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Hunting Dog Breeds: Popular Canines For Tracking, Smelling & Retrieving

MJ Shaffer

Last Updated: April 6, 2023 | 15 min read | Leave a Comment

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Recent discoveries suggest our ancestors were not just scavengers relying on the scraps stolen from lions and leopards but were actively selecting and hunting down individuals in the herd based on the animal’s age.

Older animals were easier prey. Game was a nutrient-dense food source for early hominids (Great Apes), but even elderly animals were hard to catch. Animal predators such as lions, leopards, and wild dogs had the advantages of speed and physical strength.

Humans had to rely on their ever-developing wits. The two came together when early man forged a bond that would last until this very moment – when man domesticated the wild dog. Learn about the history and hunting traits of some of the most popular breeds.

History Of Hunting Dogs

Happy Pack of Hunting Dogs
The relationship between hunter and canine has existed longer than the duration of organized human civilization itself.

Although it is still a matter of debate, the time period in which humans began to domesticate the wolf population with whom they competed for food resources was between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago. Early humans may have fed these first wolves the excess lean protein that they could not use. Humans needed other nutrients to survive during the most bitter months of these ice age years. The wolf pups captured and domesticated were likely pets. Sharing resources strengthened the bond between species and allowed them to coexist for mutual benefit.

Archaeologists and researchers have found evidence suggesting that humans used dogs as hunters around 9,000 to 12,000 years ago. While these artifacts and fossils require interpretation, it proves early civilizations used dogs for hunting. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest written story, and it’s over 4,000 years old in its earliest form. There is a reference to the goddess Ishtar’s seven hunting dogs in it.

Categories Of Hunting Dogs

Hunting dogs generally come from three groups defined by the American Kennel Club: Terriers, Sporting Dogs, and Hounds. Hunting journals generally categorize hunting dogs by purpose. Categories include retrievers, hounds, pointers, terriers, and blood tracking dogs. There is some overlap within this last category. Let’s look at some of the types using the hunting vernacular.

  • Retrievers, including breeds such as the Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, and Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
  • Hounds, including both sighthounds such as the Greyhound, Whippet, and Borzoi, and scent hounds including the Bloodhound, Fox Hound, and Beagle.
  • Pointers and Setters include representatives from the Setter group like the Irish Setter and English Setter and then the Pointer breed itself. In recent times, the dogs’ actions are basically the same.
  • Flushing dogs, like the Springer Spaniel and Cocker Spaniel, force birds out from their hiding place.
  • Terriers are bred to hunt and kill vermin (like rats) or pull a fox from its lair.

Many of these breeds are beloved family pets, but all descend from hunters bred to help humankind survive.


Young Gray Dog Sitting With Older Black Dog
The Weimaraner and Labrador were both bred for hunting, making them energetic and active pets.

Many of the dogs on the American Kennel Club’s 2021 list of most popular breeds are members of the Retriever Group. The same traits that make them so helpful to the fowl hunter make them ideal family pets. They were bred to retrieve game for the hunter without damage. Retrievers have a “soft mouth,” which means they can hold something delicate between their jaws without puncturing their skin as they move through water and brush. They possess the strength and stamina to cover a distance through challenging terrain while retaining a strong desire to please and obey the hunter.

The intelligence and willingness to learn embodied in these gentle souls make them not only cherished family companions but also service and therapy dogs extraordinaire. Labradors and Golden Retrievers are well represented in these fields.

Labrador Retriever

Topping the AKC list of most popular breeds nearly every year is the beloved Labrador Retriever. One theory about the name Labrador is that it derives from “laborer.” Initially a fisherman’s helper, the Labrador’s keen sense of smell and ability to retrieve game birds for sportspeople brought him the attention of an English Earl. His son began breeding the dogs and gave them the name Labrador Retriever.

Their cheerful and eager dispositions make Labradors popular as household pets. This very popularity has meant that the breed changes as dogs are selected for personality over performance. Not every modern Lab is a natural hunter. To find a pup who has the potential to excel at his hunter’s side, seek a reputable breeder who specializes in hunting lineages. Even with this genetic predisposition, you must train a pup to hunt well. Count on training your pup daily not only to obey basic obedience commands but to retrieve reliably. The time spent teaching a dog bred to the task ensures a loyal, reliable hunting companion in the field.

Golden Retriever

The Golden Retriever has been among the top-five canines on the AKC’s top dog breed list for many years. His friendly energy and desire to please make him popular wherever he goes, be it soccer practice with his family or in the field retrieving downed water birds for his hunter. A Scotsman, Lord Tweedmouth, created this breed on the Guisachan Estate during the Victorian Era. The American Kennel Club first recognized the Golden Retriever in 1932.

