Hunting Dog Breeds: 21 Best Dogs for Waterfowl, Upland Birds, Bears, and Small Game
Our tribute, in no particular order, to the best—and most loyal and loving and hardest-working—hunting dog breeds
What’s the best hunting dog breed? That depends on who you ask. For some hunters, it’s all about the moment a pointer streaks across a stubble field like a bolt of white lightning. Or when a Labrador retriever vaults after a fallen greenhead. Or when a springer spaniel levitates from the switchgrass, jaws snapping at a pheasant’s tail feathers. When a pack of blueticks strike scent, and the night suddenly throbs with their urgent music. Whenever and wherever we hunt with dogs, we engage in a partnership that spans tens of thousands of years—a partnership so intimate and mutually beneficial that we’ve essentially co-evolved. Some evidence even suggests that the qualities that hunting dog breeds brought to the Stone Age helped allow our ancestors’ brains to devote less capacity to sensory functions, clearing the decks for intellectual growth. In other words, dogs made us human.
It’s also the case, as many experiments have shown, that dogs have a unique ability to read our body language and respond to subtle cues. Not that this comes as news to anyone who’s tried to slip past his dog carrying a shotgun. You might as well try to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.
And that, ultimately, is why we hunt with dogs: Because they love it, and live for it, as much as we do. Possibly even more than we do. We depend on their skill and artistry and we admire their tenacity and courage. But what keeps us going is their passion. It pulls us along in its slipstream and spurs us to hold up our end of the partnership as loftily as they do theirs. Here, we salute the very best of them. —Tom Davis
Best Hunting Dog Breeds
- Labrador Retriever
- English Setter
- American Foxhound
- Treeing Walker
- German Wirehaired Pointer
- Mountain Cur
- Boykin Spaniel
- Golden Retriever
- Irish Setter
- Bluetick Hound
- English Pointer
- English Springer Spaniel
- Chesapeake Bay Retriever
- American Pit Bull
- Cocker Spaniel
- German Shorthaired Pointer
- Redbone Hound
- Jack Russell Terrier
- Plott Hound
1. Labrador Retriever
To be clear, just because it’s listed at No. 1 doesn’t mean we’re claiming it’s the best hunting dog. But, how can you have a list of the best hunting dog breeds and not begin with the Labrador retriever. They’re cute, no question. In calendars and sappy greeting cards, Labrador retriever puppies cavort and cuddle, but those aren’t the Labs a hunter loves. For a hunter, cute is a Lab with a bird in his mouth, coat spackled with duckweed, paws slimed with mud. What melts a hunter’s heart is a Lab 100 yards beyond the farthest decoy, diving for a cripple, never giving up. I’ve had wet Labs curled up in the backseat, stinking of swamp, too tired to walk—but let that pooch hear the jangle of a duck-call lanyard and there he is, at your side and ready to go. That, my friend, is a dog.
Despite the moniker, Labrador retrievers are actually from neighboring Newfoundland, where small water dogs were bred with the giant, hardy Newfies to birth a medium-size retriever with fine legs and a short, water-shedding coat. The second Earl of Malmesbury is said to have imported one of these “St. John’s water dogs” and dubbed it a Labrador retriever. The name stuck.
Labs have been parting the waters like Moses ever since. Certainly, there are those Labs that point pheasants and flush quail and trail deer or rabbits. But the historic and true place for a Labrador retriever is out there on the edge of water and hard ground, marsh and muck, perched on a platform jammed into the cattails. He has a torn toe pad from a beaver stick and he shivers with cold. But watch him. His eyes rarely leave the sky. He knows why he is here. He is cold and wet, but ready to hunt—happy to vault toward a bird as many times as you will send him. —T. Edward Nickens
My first Brittany was given to me by a friend 20-plus years ago. I wasn’t thinking of hunting with her at first—but then I started to notice how smart she was. She was remarkable. I started taking her in the woods with me, and I remember how much she loved to chase the turkeys. I had been a hunter years before we got her, but work got so busy that I fell out of touch with it for a few years, but that dog piqued my interest into hunting again.
