Pointers and Flushers: This group encompasses a large number of breeds of spaniels, setters, pointers and others that were generally bred in Europe for hunting birds. Flushers like the springer spaniel roust birds out of thick cover, whereas pointers typically freeze on point and wait for the hunter to flush the bird. Within this group there are dogs to suit just about any family’s needs; smaller spaniels like the springer and Brittany require less room, and larger breeds like the English pointer, Gordon setter and German shorthaired pointer are equally adept at hunting and can cover great amounts of country. But don’t think that these dogs are only useful for hunting upland game; Ethan Pippett of Standing Stone Kennels in Kansas trains his German shorthairs to retrieve ducks, and these hard-charging dogs excel in that discipline.
Retrievers: The most common breed of dog registered in the United States is the Labrador retriever, and there’s a good reason. Labs make great family dogs, they are very rarely aggressive, and they are intelligent and easy to train. These characteristics come from a hunting background, and there are few breeds that are better suited to retrieving downed birds. But that’s only a portion of what retrievers can do; labs, golden retrievers, Chesapeake Bay retrievers and other retrieving breeds make great flushing dogs for upland hunting, and their keen noses make them a great choice for those who are looking for a blood-trailing dog for finding wounded game (where legal), or shed hunter. Generally speaking they are wonderful family companions, but the breeds listed are rather large and your dog food bill might be the same.
Curs: Most people know the term “cur” as a description of a mixed-breed dog of unknown origin. However, there are a number of recognized cur breeds that include the Stephens’ cur, mountain cur, black mouth cur, and treeing cur. All of these cur breeds come from early pioneer stock and were bred for a variety of uses on farms, from family protector to squirrel, coon and big-game hunting to rounding up wild hogs and cattle. Because of this, these dogs are highly intelligent, loyal and have a strong prey drive. Most of the curs aren’t as large as labs or hounds, standing between 16 and 24 inches at the shoulder (depending upon breed). These dogs are skilled at using both their eyes and noses while they hunt, so they frequently run through the woods with heads held high. In the eastern United States many hunters use curs to tree squirrels during the day and to hunt raccoons at night. Incidentally, the dog that was the inspiration for the book and movie Old Yeller is widely considered to be a black mouth cur.
Coonhounds: The six recognized coonhound breeds—the redbone, Plott, treeing walker, bluetick, English and black-and-tan—vary in color but they all share the same familiar long-eared, athletic look and the same insatiable prey drive. These dogs excel at tracking using their incredible sense of smell, and no matter whether they are chasing raccoons in a Mississippi swamp, or bears and mountain lions in the West, they cling to a trail with remarkable tenacity. One of the best-loved children’s books of all time, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, chronicles the story of an Arkansas boy and his pair of redbone coonhounds. But coonhounds aren’t for everyone; they have loud mouths (particularly valued among hunters) and an overwhelming desire to hunt, so keeping them in a confined space without any tasks to busy their mind can spell trouble.
Beagles: I have a real soft spot for these little dogs, and one of my favorite fall activities is to take a pack of rambunctious rabbit hounds out in search of cottontails. Rather than “circling” the rabbit, beagles follow the trail and the rabbit typically runs in a loop around its home territory, providing the hunter with a shot if they are in position. There are few better family dogs, too. Beagles love kids, but their hunting instinct oftentimes gets them into trouble. Beagles make an ideal choice for families who like to hunt, though; kids enjoy the dogs, and the whole family can listen to the chase as the hounds race along the rabbit’s scent trail. As with other dog breeds listed here, there are competitions for beagles put on by organizations like the American and United Kennel Club, and attending these competitions is one of the greatest ways to see these great little dogs in action and meet breeders. If you haven’t tried chasing rabbits with beagles, you should—it’s low-cost, low-impact and loads of fun.
Other Breeds: There are a number of breeds that make excellent hunting dogs that you might not expect to see in the field. The tenacious Jack Russell terrier is a born hunter, and they make great squirrel dogs with proper training. Likewise, many herding dogs make great small-game dogs—one of the best squirrel dogs I have ever seen in action was a rescued border collie. The popular dachshund, largely considered a house pet, can excel in the field, and in fact one of the most popular breeds among those who train blood-trailing dogs for recovering wounded game is the wire-haired version of this squatty German dog. Even the standard poodle (and the recently-popular labradoodle and goldendoodle crosses) can double as a family dog and retriever. The key with any breed is proper and consistent training.
Growing up on a farm we always had dogs around, and many of those dogs were hunting breeds. Some of my best memories are of following the chase as a group of beagles harried a cottontail or listening for a coonhound to strike a trail on a cold, moonlit November night. I was always amazed when a pointing breed locked up tight on the scent of a hidden bird, and I was thankful that there were labs to retrieve downed ducks from half-frozen impoundments after the shot.
Here’s a list of dog breeds that make wonderful family companions that moonlight as hard-charging hunting partners. Who knows, the right hunting dog for you might be right at your feet as you read this.