Let’s imagine a family who has made the call to bring a new puppy into their lives. Many people who are in the market for a puppy are drawn to the beautiful and lovely Labrador and Golden retrievers, and for good reason. They can be such great pets. Maybe Mom had a Lab when she was a kid, or their neighbour has a sweet Golden now. The dogs’ beauty, friendly nature, and chill personality make them a perfect fit for the family, they decide. (In fact, Labrador and Golden retrievers are number one and number three on the most popular dog list, according to the Canadian Kennel Club.) Once a decision is made, the family searches diligently for a breeder nearby, and (much to their delight) finds a couple of promising options within a day’s drive. A few calls later and presto—a litter of puppies is found, available in a few weeks! Out comes the chequebook and puppy is soon snuggling in the backseat with the family’s oldest daughter.
All is perfection, all is lovely, all is well.
Oh hold on. All is well... until a month or two later, when things start to change. When the puppy starts to show some alarming tendencies. There’s the energy. I mean, does this thing ever get tired? And the mouthing. Everyone in the family has bruises and the oldest daughter now refuses to interact or even allow the puppy in her room. The puppy has started to guard tennis balls...for real, with actual teeth involved. And he’s running around the kitchen ad naseum, and jumping up on everyone, and nipping clothes and nipping hands. Holy moly who is this beast? When will the neighbour’s lovely Golden show up? When will the perfect Lab of those rosy childhood memories appear? Call the dog trainer! What is wrong with this dog?
Diagnosis: This family may have unknowingly bought a field-line dog.
Field line, you ask, baffled. Field line? What does this mean? Our imaginary family may be surprised to find out that there is not just one type of Lab or Golden. Sure, some Labs and Goldens (from so-called “show lines”) are bred to be at least somewhat aligned with the perfect pet of their dreams, although all dogs are more effort than one would expect based on rosy and faded remembrances. But those particular Labs and Goldens bred for either hunting or dog sports, known as “field-line” dogs? Those dogs are a completely different dealio. They can have the energy of a caff’ed-up border collie with the patience of a toddler on sucrose, the brain of a Nobel prize winner with the personality of a complicated teen T-rex.
In other words, many are not good at being chill, low-key family pets. At all.
n.b.: this also applies to some spaniels and other sporting breeds, where there are different lines bred for vastly different purposes - in my area, the dividing lines are hunting dogs vs. pet dogs, so I'll write about that.
So, if you’re currently in the market for a new puppy and have decided on a Lab or a Golden, I’ve made an easy quiz to help you figure out if the litter down the lane might be a good pet candidate Lab or Golden, or a field-line dog (and yes, I recognize that not all dogs fit neatly into these categories, no matter their breeding. But it makes for a more fun quiz, doesn't it?). To take the quiz, grab a piece of paper and jot “FIELD” and “PET” at the top of two columns. Answer each question below, and then tally up your responses at the end.
Question One. When you met the breeder, what were they wearing?
IF they wore neutral clothes, such as jeans and a t-shirt, add no point to either column. Continue detecting.
IF there was any plaid or camo at all and/or a shotgun across the arm; and/or some squinting wisely into the sun as they talk about pointing, flushing, retrieving; or even a single down-filled vest, then add two points to the “FIELD” column on your page.
EXTRA SEVEN POINTS in the “FIELD” column if there was any chewing on a blade of grass.
IF there were polyester skirts and low heels, add 2.25 points to the “PET” column.
SUBTRACT TWELVE POINTS from both columns if they wore no clothes, and twelve more if you didn’t, either. What the hell is going on here?
Question Two. What is the name of the breeder’s kennel?
IF the name includes words like Championship Show Dogs, add 42 points to the PET column.
IF the name include words such as “Working Dogs”, “Hunting Dogs”, “Not Really Pet Material Here”, “GunDog”, or similar, add 42.8 points to the “FIELD” column on your page.
NO POINTS to either column if any of the name invites you to think about the craggy coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Question Three: When you met the sire and dam, what were they like?
IF they were tired and muddy from a ten mile sprint next to the owner’s camo-coloured quad on forested back-country roads, their exquisitely muscled frames taller and more lithe than you expected, but they still managed to circle you, barking and excited and jumping, for at least 5 minutes...add 782 points to the FIELD column on your page.
IF they clomped up to you waggling happily and milled around, getting pats for a minute or two before going back to their obviously well-worn beds to loll about or chew contentedly on their stuffed toys, add 782.4 points to the PET column.
BONUS FIFTY POINTS to the PET column for each minute it took the breeder to get the dam and sire to wake up from the couch, yawning and stretching languorously, before they padded up to meet you.
