According to the American Kennel Club, hunting dog breeds are more varied than even some hunters might realize.
There are dozens of dogs that hunt with or for humans, falling into the following categories: hounds, gun dogs, feists, terriers, curs, and dachshunds.
What Are Hunting Dogs?
A hunting dog is a trained canine that hunts for or with humans. There are several types of hunting dogs developed for specific tasks. Many hunters are loyal to one breed.
Whether it’s a cocker spaniel, an English setter, an English springer spaniel, a Brittany spaniel, a Boykin spaniel, beagles or a Labrador, each hunting dog breed will produce great hunters and a man’s loyal best friend.
Hunting dogs, or the group of sporting dogs, are a group of distinct dog breeds that were originally bred to assist hunters in discovering the quarry and collecting it.
This group includes various dogs like spaniels, retrievers, pointers, and setters.
American Kennel Club’s Definition of Hunting Dogs
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), man has been breeding dogs for particular duties since the beginning of time. Among the first duties assigned to early canines, there were tasks such as hunting, guarding, and herding.
As human beings evolved as a society, so did their canine friends. Dogs became more and more adapted physically and intellectually to the particular job for which they were bred.
This means that today the resulting puppies will be recognizably German Shepherds if you were to breed a German Shepherd with another German Shepherd.
The AKC breeds groups of dogs according to their purpose as follows.
The Sporting Group
This group of dog breeds was created to work intimately with their humans during hunting. Within this group, distinct races have distinct duties and sets of skills during the hunt.
Some sporting dogs are good at discovering the prey or flushing it, while others are good at retrieving it. A noteworthy aspect of this group is that almost every dog in it makes excellent companion dogs.
Two of America’s favorite breeds belong to this group: the Labrador and Golden Retrievers. Other members of this group are the beloved spaniels and setters. Most sporting dogs are biddable, smart, faithful, and affectionate.
The Working Group
The working group includes the Rottweiler, the Doberman Pinscher, the Bernese Mountain Dog, and the Anatolian Shepherd. These dogs are learners who are very smart and fast.
They are active and vigilant, making excellent watchdogs and guards. Generally speaking, they are faithful and make excellent companions. They need to be well trained and socialized from an early age because of their unusual strength and protective instinct.
The Toy Group
What they lack in size, they make up for in personality! These dogs are affectionate, friendly pooches that make for excellent companions.
Some of the favorite toy breeds of hunting dogs include the Italian Greyhound, Pug, Pomeranian, and of course, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. A common feature among these breeds is their instinctive ability to regulate other animals’ motion.
Herding or shepherd breeds of dogs have been created to round up and defend animals.
You have probably heard of the Border Collie, German Shepherd, Australian Cattle Dog, and the whip-fast Belgian Malinois. They all belong to this group. These are smart dogs that are rewarding to train. They are also faithful companions.
This is a group of dog breeds still in their stage of development. In other words, they are not licensed breeds under the AKC.
However, the AKC made this category available to the public to guarantee that breed records are kept safely and reliably. This group includes the American Leopard Hound, the Bologna, the Caucasian Shepherd Dog, and the Czechoslovakian Vlcak.
The Hound Group
This is one of the most varied dog breed groups. Hounds are used most frequently for hunting. Their capacity to scent or run down their quarry defines them.
Some hounds have a distinctive hiss when their prey has been spotted. “Baying” is something that needs to be experienced firsthand before you decide to bring one of these pooches into your lives! This category includes the Afghan Hound, the Basset Hound, the Beagle, and the Dachshund.
The Terrier Group
These spirited dogs were originally bred to hunt and kill vermin and guard the property of their owners. They make for beautiful animals, but they can be stubborn and overly energetic.
From the lower Cairn Terrier to the bigger Airedale Terrier, terriers come in many distinct shapes and sizes. The Russell Terrier, the Scottish Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier are other popular breeds in this group.
The Non-Sporting Group
The non-sporting group includes a broad range of dog breeds. In appearance or character, there are few similarities. Most of these dogs, however, protect both their owners and property.
This separate category includes breeds like the Shar-Pei, the Bichon Frise, the Bulldog, the Dalmatian, and the Poodle. There are several hundred purebred dogs on the globe. But the AKC does not recognize everyone.
This category may include breeds that are undergrowth or not yet acknowledged as AKC-registered breeds — for instance, the Laekenois from Belgium, the Incha Orchid from Peru, and the Dutch Shepherd.
While there are plenty of dogs that fall into some of these categories, we obviously can’t cover them all. Below there are our top 10 picks for just about every type of hunt you can think of.
Best Dog Breeds for Hunting
Picking the best hunting dog breeds was no easy task because the selection honestly depends on many different factors. After careful consideration, we bring you our top 10 picks for best hunting dog breeds.
Best Hunting Dog For Waterfowl: Labrador Retriever
Duck hunting dogs like Labrador Retrievers is built and trained for cold-water work, as duck hunters will tell you. Its playful, and energetic nature belies its abilities as a gun dog. Its weather-resistant, short coat both repels water and keeps the dog warm in the blind.
