The Gun Dog is the quintessential example of man’s best friend; a dog who has been specifically bred to assist the hunter. Even before the advent of the gun, canines were there to help. Historians believe that dogs have been hunting alongside humans for over 20,000 years, ensuring their survival by keeping them well fed. So vital was the dog to society, it is believed that they were the first animal to be domesticated – probably sometime during the Ice Age. Since then, they have evolved in a variety of ways to make excellent Gun Dogs.

Gun Dogs have been used extensively throughout the ages, and what was once a means of survival, developed into a popular (and sometimes controversial) sport. Dogs were adapted for different functions. Those who worked in water, such as the Golden Retriever, developed a water-proof coat, while the Pointers inherently learned a distinctive ‘pointing’ stance to help the handler identify the prey’s location.

About

Gun Dogs are one of the seven Breed Groups defined by the Kennel Club (UK) and are known as ‘Sporting Dogs’ by the American Kennel Club (AKC). While gun dogs are sometimes known as ‘bird dogs’ they are typically used to hunt a wide range of quarry, including woodcock, pheasant and hares. They all have a keen desire to work well alongside man and obey commands. They must be athletic and fit for purpose.

These sporting dogs are further divided into distinct categories depending on their working ability and other traits. While many individuals are talented enough to perform well in several categories, as a general rule of thumb, each dog performs best in its own section. Retrievers bring dead or wounded prey back to hunters, Pointers point to and find game, while Flushing dogs drive animals from their hiding place for the hunters to shoot. As examples, the Cocker Spaniel is a Flushing Dog, while the Portuguese Pointer is, of course, a Pointer.

Purpose

Unlike many other breeds of dog that are no longer fit for function and exist purely as companion animals, Gun Dogs are still used extensively for their original purpose today. Many participate in ‘field trials’ to test them in working conditions. Dogs need to perform well in areas such as ‘Control’, ‘Retrieval’ and ‘Obedience’.

Of course, many are kept as companion animals and have been so well domesticated that they adapt to life within a home remarkably well. Given that a gun dog must be responsive, intelligent and easy to train it is little wonder that they are sought-after pets. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for a family to keep a Gun Dog as a pet that hunts part-time; the versatility of this group has always served them well.

Types

Gun Dogs are classified into distinct categories: Pointers & Setters, Retrievers and Flushing Dogs (Spaniels). Some also include a fourth group, known as HPRs (Hunt, Point, Retrievers), which are a versatile group of dogs that can fit into more than one category.

Which category a breed falls in to is generally common sense and is determined by their working ability, history and appearance. Having these classifications makes it far easier for hunters to determine which breed they need for which hunting activity.

Pointer & Setters

Pointers find game in a more ‘refined’ way then other dogs, silently pointing in its direction, allowing the hunter to do the rest and never retrieving the prey themselves. They must learn to stay completely still (or ‘freeze’) after locating their mark.

Pointers are thought to have originated sometime in the mid 17th century. A large majority of Pointing type dogs are actually classified within the ‘HPR’ group nowadays, as they were bred to be multi-functional over the years. The English Setter, Gordon Setter and English Pointer are all examples of traditional Pointing breeds.

Retrievers

The Retriever has been bred to work well on both land and water and should know to sit still on the ground or on a boat when awaiting instruction. In fact, this ability to remain calm and patient before a command is given is essential to their success. They pay close attention to each shot fired, noting the direction of the kill.

On the command of their handler, the Retriever will then collect the prey and bring it back. One of the most popular examples of a Retriever is the Labrador Retriever, which was imported to the UK from Newfoundland in the mid 1800s. They excel in the retrieval of waterfowl, particularly ducks. It is incredibly important that these dogs learn to return their prey undamaged to their handler.

Flushing Dogs

A Flushing dog must first identify the prey’s location and then drive it out in order for the hunter to shoot or capture it. They are particularly popular in the hunting of waterfowl. They have a large personality and high energy with an ability to run fast.

The Springer Spaniel and Cocker Spaniel are both well-known Flushing Dogs. Some Flushing Dogs are taught to retrieve, although not at great distances and only on command.

HPRs

HPR (Hunt, Point, Retrieve) dogs are a multi-purpose group of Gun Dogs that include the German Shorthaired Pointer, Italian Spinone and Hungarian Vizsla.

They differ from the other categories of gun dogs in that they are not only specialised in one area of the hunt, but can carry out several important tasks. Unsurprisingly, these breeds are becoming increasingly popular as hunters have grown to appreciate their many talents. These are quite large breeds that need extensive handling and have a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the sport.