For all the promise and anticipation wrapped up in a new puppy, there exists a certain charm in restoring the shine on a second-hand bird dog. Tailgate legend has a long chapter devoted entirely to these pups. Their stories feature washed-out trial dogs that just needed more time to blossom or the rescue pup offered a soft hand and a second chance following neglect or abuse. And who doesn’t love a rags-to-riches fable featuring a bird-crazy stray or shelter mutt who lived to hunt despite a questionable pedigree?
While these stories offer us inspiration as to what’s possible when adopting a hunting dog, let them not detract from the hard work involved in mining a diamond in the rough. You owe it to yourself—as well as the dog—to do your homework before making the commitment. As you’ll soon discover, many of these prospects ended up in this predicament because their previous owners had no idea what they were getting into.
In my experience, the most successful hunting dog adoption stories involve owners with previous dog ownership under their belts and a working knowledge of basic dog behavior and training. Most of the flaws, vices, quirks, or shortcomings in these dogs arose in response to boundless energy and strong prey drive that were neither recognized nor offered an appropriate outlet. While not mandatory prerequisites, many rescue bird dogs will require more experience and patience than a novice or unmotivated trainer brings to the relationship (alas, that’s why they’re in need of rescuing).
Why Do You Want to Adopt? It’s a fair question, and one you or your family should answer together honestly. Reputable rescue organizations, breeders, and most shelters will likely vet you just as carefully. Your motivations for pursuing an adoption are fair game in an interview.
Extending a helping hand to man’s best friend will undoubtedly comprise part of your decision to adopt, but the grace that comes with a second chance must also bring with it a commitment to the time and training required of responsible hunting dog owners. Keep in mind that it was likely a human shortcoming in structure and energy management that forced the dog into a rehoming situation.
Empathy for empathy’s sake does not alone provide sufficient grounds for adopting a hard-working canine. That type of emotional currency carries little value to a bird dog. At the expense of sounding blunt, they neither seek nor require your empathy. Rather, hunting dogs willingly offer fidelity and companionship in exchange for your commitment to providing good food, shelter, structure, and consistent fulfilment of their physical and mental demands. Meeting these needs contributes far more to a dog’s quality of life than showering it in your sympathy.
You should also exclude the rush of scoring a thrift shop deal from your short list of adoption motivators. Indeed, the modest “rehoming fee” (a common term used to mask an attempt by a dog owner to recoup part of their investment) or shelter adoption fee seems like a major score compared to the sticker shock of a well-bred puppy. However, this bargain price excludes the hard work you’ll invest in undoing months or years of well-ingrained bad habits in the field or home.
If you simply want to skip the puppy months and take in an older dog to hunt, I recommend searching for a started dog, one that has had an introductory course in proper bird work and obedience. Many rescue hunting dogs will require just as much work and training to undo bad habits in the field and at home as you would invest in a naive puppy.
Shelter or Rescue Group? Your search for a hunting dog will most likely begin on a computer. In this space, a notable edge goes to the breed/job-specific rescue groups, most of which already work closely with local shelters.
The vast majority of hunting breed rescue groups bring together many years of experience when assessing an adoption prospect. Additionally, they universally desire to place these dogs in homes where they’re most likely to thrive, and they generally do a more thorough job of matching adopter and adoptee than most shelters. Lean on their expertise when looking for a bird dog and be transparent with them regarding your own desires and limitations.
Some of my favorite bird dog rescue groups are those managed by avid hunters with enough field and breed experience to assess a dog’s probability of becoming a reliable hunting companion for you. While the shelter can provide some helpful generalizations on temperament, they won’t likely have the same level of expertise when evaluating a dog’s prey drive, level of field training, or gun-shyness.
Breeders as a Resource I’m privileged to work with a number of reputable breeders in my practice, all of whom have a vested interest in the health and wellbeing of every puppy they sell. Even if you’re fundamentally opposed to buying a puppy from a breeder, I encourage you to consider working with one when searching for a bird dog to adopt.
Be upfront with them about your motivations and demonstrate your hunting dog ownership readiness. Even when pups are sold to qualified, experienced buyers, unforeseen life events happen. When owner death, deployment, or unplanned job changes leave one of their pups vulnerable, upper-tier hunting dog breeders often step in and activate a network of trusted hunters to keep what could likely be a well-trained and well-bred dog out of the shelter.
Be Patient and Open-Minded Any rescue group will echo my strong recommendation to exercise patience and restraint when planning a bird dog adoption. Choosing the right dog for your lifestyle will set up both you and the dog for a satisfying life together.
If the adoption group doesn’t readily provide this information, inquire first whether they’ve tested the dog’s temperament. Is the dog comfortable with strangers, other dogs, small children, or cats? Are they housebroken, neutered, or crate trained? The answers to these questions will not only provide you the results of a compatibility survey, they’ll also give you a reasonable estimation of how much baggage they’re carrying and the size of the rehabilitation project you’re undertaking.
Understand and employ the limitations of your experience and the constraints of your home environment, no matter how attractive you find those long, floppy ears. With patience, the right fit for your situation will come along eventually, and you owe it to the dog to make this adoption be its last.