The Ultimate Guide to Hunting Dogs

How to Pick Your Next Hunting Dog

Are you trying to find the right type of dog to take hunting? As with finding the right rifle for hunting, it helps to compare your options. Some dogs offer no real benefit when hunting while others can carry out a wide range of helpful tasks.

If you want to learn how to pick your next hunting dog, there are several details to pay attention to. You need to consider the type of animal that you’re hunting, the types of hunting dog breeds, and the environment.

Here’s what you should know before choosing your next hunting dog.

What Are the Different Types of Hunting Dog Breeds?

Hunting dog breeds are divided into categories based on their inherited traits. Most breeds are considered hounds or gun dogs. 

Hounds typically detect, chase, and kill prey. They are also useful for picking up trails. For example, you may use a hound to follow the trail of a wounded animal so you can finish it off. 

Hounds are often separated into two groups – sight hounds and scent hounds. 

Sight hounds, such as the Greyhound and Irish wolfhound, have keen eyesight. They can detect prey from a distance and then stalk it before giving chase. Hunters often use sight hounds to pursue fast animals, such as deer.

Scent hounds also track animals but rely on their sense of smell instead of their eyesight. Breeds in this category include basset hounds, beagles, dachshunds, bloodhounds, and the American foxhound.

Gun Dogs Include a Wide Variety of Breeds

The role of the gun dog is more ambiguous compared to hounds, as these dogs are used for a variety of reasons, from retrieving animals to helping to flush them out of their hiding spots. Breeds in the gun dog group are divided into several subcategories:

  • Retrievers
  • Pointers
  • Setters
  • Spaniels
  • Water dogs
  • Terriers
  • Feists

Each subcategory has distinct advantages and uses in the field. A retriever retrieves prey while a pointer points to the prey.

Retrievers

Retrievers are skilled at bringing birds back after you shoot them down. With training, a retriever can patiently watch as you shoot birds for a few hours and then bring each of them back when you’re done hunting.

Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers are the most well-known breeds in this category. Both breeds are exceptionally smart, loyal, and great family dogs.

Pointers

Pointers instinctively point with their muzzle when they spot prey, instead of running after it or immediately barking. However, you typically need to train your pointer not to bark. 

Some pointers are also good at retrieving. Unlike a typical retriever, the pointer cannot memorize the location of dozens of birds, but it can retrieve a single animal at a time.

Setters

Most breeds of setters come from England, where they were bred to help flush birds out of the field so hunters could take their shots. 

Setters help set up the shot. When they spot the birds, they point and wait for your command to flush them out. This gives you time to ready your rifle or shotgun.

Spaniels

Spaniels are another choice for helping to flush prey out into the open. As with setters, spaniels spot the prey and wait for your command to flush them. Some breeds are also useful for retrieving. For example, water spaniels can typically retrieve waterfowl.

Popular choices in this category include the American water spaniel, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, and the English cocker spaniel.

Water Dogs

Water dogs and water spaniels can help flush and retrieve waterfowl. However, most water dogs are part of the retriever hunting dog group instead of the spaniels. Examples include the golden retriever, Labrador retriever, the Italian water dog, and the Spanish water dog.

Terriers

The terrier group includes various small-sized and medium-sized dogs. These dogs are often used for hunting small animals, such as rabbits and squirrels. 

Unlike some of the other breeds, terriers don’t wait for you to shoot the prey. They locate it and chase after it. Depending on the animal and breed, they may corner the animal or try to kill it.

Feists

Feists tend to hunt in packs. They are small dogs, such as the rat terrier, and have a strong sense of smell and keen eyesight. They locate the prey and then bark relentlessly. 

The original feists were developed from a crossbreed of British fell terriers and Native American dogs. A pack of feists can help you locate fast prey, such as squirrels or rabbits.

What Characteristics Should You Look for in Hunting Dogs?

No matter the breed or the type of animals that you hunt, there are several characteristics that your new hunting dog should possess:

  • Trainability
  • Stamina
  • Courage

Training a dog for hunting takes a lot of work and some breeds make the process a little more difficult. 

For example, I’ve found that dachshunds, beagles, and some of the smaller terrier breeds are notoriously stubborn and require more work. Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and poodles are among the easiest to train.

