June 20, 2024

Unique and Creative Ways to Reduce Bird Dog Expenses

Owning and running dogs gets more expensive each year, and that’s where savvy budget cuts make sense. (Photo By: Katherine Inwards/Shutterstock.com)

If you want to talk with someone about the high costs associated with gun dogs and bird hunting, then the late Robert Woodruff would have been your guy. Woodruff, the former owner and president of Coca-Cola, was a hardcore bird hunter and dog man who owned and expanded his Ichauway Plantation to become nearly 30,000 acres of wild quail, quail, and more quail. That expansion began in the 1930s and didn’t come cheap.

But Woodruff was meticulous, and he maintained detailed records off all hunts and activities. One question eluded him; how much did it cost him to bag a wild quail?  Hmm, interesting, and with that Woodruff assembled his team of accountants and set about keeping track of costs associated with every single bird. When the season ended, and it was a banner year for birds, they ran the numbers. The cost for him to take one bird? $250.  

“Well, we won’t be doing that anymore,” Mr. Woodruff said.

“No more hunting?” asked one of his guests.

“No, we’ll keep hunting,” Mr. Woodruff said. “But we’re not going to figure out how much it costs anymore.”

Those were in 1950 dollars—which would be over $3,000 per bird today— with inflation.

robert woodruff riding a horse
Robert Woodruff knows that sometimes you have to turn a blind eye to pleasurable pastimes. Here is quail hunting on his plantation in 1969. (Photo courtesy of Tom Keer)

I don’t need to tell you that running gun dogs and hunting upland birds and waterfowl ain’t cheap. And these days there always seems to be price increases wherever we turn, and recessions seem to be a regular occurrence. It’s tough, so here are several unique and creative ways to reduce your dog owning and training costs, and some thoughts to turn that frown upside down. 

Hobby or Business? 

Want to know the difference between a hobby and a business? A business makes money. A hobby, well, they cost money. If you’re trying to reduce costs in your business, then review your fixed and variable expenses, visit your CPA to talk about deductions and depreciations, and go from there. But if bird hunting is a hobby as it is for most of us, then you’ll need to figure out how much you want to—or more importantly can—invest.  

Create a Budget

Even if your kennel is a hobby, it’s good to create a budget. A budget helps set and manage goals. Include basic gun dog costs like a puppy’s purchase price, veterinary visits, medications, food, kennels or a dog run, training and hunting gear, and travel expenses. Other common costs include birds, pet insurance, professional training, hunt test or field trial fees, licenses, permits, and travel and lodging expenses. Use those numbers to determine if you’re running a lean, efficient program or if you have areas to cut. Remember that anyone can cut expenses, but if those reductions come at the expense of your dog’s health or performance then they aren’t worth it.

Cut Costs by Saving Money

My ideal kennel size varies between one and two braces. To properly maintain them I always look to save money. One easy way to save money is to not overpay in the first place. Here’s an example: teak oil, bearing grease, and anything stainless costs 1/3 more at a marina than at a hardware store. It’s the same for many gun dog items. I cut costs by creating a win-win situation. Here’s how:

  • Medication: I’ll never, ever shortchange my vet. Sure, he’s the one who is around for annual checkups, but he also handles medical emergencies. But regular medication for fleas/ticks, wormers, and the like are more expensive in his office. As with the marina example, I’ll save money buying from an online discounter like Pet Meds, Chewy, or VetRXDirect. When seasonal discounts are offered, I’ll stock up, and the free shipping is a plus.
    • For the win: It’s tough to find a good vet who focuses on gun dogs, so I don’t want to harm his business. If I’m saving money by buying medications elsewhere then I offset his loss of revenue by referring new clients to him. In the past decade I’ve sent along nine new customers. He wins, I win, we win.
veterinarian giving a chocolate lab a vaccine
There’s no getting around the fact that providing your dog with proper veterinary care is going to cost you, but there are some creative ways to save a little coin in the process. (Photo By: Katy Pack/Shutterstock.com)
  • Medication Modification: Here’s how my vet saved me money; when the risk of infection drops to a low level, I cut medications and save money. I live in New England, it’s cold for half of the year, and that means mosquitos disappear. I drop heartworm medication and my annual cost savings is 50 percent. Of course, discuss this with your veterinarian before following suit. He’s also prescribed additional medication that reduces office visits. Metronidazole is an antidiarrheal that I can administer when my dogs have GI issues coming from stress or from eating something in the woods.
    • For the win: When traveling to warmer climates for a week or two of winter hunting, I’ll give my string a dose on our return. The medicines cover ailments contracted in the past 30 days. The peace of mind coming from one dose is worth the expense. And it keeps another vet visit plus expenses at bay.
  • Subscription Services and Loyalty Programs: Monthly dog food and pet medications are less expensive with a monthly subscription service. If it fits into your lifestyle, it’s another way to save money. Chewy offers a 50 percent discount on your first shipment of dog food. It’s free shipping, too. Then, each month is an additional 5 percent discount. A lot of feed stores offer regular customer discount programs. Buy ten bags of food, get the 11th free. If you’ve got a bigger kennel, then contact the sales rep of your favorite dog food company and arrange for a monthly pallet or half pallet. If you live near a pro trainer, see about piggy backing on his dog food order. Find a program that suits your schedule and you’ll save some money.

