If only choosing the best hunting dog were as straightforward as a dog on point.
But when you start asking around (always a good place to start), you’ll find a dizzying array of opinions at the sporting club or gun range, and over breakfast on opening morning. And you’ll no doubt find yourself on the receiving end of many a tale about great dogs whose legends have grown with time.
Most exceptional bird dogs come from the small handful of breeds that have earned their place among the best dogs for hunting. But even within those breeds, not every dog will have what it takes. The key to finding the best hunting dog is to select your breeder wisely, know your preferred hunting style, and make sure you have time to field train properly. In other words, a lot depends on you rather than on the dog.
How to Find a Good Hunting Dog Breeder
You’ll rarely find well-bred hunting dogs in your local want ads. Finding a quality breeder whose dogs have a proven ability to hunt takes some legwork. Here are the essentials for finding a reputable breeder who produces strong gun dogs:
- Talk to fellow hunters who own dogs you admire and ask about their lines.
- Contact the associations for the breeds you’re researching, making sure their dogs are the field-bred variety, and not the bench- or show-bred variety.
- Explore the online forums of these associations for opinions on consistent breeders.
- Visit the breeder in person so you can see their facility and discuss what you are looking for in a gun dog.
Keep in mind that the nature of genetics means you could get a dog from a notable breeder, and still wind up with a wonderful companion who is more interested in playing in the yard than hunting in the field.
How Important Is a Bird Dog With a Good Nose?
A lot of dog owners take pride in the great noses on their dogs, and of course that’s important. But the truth is, all dogs have a powerful sense of smell, and even a hunting dog without the best ‘nose’ will find birds. Other qualities are more critical, including whether the dog is biddable at long range or holds a steadfast point until the hunter is in place. The upshot? You will likely have a hunting dog with a good nose if you select from a respected breeder, but whether your dog becomes a superstar sniffer will come down to a combination of training and the individual dog.
An Intelligent Hunting Dog Can Correct Himself
The top traits of a great bird dog are intelligence and eagerness to learn. 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. Be prepared: Having an intelligent dog isn’t always easy on the hunter’s ego. Almost everybody who has worked with great hunting dogs has a sheepish 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.
Before Selecting a Bird Dog, Think of the Bird
You can’t choose the right bird dog without knowing the type of bird you will be hunting.
A dog flushing sharptails or Huns on the prairie will need to cover a lot of ground and run all day. Pointers make an excellent choice for these excursions because they are lean and biddable—important qualities in dogs who will be hundreds of yards away from you during long-range hunts.
Conversely, a dog plying the thick woods of a ruffed grouse covert will need to work close. Make sure you choose a dog breed known to work well at the distance that fits your quarry and hunting style.
What Are the Good Hunting Dogs by Bird and Hunting Type?
Do you stick to waterfowl hunting? Or do you enjoy the vast expanses of upland hunting? Or, do you enjoy switching it up? There’s a lot of crossover between the best breed by hunting type, and you’ll get a lot of varied and passionate opinions from fellow hunters. (Note: You are always looking for the field-bred varieties of the breeds below.)
Here’s a breakdown of good hunting dogs by hunting type as a jumping-off point:
Upland (Quail, Pheasant, Grouse, Dove, Partridge, Woodcock, Turkey)
- Labrador Retriever
- German Shorthaired Pointer
- Curly Coated Retriever
- Boykin Spaniel
- Golden Retriever
- Brittany Spaniel
- Springer Spaniel
- Irish Setter
- Cocker Spaniel
Waterfowl (Duck, Goose)
- Labrador Retriever
- Curly Coated Retriever
- Boykin Spaniel
- American Water Spaniel
- Irish Water Spaniel
- Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever
- Standard Poodle*
The breeds appearing on both lists are known for their crossover hunting skills. Not surprisingly, the lovable Labrador Retriever makes as fine a field and marsh companion as he does a best friend back at the homestead.
*Are Poodles Good Hunting Dogs?
Seeing the Standard Poodle on the waterfowl list may have come as a surprise, but Poodles were popular hunting dogs in the US from the 1950s through the 1970s, according to waterfowl conservation group Ducks Unlimited. The very name Poodle derives from the German pudel, which means ‘to splash in the water.’ The breed was refined as a waterfowl hunter in France before becoming a showring regular and a beloved companion animal. Today, there’s a bit of resurgence in the Poodle’s popularity as a gun dog because of its friendliness, smarts, and eagerness to learn.
Does this make you wonder if your companion dog has the right stuff? Of course, all canines are descended from wolves—so there’s a hunter in every dog. But people are often curious about the hunting background of Beagles and Dachshunds, probably because of their curious—decidedly relentless—behavior around the house and yard.
Are Beagles Hunting Dogs?
Technically, yes. Beagles are scent hounds known for their skill hunting rabbits and other small prey. They are smart and highly trainable, but also exceptionally loud—which is why you won’t find them on lists of good apartment dogs. When Beagles successfully trap their quarry, they will bark incessantly to let their human hunting companion know. They’ll also bark to let you know they hear quarry in the distance, and set off after a smell if given a chance. It’s in their nature.
Are Dachshunds Hunting Dogs?
Yes, but not for your common game. Your adorable lapdog is a tiny yet tenacious hunter. The Dachshund was developed in Germany with a long and low frame perfect for diving into badger holes. If you own a Doxie, this won’t come as a surprise because chances are you’ve encountered holes in your back yard and a best friend who would charge after small animals if not held back by collar and leash.
Does Your Upland Hunting Dog Have Style?
‘Style’ refers to whether a hunting 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 keys will be the bond you build with your dog, and the time you invest in his training.
How to Stimulate a Hunting Dog
Hunting and field training are the best ways to keep your hunting dog stimulated. If you’re unable to get into the field as often as you’d like, off-leash training your dog closer to home is a good alternative.
No matter your hunting dog’s style, keeping him active and busy prevents destructive and nuisance behaviors from developing. Energy plus smarts equals trouble when it comes to hunting dogs.
What Do Hunting Dogs Eat?
Hunting dogs don’t eat their quarry. The best retrievers have a ‘soft mouth’—the ability to carry birds back to their hunting companions softly and without doing further damage beyond the shot.
Highly active hunting dogs require a quality, high-protein dog food that provides the energy they need for long days spent covering many miles in the field. The best food for your dog can be dry or wet. Talk with your veterinarian to ensure your dog is getting the nutrition he needs relative to his activity level and size.
By now, it should be clear that choosing a hunting dog requires honesty about how much time and effort you will 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.
Ultimately, 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 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.