How do you choose among so many bird dog breeds? Well, the first step is thinking about your needs. What do you hunt? How often do you hunt? Will you train the dog yourself? Will a new dog be a family dog, too? How much room do you have for a bird dog, and how much time?
The bond between man and dog forms strongest when you and your dog share interests and inclinations. So, with that in mind, below are six types of hunters and the bird dog breeds that suit them best. Remember that these are generalizations. There can as much variation in temperament among dogs of the same breed as there are between breeds. And after you settle on a bird dog breed, then you have to study breeders. If you can see the sire and dam work, you’ll have a good idea what the puppy will be like. But first things first: here are some ideas for the best bird dog breeds for six different kinds of hunters.
Best Bird Dog for Traditionalists: English Setter
You hunt grouse during an all-too brief season and maybe pheasants or quail. You want a bird dog in the fall and a family dog the rest of the year. It may be, too, that you appreciate nice things like double guns and single malts, and you value tradition and aesthetics. An English setter looks as if it has stepped out of an old sporting print or off of a Field & Stream cover. Don’t let the dog’s good looks blind you to their hunting ability. They are much more than just a pretty face. English setters are good hunters, biddable, and easy to train. They are generally sweet-natured and good family dogs, too. The downside of setters is long white hair on everything and drool. Buckets of drool, if you have a jowly dog. It’s part of the price you pay for elegance in the field, and a first-rate bird dog.
Runner Up: English Pointer
If there’s a second bird dog in that sporting print or F&S cover, it’s probably an English pointer. Tall, lean, and hard-going, the pointer is thought to be a more durable dog than a setter. They have the reputation for being high-strung and aloof, which likely comes from so many being kept in kennels. Raise it with the family, and you will love it, and it will love you back.
Second Runner Up: English Springer Spaniel
If you want a traditional flusher, the Springer is for you. They make hard, happy hunters, and their stubby tails never stop. English springers flushed game for hounds, hawks, and hunters with nets more than five centuries ago, and they are among the oldest of bird dog breeds.
Best Bird Dog for the Practical Hunter: German Shorthaired Pointer
You want result, not frills. The last thing you want to do when get home is spend an hour deburring your bird dog. A German shorthairs—everybody but old-school hunters calls them “GSPs” now—is what you want. A shorthair has, well, short hair. Checking them for burrs takes about a minute and you won’t find any. Their short coats make them well suited to warmer weather, yet I have run my dogs on sub-zero days, and as long as they are dry and moving, they don’t mind the cold. Some shorthairs are plodding and style-less. Others hunt with a little more verve and flair, and they are very reliable on the trail of cripples.
The Hungarian version of the GSP is a little smaller, more of an upland specialist, and is covered with a striking short, reddish coat. They are good in the house and have watchdog instincts to go along with their top-notch bird hunting skills.
Best Dog for Hardcore Waterfowlers: Chesapeake Bay Retriever
You will hunt anything with webbed feet anywhere. When some people say they hunt ducks a lot, they don’t mean it like you mean it. You’re out almost every day of the season, all the way to last, frozen, ice-breaking mornings. Your dog should be tough, and you like things made in America. That would be the Chesapeake Bay retriever. English sportsmen discovered the St. John’s dog, developed as working breed for fishermen, and brought them home to cross with other breeds to make waterfowl retrievers. Legend has it that a ship bound for England and carrying a pair of St John’s water dogs, foundered off the Chesapeake. The dogs came ashore, and after some mixing with local dogs, a big, wavy-coated retriever was born. The Chesapeake Bay retriever was made for market hunters who might need a dog to pick up a hundred or more ducks in a night, then guard their bag until it could be sold.
Tough enough to fetch several limits of divers in big water and nasty weather, Chessies have a reputation as mean dogs, but it’s undeserved. They’re merely protective of their owners. Pro tip: if there is a Chessie standing between you and dead ducks on a tailgait, don’t touch them.
Runner Up: American Labrador Retriever
Labs come in two flavors: British and American. While both are excellent gun dogs and companions, the American Lab is stereotypically tougher and more driven than the more laid-back British Lab.
Best Bird Dog for Duck and Pheasant Hunters: British Labrador Retriever
You hit ponds for ducks, then switch to pheasants. Here, it can pay to go along with the crowd, because sometimes popular things are popular for very good reasons. And there are very good reasons why everyone loves the Labrador retriever, which consistently ranks as on of the top one or two dog breeds in the U.S.: it’s a retriever, flusher, family dog extraordinaire, and it can be trained to do anything. As noted, British Labs are calmer, more easy-going, and better suited to hunters who may not need a bird dog that can fetch limit after limit several days in a row.
Runner Up: Golden Retriever
You’ll have to look a little bit to find a Golden from good waterfowl-retrieving stock, but when you do, you’ll have a dog that can retrieve ducks, flush and fetch upland birds, and win paws-down at “family dog.”
Best Bird Dog for Do-It-All Hunters: Deutsch Drathaar
If something is in season, you’re hunting it. So while, yes, you want a bird dog, you also want more than that. Good looks and style don’t matter to you as much as finding the right tool for the job. Well, the Drahthaar is the tool for pretty much every job, a veritable Swiss Army knife of a dog, even if it is from Germany. German hunters not only hunt everything, they act as gamekeepers, too. They want a dog that can point birds, retrieve waterfowl, blood-trail deer, run boars, and control vermin.
Some hunters use drahts in very cold, big-water retrieving situations where their bristly coats keep them warm. Those same coats pick up very few burrs, too, and drahthaars are excellent pointing dogs, if more plodding than stylish in the field. Like most of the versatile, continental breeds, they possess mind-boggling tracking ability. It will hunt anything, anywhere. Drathaars can be aggressive around strangers and kids, and be sure to keep yours inside when the neighbors let their cat out.
The German wirehaired pointer is, depending on your point of view, either a refined or watered-down drahthaar. Despite its name, it’s an American invention, and better suited to hunters who want to primarily hunt upland birds and do some waterfowl hunting.
Runner Up: Wire-Haired Pointing Griffon
Essentially the French version of the drahthaar, the Griffon is a little shorter, with a longer coat and a softer temperament. I have talked to hunters from Michigan who will hunt grouse and woodcock with the Griffs one day and big-water divers on the Great Lakes the next.
Best Bird Dog for Apartment Dwellers: English Cocker Spaniel
If you’re an apartment dweller without much room to keep a bird dog, you might consider downsizing to a cocker spaniel. As the saying (sort of) goes, it’s not the size of the dog in the hunt, it’s the size of the hunt in the dog. That is definitely true of cockers, which average about 25 pounds and top out at 30. Find a cocker from hunting bloodlines, and you’ll have a compact dynamo that can flush birds and retrieve doves and ducks.
American cockers were victims of their own mass popularity in the U.S., and only a few U.S. breeders offer dogs that hunt. English cockers are a different story, as most of those are still bred for the field. They are energetic but close-working flushing dogs, as befits dogs originally meant for hunting woodcock in heavy cover. Also, if “cute” matters to you when it comes to bird dog breeds, the sight of a tiny dog with its mouth absolutely overflowing with a pheasant or a duck will put a smile on your face every time your cocker makes a retrieve.
Runner Up: French Brittany
Weighing in at 28 to 40 pounds, French Brittanies satisfy the need for a compact pointing dog. Legend has it they were bred to be small enough for poachers to hide them in their coats. That may or may not be true, but they won’t take up much room in your studio apartment or on the couch.