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Types of Hunting Dogs


Once classified as a water spaniel, a retriever's primary role is to find and return shot game to the hunter. Retrievers can spend long hours in a duck blind and visually spot and remember the location of downed birds. At command, they retrieve the birds. They may be able to follow hand, verbal, and whistle commands to the downed bird. They typically have large, gentle muzzles.

A retriever is a type of gun dog that retrieves game for a hunter. Generally gun dogs are divided into three major classifications: retrievers, flushing spaniels, and pointing breeds. Retrievers were bred primarily to retrieve birds or other prey and return them to the hunter without damage; retrievers are distinguished in that nonslip retrieval is their primary function. As a result, retriever breeds are bred for soft mouths and a great willingness to please, learn, and obey. A soft mouth refers to the willingness of the dog to carry game in its mouth without biting into it. "Hard mouth" is a serious fault in a hunting dog and is very difficult to correct. A hard-mouthed dog renders game unpresentable or at worst inedible.

The retriever's willingness to please and trainability have made breeds such as the Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever popular as a disability assistance dog.   ~Wikipedia

Water Dogs

Water dogs are a subclass of retrievers. Typically they are strong swimmers with a lot of endurance and are bred to hunt all manner of waterfowl.

Water dogs are a type of gun dog bred to flush and retrieve game from water, often serving the waterfowl hunter. A strong swimming desire is a characteristic of these dogs. Some of the oldest dog breeds are water dogs. The term was originally water spaniels (a misnomer, as not all, are spaniels). With the advent of kennel clubs many "water spaniels" were accepted under the names including the designation retriever rather than a spaniel.

Water dogs have curly, sometimes corded coats. Most water dog breeds are easy to train and are sociable. ~Wikipedia


Spaniels have been used as hunting dogs for hundreds of years. Flushing Spaniels are used to locate and flush game for a hunter.

A spaniel is a type of gun dog. Spaniels were especially bred to flush game out of denser brush. By the late 17th century spaniels had been specialized into water and land breeds. The extinct English Water Spaniel was used to retrieve water fowl shot down with arrows. Land spaniels were setting spaniels—those that crept forward and pointed their game, allowing hunters to ensnare them with nets, and springing spaniels—those that sprang pheasants and partridges for hunting with falcons, and rabbits for hunting with greyhounds. During the 17th century, the role of the spaniel dramatically changed as Englishmen began hunting with flintlocks for wing shooting. Charles Goodall and Julia Gasow (1984)[1] write that spaniels were "transformed from untrained, wild beaters, to smooth, polished gun dogs."

The word spaniel would seem to be derived from the medieval French espaigneul—"Spanish"—modern French, espagnol.  ~Wikipedia

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Water Dogs

  Water dogs fall into two categories for hunting: the retrievers and multi-purpose. Retrievers are excellent swimmers with characteristic webbed feet, and many derive from either Canadian, American, or British stock. Retrievers typically have oily coats that help repel icy water, and are noted for having high intelligence and being very strongly bonded to their masters. The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever is very unusual in the fact that it "tolls"-plays around in the hopes of attracting the attention of waterfowl from above and then letting its master shoot the bird, whence it retrieves it and goes back in the blind. It's long silky double coat is ideal for brushy locations hunters hide in for waterfowl. Golden Retrievers are originally from Scotland: their long, flowing, blonde double coats make them ideally suited to Scotland's rainy wet climate and their patience on land and in water is the stuff of legend; they shall wait for a bird for hours and will obey their master so long as master rewards him with fond affection. Curly Coated Retrievers were bred in England for both upland bird hunting and for still water retrieval, and are noted for being very stubborn even if the weather is wet, windy, and cold: they simply will not leave the field until they have found the goose and brought it back to master.

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, very popular in the United States, are brown dogs bred to jump in water after ducks and geese even when there is a coating of ice over the water-they have deep chests meant to act as a jackknife that will cut through it when they swim. In their native Maryland and Virginia they are a common sight at the beach merrily playing in the surf as they were bred for both salt water and freshwater conditions: when it is summertime and out of season for hunting, they make excellent lifeguards of master's children when the young ones are learning to swim in the tide. Most famous of all is the Labrador, native to an island in Maritime Canada but popular around the world: the field type Labrador has longer legs and a slimmer frame than the bulkier show type that is better known in Britain, but both show signs of being attracted to water from puppyhood. Like the Chesapeake, in addition to their use as a duck season gundog, they are used in lifeguard rescue since both are strong enough swimmers to withstand riptides and undertows and both were bred for swimming in both salt and fresh water.


Book of the Hunt, Gaston III, Count of Foix, 1387–88.

  Other water dogs are multipurpose hunters. Standard Poodles fall into the water dog category because they originally were used by wealthy Germans to hunt ducks; they predate most types of water dogs. Today there are kennels in the United States and Canada that have revived the breed for this purpose, with the dogs proving adept hunters at flushing bobwhite quail and common pheasant and achieving very high ranks in competitions, sometimes beating the more popular Labrador Retriever. They are highly intelligent, second only to Border Collies in rank in overall aptitude, and hunters must be very specific in indicating what they want when giving commands: they cannot be trained by conventional means and require very concrete signals to indicate what is desired so they won't attempt to solve the puzzle themselves and forget to follow all the checkpoints. They are excellent swimmers whose coat requires a simple bath after a swim and a simple cut about an inch off the skin rather than the impractical show clips; they have a gentle temperament and an eagerness to learn that makes them very easy to train and like most water dogs they live in the house with their master and his family. Portuguese Water Dogs are medium-sized dogs that will retrieve just about anything from the water and have a strong instinct to swim, plus they will guard whatever quarry a hunter keeps: they are one of the only water dogs that were bred to hunt fish.

