Gun dog trainers are an opinionated bunch, and rarely quiet with their opinions. I know that when it comes to training philosophies and what makes a good versus a great gun dog, I’ve been known to weigh in with conviction. But the topic that elicits the most animated opinions from gun dog folks is the best breed for the game. Ask anyone who has ever trained, hunted, or trialed a dog, and they will have a reason (rational or otherwise) why their preferred breed is the benchmark, and why all other breeds fall short. But when it comes down to brass tacks, the best dog for the individual, or the individual game, is a matter of personal taste. There is no true “better” between an English setter and an English pointer, although one breed may be better suited to a certain environment, or to a certain type of hunter. Context becomes important when we tread in the dangerous space of putting a hierarchy on dog breeds, which makes for a topic worthy of debate.
In the upland-flusher world, the debate over “which breed is better” typically pits the springer (sometimes cocker) against the Labrador. For certain, I am a springer man, and I always have been. That said, I’ve owned and trained and hunted a pile of Labs over the years, some of which performed exceptionally well in the context I placed them in. For a variety of reasons, though, springers have my heart, just as Labs command the love of more gun dog owners than any other breed. But where does the Lab make more sense than the springer, and why does the springer nearly always edge out the Lab for the type of hunting and training I do? Well, the answer is based in the physical mechanics of each breed, the prevalent genetic makeup, and the personal tastes that I’ve developed over a lifetime of hunting and trialing.
Let’s begin with the more emotional side of the debate. I grew up in a family of hunting-spaniel people, and I owned and trained my first springer when I was quite young. From the very start, I came to think of “gun dog” and “English springer spaniel” as synonymous terms, just as I came to believe that any tableau of an upland hunt required a springer or two, a double gun, and a grouse or a pheasant in hedgerow cover. Boyhood sentiments seem to stick; from the very start I saw springers in the uplands.
Comparing the Breeds
In comparing Labradors and springers, it is important to remember that the Labrador, in America anyway, has been refined to work more often as a retriever than a flusher. Similarly, the better bloodlines of springers have been selected, largely in the UK, to flush birds in front of the gun. Labradors are called Labrador retrievers because retrieving was the job they were designed to do. Certainly, some of those attributes that served a retriever well also suited an upland flusher, and therefore the transition from wetland to upland worked well for many a Labrador. But springers, though competent water dogs, are flushers first, and for what it’s worth, I’m an upland hunter first.
I have indicated above that Labs have been bred to retrieve, while springers have been bred to flush. But what does that mean in practical terms? Let’s look for a moment at the job description of a retriever. In the duck blind, a retriever is called upon to stay still and alert, and then take a hard, straight line to a fallen bird when commanded. A springer, however, is bred to quarter close before the gun, and to check back in with the handler, establishing a tight, zig-zagging pattern that covers the immediate ground within range of the gun. These two refinements in habit serve two different purposes, and to ask one dog to do the work of the other sets that dog at a disadvantage. That is not to say a springer cannot take a hard line on a long retrieve and accomplish that job, or that a Lab cannot learn to quarter and check in, flushing birds within gun range. But in neither case is the breed leveraging its innate characteristics to maximum effect. It is vital to note when innate traits are being overridden or modified to perform a task that is desired by the handler.
In general, Labs are longer and taller than English springers. By virtue of their height, their heads/noses are positioned farther from the ground than the head/nose of a springer, and they are more inclined to wind/air-scent a bird than trail ground scent. Springers, and cockers for that matter, are phenomenal trailing dogs. With a head positioned close to the ground over short legs, these dogs are able to acquire and follow ground scent with less effort than a Lab. As a grouse and pheasant hunter, I am often in pursuit of running game. The quicker my dog can acquire scent, trail, and flush game, the more likely I am to get a shot.
Similarly, a smaller, shorter dog (i.e. a springer) is better able to navigate the tangled hedgerows and thickets that I hunt in the Northeast. The smaller dogs are nimbler in getting under and through this thick cover. Labs, being taller and broader, are at a disadvantage in that cover—often getting tangled in the thick stuff.
Which Breed Best Suits Your Needs?
Labs are tough, all-day hunting dogs. They can go, go, go in tough country, especially mountain terrain, whereas a springer will wear itself out with its business. Labs often have more of a shut-off switch than springers, making them fine family dogs, and quite versatile. In the end, it is vital that we as hunters and handlers be honest with ourselves about what breed best serves the game we play, and what breed therefore should make it’s way into our kennel, and our life.
The above illustrates a key approach to determining which breed is best to suit your personal needs. If you want to hunt the full spectrum of upland and waterfowl, you likely need to decide in which environment/context you hope to focus your efforts. If you are a waterfowler who likes to hunt pheasants, get a Lab. If you are a pheasant hunter who likes to jump-shoot or sit on a pothole now and then, think about a springer. Let the dog’s intended purpose dictate its end use.