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This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2001 issue of Quail Unlimited Magazine

How much does a bird dog cost? If ever there were a loaded question, this is it. To the uninitiated, it might seem a simple proposition: You want a bird dog? No problem. You find out how much they go for, shop around until you find a good deal, cut a check, load him up, and go hunting. Throw in a little research, a bit of obsessive due diligence to satisfy the man for whom no deal is complete without a spreadsheet and reference checks, and it's kind of like buying a shotgun, right? To those of us who have been down that road, even those of us who are barely out of the driveway, the question seems at the least an oversimplification and at the most a bit ridiculous.

I suppose you could answer the question on an economic basis, wherein it probably would resemble the purchase of a shotgun. There exists a price range among all models and somewhere between the pawnshop specials and the vintage Parkers lies your match. Forget for a moment why you might want to strip the event of all but the banking and look strictly at the financials:

You can get a pup with a good field pedigree for $300-500. Train him yourself, send him to a professional, or try a combination of both and you'll come out somewhere in the range of what a started dog costs. A started dog, meaning one that has been introduced to birds and has a grip on the basics, will run $1500-2500. He'll need some more work though, so throw in a little extra for your time and materials or those of a pro. Or, eliminate all of the training decisions and invest in a finished dog, meaning one that has several years of professional tutelage under his belt and can reasonably be expected to perform well in the field, for $7000-10000 US dollars.

Keep in mind that the purchase of a gun (or a bird dog) is only the beginning of the financial commitment. You've got to feed it - without a regular intake of shells, a shotgun isn't much good, is it? Of course there is regular maintenance- the cleaning and oiling, and unanticipated maintenance- the rust removal and firing pin replacement. And the older a gun gets, the more maintenance it requires. Don't kid yourself into thinking that a man can buy a gun and resist the urge to purchase a few unnecessary but sinfully appealing accoutrements like deluxe cleaning kits and handcrafted travel and display cases.

Pretty soon you arrive at a point where the similarities draw to a close, a point at which the transaction ceases to be economic and takes on an intangible trait. Other than a handful of sentimental feelings, guns have very little emotion attached to them. Guns don't make you laugh when they chase their tail or pull at your heartstrings when they are ill. Decisions about their well-being are, for the most part, financial in nature. Not so with a gun dog. Roughly seven years ago I stepped out of the shower one random Monday morning to find my Brittany, Curtis, chewing yet another of my possessions. After eleven weeks of similar episodes, the surprise and curiosity had worn off, replaced by rote prying open of the jaws and subsequent foreign body removal. The prize on this day was a #6 Woolly Bugger.

When I returned it to the drying patch on my fishing vest, I saw nothing but empty fleece where as recently as the day before there had been four or five trout flies. We were headed to the vet for another series of puppy shots anyway, so when I arrived I described the situation and asked them to snap an x-ray as a precaution.

A phone call around mid-morning confirmed my suspicions and fears. From my office desk, a place where I was accustomed to dealing with matters on a dollar basis, I weighed the pros and cons of the procedure as the vet explained our limited choices. It was possible that the hooks would pass through the digestive tract without intervention. Possible. Much more probable was that in such a small dog, one or more of the hooks would penetrate the intestinal wall, peritonitis would set in, and Curtis would die from infection. Intervention, in the form of a surgical foray into the stomach to retrieve the flies, would carry a price tag of $350.

How much does a bird dog cost? In society circles, there is a response often cast with a snooty reel to questions posed in this manner: "If you have to ask, you can't afford one." Snooty as it sounds, there is probably an element of truth hidden somewhere in there, though not so much in the "you can't afford one" as in the "you might reconsider the notion ". Assuming you can stomach the initial outlay of cash and your budget supports the scheduled feeding and maintenance, you must be prepared for the assessments that come as unpredictably and as inevitably as itching with poison ivy.

Plan on bills in the form of lost sleep on those nights that all is not well. Perhaps he's run off in the course of a hunt and, with sunset looming, hasn't come back yet. Perhaps idle paws and curiosity have done the Devil's work and he has discovered a way out of the kennel. Like Columbus and Magellan, he has ventured into the world beyond the limits of his vision, and like Columbus and Magellan, he has not returned for the evening meal. Or he's fallen victim to some canine malady. Parvo, heartworms (shame on you for not keeping him on a preventive medication), Lyme disease, trout flies. The vet says with confidence that "We should see some improvement in a couple of days," but his confidence fails to scrub away your concern.

Your temper and patience accounts are charged periodically as well. Few would disagree that it is a rare man who finds it cute when his fourth pair of shoes is eaten. Or when the house-trained dog leaves a warm present for his feet to discover in the middle of the night. Or when the pointer trained at no small expense to retrieve to hand picks up a bird, stares straight into the eyes of his owner, and runs in the other direction. The average man would gladly throw money at these inconveniences to make them disappear, but these are non-negotiable.

The thought of curling up in bed on a cold winter evening with a side by side, even a matched pair of Purdeys, doesn't hold much appeal for me. Nor does the idea of coming home from a particularly long day at the office and being greeted by the stately presence of a bespoke Holland and Holland, indifferent to my arrival as it maintains its rigid sentry in the gun case. I much prefer the silly yet boundless enthusiasm of a dog who feels that matters such as putting down the mail and hanging up my coat should take a back seat to his affections.

'How much is a bird dog worth?' might be a more appropriate question, although one that is equally tough to answer. An attempt pulls you alongside other nebulous questions such as 'Which flower blooms prettiest in the springtime?' or 'What wine goes best with beef?' These are questions that could be quantified, but the effort would be daunting and in the end you'd be left with an answer that many would still debate. In the real estate business there is a saying that a piece of property is worth exactly as much as someone is willing to pay for it. This saying holds true for bird dogs as well, with one exception: the man who owns only one dog is not likely to sell him for any price.

On the phone with the vet that random Monday morning, I weighed the economics of a situation that should be assessed in other currency. From a profit-and-loss perspective, the analysis pointed overwhelmingly in favor of rolling the dice and hoping the hooks would pass on through. Fortunately for me, I was already too attached to that eleven-week-old pup to take the chance. Looking back on the last seven years I lose count of the times Curtis made me smile, made me laugh, made me proud, made me shove my wayward priorities back in line. I feel more than a bit of shame when I admit that I almost let all of this go for a couple of hundred dollars. Talk about the deal of the century.




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