Another useful trait is stamina, especially if your hunting dog needs to follow a trail or chase animals for extended periods. Retrievers, setters, and pointers all possess tremendous endurance. 

If you plan on hunting large animals, such as wild boar or bear, you need a courageous dog. The Karelian bear dog, Plott hounds, and English coon hounds tend to have the fearlessness needed for taking on big animals.

Last Thoughts on How to Pick Your Next Hunting Dog

My main recommendation is to focus on picking the right litter instead of picking the right puppy from a litter. It is difficult to evaluate the temperament of a puppy during a couple of short visits. Your new dog’s personality will come out over the first year.

To ensure that you make the right pick, I suggest you choose a breed based on your needs. Focus on the breed-specific traits discussed. Choose a retriever to retrieve shot birds or a water dog to hunt waterfowl.

Along with breed-specific traits, you should choose a litter based on the breeder. Always choose a breeder with a reputation for breeding healthy puppies. If you follow these tips, you should have no problem finding the right hunting dog.

Best Overall Hunting Dogs

The sport of hunting is a little easier and more enjoyable with the right breed of dog by your side. For thousands of years, humans have relied on their canine companions to track or capture animals.

Dog breeds have changed a lot since the early days of hunting. Some breeds were specifically bred to improve their ability to sniff out prey or retrieve kills. Others were bred as family pets.

To help you find the right hunting companion, I’ve compiled a list of the best overall hunting dogs along with some tips for comparing breeds.

Beagle

The beagle is a classic choice for hunting. These dogs are small but they have endless energy.

Beagles are playful, intelligent, and known for their distinct howl. They also have a keen sense of smell, allowing them to track scents for hours. Due to their energy level, they require a little more patience during training.

Hunting Dog

Bloodhound

The bloodhound is another popular hunting dog that is often used for tracking. People associate bloodhounds with a superior sense of smell.

These dogs can pick up the scent of an animal that passed through the area days before. In fact, bloodhounds are so good at tracking that law enforcement agencies frequently use this breed for tracking criminals.

Bloodhound hunting dog

Labrador Retriever

Labs have become a top choice for hunting due to their versatility. Labrador retrievers are often easy to train, athletic, and more likely to have the right temperament for hunting.

When looking for hunting dogs, I discovered that labs are known for their “soft bite”. They can hold small prey in their mouth without damaging the animal.

Labrador Retriever

Pointer

Pointers were bred as gun dogs, meaning that they were bred to hunt birds. They are also popular family dogs and play well with kids when raised around small children.

Pointers are mostly used for hunting birds but they can also track scents. Unlike other bird dogs, pointers don’t flush out their prey. They freeze in place and point their nose and body toward the animal.

Dachshund

Dachshunds are short-legged dogs, known for their comical appearance. It turns out they were specially bred for hunting small game in 17th-century Europe.

Dachshunds are fearless animals that can help flush out and track badgers, rabbits, and foxes.

Fox Terrier

Fox terriers are medium-sized dogs with long snouts. They are known for being affectionate and playful but they can also be fearless and alert out in the field.

As the name suggests, fox terriers were bred to hunt foxes. They can find prey and then flush them out of their hiding spots.

Fox Terrier Hunting Dog

English Setter

The English setter is another medium-sized dog with boundless energy. However, these dogs can also be a little mischievous and temperamental, making them a good choice for experienced dog handlers.

English setters were bred as bird dogs in the UK during the 19th century. As with the Irish setter, it has lots of stamina and a good sense of smell, which is useful for tracking and flushing out birds.

Chesapeake Bay Retriever

The Chesapeake Bay retriever is a water-loving dog bred to hunt ducks. It shares many traits with other retrievers, including an affable attitude and superior intelligence.

These smart dogs are highly trainable and athletic, making them suitable for long hunts.

Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Weimaraner

The Weimaraner is an interesting dog, originally bred in Germany for hunting everything from birds to bears. These dogs are swift and have lots of stamina.

The Weimaraner breed is also often aggressive. It may chase family pets or even small children. It’s not the best choice for families with small kids or other pets but it is a great companion for solo hunting trips.