The Golden has become synonymous with a family companion. They can still be trained to hunt, but their natural instinct to give chase will need to be tempered with an understanding of the job at hand. After basic obedience training, work with your Golden to retrieve a decoy and then train your dog to seek the trail by scent. Spray scents are created for this purpose. The transition to working in the field will be the actual test of his readiness. The two of you will be ready to flush and retrieve downed birds before returning at day’s end to the comforts of home and hearth.


The handsome Weimaraner hails from Germany and comes in among the top 50 dog breeds. Although originally bred as a hunter of large game such as bear, deer, and wolf and used for such by the nobility of Weimar, the infusion of pointer blood eventually refined the breed into a bird dog. By the time they were introduced to the United States in the early twentieth century, the dogs were being used for hunting small game.

The Weimaraner’s innate talents need to be developed through careful training, as with all retriever breeds. The instinct to “point,” or stop and hold the body rigidly still while wholly focused on the hunter’s target prey is just part of their identity. Most pointers hold one leg aloft, knee bent, signaling their readiness to spring at the hunter’s behest.

Portuguese Water Dog

Also ranked in the top 50, the Portuguese Water Dog has an unusual history considering his current status as a low-shedding family pet. The breed has existed for several hundred years. These dogs were actually bred to swim in the water and “herd” fish into nets for the fishermen. The PWD might be asked to carry messages from boat to shore and retrieve gear that had fallen overboard back to the ship as other retrievers might bring in a bird.

While not bred initially as a typical retriever, the Portuguese Water Dog’s swimming ability and his retrieving instinct suggest that, with training, he could serve as a gun dog. If your goal is to hunt, a Labrador or spaniel type would be a surer bet. If you need a non-shedding family companion that can swim with the family all day long but might also become a hunting companion, then the PWD might fit the bill.


The Beagle is an excellent hunting companion but requires extensive training commitments.

Scent hounds, as the name suggests, have incredibly acute olfactory senses. They track game by the scent trail it leaves behind. They may need to cover great distances, thus having more stamina than instantaneous speed. On the other hand, Sight Hounds see their prey and run it down immediately. The sighthound breeds have bodies built to produce incredible bursts of speed but don’t have the stamina to run all day.


The friendly Beagle, a member of the hound group, commonly falls among the top ten most popular breeds. Hunters used dogs resembling the modern Beagle to track game as early as the 1400s. A scent hound, the Beagle tracks his hunter’s prey with his extraordinary nose and gives voice as he exuberantly chases his quarry, a trait that can potentially carry him too far from home. The Beagle is smaller than many hounds and thrives on attention and affection. He is as happy with his family as running a scent trail through the woods.

Beagles often hunt small games such as hares in pairs or packs. They have an incredible amount of stamina and can give chase for hours. When training a hunting Beagle, remember that your dog needs to see you as “home.” Condition your dog to know where you are at all times by talking to him, so he knows where you are as he tracks his quarry. If your pup begins his hunting career by running with experienced dogs, he will benefit from their example and reliably learn to return to you.

Basset Hound

Originally bred by French aristocrats to hunt small game, the Basset Hound is a scent hound that truly lives up to the title. With more than 220 million scent receptors in his keen nose (second only to the Bloodhound), the Basset’s low to the ground stature and distinct build enhance his ability to catch and keep a scent.

Basset Hounds are more likely to be found on their family’s sofa than actively hunting rabbits these days. Still, there are groups dedicated to preserving the hunting ability of the breed. Hunting competitions for Bassets focus on performing either a 4 to 6 dog group or a brace (pair) of dogs, depending on the organization holding the event. No rabbits are killed in these modern competitions, either. They test the ability of the Basset to track and hold the rabbit’s scent.


Coming in the middle of the top 100 is the Bloodhound at number 50. The Bloodhound’s sense of smell is the strongest in the canine world. His talented nose has more than 300 million scent receptors, the most of any dog. Monks in pre-Reformation European monasteries perfected this breed using bloodlines that existed for over a thousand years. The “blood” in the Bloodhound’s name refers to his royal breeding, not a preference for the scent of blood.

Their unparalleled smell limits the Bloodhound’s usefulness as a typical hunting dog. They can pick up a trail too old to follow to a fruitful end. While they can out hike their human companions, they do not have the speed of other scent hounds. However, their ability to track humans earns them a permanent place as valued search and rescue dogs.  As we’ve seen in movies through the years, Bloodhounds have hunted down fugitives for law enforcement. They will track but not harm their quarry.


Any mention of hunting hounds would be incomplete without a representative from the sighthound group. At number 57 on 2021’s top breed list, the Whippet is the most famous member of this subgroup. Developed as a sporting dog for the common folk in Victorian England, Whippets make excellent family pets who are happy to cuddle on the couch as long as they have ample time to exercise and run. They do not have the boundless stamina of some hunting dogs but instead are natural sprinters.

