How to pick your next Hunting Dog
At first glance, picking a hunting dog sounds pretty simple, right? You may have even caught yourself thinking, “I like dogs – all dogs are great – how hard could it be to find a dog who wants to hunt with me?”
If you want the unvarnished truth: it can be pretty darned hard, especially if you don’t do your homework in advance (and if you are the type who left “homework” behind when you finished your education, you may be setting yourself up for some pretty challenging beginner dog-picking mistakes).
This article will walk you through the process of picking a dog with all the signs of being prime hunting dog material. Just do the things you read about here and you and your new canine sidekick should be golden!
5 Essential Questions to Answer
So here is your homework. These five essential questions can ensure you pick a hunting dog with the highest probability to provide you both with many productive years of hunting!
1. Do you really need a hunting dog?
This should always be any hunter’s first and most pressing question. What is important is that you are prepared for the commitment and expense of training, housing, caring for and hunting with a canine partner who may live for a decade or longer and may not be ready to hunt with you for 12+ months after you bring him home.
Game and Fish magazine states that just the initial purchase can run you from $700 to $1,500, especially if you have your eye on a purebred from a respected hunting lineage. Then add another $800 to $2,000 annually for care, training and housing.
2. What kind of hunting do you want to do?
You should always strive to match your prey with your hunting dog, which means doing your best to specify a primary species of prey before moving on to dog selection.
This doesn’t mean that from now on, you can only hunt one type of prey. In fact, many hunting dogs can be trained to hunt different types of prey, but it still helps to specify your primary prey initially to be sure you pick the best possible dog breed for the job.
This can be particularly true when looking at overall configuration and coat type. For example, a long-haired dog like an English setter may end up covered in cockleburs and detritus after a day of hunting in long grass – which also means you may spend hours daily combing and detangling your dog’s coat!
Short-haired dog breeds can make for a much easier choice all around if your prey requires regular deep forays into dense underbrush.
Outdoor Life suggests these prey-canine matches for best results:
- Duck: Labrador Retriever.
- Pheasant: American Springer Spaniel.
- Grouse: English Setter.
- Sea Duck: Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
- Quail: Pointer.
- Rabbit: Beagle.
- Turkey: Appalachian Turkey Dog.
- Hog: Argentinian Dogo (or Pit Bull).
- Deer: American Foxhound.
- Coon: Treeing Walker Hound.
- Bear: Plott Hound.
- Mountain Lion: Bluetick Coonhound.
- Squirrel: Mountain Cur.
- Chukar: German Shorthair Pointer.
This short YouTube video takes you through a visual summary of 10 of the top hunting dogs, complete with a short list of the qualities that help them excel with certain types of prey.
3. What unique skill set does your prey demand?
In the list here (see #2), you will notice several different skill sets are referenced as the best match for different types of prey:
These unique skill sets are not to be confused with the underlying fundamental skills, temperament and personality that indicate the makings of a high quality general purpose hunting dog. These skills, which are often bred into certain bloodlines over a period of several generations, can mean a dog is better suited to hunting one type of prey versus another.
An example: The Chesapeake Bay Retriever, a prime pick for hunting sea ducks, happens to have a thick oiled coat (not unlike that of their primary prey!) that essential waterproofs them and helps them remain light-weight and buoyant in water. They also have webbed paws which function like paddles in water! They also love to swim and are very determined and task-oriented hunters, making them perfect for difficult retrieval jobs in deep, choppy waters.
4. What other qualities do you want in a hunting dog?
Here, you will find picking a dog with strong potential for hunting isn’t too much different than picking a human mate! You just have to think through what qualities you are looking for and then target your search towards only those dogs known to present those same qualities.
Here, Field & Stream recommends picking a litter rather than a specific puppy or young dog.
When you pick the litter, you are essentially picking a blood line known to exemplify the traits on your list. This can take some research, and some hunters get very specific, narrowing it right down to the individual sire and dam before picking a litter.
But this extra initial legwork can give you the best chance that any puppy in that particular litter will likely turn out when it is time to get to work.
