Humans and hunting dogs have a long, storied history together. In fact, some of the first domesticated dogs were likely bred to help assist humans in capturing and killing game for food.
Today, hunting dogs still provide their human companions with invaluable assistance on hunting trips. The term does not describe an official breed group recognized by the American Kennel Club. Rather, it refers to dogs that either hunt with or hunt for humans, which includes many breeds from the sporting group and the hound dog group.
Hunters desire certain qualities and characteristics in hunting dogs. They need a good sense of smell to track and retrieve the quarry. For longer trips, a hunter will need a dog with a lot of energy and stamina.
If you are the Pack Leader to a hunting dog — or a mixed breed dog that is part hunting dog — you will need to find activities that fulfill their particular hunting drive, or they may direct those instincts elsewhere, resulting in problem behaviors.
Some hunting dogs, like pointers and setters, are bred to simply find the prey, usually fowl, and mark the spot where it is so the hunters can find it. A good activity for these breeds is search and rescue.
Retrievers do exactly what the name says, so a good non-hunting challenge for them is anything that involves bringing something back to their human, like flying disc or Flyball. Terriers have a strong prey drive, which can be fulfilled through agility training, especially using a lure.
Here is a little background on the top hunting dog breeds that, with regular exercise and mental challenges, make good family members.
The top 10 hunting dogs (alphabetically)
Beagles are a classic hunting dog, known for their playfulness, intelligence, and characteristic howl. The beagle is a British breed that specializes in smaller game. They have boundless stamina and persistence when tracking their game.
The bloodhound is the quintessential tracking breed — their famous noses can follow trails that have gone cold for days. Their sense of smell is so powerful that these dogs are regularly used by law enforcement to track criminals and locate missing persons.
- Chesapeake Bay retriever
This water-loving dog gets his name from the breed’s history along the Chesapeake Bay, where they were bred to hunt ducks. Though not as well-known as Labradors or golden retrievers, this breed shares all the qualities that make retrievers lovable: intelligence, athleticism, and boundless good nature.
Coonhounds are great trackers, relying on their sense of smell to help their human compatriots locate their prey. They may have been bred as a combination of two other great tracking breeds — foxhounds and bloodhounds — and get their name for their propensity towards smaller game, such as raccoons. However, this breed is known for their fearlessness and is often used in hunting large game, like deer.
Skeptics may have a hard time believing this stubby-legged dog would be of any use in the field, but dachshunds have been bred as far back as 17th century Europe to hunt smaller game. This breed has long proved a fearless tracker of badgers, foxes, and rabbits. Their name even comes from the German words for badger and dog: “Dachs” and “Hund.”
- English setter
Easily trained and energetic, this breed is another coveted bird dog, originating in the United Kingdom in the 19th century. The closely related Irish setter has many similarities. Both possess an excellent sense of smell and a deep reserve of stamina.
- Fox terrier
Now harder to find than most others on this list, the fox terrier is another breed that can trace its roots back to 17th century Europe. This small but spirited terrier was bred to chase foxes out of their hiding places. Today, their short but powerful frames make them coveted companions for fox hunting.
- Labrador retriever
The Labrador retriever is considered to be the best hunting dog because of its versatility. Labs are famously trainable, intelligent, athletic and good-natured. They are also water-loving dogs with slightly webbed toes and water-repellant coats. One interesting quality about Labradors is their “soft bite.” A Lab can be trained to hold an item in its mouth without damaging it — a well-trained lab can even hold an egg in his mouth!
The pointer is another classic hunting dog, working easily on both land and water. They are commonly used as bird dogs, although they also are adept at tracking. Their name comes from their characteristic “pointing” behavior. When a pointer smells prey, instead of flushing it out, she freezes and points with her body towards the prey.
- Spanish water dog
The Spanish water dog’s specialty is in its name. These highly intelligent, eager, and agile dogs are perfectly suited for flushing out and retrieving waterfowl. They’re so comfortable in the water they are often used in aquatic search-and-rescue missions. Their thick coat is poorly suited for hunting in the brush, however, as it can catch on branches and vegetation.
Do you own a hunting dog? Share a photo in the comments and tell us a bit about him or her.