Dogs have probably been hunting alongside humans since before they should have rightly been referred to as dogs. They lend us their keen noses, incredible endurance and courage, and in return we share the spoils of the hunt with them.
While many breeds and combinations thereof can perform admirably in hunting contexts, a few breeds clearly rise to the top. Today we’re discussing what makes a great hunting dog and highlighting a few of the best breeds to serve as hunting companions!
Traits Common to Most Hunting Dog Breeds
While there are always exceptions, most hunting dog breeds exhibit the following traits:
While herding breeds, such as Border Collies, Belgian Malinois and Shelties, as well as working breeds like German Shepherds, Dobermans and Rottweilers, usually get all the accolades for being clever, many hunting dogs are pretty sharp crayons themselves.
Poodles, for example, are crazy smart retrievers, and Labradors as well as Golden Retrievers are also regarded as some of the smartest breeds around.
While just about any dog can exhibit a strong prey drive, there’s something special about the way a lab locks in on a duck (or tennis ball, as the case may be – it’s the same instinct at work in either case).
Curs and hounds may not want to chase a dumb ball for you, but they’ll track a scent with the same determination and focus as a lab or golden watches a ball in your hand. But all of these behaviors and tendencies are merely manifestations of the pooch’s prey drive.
Hunting is hard work. Dogs well-suited for the task are able to clock in, work hard and rest later – and do so with a positive attitude and a waggin’ tail. Different types of hunting dogs require different levels of endurance, but most have endurance comparable to working breeds.
Cur (like the famous black mouth cur you may remember from Old Yeller), for example, are often used to hunt mountain lions, which requires the dogs to cross considerable distances in relentless pursuit of a quick, cunning and cryptic target.
By contrast, a lab with even the most successful duck-hunting-daddy will spend most of her day sitting beside you. Sure, she’ll jump in the water and swim 100 yards 20 or so times over the course of the day, but she’ll be able to rest plenty, requiring a different kind of endurance than a Cur.
No matter what type of prey they are expected to pursue, all hunting dogs require plenty of self-confidence.
This obviously applies to the dogs who are tasked with catching and subduing large prey, but it also applies to gun dogs, who must be able to take the explosive crack of a shotgun in stride, while still maintaining their focus and resolve.
Even those dogs tasked with pursuing nothing larger than squirrels or raccoons require confidence, as timid dogs will surely recoil in response to aggressive gestures by even these creatures.
Relatively few hunting dogs work with only their owner. Most work alongside a pack, and even those who work without the help of other canines often encounter other people during the course of a hunt.
Good hunting dogs will react to all other hunters – be they two-footed or four – with professionalism and civility. Dogs that are suspicious of other dogs, or who do not play well with others rarely make good hunting dogs.
Tasks Dogs Are Asked to Perform While Hunting
People have used dogs to aide their hunting pursuits in a variety of different ways, each of which call for different skills.
Although there is considerable crossover between the categories, and many breeds excel at more than one job, the basic tasks dogs are asked to perform include:
Locating prey and then alerting the hunter to its presence. Dogs that do this well are great for hunting small game, like quail, pheasant, squirrels and rabbits.
Watching the hunter locate and kill the prey, but then retrieving it. This is primarily a task relegated to Labs, Goldens, Newfoundland Retrievers, as well as Poodles and Portuguese Water Dogs, who are great at sitting by your side, watching a falling bird and then retrieving it on command – whether on dry ground or in icy water.
Locating and then killing the prey; retrieving said prey if it feels like it. This is the kind of task at which terriers and dachshunds excel. Follow some type of varmint down a hole, or catch it before it gets there, and then thrash it until it stops moving. Wag tail, rinse and repeat.
Waiting for the human (or other dogs) to find the prey, and then catching and subduing it.
Basic Hunting Dog Categories
The AKC groups hunting dogs into two primary categories: the sporting group and the hound group.
Meanwhile, the UKC categorizes hunting dogs into three different groups: gun dogs, scent hounds, sighthound and pariah dogs, and terriers.
We’ve tried to distill these varied approaches into six different groups – they aren’t the exact ones used by the two largest registries, but there instructive, nonetheless.
First, the three or four primary groups used by modern hunters:
For anyone familiar with and comfortable around dogs, hounds are hardly intimidating.
