Check out the American Kennel Club’s rankings for the most popular dog breeds from year to year and you’ll see what you probably already knew: Labrador retrievers dominate. Going on nearly three decades now, the lab has proven to be the most registered AKC breed out there.
Golden retrievers and German shorthairs also make the cut for the top 10, mixed among quite a few breeds that couldn’t hack it for five minutes in a duck blind or CRP field. AKC doesn’t parse out hunting dogs versus general pets, obviously, but it’s not much of a leap to suggest that the lab takes top honors in both categories.
Does that mean that labs, retrievers and shorthairs are the best choice for an upland or waterfowl hunter? Not necessarily. While we often choose our next pup based on what we have experience with, the options for a unique, four-legged hunting partner are many.
One of those options is the English cocker, a breed few people in this country have more experience with than Jordan Horack, owner of Juggernaut Spaniels. Horack recently did what no one has done before, which is to win both the National Open and the National Amateur Cocker Championships in the same year. He’s also a devout hunter who says he fell in love with the breed after a lifetime with labs and goldens.
“Their ability to cover ground is equal to, or greater than, any flushing dog I’ve ever hunted behind,” Horack said. “And their smaller stature is perfect for getting through dense cover, which is ideal for pheasants and grouse.”
When it comes to temperament, Horack describes his cockers as “bursting with personality” and “loyal to their owners.” The latter point is one that all bird-dog owners can appreciate, because a dog that understands the partnership with his handler in the field is a dog that will produce more birds.
As a last statement on cockers, besides advising potential buyers to truly do their homework on bloodlines before selecting a litter, Horack points out that they aren’t lap dogs.
“Cockers are little athletes. They need jobs, they need stimulation—especially when they are young. They respond really well to structured training, because they are highly driven and intelligent.”
However, cockers aren’t perfect for everybody. They struggle with deep snow and late-season waterfowl temps, so hunters who wingshoot in December should probably consider another breed.
Another breed with drive to spare is the Drahthaar, which is a German breed of pointing dog that often excels in big cover, upland country. Rhett Hall, owner of Iron Point Kennels in North Dakota, is hooked on the breed. He echoed Horack’s sentiment for why you should choose a Drahthaar.
“Drahthaars work with their owners so well, and they adapt to new cover quickly,” Hall said. “They like to maintain contact with the gun, but they have independence to range out and show you where to find birds. The way they spread out in the prairie and then rein it in in deep cover—like the grouse woods—is incredible.”
Hall cautions against expecting a Drahthaar to lay around for most of the day, even though, as he says, they have a calm, happy demeanor. That chill attitude can be misleading.
“They are smart dogs that love to learn, but they are also high-drive dogs,” Horack said. “You need to manage that with them, because otherwise they’ll find something to do which can get them into trouble.”
As far as digging into pedigrees, Halls notes that it’s prudent to ask a lot of questions of any breeder. He also recommends trying to see a puppy’s parents in the field or on the water. Doing so will give you a much better idea of how their offspring will operate.
If you get a chance to watch a Drahthaar work in the field, you’ll probably notice their confrontational demeanor. Drahthaars have no problem tangling with critters, so be aware that although they can be a great choice for the upland hunter, they also need to be under your control—just like pretty much all dogs in the field.
“Drahthaars are tough, and you should prepare to deal with encounters with other animals like raccoons in the cattails,” Horack said.
While English cockers and Drahthaars are certainly not as common as labs and goldens, they are far more common in the hunting arena than standard poodles. Rich Louter, owner of Louter Creek Hunting Poodles, would like to change that. Louter, a professional trainer with decades of hunting dog experience, says that he would put a poodle’s nose and hunting ability up against any typical breed.
“Their noses are simply incredible and when you get into the field with one, you see their temperament shine,” Louter said. “They are in their element in the grouse woods and pheasant fields, but before that you’ve got to get them to learn basic obedience. This is where a lot of trainers make a mistake, because poodles are a thinking breed that is relatively soft.”
Poodles are a threat to get bored quickly, so a training plan is necessary to keep them interested and engaged. If you’re willing to do that, a poodle will hold its own against any hunting dog.
While poodles might seem like an odd choice, consider this: They are as close to hypoallergenic as any hunting breed you’ll ever run across. Some of the designer breeds like labradoodles and goldendoodles can be, too, but Louter recommends that interested hunters would be wise to go the standard poodle route. Potential owners need to do their due diligence, though.
“Visit potential breeders, ask a ton of questions, and make sure all health testing is done and up-to-date for both the sire and the dam,” Louter said.
Plenty of Options
If you’ve got a contrarian streak in you and would like to un-crate an unusual suspect in the pheasant field, you’ve got options. No matter what you decide on, remember the common thread among all uncommon bird dog breeds—do your research.
There are plenty of dogs bred for looks, but not as many for brains, athleticism and health. Those are qualities you need from any breed, obscure or not.
Feature image via Wiki Commons.