Her name was Pepper. She truly was a gift.
I won’t tell you that the Brittany is the best hunting dog breed in the world, but there is something special about this breed. They’re not too big to be a house dog. They can spend all week with you at home, then when you want to go hunting on the weekend the dog is ready to go, and can do all of the things the big breeds can do. She’s a compact dog that you can load into your truck and be with all weekend long. I really like that. And a well-trained Brittany is a pleasure to hunt behind. Just the idea of watching this dog that you’ve trained run out there and hold that point until you come up and flush the bird, and then bring the bird back to you after you’ve shot it, that’s very satisfying. —Kevin Gilmore, owner of Gilmore Brittanys
3. English Setter
It’s a safe bet that more writers’ ink and more artists’ paint has been devoted to the English setter than to any other hunting dog breed. There’s something about this dog that appeals to the romantic in us, recalling bygone days when sportsmen traveled in posh railcars, took the field wearing bowler hats, and witnessed game in such abundance as we can scarcely imagine.
And yet to refer to the breed in the singular—as “the” setter—is problematic. No breed is more resistant to generalizations. There are 80-pound setters with flowing coats and magnificent heads, and 30-pound setters so nondescript that it’s hard to believe they have papers; setters that run like the wind, and setters that barely break out of a trot. There are setters that point with high style, and setters that point as if they’re waiting for a bus; setters that are as trainable and eager-to-please as you could ever want, and setters that will fight you every step of the way.
The one constant is this: If you aspire to be a setter hunter, you’d better have a philosophical bent. This breed will test you. But when a setter puts it all together—running, hunting, and pointing birds so thrillingly that it sears itself on your memory like a brand—you’ll know that the journey was worth whatever price you paid.
I had a setter like that once—Ernie was his name—and while he dragged me through hell and back, he also gave me the single most memorable performance I’ve ever witnessed. He tracked a running covey of Huns through cover so sparse you’d have sworn it couldn’t hide a mouse. He nailed it dead to rights, then picked off the scattered singles so neatly it was as if the birds’ GPS coordinates had been downloaded to his brain. Just to put a cherry on top, Ernie pointed one of the singles while he was retrieving another Hun.
There’s a reason people say that a good setter will spoil you for any other dog: Because he will. —T.D.
4. American Foxhound
Sixty years ago, having been born to high social station and great wealth, I found myself riding on classic foxhunts—horses, dogs, and all—and am in fact a blooded hunter, which is another story. The actual work of pursuing Br’er Fox was done by a pack of 30 to 40 American foxhounds.
Bred from French, English, and Irish foxhounds, the American variety looks rather like a very long-legged beagle. It’s a big dog—the males go from 65 to 75 pounds—notably sweet-tempered and, I was told, worthless as a watchdog.
American foxhounds hunt by scent, and they are relentless. The usual pattern for a hunt was: The Master of Hounds would take the pack to an area where a fox was known to be, and they would cast for scent until they got it, and then it was off to the races. The hunting dogs would run for hours, stopping only when they lost the scent. If the fox wanted to survive, it would dodge, dance, and evade, and quite often it could throw off the hounds for good. But some foxes would panic, break into the open, and run for it. That would be the animal’s final mistake. The dogs would catch it and disassemble it in what seemed like seconds.
One of the things I remember distinctly about this hunting dog breed its distinctive howl, which has an odd, bell-like quality to it. It’s completely unlike the less refined rural yodeling of blueticks and redbones. I remember also its great courage. The Master of Hounds would have to catch dogs with bloody paws and take them out of the hunt. They would not quit—a quality that the British call “bottom.”