Question Four: When you ask the seller “is this puppy bred for hunting or for a particular dog sport”, how do they answer?
IF they say yes, add two billionty points to the FIELD column on your page.
IF they say no, add two points and four smiley faces to the PET column.
Question Five: When you ask to meet the sire and dam, did the breeder prevaricate and say they weren’t available or you're not welcome to for reasons x, y, or z?
If yes, put this silly quiz aside and call another breeder. This is a dangerous sign that you’ve reached a puppy mill. Read this blog about how to identify puppy mill sellers, and beware: these people are very convincing. Good breeders of pet dogs will be in no hurry to sell a puppy, and will work to ensure that every dog they sell is going to a well-matched home.
Question Six: The wall of photographs the breeder has in their home, what does it contain?
IF there are oodles of pictures of their blocky-head dogs festooned with show ribbons, standing with exquisite coiffure—both human and dog—add two million points to the PET column on your page.
IF there is a single pheasant or any other bird from the subfamily Tetraoninae in any of the photos, add 24.6 x 52 +2 points to the FIELD column.
IF there are photos of the dogs, yellow eyes staring preternaturally bright, caught mid-jump in some odd dog sport you’ve never heard of (is it pronounced TRAY-ball? or TREE-ball?), add your birthyear in points to the FIELD column.
Now add things up now: how does your potential puppy look? Demon or delight?
Alright, the fun is over (at least until you pick up your puppy). I hope I have convinced you that retrievers from pet or show lines can be a very different beast than those bred to perform with a hunter or in field trials, and that despite how attractive it feels and sounds to say “I got a field line Lab”, the bloom is usually off that particular rose pretty quickly. Puppies will generally inherit a lot from their parents, at least in broad terms: size, energy level, looks, and behaviour. So please take some time to look at more than the beautiful puppy pictures on the breeder’s website, and get an idea of what you’re getting into before you sign on the dotted line. And ask questions, direct questions, like “how much cardio exercise a day will this dog need?” and “for what purpose did you breed these dogs?” If the breeder isn’t participating in either dog shows or sports/trials, you can usually get some sense of what the puppy will be like based on meeting the sire and dam. Are they the type of dogs you want as a pet?
If it’s a family pet you want, the kind who hangs on the couch, happily wags along on strolls in the park, enjoys dog classes and dog parks and dog walks with a steady smile, you may do best if you stay away from a field-line dog. If you can’t provide a few hours of cardio exercise and training a day, you may do best if you stay away from a field-line dog. It’s unfair to your family, absolutely, but let’s face the rather rotten truth: it can also be deeply unfair to the dog. They have a million volts of stored up gogojuice and nowhere to release it. It often leaks out anyways, via destructive and unwanted behaviour, further damaging these dogs' relationships with their human families...no matter how well-meaning the bipeds are.
Side note: there’s no guarantee that even the chillest of show-line parents will produce a chill pup. Genetics just don’t work that way. So if you feel very strongly about having a particular kind of adult dog in your home, head to the local rescue or shelter and find a three-year old+ adult who fits the bill. Once dogs are about three years old, they mostly are who they are: they’re dog friendly or not, they’re kid-friendly or not, they’re energetic or not. It’s as close to a guarantee as you can reasonably get with a dog, in particular if you see them in a foster home. Still worried? Ask about foster-to-adopt and return policies.
Finally, if you have, and of course love, a dog you now realize is likely a field-line dog (or just acts like it), take heart. And take a deep breath. Get thee to a good dog class, join up with an agility club, hire a dog walker, pull out the tug toy and the tennis ball, and get ready for the ride. Your last New Year’s resolution list included dusting off the jogging shoes and there’s no time like the present. These dogs need a lot to do. A lot of exercise, and a lot of brain work, and a lot of training help for the issues that sometimes come along for the ride. They need a lot to do, and they need a lot of you: time, energy, and experience. You may as well dive in. And remind yourself over and over and over until it’s simply part of your story: they aren’t bad. They aren’t wrong. They’re just, due to their particular mash-up of genes and history, a rather...interesting fit with a modern family. They’re already working very, very hard to fit in with you, so you'll need to return the favour: you’ll have to make concessions, too.
Selecting a puppy or dog for your family is the start of a very long and hopefully wonderful relationship. It's your right and responsibility, as a family about to welcome a dog into your midst, to ask questions and find a good match...just as it's the right and responsibility of the breeder to do the same. Fingers crossed for lots of joyful moments in your future!
Bottom/cover photo: By IDS.photos from Tiverton, UK (Coming 5th at first dog show) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Cover photo also includes: Fertographer, Temele, and VGM, all © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images