EIGHT OF THE MOST POPULAR HUNTING DOG BREEDS
Originally published in Great Hunting Lodges of North America by Paul Fersen
Copyright Rizzoli International
There’s no evidence of this, but common sense would tell you that more quail on Southern plantations have been shot over English pointers than any other breed. Most well-traveled bird hunters would agree and a born and bred Southern hunter would unflinchingly bet the family fortune on the fact. While a great bird dog in any situation, the English pointer, or just pointer, frozen on the edge of a stand of longleaf pines is an iconic visual in the minds of bird hunters and more than well represented in the pantheons of American sporting art.
The pointer is a pure athlete, beloved more for its single-minded tenacity and willingness to hunt than for its relationship skills, although it can be as loving as any dog. One pointer owner summed it up in these words.
“He comes to me for a pat on the head and then retires to his spot on the lawn to survey the landscape without the need for more. He knows I love him, he just doesn’t need for me to prove it all the time.”
Pointers are medium size dogs in the mid-twenty inch range in height with a long lean profile that truly speaks to their hunting ability. They are primarily white with liver, lemon, black, and or orange markings. The tail is long and when on point, generally points straight up into the air acting as a marker as it were.
There is no softness in a pointer, rather they have the cut look of a highly trained athlete, muscles rippling under a thin skin, and their performance in the field is proof. The pointer is a wide-ranging hunter who covers a great deal of ground, a highly prized trait when hunting large tracts of open land such as plantations or arid Western grasslands. Their remarkable tendency to freeze and hold birds for long periods of time allows the hunter to come long distances for the flush and the shot. While this is desirable in open land, it can prove a bit less advantageous in heavy cover where they may lock up and be hard to find, a problem easily solved with a beeper collar.
Hunting over a brace of well-bred and well-trained pointers is one of the great displays of realized genetic potential. At their best, when a bird, or covey of birds, is found by one dog, the second dog will freeze or “honor” the point of the first. In the case of an experienced brace of dogs, the second dog may go around and block the birds, locking up and facing his partner with the birds trapped in between.
While pointers are hunting machines, their genetic behavior is hyper-oriented to finding the bird, but very limited to chase and grab, thus their desire to retrieve is minimal. Once the bird is flushed and shot, their attention immediately returns to the hunt. There is little genetic interest beyond that, which is why in many cases retrievers are hunted with the pointers, as retrievers are genetically oriented to chase and grab. The pointer is a pure bird finding machine and for the hunter who desires to find the most birds, over the largest landscape, the pointer or English pointer is unrivaled in strength, endurance and genetic focus.
If ever there was a gun dog suited to the individual upland hunter, the Brittany or “Brit” certainly fits the bill. While there are as many opinions as there are hunters on the evolution of the Brittany, it originated in the French province from where it received its name and was brought to the United States in the early twentieth century. Originally called the Brittany spaniel, it does have many of the physical characteristics of the spaniels, but it is a pointer whereas the spaniels are all flushers. Somewhere in its evolution, perhaps in some crossings with setters, the desire to point, overrode the desire to chase and yet, it is fully willing to retrieve the downed bird, thus making it a wonderfully desirable dog for the single upland hunter.
Brittanys are not generally found in the kennels of large commercial hunting lodges. They are not physically designed to cover the kind of ground a pointer or setter can cover and they are not generally suited to a kennel as they are at being a member of the household. That being said, a Brittany is a resilient and sturdy dog that can handle the toughest hunting conditions and is willing to hunt long after the hunter is exhausted.
The Brittany is an excellent dog for the thick coverts of the northeastern United States from The Great Lakes to Maine in the pursuit of grouse and woodcock. They tolerate cold well and its smaller size allows it to push into thicker brush and deadfalls than a larger pointing breed could negotiate. They stand between 17 and 20 inches in height and are higher in the shoulders, their bodies sloping slightly back to shorter rear legs. They are generally white with orange or liver patches and have a medium length coat that is lightly feathered and the tail is docked to less than four inches.