Foxhunting, along with hunting Cape buffalo, is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, and probably the most dangerous. And the American foxhound is a part of that, a wonderful breed created for a sport that few people will ever witness, and even fewer understand. —David E. Petzal
5. Treeing Walker
I’ve been around treeing walkers ever since I was 8 years old. I’m over 50 now. What I like about these hunting dogs is they’re quick starters, and a little more competitive than the other hounds. They’re a bit trashier, too. They’ve got more go to them, and they’re gonna run a little more junk than the other dogs will—you know, deer or fox or whatever. But it doesn’t bother me for them to run like that when they’re young. I like a dog with grit.
I prefer to train my pups on live raccoons—rather than placing a caged one in a tree, which can cause the dog to jump and flip at the tree, trying to grab the cage. Aggression like that, especially on a night hunt, can cause trouble—like a dogfight. So training the pups on live released raccoons is a more natural approach and makes for a settled-down dog at the tree.
Night hunts with these dogs sure are exciting. First, you put the tracking collars on them, then let ’em loose. Then you wait at the truck while they strike a trail and eventually tree the coon. You can tell by the bark once they’re at a tree, because up to that point they’ve been barking with their head down—but once they’ve treed the raccoon, their heads are up in the air and they throw a distinctive locating bark. They’re saying, Come on, Daddy, I got this thing! Yep, they’re good dogs. —Tony Ray, owner of Roanoke River Kennels
The traditional beagle pack may number from half a dozen to 30 members, and when those hounds are hot on a rabbit track, they swarm through briers and brambles with the coordination of a cavalry squadron. But the fact is, a pair of beagles or even a single hound can be deadly on a rabbit hunt, and the instinct is entwined in their DNA like a cocklebur. I have a buddy whose beagle spends 355 days a year on the sofa. But on those 10 days Bailey is in the woods, woe be unto the bunnies.
The first mention of beagles in English dates to about 1475, and the name may come from the French word begueule, meaning “open throat.” Henry VII kept small hounds called glove beagles due to their tiny size. Queen Elizabeth I kept a line of so-called 8-inch-tall pocket beagles that rode to the hunt in saddlebags. The modern lines were established in the 1830s, and America went bonkers for beagles around the turn of the 20th century.
That’s certainly due to their savvy snouts and legendary trail toughness, but beagles may be about the smilingest hunting dog breeds on the planet—as cheerful as any breed around. They’re happy in the truck, in the kid’s room, and on the sofa. But happiest, perhaps, when turned into the woods and hell-bent after a hare. Just ask Bailey. —T.E.N.
7. German Wirehaired Pointer
It may be more stolid than stylish, but the German wirehaired is the gun dog you want by your side when a wing-tipped pheasant runs into a cattail marsh. I’ve seen wirehairs track cripples through mazes of cover and bird scent that leaves you shaking your head when the dog comes back with the bird held in his bearded mouth.
In the 1880s, German hunters mixed griffons, foxhounds, poodles, and shorthairs to produce a breed that could point upland birds, retrieve waterfowl, kill vermin, and track stags—wrapped in a bristly coat that insulates without attracting burrs. GWPs exist in two separate breeds: the Deutsch drahthaar and the Americanized German wirehaired pointer. Drahthaars are bred and tested for the versatility that originally defined the breed. Some are prickly with people and not ideal dogs around children. All drahthaars are death on small mammals, including cats, and they are also relentless trackers and retrievers.
German wirehaired pointers aren’t as aggressive as drahthaars, and they hunt with their heads up for air scent, rather than tracking birds on the ground. They, too, are fine retrievers, and either hunting dog breed makes a good all-weather dog for the serious hunter. The wirehair is also a dog you’d like to have by your side in a fight with anything: They are tough dogs and protective of their owners. —Phil Bourjaily
8. Mountain Cur
The early pioneers made their way to the hills and hollows of the Southern Appalachians and Ohio River Valley with flintlocks, black iron pans, forged axes, and seed corn. And cur dogs. To the pioneers, a dog that could herd a couple of cows and face a bayed-up bear and tree a squirrel was as necessary as a hoe or an adze. Small curs from Britain sprang from herding dogs, and possibly even corgis. They could do it all, but their utilitarian bent, and their favored status by common-folk, might have led to a certain lack of respect for the various lines of curs that sprang up in early America. Still, they have a rightful place beside the Kentucky rifle and log cabin—icons of the settling of a nation.
