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The Best Dog for the Job: How to Choose The Best Hunting Dogs for Your Needs

Tom Dokken | Originally published in GameKeepers: Farming for Wildlife Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

labradors on atv

Throughout the gun dog world, there is a litany of breeds to choose from. Their respective pedigrees come from all over the globe, and each offers its own personality traits, work ethics and innate abilities. Choosing which breed will suit your needs best might seem like a simple proposition; however, it’s usually not. 

The commitment of a new four-legged family member whose lifespan can easily surpass a decade is nothing to take lightly, especially if you’re a hardcore bird hunter. To ensure that you end up with the “man’s best friend” that best suits your needs, there are several steps you should take in your pup choice. 

Single-Pursuit Pups

labrador retriever
If the process of researching a perfect litter
or training a young puppy to bring out its full
potential seems too daunting, consider
enlisting the help of a professional. A pup is
a 10 or 12-year commitment, which should
not be taken lightly. 

Those of us with one game bird species in our sights have the easiest choice when it comes to which breed represents the best option. For example, southern hunters who lose sleep thinking of the sudden explosion of a covey of quail will most likely look to English setters, English pointers, or perhaps Brittany spaniels. This is not to say that there aren’t other quality choices, but there are some good reasons why so many hunters opt for these breeds while coursing through quail country.

The above goes ditto for the single-species pheasant or grouse hunter. The rooster junkie will likely opt for a pointer like a German shorthair or perhaps a wirehair, a visal, or maybe a Gordon setter, each being a close-ranging potential pheasant hunting machine. Or they may look to a flusher like a Springer spaniel or an English cocker spaniel. The hunter who spends his time in the grouse woods of the North Country trying to roust ruffed grouse out of alder thickets and tamarack swamps may look no further than the English setter with its long, winter-hardy coat, or possibly a Brittany spaniel.

Waterfowl hunters are rarely single-species hunters, but the entire duck and goose category brings to mind a few very popular breeds. Labrador retrievers are the most common, while golden retrievers and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers have also earned the “duck dog” designation.

Knowing this, and the disclaimer that there are several lesser-known breeds that can fill any role you ask, the process starts with narrowing down choices for the single pursuit bird dog. Of course, not everyone has such single-minded focus, with more and more hunters asking their dogs to handle all kinds of hunting scenarios.

Multi-taskers

Since the landscape is always changing and bird hunting opportunities seem to come and go with fluctuating populations, access and a host of other factors, it’s a good idea to consider a breed that can handle a bevy of tasks. The true multi-tasker should be able to sit closely by waiting for a release command in a sunflower field while mourning doves course overhead and then just as expertly quarter into the wind trying to catch a whiff of a pheasant.

The same goes for the dog that needs to be able to hold tight in the duck boat while flights of mallards and woodies whistle overhead at first light, and then navigate the big woods during a midday grouse jaunt in the hopes of flushing and retrieving a few birds. The tasks are nearly limitless and may include sea ducks, shed antlers, open-country sharptails, or migrating woodcock. Somewhere in the middle is the perfect breed that can handle each task daily, provided they are given the right training.

Beyond the many varieties of hunting is the task of being a family dog, which is much more common today than even 10 or especially 20 years ago. In my four-decade career of professional dog training, I’d say that probably 98-percent of the dogs that come through our training facility are multi-taskers with being a “family dog” as part of the overall equation.

lab with shed antler
The popularity of shed hunting dogs is another
example of the ways in which our hunting breeds are
expected to excel in new endeavors. Carefully
consider everything that you’ll ask of the pup before
ever selecting a specific breed. 

This means that in addition to taking into consideration which species of birds you plan to hunt, it’s also important to acknowledge how much of a family dog your new pup will be. If there is one place I see people fall a bit short on their puppy choice, it’s in the arena of a family dog. This is why so many folks go with a Labrador retriever or a golden retriever, because they believe those breeds are natural family dogs. The truth is, they are, but that doesn’t excuse us from properly socializing our dogs, regardless of breed.

This is especially true for potential dog owners looking to try less popular breeds. An example I see often is the Chesapeake Bay retrievers. Chessies are hardcore duck hunting machines and can handle the worst conditions Mother Nature can throw their way. That is all good. The bad is that through the breeding that resulted in such a hardy retriever, they were also bred to be one-man dogs. This comes from their market-hunter pedigree where once the hunt was done; it was common for chessies to be left in the market hunter’s boat to guard the gear all night long. It takes a tough dog to retrieve sea ducks all day long and then sleep outside in a boat while diligently being a guard dog. Given that pedigree, they tend to be tougher to acclimate to a family environment and require additional socializing which might be best left to the professional trainer.