They’re usually polite and friendly, if a bit aloof, but they certainly mean people no harm.
However, from the eyes of a bear, raccoon, mountain lion or squirrel, a pack of hounds is quite terrifying. Bred and trained to track prey relentlessly, using their keen sense of smell, these hunting dogs typically “tree” prey or drive them into some other desired location, so that the hunter can come in and finish the job.
There are three subcategories of hounds:
Scent hounds are the ones primarily used by modern Western hunters. They track things by – you guessed it – scent.
Sight hounds are still used in some parts of the Middle East, but they are not common in the west. They hunt by sight. Go figure.
Lurchers are created by crossing a sight hound with a working breed to expand their skill set. They aren’t used by many Western hunters.
Gun dogs are perhaps the most familiar of the hunting dogs. Comprised of old favorites like golden retrievers and labs, gun dogs are usually used in the pursuit of birds – they either ferret out the birds with their keen noses or play rover, bringing back the birds that the hunter shoots.
The term “gun dog” refers to the fact that these dogs must be capable of working while hearing frequent gunshots, without becoming frightened or losing their focus.
There are about three to six different subcategories of gun dog, depending on how you break them up:
Retrievers sit beside you. When you shoot a bird, your faithful retriever fetches said bird – and he does so gently.
Pointers, setters and spaniels, who are sometimes treated as three separate groups, primarily locate, mark and flush game. Many are happy to retrieve the game for you, after you’ve shot it.
Water dogs were created to retrieve dogs from aquatic places. Most have thick, oily fur to keep them warm in cold water.
Curs are primarily used in the tracking of large game, such as bear and mountain lion. They drive these animals to a tree, and wait for the hunter to arrive.
While well-suited for their intended purpose (many hunters are die-hard devotees to various curs), they are relatively rarely used as companion animals.
Some authorities recognize feists as a discrete group of cur-like hunting dogs, while others consider them to be a breed that is part of the terrier group. They’ve got a tangled web of a history, and many have been crossed with everything from whippets to Jack Russel terriers.
Regardless of where we draw the line, feists are small hunting dogs, who are used to pursue small game.
Note: The remaining two groups are clearly defined, but somewhat rarely used in the modern sense of hunting.
Terriers aren’t used in what most people would consider recreational or subsistence hunting.
They don’t track animals and then wait for the human to get there and do the dirty work; they were actually bred to kill various small mammals on their own. Anyone who’s seen a little Scottie or a Bull Terrier absolutely destroy a toy has seen their preferred killing technique.
Owners of pet terriers may be shocked when their little Jack Russell dive bombs for a rat! While most owners ignore their terrier’s hunger for the small and squirmy, there are a few breed groups that allow terrier owners to come together and foster their dogs’ rat-hunting moves on city streets!
There’s a great segment on This American Life as a reporter follows one terrier on his first rat-hunting expedition in NYC. Give it a listen if you’re interested!
Weiner dogs get their own category – how badass is that?
Dachshunds were developed to – once I say this, it’s going to seem obvious – chase prey into or flush prey out of tunnels and other subterranean dens.
They’re pretty adaptable little guys and gals, and they can be trained to target any prey from prairie dogs to deer, but they aren’t used as commonly in proper hunting contexts, so we’ve omitted these little guys from our core list below.
The Ten Best Hunting Dog Breeds
Obviously, this list is subjective (be sure to tell me what I got wrong in the comments – good arguments are sure to ensue). But these 10 breeds represent a good cross-section of those that are in widespread use among modern hunters.
Size: 50 to 75 pounds
Primary Use: Tracking bear, pigs and other large game
Origin: North Carolina, USA
Plotts are relatively large hound dogs, whose size helped give them the ability to hunt formidable prey. However, modern hunters use them for a variety of game, including everything from racoons to mountain lions. Plotts (or plot hounds, as they are sometimes called) are relatively rare; they weren’t even recognized by the AKC until 2006.
2. German Shorthaired Pointer
Size: 45 to 70 pounds
Primary Use: Varied, but often for marking, flushing and retrieving upland gamebirds
German shorthaired pointers were originally conceived as all-around hunting dogs, who could do it all. Accordingly, they’re used for everything from finding and flushing upland game birds to tracking bears to retrieving waterfowl. An intelligent, energetic breed, German shorthaired pointers make good pets, but they must be sufficiently stimulated and exercised to remain happy.
