Hunting dog breeds are found in various breed categories, including Retrievers, Pointers, Spaniels, and more.
The two main categories of hunting dogs are: gundogs and hounds. But each of these also has subcategories.
Dogs have been hunting alongside humans for hundreds of years. But we have bred some to fit specific hunting roles, such as retrieving game.
Some popular hunting breeds include: Greyhounds, Bloodhounds, Beagles, and English Setters.
What This Article Covers
In modern life, dogs are mostly kept as domesticated pets, but it wasn’t always that way. In addition to being companion animals, dogs have assisted humans in a variety of roles over the years.
Even today, dogs assist people regularly, from military and law enforcement to personal assistance and guide dogs to herding and hunting.
Thanks to their loyal nature, keen sense of smell, and boundless energy, many breeds are popular with hunters and used to hunt game.
There are many hunting dog breeds out there, and each has unique characteristics and benefits as well as some downsides.
We’ll take a look at the category as a whole, as well as some of the most popular hunting dogs today. We’ll explore hunting dog breed characteristics and examine which make good family pets as well as diligent hunters.
To find the best hunting dogs for a specific type of hunting, skip to:
Types of Hunting Dogs
There is a huge number of breeds that can be considered hunting dogs. Many of which have been hunting alongside humans for hundreds of years. Others were more recently bred to fit specific hunting roles.
Most of the best hunting dog breeds fall into one of two categories: hounds and gundogs. These primary categories have many subcategories.
While there is some debate over the proper categorization of some breeds, it’s still beneficial to know the basic categories of hunting dogs.
Here are some of the most common categories.
Some hounds are solo hunters, meaning they can track, chase, and kill prey on their own. Other hounds simply help hunters locate prey but do not kill the animal themselves.
The hound group can be divided into two main categories: sight hounds and scent hounds. A third category, lurchers, is sometimes used, although they are often grouped with sight hounds.
As the name suggests, sight hounds rely heavily on their eyesight to locate and track prey. They are typically slender, elegant breeds that are extremely quick and can chase down even the fastest prey.
Sight Hound Breeds
Popular sight hound breeds include:
- Afghan Hound
- Scottish Deerhound
Of course, scent hounds rely on their sense of smell to track and locate prey. They do not have the speed or endurance of sight hounds, but their superior sense of smell allows them to track animals and signal the prey’s whereabouts to the hunter.
Scent Hound Breeds
Popular scent hound breeds include:
- Basset Hound
Different than hounds, gundogs mostly assist the hunter. Gundogs were bred specifically for use in hunting with firearms, and many of these breeds were relatively recently developed.
Although their specific role can vary, gundogs are there to assist the hunter. That could mean retrieving downed prey, flushing birds out of hiding, or tracking and chasing prey towards the hunter.
Gundogs do not typically hunt alone but love participating in hunts with their owners.
There are many subcategories of gundogs. Here are some of the most popular.
- Retrievers, such as Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, are bred to retrieve downed prey. They are able to remember the locations of multiple fallen birds and wait until the end of a hunt to retrieve them. Retrievers are also extremely popular family pets.
- Setters, such as English Setters and French Setters, are bred to locate and flush out hiding prey, particularly upland game birds.
- Pointers, such as the English Pointer, are often grouped with Setters. They will stand and raise a leg when they find game.
- Spaniels, such as Cocker Spaniels and Papillons, are bred to locate prey and signal the hunter of its whereabouts.
- HPR (hunt, point, retrieve) dogs, such as German Pointers and Vizslas, are bred to locate and point at prey and are sometimes also used to retrieve and hunt, too.
- Water dogs, such as Poodles and Spanish Water Dogs, are bred to retrieve waterfowl that fall into the water.
Less Common Categories
There are other categories such as feists, curs, Dachshunds, and terriers, but they are less commonly used. Often breeds in these categories are lumped in with other main hunting dog categories.
Again, these categories are far from set in stone, and there is certainly some debate as to which categories to use and which breeds to place in which category.
The above is not a definitive list but rather a simple overview.
Most Popular Hunting Dog Breeds
While there are hundreds of breeds that could be considered hunting dogs, there are some that immediately come to mind when you think of hunting breeds.
Some of the best hunting dog breeds are also quite popular for their friendly personalities.
Here in the US, the most popular hunting dogs include:
- Labrador Retrievers
- Golden Retrievers
- Yorkshire Terriers
- German Shorthaired Pointers
- English Springer Spaniels
- Cocker Spaniels
- Basset Hounds
Most Popular Doesn’t Mean Best
While these are not necessarily the best hunting dog breeds, they are among the most popular based on the American Kennel Club’s popular dog breed ranking.
Of course, many people own hunting dogs but never use them for hunting. Clear statistics for active hunting dogs are not readily available.
Best Hunting Dog Breeds by Game/Prey
Bird Hunting Dogs
Dogs make excellent companions for bird hunters. They not only flush out hard-to-spot prey but also retrieve successful kills.
Some of the best bird hunting dog breeds include the Labrador Retriever, Shorthaired Pointer, Boykin Spaniel, Golden Retriever, and English Springer Spaniel.
Retrievers are a favorite of many bird hunters, thanks to their keen retrieving abilities and an excellent memory.
A well-trained Retriever can sit and watch its owner hunt for hours and remember the location of each fallen bird, waiting patiently for the command to retrieve.
