Should I buy a started (retriever) dog?


In the market for a new hunting dog? Here is what you need to know.

In the market for a new gun dog or duck dog? You may be considering all your options. Those options include getting a puppy and starting from scratch, or buying a started dog that has a little training under his belt. If you really want a polished dog, you may be considering buying a finished dog. But that is a discussion for another post. Today, we are going to talk about ‘Should you buy a started dog?’

I am going to assume that most of you know what you are undertaking if you buy a puppy. Puppies are a lot of work and require a lot of attention. This is not a bad thing, just a fact of life. Check out this series of posts on our process of training a puppy from 8 weeks on.

If you are considering a started dog, you may be hoping to avoid the puppy stage or are just anxious to get in the field with your new hunting partner. Regardless of the reason, here are some things you should consider.

What is a started retriever?

This is actually a really good question, because the definition varies widely. I have seen dogs sold as Started that have never seen a bird. I have also seen dogs, two-years old with lots of hunting experience sold as Started dogs. There is no solid, agreed on, definition of what a Started dog is. That is why it is so important for you to ask the right questions.

should i buy a started retriever dog?
Tigger and Rue, two of our started dogs as puppies

Questions to ask when purchasing started dog

Here are some of the questions you may want to ask while searching for a Started hunting or gun dog:

  • How old is the dog?
  • What training has he/she had? Get specific:
    • Is the dog obedience trained? – What commands? On-lead obedience, off-lead, or both?
    • Has the dog been exposed to birds? – What kind and how often? Live and dead?
    • Has the dog been exposed to gunshot? – How close to the dog? How does he/she handle it?
    • Has the dog been whistle trained?
    • Has an electronic collar been used on the dog? How was the collar introduced? Is the dog collar wise? Does the dog act differently when the collar is on?
    • Has the dog been force fetched?
    • How long of marks can he/she do on land? On water?
  • Who did the training? What credentials?
  • Can I talk to others who have purchased your Started dogs?
  • Has he/she been swimming? How does she swim?
  • How is he/she around other dogs?
  • Are there any health issues?
  • What kind of health guarantee is there?
  • What is the pedigree? Did the mom and dad hunt? Compete?
  • Do you offer any training to teach me what the dog knows and how to maintain that training?
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In addition to these questions, it is also important to see the dog work, preferably in person, but at least in a video.

Advantages of buying a Started gun dog

There are some advantages to buying a Started dog vs getting a puppy. We have already mentioned the time and work a puppy takes, but here are some other advantages.

training 11-week-old lab puppy

Know the size of the dog

If you are particular about the size of dog you want or how the dog looks, a started dog may be a good choice. Most started dogs are older so you can better judge what they look like and how big they are going to get. If the dog is close to a year old, you most certainly will be able to tell their body style, although many retrievers fill out as they age and get a little thicker.

But if you are looking for a smaller, more energetic dog because you plan to do a lot of upland hunting, you can look for a dog that meets that criteria. With a puppy, you really don’t know exactly what size or energy level they will have until they grow up and mature.

Know the personality of the dog

While it is exceedingly difficult to know what the personality of a puppy is going to be like as he/she ages, a started dog is much easier. You can easily see if they are shy, timid, energetic, or loving. Much of the personality shines through by the time they are 6-7 months old.

If you are looking for a dog that is dual-purpose, such as a hunting dog that is also a family dog, you will be able to judge the dog’s personality much better on a dog a year-old or older.

Wash-outs vs. dogs specifically trained as Started

Some dogs listed for sale as started are actually wash-outs. A wash out is a dog that was purchased to compete in either field trials or hunt tests, and for some reason didn’t make the grade. There is nothing wrong with purchasing one of these as a Started dog, but you really need to make sure you know what you are buying.

Some dog’s wash out because they are:

  • Aggressive with other dogs or people
  • Have low retrieving desire
  • Shut down with pressure, can’t handle correction
  • Are not healthy, have conditions such as Exercise Induced Collapse (EIC) or another health issues.
  • Too hyper, can’t settle down
  • Too noisy, make noise before, during or after the mark

Many of these issues can also be issues in the hunting blind, so be sure that you understand exactly what you are getting if you are looking at a wash-out for your Started dog.

