Hunting is one of the oldest functions for which purebred dogs were developed. Gun dogs – most of which are represented in the American Kennel Club's Sporting Group – are typically trained to work either on land or in water, as pointers, retrievers or flushers of game. It's no coincidence that sporting breeds also include the most popular pet and working breeds. The intelligence and trainability of the Labrador retriever, for example, make it as outstanding a hunting retriever as it is a seeing-eye dog. Herewith, a guide to the hunters.
The three setter breeds (Gordon setter, Irish setter and English setter) were developed for locating upland game birds by catching airborne scents and then crouching down, or "setting," beside a bird without disturbing it. Even these three breeds – similar in features at first glance – vary in their body types and personalities, reflecting the type of flightiness needed for different kinds of terrain.
There are eight spaniel breeds (American water spaniel, clumber spaniel, cocker spaniel, English cocker spaniel, English springer spaniel, field spaniel, Sussex spaniel, and Welsh springer spaniel), which are generally divided into those that work on land and those that work in water (although they can be trained as dual-purpose hunters). Spaniels were bred to flush out hiding game and, in some cases, to retrieve their quarry from land or water. Almost all of these breeds have thick coats that are resistant to water, weather, and thorns; however, they vary in body and head conformation. Some spaniel breeds have clearly been developed as slow, deliberate hunting dogs that remain close to the hunter, rather taking off at high speed to flush prey.
Unlike setters, spaniels and pointers, the retrievers (Chesapeake Bay retriever, curly-coated retriever, flat-coated retriever, Labrador retriever, golden retriever, and Irish water spaniel) were bred specifically to bring back waterfowl, not to scent point or flush land birds. The introduction of the shotgun in 1830 made it necessary to have working dogs with the intelligence to follow directions and to retrieve game from relatively long distances.
The pointing breeds (Brittany, German shorthaired pointer, German wirehaired pointer, vizsla, Weimeraner and wirehaired pointing griffon) are actually very different from each other but share the ability to locate game by scent and then freeze until the hunter arrives.
In spite of the specificity of these dog breeds for the purposes for which each was developed, all good hunting dogs, are adaptable, and highly trainable. Like other dog sports, hunting is ultimately a result of partnership – and a deep bond – between the dog and his handler.