Brittanys are not generally wide-ranging dogs, though there has been a move in some circles to breed larger, rangier Brits to cover more ground and participate in field trials, which require covering significantly more ground than the individual wingshooter would ever cover. The result is, there are within the breed, some Brittanys that are larger than their breed brothers. In searching for a Brittany, wingshooters may find a diversity in size and personality, those bred for field trials being perhaps more independent. Now some breeders are going back to the Brittany’s origins to find smaller dogs, more like the originals to try and maintain the breed’s original intent as a tenacious and close partner with the hunter. These are commonly known as French Brittanys and they are generally smaller than their recently developed American counterparts.
In either case, the Brittany is a remarkably good and affable companion. Their personality is such that they are willing partners, easier to train and are good dogs for a first-time owner trainer. While their hunting desire is unquestionable, they are not genetically single-minded, thus their ability to not only find birds, but retrieve them and then go home and take their place as an integral member of the family.
The Boykin spaniel is one of the great stories in American gun dog lore: a multi purpose spaniel breed that arose from one lone stray dog, found in front of a church in Spartanburg, South Carolina by Alexander White in the first decade of the twentieth century. It is one of the few purely American breeds and from that dog, eventually named “Dumpy,” sprang the Boykin breed that has become a popular spaniel in North America, particularly in the South and is in fact the South Carolina state dog.
The Boykin is named after Whit Boykin, a longtime sportsman and landowner near Camden, South Carolina and an avid breeder of dogs. Given Dumpy by his friend and hunting companion White, Boykin found the dog to be a willing hunter and retriever and using him as the foundation of the Boykin breed, introduced other breeds such as the Chesapeake, the springer, American water spaniel, and the cocker to create what was to become the breed we know today.
The Boykin is a sturdy spaniel type dog always in a dark liver or chocolate color between 15 and 18 inches in height and weighing about 30 to 40 pounds. They have a moderately curly medium length coat with light feathering. The tail is docked to 3 inches.
As the Boykin Society spells out, they are first and foremost a hunting dog, with proven flushing and retrieving abilities. The Boykin Society has interestingly enough, not affiliated itself with the AKC in the interest of maintaining the dogs’ genetic hunting excellence and not moving the breed into the show ring. It is a well-known fact that breeding for show or bench as opposed to breeding for hunting traits eventually takes the hunting desire right out of the dog. There are more than a few examples where hunting breeds have almost been destroyed in the interest of show quality breeding.
The Boykin has some specific traits that make it a favorite of hunters, and in particular Southern hunters. It is an excellent water retriever and made its name in the swamps of South Carolina hunting waterfowl from boats, where its diminutive size eliminated the risk of big dogs tipping over small boats such as canoes and punts that are used to get deep into the swamps and marshes. Boykins can be easily sent over the side and then picked up by the scruff on their return.
They are often used as wagon dogs on quail hunts, going after the downed birds and bringing them to the wagon while the pointers move on. They are excellent flushing dogs and are even used as turkey dogs, running through a flock of turkeys to break them up and then sitting quietly in the blind while the hunter calls them back in. It is reported that this was the reason for docking the tail, which was somewhat uncontrollable even if the dog was sitting still.
While Boykins can hunt in any climate, they are particularly suited to working for long periods of time in the heat of the early season dove fields in the South. They have excellent noses and flushing desire making them a good choice for singular upland hunters who want an affable companion with great desire and a multitude of talents. If ever there was a dog suited to the hunter who loved upland, waterfowl, dove hunting and fall turkey hunting, the Boykin is an excellent choice. Rarely do you find a dog whose genetic capabilities run across so many disciplines and do all of them so well. Unquestionably Dumpy was quite a find.
Leave it to the Germans to engineer a great dog. In the 19th century with the same typical Germanic precision in which they built machinery in the 20th, they used a combination of breeds such as the old Spanish pointer, German bird dog, hounds of St. Hubert and the foxhound. Later the English pointer was added in to increase speed and endurance. What they created was a rugged, well-disposed, all-purpose gun dog with the ability to point and retrieve, was a good companion, biddable, accepting and easy to train.
