by Chad Love

The old lady is seven now, not young any more, but not quite old either. Middle-aged, I guess you’d call her–on the cusp of the backside of her prime. She still has no trouble hopping in the dog box or, when we’re hunting by ourselves, hopping in the cab of the truck. She hits the water as hard as she ever did, still loves busting through the skim ice on late-season hunts, still runs as hard and fast as the eight-month-old blur of kinetic setter energy she shares the household with.

There’s no hitch in her get-along, or if there is, she doesn’t show it, but I know it’s coming. And I know that eventually, I’ve got to start thinking about a new pup. I don’t want to say replacement. I don’t ever want to say that, or even think it, but I can’t avoid the fact that in a few short years there’s going to be a new dog sitting beside me in the cattails.

It’s probably one of the more difficult questions that gundog owners face: when to bring in a new pup when your old dog starts slowing down. If you’ve got the room and resources, staggering multiple dogs of different ages is certainly a nice option so you’ve always got a good rotation between the grizzled old veteran, the up-and-comer and the young dog. But many of us don’t have the room, resources and time for multiple dogs or we simply prefer hunting with a single dog. In that situation, we’ve got to time the introduction of the new pup just right so the transition from old to new is as seamless as possible.

But when, exactly, is that time? Do you want the pup to hunt a season or two with your older dog, watch the old gal (or guy) and slowly learn the ropes? Do you want to time it where the new dog (depending on its progress) can take over so the old dog can start enjoying retirement immediately? Or do you put off the inevitable and wait until your dog is gone before facing the prospect of replacing it?

Well, I’ve gone through option three and let me tell you, it sucks. Why? Two reasons:

One, if your old dog dies near the start of or during hunting season and you don’t have a young dog to fall back on, you suddenly find yourself dogless, and if you’re like me, you will also find yourself huntless. Dogs are the single biggest reason I bird and duck hunt. Take away the dogs and you take away the reason I’m even out there. I’ve tried it. Epic fail.

Two: I think it’s much harder emotionally to start cold with a completely new dog after you’ve lost your old one.

Comparisons, sometimes unfair comparisons, will be made. Second-guessing will creep in. I know, I’ve been there. It all works out in the end, of course. Even old memories can’t resist the magic of puppy noses for long, but I find it’s a much easier transition to make when you have the experiences and memories of both those dogs together.

So when is the right time? For me, I think it’s going to be this spring or summer, or next at the latest. The old girl will be eight when duck season rolls around next fall, and by the time she’s ten I’d like to have a young dog ready to take over when she does start slowing down. What about you? Anyone facing the same dilemma? Any new pups on the way?