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  • March 10th, 2015

Puppy Pickin’

By Joel M. Vance
If there is one irrefutable piece of dog advice I’ve given over more than 30 years of owning bird dogs, it is to pick your own puppy—don’t let someone else impose personal bias. Drive for days if you have to, but look those fuzzy little charmers in the eye and pick the one that seems right.
That said, I look back over those 30 plus years and realize that most of the time it was the puppy that chose me. They have a way…..
McGuffin was the Godfather of the clan and theoretically was not my pick. He came from a Boston litter, too far for me to travel. But he was out of a female originally owned by Dave Follansbee, the Godfather of the French Brittany in America and Dave vouched for the puppy. I heard shrill yips from the holding area of the freight terminal at St. Louis’s Lambert Field and shortly stuck a puppy carrier on the back seat for the drive home. The outraged furry mite squalled at such indignity and I relented and let him out. He crawled into my lap and instantly went to sleep, having made his choice of lifelong friend and we were just that for the next dozen years.
Andy Vance, my son and longtime hunting buddy, allegedly chose Pepper, Guff’s daughter and the eventual matriarch of all the Vance dogs who have followed. Here’s the way it actually happened: We drove to Iowa where a litter awaited his choice. Eight puppies lolloped around the back yard, falling over each other, sniffing flowers and tiring, one by one.
Andy debated (he was a thoughtful twelve years old). “How about that one?” I suggested, eager to get on the road home. Andy put that one down, picked up another squirming Brit. “Or that one.” He pondered. We sipped soft drinks and Andy finished his and rolled the empty can toward the center of the puppy scrum, like a faceoff in a hockey game.
All but one of the puppies ignored the can, save for one tiny black female. She worried the can until she got a grip on it, picked it up and brought it to Andy. “That’s the one,” Andy said, cuddling the bright-eyed puppy. It was the start of a 13-year love affair. “She liked me best,” Andy said in explaining his choice. No doubt about it though. She chose him.
Ultimately Pepper became mother of an eight-puppy litter and one by one the puppies went home with new owners. Andy kept a lusty male he named Dacques (Doc in the Americanized version—they were, after all, French Brittanies). I hadn’t planned to keep a puppy but one day I went to the kennel and there was only one little black and white pup left, a chunky guy who looked bewildered as if wondering what had happened to all his littermates. He looked so woebegone that I went in the house with him in my arms and told my wife, “There is no power on earth strong enough to separate me from this puppy.
That was Chubby who was the steadiest, most reliable and sweetest friend I’ve ever known. Once he lay beside me when I was miserably sick on a Minnesota grouse hunt, and when I woke the fever was gone and I felt fine. I called him my feel-good dog. He had healing powers.
He survived a broken leg and another time a foxtail awn went between his toes and worked its way up his leg until it required surgery. The only force that did separate us was death when he was a dozen years old and still game to go. I shot a woodcock over his point not long before his last illness and I think I knew then that it would be the last time we’d share a hunt together.
Perhaps he did too since he always seemed to be so finely tuned to me. He made a perfect, rock-solid point and retrieved the dead bird to my hand. I can’t speak for him, but my eyes filled with tears.
Missy was the only puppy so far chosen right out of the womb. I midwifed her mommy all night as she delivered eight puppies at intervals widely spaced enough that I never got back to sleep between deliveries. I wanted a female and No. Five was a creamy honey brown and white color different from her littermates. She looked like a chewy caramel and she was just was sweet as one nearly 14 years later. I guess technically I chose her instead of the other way around, but if she hadn’t been that candy-sweet color she might have gone to delight someone else.
I have a vivid memory of Missy and her brother Scruffy on point in north Missouri, with a covey pinned between them, a textbook example of dog teamwork. Scruffy was the perfect instance of a puppy who made the choice for me by being unwanted by anyone else. His name says it all—he was an unkempt little pup who reminded me of Pigpen in the “Peanuts” comic strip. He was barely big enough to escape runthood, and looked as if he’d been soaked in a downpour and hadn’t quite dried out. I tried to give him to two friends, both of whom declined (possibly because Scruffy looked like a used car with broken springs, an engine that sounded as if it should be shelling corn and a salesman who says, “Trust me—this baby is a diamond in the rough.”)
Which he was. Early on he showed feistiness far beyond his size. Timid in puppy fights, he opted for retreat in lieu of combat. But he became a hunting machine so consumed by following his nose that he was once gone for three days. We’d given him up for lost until one night I heard a familiar and demanding bark at the door and there was Scruffy, contrite, weary, hungry and for the only time in his life, hunted out. He also became a handsome dog, an ugly duckling of dogs.
Molly picked me by virtue of being everything I look for in a puppy—inquisitive, lively, mischievous, reeking of intelligence (not to mention, later in life, of cow manure and decaying dead wildlife). You can bathe an errant dog, but you don’t wash away the good stuff.
I drove 1400 miles round trip so Molly could pick me and she made it easy. She and her littermates rambled around the back yard of her owner but one by one they fell asleep. Except for the then-unnamed Molly who had too many places to go and things to see. One burly male kept annoying her, wanting to do Dog Wrestlemania, but Molly shrugged him off and ultimately wore the big bully out. She had places to go and things to do. “That’s her,” I said, just as Andy had said with Pepper years before..
Molly of all our dogs has been entirely too smart for her own good. She learned quickly how to jump and flip the latch on the kennel so everyone could enjoy unsupervised recreation. A snap fastener curtailed her Great Escape so she redialed her insatiable curiosity.
She was paired with an experienced setter on her first real hunt. I thought I’d winged a bird on a covey rise but we couldn’t find it. The setter hunted dead with less and less ardor until we finally gave it up and moved on. Some time later I realized that Molly wasn’t with us. The last thing anyone wants is a lost young dog, so I started back to where we’d last seen the pup.
Halfway there Molly appeared with my bird in her mouth, not chewed, not sloppy with saliva. She had not given up on the cripple even though we had and she never has since. She’s the best dead bird hunter we’ve had in three decades. Retrieving is an obsession.
On the flip side, although she was extremely popular with the other dogs when she let them out to play without Daddy yelling but not with the young male with whom we hoped she would fall in lust. After she nearly bit off his nose for it being where she thought it didn’t belong, Andy and I forcibly restrained her while the intimidated male fumbled his way to a consummation devoutly not wished by Molly.
In due time she grudgingly delivered five puppies and weaned them as quickly as possible. She had more important business than mothering. The puppies slumbered in a warm pile and one night while he was watching Sports Center Andy said, “I need a puppy fix” and he went to the kennel in the night and grabbed the first one that came to him. The puppy nestled in his arms as if it belonged there and together they watched the latest baseball scores and thus Stewie picked a Vance.
His brother picked me. He chose me by becoming the Canine Christopher Columbus. He had the inquisitiveness of Charles Edison. Overlong ears, like a hound, and big bones and a horsey face, he was no bench show champ. His brothers were pinups for bitches by comparison. I had promised pick of the guy dogs to a young friend, but by pickin’ time, I had fallen in love with the gawky pup and had named him Captain Adventure for his incessant passion for exploration and a wonderful lust for life.
When Cap proudly retrieved a dried cowpie from a neighbor’s pasture as if it were a trophy rooster pheasant I began to pray that my friend would not pick him. Fortunately for all of us, he took Cap’s brother and now Cap brings me towels, shoes, the shop broom and once a pair of lost reading glasses, not to mention a quail or two.
And he hunts with such unbridled joy, bounding like an African springbok, that he’s just pure fun to be around. And he’s mine….or, come to think of it, I’m his.

