If you were to judge dog popularity by the movers and shakers in the upland world and their social media feeds, it would be forgivable to assume that most hunters spend their fall chasing chukars with bearded dogs. While there are definitely some versatile German breeds shouldering their way into the conversation for good reason, there’s still an undercurrent of hunting dog ownership in this country that is all about the retrievers. A lot of this has to do with geography, of course. Running a Lab in Idaho’s Hell’s Canyon, or a golden in Mearns’ country down in Arizona might not be the best idea, but for anyone looking to mix in some roosters, with ruffs, or ducks, and a maybe find a shed antler or three, it’s pretty tough to beat retrievers. Which breed, though, is best? That all depends on what you want out of your dog and what you’re willing to put in.
Following is a breakdown of five options to consider if you’re in the market for a new retriever.
The undisputed king of sporting dogs is the Lab. This breed is so popular that it’s common to hear folks talk down on them just to be contrarian, but the reality is they are tough to beat for family and hunting dogs. These days, the once-popular 100-pounders have given way to sleeker, smaller, purely athletic dogs that can carry a goose just fine, thank you. Given their history in Newfoundland working on fishing boats and with duck hunters, it’s no surprise they love water and are the go-to duck dog. But they’ve also got what it takes to hunt upland birds of just about any feather, and it’s a rare day indeed when you’ll hear about a Lab being aggressive with humans. Just like with all breeds, not all Labs are created equal, however. With their widespread popularity, you can find $400 pups all day long that might hunt at a glacial pace, if they hunt at all. Or you might pony up for a well-bred, health-guaranteed pup that’ll cost three times that much but will be worth 1,000 times that over his life. The best bet for getting a quality Lab is to ditch the shop-on-color mindset and go for a dog that has everything you need under the hood regardless of its paint job.
What Labs are now, goldens once were. Their aesthetics and super friendly nature, along with some pop-culture exposure, led them down a path of popularity and the unchecked breeding that goes with it, to the point where there is a buyer-beware mentality around the breed. Just like with Labs, cheap pups are everywhere, but in this case if you want one that isn’t a genetic time-bomb, you’ll pay up. Field-bred goldens aren’t cheap, but they are the smart athletes of the breed and they are worth every penny if you have to have a golden and you don’t want it to die six years too early. This do-anything-to-please-you breed is great in the uplands, wetlands, and around the kids. Just make sure you conduct your due diligence on breeding and ask to see the parents work. If you’re not confident with that process, enlist the help of a professional. Goldens are amazing dogs, but it’s very easy to get burned if you don’t know what you’re looking for. That advice comes from painful, personal experience.
Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
If there’s a hunting dog out there that has a bigger reputation for being stubborn and only working for one person than the Chessie, I’m not aware of it. But when you spend time around a good one, or chat with someone who specializes in training them, you realize much of the reputation is unwarranted. Their American-made history in the harsh environments of sea ducks and market hunting certainly bent this dog in a specific direction, but they are a great choice for anyone who wants a dog that won’t quit no matter how nasty the duck weather is. Although they don’t get much credit for it, they can be upland superstars as well, and more than a few whitetail junkies have turned them into great shed dogs. If you’re confident in your training abilities and have the time to devote to a Chessie, the end product can be as impressive as any breed out there.
The history of the flat-coated retriever is similar to many retrievers, all of which seem to share ancestry at a few key points within the last 200 years or so. In the early 1900s, this breed was the one to have for the sporting crowd, but it eventually fell out of favor to the point where its entire future was in doubt. Luckily, there were enough enthusiasts left to carefully breed the dogs back to the point where you can find one, but it’ll take some work to ensure you get the kind of dog you need (and want). This isn’t any testament to the capabilities of the breed, only the availability, which is somewhat limited. That means if you want an energetic, family friendly dog that not every weekend warrior owns, the flat-coated retriever is a great option, but you might find yourself on a waiting list before a suitable litter hits the ground. If you’re on the hunt for one of these dogs, pay attention to the health aspect because cancer and a few hereditary issues are prominent and should be avoided through bloodline research and working with a reputable, knowledgeable breeder.
If you want to see pure rage, approach a curly-coat owner and ask what kind of doodle they own. This breed comes from England where it was used for upland and waterfowl hunting, two tasks it’s ideally suited for to this day. They are known to be extremely loyal to their family, and willing to hunt just about anything, making them a great choice for the bird hunting generalist. With all harder-to-find breeds, if you decide this is the one for you, expect to put in some time finding the right litter. Familiarize yourself with what the dogs are supposed to look like in coat and eye color, and then start researching. These dogs possess a hard-working, independent streak that isn’t for everyone, but anyone looking for a thinker that will hunt from dark to dark and work its way right into the family would be well-served to consider the curly-coated retriever.