Having problems trying to decide which sporting breed is the right one for you? Then perhaps what you really need to do is ask yourself some questions, and even more importantly, answer them honestly.
The first, and probably the most essential question is: Are you primarily a waterfowl or an upland bird hunter? If you hunt pheasants on opening weekend, but spend every other minute of your leisure time in the fall chasing ducks and geese, the best dog for you is one of the retriever breeds. If you wouldn’t be caught dead freezing to death in a marsh, but you’d walk barefoot through broken glass to hunt pheasants, quail, grouse or other upland birds, then you should be looking long and hard at pointing breeds and spaniels.
If you spend about the same amount of time hunting both, you need to decide which is more important to you. Most retrievers are also decent upland hunting dogs and most spaniels will make water retrieves, provided the water and the ambient air temperatures are not bone-rattling, tooth-shaking cold. Some of the continental pointing breeds, particularly the longer-haired ones, like German wirehaired pointers, German longhaired pointers, wirehaired pointing griffons, Spinone Italianos and Large Munsterlanders, are also reasonably happy about doing water retrieves. But, keep in mind, that is not their primary purpose in life. (Yes, yes, I know all about your shorthair or your Brittany that will knock aside small icebergs to retrieve ducks or even Canadensis maxima in weather that would make an Eskimo think twice about going outdoors. However, every Brit I ever owned, when it came to going through water to fetch any bird, possessed the attitude of “Let the Chessies do it” and a friend’s Irish setters clearly feel the same way.)
There is also a question of aesthetics and style. We have killed a LOT of upland birds over my Chesapeakes but in absolute candor, hunting upland birds over the retrievers seldom provides the kind of adrenaline rush that comes when you see a dog solidly frozen on point and another dog, equally rigid, backing that point. As for hunting style, it would be difficult to find anything prettier than a setter with good conformation hunting upland birds as they seem to just flow through a field.
I also can’t say that I’ve ever felt the same aesthetic pleasure hunting upland birds with spaniels as I have with pointing breeds. Spaniels are fine dogs that do a good, workmanlike job of hunting upland birds and they have the advantage of being smaller than most pointing and retrieving breeds plus they’ll hunt waterfowl for you and do a decent job, at least early in the season. But being something of a purist, to me nothing beats the classic beauty and style of the pointing breeds when it comes to hunting upland birds.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t hunt ducks and geese with anything except a retriever and if you are primarily a goose hunter (like me), in my opinion the only breed to have at your side—particularly if you frequently hunt geese over water—is a Chesapeake. However, as I said, I’m a bit of a purist and admittedly a biased purist at that.
What’s your temperament? If you are a “control freak,” you need either a Labrador, a golden retriever or one of the flushing spaniel breeds, except possibly a Clumber or an Airedale, now that the AKC has admitted the Airedale into the spaniel hunt test program. Absolutely no question about it.
The other retriever breeds have a streak of independence that ranges from significant (flat-coats, standard poodles, Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers) to a mile wide (Chesapeakes, curly-coats, Irish water spaniels.) All of the pointing breeds are famous for having independent streaks that are Grand Canyon-esque in size although some of my Brittany-owning friends say that the French Brittany is a bit less independent than the strictly American Brit.
I know several people who hunt with Clumber spaniels or Airedales and when you ask them about training the breeds, they immediately say that Clumbers and Airedales would put even the most recalcitrant mule to shame in the stubbornness department. But this attitude of independence, or in the case of Clumbers and Airedales, stubbornness, is an essential part of the breed’s character. It’s part of what makes them a curly or a Brit or a Clumber so don’t purchase one of these independent-thinking breeds and think you’ll be able to turn the dog into a mindless robot. If you have to have absolute control over all your dog’s actions, do these independent-minded breeds and yourself a favor. Get a breed that is happy to live with and accept that kind of total control.
What’s your lifestyle during the off-season? Most sporting breeds require at least 30 minutes or more a day of significant exercise. Does your work schedule or your personal motivation give you the necessary time or impetus to provide this much activity for your dog? There aren’t many that are content being couch potatoes during the time when hunting seasons are closed. So if you are working 16-hour days or your idea of a workout in the off season consists of climbing onto a high bar stool and bending an elbow, you probably need to look long and hard at getting one of the more laid-back spaniel breeds or possibly a golden as many of these dogs are perfectly happy to spend the off season cuddling on the sofa with you.
What are your living conditions and what can you afford? If you are living in an apartment, a dog that’s going to mature in the 60- to 90-pound range is not the breed for your household unless you have an unusually LARGE apartment. If you live in a house, do you have a backyard with enough size so a bigger dog could get some exercise in it? Are there areas nearby (dog parks, open fields) where you and the dog can go to get rid of some of their excess energy? If not, you probably should be looking at breeds that do not require such high levels of physical activity or so much space.
Large breeds also eat significantly more than smaller dogs, which means the dog food bill will be substantially higher. At the price of dog food these days, that can amount to a fair amount of money during the course of a year of dog feeding and depending upon your income, may be a serious consideration.
Do you have any family concerns? Do you, any of your kids or your spouse have issues with allergies? Among the hunting dog breeds, Airedales, standard poodles and Irish water spaniels seem to generate the least number of allergic reactions. Be wary of the hypo-allergenic qualities claimed for “designer dogs” such as Labradoodles, however, as only one of the parents is contributing this positive to the pup’s genetic mix and pups within the same litter vary in their genetic make-up.
How does your family feel about dog grooming? If daily brushing, mat removal and other necessary grooming activities that are part of owning a long-haired hunting dog are an anathema to you, your spouse or any of the kids, you better get a short-haired breed that doesn’t require much more than a bath once in awhile. There are some breeds such as those with oily coats like water spaniels, Chesapeakes and curly-coats that may not smell like fresh blooming lilacs when they get wet so if you have family members who gag at the first whiff of an apple that is only beginning to turn bad, dog odor is definitely a consideration.
If your household is populated by small children, you need to keep in mind that large dogs are not always aware of where their hindquarters or their tails may be and little ones can be sent flying by a pivoting dog or lashed across the face by a wagging tail. Being “tail-whipped” across the legs is painful for an adult so it is not hard to imagine what it would be like for a small child getting a tail across his or her face. There are also some breeds that typically are not really good with small children.
Breeds generally considered “kid-friendly” are beagles, bassets, Boykin spaniels, cockers, curly-coats, the four setter breeds—English, Gordon, Irish, Red and White— field spaniels, flat-coats, German shorthaired pointers, goldens, Labradors, tollers, pointers, Spinoni, Sussex spaniels and wirehaired pointing griffons. But again, you need to keep in mind the size of the dog vis-a-vis the size of the kid and also that temperament can vary even among those breeds considered most suitable for living with small children.
So, those are the questions you need to answer before you write the check for a puppy of any breed. If a breed isn’t adept at your type of hunting or doesn’t fit well with your lifestyle or your temperament or may create health issues or “caring for the dog” issues in your household, you owe it to the puppy, your family and yourself to look for something that does mesh better with all the “parties to this arrangement.”