February 10, 2020
Ask 10 bird dog owners which breed is best for a first-time owner, and you’ll likely get 20 different answers.
Breed loyalty and personal experience are powerful influences. There are dozens of terrific breeds—some better known than others. Many of the lesser-known breeds such as the Braque D’Auvergne or the Large Munsterlander would be wonderful for first-timers, but because they have relatively few breeders in this country, finding them—and learning about them—can be difficult.
Another challenge is separating show-ring lines from hunting lines. All things considered, picking a breed is part investigative research, part psychological profiling, and a touch of beauty contest. A little mental homework makes it easier.
First, consider what type of hunting you do and where you do it. Pointing and flushing breeds are designed for upland bird hunting, but if you plan on adding in some waterfowl work, the retrievers and versatile dogs (bred for hunting on land and water) should be top picks. Think about the birds, terrain, cover, and climate.
Small flushers like English cockers and Boykin spaniels are terrific for rooting bobwhites out of scrubby brush. Dense-coated dogs like Chesapeake Bay retrievers and German wirehairs thrive in wintry pheasant uplands. Big-ranging pointers and German shorthairs work well for chukar hunters in vast, mountainous terrain. Even within a breed, where a dog is bred and for what type of hunting can vary. For example, Northern setter breeds bound for the ruffed grouse woods are apt to hunt more closely than Southern setters from field-trial lines. Try to get a dog from a breeder who lives and hunts in the habitat you plan to hunt in.
Second, give some thought to temperament—yours is as important as your pup’s. Are you patient and relaxed, or athletic and gung-ho? Do you prefer an independent or simpatico? A “softer” dog, or one that can take a strong e-collar correction? First-timers especially should look for a breed and the lines within that breed that were developed for a balance of sociable temperament and hunting strengths, what’s known as the “on-off switch”—a high hunting drive that turns on when summoned but off when it’s time to curl up by the fire.
Third, visualize the two of you working a covert together, and celebrating a downed bird. In general, the look of a breed must capture your imagination. Assuming your puppy has no physical shortcomings, what the specific dog will look like aesthetically—the pattern of its spots, a white blaze, darker eyes—is one of the least important aspects of its breeding. Great hunting dogs come from breeders who select for a balanced genetic infusion of attributes that serve the hunter such as drive, nose, desire, conformation, biddability, and stamina. Apply those criteria, and it’s time to consider top breed choices. For starters, in no particular order or ranking, here are six breeds with hunting styles and temperaments that would be a good fit for beginner bird dog owners.
The Lab’s constant ranking at the top of the popularity charts is well deserved. An excellent first-timer’s choice, Labs are friendly, biddable, sturdy, playful, and forever in search of a pot roast. Lab puppies are full of energy that can be easily channeled into both field and water training. They are eager learners and reliable hunting partners at a notably young age. Grown up, their mellow side and gentle disposition make them a number-one family companion.
As hunters, both American and British Labs are excellent flushers and retrievers. They work at a moderate pace within range of the gun. In the uplands, most Labs’ “birdy” tail signals scent, alerting hunters to the bird’s presence. British Labs are wider, with fuller chests, thicker necks, and shorter legs, giving them a somewhat slower pace and closer range. American Labs are slimmer and faster, with longer legs and an athletically agile build. Breeders’ consensus is that the British Labs are calmer and quieter compared to their American counterparts’ higher drive and activity level. With that in mind, the British Lab gets a few more points on the best-for-beginners’ scorecard.
German Shorthaired Pointer
German shorthairs are the most popular breed in the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, and arguably the most popular versatile breed in the United States and Europe. Their snazzy point, versatile hunting skills, and sense of humor quickly capture their owners’ hearts in the field and around the house. Most shorthairs’ point develops early, as does their affinity for water. Eager to work, they can learn steadiness, quartering, retrieving, and range control at a young age, honing a full set of natural instincts and talents. An important advantage for the first-time trainer is that most shorthairs have remarkable resilience and can handle corrections and training mistakes without breaking down. They are not “hard” dogs, however. Their mental stability lets them adapt to a variety of training approaches.
At home, German shorthairs are sociable, affectionate, and low maintenance in the grooming department. Their high energy level makes them ideal for a family with an outdoors lifestyle, or one with children who love to play with dogs.
English Springer Spaniel
Flushing dogs generally need less training than the multi-tasking, versatile pointers, and the medium-sized, medium-paced Springer is often cited as a great choice for a first dog. Springers are eager-to-please flushers and retrievers. They are animated hunters with easy-to-read body language, another plus for new handlers learning how to determine if their dog is freely searching, working scent, getting close to game, etc. Springers are solid dogs, designed to bust through thick cover and quarter diligently. They excel as pheasant dogs, and do equally well in the grouse woods. Most Springers need range control, but they are willing students and learn quickly.
Field-bred English springers are happy, active, even-tempered family dogs. Compared to bench springers—those bred for the show ring—field springers have shorter, lighter coats that require less after-hunt grooming.
Beginning bird hunters wanting a smaller canine package will find the compact, exuberant, English cocker an excellent option. They are well-suited to smaller living quarters, efficient transport, and easier hands-on handling. Cockers are less likely to quarter than some of the other flushing breeds—more likely to penetrate seeking objectives. As retrievers, they are tenacious when pushing through dense brush. In training, cockers are somewhat soft, which makes them a good choice for first-timers who prefer taking a gentle, low-pressure approach.
The breed is generally referred to as having a medium energy level, but most field cockers show an enthusiasm that pushes the meter a little higher. Above all, cockers work with what can be described as no less than pure happiness—their tails and legs a blur. They are delightful family companions. Field cockers are bred specifically for hunting, so breeders with purposefully developed field lines should be sought. Compared to show-ring cockers, field-bred cockers are usually a bit taller and heavier boned, more readily showing athletic muscle tone.
First-time owners envisioning a classic upland dog will be pleased by the English setter’s graceful movement and elegance on point. This is the upland breed most guaranteed to capture the heart of hunters who relish tradition. Their adaptable range and patterning make English setters a strong working choice for woodlands, grasslands, or scrub. Their intelligent search is paired with an iconic point marked by a feathered tail straight out, or at 12 o’clock.
Whereas some English setter puppies sight point at an early age, the consensus is that the breed matures at a gentle rate. Hunters new to bird dog training and favoring temperate handling will have their patience rewarded as the setter’s natural instincts emerge at their own pace. English setters don’t do well as outside kennel dogs; they are affectionate family members, playful and sweet with strangers and children.
German Wirehaired Pointer
Impressively rugged, the German wirehair would be a top pick for hunters looking for a pointing dog that can double as a skilled waterfowl retriever. Wirehairs perform equally well in their upland search and point, tracking, and retrieving on land or water, especially in cooler climates. Their point lacks the elegance of German shorthairs or English pointers, presenting a powerful solidity instead. Wirehairs can be intense, yet they display an extraordinary amount of cooperation. They are very quick learners, even as very young puppies. Like German shorthairs, they are rarely “soft” dogs, meaning novice trainers can make mistakes and the dog will easily recover and relearn.
Most wirehairs love people and make excellent, loyal companions. First-time owners looking for a one-on-one hunting partner will like the wirehair’s devotion and robust work ethic. Despite their high drive, wirehairs tend to be level-headed and seldom hyper.
Figuring out which bird dog breed matches your mindset is an exciting contemplation of who you are as a bird hunter. You and your pup will become a team, sharing adventures both at home and afield.