The German Shorthair is one of the most popular all-purpose hunters in North America. It is a medium large dog standing between 21 to 25 inches and weighing from 45 to 65 pounds depending on gender. It is solid liver, liver and white, liver ticked or patches, white ticked or liver roan, with the strong, lean look that certainly reflects its shared heritage with the English pointer. The skin is thicker and the coat rougher than the English and the tail is docked to about 40% of its normal length.
It is considered one of the continental breeds, or versatile breeds, or HPR (hunt, point, retrieve) breeds, depending on to whom you listen. The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association defines versatility as "the dog that is bred and trained to dependably hunt and point game, to retrieve on both land and water, and to track wounded game on both land and water." According to them all of these breeds were developed in Europe and there are no American breeds; perfect example, the German shorthair. What’s fascinating about this is the genetic accomplishment in developing this breed. Rather than highlight a trait such as the point, or the retrieve, and make it stronger, the necessity is to bring all the traits into the mix evenly. Push one too hard and the others diminish. The German shorthair is truly a remarkable feat of breeding engineering.
Are they as good at pointing as a setter or English pointer? Questionable, at least from style point of view. Are they as good on a long retrieve as a Labrador? Questionable. But do they perform these tasks well? Absolutely, and therefore for the hunter who desires a companion and hunting partner in a variety of enterprises, the German shorthair is as good as they come.
While there are a number of great flushing breeds that will retrieve, the German shorthair’s size, strength, pointing ability and willingness to retrieve make it a great choice for commercial guides, not to mention the weekender. They are easily incorporated into the family and while hunters are passionate about their dogs, German shorthair owners are seemingly more so. Given the fact their dog can do it all, it is not surprising.
If ever there was a dog that seems to strike a chord of perfection among dog owners, the Labrador seems to be the prime candidate. It has been the number one dog for registrations with the AKC for 19 years running and because of its good nose, desire to please, and pleasing physical traits, can be found in every canine arena from hunting to show, rescue, security, assistance and companion. Versatility thy name is Labrador.
The Labrador’s origins are from the St. John’s dogs of Newfoundland. The greater St John’s evolved into the Newfoundland, and the lesser St John’s evolved into the Labrador. Interestingly anyone who has been around both will tell you, their ability to swim, personalities, and devotion to their masters are similar.
The hunting Labradors were developed in England by the landed aristocracy whose sporting interests saw great potential in the biddable retriever. Their popularity grew immensely among the landed gentry and the breed flourished. In the early 20th century, waterfowl sportsmen in the United States brought Labradors into the country and the breed began its rise to prominence.
Perhaps the attraction of the Labrador is the aesthetically simple and pleasing nature of its appearance. There is beauty in simplicity. Combined with its nature, the question becomes how could one not like a Labrador, particularly given its desire to please and athletic abilities. The Labrador is a medium dog of between 21-24 inches and weighs between 55 and 75 pounds depending on gender. They are black, yellow, and chocolate in color, and they have a signature thick otter-like tail that acts like a rudder, and webbed feet that propel them through the water with ease. The double coat is smooth, water resistant and insulating, allowing them to deal with frigid waters.
For hunters, the Labrador is well-known for its fearless and relentless retrieving and is a staple in duck blinds all over North America. This relentless drive and desire to please also makes it a good upland flushing dog as they are genetically designed to chase and grab. A well-trained, hunting-bred Lab will quarter with the best of them and is an excellent pheasant dog with its ability to cover ground quickly.
There are two types of Labradors in this country, American Labradors and English Labradors. That being said, they both originated from the same bloodlines. What has happened is, American breeding over the past century has taken the Labrador in the direction of larger dog, a bit leaner and more athletic in nature to deal with the demands of American field trials. American breeders of the English Labrador, have gone back to the original foundation stock in England and imported sires and dams to bring back the type of Labrador that came here in the first place; a bit more compact with great game finding ability. It is no different than what French Brittany breeders are doing in going back to the breed origins.