3. Labrador Retriever
Size: 50 to 80 pounds
Primary Use: Retrieving waterfowl
Origin: Newfoundland, Canada
One of the most popular pet breeds in the US, labs were originally developed as working dogs, who would help fishermen work their nets and catch escaping fish in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Over time, they became popular among hunters targeting duck and other waterfowl, and they are still used in this manner today.
Labs are great bird hunting dogs as well as family four-leggers, but make sure to go to different breeders depending on your needs. The disposition and energy needs of a Lab bred for hunting are very different than those of a Labraodr bred for hanging with the kiddos.
4. Bluetick Coonhound
Size: 45 to 80 pounds
Primary Use: Tracking and treeing raccoons and other animals
Origin: Louisiana, USA
Bluetick coonhounds are excellent tracking dogs, whose dependability in the field and friendly demeanor make them favorites of many hunters. Perhaps the most appreciated characteristic of the breed is their so-called “cold nose,” which refers to their ability to track older track sets more effectively than many other breeds.
Size: 20 to 35 pounds
Primary Use: Tracking and retrieving rabbits
Origin: Unclear; probably England
While small and adorable, beagles are capable hunters. They are some of the best rabbit-hunting dog breeds that has ever been developed, though they are occasionally used for tracking larger game as well. The beagle’s vocal habits are a modern reminder of their historic purpose (most hound dogs vocalize frequently to help accomplish their task and keep the pack together).
Size: 45 to 75 pounds
Primary Use: Pointing, flushing and retrieving game, usually upland gamebirds
Despite its name (these dogs are also called English pointers), pointers are adaptable dogs, who can perform a number of different hunting tasks. You may see one pack of pointers being used on a quail hunt, before seeing another pack used to flush and retrieve rabbits and other small game.
Although they also make good pets, pointers have an unmatched prey drive and require plenty of room to run.
7. Dogo Argentino
Size: 80 to 100 pounds
Primary Use: Tracking and subduing large game, such as boar
Although originally designed to hunt large game and still used in that fashion in their native land, Dogo Argentinos are primarily kept as pets in the United States. However, they are well-suited for hunting feral pigs, and are often used as “catch dogs,” who are tasked with grabbing the pig and holding him until the hunters catch up.
8. Treeing Walker Hound
Size: 50 to 70 pounds
Primary Use: Tracking and treeing raccoons and opossums
Origin: Kentucky, USA
Another versatile hound dog, the treeing Walker hound is one of the most popular hunting dog breeds with modern sportsmen and sportswomen. They have a “warmer” nose than bluetick coonhounds (and most bluetick coonhound mixes) and some other good tracking breeds, meaning that they are most interested in tracking fresh, rather than old tracks. In addition to tracking raccoons and opossums, they are also used in pursuit of deer, bears and cougars.
9. Irish Setter
Size: 55 to 75 pounds; however, field dogs who were bred to hunt, are generally smaller
Primary Use: Pointing, flushing and retrieving upland gamebirds
Origin: Unclear, but likely Ireland or other portions of Europe (the breed has a long history)
Irish setters are a handsome breed that loves to work in the fields alongside their owner. However, some setters are so giddy to run, jump and play that they can become easily distracted when seeking out birds. There is quite a difference between those bred for show or families and hunting, and many of those from hunting lines deviate from the breed standard.
10. Mountain Cur
Size: 30 to 60 pounds
Primary Use: Tracking and treeing small game
Mountain curs are great all-around dogs, who excel in the field or in the home (provided that they get plenty of stimulation and have some type of job to do).
Though they are primarily used by modern hunters to hunt squirrel, raccoons, opossums and similar game, others use them for wild boar, black bear or cougar hunting.
Check out the podengo — a rare and relatively under-the-radar hunting dog!
Compiling any list of “best breeds” is sure to elicit immediate disagreement among readers, but this is likely to be especially true when you are discussing the best hunting dog breeds. Most modern hunters have a favorite breed, and they’ll resist all arguments to the contrary.
With that in mind, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue.
What breeds did I neglect to mention? Which one should I have left off the list? Let us know in the comments below!
Also make sure to check out our article detailing the best hunting dog names if you need a solid title for your working dog. We also have recommendations on the best dog hunting vests to outfit your bird-chasing pooch!