For as long as anyone can remember, man has always fared better in his pursuit of game when aided by a canine. But which breeds are best? Our choices for the best pointers, retrievers, flushing dogs and hounds follow, but with hundreds of different sporting breeds to choose from, you really can't go wrong.
In the days when bird hunters and field trialers knew more about the dams and sires of their favorite dogs than they knew about their own ancestors, big-running English pointers with 12 o'clock tails seemed to be everyone's favorite bird dog.
Thus, it's almost sacrilegious to pick any candidate except that breed as the top pointing dog, but times have changed and so has the nature of bird hunting. Now, most of us are hunting small patches and field edges, grasslands, highlands and old farmsteads for chukar, ruffs, partridge and quail of various sorts.
Clockwise from the top left: English Setter, English Pointer, Hungarian Vizsla and German Wirehaired Pointer.
Top Pointing Dog: Brittany
For this kind of work, we need a biddable dog that isn't willful, has good manners around other dogs, is fairly carefree and seems to understand what gun range means.
We'll go with the Brittany. Known as the Brittany spaniel when the American Kennel Club first acknowledged the breed in 1934, the "spaniel" was ultimately dropped when hunters began to realize that the Brittany could point birds at least as well as it could flush them. Brittanys have more dual championships (show and field trial) than any other sporting breed, which proves they're as good as they look.
Runner-Up Pointing Dog: English Setter
In the category of field gun dogs, the Brittany is first among equals. The gorgeous German shorthaired pointer is the most popular bird dog in the American Kennel Club's registry, and its wirehaired and longhaired brethren are abundantly capable hunters.
The English pointer, as mentioned, is perhaps the most celebrated pointing breed. Still, we can't help but recall "The Road to Tinkhamtown," and Cider's white plume of a tail in the distance. We'll go with Corey Ford's judgment here and stick with the English setter as our runner-up to the Brittany.
One crisp September afternoon in a north Florida peanut field, I hunted doves with a man who had trained his pit bull to retrieve. The dog sat patiently beside us, waiting to show off its skills, and sprang into action when I downed the first dove. At the owner's behest, the pit bull galloped to the dead bird, scooped it up in its maw, turned back toward us, made a couple of crunching sounds and swallowed the dove whole. Tongue lolling, it then bounded back to us, obviously pleased with the way things were progressing.
"He'll settle down after he eats one or two," said the proud owner. And, sure enough, he did.
Clockwise from the top left: Golden Retriever, Standard Poodle, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.
Top Retrieving Dog: Labrador Retriever
Most dogs, be they squirrel feists, rabbit beagles or pit bulls with large appetites, can be trained to retrieve game. But it's those whose bloodlines have been finely honed over centuries that excel. For finding and bringing back waterfowl and the larger game birds, the Labrador retriever has no equal. It's weatherproof, waterproof and tenacious--the epitome of a hunter.
This working-class breed is just as efficient in pheasant country as it is in flooded timber. Labs seem to understand there's no such thing as a free ride, and one will hunt as if it's afraid it's going to get kicked off the team. Fat chance—it's an all-American.
Runner-Up Retrieving Dog: Golden Retriever
The golden retriever has remained a favorite both for its happy-go-lucky personality and its dependability. It's the kind of dog that's going to look good in the backseat of the family sedan, or patiently waiting beside a goose pit.
Let's face it: Packs of big hounds are so yesterday. Coonskin caps are never coming back into style, and watching Dancing With the Stars on an otherwise boring weekday night is a lot less labor-intensive than keeping up with a pack of hounds in a dark woods.
Today's night hunts and bench shows are echoes of a distant past. And unless you own a lot of land or are on good terms with your neighbors, chances are you're going to have trouble keeping penned hounds, much less casting them.
Clockwise from the top left: Blackmouth Cur, Beagle, Redbone Coonhound and Bluetick Coonhound.
Top Scent Hound: Blackmouth Cur
What we need nowadays is an opportunistic hunter that comes in a compact package, doesn't need a kennel, has a good nose and can serve double- or triple-duty for a variety of small game, and even critters the size of feral hogs. That's the blackmouth cur. Descended from the hearty stock of canines from the southern Appalachians that served the first Scots-Irish settlers, the blackmouth cur is an able and utilitarian hunter. You can chase coons all night and squirrels all morning with this pooch, and it will still have enough go to jump a rabbit or two for you on the way home.
Beagles are another option if rabbits are all you're likely to hunt. And the various breeds of mountain curs and feists make great small-game hunters and treeing hounds.
Any of the spaniel breeds have centuries of game-flushing history behind them—except for our choice for best flushing dog.
*Clockwise from the top left: Boykin Spaniel, Springer Spaniel, American Water Spaniel, and Cocker Spaniel.
Top Flushing Dog: Boykin Spaniel
A South Carolina hunter named L. Whitaker Boykin was given a stray white spaniel in the first decade of the 20th century. He bred the dog and its offspring to American water spaniels, pointers, retrievers and springer spaniels, and a few generations later a separate breed was developed. Boykin gave his dogs a lot of hunting chores, including scattering flocks of wild turkeys in the fall.
Bill and Dawn Crites
Runner-Up: Springer Spaniel
A good springer spaniel doesn't waste time looking for pheasants in places they're not likely to be, nor does it put birds in the air out of gun range.