While most bird hunting breeds are useful for hunting all types of birds, there are certainly some specialties to consider.
Best Bird Hunting Dogs
The English Springer Spaniel and Brittany are considered some of the best hunting dogs for upland game birds, such as pheasant.
Rabbit Hunting Dogs
Hunting rabbits and other small game requires a different approach. Small game can be very challenging for hunters to spot, so scent hounds are often used to locate and flush prey out of hiding.
Beagles are among the most used rabbit hunting dogs, thanks to their keen sense of smell and boundless energy.
Their small size gives them the agility needed to keep pace with the rapid and sporadic movements of small game. At the same time, their loud bark keeps hunters aware of the prey’s location at all times.
Other scent hounds can also be used to hunt rabbits. Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, terriers, and Weimaraners all make great rabbit hunting dogs.
Deer Hunting Dog Breeds
When it comes to deer hunting, it’s a different ball game altogether. It requires a good nose and plenty of stamina. Deer can move quickly when startled and can run for miles before tiring.
Among deer hunting dog breeds, one of the best is the American Foxhound and similar foxhound varieties. These dogs love the thrill of the chase and will bark continuously while in chase to signal the hunter.
Their nearly endless energy for a chase makes them a perfect partner for deer hunters.
Other deer hunting breeds include the Scottish Deerhound and the Portuguese Podengo Grande. The Scottish Deerhound is a very large dog that has been hunting red deer in the Scottish Highlands for centuries.
Large Game Hunting Dogs
Breeds like coonhounds, the Plott Hound, the American Pitbull Terrier, and other pig hunting dogs make good choices. The Plott Hound is a truly American breed and the state dog of North Carolina.
It’s important to understand the dangers associated with hunting large game – for yourself and your canine companion.
Whichever dog you choose, they won’t be hunting all the time, so you’ll want to consider other factors as well.
Hunting Dogs as Family Pets
When seeking the best family hunting dog, you have to consider the breed’s hunting skills in addition to its temperament and behavior at home.
Small Hunting Dog Breeds
These small hunting breeds are appropriate for smaller living spaces:
- Basset Hounds
- Finnish Spitz
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
- Portuguese Podengo Pequeno
- Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen.
German Hunting Dog Breeds
There are a few German hunting dog breeds that are popular for their versatility. While other sporting dogs were bred for a specific purpose, these were bred to be multi-purpose hunting partners and companion animals.
The German Longhair Pointer loves to track and retrieve game. As its name suggests, it’s also a pointer. They are most often used for bird and small game hunting.
Not to be outdone, the German Shorthair Pointer is also excellent at hunting, tracking, pointing, and retrieving. The German Wirehaired Pointer is another versatile breed that enjoys tracking and pointing as well as retrieving.
The good news is that many of the characteristics that make these German breeds excellent hunting dogs also make them great pets.
Many of the best hunting dogs are obedient, easy to train, healthy, energetic, and loyal, which are great characteristics both on the hunt and at home.
Hunting Dogs as Family Pets
Some of the most popular dogs used for hunting that also make fantastic family pets include:
- Golden Retrievers
- Labrador Retrievers
- Irish Setters
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
Hunting Dog Health Problems
Although most hunting dogs are relatively healthy breeds, like all dog breeds, they are prone to some health problems. It’s important that potential owners be aware of these issues.
Since there are so many hunting dog breeds, it’s impractical to list all the health concerns associated with each breed. We recommend searching this site and others for potential health problems associated with each breed you are considering.
You can also look at the State of Pet Health report put out by Banfield Veterinary Hospital. This report looked at data from 2.5 million dogs to determine the most common health concerns.
Choosing the Right Hunting Dog for You
Choosing a breed for you and your family is a big decision and not one that should be taken lightly.
You should do plenty of research beforehand and be aware of any potential behavioral and health problems for whichever breed you consider.
There are many factors to consider, but these are among the most important:
- Hunting skills – the breed’s hunting specialties and skills
- Trainability – the breed’s obedience and trainability
- Energy level – the breed’s endurance and energy level, relevant for both hunting and home
- Size – the breed’s physical size, important to consider in relation to your living space
- Health concerns – the breed’s known health concerns and potential issues
- Behavior – the breed’s behavior and obedience characteristics
- Interaction with others – the breed’s behavior with other dogs, other pets such as cats, and children.
Once you’ve considered these factors, you can make a more informed decision. Many great hunting dogs also make great pets, but it’s important to choose carefully.
Hunting Dogs Need Training Too
Also, it’s good to remember that just because a dog’s genetics say that he should be good at hunting, doesn’t necessarily mean that he will enjoy it.
A lot comes down to breeding and training practices.
If you’ve ever met a Retriever who won’t play fetch, you know that there’s more to a good hunting dog than just genetics.
If you are getting a dog specifically to hunt with, it’s good to get a puppy so you can implement training from a young age. We do not recommend rescue dogs for hunters in most cases.
Do you have a hunting dog or are you looking for one? Tell us about it in the comments.
This article has been updated for 2019.
References and Further Reading
- American Kennel Club
- Banfield Veterinary Hospital
- Coile, D. Caroline. “Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds.” Second Edition. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. 1998.
- World Book’s Animals of the World. “Golden Retrievers and Other Sporting Dogs.” World Book, Inc. 2007.