To carry out the duties of a gun dog, a retriever should be trained to perform these tasks:

  • Remain under control: Retrievers are typically used for waterfowl hunting. Since a majority of waterfowl hunting employs the use of small boats in winter conditions, retrievers are trained to remain under control sitting calmly and quietly until sent to retrieve. This is often referred to as "steadiness". Steadiness helps to avoid an accidental capsizing, disrupting the hunter's aim or the possible accidental discharge of a firearm which could cause serious harm or death to others in the hunting party or to the dog itself. A steady dog is also better able to “mark” downed game.

  • Mark downed game: Marking is the process of watching for a falling bird or multiple birds. When the command "mark" is given, the dog should look up for incoming birds and remember where each bird falls. Well-trained retrievers are taught to follow the direction the gun barrel is pointing to mark where the birds fall. Once the game is downed, the handler will command the dog to retrieve the game. The dog’s ability to remember multiple “marks” is extremely important, and trainers use techniques to improve a dog’s marking and memory ability.

  • Perform a blind retrieve: When hunting waterfowl, a retriever's primary job is to retrieve downed birds. At times, a dog will not see the game fall, so retrievers are trained to take hand, voice, and whistle commands from the handler directing the dog to the downed game for retrieval. This is called a “blind retrieve”. Precision between the dog and handler is extremely useful and desired so as to minimize retrieval time and limit the disturbance of surrounding cover. The majority of blind retrieves in the field are made within 30-80 yards of the gun, but a good retriever/handler team can perform precise blind retrieves out to 100+ yards and more.

  • Retrieve to hand: Although some hunters prefer to have a bird dropped at their feet, the majority of handlers require the dog to deliver the game to hand, meaning once the dog has completed the retrieve, it will gently but firmly hold the bird until commanded to release it to the handler’s hand. Delivery to hand reduces the risk of a crippled bird escaping, as the bird remains in the dog's mouth until the handler takes hold of it.

  • Honoring: When hunting with multiple dogs, a retriever should remain under control while other dogs work, and wait its turn. This is important because having multiple dogs retrieving game simultaneously can cause confusion. This is one reason why many handlers use the dog's name as the command to retrieve.

  • Shake on command: Following a retrieve, a well-trained dog will not shake off excess water from its fur until after the delivery is complete. A dog shaking water from its fur in a small boat at worst risks capsizing the craft in cold winter conditions and at best will most likely shower hunters and equipment. Also, a dog shaking while still holding the game in its mouth could damage the bird to the point of making it unfit for the table. To avoid these mishaps, trainers use a distinct command releasing a dog to shake.

  • Quarter: Retrievers are often used in a secondary role as an upland flushing dog. Dogs must work in a pattern in front of the hunter seeking upland game birds. The retriever must be taught to stay within gun range to avoid flushing a bird outside of shooting distance.

  • Remain steady to wing and shot: When hunting upland birds, the flushing dog should be steady to wing and shot, meaning it sits when a bird rises or a gun is fired. It does this to mark the fall and to avoid flushing other birds by unnecessarily pursuing a missed bird.


Although most individual retrievers have the raw capacity to be trained to perform as a gun dog, a significant amount of thought and effort is given to breeding in specific desired traits into dogs from field bred lines that greatly enhance the training process. When breeding retrievers for field work, extensive consideration is given to:

  • Biddableness: Because producing a well-trained retriever capable of performing the tasks outlined above requires a significant amount of time and effort, an intelligent, controllable, and open-to-learning (biddable) retriever is of utmost importance.

  • Desire and drive: These traits covers a broad range of behaviors exhibited by the “good retriever”. Most notably, they demonstrate the desire to retrieve almost to the point of manic behavior and take on significant obstacles to make a retrieve. They also demonstrate an exceptional interest in birds, bird feathers, and bird scent, which is termed “birdiness”.

  • Marking and memory: Eyesight and depth perception are of paramount importance to a dog's ability to mark downed game. Remembering each fall is also critical. While retriever trainers use special techniques to help a dog to mark and remember downed game, a good retriever is born with these “raw tools”.

  • Nose: Dogs are led primarily by their nose. A good retriever uses its nose to find downed game in heavy cover and while quartering a field to locate and flush upland game birds.

  • Soft mouth: A soft-mouthed dog is needed to ensure retrieved game is fit for the table. A soft-mouthed dog picks up and holds game softly but firmly on the retrieve. Dogs that unnecessarily drop birds, crunch on, chew, or even eat the bird before delivery to the handler are considered “hard-mouthed” or are described as having “mouth problems”. While training can overcome most “mouth problems”, a dog with an inherently soft mouth is more desirable when starting the training process.

  • Hardiness: Waterfowl hunting is a cold-weather sport undertaken across a wide variety of locations and conditions, from thick, flooded timber in the south US, to icy and ice-covered ponds in the Midwest to frigid seas along upper the New England coast. A good retriever willingly re-enters the water and makes multiple retrieves under these and other extreme conditions.

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