The unlearned may see these compact, often bobtailed, houndlike dogs and think, There goes a mixed-blood, mixed-breed whole bunch of nothing. But those in the know understand better. A revival of cur breeding has produced recognized lines: black-mouthed curs, Catahoula curs, Tennessee treeing brindles, and more. The line known as the original mountain cur runs close to its pioneer-era ancestral bloodline. The bear hunting dogs nearly died out in the early 20th century, as the rural pleasures of running raccoons and squirrels gave way to small-town life and the day-to-day grind of a postwar workweek. In 1957, four mountain music players from Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee discovered a shared love for the old mountain curs, and organized a breeding effort that saved the original mountain cur from extinction. That’s sent new generations of hunters back into the hardwoods—and untold numbers of squirrels into the stew pot. —T.E.N.
9. Boykin Spaniel
I never planned on a Boykin spaniel. I was sure my next dog would be a Labrador retriever, but my wife, Jenny, had different thoughts. I’m glad I listened to her.
We were leaving New York City for the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and one of our first priorities after finding a home was getting a dog. Jenny had done her research and claimed she had found the dog for both of us. I had never heard of a Boykin, but she promised that this breed, recognized as the state dog of South Carolina, could do everything a Lab could at half the size. Not a chance, I thought. But the idea of a pocket retriever intrigued me, especially given this dog and I would be sharing a small center-console fishing boat when not in the field.
These were the facts: The hunting dog breed had started in South Carolina in the early 1900s, first used by turkey hunters plying the swamps in small homemade boats. But soon the breed’s penchant for flushing and retrieving became apparent, and Boykins found themselves in duck blinds and, later, quail fields. These days they also make a great dog for the dove field. (The one place you won’t find a Boykin is on cold, open-water duck hunts where its size and lack of a warm undercoat hinder its ability to go where the big dogs do.)
Our waterfowl hunting dog, Pritchard, quickly showed an affinity for retrieving and loved the water. Like most Boykins, she had a strong prey drive, was a little too smart for her own good (a.k.a. headstrong), and behaved admirably around the home. We trained religiously that first year, and at 8 months old, she sat next to me in a dove field calmly watching the action until a few birds started falling. Her first retrieve is still as fresh in my mind today as if it just happened. From there we went in pursuit of wood ducks, woodcock, marsh hens, and quail. She even showed her stuff at a local Dock Dog contest, holding our own against the larger competition. Turns out my wife was right—a Boykin is the perfect dog for me. —David DiBenedetto
10. Golden Retriever
Compared to other popular hunting dog breeds, golden retrievers have an image problem. It’s hard for the average sportsman to wrap his mind around the idea that a creature so photogenic and glamorous can be a serious gun dog—one that’s capable of pulling double duty in the marshes and the uplands. Strolling through Beverly Hills or cavorting on a beach in the Hamptons—yes. Rousting roosters from the switchgrass or sprinting through a muddy cornfield to retrieve a wing-tipped Canada—not a chance.
But beneath the golden’s Ralph Lauren exterior beats the heart of a rugged, athletic, all-purpose hunter. The breed’s affectionate, eager-to-please personality also tends to mask its inner toughness. There’s no quit in a good golden retriever. The only thing soft about this breed is its coat.
An incident I witnessed—and benefited from—years ago exemplifies the golden’s tenacity. I was hunting grouse in northern Wisconsin with a friend and his golden, Sidney, when I nicked a bird. It fluttered down only to re-flush just as the big mahogany dog was about to grab it. We hunted on in the general direction of its flight, hunted on some more, and finally decided the bird had given us the slip.