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  1. Paul F. Vang

    March 10th, 2015 at 6:21 pm


    Great column, Joel.
    Obviously, it’s not a matter of looking at enough litters to find the right pup, it’s more like showing yourself to enough puppies that the pups can pick the right owner.

    Alas, the bittersweet part of getting that new puppy is the almost certain knowledge that at some point we’re going to have to say goodbye to them.

  2. Ed Wahl

    April 5th, 2015 at 5:47 pm


    Mr. Vance, I was delighted to find you here on the internet. Used to read you in Gun Dog years ago.
    This article struck a cord with me. Up ’til recently my dog’s have been setters that were either heavily discounted or just plain given to me. However, three years ago I decided to go ahead and buy one, full price, from a recommended breeder. I was looking at Pointers. I knew full well about their reputation, hard headed, aloof, almost mean bird pointing machines. I wanted a big running dog to answer these big running pheasants in the rice fields.
    So there I was at the breeders, he’d pulled out a dozen dogs to show me their pointing ability. They were all awesome. Then came the time to decide. The owner left me there to make up my mind while he got some work done. I slowly walked the line of dogs, looking for something to stand out, but they all seemed the same. Then after a while I just stood still to ponder my dilemma when the smallest of them all by about half stepped back a half step and leaned against my leg, while still straining to see the pigeon that was still out there in a cage.” That’s different”, I thought to myself, and went and got the owner. What a great decision that was too, he turned out to be the sweetest dog I’ve ever owned and a bird finding and pointing fool. Sure busted my Pointer stereotype. He’s lying at my feet right now giving me the ‘I love you dad’ eyes.
    Thanks for the article, you are spot on.
    Ed Wahl
    Sacramento, CA.

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