[wp_ad_camp_2]People often ask for my advice on what breed of gundog they should choose for their first puppy.
Mostly, they don’t want my advice.
They just want confirmation that the Large Munsterlander, Brittany or Curly Coated Retriever they have set their heart on, is the ideal working gundog/pet for them.
However, my advice to first-time working gundog buyers is often: get a Labrador.
This is rarely what they want to hear, but this article explains why I often say it.
No bad dogs
Before you leap to the defence of our lesser gundog breeds I should add that there is nothing wrong with the dogs mentioned above, nothing at all.
Nor is there anything wrong with Italian Spinones, Field Spaniels, or any of the other less numerous gundog breeds.
There are no ‘bad dogs’. But some breeds are not the best choice for a first timer.
The facts are simple.
The easiest dog to train and manage for a first time gundog owner is very often a Labrador Retriever.
Standing out from the crowd
Now I completely understand everyone’s wish to be different. We all like to be unique in some way or another.
I don’t want to bump into someone with identical shoes, or the same coat. I do not wish to live in a street where every house is identical, nor drive the exact same make of car as all my friends.
Expressing your individuality is normally a great thing. However, this is one time when I urge you to suppress your need to be different!
Plenty of choice
There are many good reasons to choose the nation’s most popular dog when you are about to enter the world of the working gundog and many good reasons why the Labrador is so popular throughout the Western world. Not only within the hunting and shooting community, but amongst the wider pet owning public.
Because of their generally good temperament, trainability and versatility, the popularity of these dogs means that they are widely available. Of all the retriever breeds, Labradors are by far the most numerous.
On shoots up and down the country you will find Labradors vastly outnumber any other breed of retriever. They also excel at wide range of other activities including working trials, and even agility.
Once you have had a Labrador, you will like him so much, that you will probably want another one.
Availability and choice is hugely important with your first dog.
If your nearest rare breed litter is two hundred miles away and the breeder only has one litter every three years, you are hardly going to walk away if things are not quite right. You will have invested a lot of time and energy into finding this puppy and will be under a lot of pressure to take him home.
Another consideration when choosing a gundog breed is of course the size of the gene pool. We are becoming more aware of the issues that are arising with respect to breeding our dogs within closed populations.
Smaller gene pools increase the risk of genetic disease, and very rare breeds often have very small gene pools.
Other types of gundog
You may be tempted with a non-retriever breed. There are four categories of working gundog and retrievers (such as our Labradors, golden retrievers and flatcoated retrievers) generally require less specialised training than the spaniel, HPR, and pointer groups.
They also have a somewhat more placid temperament than dogs which are bred primarily for hunting, and there are many experienced retriever trainers across the country for you to go to for help when you get into difficulties – as you will at some point.
“What about a Springer” you say “ that’s a smaller dog, better for a small house, and less likely to knock over the children” You may even have heard that the Springer is the ultimate all-round gundog, and the ideal companion for the rough shooting man.
At this point I may sigh a little bit. Because you are not wrong. But on the other hand, you are so wrong.
The size of the dog is of less importance than the amount of space he occupies. A spaniel is always in a hurry and often occupies twice as much space as a larger retriever that may spend far more time sleeping and relaxing.
The all round rough shooting dog
It is true that a well trained springer probably is the ultimate rough shooting dog. But the ‘well-trained’ part of that sentence is crucial.
Located up and down this country is a number of superb rescue societies dedicated to Springer spaniels. They are run by dedicated people who know this breed inside out. And they are full to bursting with working-bred Springers. Many of which have behavioural problems.
I won’t go into detail here but suffice it to say, a working bred spaniel is rarely the easiest dog for a first time owner.
Did I mention that the easiest dog to train and manage for a first time gundog owner is a Labrador?
I thought so.
Perhaps I should also mention, that if you do not train your Springer effectively he is more likely to take you to the verge of despair than just about any other dog.
If you need more convincing about Springer spaniels read my article the trouble with springers. If you have any questions or comments feel free to post them below.
I am not trying to put people who need a springer off buying a springer by the way. I just want you to know what is involved. And to help make sure that more springers get into the right homes.
What about the HPR breeds? The main drawback in this category is the specialised training these dogs need to fulfil their working potential. You will need help to train your HPR and HPR experts are thin on the ground.
Some HPR breeds have a less than great reputation with regard to temperament so you will also need help to find the right line from which to select a family dog.
Give yourself a break
Of course there are some poorly bred Labrador puppies out there . I have even known some bad tempered specimens, but they are in a tiny minority.