Thankfully, no one told Sidney. Long after we’d given up hope, she dove into a blowdown and emerged with the grouse. That, my friends, is known as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Although I have no data to support this, I suspect goldens are used more extensively these days for upland game, pheasants in particular, than they are for waterfowl. Birdy, brainy, biddable, and with a nose that’s second to none, this hunting dog breed is a great choice for roosters anywhere, but especially in heavy late-season cover, such as cattails and switchgrass. Don’t sell the golden short as a duck dog, though. Keen markers and powerful swimmers, they’ll fill the bill for all but the most hardcore waterfowlers. You just have to be willing to tolerate a little more water in the blind. —T.D.
11. Irish Setter
With her burnished mahogany coat like a distillation of autumn’s essence, the Irish setter may be the most beautiful hunting dog of all. There’s a price to be paid for beauty, though. For most of the 20th century, breeders focused so exclusively on the Irish setter’s conformation that finding a red dog that could hunt was like finding a leprechaun. The breed also developed a reputation—not altogether undeserved—for being somewhat rattle-brained.
Thankfully, that’s ancient history now. While there’s still a distinct separation between show and field lines, the overall quality of today’s hunting Irish setters is higher than it’s ever been. In fact, it’s a little puzzling that the red dogs aren’t more popular. Athletic, stylish, biddable, and deceptively tough, the Irish setter takes a backseat to none as a bird-finder deluxe and rugged all-purpose hunter. The breed’s partisans will tell you an Irish setter is every bit the gun dog the English setter is, and there’s plenty of evidence—bulging gamebags, satisfied smiles, diehard allegiance—to support the claim.
Oh, and if you hear the terms red setter and Irish setter used in a way that suggests they’re not precisely interchangeable, that’s very perceptive of you. What it boils down to is that the former hunting dog breed’s label is preferred by those who register their dogs with the Field Dog Stud Book, and the latter by those who register their dogs with the American Kennel Club. All you really need to know is this: They both hunt. —T.D.
12. Bluetick Hound
I have followed blueticks through bear brambles and raccoon swamps, mostly on foot, often on hands and knees, and never without sweating buckets and marveling at the athleticism of a dog that looks like it was made from parts of a worn-out sofa. Blueticks are as “houndy” as they get—big-eared and block-headed, mottled with spots and splotches. The purest should have tan spots over their eyes, and their roots reach back to the bleu de Gascogne hounds of France and the venerable English foxhound.
Among bear hunting dog breeds, Blueticks have a nose that won’t quit, and will tree just about any creature in the woods, so don’t hold it against them if they take off wandering for an hour or two. They’re also bred as free-tonguers, which means it’s perfectly acceptable—expected even—for them to open up and bugle every now and then while on the trail, and not just when they’re on a hot track. It’s a trait that makes them lovable, even though they may howl at every new human they meet. Just don’t mistake their chill personalities for laziness. Blueticks can be super high energy and need to burn off steam, so any potential masters with couch-potato tendencies had best reconsider. But if you’re looking for a dog made of equal parts nose and heart, a bluetick could be your friend for life. —T.E.N.
13. English Pointer
I maintain that there are two kinds of bird hunters: Those who think English pointers are the only hunting dog breeds worth feeding, and those who are scared to death of them. Their intensity can be frightening. “When a good English pointer faces a bird,” marvels Guy de la Valdène in For a Handful of Feathers, “he does so with all but one foot on the coals of hell.”
Technically, of course, there’s no such breed as the English pointer. Its official name is pointer, period. Say “English pointer” south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and folks will look at you funny. By any name, the pointer defines high performance. Hunting over other breeds is like driving the family sedan; hunting over a pointer is like getting behind the wheel of a Ferrari. There are gears you didn’t know existed. You’d better keep things under control, though, because if you don’t a pointer can get away from you in a hurry. Ever heard a dog described as “too much dog”? That’s a pointer in the hands of an inexperienced trainer.