Sighthounds differ from scent hounds in how they track and hunt. While scent hounds follow the trail an animal leaves behind with the stamina to follow the scent for a long time, sighthounds pursue instead with bursts of tremendous speed. Their excellent eyesight allows them to see their quarry in open country. Whippets sprint their prey down at rates of up to 35 miles per hour. They immobilize it until their hunter catches up to make the kill. Because of their high prey drive and explosive speed, keep your Whippet in a fenced yard or walk him on a leash for his own safety.

Pointers And Setters

Hunting Dog in a Field
Bred for hunting, German Shorthaired Pointers are naturally athletic and fast.

Today, the difference between pointers and setters is not in their action when they detect prey but in their coat type. Pointers have smooth coats, while setters have a long coat with feathers on their tail, chest, and legs. Both types of coats shine in a healthy dog. In earlier times, setters would “set” or lie down when they detected prey, allowing the hunter to net or shoot the bird more easily. Pointers stand to attention with one front leg raised with knee bent, actually pointing in the direction of their attention. Nowadays, breeds of both types point towards their quarry.

German Shorthaired Pointer

The German Shorthaired Pointer (or GSP) is a recent entry into the top ten most popular dogs in the United States. In the 1600s, German hunters crossed the German Bird Dog with English and Spanish Pointers, adding in the olfactory prowess of the Bloodhound to create a breed able to hunt both day and night and bring joy as a family pet. The GSP reflects these early breeders’ efforts toward creating the perfect hunting dog.

The GSP is a highly versatile hunting dog. He can hunt, point, retrieve, and handle any game from birds to small mammals to deer. The German Shorthaired Pointer has a lot of stamina and a strong prey drive, so basic obedience training will help keep him safe. Be sure to keep him on a leash if the two of you are going for a jog so he doesn’t catch a scent and take you on an unexpected adventure.

German Wirehaired Pointer

Like his GSP cousin, the German Wirehaired Pointer is a high-energy hunting dog. The GWP has a heavier build than his short-haired relative and is slightly taller. The most significant difference is the nature of his coat. His stiff coat protects him from the weather and brambles and briars as he tracks his prey. This dense coat may make hot weather less tolerable for him. These rugged dogs work at a medium pace and range.

Rugged and versatile in the field, German Wirehaired Pointers remain trainable and forgiving of an inexperienced trainer’s mistakes. They retrieve well both on land and in the water. GWPs display both an early ability to point out their quarry and respond well to training.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Although the name used for the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon varies by country, the dog himself is a gundog with a strong instinct for retrieving on land and in water, as well as an excellent ability to track wounded game. In the late 1800’s, Eduard Karel Korthals (the griff is called the Korthals griffon in the UK), developed the breed. He crossed several dogs of different hunting breeds with specific traits, hoping to blend them all into a single wire-haired pointing dog. His success is today’s Wirehaired Pointing Griffon.

Korthals helped develop a formal testing system for dogs of this type, and his griffons were very successful. The breed is a solid bird dog, hunts well regardless of terrain, and excels in the water. Energetic and amusing, griffs benefit from a training style that respects their friendly and eager nature. Work calmly and consistently with this breed, and he’ll reward you as a loyal partner in the field and protective companion in the home.

Irish Setter

The beautiful Irish Setter is a gun dog who could cover the wide-open countryside of Ireland with his sweeping stride. In the 19th century, the expected coloration changed from red and white to the red we now associate with the breed. Breeding for show instead of performance, coupled with the surge in the breed’s popularity after Disney’s 1962 movie, Big Red, nearly ruined the breed. Unscrupulous breeders produced puppies for an eager market, with little regard for the quality of the dogs produced. During the 1970s and 80s, the breed had a reputation for being flighty and unreliable. When the puppy market tanked, responsible breeders returned the focus to field performance. We now see representatives of the breed with championships both in the ring and the field.

The Irish Setter points his game in the field and readily adapts to changing terrain and conditions. Irish Setters are family companions and working dogs, “best suited to hunters looking for a companion in the house and field.” If you’re considering an Irish Setter as your hunting dog, be sure any pups in the running have individuals in the pedigree that possess the traits you seek. A pup with only conformation championships in his history may not have the instincts necessary to excel in his job.

Flushing Dogs

Cute Security Dog With Person
The hunting instincts in Springer Spaniels make them great at detection, as well as search and rescue.

A flushing dog is a bird dog who, by instinct and training, locates and forces game birds to flight, allowing the hunter to shoot them. Retrievers are technically flushing dogs, but they also deliver the game to the hunter undamaged. Other dogs in this category have different specialties, and many are more compact breeds dogs like the Spaniels.

