Florida hunter’s guide to breeds for the field and marsh.
By Carolee Anita Boyles
When you’re bird hunting, nothing beats a good dog at your side. Whether it’s a pointer for quail or a retriever for upland birds and waterfowl, a well-trained dog can make your day afield more productive and more fun. What follows will give you a basic understanding of some of the bird dog breeds. Before you purchase a puppy, do your research; understand the needs and requirements of the breed, and seek out a responsible breeder who breeds dogs with good working bloodlines.
GERMAN SHORTHAIRED POINTER
The German Shorthaired pointer is a solid, friendly breed that makes a good family dog. These high energy dogs need a job, so be prepared to keep them busy in the off season with activities to challenge and train their obedience or agility. German Shorthairs may be solid liver or liver-and-white with patches, spots or freckles. Their hair is very short, so they’re good for Florida’s hot climate. They range a comfortable distance from the gun, not racing out ahead of you or tripping you by staying under your feet.
Don’t call a Brittany a spaniel; any Brittany owner within earshot will be quick to correct you. At one time this breed was referred to as the Brittany Spaniel, but that name was dropped in 1980. The Brittany originally was developed as a “peasant dog” in France, and takes its name from the Brittany region there. Peasants needed a versatile dog that could hunt feather and fur. They could afford only one dog, so that one dog needed to be able to do everything, including hunting upland game birds, hunting rabbits and other small game, and retrieving game. The result is another high-energy dog that needs a job, and another dog that can excel at obedience or agility in the off season.
The Brittany is most often orange-and-white, but occasionally you’ll see one that’s liver-and-white. It has a short, dense coat that protects it from briars or brush in the field. The coat can be flat or wavy and needs regular brushing. This is a smaller breed than some of the other sporting breeds; Brittanies usually run 30 to 40 pounds.
The Vizsla has been around since the 10th century; the ancestors of this breed moved into what is now Hungary and settled there. This dog is a natural hunter, but also is a great family dog and good companion. Vizslas have a nice disposition and a strong desire to please, so they’re easy to train; they also have a well developed protective instinct.
The Vizsla has short hair, making it a good breed for Florida. Its coat is a golden rust color that ranges from medium to deep gold. It’s a tough hunter with lots of stamina that never stops looking for bird scent. This is a breed that loves being active, and does best with someone who has a commitment to training and working with a canine companion.
The Weimaraner often is called the “Gray Ghost,” a good nickname for a silver dog with eerie yellow or amber eyes. This breed is from Germany, where it was developed at the court of Weimar.
In Europe the Weimaraner was a versatile hunter, going after everything from upland birds to big game. In the U.S., however, the Weimaraner was bred as a show dog and as a family and companion dog, and lost some of its hunting traits.
In recent years, importation of European dogs has improved the hunting ability of some bloodlines. If you decide this breed is for you, be careful to ask a lot of questions about the parentage of the pup you consider; be certain it’s from hunting stock. Be aware, however, that these dogs can be willful and stubborn, and the tendency to want to chase after big game remains strong in some of them, so training them properly to hunt birds is demanding and rigorous, and take a lot of patience.
If any breed can be considered the work horse of the dog world, it’s the Labrador Retriever. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC) the Lab has been the most popular dog in the United States for more than 10 years. This is an intelligent and family-friendly breed that can go from a duck boat in the morning to the foot of a child’s bed in the evening (with a bath in between, of course).
A Lab may be black, chocolate or yellow. It has a double coat that sheds seasonally, but the hair is relatively short so it’s not as messy a shedder as some of the longer haired breeds. It’s a solidly-built dog that’s muscular and strong, that gets fairly large; males may go up to 80 pounds, females to 70.
The Golden Retriever is more than just a pretty face; he’s an athletic, hard-charging retriever that will go after just about anything he can get his jaws around. This breed also can go from the lake to the foot of the bed without blinking an eye. Goldens are gentle, good family pets, and laid back when they don’t have anything to do. On the down side, their long hair and double coat makes them susceptible to our Florida heat, and they shed enough golden hair to weave another dog in a very short time.
