From the Field Editor

By Phyllis Walsh

Selecting a Puppy for Field Competition

Two months ago I had an interesting experience picking out a puppy for field competition. The selection was not being made from a litter raised on my premises, and I had not observed these puppies since birth; rather this was a litter that I had not seen until I was to pick out my puppy. When I pick out a puppy from my own litter for field competition I see what appears to be the best prospect emerge over the course of 6 weeks. I have an opinion about each puppy's abilities and personality before I actually test him or her because I have been noticing their behavior since birth. I have a good idea of who is active with lots of endurance; who is quiet; who tires easily; who is curious; who is bold; who is cautious; etc. Testing the pups usually confirms my opinions, however once in a while a promising pup won't test out as I expected. This is often because the puppy lacks a little confidence because it is out of the whelping box for the first time and is feeling insecure. Retesting this puppy will be in order because it might demonstrate more confident behavior the next time I test it.

When I pick out a puppy from a litter I haven't seen before I am missing some of the data I would have if it was from my own litter. This forces me to rely on other factors when selecting a puppy. This article will address these factors.

Important Qualities for a Puppy to Possess

Before you begin to make your selection decide on the qualities that you want the

  • Drive
  • Birdyness
  • Focus
  • Confidence
  • Tractability

  • Endurance
  • Courage
  • Balanced
  • Structure
  • Athletic Ability

puppy to possess and then rank them. Some of the qualities I think are important are:

When I choose a litter from which I am going to purchase a puppy there are certain reasons why that specific litter was selected. The puppy I picked out two months ago was coming from a field breeding where the parents had qualities I valued and the pedigree was complementary to the pedigrees of my dogs. The prospective puppy had ancestors who were good working dogs with many field titles, balanced in structure and appealing to look at. Therefore it was important to me to include looks and balanced structure in a high ranking position on my list along with the qualities that make for a good working Retriever because I would be incorporating this puppy into my breeding program if he is a nice working dog and able to get all of his clearances.

Ancestry of the Puppy

If the puppy comes from a litter with strong field lineage having many field titled dogs in the first three generations, chances are that the puppies will have finely honed hunting instincts. They should all be intelligent and athletic with lots of endurance. However some may be hardheaded and more difficult to train, and one or two might lack the necessary confidence to withstand the demands of field training or competition. It is not impossible to get a good field dog or hunt test dog from a non-field pedigree, but it is more difficult. The more field lineage in the puppy's pedigree, the more chance you will have in finding a talented puppy in the litter. Self-selection is working in your favor because puppies coming from field titled parents have parents who possess the qualities necessary for one to be a good field competitor. For example, if a competitive dog must have endurance and both parents are titled, then dogs with endurance are bred to dogs with endurance; and most of the puppies in the litter will have good endurance. In a non-field breeding the process of self-selection will not work to your benefit, and some of the important field qualities might be missing in the parents.

Value Input from the Breeder

Anyone breeding field dogs is usually currently involved in the sport or has been in the recent past. The breeder should know and have tested his or her pups and should be very helpful in telling you the strengths and weaknesses of each puppy. Weaknesses may be couched in positive language so don't hesitate asking the breeder to clarify his or her comments. For example, a puppy with little drive may be described as mellow. Most breeders want to place their puppies in the right homes and they will try to help you select the best dog for you available in that litter. Breeders also like their puppies to go to competition homes so ask the breeder's opinion of the abilities of each dog and which one he or she would choose for Field or Hunt Test competition.

Other things you should find out before you observe the litter are as follows: how long before did the puppies exercise, eat or sleep? This will help you decide if what you are seeing is typical for the puppy or out of character. Remember that you are comparing one littermate to another so the results of your observations are relative to the litter. This is why choosing a breeder then choosing a litter is so important. Also, find out if the puppies were tested, what tests were used and how they responded. Were they tested for prey drive and birdyness? Were pheasant or duck wings used or were they tested on live birds? Ask if the pups could be retested for birdyness with you watching so you can see the differences in intensity, puppy to puppy.

Qualities to Look for in a Field Dog

Drive (Momentum)

A field puppy must have plenty of prey drive. A puppy with high prey drive should have lots of momentum. This carries over when the pup is sent for a mark. You want it to go with a purpose and have lots of enthusiasm in the process. This prey drive is a quality you rely on when you are both training and competing. Have the prey drive test done while you are observing the puppies. It is simple, just a rag tied to a string bounced on the ground in front of and moving away from the puppy. You want to see the pup attack the rag and follow it with intensity. Also see if the puppy can do a retrieve with a sock, or a short piece of a paint roller (several inches in length). Notice the momentum. This test should be done several different times to get a true evaluation and the puppy should be well rested and not too hungry or have just eaten.