Field & Stream suggests devoting 90 percent of your effort to researching the blood line, sire, dam, kennel, breeder, trainer and hunting history and 10 percent to picking the specific puppy.
Look for these qualities in a pup from your chosen litter:
- A pup that is of average size relative to her littermates.
- A pup that is friendly, outgoing and sociable.
- A pup that eagerly meets your eye and maintains eye contact.
Look for these qualities in a breeder/kennel:
- A certified pedigree with credentials (if you are buying a purebred pup - this short YouTube video walks you through the basics of what to look for in a pedigree).
- An initial health guarantee for the pup.
- A requirement not to release the pup into your care before the age of 7 to 9 weeks (this is critical developmentally for the pup to be properly bonded and socialized by her mom and litter mates before coming to you).
- A kennel environment that is clean and pristine with detailed record keeping and compliance with all required shots.
5. What type of living situation will you provide for your new hunting dog?
If you have a family, you should also ensure they are as eager to welcome a canine into the family as you are. If they are not, you may want to rethink the new addition.
Some hunting dogs can also make great family pets, especially during the off season. But then again, some hunting dogs are so high energy and restless they can drive you and your family crazy when they are not actively “on the job.”
In the same way, some dogs are able to bond and mind everyone in the family equally, while other dog breeds seem literally programmed to heed only a single master, making them a difficult family addition at best and usually unsuitable for households with small children.
Housing can also be a challenge, as Pheasants Forever explains. Some dogs are perfectly content to collapse on the couch in even the smallest apartment when not out working. Other dogs may whine, bark and scratch incessantly, annoying you, your family and your neighbors – a particular concern if you are renting.
Finally, there is exercise to consider – both your dog’s and yours. As Gun Dog magazine points out, someone in your household will need to take responsibility for providing your dog with daily opportunities to run, play and stretch his legs (ideally, this should be you whenever possible).
But this may also add up to more physical exertion than you prefer. Certain breeds will run the average human master ragged and still be begging for more, a fact worth considering if you are more of a couch-lover in the off season.
Male or Female Hunting Dog: the Ongoing Debate
You may not have an opinion one way or another on this topic – yet. But as you do your research, you will quickly discover practically everyone else does, and they are not shy to share it!
As Wild Fowl magazine points out, just as most hunters have a favorite dog breed they prefer, so too will many hunters develop a strong preference for a male or a female hunting dog.
Often, this preference stems from either a previous bad or good experience with a particular dog. For this reason, generally speaking, there is no hard data to suggest gender reliably determines how effective a hunting dog will be.
However, there is plenty of hard data to show that blood lines, breeders and individual sires and dams can greatly influence hunting prowess in puppies. So long as you have done your homework to identify a litter of puppies with great potential, either a female or a male puppy is likely to perform to your satisfaction while hunting.
While many “pet puppy” breeders will neuter or spay puppies they do not plan to add to the breeding roster, this is typically not the case for hunting dog puppies. The reasons vary but nearly always include the possibility that that puppy will turn into a world-class hunting dog worthy of being bred.
This means you will need to be aware of certain limitations with respect to your hunting schedule.
For female hunting dogs, the primary limitation cited by working hunters is the heat cycle (estrus cycle).
As VCA Hospitals explains, the typical adult female dog age 12 months or older will enter heat once or twice per year and each cycle will last up to 3 weeks.
Younger adult females may only enter estrus every 12 to 18 months for the first few years of life until her hormonal cycle stabilizes. But after that, it can happen as often as every six months for the duration.
There is no reason you can’t hunt your female dog during her heat cycle, but her hormonal fluctuations may affect her performance.
For males, there is no estrus cycle to contend with. However, once your male hunting dog is sexually mature, you may find his insistence on “marking” annoying, not to mention stinky.
As well, a mature male dog that is not neutered may be more inclined to challenge other male dogs. And certainly any mature “active” male has the potential to get distracted if there is a female dog in heat nearby.