English Springer Spaniel

On the AKC’s most popular breed list, the English Springer Spaniel enjoys the 26th position. The name spaniel reflects their presumed Spanish origin. Irish law mentions a water spaniel over 2,000 years ago, so this breed has served humankind for millennia. They predate the advent of the firearm, but the earliest spaniels flushed game for the hunter to capture. The Boughey family produced the first stable bloodline of Springer Spaniels in Shropshire in 1812.

The English Springer Spaniel has diverged into two strains over the past century, field and bench. Enthusiasts call dogs explicitly bred to win conformation classes bench and to excel at flushing game “field dogs.” English Springer Spaniels field dogs are tireless flushers who work will work the entire field but remain within gun range. They have an incredible sense of smell and are the first choice to hunt pheasant.

American Cocker Spaniel

The ebullient American Cocker Spaniel is above the English Springer Spaniel in popularity. The American Cocker Spaniel’s name comes from his original purpose. Hunters of woodcock, a wading game bird considered a delicacy, needed a dog who could function in thick cover to flush and retrieve the bird. Once the dogs came to America, breeders selected pups with the American Woodcock in mind. These changes created the American Cocker Spaniel. The breed went through the ups and downs of movie star status, and health was the first thing to suffer. After health problems started to arise, so did problems with temperament. The American Cocker remained popular as a family pet but not a hunter.

Fortunately, a few breeders resisted the trends and stayed true to producing dogs with the breed’s working characteristics. Hunters still seek these working lineages. The Dungarvan line is mainly known for its hunting lineage, and the working American Cocker is well suited to working the thick cover in which they can find game birds like woodcock, grouse, and duck.

English Cocker Spaniel

Although the English Cocker Spaniel is further down the popularity list than his American counterpart, the breed actually originated with the English. The early spaniels were classified by type, field, or land but further subdivided by size. Breeders labeled the larger spaniels springing or field spaniels and the smaller “cocking” spaniels. The unusual name refers to the woodcock they helped man capture, even before the advent of the hunting rifle.

Like many hunting breeds, there is both a show type and a field type of English Cocker Spaniel. The field-type dogs have a lighter coat and heavier bone structure than the show type. Thick brush that would deter many dogs is easy work for these small hunters and doesn’t daunt their boundless enthusiasm.


Airedale Terrier Dog Breed
The Airedale Terrier is a handsome black and tan terrier who helped his family hunt duck for dinner and cleared the farm of vermin.

Terriers vary tremendously in size, but they have a common spirit. These feisty dogs were originally bred to hunt, kill vermin, and guard the home and stable. The tenacity that pushes them to take on an opponent twice their size can also make training them a challenge. Their “lot of dog in a small package” personality appeals to many, and two size extremes represent the group on the AKC’s list of the most popular dogs of 2021.

Airedale Terrier

The Airedale Terrier is the largest breed in the terrier class. This breed originated in the rugged working-class environment of the Aire Valley in Northern England and embodies the courage of the terrier class. Their versatility has placed them with the troops during war times and as working police dogs in the past. A solid family guard dog, the Airedale’s strong prey drive is still characteristic of the breed.

Although we typically think of vermin hunters when we think of Terriers, the Airedale was bred as a multiple-purpose dog. He has the instinct to find birds and also retrieve them. The Airedale’s thick coat protects him in the water, and some hunters suggest that the Terrier’s courage makes the Airedale quicker to the bird than other more typical bird dog breeds. Intelligent and stubborn, the Airedale may challenge the inexperienced trainer.

Russell Terrier

Although the Russell and the Parson terriers are separate breeds per the AKC, the fox hunting terrier developed by Parson John Russell is the progenitor of both. The Russell Terrier is number 72 on the AKC’s 2021 most popular breeds list. Russells aided the hounds on the traditional horse and hound fox hunt. Foxhounds chased until the fox went to the ground or down into his burrow. The JRT then dove in to drag out the unfortunate fox. Old fox hunters used to say the original Jack Russell‘s tail was docked at the right length to serve as a handle to pull both terrier and fox from the hole.

Now that the cruel tradition of foxhunting is a thing of the past, the Russell’s hunting duties are more utilitarian. Many barns and stables enjoy the company of the Russell as a companion and a rat catcher. Fiesty and strong-willed, the Russell’s indomitable spirit remains, although his original purpose does not.

Final Thoughts

Without dogs to help us hunt, our diet may have been quite different through the centuries. Our species are inextricably linked. Man has molded the original wolf-type canid into a myriad of forms to suit our needs, and one of the closest bonds we’ve shared has been that between hunter and hunting dog. Although many breeds in this list are no longer used only as hunters, dedicated preservationists ensure their breed instinct remains. In the 21st Century, our bond has come full circle to mirror that between early man and the first wolves tamed as pets. We love them as companions. They no longer just hunt game – they capture our hearts.

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