Weimaraner

English Springer Spaniel

The English springer spaniel is a medium-sized dog with a dense coat that grows longer around the ears and chest. It’s a high-energy breed, commonly used for chasing and retrieving birds.

English springer spaniels are smaller compared to most of the breeds that I discussed. This allows them to run swiftly through the forest and other difficult terrains. These lovable dogs have also become a top choice for families, thanks to their playful nature.

The Best Hunting Dog Breeds for Different Game Animals

Many different breeds of dogs are well-suited as hunting companions. However, some breeds have useful traits for hunting specific types of game animals.

Humans have hunted with dogs for over 20,000 years. The canine species has evolved over the years, with selective breeding helping to bring out specific characteristics.

For example, the Irish Water Spaniel has a water-repellent coat, making them the perfect choice for flushing waterfowl. Depending on the prey, you may benefit from a different breed.

In addition, the name of the breed often indicates the potential use of the dog for hunting. 

For example, sighthounds help spot your prey. Scent hounds help sniff prey out of their hiding spots and can track wounded animals. Retrievers can retrieve wounded animals while pointers point out the location of your prey. 

No matter which breed you choose, don’t forget that you’ll need to actively train your dog for hunting.  

Let’s examine some of the best hunting dog breeds for different game animals.

Deer – American foxhound

The American foxhound was originally bred for hunting fox but is easily trained to pursue other prey, including deer. This breed is known for its tough skin, which protects the dog from branches when running through the brush.

The best dog breeds for hunting deer are energetic, loud, and good at tracking with their nose. Along with the American Foxhound, the Weimaraner and the German shorthaired pointer are popular choices for deer hunting. 

Both breeds are athletic and full of stamina. However, the pointer is typically used for hunting birds.

Bird – German shorthaired pointer

The German shorthaired pointer is commonly used for hunting most types of birds. Pointers are trained to spot prey and point to their location. This allows you to flush the birds out instead of the dog, giving you more time to ready your shot.

Male German shorthaired pointers stand about 25 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 55 and 70 pounds. It’s a relatively large breed, developed in the 19th century for hunting. 

The pointer remains a favorite due to its intelligence and trainability. However, if you’re hunting grouse, the English setter may be a better match. Setters tend to get closer before pointing, which you may need when hunting for grouse in thick woods.

Turkey – Appalachian turkey dog

If you’re hunting turkey instead of pheasant or grouse, the Appalachian turkey dog is a good alternative to the German shorthaired pointer.

As the name suggests, the Appalachian turkey dog was selectively bred for hunting turkey. The American Kennel Club doesn’t recognize this breed. It is a mixture of hunting dog breeds, including pointers and setters.

Breeders choose dogs with a strong sense of smell for tracking and lots of energy. These dogs can track turkeys for miles without tiring. They’re also great for spotting flocks and flushing them out while barking.

Waterfowl – Labrador retriever

If you prefer to hunt ducks, geese, or swans, go with a Labrador retriever. Labs were originally bred in Newfoundland in the 1800s and have become a favorite hunting dog breed for a variety of reasons.

Labrador retrievers are lovable dogs and hard workers. They can deal with tough conditions, have intense focus and drive, and make wonderful family dogs. 

The common traits of a Labrador retriever make them suitable for hunting a variety of animals. However, they have a double coat and love to swim, which makes them perfect for waterfowl hunting.

Squirrel – Terrier

Most dogs can help you sniff out a squirrel, but a terrier will help ensure that you find it after it gives chase. Terriers have a dedication that is hard to match. 

Jack Russell Terriers, Bull Terriers, Border Terriers, and even the Staffordshire Bull Terrier are all good choices for hunting squirrels. I’d avoid using a Yorkshire Terrier or any other toy breed. The smaller-sized breeds lack the stamina needed for a long hunt.

Another option is the Mountain Cur. Mountain Curs were bred for hunting small game, including squirrel and raccoons. Males measure about 18 to 26 inches tall and weigh 30 to 60 pounds. They’re easily trained and capable of hunting big game, including bear and wild boar.

terrier

Rabbit – Beagle

The rabbit is one of the fastest mammals that I’ve seen in the field. No matter the breed, your dog is unlikely to catch a rabbit. However, a beagle can help sniff them out and follow their trail.