Value of a started retriever dog
Tigger is one of our trained dogs. Photo courtesy of his new owner.

The value of a retriever trained specifically for you

Every year, here at Otter Tail Kennels, we get dozens of calls from people looking for Started retrievers. Many times, the person calling is looking for a cheap trained dog, something we don’t sell. There are dogs out there that people can get as a bargain, but, as with everything, you generally get what you pay for.

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We do things a little different. We offer Custom Trained Retrievers. Custom Trained Retrievers are selected and trained specifically for our client. They tell us what they want, and to what level they want it trained, and we raise a dog up to meet their needs. We produce excellent Started and Finished dogs because we train the dogs specifically for the owner’s needs.

Why good Started dogs are not cheap

Producing good Started dogs requires a lot of time and work. Often, we invest seven months to a year or more of our lives in these dogs. We raise them like they are our own dogs, in the house. Not everyone does this, but we feel that the end product is much superior to other Started dogs out there.

There are many costs to raise and train a dog. Most people don’t realize the cost involved. But if you have every raised up a puppy, you may remember the many expected and unexpected costs such as vet bills.

In addition to the cost of the puppy, which often exceeds $1,000, we pay:

  • Transportation costs to get the dog home
  • All vet bills while we have the dog,
  • Dog food costs,
  • Live bird costs (pheasants and ducks), and
  • 7- 12 months of training costs depending on the level of training.

In addition, we assume all the risk with these pups. If for any reason the pup isn’t able to be trained to the level requested, we absorb that cost and start over so the client gets exactly why he wants.

So while the cost of trained dogs may seem high, if you consider all the time, money and effort that it requires, it is actually a great deal!

Our Custom Trained Hunting Retrievers

We used to buy a few pups a year, trained them and sell them as Started dogs. But over time, we have found that our Custom Trained Retrievers program is a better option for everyone. With this program, we provide our clients with exactly what they want. It allows us to provide very specific training based on the needs of the buyer.

With Custom Trained Retrievers, our clients tell us what color of Labrador Retriever they want and what sex. From there we start the process with lots of research. We look for litters of retrievers that have proven lines. In this way we know the mom and dad are working dogs and have titles to prove it. We also want breeders that take pride in their litters and begin working on socializing and teaching and exposing the pups to new situations right away. And we want a health guarantee that we can pass on to our clients.

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Once we pick up the puppy, we bring them right into our home. We take the time to socialize them to the house, people, and children. We work through all the aspects of our hunting training programs, focusing specifically on the client and how he/she hunts. As I previously stated, this means we often have and train the dog for seven months to a year or more. In the end, our clients have a well-trained, obedient hunting partner that will love and serve them for years to come.

In addition, we offer training and ongoing support to our clients with these dogs. We teach the new owner exactly what their trained dog can do and how to maintain that training. If they have questions or concerns, they just give us a call. We encourage them to seek our help often and early for any small or large training issues they see. In this way, we can help our clients maintain the training long term.

Will the dog bond with me?

This is a common question from people considering a Started or Finished dog. Will the dog bond with me after being with you for so long? The answer is yes. We have never had problems with our trained dogs bonding to their new owners. Especially if the dog is a Labrador Retriever. Some breeds are a little more challenging, but Labs are amazingly easy going and quick to bond to new owners.

training a 5-month-old Lab puppy

Final thoughts on should I buy a Started retriever dog

Buying a started retriever is a good option for some people. If you don’t have the time to take care of a puppy and are unable to work on the training regularly, then a Started dog may be a great option for you. But remember, there are some not-so-great Started dogs for sale out there, so be diligent and make sure that you are buying a dog that will meet your needs and bring fulfillment to your life. And not all Started dogs are hunter ready, so do your homework.

If you are looking for a dog that is ready to get in the field or the blind right away, consider one of our Custom Trained Retrievers program.

If you would like to talk to me about our Custom Trained Retrievers or training for your retriever, you can email me ( or just give me a call (651-303-6459). I would be happy to discuss your goals for your retriever and tell you about the programs I offer.

Until next time happy retrieving.

Should I buy a started (retriever) dog?

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>