Hitch a pointer to a savvy handler, though, and the result is magic—especially in big country. A pointer doesn’t cover the ground—he scorches it. And when the dog strikes point—transformed from pure kinetic energy into quivering canine statuary—it’s hard not to shake your head in awe.
About the only flaw in the pointer’s armor is in this hunting dog breed’s ability to withstand cold. I’ve seen two dogs go down with hypothermia and they were both pointers, hunting late-season pheasants in single-digit temperatures.
Other than that, it’s hard to find much to criticize. Don’t believe what you’ve heard about the breed’s being aloof, either. Given half a chance, a pointer makes the sweetest house dog you could ever want. It’ll enhance his performance afield, too. And it never hurts to remind a pointer that hunting birds is supposed to be a partnership, not a solo act. —T.D.
14. English Springer Spaniel
The moment my springer gets a whiff of the rooster, he explodes. His eyes widen, as if they’re saying, You’re mine, pheasant, as he accelerates into a tangled cluster of brambles and Rosa multiflora. There’s nothing methodical about Freedom’s pursuit. He figures out the running rooster’s path and closes in lightning fast. Shrubs shake. Briers fly. I bet he’d break through drywall if he scented pheasants on the other side. Then comes the most dramatic moment: The 50-pound liver-and-white springer leaps from the brush as the rooster takes flight, cackling. It’s unlikely that this breed’s proclivity for airborne flushes puts more birds in the bag, but it’s sort of like a slam dunk—not worth extra points, but thrilling nonetheless.
I also hunt ducks with my springers, right up until freezing conditions risk penetrating the dogs’ singular coats. This hunting dog breed’s retrieving abilities will impress any Labrador aficionado, and frankly I’ve never seen a breed display a better nose when recovering cripples. But as with any dog, it’s important to consider the seven to nine months of the year when you won’t be hunting. Averaging 35 to 40 pounds and lacking the oily odor common to many breeds, springers make wonderful house dogs.
They’re such happy dogs that I swear they have the ability, and inclination, to smile—a lot. There’s no simpler pleasure than having one of my springers follow me around the home all day, or guard the foot of the bed at night. I’ve never known life without springers, and I doubt I’d be any good at it. —Kyle Wintersteen
15. Chesapeake Bay Retriever
What most people love about Chessies is their intelligence, but especially their devotion to you. These are very loyal dogs that loveto please their owner. Labs and goldens love everybody and everything, but the Chesapeake will follow you everywhere, because he’s your friend, your sidekick, your partner. He is your dog, period. Compared with the other retriever breeds, this loyalty is what makes Chessies such good watchdogs.
Of course, they’re also great hunting dogs. They’re athletic and they love the outdoors—and they absolutely love the water. They’re also extremely determined. In cold water or bad conditions, they’ll work through difficult situations in order to persevere and bring that duck or goose back to you. Chessies do well in the uplands and can retrieve small game, but they really are the premier waterfowl dog. If you hunt in tough, cold conditions, this is the dog you want. They have excellent noses and are particularly good at finding crippled birds.
Now, that determination to a single task isn’t always desirable, which is why this is a dog that you absolutely need to obedience-train. When you say no, the dog needs to know you mean no. Having a Chessie can be like having a 3-year-old: They sometimes like to test what you’ve set as boundaries. You need to be consistent with your training—and innovative. This dog gets bored quickly because they learn so quickly. Once they turn about 3 or 4, they settle in to what your relationship is like and they know the boundaries.
And this is not a dog that you only take out on the weekends or in the evenings, because then you’ll never get out of him what a Chesapeake really is—a devoted, loyal dog that you take with you in the car and boat and enjoy all the time. If you make this dog your buddy, you’ll get the very best of him. —Dyane Baldwin, owner of Pond Hollow Chesapeakes
16. American Pit Bull
He wore a Kevlar vest and a heavy metal collar. His face was scarred from boar tusks and pig hooves. He was biding his time. The jump dogs—smaller Catahoula hounds, mostly—were on the move, running a wild pig through south Louisiana’s wild swamp country. They had the easy work. Once they’d nipped at the pig’s heels enough times to make it turn for a fight, the hounds would back off and hurl their taunts. That’s when Major would come out of his cage. His job was to manhandle the pig to the ground.
