Which Breed Of Dog Is Best For Bird Hunting?

Look through any book or magazine focused on wingshooting and you'll see images of bird hunters and bird dogs. For hundreds of years now, hunters and their dogs have headed into the field together.

Today, it's the classic way to chase grouse, woodcock, quail, or pheasant. But why? What's so special about bird dogs? And which breed may be best for you?

Do You Need A Dog?

While wingshooting and bird dogs go together like ketchup and hot dogs, you can hunt some species—like ruffed grouse and woodcock—-without a canine. But the experience probably isn't as productive. That's because good bird dogs offer hunters several key benefits.

  • They find game: Of course, this is a bird dog's number one job—and the number one reason to own one. While you can find birds on your own, a good bird dog will find more thanks to their nose and their ability to cover far more ground.
  • They pin or flush running birds: When faced with danger, most game birds run rather than fly. If you're hunting without a dog, many birds will dash away before you know they're there. A good pointer will find and track running birds until he pins and points them. Flushing dogs catch up to running birds and push them into the sky.
  • They retrieve downed birds: One of the greatest disappearing acts you'll ever see is when you shoot a pheasant, run to pick it up, and discover it's absolutely nowhere to be found—even after you spend 30 minutes looking for it. With their noses, dogs can track down these magic birds and make sure they appear in your game bag.

What Is A "Bird Dog"?

Humans and dogs have lived together for thousands of years. In that time, we've bred them for all kinds of characteristics. While you can take any dog into the field, ones bred to hunt birds have certain traits and abilities. According to these traits and abilities, bird dogs can be categorized into three groups:

  • Pointers: The classic companions for the upland hunter. Pointers range out in front of you anywhere from 40 yards to 400+ yards. When they scent game, they lock into a "point" with their bodies taut, their tails erect, and their heads aimed towards the bird. It's the hunter's job to move past the dog and flush the game into the air. After the shot, most pointing dogs will retrieve downed birds. Pointing breeds include Pointers (a.k.a. English pointers), English setters, German Shorthair Pointers, Wirehaired Pointing Griffons, and Brittany spaniels.
  • Flushers: Compared to pointers, flushing dogs hunt closer (usually within 20-30 yards) and when they smell game, they charge forward and push the bird into the air. If you shoot and the bird goes down, a flushing dog will retrieve it. Flushing breeds include Springer spaniels, Cocker spaniels, American Water Spaniels, and Boykin spaniels.
  • Retrievers: While they're traditionally used for waterfowl, many people now use retrievers to hunt upland game. Most flush birds, but some Labradors have been bred to point game. All these dogs retrieve downed game. Retrievers include Labradors and Chesapeake Bays.

Buying A Bird Dog

As you start your search for a bird dog, it's important to match the dog's abilities to who you are as a bird hunter. To help you do this, here are some questions to ask yourself and things to consider:

  • How do you hunt? Do you like to stroll through the woods, along the edges of fields, or down old logging roads? Or are you a brush buster who likes to crash through the thick stuff? When you hunt with pointing dogs, they do most the work for you by casting out and searching birdy looking areas. Your job is to keep track of their location. When they go on you point, you go find them and move in to flush the birds and shoot. Flushers require a lot more effort from you. When you hunt with them, you need to stay close to your dog at all times. Their job is to push birds into the air. This can happen at any time and with little warning, so you need to always be in position to take a shot.
  • What do you hunt? A dog that's ideal for woodcock may not be right for pheasants. And if you hunt a mix of upland birds and waterfowl, you'll want a dog that's good in the woods and the water.
  • Where do you hunt? Be sure your dog is built to handle the terrain you hunt most often. A big, fast pointing dog that excels in the wide-open spaces of Montana and Texas may not be right for the little pocket covers found throughout New England.

Consider Several Breeds

Once you've done the above and decided on the type of bird dog you want (pointer, flusher, or retriever), the next thing to do is consider a few breeds in that category. For example: If you want a flusher, take a look at Springer spaniels and Cocker spaniels. If you're leaning towards a pointing dog, check out English setters, English pointers and Brittany spaniels.

With a little searching online, you can track down breeders who raise these dogs. Contact them for more information. If a breeder is close by, go see their dogs for yourself. You can also go online to see if there are any field trials or hunt tests nearby featuring the type of dogs you're interested in.

The more you know and the more you see, the more you'll understand about what sets different breeds apart and makes them special. When it comes time to make your final decision, you'll end up with the best bird dog for you.