How to Choose the Best Hunting Dog

By: Darren Marcy

Photo by Mary Beth Monahan

Not everyone agrees on what breed makes the best hunting dog. Arguments abound at any sporting club, gun range, or over breakfast on opening morning, and tales are told about great dogs whose legends have grown with time. Scrapbooks are full of fading photos of faithful canine companions — both good and bad, but beloved all the same. One thing almost all upland bird hunters can agree on, however, is that having a dog in the field makes the hunt more exciting, successful, and fulfilling.

Any hunter who has owned a bird dog will have strong opinions about which breed makes the best hunting dog. Those opinions are often based on experience — good and bad. Hunting over a well-trained dog with a great nose who covers a lot of ground, locks on to a bird, holds steady, and then delivers it gently to hand will be remembered. A dog who chases rabbits, breaks point, flushes birds out of gun range, and delivers a mangled mess of feathers to hand will also be remembered. The difference between the two dogs is not in their ability, but in the trainer and time dedicated to turning raw talent into a superstar in the field. Most of the best hunting dogs will come from among a small handful of breeds that have earned their place among the best dogs for hunting.

Finding a Good Hunting Dog Breeder

After an honest assessment of what you want in a dog and how much effort you’re willing to put into his training, the best decision you can make is to pursue a well-bred hunting dog. You’ll rarely find one advertised in your local want ads. Talk to fellow hunters who own dogs you admire and enquire about their lines. Find a quality breeder whose dogs have a proven ability to hunt. Too many of the popular breeds have been bred for show qualities or as family pets, producing beautiful dogs who adapt well to the couch. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Golden Retriever. Along with other breeds, Goldens now come in two distinct flavors: show-bred and field-bred. One is bred for looks, the other for performance. Several breeds have had some of the hunting instincts and abilities bred out of them in favor of more beautiful coats, size, and temperament.

Photo by Scott McEnaney

Getting a Bird Dog With a Good Nose

A lot of dog owners brag about their dogs having a great nose, and of course that’s important, but in reality, other issues are more important when looking at the best dogs for hunting. Even a dog who doesn’t have the best nose will find birds. If you’re working with a reputable breeder, the bloodlines will have taken care of that.

Working at a Range That Fits Your Style

Range is also a function of the type of birds you’re planning on hunting with your dog. Once that question is answered, the range question kind of solves itself. Still, it’s a characteristic of a good hunting dog you’ll want to consider. A dog chasing sharptails or Huns on the prairie will need to cover a lot of ground and run all day. Often, this type of dog will be several hundred yards away at any given time. Conversely, a dog plying the thick woods of a ruffed grouse covert will need to work close. Make sure your dog will work at a range that fits your hunting style.

An Intelligent Hunting Dog Can Correct Himself

One of the top traits a great bird dog can have is intelligence, but defining what that is can prove as hard as finding a dog who possesses it. For some, it simply means brains and the ability to accept training and learn from that training. By that definition, it’s hard to beat a Golden Retriever, one of the most trainable breeds. Labs are in the hunt as well. But for some hunters, intelligence is described as a dog’s ability to figure things out and remember. A dog who learns from experience is invaluable. You can’t train that into a dog. Having an intelligent dog isn’t always easy on the hunter’s ego, either. Almost everybody who has worked with great hunting dogs has a story (or several) of times their dog outsmarted them and got the job done despite their efforts to get the dog to do something else.

Photo by Tim Bronson

Does Your Upland Hunting Dog Have Style?

This is whether a breed is biddable, or how well a dog does what he’s asked. Some dogs are easily corrected. Golden Retrievers and Labs are known for being easy to train as are several other breeds. Brittanys, Springers, and German Shorthairs all get high marks in this area. Additionally, some dogs are a little hard-headed and require a heavier hand — some of the pointer breeds come to mind. One of the quickest ways to lose a return invitation to a hunt is to have your dog chase all the pheasants out of the other end of a cut stubble field 100 yards out of gun range. Other dogs, however, require a more gentle approach over yelling. No matter what breed you choose as your partner afield, the key will be the bond you build with your dog, and the time you invest in his training. Choosing a hunting dog requires the hunter to be honest about how much time and effort will be put into the training. Time spent together in the back yard, or in the field during the off-season, will pay off in better performance and more success during bird season.

Choosing the best hunting dog takes a lot of honesty and thought. There is no one best dog, nor is there one quality more important than the others. Some breeds require more work but can provide spectacular results. Other breeds will provide a level of proficiency with minimal effort. What’s important to you? Do you want a dog everybody will brag about or are you looking for a family pet who won’t embarrass you on your annual pheasant-hunting trip?

One thought on “How to Choose the Best Hunting Dog

  1. Jenna Hunter

    I think it is good advice to ask other fellow hunters rather than just looking at local ads. Finding a quality breeder is important, especially when choosing a dog that will go hunting with you. My husband is an avid hunter and loves to take our pup out when he goes.


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