When it comes to gun dog breeds, there are a lot to choose from, but which kind is going to serve you best?
Asking “What are the best gun dog breeds?” is a hard question. It’s a little bit like asking “what’s the best car?”. The answer varies, and it depends on what you’re intending to use it for. As you know, there’s more than one kind of hunting and dogs have been bred for hundreds of years to be very good at aiding specific types of shooting. However, it’s not just the type of shooting that you plan on doing which may affect your gun dog choice. Gun dog breeds have been bred to have different characteristics which may make them favourable to one kind of shooter over another. What may be the perfect breed for one shooter, may not be the perfect breed for you, even if the shooting is the same.
There are a few different hunting / shooting sports that you’re able to take part in, but for the most part, they’re broken up into Driven, Rough Shooting or Wildfowling. Each sport is as unique and different as the last.
Best for Driven Shooting
In driven game shooting (often known as walked up shooting), beaters will walk through the moor, forest or field to flush the quarry toward the line of shooters, who are ready and waiting to pick off the flying birds.
Dogs used in these situations are known as “picking-up” dogs, because they quite literally pick up the quarrel after it’s been downed.
For this kind of work, there’s widely considered to be two main breeds: Labradors and Spaniels.
A Labrador is a skilled and efficient worker with great agility and stamina. They’re highly motivated and considered quite easy to train. The common phrase is that Labradors are “born half trained” as they’re a more docile, less frantic and considered a great “all-round” gun dog for intermediate and new hunters. This doesn’t mean that a Labrador is anywhere close to being “no work” to get a quality gun dog, they still require lots of effort.
To top it all off, Labradors are, as you’re already aware, great family dogs. Not all gun dog breeds are.
Spaniels are considered to be stronger “picking up” dogs than Labradors, but they’re a little harder to train and subsequently harder to control if not handled perfectly. Spaniels have a famed liveliness which can be difficult to tame if you’re not willing to put in the constant effort and training to produce a strong working dog?
Gun Dogs for Rough Shooting
Rough shooting is what most will consider to be a hunt. Less organisation and more using your nose. A rough shoot is more about using field craft, patience and your dog to track and bring down some game on the land that you have permission to shoot on, following where your canine, your nose and your experience takes you.
For this kind of shooting, you’ll need what’s referred to as an “HPR breed”. HPR means Hunt, Point and Retrieve, and literally describes the tasks which a dog needs to perform when in the field.
Spaniels are the common choice for this kind of work, be it springer or cocker, or the less common welsh or clumber. Spaniels are endless energy and can be difficult to train if you’re not ready for the commitment – you need to be prepared for this.
In return, you’’’ be rewarded with a hardworking, biddable working dog that can cut through some tough growth due to its size.
Alternatively, a common choice is a German Pointer, either short or wire haired. They’re much larger dogs than spaniels, and have a much larger hunting pattern, sometimes roaming hundreds of meters away before working back to the gun. They’re a strong a powerful breed and widely considered a good “all-round” gun dog.
Breeds for Wildfowling
Wildfowling is hunting for water birds whilst sitting motionless in a blind during dusk or dawn periods, waiting for water birds to begin coming in. It’s a much less organised sport than a driven shoot but the dog’s working abilities cover a similar range except in vastly different terrain.
The important thing to remember here is that this kind of shooting / hunting is a cold and wet affair. It usually takes place during the colder winter months, near or in water, when the sun is barely visible.
Due to this, the needs of the dog fall less on its skills and abilities (although those are important) and land on the dog’s hardiness – the dog’s ability to withstand the harsh elements and power through the difficult terrain.
Golden Retrievers are a common breed for wildfowling and waterfowling. They’re strong dependable breeds, with a good double coat for harsh conditions. They’re also infamously trainable and excellent family dogs at the end of the day.
Other breeds in this article are commonly used for wildfowling also, however many shooters like to stick to long or wirehaired breeds due to their increased resistance to the biting cold.