Dogs have been an essential part of our hunting since the dawn of humankind. And for a good reason: dogs can do lots of things better than us. They can run faster, pound for pound they are better fighters, and of course humans aren’t in the same league with dogs when it comes to the sense of smell. No wonder that many people who are considering taking up hunting also think about getting a dog to help them with it.
This blog will answer two most important questions for a beginning hunter: “Do I need a dog for hunting?” and “What breed should I get?”. But before we do it, let’s quickly go through what kinds of hunting dogs exist, and what functions they perform.
What Kinds of Hunting Dogs Exist?
Short answer: numerous. Humankind invented many ways to take advantage of canine nose, speed, stamina and fighting ability. The basic division is between bird dogs (pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers) and dogs used to hunt big game (hounds); some breeds have been created to do a specific job like driving foxes out of their holes, and indigenous dogs of Northern Eurasia can hunt any bird or mammal found in the taiga. Here are the major groups of hunting dog breeds:
Sighthounds are the canine equivalent of the cheetah. They run faster than the game (typically small mammals like hare or fox, but on some occasions even gazelles and wolves), catch up with it, and kill it on the spot or hold it in place until the hunter arrives. The English Greyhound, the Russian Borzoi and the Arabian Saluki all belong to sighthound breeds.
Scent hounds pursue animals that run away, following their tracks, and they usually give the hunter an idea of where they are by “giving voice” or “baying” – barking in simple terms. The animals can range from rabbit and hare to big game such as red stag, bear, mountain lion, and even leopards. For some types of hunting one or two hounds are enough, but mostly it’s a team effort, involving a pack of dogs. Beagle, Black-and-Tan, and Foxhound are examples of scent hound breeds.
Many birds and small mammals rely on hiding to avoid predators, and many predators, after they’ve smelled their prey, take a short pause to figure out how best to catch it. Hunting with pointing dogs evolved out of these trends. A pointing dog searches a wide area, and when it smells game, it stops a short distance away, showing that the bird is near with body language, and giving the hunter the time to approach and get the gun ready. All dogs with “Pointer” or “Setter” in their names belong to this group, along with breeds like Brittany Spaniel and Weimaraner.
Flushing dogs work in the same manner as the pointing dogs, only they try to make the bird flush instead of pointing it. The Springer Spaniel is the iconic example of a flusher. Even though flushing dogs work not farther than half a gunshot away from the hunter, and so can’t search an area as big as pointing dogs, they are extremely useful for hunting birds that prefer to escape by running, and many hunters describe hunting over flushers as “more dynamic”.
The job of a retriever, as the name suggests, is to find and fetch a bird or small mammal that was shot by the hunter. This is not an easy task, given that most game birds have protective coloring. That encouraged hunters to develop specialized breeds, such as Labrador or Golden Retriever.
Terriers and Dachshunds
Terriers were bred in Britain and Dachshunds in Germany for one specific purpose: to drive foxes and badgers out of their holes. This job requires a dog to be small enough to get in, but tough enough to fight the owner of the property. Today these breeds are seldom used for the intended purpose, but hunters have discovered that their enthusiasm and passion more than makes up for limited weight and height, while small size offers numerous advantages in keeping and transporting.
Nations inhabiting the boreal forest belt from Norway to Japan use various kinds of spitz-type dogs with pointed ears and bushy, tight-curled tails, such as Norwegian Elkhund, Finnish Bear Hound and various Laikas of Russia, to hunt everything that can be hunted in that habitat. Even the Japanese Akita was originally a hunting dog. The spitzes typically work by chasing the animal up a tree, or otherwise putting it at bay, and indicating its location by barking.
What Breed is Best for Hunting?
Short answer: The one that most suits your taste and the type of hunting you do. Since you probably don’t know yet what your hunting preferences are, it would be a good idea to visit a library or YouTube to find out more about various breeds of hunting dogs and what they do. Now let’s try to go a bit deeper into it.
One thing you don’t probably want is a breed that will require a total focus or an immersion into a half-dead art, such as hunting with sighthounds. A pack of hounds is a very efficient way to hunt big game, but keeping a pack is a full-time job. And heaven forbid you from getting into breeding and competing at field trials – these occupations, to quote a breeder and champion owner friend of mine, are “worse than heroin”.
What you, as a beginning hunter, should probably be looking for in your first hunting dog, is so to speak a hunter-companion. A dog that helps you out in hunting pursuits that might be even done without it. And does it by performing one or more of the following functions:
This is perhaps the most important function for most modern hunters in developed countries. Anyone can make a bad shot, your bullet or arrow may be deflected by a twig you had no chance of seeing, or the animal may move just as you were about to pull the trigger or release the arrow. It is a shame to just leave it there, dead or suffering from the wound, and with almost all outfitters an animal wounded and lost counts as harvested.
But while there are a few excellent trackers who can follow the blood spoor by tiny drops unnoticeable to most eyes, a dog’s nose can do the job much quicker and better. In some parts of the world, you’re simply not allowed to hunt big game if you don’t have a blood spoor trained dog at hand or within 24 hour’s reach.
If you have ever been duck hunting, you don’t need an explanation of why retriever. Even a stone-dead bird can fall into a place you can hardly access, and may be very difficult to find, especially one with protective coloring like Hungarian partridge or a mallard hen. A bird that’s only wounded is nearly impossible to find without a dog.
