While there are plenty of crossovers, when it comes to bird hunting, dog breeds tend to fall into one of two main categories: Upland bird dogs are engaged in hunting birds such as quail and pheasants that live in and around the tall grasses and shrubs that grow in fields and forests, while wetland bird dogs help hunters find water birds, such as ducks, geese, and waterfowl.
The roles carried out by the dogs involved in these types of hunting vary significantly, and a breed of dog that is an excellent upland hunter will not necessarily be a good choice for wetland hunting and vice versa.
Upland bird dogs help their owners find and stalk their prey on the land and are often used to point the hunter to where the bird is. Then, on command, they will flush the bird out by scaring it and forcing it to take flight, where the hunter is ready to take the shot.
While much of the work of wetland bird dogs is done in the water, they must also retrieve downed birds from rivers, lakes, and swamps and return with them to their owner, who is waiting in either a hide or in a boat.
The following is a list of the best and most well-known bird hunting dogs in the world today. Included are dogs that have made a name for themselves as upland dogs, some that are much more at home in the water, and some that can successfully hunt in either environment.
1. Labrador Retriever
The Labrador Retriever is, without doubt, the most well-known bird hunting dog. Highly intelligent, these dogs are employed in a vast array of different roles outside of hunting, and it is not unusual to see them working as seeing-eye guide dogs, therapeutic companion animals, or even as explosive or drug detection dogs.
As hunters, the Labrador Retriever is a master in the water. They are excellent swimmers, and like many retrieving breeds, they have webbed toes that help them in this task. As their name suggests, the Labrador is a retrieving dog, and while too large for hunting from small boats, they can often be found with their owners in duck hunting hides waiting and watching for a chance to collect any bird brought down by their owner’s shotgun. They are, however, also one of the few dogs that can make the transition between wetland and upland hunting, and Labrador Retrievers are often also used to flush and retrieve game birds on land.
2. English Pointer
The English Pointer is another extremely popular breed of bird hunting dog. As their name suggests, they are typically employed as a Pointer by upland bird hunters. Despite their name, English Pointers are not English, but rather were first developed in Spain.
This highly energetic breed has an excellent sense of smell and is highly intelligent and capable of working up 200 meters ahead of their masters to find, locate, and point out the location of game birds.
Like many bird hunting dog breeds, in recent years, English Pointers have become popular pets. They can more often be found these days living out their lives in suburban houses and backyards than in the fields hunting.
3. Springer Spaniel
The Springer Spaniel (also known as the English Springer Spaniel) is an upland bird dog that was originally developed as a flushing breed, used to flush, or spring, game birds from hiding and send them into the air so the bird can be shot by hunters.
For some decades, the Springer Spaniel breed has been broken into two distinct lines: field dogs and show dogs. Field dogs continue to be bred for their hunting prowess and intelligence. In contrast, those considered show dogs are bred for their adherence to particular breed standards in terms of their appearance.
4. Boykin Spaniel
The Boykin Spaniel is an all-American bird dog that was developed in South Carolina as a flushing dog. They are highly regarded within the bird hunting community and are generally considered one of the finest flushing dogs ever produced. To this day, they are an exceptionally popular breed with upland hunters. While they can also make fantastic family pets, most dogs of this breed are still bred for hunting.
The Boykin Spaniel also has the honor of being the official state dog of South Carolina.
5. German Short Haired Pointer
The German Shorthaired Pointer is a highly versatile and all-purpose bird dog. They were first developed in the late 1800s as a pointing breed, but over the decades, they have also shown considerable ability at retrieving and trailing game birds. As a result, German Short Haired Pointers are often favored by upland hunters who want to operate with just one dog.
Highly intelligent and energetic dogs, German Short Haired Pointers also make great family pets and have excelled at all levels in several different dog sports.
The Brittany was developed in the Brittany region of France in the early 1990s as a pointing breed. They were introduced into the United States sometime in the 1940s and have gone on to become a versatile all-purpose bird dog and an excellent sporting dog.
The Brittany is known for its friendly and even temperament, and because of this and their relatively small size, they can make great pets for families with small children.
7. Golden Retriever
The Golden Retriever is extremely popular throughout the world as a lovable and energetic family pet. Yet, it is this retriever’s bird hunting skills that first saw it rise to fame. A medium to large dog with plenty of energy to burn, Golden Retrievers are exceptional swimmers and have made a name for themselves working with both wetland and upland hunters.
They are an intelligent breed and quite easy to train and are generally happiest when they get plenty of physical exercise and mental stimulation. Although, as a family pet, if allowed to become lazy, they will readily transition to a life of leisure, and like humans who don’t get sufficient exercise, they can quickly become overweight.
8. Irish Setter
The Irish Setter is a quite an old breed that is believed to have been developed in Ireland in the mid-1500s. They are a striking breed best known for their long, silky red or chestnut-colored coat. Yet, they are exceptionally good upland bird hunting dogs and have a well-deserved reputation within the bird hunting community as both a pointing and a flushing dog.
Irish Setters thrive on human companionship, and it is hardly a surprise that besides making a mark on the hunting scene, these friendly and loving dogs have also found a place in the hearts of thousands of Americans as family pets.
The Vizsla, also known as the Hungarian Pointer, is a hunting dog that was first developed in medieval Hungary as a hawking dog. More recently, they have proven to be exceptional bird dogs that make excellent Pointers and Retrievers. Since first coming to the United States in 1950, the Vizsla has become a popular dog with upland hunters who use them for hunting both rabbits and fowl.
10. Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever is a wetland duck hunting dog that was first developed in Nova Scotia during the early 19th century. They have a unique and uncanny ability to lure ducks during hunting. In practice, these dogs are often used as decoys to distract waterfowl or sent out into the water to troll for ducks and draw them closer to shore with their fluttering tails.
11. Curly-Coated Retriever
The Curly-Coated Retriever is a skilled wetland Retriever that excels at retrieving ducks and large water birds. They are medium to large dogs that look like Labrador Retrievers with thick curly coats, but in reality, they are an entirely different breed.
Known for their friendly and gentle disposition, the breed has a reputation for being somewhat of a shy dog that is nervous around strangers. They are, however, exceptionally strong swimmers and are always ready and eager to please their owners by diving into the water to retrieve any downed bird.
12. Cocker Spaniel
No list of bird hunting breeds could be complete with including the ever-popular Cocker Spaniel. While these days, Cocker Spaniels are more likely to be found in your family home as a pet than out on the range working, they are highly skilled hunters that were once used extensively for hunting woodcocks.
In the field, Cocker Spaniels are excellent flushing and retrieving dogs. However, unlike some other breeds, they tend to work close with their handlers, finding birds and flushing them into the air.
Featured Image Credit: Marlies Kloet, Wikimedia Commons