely to be. It is rare for old dogs to attack puppies, though they may well put them in their place.
For many years I have had mothers and daughters neatly solving the problem of succession. However, we decided not to breed from the last of our long line of springers, so were faced with the dilemma of when to get the next puppy. When we did so our resident spaniel, Rowan, was almost exactly 12. After the initial shock of discovering that the new puppy, Emma, aged just eight weeks, had come to stay, the two have got along fine, Rowan even allowing Emma to share her bed on occasion.
There is no question as to which is the top dog, but status is only apparent at feeding times, when Rowan is dominant, so much so that supervision is essential to ensure that she doesn’t steal Emma’s dinner. I’m sure that as long as the older dog remains the alpha member of the pack everyone remains happy. There’s also the bonus that the arrival of a puppy will liven up the long-term resident, which can be no bad thing.
THE COVID EFFECT
Having decided that you want to get a puppy, the challenge is then to source a suitable candidate. If you haven’t bought a puppy for a long time, be prepared for a shock. COVID-19 led to an extraordinary surge in demand for puppies, with rampant price inflation. According to Pets4Homes, the UK’s most popular free pet classifieds website, the average price of puppies for sale in 2020 was £1,875, compared to £808 in 2019, an increase of 131% in a year. Pets4Homes may be dealing primarily with pets rather than working dogs, but the price of all puppies has rocketed.
It’s easy to see why. Apparently, for every available puppy offered for sale in May 2020, there were 420 prospective buyers competing to buy it. Gundogs are among the most popular of pets, so the prices of gundog puppies rose accordingly. Labrador puppies from sound working stock were being sold for between £2,000 and £3,000, and even unregistered English springers, usually the bargains of the gundog world, were commanding as much as £1,500.
A gamekeeper I know who breeds a litter of labrador puppies a year was delighted to be making some serious money from his latest lot, though he also had his misgivings. He was concerned that if he priced his puppies too low, he would not only be besieged with enquiries and requests to view them, but there was also the risk that the puppies would be bought and then sold on a week or two later at a profit.
Whether prices will remain high is debatable, but demand still exceeds supply, making it a strong sellers’ market. I expect to see prices edge downwards later this year, but I doubt if we will ever get back to 2019 levels. The worry is that unscrupulous breeders currently have a strong incentive to produce litters from unsound or unsuitable stock simply to make money. My advice to anyone looking for a puppy is to buy from a Kennel Club Assured Breeder or someone you know and trust, and to only buy from health-tested parents.