The vast majority of the breed has an excellent temperament, will not eat your neighbours’ children or savage their chickens, and is unlikely to head for the far side of the county every time you go for a walk.
Your worst problems are likely to be stopping him from pulling on the lead, chewing your furniture, and jumping up at people who are nice to him. All of which can be fixed or avoided entirely.
And once you have acquired your Labrador puppy, you will have an extensive wealth of expert help available to you no matter where you happen to live.
This is simply not the case with many other less numerous breeds
There will be challenges enough in owning and training your first gundog without making life more difficult for yourself. This is unlikely to be the last dog you will own. There will be time later, when you have some experience under your belt, to own one of the more challenging breeds.
Be kind to yourself, you know it makes sense.
Get a Labrador!
For a definitive guide to raising and training your puppy, you can buy my best selling puppy book – The Happy Puppy Handbook
This article has been revised and updated for 2015
Hi Pippa, I’ve been interested to read this, and your articles on springers. We had a springer puppy just over a year ago. He is my husband’s first dog, a working type with an excellent trial pedigree, and he has turned out to be freakishly big, 23 inches at the shoulder, double the size of either of his parents. I think he probably has the potential to develop all the problem behaviours you describe. He has boundless energy, requires a lot of interaction, he is obsessive about chasing, and by far the biggest problem with him is his strength and pulling on lead. He is however, absolutely beautiful, children are probably his favourite thing in the world, he is loyal, endlessly loving, incredibly bright, very trainable and masses of fun. He is a pet. We kept him on an extending lead until we were sure of his recall, and his obsessive chasing is completely focused on chasing balls which we throw for him throughout his walks. He has no interest in chasing animals, he is too focused on chasing balls. He has very good recall because we always have balls in our pockets. He does need lots of interaction on walks, but this is fun for all concerned. I really believe the answer to controlling the chasing instinct in pet springers is to throw things for him to chase so you are in control.
Antonia Stone says
Your answer to the question was just the one I wanted. I am looking for a puppy to train myself for a gundog. My husband and sons are very into pigeon and pheasant shooting and over the years we have had springers and GSP’s which have been lovely dogs, but I want to get back into shooting and I’m not as sprightly as i once was. i feel a lab would be the best choice. When choosing a pup do i need to look for lots of FT winners and champs in it’s pedigree or would a litter from a family pet be just as good? i would avoid show breeding. Also am I just as likely to get a good pup for say £200 as for £900? The prices vary greatly.
Any advice would be greatfully received.
Many thanks, Antonia (South Devon)
Clair Ashmore says
Ive just read the threads from your original article about having a lab as your first gundog. I currently have 3 labs with a new addition due in about 3 weeks. I have a chocolate show type who is 12 and had horrendous problems with HD & ED plus skin & ear problems & cruciate ligament repair. I also have 2 working type black lab’s aged 9 and 4 who have been absolutely brilliant. Neither have had hralth problems like my chocolate has. I dont work my dogs they are purely pets but i can honestly say they have been hard work sometimes particularly in their first year but they are an absolute pleasure to own. They both recall to the whistle and im hoping our new addition will pick up some of their manners.
The breeder who we bought our 9 year old lab off does have the same view as you in your article. Labs are easier to train than spaniels as your first gundog and he bred both. I’ve often fancied another gundog breed but keep going back to the Labrador. Clair
Alan Moore says
Pippa. I am new to the dog world. After much research and observations of working dogs I would like to enter into this field. My heart is telling me to go Flatcoated Retriever as I love the look of the breed over Labradors. However I also find myself greatly influenced by my peers who advise a lab to train up as I am likely to succeed quicker with a lab over a FCR. Before I make the decision to acquire my pup can you please give me your honest opinion about the 2 breeds and the pros and cons. Alan
Hi Alan, I don’t really have anything to add to the article above with regard to breeds for a first time gundog owner I’m afraid. Was there any section you felt wasn’t clear?
My first hunting dog was a Brittany Spaniel. At the same time, my hunting buddy got himself a Lab, and it’s fair to say he had a much easier time training his Lab. I love Labs, but I really want a HPR dog. I do no duck hunting on water. I hunt mainly upland, Grouse, Woodcock, Hungarian Partridge.