In either case, the Labrador is the most popular dog in the United States. The fear is that popularity creates careless breeding based on demand for pets and inevitably the breed will suffer. Coupled with bench breeding for show, there are Labradors whose hunting genes have been diminished. The good news is, the Labrador is a very popular hunting dog and hunting breeders depend on maintaining superior hunting and physical genetics. Right now the ability to find a great working Labrador is good. As in any other breed, a good hunting dog invariably comes from good hunting genetics. A well-bred, well-trained Labrador is unquestionably one of the most desirable hunting companions a wingshooter could possibly desire.
Springer spaniels or at least their forebears are considered by some to be the oldest hunting dog breed on record. There is recorded history of spaniel types being brought to Britain by the Romans. There is enough history out there to fill volumes, each historian seemingly taking their own circuitous route to the present day dog, but the fact is, the English springer spaniel is the most popular of the hunting spaniels. Interestingly enough, springers and cockers originally came from the same litters, the smaller dogs being designated to hunt for woodcock and the larger springers used for larger game in the field. Inevitably cockers bred to cockers produced cockers and springers begat springers and the two breeds diverged. The springer breed we know today was recognized by the Kennel Club of England in 1902 and by the American Kennel Club in 1910.
There are two distinct types of springers; those bred for show and those bred for the field. While this is true in most hunting breeds, with the springer it is extremely noticeable. Stand the two next to each other and the difference is rather striking, because a great deal of the difference is in the most obvious feature, the coat. The show springer has a longer coat with more feathering and the darker colors of liver, black, and tan are more predominant. The field springer has more white and a much shorter coat, which is a good thing as the show springer’s coat in the field would be troublesome. The field springer is a bit smaller and more athletic with shorter ears than the show breed. In the case of the field-bred springer, this is a perfect case of breeding for practical use and purpose.
The springer gets its name from the act of “springing” or flushing game, originally for the falconer’s hawk and eventually for the shooter’s gun. They are tenacious in their pursuit of game and are considered by many to be the king of the pheasant field as they not only flush the bird, but are excellent trackers and retrievers. They are at home in the water and make excellent waterfowl retrievers, but are not terribly tolerant of excessive cold.
The springer is a medium small dog between 18 and 20 inches at the shoulder and weighing between 40 and 55 pounds depending on gender. They have docked tails and are great little athletes with a relentless buzz-saw mentality when working in front of a gun. Their size and tenacity make them great grouse and woodcock hunters, allowing them to push into tight quarters and heavy cover. A springer is an excellent hunting companion for the individual bird hunter who likes a close working companion in the pursuit of any game bird.
Since the Renaissance, these lovely dogs have worked as hunting partners and their images grace many an old estate’s sporting art collection. Combined with their excellent temperament and devotion to master it is little wonder they are the preeminent spaniel working the bird coverts of North America.
In the old days before shooting flying birds became popular, hunters used dogs and nets to capture birds for the table. The dogs would find the birds and “set” or crouch down while the hunter came up and threw his net over the birds. The dog could not flush the birds, thereby having the genetic desire to point. Falconers also valued these dogs. Once the birds were found, they cast their falcons to climb to the proper height before flushing the birds, allowing the falcon to position correctly to dive and kill the bird–thus the term “setters.”
The history of the modern English setter is traced to two Englishmen, Edward Laverack and R. L. Purcell Llewellin. Laverack developed the breed during the first half of the 19th century and Llewellin the second half. Both were devoted to breeding field-type setters and it is from Laverack bloodlines that Llewellin created his bloodline of Llewellin setters. Now it gets complicated. While the AKC does not recognize Llewellin setters as a breed apart from English setters, the Field Dog Stud Book of Chicago recognizes and registers Llewellins separately as long as their bloodlines are strictly from Lewellin’s Duke-Rhoebe-Laverack cross. Any other bloodline cross and they are registered as English setters.
The fact is, a good setter is a great and stylish pointing bird dog and has a soft and good-natured disposition. You often hear the term “gentleman’s gundog” when referring to the setter, as they are simply by their conformation more elegant than the rippling English pointer. The difference is that of a figure skater versus a hockey player. They are both extraordinary skaters, they just look different doing it.