The Lab is capable of persisting for long hours under challenging conditions. Its powerful jaws lend to its capabilities as a retrieving gun dog, and in fact, it is a skilled retriever both on land and in the water.
A dog with an even temper, the Labrador Retriever is a favorite of waterfowl hunters and one of the best duck hunting dog breeds. It’s also a great dog for beginners if you are a first-time dog owner.
Top Quail & Pheasant Hunting Dog: The English Springer Spaniel
The English Springer Spaniel is a breed of gun dog that specializes in flushing and retrieving. Its compact body and strong, muscular legs give it the power and endurance to keep going even under trying hunting conditions.
The curly-coated retriever Springer Spaniel excels at seeking out and finding a game, then driving it from hiding for its master. It’s said the name “Springer” came from its ability to cause birds to spring into the air.
The working Springer Spaniel is a stable fellow, well balanced, and tends to have few health complaints. Hunters of quail, pheasant, and grouse frequently cite the English Springer Spaniel as their upland hunting breed of choice.
Related read: Quail Hunting 101 – Upland Bird Hunting Tips and Tricks
A Great All Around Hunting Dog: The Coonhound
The Coonhound is a variety of scent hound, a dog that runs its game by scent alone.
There are several breeds of coonhound, each suited to a specific hunting purpose. They are great helpers if you are out there checking the field with your rangefinder, looking for large game.
It’s known in general as a courageous beast, which is why it’s frequently used in hunting for deer, bear, wolf, and cougar. Coonhounds are tough, agile creatures that give the impression of intense, unwavering alertness.
Every Coonhound, much like humans, has its unique voice, and owners claim they can recognize the bay of their hound from as much as a mile away.
Coonhounds have a great deal of stamina and are capable of running for many miles when on the scent.
Top Pick for Small Game: The Beagle
The Beagle is a single-minded, determined, unshakable animal when it is on the hunt. Initially bred for hare hunting, the Beagle is used today to track rabbit, deer, and other small game.
Beagles have a keen sense of smell that is why you’ll see them used as detection dogs. Expert at driving prey toward the hunter, the Beagle is a persistent when tracking game.
Its stamina sets it apart from a lot of other scent dogs as it will go the distance. The beagle’s alertness and intelligence make it a much-desired dog for hunting small game.
Best Grouse Hunting Dog: The English Setter
The English Setter is an excellent and graceful animal use in hunting for quail, pheasant, and ruffed grouse. It’s a dog bred for endurance and athleticism, and it is capable of long stands in hard weather.
Like a pointer, the English Setter “points” to the location of the prey or ruffed grouse, giving the hunter ample time to set up and shoot. Unlike the Pointer, however, the English Setter prefers to remain close to the hunter thus making them great companions, so they’re always in the line of sight.
It’s an amazing dog to watch as it sniffs the air for its prey before holding point, motionless, waiting for the kill.
A Great Dog For Duck Hunting: The Chesapeake Bay Retriever
The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is a gun dog originally bred to retrieve waterfowl, specifically (but not exclusively) duck. It’s a dog with a lot of endurance, ability, and intelligence.
The “Chessie” is a tough dog, with a double coat that does a great job of insulating it against icy water. This is a big dog, too, and it needs a lot of exercise.
Most owners agree that the Chesapeake Bay Retriever should be trained by its owner, and in an environment where as a puppy it can socialize with other dogs.
This loyal beast is the waterfowl hunter’s friend for life.
Best Bird Hunting Dog: The German Shorthaired Pointer
The German Shorthaired Pointer is probably the most popular pointing dog in the world. It is a sleek, powerful animal with the uncanny ability to move and turn with astonishing rapidity.
They have a strong, broad muzzle, making it perfect for pointing and retrieving heavy game. The German Shorthaired Pointer has webbed feet and will go after waterfowl in the water without hesitation.
A versatile creature, the German Shorthaired Pointer is the average North American gamebird hunter’s dog of choice.
A Great Dog For Hunting Badgers& Rabbits: The Jack Russell Terrier
The Jack Russell Terrier is known as a working dog thanks to its toughness and stubborn nature. Its robustness makes it a formidable companion when you’re hunting groundhog, badger, or fox.
The Jack Russell locates the prey in the earth, either chasing it out of the hole or holding it in place until the hunter can dig it out. You’ll either have to be in good condition to work a Jack Russell Terrier or it will get you into shape quickly.
No matter how far you can walk in a day, the Jack Russell Terrier will outpace you several times.
Best Fox Hunting Dog: The American Foxhound
The American Foxhound is, as its name suggests, bred to hunt foxes. According to the American Kennel Club, with its extraordinary sense of smell and sharp nose, it’s also considered to be the best breed for running deer drives thanks to its stamina.
Yes, and the unmistakable baying sound it makes when on the hunt! It is an agile dog that is perfect for hunting over rugged terrain and upland hunting sites.
