I can't count the number of times I've heard owners of finished gun dogs make disparaging comments about less well-trained animals: "Yeah, he got the birds, but he has no style. He's just a meat dog." And I've heard just as many put-downs from the other end of the argument: "He looks pretty, but he wastes time with niceties and doesn't find any more birds than my meat dog."
But what do "meat dog" and "finished dog" mean? What's the difference between the two styles? While there are no specific definitions that cover all levels of training and performance of hunting dogs, there are characteristics that label them as polished or a meat-getter.
A truly finished gun dog, regardless of breed or hunting style, has a full complement of training solidly in place. Pointers and flushers are obedient to voice and whistle commands and hand signals, hunt in front of the gun at a range appropriate for the game, are steady to wing and shot, and retrieve cleanly to hand. Nonslip retrievers do much the same, with the exception of hunting for game, and with the addition of performing multiple marked and blind retrieves. Keep in mind that individual trainers have different notions of what constitutes a finished dog. A fair amount of this is honest divergence of opinion, while in a few cases it's a marketing ploy to add dollars to a sale. On the whole, completely polished hunters that do it all are more the exception than the rule among so-called "finished" dogs.
For some sportsmen, the term meat dog carries a derogatory undercurrent that smacks of an incompetent or marginal animal. The fact is, most working canines are in the meat-dog category and a good many of them are anything but incompetent. Partially trained dogs can be as innately talented as their finished brethren. They might not show finesse or refined style, they might not be steady to wing and shot, they might be casual on retrieves, and they can be more independent than intensively trained dogs; but if the bottom line is finding and picking up birds, they can get the job done.
Upland bird and waterfowl hunters are content with, or they adjust to, different levels of meat-dog performances that range from untrained self-hunters to dogs with a fair amount of polish. That said, the majority of meat dogs fall between the two extremes they've had some training bolstered by experience and bird contacts, and they're rarely young animals. The bulk of the better meat dogs I've seen were at least 5 years old, which suggests experience was a major factor in their competence.
Which Is Best?
Meat dog or finished dog which is best? In truth, although some dog owners argue otherwise, there's no right or wrong answer. I think it's safe to say that across the spectrum of hunters, the majority is focused more on finding and shooting birds than they are on the subtleties of dog work. This isn't to say they don't appreciate polished dogs or they love their meat dogs less than those who find enjoyment in training a dog to its finished potential. Rather, the results of hunting are more important to them than the style with which they're achieved. These hunters tend to view their dogs as part of a team whose goal is to put birds in the bag. If those dogs don't perform like national champions, so be it.
The level to which you train your gun dog depends on the job description you establish for it. In other words, whatever level of in-the-field performance will satisfy you is how you should train your dog. Yes, I did say "train your dog." Deciding on an unfinished designation for your canine partner doesn't mean it requires no training. It's all a matter of degree. For example, your goals for a setter or springer might not include steadiness to wing and shot, but you should be able to quickly recall your dog from a flushed-bird chase before it blows out other game or disappears over the horizon. Your Labrador might not be steady at the flush of upland birds, but it must be controllable in a blind when ducks are decoying and guns are firing.
Finished dogs, via professional handlers on the big-time field-trial circuits, have established high-end training standards, ideals against which gun-dog performance is measured. Whether deliberately or otherwise, most hunters don't bring their dogs close to those standards. And that's all right; break someone else's rules if it meets your needs. But deviation from the ideal doesn't mean under-training or, worse, not training at all. Lowered demands shouldn't be an excuse for sloppiness, disobedience or lack of control at any level of performance.
Over the years, I've hunted behind a lot of meat dogs that, by their owners' admission, hadn't been given a moment of training. Some of those dogs performed well, which is a tribute to their breeding and intelligence what they knew about birds and hunting for the gun, they'd learned on their own. The problem was, the dogs were all 7-10 years old at the end of, or past, their prime and it had taken them years to develop field smarts and to figure out how to play the game. By not training these animals, their owners had squandered some of their most productive seasons.
One contentious element surrounding unfinished dogs is their lack of steadiness to wing and shot. To be sure, the pros and cons of steadiness get a lot of lip service and the bulk of it unnecessarily attempts to justify unsteady dogs. On the flip side, I once asked a friend why he didn't steady his otherwise trained Brittanies. "I'm too lazy," was his tongue-in-cheek answer. He knew what he wanted from his dogs, and steadiness was so low on his priority list it was irrelevant. Although I'm generally a proponent of steadying gun dogs, I'll admit it isn't something to lose sleep over. Whether hunters don't know how to steady a dog, believe it's a negative"I want my dogs on birds when they hit the ground" or, like my friend, are "too lazy," if they're content with unsteady dogs, who can argue with that?
Retrieving is another much-disputed meat-dog issue, but one that shouldn't have the same level of slippage as steadiness. Working gun dogs don't need the polish of finished pointers, flushers or retrievers; they might not be first-class markers or make long-range pick-ups and multiple blind retrieves; they might not take undeviating lines to downed birds or sit for a perfect to-hand delivery. But they should reliably retrieve dead and crippled game, or in the case of non-retrieving pointing dogs, locate downed birds for their owners by "pointing dead."
To maximize the relatively brief span of time you have with your dog, it should be trained to enhance whatever level of performance you'll expect from it. You might not teach it hand and whistle signals likewise, you might forego "Sit," "Whoa" or "Heel," or shove it into a crate and not bother with "Kennel" but, at minimum, you should firmly lock-in a few basics. You can successfully and enjoyably hunt with a dog that works cover thoroughly at an acceptable range (for flushers that means within shotgun range), obeys the "Come" command and retrieves shot game. Beyond that fundamental level, everything else we instill in hunting dogs is polish and individual choice.
My advice is to forget the meat dog and finished dog labels. I've had both types, and I can't honestly say that, beyond my needs at particular times, I've enjoyed hunting with one more than with the other. Whatever level of performance your dog gives you, if your time with it in the field makes you happy, consider yourself fortunate.