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The Complete Bird Dog Buyers Guide: Part 1 – Your New Puppy

Which breed meets your needs for your first—or next—gun dog?

The Complete Bird Dog Buyers Guide: Part 1 – Your New Puppy

From wide-ranging pointers to close-working flushers to marsh-busting retrievers and one-stop-shop versatile dogs, which is the best bird dog breed for you? Read on to find out! (Photo By: Steve Oehlenschlager)

The email sang a familiar refrain: he had an old bird dog, was looking for an “upgrade,” had seen my TV show, and wanted one just like mine. You may be at the same point in your hunting career (but saw the same TV show and definitely want something else). Or, you’re looking for your first gun dog and wondering what breed is right for you.

The short answer: Labrador Retriever. Any self-respecting Lab will want to please to the point he’ll do back flips for you. He’ll love you so much he won’t wander out of gun range. He’ll swim icy ponds, bust standing corn, and sit quietly in a blind most of the time, with minimal training. A better breed might be for sale in our dreams, but nowhere else.

Maybe you’re intrigued by a quivering, eye-bulging point, or something that looks a bit different, is a specialist, or an all-around dog. Many spend a lifetime searching for that one dog that will make us shoot better, look younger, and knows where 28-gauge ammo is for sale. Here’s a starting point.


Many of the more prevalent breeds got that way for good reason—they hunted well, attracting strong followings. German shorthairs came here after World War II with returning G.I.’s. English setters imported by grouse hunters earned positive publicity in sporting magazines. Demand begat supply. More recently, the internet exposed us to sushi, hip-hop, and “new” gun dog breeds.

I’ve gunned over, marshalled tests, hunted with, trained, and sat in pens with hundreds of dogs, and dozens of breeds. The one surety is any dog may not exhibit all the traits typical of their breed. Another is that every owner will shape its personality and performance. Luckily, most owners can’t bollix bushy eyebrows, beards, or flowing feathery tails (though some try). So, let’s go hunting for a new dog.


Wide-Open Country Breeds

Most prairie birds will cooperate for a pointing dog, holding until deliberately flushed. If you chase sharptail, Huns, valley, bobwhite, or Gambel’s quail, you’ll want pointing breeds that can be taught to hold staunch until the flush. They should also have some run in them for the vast rolling hills of the west, midwest prairies, and southwest deserts. German shorthaired pointers, English pointers, English setters, some German wirehaired pointers, Brittanys, vizslas, and pudelpointers will cover ground (sometimes, a lot of ground).

bird dog breeds
If you enjoy hunting open spaces, a big running pointing breed may suit you. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

The challenge with big country and pointers is the dang birds—they’ll often scoot out from under a point while you’re still 400 yards from the find. It’s a dilemma your dog solves by 1) creeping along or relocating to point again; 2) busting the birds while you’re still panting your way up the hill. Intense, regular training for a dog’s entire life can minimize the second problem. The first, I consider an art form. If you’re awestruck by a dog skidding into an eye-bulging point, the discipline and time required is worth all the heartache. If you’ve got a loft full of training pigeons, access to grounds, and four-times-a-week availability to work on steadiness, get one of these breeds, and exercise them daily.

Thick Stuff Breeds

If you pursue some bobs, woodcock, ruffies or other forest grouse, a closer-working dog might be best. A more deliberate hunting style, or slower paced, closer-ranging breed is ideal. Look at Wirehaired pointing griffons and some English setters bred for the grouse woods. Relax behind a Spinone Italiano. In NAVHDA tests, all breeds are expected to adjust their range to the cover, so any well-bred versatile breed could meet your needs.

Not willing to work on pointing? Genetically happy-go-lucky flushers are a good choice. There’s a size for everyone, your menu begins with methodical retrievers and ends with high-spirited cockers. There are hassle-free coats and grooming nightmares. Most will need training to work within gun range.

Bred for the Marsh Breeds

If you’re primarily a waterfowler, cold and wet come with the territory, and no dog will work at its best if he’s hypothermic. So, coat becomes important, water retrieving critical, and biddability a virtue (handled retrieves, blind manners). The Lab and Chesapeake Bay retriever were engineered for the tasks. Their double coat keeps them warm and relatively dry, their desire to please keeps them relatively still when ducks cup their wings, and after the shot—should they need direction. Boykin spaniels are pocket rockets bred to be lifted back into your canoe; Water spaniels are, well, bred for it.

bird dog breeds
Labradors and other retriever breeds remain high on the bird dog breed list. (Photo By: Mark Atwater)

Versatile breeds can retrieve in water, too. One of the first wirehairs I met was besting the Labs at an AKC retriever test, and a friend’s shorthair just ribboned at another. But they’re bred to point, and in my opinion the field is their stage. If I ever jump-shoot a duck, I can count on my wirehair to deliver, but I won’t make a habit of it (the hitting or the retrieving).

Crop Row Breeds

I’ve hunted with media moguls and governors, pro guides and old farmers, in standing corn and head-high CRP. They all shared one thing: Labradors. I’ve cursed skulking pheasants in eight states. I’ve watched a dozen dog breeds bust brush and come out the other side bruised and bleeding. If I lived in the Dakotas, I’d own a broad-shouldered Lab that could bulldoze through the impenetrable stalks. Conversely, a juking, jinking spaniel will put birds in the air and you can double them up in the dog crate!

Pointing breeds are out of their league. Birds run dog-losing distances. Years of steadiness training flies away like a cackling rooster after it outraces your shorthair. Opt instead for a close-working dog whose obsession is pushing up longtails in gun range.

bird dog breeds
Many of the versatile hunting dog breeds are recognized for their equal ability in the uplands and wetlands. (Photo By: Scott Linden)
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