Jennifer Wapenski is the managing editor of Hunting Dog Confidential…
First hand perspective of adding a first gun dog to the family.
This article is the first in a series on upland hunting from the beginner’s perspective. Follow my failures, learning experiences, and small victories as I navigate my first season behind my wildly talented puppy, who would like to know why she got stuck training a rookie.
It was 102 degrees somewhere in northwestern Nebraska. Our eleven-year-old Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, carefully bred for working the snowy slopes of the Alps, sighed the kind of sigh that only old dogs can.
“What exactly,” her face said, “did you guys just do?”
A yapping ball of fur and puppy teeth came tumbling around the tree. We’d just picked up our brand new Deutsch Langhaar puppy, along with her littermate who was headed to another nearby home and were beginning the cross-country trip home to Washington. An hour into the three-day journey, we decided to take a break and sort things out. We were outnumbered by canines and totally out-energized by the eight-week-old puppies. Our lack of preparation quickly became evident when one puppy took off for the pond and another for the cornfield. Suddenly we were in crisis mode, trying to corral the little beasts and restore some order to the blazing hot afternoon. The old dog just huffed and rolled her eyes. In that moment, we all knew that life had turned upside-down.
The decision to get a hunting dog was not taken lightly. Having been into outdoor pursuits for many years, we’d recently expanded into duck hunting. I willingly—if not enthusiastically—took on the role of trained retriever. But I was soon lobbying for a canine partner to join our team. After an unexpected opportunity to shoot pheasants over a trio of German Shorthairs, I was completely sold on the idea of a hunting dog. That was the easy part. The hard part was narrowing down all the world’s breeds to a manageable list of considerations.
I pored over books, websites, and podcasts to learn as much as I could. Not being an experienced hunter, I had no clue how far I wanted the dog to range or how fast it ought to run. I just knew we wanted a loyal, hard-working companion who would be equally comfortable in the field, water, and home. Most of all, the dog needed to be patient enough to handle a couple of rookie hunters. Much to the amusement of our non-dog-people friends, we embarked on a couple of road trips to visit the breeds on our list. This was my first introduction to the hunting dog community. What an introduction it was! Complete strangers, united only by a shared love of dogs, were enthusiastically taking time to show off their dogs and help with our decision.
We eventually settled on the Deutsch Langhaar as the best fit for us. We didn’t set out to choose a rare breed, but we liked everything that we learned about these versatile dogs. The strict rules of the German breeding system value performance and ability about as much as conformation. This meant that we had a pretty good chance of ending up with a naturally talented dog. That was an important factor since I knew our first dog would need all the help she could get.
As is the case for rare breeds, my exuberance gave way to a long, (im)patient wait for an available puppy. I occupied myself with reading all of the training material I could find. It wasn’t long before I realized that there are a few different opinions on the best approach to training! I was overwhelmed with information and utterly intimidated by the task at hand. My early enthusiasm gave way to a sense of dread. How was I going to manage this without completely messing up my new dog?
Luckily, by then I’d made some great contacts within the Deutsch Langhaar community. I got into contact with an extremely knowledgeable breeder, an experienced local owner, and the bred club’s social media groups. These gave me the resources to prevent a panic attack. I resigned myself to the fact that training wasn’t going to be black and white. As much as my engineer brain wanted a binary answer, I accepted that the right approach would be whatever worked best for us. This would likely take some flexibility and adjustment along the way.
The key concept in most methods was getting the puppy early exposure to a variety of positive experiences. This resonated with me and, even better, seemed feasible for me. By the time we returned from our traveling circus, I was ready to introduce our new puppy to the world. I was suddenly looking at everything with brand new eyes: the local park, the lake, and now even the backyard all held countless opportunities for positive exposure.
As it turned out, the old dog soon warmed to the new intruder. At least during the old dog’s designated waking hours. While we focused on exposing the puppy to the outside world in preparation for a successful hunting career, the old dog took over responsibility for the house rules. Perhaps some of the puppy’s best training was administered by our experienced companion. He patiently demonstrated the procedures for properly fluffing the bed for best fit, selecting the most comfortable places to nap, effectively begging for popcorn, asking to go outside, and generally how to behave appropriately in the house.
It’s been a big adjustment for all of us. Yet our diligent work at the beginning should lay a good foundation for a well-adjusted, versatile dog both in the field and on the couch. In just a few short months, we’ve come a long way from that harried rest stop in Nebraska.
And though she’d never admit it, I think even the old dog is glad we didn’t just leave the pup in the cornfield.
Jennifer Wapenski is the managing editor of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine and co-host of the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast. She has a lifelong passion for the outdoors, dogs, and wildlife; as an adult, she discovered that upland bird and waterfowl hunting were natural extensions of these pursuits. Jennifer lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two Deutsch Langhaars.