The beagle is considered a scent hound. It has a superior sense of smell and unlimited energy. Beagles also love the sound of their voice. They tend to bark when they spot prey and howl when they have them cornered.

Beagles are also diggers. If they spot a rabbit burrow, they’re likely to dig and help flush out the rabbits.

beagle

Hog – Dogo Argentino

The Mountain cur is bred to work and can be used for hunting hog, but the Dogo Argentino may be the better choice. This breed comes from South America and was introduced into the United States in the 1970s.

The Dogo Argentino is a powerful dog with a muscular build and strong jaws. It’s stronger compared to a pit bull, allowing it to latch on to larger animals and hold them until you arrive.

As with pit bulls, these dogs are often good with families and children but can be aggressive. They’re very protective and will fight to the death. 

The Dogo Argentino was bred as a pack-hunting animal. They tend to work best in small groups, which also requires more training.

Dogo Argentino

Bear – Plott hound

While the Dogo Argentino can hunt bear, the Plott hound is a bigger dog. Both breeds were bred to hunt large mammals, including boar and bear. However, the Plott hound is a little more versatile.

Plott hounds are fearless animals and surprisingly good family pets.

Plott hounds originated in North Carolina in the 18th century and were recognized by the American Kennel Club in 2006. These dogs have a strong scent of smell. They’re capable of tracking wounded animals, even days after the trail goes cold.

 

How to Train Your Hunting Dog

Learning how to train your hunting dog is essential if you plan on taking a dog hunting. While some breeds have instinctive traits that come in handy when hunting, you still need to teach your dog to follow your lead.

Without training, your dog is likely to get overexcited when they spot prey in the wild. If you want your dog to follow your commands, use these steps to start the training process.

Socialize with Your Dog to Increase Bonding

A close bond is an important part of training a dog as a hunting companion. Dogs are loyal animals that simply want to please their owners. They enjoy responding to commands when given a happy, loving environment.

Socialize with your dog frequently instead of keeping it kenneled. Try to devote time to your new pup. Take it to the park or a field where it has room to run around. This is also a good time to begin assessing your dog’s instincts.

When walking around a park, you’re likely to encounter a squirrel, a rabbit, or another small animal. Pay attention to your dog’s response. 

You may find that your dog immediately gives chase or waits for your command when it spots an animal. These details help you determine which areas you’ll need to work on before you go hunting.

Taking your dog to the park or a field is also a great form of exercise. Your pup will need to maintain its stamina to become a useful hunting dog.

Teach Your Dog the Six Basic Commands

A hunting dog that doesn’t listen to commands isn’t helpful. Before you can work on some of the advanced techniques needed when hunting, you should master the basic obedience commands.

The six basic commands that every dog owner should practice include:

  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Down
  • Come
  • Off
  • Heel

Along with these basic commands, you can start working on retrieving, if you plan on using your dog to retrieve animals. When you’re at the park or in the backyard, play fetch. Reward your dog with lots of praise when it brings the ball or toy back.

Introduce Your Dog to Common Hunting Situations

After mastering basic obedience training, it’s time to introduce your pup to the great outdoors. Take your dog to some of the environments where you typically hunt, such as fields, woods, or streams.

Practice the “come” command. It’s one of the trickiest commands for young pups when given wide-open spaces to run around. 

Some hunters use check cords to teach their dogs to walk ahead and maintain a consistent distance from the prey. The check cord is a useful tool for pointers, retrievers, and flushing dogs. It should be used with verbal commands, such as “stay” or “whoa,” to keep your dog from chasing after the animals.

You should also introduce your dog to the sound of gunshots. Young pups often get spooked by the sudden sound of a gun going off. Exposing your dog to the sounds and environments of hunting after developing a close bond should help limit the stress.

Avoid taking your dog to the range to introduce the sound of gunshots. Randomly firing a gun at a range may not desensitize the dog to the sound. You should only fire in real hunting environments, so your dog can associate the sound with the activity.

How to Train Your Hunting Dog for Specific Tasks

Start reinforcing the breed-specific behaviors that you want your dog to display when hunting. This requires the use of basic commands, such as “sit” and “stay.”