I have been doing some reading and I am now interested in the Italian Spinone. The reason being their temperament. My Brittany was uncontrollable. Full of ENERGY. A walk on a leash was unacceptable to her. When I would drive her to a field, it was non stop yelping and crying due to her excitement. I have done some research on the Italian Spinone and I understand they are calmer dogs in comparison the other pointers, such as the GSP, or the Vizsla, or the Griffon.
Would you agree or disagree?
Thanks for all the info you have posted,
Hi Lorenzo, I have no extensive experience of HPRs I’m afraid, but it is probably fair to say that the more unusual dogs can often be more challenging – I know some lovely Viszlas and if I were buying an HPR that would be my personal choice, followed closely by the GSP. Good luck whatever you decide. Pippa
Patsy Kenton says
Dear Pippa ,
It was with great interest I read your comments Ican see the wisdom of Labs ;but like all gundog breeds come in many types Show pet/family gun dog and trial breed .All of which act and take different amounts of skill and training .I am now on my 3rd GSP The first I trained predominantly as a family pet who would be well mannered around horses farm animals and game . Our 2nd was of good normal shooting parents (no field trial champs )and trained as family dog able to take rough shooting picking up .Our current pup has come from an amazing trial bred lines .The difference is like comparing a land rover to a sport car .When buying any dog important to be honest what you want for and how much work you are prepared to put in Vital to do homework into breed what they need , and look into and make sure parents have been hip scored ect . GSP.s are dogs that need proper training and you need to put in the time When 3years ( German judges regard them as puppies young dogs till then) are then mature and a real delight fun to be had up to then as well.Despite having had 2 GSPs before Know need help with our field trial line dog .so before taking on made sure had arranged to get help training from a field trial trainer Though work it is easier to train correctly than sort problems .I have found your training book total recall of great help .When buying any dog .being honest about what you want and what for and what you are willing and able to do training wise is vital No bad breeds just inappropriate owners –yours Patsy Kenton
Just to add I do also believe Labradors as a breed are more likely to have health issues.
Just from experience and I find nowadays it’s a shock to come across one that hasn’t got skin, joint, allergies or stomach issues.
All my labs have always been KC assured and from good breeders and not cheap. All have had health complaints, especially skin and allergies issues.
One had eye and arthritis, our black lab who was put to sleep last year had a life time of skin and allergie problems, he lived on steriods and then atopica everyday, very very expensive. He lost his fur, had oozing skin, had his anal glands removed, it was heartbreaking and so expensive and difficult to treat.
My latest lab as soon as we got him home showed signs of skin trouble, itching constantly and flaky skin. Then came the flatulence and regular stomach upset.
He now has to live on a strict expensive diet of grain free and no scraps or extras as it all upsets him.
The flatulence never seems to improve!
And I know somebody with only a 3 year old black lab who is KC assured and a good dog but has had a short life of hell with cruciates and hip replacements, he can hardly sit down it’s awful!
I’ve met many with problems and not many without.
I used to dog walk as a job so I saw many Labradors.
Yet I’ve never met a spaniel with health issues?
Our spaniel wasn’t from a great place, she was sold too young, eating the wrong food, nervous and very cheap at £200 no papers etc but she’s got no issues, can eat anything etc. My boyfriends dad has owned many many spaniels and never had health issues with them and all lived until 14 +.
Strange how Labradors seem to have so many problems even when bred well? I wonder if many other people find this?
My personal observation is that skin problems seem more common in some lines of labs. I have never had any skin issues in a red lab, whereas my black labs and my current chocolate lab, have all suffered with either itchy ears, or skin complaints. It would be interesting to do a poll. Might put one on the forum 🙂 I should probably add that the worst case of hip dysplasia I have ever seen was in a cocker spaniel. Again, exceptions abound.
I meant very difficult to train to be *steady*
I have to say I always had Labradors in my young years, but my boyfriend wanted a spaniel for our first working family dog, even though she was hard work in the sense that she is so needy and doesn’t settle at all in the home, she constantly needs working, she’s actually turned out a lot easier than our latest Labrador addition!
He is a very high drive hot headed lab, very difficult to train to be already or to actually listen. They say labs are very trainable, good natured etc but he’s much more hard work, he’s taking a real firm hand and seems to take a few steps forward and then ten back. She is a real people pleaser so has always been easy to train, her recall is spot on, she listens to all commands and hand signals, she watches you intently and keeps her eye on you. He does not! He listens when you have treats or when he’s not distracted by smells or running game, he doesn’t make much eye contact, on when he has to and will bolt and completely run off out of sight after game, smells, another dog etc no amount of shouting, whistling or telling him off ever seems to bother him or change it!