The American Foxhound loves to be outside, and when it is on the scent, it will tear off, commands notwithstanding.
A Great Dog For Squirrel Hunting: The Feist
A Feist is a small dog, bred in the southern United States, frequently used for small game hunting, frequently squirrel hunting. Alone or in packs, the Feist works above ground and barks up the tree to alert hunters that prey is hiding there.
Feists are smallish dogs, weighing 25 to 30 pounds with short coats and long legs. They’re bred almost exclusively for hunting, and they are quiet about it, too, unlike hounds.
Feists use their senses to locate, hunt and tree the squirrel before barking loudly to alert the hunter, much in the same way a coonhound does with raccoons.
A Feist will chase a squirrel to the ends of the earth or until it loses sight of it.
How to Train a Hunting Dog?
Great hunting dogs started their training at the moment they were held as puppies for the first time. A hunting dog’s chief challenge is to learn to continuously ignore distractions while executing a command.
Knowing a few necessary training steps is an advantage. Your dog should stop, go away from you, and come back when called.
Every trained dog progresses at its own pace, but there are some rough guidelines to follow on your first year together:
Age 2 to 4 Months
Give your pup its hunting name then acquaint it with people, grooming, places, and the vet. After you have completed the vaccinations, familiarize the pup with other friendly dogs.
This is the time for housebreaking, crate training, teaching puppy to respond to his name and understanding what “no” means.
At this age, you can do mild exercises only since the joints are not yet fully developed for excessive running.
Get your loyal pup used to a collar and leash but prevent yanking. Why? Because your dog will better cooperate when praised than when punished.
Age 5 to 7 Months
Obedience and being loyal are the primary goals. Getting your pup to come to you when called by their hunting dog name and making it yield to a leash are the first orders of training.
Active pups can investigate the field on a check-cord and learn the windshield-wiper pattern with their nose and prey drive. If your flusher puppy sits on its own, you command, “Hup!”
If you have a training table, gently hold your pointer pup while introducing the “Whoa!” command.
The dog’s prey drive will be activated if you introduce it to dead birds at this age. Once the instinct is activated, you might check-cord your pup into the scent cone of hard-flushing live birds.
For puppies to start learning winging steadiness, you need to have a firm grip on the leash. Hunting dog breeds like Spaniels and Retrievers will learn quickly that “Hup” is a command to sit on flush.
But the prey drive exercise is about getting them fired up about the hunt and bird contact, rather than command performance.
Dipping in warm, shallow water should be in the program too, but let the pup decide when to swim. Get your pet used to gunfire noise by starting at a distance using cap guns.
Then you can move to pistols and shotguns when you see that cap guns don’t bother the pup anymore. Do this always while the puppy is cutting loose in bird contact.
Age 8 to 11 Months
Introduce the electronic training collar, but use it only when you know the canine fully understands a command. At this age, Pointing, nose and hunt instincts are becoming prominent now.
Duck hunting dogs like retrievers should bring retrieving bumpers back by this time. Once the canine is properly gunshots-trained, take the puppy for short hunt stints.
Field dogs should be sweeping back and forth with the check-cord attached; its the same thing with spaniels and retrievers.
Age 12 to 16 Months
The adolescent dog should have most commands established. Pointers should stand a bird until it flies; flushers should “hup” on the flush.
Learning to sit still and keep quiet while on the hunt should be a priority while out in the woods or marsh. It goes the same with easy marks by watching falling prey if you want accurate retrieves.
Dog training is a lifetime of devotion, effort, and fun. It will have its up and downs, and even the best pup will go off the plan, so have patience but be persistent.
When the man’s best friend points to its first grouse or runs toward a downed pintail, you’ll know the training was worth every minute.
There are plenty of great hunting “Mutts” out there as well, but we are going to focus on the first breeds that most Americans stick to when picking out their hunting dogs.
Hounds are assorted into sighthounds, scent hounds, and lurchers. Gun dogs include breeds like retrievers, setters, spaniels, pointers, and water dogs.
To Wrap Up
Choosing the best hunting dog is a very personal choice, and it will largely depend on what type of hunter you are and what kind of game you will be hunting.
What are the best-hunting dogs? If you are compound bow hunting big game, then evidently a keen tracker like a Coonhound might be a better choice than a Jack Russell Terrier.
The same applies if you are hunting small game with a crossbow. You’d likely be looking at a Beagle over a Labrador retriever.
Any one of these hunting dogs will do the trick as filling in for both your best friend as well as keen hunting partner for years to come.
My articles appear in Marketing Edge Magazine, on Gizmogrind, and with various Medium publications. But one thing hasn’t changed in all of my life: no matter where I was or what I was doing. I’ve always loved to be outdoors.
A man needs nothing more than a good flannel shirt, a well-worn pair of jeans, and comfortable hiking boots. I don’t go for all the fancy luxury stuff. Suits are uncomfortable and shaving sucks.