Different breeds of hunting dogs are used for different purposes. Pointers point out the location of prey while a beagle is more likely to bark wildly and chase the prey. 

When a pointer spots a bird, the dog instinctively freezes in place. If the bird spots the dog, it’s likely to freeze as well. However, an untrained pointer is likely to slowly creep on the prey instead of holding point.

When you take your dog to your typical hunting grounds, use the check cord and practice commands when it spots animals. If you want your pointer to set up the shot, use a “whoa” or “stay” command while raising your hand.

Use Training Dummies to Teach Your Dog How to Retrieve

Training dummies are plastic cylinders that you can use for retrieval training. They come in various designs but are typically covered in knobs to make it easier for your dog to grasp.

Start playing with a small training dummy as soon as you bring your pup home. Throw the dummy a few yards and have your dog bring it back. You can also add a few drops of bird scent to help familiarize your dog with the smell.

Don’t play tug-of-war with the training dummy. You don’t want to have to wrestle a dead bird from your dog’s jaws when you start hunting.

After you teach your dog the basic commands, start taking your dog to your typical hunting grounds and practice retrieving the training dummy. Toss it as far as you can.

When your dog is comfortable retrieving a single dummy, start using multiple dummies. Throw two or three in slightly different directions while making your dog wait. After throwing the last dummy, allow your dog to go collect them. With practice, your dog should be able to retrieve a handful of dummies at a time.

Hunting Dog Training Mistakes to Avoid

One of the biggest mistakes is too much training. Dogs become less interested in following your commands if you constantly train. Most training sessions should only last about 15 minutes per day. 

You should also avoid repeating commands or shouting. If your dog doesn’t respond after the first command, give your dog a good long stare to reinforce your dominance. A lack of response is usually a dog’s way of testing you. 

As a final suggestion, avoid letting your dog run off some steam. It’s tempting to let a dog loose in a park or field. However, this teaches your dog that it only needs to control himself when it’s tired. 

When your dog is full of energy is when you need to be in complete control. Instead of letting your dog “run off the energy,” work on your training or play fetch.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Hunting Dogs

Why Are Dogs Good for Hunting?

For over 20,000 years, dogs have helped humans hunt other animals. Some of the first domesticated canines were likely raised to help humans detect, track, or capture small animals or birds.

Pointers, mastiffs, greyhounds, shepherds, and wolf breeds were commonly used as hunting dogs several thousand years ago. Thanks to the agricultural revolution, humans started to devote more time to raising crops and livestock. Dogs evolved to help oversee animals.

In the following years, we started breeding dogs for a variety of purposes. Dogs were selectively bred to make them more obedient as family pets or to help herd livestock. Some breeds continued to be bred to bring out their natural hunting traits.

A strong sense of smell, lots of energy, and fearlessness are some of the main characteristics that we look for in hunting dogs. These traits were carefully developed over thousands of years of breeding.

The dogs that I discussed above tend to have the right combination of traits. Keep in mind that you still need to work with your dog to bring out its positive features. With practice and compassion, your dog should become a helpful hunting partner.

What Qualities Should You Look for in Hunting Dog Breeds?

There are dozens of suitable dog breeds for hunting. They come in a wide range of sizes and coats but they all tend to have some of the same traits:

  • Endurance
  • Fearlessness
  • Strong sense of smell
  • Superior eyesight
  • A good temperament

Hunting dogs need the endurance to remain alert during a long hunting session. They also need fearlessness to remain calm when facing different animals.

Scent hounds often have low bodies and large snouts to help them track odors. Sight hounds are typically tall and have large eyes to help visually spot prey.

No matter the breed, I’ve found that some dogs have a better temperament compared to others. It helps to choose a dog that responds well to training and commands.

With these traits in mind, I’d recommend any of the following breeds for hunting dogs:

What makes a good hunting dog?

Not just any dog can be a good hunting dog, but before we get to that, let’s talk about the two main types of hunting dogs: scent dogs and bird dogs. Scent dogs follow scents with their noses and make noises so the hunter can follow them, or they chase prey up a tree and wait until the hunter arrives.

Bird dogs, or gun dogs, seek out small animals such as birds and flush them out for the hunter. Their main job is to locate the prey for the hunter.