He could be a great working dog with his drive but we are seriously struggling to gain any control or be more interesting than him pleasing himself. Our spaniel was never like this. We were always more interesting.
He also like many many Labradors I meet has a streak of aggression towards other dogs. He is for no reason obsessed with other dogs, it’s extremely frustrating. He’s been socialised and walked in places where many dog walkers go but he never changes, he is stiff, growling, bolts off, totally ignores me and has a real go at some dogs and most have a go at him with his bad attitude. I meet many Labradors like this and in the last couple of weeks 4 different chocolate labs on seperate occasions have been very aggressive to him. My sister in law has a black lab who is now old but has always been extremely aggressive to other dogs and will attack and bite, yet he’s great in the home and a great working dog. I know other people with labs from good breeders and in good homes but with serious attitudes out and about. So not all labs are biddable, easy to train, good first dogs and a soft touch.
I have to say our lab is extremely hard work and we keep saying we should of had a English springer for our 2nd dog to accompany our other spaniel.
It is quite true that not all labs are biddable, and easy to train. All you can do when choosing a breed or an individual is ‘shorten the odds’ There are plenty of exceptions to every rule. 🙂
Have just come across your article and find it helpful and interesting.
However, although you say a labrador is probably the best choice for first time gundog puppy owners, there are pitfalls that one should be made aware of.
We wanted a working gundog for the first time, having had ‘show’ type labs before, and were aware that we would have to spend time to learn ourselves and to train our new puppy.
However our pup from a FTCh and working bitch was diagnosed with hip dysplasia at 6 months, which I am sure was present from birth. This meant no gundog training, lead exercise only until 15 months old and countless sessions of hydrotherapy which is still ongoing. She is now 3 years old.
Words cannot describe the impact of physical restraint balanced against working her very intelligent brain and taking into account her internal drive to ‘work’ has had. Times have been very tough. Also, although I am no expert (only in my own dog) she is what I think is described as a ‘hot’ type, ie very high energy, very impulsive, and with a brain that becomes very ‘hyper’ when we try to do working type exercises in a restrained way!!!!
The point I am making here is not all gundog types are the same, even within the breed, and aside from our girl’s HD, first time puppy owners should be told that some ‘types’ are much harder to train, live with and ultimately manage on a day to day basis than others.
Potential puppy buyers need to be aware of this because it will impact heavily on enjoyment of the dog, and even may mean needing to give the dog to rescue. Because how does a novice, first time gundog owner manage a dog that an experienced gundog trainer would not want, because of untrainability and impulsiveness?
Maybe as a gundog trainer this is something you have never thought of, or maybe gundog breeders do not want to address this problem? Because who will have these dogs, bred for purpse but not ‘fit’ for purpose, especially within the average dog owner household?
I look forward to hearing from you with your comments.
Hi Carol and thank you for sharing your thoughts
I am so sorry to hear of your experience with hip dysplasia. Your comment is rather timely as you will discover if you read my article posted this morning
Health testing working spaniels
Sadly hip dysplasia is not confined to Labradors and as someone that has experienced this unpleasant disease in its worst form you have my sincere sympathy.
I think that your point is a good one. This is a very important issue and one that I have addressed in a number of my books and articles.
I believe that there is a problem with over-production of high drive dogs and the placing of these dogs in pet homes. Though by and large this applies more to spaniels than to labs. With regard to temperament it is true that some field bred Labradors are very high energy with masses of drive, as are my own. Though this is often balanced by a deeply ‘sensitive’ nature that makes them very receptive to training in a way that some of the more robust natured show dogs are not. With working spaniels the drive can sometimes be accompanied by a real indifference to human attention outdoors that makes them very hard to train using traditional methods.
I think it is very important that people are really aware of what they are getting when they buy a ‘field bred’ dog. However, I think that there are two separate issues here.
The best breed of working gundog for the novice handler
The best type of gundog for a pet home
The article above assumes that the buyer is already decided on a field bred dog. It is intended to address the choice of working breed rather than the question of field bred versus show bred.
The second issue, which type of dog is most suited to the pet home, includes the points you have raised. It is quite a big topic. It includes not only the differences in working and show ‘types’ but the differences in different ‘lines’ of field bred dogs. Bearing in mind that most of us are not looking for a Field Trial Champion. 🙂
Perhaps I should have addressed this topic first. But I will try to cover it in another article.
In the meantime, you might find some help with specific training issues in some of the articles over on the Labrador Site.