Almost any dog can be taught to fetch, but there’s a lot more in retrieving birds than a simple game of throw a stick. A perfect retriever should often suppress its instincts, and not only not run away with the bird, but also, for example, when going out of the water, not to put the bird down and shake itself dry, but first retrieve and then shake. On British driven bird hunts, for which most retriever breeds were bred, there’s plenty of people and other dogs, which requires the retriever to be calm, obedient, and non-aggressive. No wonder retrievers made themselves famous as family pets!
Small game hunting has been undeservedly neglected in the last decades. Of course, our brains are wired to prefer a bigger prize such as a whitetail or a boar, but small game hunting expands your hunting season, gives you extra opportunities to be outdoors, is better aligned for taking a child or your significant other along, and presents you with a priceless opportunity to sharpen your “general hunting” and woodcraft skills. And small game hunting with a dog is, in most instances, incomparably better than without.
Whether you want a pointing dog, a flushing dog, or even a small hound such as a beagle for snowshoe hares, depends on what your hunting grounds look like and what is available there. For example, an English Pointer is better aligned with finding a small bird like a quail over vast fields, and a closer working breed like a Springer Spaniel for hunting woodcock in thickets. However, your own hunting style, physical ability, etc., also play a part, and there’s a lot of flexibility in many breeds that allows them to adapt to various hunting scenarios.
How to Choose the Right Hunting Dog For Me?
Short answer: think which of the three main functions, that is, blood trailing, retrieving, and finding birds, is most important for the type of hunting you’re planning to do, then look at the breeds that appeal to you most, and find a match.
Bear in mind that, while specialized breeds, like Bavarian Mountain Hound for blood trailing, usually perform best in the specific task they were bred for, there’s a lot of flexibility in what hunting dogs can do. Of course, it wouldn’t be the brightest idea to send an English Pointer after a wounded wild boar into thorny bushes. But tiny Dachshunds make an excellent blood trailing dog, especially if you follow the spoor with the dog on the leash, rather than let it loose and hope it puts the animal at bay).
A retriever to be used for waterfowl hunting should be reasonably big, so that it doesn’t have a problem with big birds like geese or sandhill cranes, and also have enough hair for thermal insulation in cold water. A dog that retrieves doves and similar sized birds can be smaller and more agile. Flushers and pointing dogs from Continental Europe usually make better retrievers than pointing breeds from the UK, and German Shorthaired (Kurzhaar) and Wirehaired (Drahthaar) Pointers, especially from German breeders, come close to a universal hunting machine that points, retrieves, and works the blood spoor with equal efficiency.
Choice of a breeder is more important than choice of the breed. A pup that stems from generations of proven hunters is much more likely to become an excellent hunter itself than one that stems from generations of family pets. Get to know dog people from your area, and talk to them what dogs they use. A good place to meet them are dog shows, and especially field trials. There you meet not just any dog owners, but professionals who train their dogs not just to be OK, but to be the best.
I Already Have a Dog, Can I Use it for Hunting?
Short answer: probably not, but it’s worth trying. Even many of the originally hunting dogs, like Irish Setters or Golden Retrievers have been bred exclusively as companions for so long that the hunting drive has all but left them. On the other hand, many dogs, even of non-hunting breeds, if they are intelligent and eager enough, can be trained to work as blood trailers, retrievers, and flushers. One professional hunter from the United Kingdom I know used an Akita as a blood trailer and retriever. Your four-legged family can make you a good companion at hunting, too, but not necessarily will. If you’re serious about hunting, it’s better to select one of the specialized breeds.
It’s All About Training!
It doesn’t matter what breed you choose, and how many field champions are in your pup’s pedigree, if you don’t train it right, you’re likely to be disappointed. Retrieving seems to be a simple thing, but should a bird fall far away, it’s easy for the dog to be disoriented and start searching the wrong area. The dog should learn to follow your sound and hand signals and move over to the place where the bird actually is. For blood trailing, obedience, especially on the leash, is crucial, and there are many other important skills that a blood tracking dog should be taught.
Training is not a destination, it’s a process, and you’ll be training yourself as much as, if not more than, your dog. Start with general obedience and agility courses, move on to specific training for the game you’re after.
Do I Need a Hunting Dog?
Short answer: you don’t. Most modern hunting opportunities are aligned for a “dog-free” hunter. Moreover, a dog, like any pet, is a lifetime commitment that not everyone can afford – mostly in terms of time, attention, and affection, but the prices of dog food, vet bills, and training sessions may not fit every budget either. And even if you don’t have a dog, you still have options to hunt over other people’s dogs.
Many dog owners are only eager to enroll more people into hunting with their favorite breed. You shouldn’t count on an invitation straight away, for numerous reasons starting with safety: a careless shot is a grave danger for the dogs. But once you’ve broken the ice of initial mistrust, and are ready to pull your weight on a hunting trip, you may find yourself welcome for the ride.
A simpler, if somewhat more expensive, way of experiencing hunting over dogs is to book a guided hunt. On our online marketplace for hunting tours, BookYourHunt.com, there is a special category called “Walked up with dogs”. It’s found among “Hunting Methods”, and you can filter your choice by ticking the “Walked up with dogs” window on the search panel, and further refine your choice by adding a type of game to be pursuit (e.g. “Predators” or “Waterfowl”) or a concrete species (“Partridge”, “Black bear”), and a destination.