Certain traits also make for a good hunting dog, including endurance, athleticism, a strong prey drive, and a willingness to be trained. Some of the best breeds to train include the Labrador retriever, golden retriever, American foxhound, pointer, bluetick coonhound, Irish setter, English setter, Chesapeake Bay retriever, English springer spaniel, and beagle.

Can hunting dogs make good pets?

Hunting dogs can indeed make good pets, but it also depends on the specific breed you choose. Retrievers, for example, are friendly and easygoing, and they love to swim, so they’ll likely want to join you if you have a family pool.

Flushers, such as the English springer spaniel, are friendly and very good if you have limited space because they are medium-sized dogs. Make sure they get enough exercise, however.

Setters and pointers are active and athletic and, therefore, make good pets for families with children. Scenthounds, which include coonhounds, foxhounds, and beagles, make good family pets because they are very social. However, you may not want them as a pet if you live in a densely populated area, because they tend to love howling and barking, which your neighbors might not like!

What are the rarest hunting dog breeds?

In addition to setters, pointers, and scenthounds, there are other UKC-recognized dogs that do well as hunting dogs, even though few people have heard of them. In fact, many of them are no longer used as hunting dogs or are even around, for that matter. 

This includes the Braque du Bourbonnais, which comes from a region in central France and which is likely a mix between other breeds. The Italian pointer is another rare hunting dog breed, and they can locate, flush, point at, and retrieve game of all types. At one time, they drove game into nets, but this was before the invention of guns.

Another rare breed is the German wire-haired pointer, a dog with a weather-resistant coat that is capable of hunting fox, squirrels, deer, boar, and rabbits, among others. Also from Germany, the Pudelpointer was developed in the late 1800s and came to America some time afterward. It was a cross between a poodle and a pointer.

How do wild dogs hunt?

Naturally, the way dogs in the wild hunt is different because let’s face it, in the wild anything goes. Different breeds follow different behaviors, but most of them tend to hunt in packs.

Wolves are the perfect example of what a wild dog does to hunt. They hunt in packs, and they are extremely strong dogs with tough jaws and three layers of fur. Wolves always start by gathering together and warning the other packs not to get in their way. 

Once they find their victim, they surround it in a circle from the opposite direction the wind is blowing so the victim doesn’t smell them. They usually bite the sides of their victim to weaken it, then strike its throat and kill it.If their hunt is unsuccessful, they simply search for another victim. 

If they aren’t successful, it matters little because wolves can go for several weeks without eating.

Can you train any dog to hunt?

We can answer this question two ways. First, if you’re going to use a dog as a hunting companion, why not choose one that was “born” to hunt? Second, if you try to train just any dog to hunt, it simply won’t work with some of them.

In other words, you cannot, in fact, train just any dog to be a hunting dog. For instance, a Basset hound sinks in water and, therefore, would be a terrible waterfowl dog. Some large dogs don’t have the stamina for hunting, and dogs such as the English bulldog or pug have breathing limitations that would prevent it from being much use in the woods.

That being said, you can train some dogs to be hunters, but again, it is much easier just to get a dog that has the innate ability to hunt.

Is hunting with dogs illegal?

Although it’s difficult to believe for some people, hunting with dogs is indeed illegal in some states. If you’re new at hunting and aren’t sure what the laws are in your state, it’s best to check into them before you head out to the woods with your dog.

States each have their own laws, and your own state’s department of wildlife and fisheries or wildlife commission should be able to inform you what you need to know before you take your dog hunting. 

It also depends on what type of hunting you are participating in. For instance, only 11 states now allow you to use dogs when hunting deer. Checking with the state before you go any further, therefore, is a good idea.

What is the smartest hunting dog?

Any dog smart enough to help you hunt prey is a smart dog indeed, but some are smarter than others. According to most experts, the smartest hunting dogs are Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers. In fact, these two breeds are considered some of the smartest dogs in the world.

Other very intelligent hunting dogs include English springer spaniels, pointers, and bloodhounds. Finally, some other dogs that other experts consider very intelligent include the German short-haired pointer, English cocker spaniel, American cocker spaniel, and even the Irish water spaniel.

 

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