Setters are classic grouse dogs and the sporting art world is full of pictures of setters in undeniable grouse coverts. One famous breeder states, “In terms of hunting ability, our yardstick is their ability to consistently handle ruffed grouse. A dog with the nose, brains, and talent to consistently handle grouse can learn the rest of the game birds relatively easily.”
The setter is a beautiful and graceful dog with heavy feathering on the legs and tail. They are medium large dogs between 23 and 27 inches at the shoulder and weighing 45 to as much as 80 pounds depending on gender. They are variable in color including white with blue, lemon, orange, or brown of various markings. The speckling on the coat can be light to heavy. Some dogs are tri-color (blue, white & brown).
Finding the proper setter for a hunter can be an interesting journey as they vary from big rangy dogs bred for hard-running field trials to smaller dogs much more suited to the individual hunter, yet there are larger (size) bloodlines perfectly suited to the gentleman hunter. The bloodlines are important and the breeders who value and protect these bloodlines are the key to the success of the English setter, be they Llewellin, Laverack, Ryman, DeCoverly and others.
Inevitably, a great English setter is a product of the blood as is any other good gundog. The beauty, grace and natural ability is there, the desire to please, the willingness to work, and great disposition, all these traits are the mark of a good setter. Take away one and you have a setter in name only.
CHESAPEAKE BAY RETRIEVERS
Chesapeakes are pure and simple, the ultimate waterfowl retriever. Their history along the Atlantic coast flyway is the stuff of legend. The Chessie is one of only four breeds developed in North America, but interestingly their roots come from the same origins as the Newfoundland and the Labrador, breeds ultimately developed in Great Britain. The breed can be traced to two specific St. John’s or Newfoundland dogs, depending on whose history you read.
In 1807 an English ship was foundering off the coast when its crew was rescued by the American ship Canton. On board were two St. John’s or Newfoundland pups, saved and purchased by one George Law of Maryland. The male pup Sailor, and the female Canton, became the foundation of the Chesapeake breed even though historically there is no evidence of them ever being bred together. Canton made her mark on the Gunpowder River and Sailor on the Eastern Shore.
The Chesapeake has a solid reputation as a working retriever of legendary strength and endurance, that reputation solidified in the market gunning days of the late 19th and early 20th century when market hunters, using large punt guns, slaughtered thousands of waterfowl for urban markets. They needed a retriever able to deal with unending work in often exceedingly harsh conditions and the Chesapeake proved to be the perfect working companion.
Bigger than the Labrador, more athletic than the Newfoundland, the Chesapeake is between 21 and 26 inches at the shoulder and can weigh up to 80 pounds or more depending on gender. The Chessie looks the part of a working dog with long legs and a powerful head with eyes set wide apart. The eyes are generally light in color, amber to yellow, a trait dating back to Sailor, and their coat is short, thick, and wavy with a distinctive oiliness that naturally sheds water and ice. Their color is generally brown, red, or tan.
The Chesapeake has remained true to its calling and has not changed a great deal from historical pictures of the early dogs. While they are well disposed and good-natured dogs, they have a reputation as being a bit hard-headed, but that is undeserved and probably comes from non-hunting pet owners. In the hands of a waterfowl hunter with a love and knowledge of the working retriever, hard-headed translates to focused desire and the Chesapeake is nothing else if not focused on retrieving and will go to extraordinary lengths to fulfill its mission. Another reason they are not as popular as the Labrador is they are not as sociable. While they are friendly enough, they have a reputation as a one-man dog and can be indifferent to others, which for a pet owning family is not optimum, but for a hunter is generally a most desirable trait.
For the hard-core waterfowler, it would be hard to find a more perfect breed than the Chesapeake. Hunting ducks and geese over frozen water, in sub-zero weather, a hunter needs a fearless and powerful dog with remarkable desire. The Chesapeake is the epitome of all these traits with a legendary history of retrieving through heavy seas, breaking ice, and working in conditions that would be intolerable if not deadly for any other breed. It is an American breed that seems to evoke that most American ideal of bigger, stronger and able to do what others cannot.