He’d yet to lose a fight.
“He looks rough, but ol’ Major is a sweetheart,” said the young Cajun who listened with me to the hog chase in the woods. “I’d lay my baby down with that dog and not think twice about it.” The baby was his year-old daughter. The dog was an American pit bull, a breed beloved and loathed, misunderstood and miscalculated.
That the pit bull can be a fierce, fearsome, to-the-death fighter is indisputable—as is the fact that they can be loving, gentle family companions. These days, the explosion of wild pig populations has given the American pit bull new life in the sporting world. They are unmatched for opening up a big can of hurt on any feral hog backed into a dark swampy corner. —T.E.N.
17. Cocker Spaniel
Pocket rocket. Little big dog. Stick of canine dynamite. If you’ve hunted over an English cocker, then you’re nodding in agreement—and smiling. A field-bred cocker is a cover-shredding perpetual-motion machine, ears flying, legs churning, stubby tail a blur as she buzzes here, there, and everywhere in her quest to get game. There’s no better flushing dog for grouse and woodcock (it’s the “cocker,” after all), and until you’ve hunted snipe with one, your education is incomplete. You may find yourself looking over your shoulder to see if the cops are coming. Nothing that fun can possibly be legal.
Pheasants and light-duty waterfowling are in the cocker’s wheelhouse as well, and the breed is death on Huns and sharptails when the birds are hunkered in heavier cover. I’ll never forget the time my friend Tom Ness sent a cocker named Oscar into a North Dakota plum thicket. The thicket seemed to explode as Huns blew out in every direction.
While hunting with cockers isn’t new to these shores—Frank Forester, America’s first important outdoor writer, spoke glowingly of the breed in the 1850s—by the 1960s they’d faded from the scene here. This hunting dog breeds’ renaissance began in the ’80s, and over the last 20 years they’ve proven themselves to be not only functional game-getters but about the most exciting dogs you can swing a shotgun over.
The really good news for sportsmen is that cocker breeders have continued to keep their eyes on the ball and produce dogs with a wealth of natural ability—meaning that you don’t need a lot of equipment or expertise to train one. Given a sturdy obedience foundation and proper introduction to the gun, a typical cocker takes to hunting quickly. These dogs do have a mischievous streak, though, so if you’re going to team up with a cocker a sense of humor helps. —T.D.
18. German Shorthaired Pointer
It’s no stretch to call the German shorthaired pointer America’s bird dog. Wherever there are birds in the United States, GSPs are there to point them. I’ve lost track of how many Iowa pheasants I’ve shot over my shorthairs and other people’s, and I’ve also followed shorthairs after ruffed grouse in Minnesota forests, chukars on Idaho ridges, and blue grouse in Utah mountains. On a bobwhite hunt in Texas, we rode in pickups after shorthairs that quartered to beeps of the truck’s horn. And GSPs can do more than hunt birds. A friend of mine takes his in a sneak boat to retrieve early-season ducks. My cousin used to hunt pheasants by day and raccoons by night with his shorthairs.
Biddable, versatile, easy to train, and excellent retrievers, shorthairs naturally work in range of hunters on foot. Their coats pick up no burrs, yet somehow keep the dogs warm on cold late-season hunts. Shorthairs carry a dignified and intelligent expression some interpret as aloof. While kenneled GSPs can be standoffish, if you raise a shorthair in the house you will have a friend for life. —P.B.
19. Redbone Hound
A redbone’s bark at night—when he’s at a tree, waiting for you to come—that’s a good sound, yes sir. It never gets old. This dog is born and bred to run and tree, and when a redbone opens on a track, within a few minutes, you’re going to be on a tree. I haven’t hunted with the other hound breeds, but what I hear is with some of the others, you might have six puppies before you ever get one that runs and trees like you want. A redbone, though, is going to run and tree and do a good job. This hunting dog breed train so easy and pick up on the hunting and tracking very fast.