DIY Make Your Own

Why buy when you can make or repurpose? Got an old anchor line? Cut it up into a 12-foot section, twist an eye splice in one tag end and you’ve got a loop for a lead. Running a brace? Twist up another eye splice in the opposite tag end and you’ve got a two-dog lead. Wanna make a checkcord? Take a longer section of old anchor line, twist an eye splice around a brass, round eye swivel snap and you’re set. My friend Mark Fulmer who owns Sarahsetter Kennels in Akin, South Carolina, makes suitcase leads out of nylon line. 

The sky’s the limit. I’ve made a whelping box and a Johnny House out of plywood and 2x4s left over from other projects. For steadiness work, swing by your local hardware store and pick up a shipping pallet for free. Knock out the center slats and you can do your steadiness work on that. Hard plastic 50-gallon barrels with a piece of carpet tacked work as good as a three-foot section of a tree trunk set on a saw buck. You’ve probably got an old tool bag in your basement; instead of holding hammers and wrenches, use it for your electronics, starter pistols, and medical supplies. If you don’t have one, buy one at a hardware store. They cost about 10 or 20 bucks, and you’ll save five times that amount if you bought a professionally designed training bag.  

Other creatives make their own dog boxes which they load on tops of a handmade truck bed gear cabinet. My buddy uses a front door mat as a place board, and there are lots of options. What are some of yours?

man building a whelping box
Do it yourself projects can help add up to some savings, from building a whelping box and training table to making your own check cords and leads. (Photo courtesy of Tom Keer)

Be a Groupie

If sending your pup to a pro trainer is too expensive but you still need some help, then hit the seminar circuit. A weekend training seminar with a pro is less expensive than sending off your pup for several months. If that still costs too much, then save money by attending seminars at consumer shows. Pheasant Fest is one, regional sportsmen’s shows are another, and local conservation chapters are a third. Hunting dog supply companies are excellent resources as are local training clubs. There, you’ll also get to work with other handlers who own different breeds and have a range of experience levels.

Go Wild

Like everything else, bird costs go up every year. Running on wild birds is free, and there are no better contacts for a bird dog. Check your state regulations for appropriate run times and be sure to pull dogs out of the woods before and during breeding season. 

american woodcock
Training dogs on wild woodcock each spring is bound to save a few bucks on your bird expenses. (Photo courtesy of Tom Keer)

Raise your Own

If you’re going through a lot of birds, then it makes sense to raise your own. The expense and effort of building a flight pen, getting an incubator, and hatching your own birds is worth it. But on the P&L side, it’s probably like tying flies or reloading shotgun shells. It’s fun to do and allows for a high degree of custom work; but unless you’re doing volume you won’t save money. In fact, raising your own may cost more.

For the Win: Train with both wild and released birds. Puppies and dogs learn best from wild birds while breaking dogs is easier with released birds in planned, deliberate training sessions. Using both is a way for owners to increase performance while keeping costs in check.  

bobwhite quail
While you may or may not save money raising your own training birds, a combination of running your dog on both wild and released birds opens the door to a little extra savings in the end. (Photo courtesy of Tom Keer)

Hogwash: There’s No Value in Free 

Want a puppy or fully trained dog of solid genetics for free? Want a pro to train your dog for free? They’re available, you just need to know where to look and how to behave.

Swap for a puppy. The cost of a puppy with good genetics varies a lot. Some are available for $750 while others cost up to $3,500. Let’s say that you spend $1,500 for a puppy. The average lifespan of intact males and females is around 12 years, so that makes the annual cost for a puppy $125 or 34 cents a day. You can’t buy a doughnut for that.

But that initial expense can be a jam, so maybe there is a way to trade with a breeder? My friend Roger Hoover had a puppy I wanted, and I had a fly rod that he wanted, and our swap was simple. Trade services, too. If you’re good with technology, swap a website build. If you’re good with a camera, set up a few photoshoots of your breeder’s dogs that he can use on his website and social media. The opportunities are endless, you just have to find what works.

roger hoover holding english setter puppyl
The legendary cover dog field trial judge, handler, trainer and upland bird guide Roger Hoover holds a pup from Randall Moore’s Crackling Tail Kennels. (Photo courtesy of Tom Keer)

A $50,000 dog for free? Take a puppy cost plus years of training, and a seasoned gun dog can command that amount of money. But there are at least two groups that routinely look to rehome dogs: field trialers and commercial hunting operations/guide services. Field trailers whelp litters to augment the breed so they win. In order to compete they train at the highest levels. If a dog isn’t winning, then they’ll look to sell or rehome the dog. You’ll save money if you buy their dog, and if you find the right group, you’ll get them for free.

The same holds true with commercial hunting operations. They run dogs that are in their prime, but if they have an older dog or an injured dog that can’t hold up to the daily rigors, they’ll look to rehome them. Those dogs can be a great addition to a working string.

For the win: There are a number of breed-focused sporting dog rescue groups. Not all candidates were trained for hunting, so be sure to find one that was trained for the field and hasn’t been just a pet.

These days the only guy who makes less than a pro dog trainer is a freelance writer. That’s the cost of honoring a calling. If you’ve got some ideas that work for you, I’m all ears.