Well Trained Hunting Dogs Produce for Hunters
A good dog will find 10 times as many birds as you can, often help you set up the right shot, and find and deliver almost every one you put down.
All bird hunters eventually consider getting a good hunting dog of their own. If you’re at that stage, you need to select the breed that’s right for you, and learn how to go about acquiring, training, and handling the dog.
Generalities about breeds have a basis in truth, but of course there are plenty of exceptions. There is no such thing as the “best” dog — there are tradeoffs in every breed.
First you must decide if you want a pointer or “flushing” dog (retrievers and spaniels). The retriever breeds may be your best choice if you do much waterfowl hunting. The difference is not, as most people suspect, an ability to retrieve in the water. Most pointers do just as well at that task. The difference is that the streamlined build and thin coats of pointing dogs make them more susceptible to cold, and the hyper nature of many of them make them a liability in a duck blind. They can’t sit still, will want to jump out and run around, and will drive you to the brink of dog-murder. Believe me; I’ve been there.
A major consideration is that if you are mainly an upland hunter, the flushers and retrievers, generally speaking, can’t quite compare to the pointing breeds in both functional and aesthetic terms. It’s like hunting grouse with a goose gun. You’ll have more shots, better shots, and more fun with a pointer in the uplands.
Maybe the most important point to keep in mind is that for 95 percent of your lives, you and your dog are not hunting. If you’re with me in that leaving a dog stuck in a kennel full time is not an option, you’ll want a dog that’s pleasant to have around the house. Some breeds tend to be better than others in that regard.
Keeping in mind what I said about generalities and exceptions, here are my opinionated and biased recommendations concerning the more popular breeds you have to choose from.
There are reasons why the Lab is a favorite among hunters. Among the more calm, good-natured, and “civilized” breeds, he’s nice to have around the house. He’s versatile; he may be the best if you do much waterfowling, and he gets the job done in the uplands, too. Very trainable and usually bright. There are lines of Labs that have been bred to point, which may approach the “perfect” dog, with the possible exception of that ethereal thing called “style,” which pointers own.
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
This breed was developed in the region of the famous bay 150 years ago for two purposes: to retrieve a boatload of ducks during the day and rip the legs off anyone who tried to steal them while you paused at the pier-side pub that evening. Still hell on ducks and prowlers, they shine less brightly in the uplands. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that every Chessie I’ve worked with seemed a little bit slow upstairs.
They have been bred in recent decades to be cute and cuddly and very pleasant to be around. Thus, not usually as single-mindedly hunting geared as Labs.
A smaller, enthusiastic flushing dog that doubles as a great pet, but not quite par on ducks and geese. Some of the best grouse dogs I’ve seen were springers, but I just can’t see using a non-pointing dog on pheasants and quail, both for practical and aesthetic reasons.
The long-standing icon of “bird dog,” a fine English will make you think, “bird-hunting machine!” A downside is that they are robot-like around the house too, comparatively aloof and impersonal, with the inevitable exceptions. Most come from lines of ground-covering dogs bred to run with horseback hunters, which means they find more birds, but not necessarily in the same county you’re in. Good training and handling can usually fix that, however.
Increasingly popular among bird hunters, the stylish shorthair is a good balance of performance and personality, very trainable, and keen-nosed. Most shorthairs take to water retrieves as well as any Lab. Despite the fact that like the English they can be hyper, and I often wish I could store mine in the freezer through the non-hunting months, this is my personal choice of breeds.
This pointing spaniel may not be quite the hard-core hunter that the shorthair is, but I believe it to be more intelligent in general, which can be an asset in hunting. Its smaller size and affectionate nature make it a fine home companion.
The English setter is a classic upland pointing breed, friendly, and trainable, not to mention stylish and beautiful with its long, silken hair. Just one word: burrs. The Irish setter has been bred in recent decades to be beautiful, and they are. And based on my experience trying to hunt with them, that’s probably about all I should say about them here.
Make sure you select from a line of dogs bred for hunting rather than field trials or show. Don’t pinch pennies because the dog’s original purchase price is peanuts in the big picture. Most people want a female dog, having puppies in mind, but many live to regret that. And please, familiarize yourself with at least basic training techniques because a dog that never realizes its potential because of poor training is a shameful waste.
Author – Lisa Price