I just love getting out and hunting with redbones—not so much the killing of the bear or the raccoons anymore as much as the pursuit and watching the dogs work. And I like watching them get better and better at what they do. My goal with each litter is to keep breeding a better dog. I’m still looking for the perfect hound.
And redbones are just wonderful companion dogs. They love to please, whether it’s in the trees or the backyard. They love to lie on the back porch or come in the house with you—and this won’t affect the dog’s tracking ability at all. People used to say you need to keep them in the kennels, but that’s not true. Your best hunting dog can be your best friend. —Wayne Campbell, owner of Timber Chopper Redbones
20. Jack Russell Terrier
I became intrigued by Jack Russells almost by accident. I wanted a working dog breed that was small and easy to keep around the house, and a friend suggested a JRT as a small dog with a large-dog personality. Someone brought a 10-week-old puppy to my office, and this dog was bold and outgoing. The pup came over to me and grabbed my pant cuff. I laughed and thought, This is the breed for me.
Jack Russells are bred primarily for pest control—getting rid of badgers, foxes, or raccoons—but this is a very versatile dog. Big-game hunters use them for blood-trailing deer and elk. I once met a PH from South Africa who used JRTs almost exclusively for trailing lions because he said it was the only breed that was brave enough to go face-to-face with a lion, and agile and fast enough to get away if the lion came after it. There was a time when I used JRTs on pheasant hunts. They were good at running up the corn rows to flush the birds—too good, actually. They’d run too far ahead and flush birds way, way out of range. For them, it was all just a tremendously fun game, so I stopped using them for that.
In a strange way, pest-control work with these dogs is fun. It’s certainly far from the traditional kind of hunting sport, but it’s still an old style of hunting. It’s quite satisfying to unlock the genetic code in the dog’s brain and watch it do what it was bred to do. Jack Russells have a tenacity that I just love. And they’re very sweet. —Mike Bilbo, owner of Rancho Fiasco
21. Plott Hound
Bob Parker sorted through the hounds in his pickup’s dog box until he found a graying old Plott named Danger. He coaxed Danger from the box and put a leash on her. We knew that somewhere above us two of Parker’s other dogs had treed a bear, but from our spot low on the ridge we couldn’t hear their baying through the thick Maine timber, and the mountains and heavy clouds kept us from pinpointing their position with GPS. We needed Danger to find them for us.
Plotts are one of America’s great hunting dog breeds. Their lineage can be traced back to Johannes George Plott, who emigrated from Germany to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina with a mix of German bloodhounds in the 1750s. The Plott family bred their dogs for decades, and eventually Plott hounds became famous for hunting bears and boars, and later on for running coons. Plotts come in a variety of colors, but all have a brindled, glossy coat. Today’s Plotts are athletic, medium-framed hounds best known for being able to sort out complicated scent trails over challenging terrain.
Our hunting party followed Danger, and two other dogs, up the mountain. We picked our way over deadfalls and mossy granite for an hour before Danger perked up her ears. We stopped to listen but heard nothing, so we kept climbing. After another 15 minutes, Danger zeroed in on the action and pulled hard against her lead—a 50-pound dog dragging a 250-pound man up a mountain. At last, we could hear the faints howls of the two redticks.
The dog handler let Danger loose and signaled for us to cut the other two dogs after her. The success of our hunt hung in the next moment: If Danger could lead the two younger dogs to the tree, they’d be able to hold the bear until we could move in for a shot. If Danger got on the wrong track, she’d likely lead the whole pack from the tree and allow the bear to escape. We stood and listened as the baying intensified. All five dogs were at the base of the tree. Barks and howls echoed across the mountaintop. Danger had done her job. —Alex Robinson