Conditional Choices

As you look at your narrowing list of potential breeds, it’s a good idea to jot down the locations you plan to hunt and the terrain you’ll find in each place. A duck dog that can handle a lazy retrieve on a wood duck in a one-acre pond might not be able to fight two-foot swells on bigger water. The same goes for the perfect grouse dog with its thick coat that may cause it to overheat in a matter of minutes while sitting still in a dove field at the beginning of September. 

To give a dog the best chance to succeed (always a good idea), be honest about what you plan to ask of it in the field. If you’re in love with the idea of a certain breed but they aren’t known for handling some type of adverse condition, consider moving on. Just like investing in the stock market, if you let emotions cloud your reason, you may end up losing big time. Dog choice is no different, and again, a new pup is a big-time commitment not to be taken lightly. 

Due Diligence

retriever
Plenty of dog breeds are famous for hunting, just as
there are plenty of dogs with the word “retriever”
somewhere in their name. This doesn’t mean all dogs
are created equal. It’s still necessary to develop a
training strategy (and see it through) after carefully
researching specific breeds and bloodlines.

Anyone that knows anything about marketing or advertising knows that just because something is given a certain moniker, that doesn’t promise results. To put it simply, a dog with the word “retriever” in its name is not guaranteed to retrieve. We see this often at my training facility, and the reality in the gun dog world is that there is a lot of questionable breeding out there. For someone looking for a simple family pet, this might not be a deal breaker. For the rest of us looking to up the odds of ending up with a fantastic hunter, it is.

Pedigrees or bloodlines are everything when it comes to a quality dog. The idea is that each pup is a risk, but you can greatly reduce the chances of getting burned by doing a few things. The first is that once you’ve settled on a breed or two, it’s time to look around for a quality litter. This will involve plenty of Internet and on-the-phone time. The idea is to find bloodlines marked by Master Hunters, some designation of Field Trial Champions, or both. Even if you never intend to compete with your pup, these pedigrees will virtually guarantee a smarter pup that will take to tasks easier, and basically make your life as a trainer easier.

Again, there are no for-sure, no-doubt guarantees when picking a new pup. There are, however, ways to severely cut the risk of ending up with a blockhead whose virtues don’t stretch past being cute. If this is intimidating, that’s okay. Plenty of people call me every year with a list of what they want in a dog and ask me to ferret out some litters that might have a puppy that will fit their needs. If this sounds like a better option for you, don’t hesitate to enlist professionals help. 

Pup’s Here, Now What?

Assuming you’ve picked your way through dozens of breeds and laid out the likeliest hunting scenarios, family expectations, and finally spent some time digging deep into generations of a few litters, you’re going to settle on a pup that is loaded with potential. As another disclaimer, let me say that you should absolutely do all of this before ever looking at a litter because when you’re in the puppy-buying-mindset playing with a bunch of puppies has a tendency to lighten your wallet. In fact, not being in this mindset but playing with a bunch of puppies can lead to a quick case of buyer’s remorse, a need for carpet cleaner, and a ticked-off spouse.

lab pup
When narrowing down your choices for the breed best
suited to meet your hunting and familial needs,
consider all of the different birds you plan to hunt and
the varied terrain and weather conditions you’ll likely
face. These factors will point you in specific directions.

Either way, once your new potential-laden pup is homebound, the real work will begin. It may seem as if all of the pre-pup planning will result in a dog that trains itself, but that unfortunately won’t be the case. You’ll need to plan out a strategy for simple obedience and commands, along with water introduction, gunfire introduction, and socializing.

There are plenty of folks capable of handling proper training on their own, it just takes patience, daily commitment to training drill baby steps, and the right tools. If family, work, and other life obligations have you too tied up to tackle this task, consider a professional trainer right off of the bat. I say this because I am a professional trainer and I like the business, but also because I see too many five-month old pups show up at my facility with frazzled owners.

It’s possible to take that dog and turn him around, but it takes a lot more time than starting with a fresh, seven-week-old pup. This is because the older dog has been allowed to establish bad habits, which are just like weeds. Once they start growing you can snip them, but they continually want to grow back. A seven-week-old pup doesn’t have bad habits, just potential, which is much easier to bring out at that point in its life than half of a year down the road.

Conclusion

No matter where your bird hunting passion lies, it’s best to put in some serious time and research before ever settling on a puppy. Not only will your game bag be more full more often, but the introduction to new challenges will be far smoother and the family life will be more rewarding simply because you’ll have a good dog—and who doesn’t want that?

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