The puppies should be tested with a pheasant or duck wing or a small live bird with shackled wings. A desirable response is immediate keen interest; shaking the wing and not letting other puppies take it away. You want to see a puppy stick with the wing and not tire of it quickly. If the puppy is being tested on a small, live bird then introduce the puppy to the bird individually. Place a shackled bird with flight feathers pulled in a four foot enclosure. Place the puppy in the enclosure and let the puppy sniff it or pick it up. Encourage the puppy and praise it if the pup picks the bird up and parades around with it. Next, unshackle the bird and let it go. Let the puppy chase the bird. If the puppy picks it up praise the pup and tell the puppy how great it is.


This is a very important quality. A puppy that stays with a toy despite distraction shows focus. In the retrieving test, a puppy should go out for the object quickly (sock, paint roller piece about 5 inches long, small puppy bumper, etc.) and snap it up. Distractibility is demonstrated when a puppy starts for the object but never gets there. It may be distracted by a smell or another toy or twig or leaf on the ground. Some puppies get to the object but don’t pick it up. They leave it there and run to something else. This isn’t a desirable response. You want the puppy to pick up the object immediately and bring it to you or run around with it in its mouth. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t bring it back to you, as long as the puppy continues to hold it because the return is a training issue, whereas going out is instinct.


Take the puppies you are considering out of a familiar area and notice who is comfortable in its new setting and sets out to explore. Note who is unsure and only follows the other puppies and who is very insecure and clings to the ground. The bold puppy with lots of confidence is the puppy that does the best on this test.


A most important quality. If Puppy Developmental Tests similar to those giving to dogs being evaluated for use as guide dogs for the blind have been given to the puppies look to see how they scored on the test evaluating trainability. Also, play with the puppies and let them play with each other. Call the puppies while they are playing and notice who immediately responds to your call and comes flying in to your feet. Some puppies won’t leave you, notice who they are too. Do a short retrieve with the puppies individually and see who will bring it back and who runs off with it. The puppy that comes to you readily when it is playing and brings back the retrieved object will take direction from you. The puppy that doesn’t bring it back may be more independent and might require the handler to have a more dominant role when training it.


Just observe the puppies. Who keeps running and running and never seems to be out of gas, and who tires easily. The puppy with more endurance will be better able to withstand the vigors of field training.

Courage (running with abandon)

A field dog meets lots of obstacles and often retrieves while running through difficult terrain. One test that will show if the puppy has any hesitancy going through heavy cover enlists the aid of the dam. Have the breeder put her on a leash and run her through some tall grass. Have the puppy follow her through the cover. Notice if there is any hesitancy to follow its mom when it gets to the tall grass. A puppy that will readily follow its mother will not be put off by brush.

Balanced Structure

Stack the puppy and look at the shoulder and pelvic girdle angles. They should be the same. Also, mentally divide the puppy into three sections: Head and shoulder section, the middle section and the hindquarters. They should all be equal in length if the puppy is balanced. A balanced puppy is a more efficient mover with less stress on its joints. Ideally the puppy you choose will be balanced.

Athletic Ability

This is a little different way of looking at the dog’s structure. Here you are looking at the degree of angle in both the shoulder and hip areas, using the breed standard as the model for this. You should note if the puppy’s rib cage allows for good heart and lung room. Also notice the length of leg under the pup. You want enough leg to carry its body over the terrain, but you don’t want the puppy to be too long-legged. A short coupled dog will have more power and drive from the rear. Also note which pup can twist, turn on a dime and leap over obstacles. Take this into consideration if you have two puppies neck in neck in all other areas.

Putting It All Together

If one puppy seems to possess all of the attributes you are looking for than choosing is easy. If the different puppies show some of the desirable qualities but not all then you have a decision to make. It is absolute that a puppy has a high level of prey drive, birdyness, focus and confidence. He can have less endurance, less athletic ability or be less balanced and still do the job well. Some are hard headed and others are easier to train so this is also a variable that you can work around.

The puppy I chose - he is a little tough guy. He has lots of drive, courage, birdyness and endurance. He responds readily to me and seems to like to be around me. Sometimes he gets something in his mind and ignores me, but that is ok, he is just learning and doesn’t have much training yet. He is also pleasing to the eye and his structure conforms to that described in the Breed Standard. I am pleased with my choice - good luck with yours!

By the way, I wrote this article in flight to Bush Airport, Houston, Texas on the way to pick out my puppy.

This article originally appeared in the Golden Retriever News, official magazine of The Golden Retriever Club of America.