The Golden Retriever originated in Scotland in the late 1800s, when Lord Tweedmouth crossed some “yellow retrievers” (yellow-coated Flat-Coated Retrievers) with the now-extinct Tweed Water Spaniel. The resulting crosses were later bred with the Irish Setter and the Bloodhound, and back to yellow retrievers, to produce today’s Golden. The AKC recognized the Golden Retriever as separate from its “parent” breed, the Flat-Coated Retriever, in 1925.
When selecting a Golden puppy, be sure its parents are of hunting stock. Some bloodlines have a higher hunting drive than others.
CHESAPEAKE BAY RETRIEVER
The Chesapeake Bay retriever comes in a variety of colors, from a very light tan to a dark chocolate brown. The Chessie has a double coat that’s dense and wooly underneath, and wavy and oily on top, to protect it from the harsh winter conditions of the Chesapeake Bay region where it originated.
Although Chessies are primarily water dogs, they also do well on upland birds. Since they were bred to work in the water in Northeast winters where they sometimes have to break ice to get to where they’re going, they’re tough and resilient dogs. They’re somewhat strong willed but are easily trained.
Like all retrievers, the Chessie is a good family dog. This is a happy, intelligent breed whose ancestors include the Curly-Coated Retriever, the Flat-Coated Retriever, the English Otter Hound and the Newfoundland.
The progenitor of the Golden Retriever, the Flat Coat shares many personality traits with the Golden.They are leaner and racier than the solidly-built Goldens of today, and may be black or liver in color.
Flat Coats are smart, energetic dogs with a sense of humor and a high play drive, and they are very demanding in terms of the commitment required to train them and give them adequate exercise to keep them occupied and out of trouble. A Golden may be willing to lie at your feet and snooze during the off season, but a Flat Coat is not. He will be at your elbow, nudging to get you out of your chair and do something fun.
The Flat-Coated Retriever is an uncommon breed, and is likely to stay so. Because the breed has a limited gene pool, reputable breeders are very selective about producing new litters, and equally selective about placing dogs with prospective owners.
CURLY COATED RETRIEVER
As uncommon as the Flat-Coated Retriever is, the Curly-Coat is even more so. The Curly-Coated Retriever’s coat is quite different from the coats of other retrievers. The hair is short and very tightly curled, and may be black or liver-colored.
This breed should be the starting point of any discussion about any of today’s retrievers, since most historians say that this is the oldest of all the retrievers, and that it figured significantly in the development of the Flat-Coat, the Chessie, the Golden and the Lab. As a pure bred dog, its history goes back between 400 and 500 years.
Curly-Coats are very friendly, but can be a little reserved if they don’t know you. Once they realize you’re good for cookies, though, you’re a friend forever. They’re more laid back than a Labrador, only slightly more serious about life than a Flat-Coat, and are very smart; they like to think through situations and come up with creative solutions to problems. They are at their best when they’re part of a family.
NOVA SCOTIA DUCK TOLLING RETRIEVER
This retriever is gaining in popularity and you’re more likely to see one now than you were in the past. Compared to the other retrievers, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, or “Toller,” is a little guy. Males stand only 18 to 21 inches tall at the shoulder, and the females are even smaller. They have a double-layered, water repellent coat that can be any shade of red, from golden red to dark copper, and they may have white markings on the feet, the tip of the tail, the face and the chest. Despite their small size, Tollers are able to handle ducks and even geese without difficulty.
The Toller originated in Nova Scotia early in the 19th century to toll—or lure—and retrieve ducks. The dog runs and plays along the shoreline, with its feathered, fluffy tail waving in the air. The ducks get curious and come closer to see what’s going on, and in doing so end up within gun range. Then the Toller goes out and retrieves them.
The Toller’s laid back personality and patience makes it a great family dog. There are quite a few other sporting breeds useful for hunting birds. Above all: Spend some time researching and personally observing sporting breeds before you purchase a pup. It will take work to enjoy every minute afield with your dog, but it’s a grand hunting tradition. For a list of breed clubs in Florida, visit www.floridasportsman.com/hunting. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman September 2013