Hunting Dogs: It Comes Down to Flushers or Pointers

Dec 17, 2018

What is the most common species of dog used for small game hunting in Wisconsin?

The Masked Biologist talks hunting dog breeds in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

“What kind of dog do you have?” It’s a simple enough question, really. While it is very difficult to survey every household in America, there are estimates from groups like the ASPCA that 44% of all American households have at least one dog, and there are 78 million dogs owned in this country. Basically, 7 out of every 10 households have pets. And, unlike cats, dogs are often owned for hunting as well as for companionship.

When two hunters are newly introduced, “what breed do you hunt with” is the first question. I’m not sure why, but that question even makes it into the annual small game hunter survey. Each year ten thousand surveys are sent out to Wisconsin small game license holders. Last year, about 3400 responses were submitted. There is some interesting information collected about dogs in this survey. Just under half of the respondents indicated they hunt with dogs. Seventy percent of those hunters said they used dogs to hunt migratory and non-migratory game birds (excluding waterfowl). These hunters reported spending an average of 142 hours training each dog used, and spending over $800 annually per dog on maintenance. These hunters said they used their dogs an average of 44 days.

The question I saw on the most recent survey, from last season, was the question that asked what breed and number of dogs each hunter used. The top breed reported last year, can you guess it? The ubiquitous Labrador retriever. This may not come as a surprise. After all, the American Kennel Club reports that the Labrador retriever is the number one owned breed of dog in the United States. One observation that strikes me as interesting is that these are hunters who reported hunting species other than waterfowl (which is covered in its own survey).

When I was growing up, I was under the impression that labs were for duck hunting, spaniels were for grouse and pheasant hunting, and hounds were for bear hunting. Today, I have a lab that hunts grouse, pheasant, ducks, and rabbits with unbridled enthusiasm—and even squirrels if he can get away with it. This is my second hunting lab, and I can tell you they are great hunting dogs, for me anyway, and I prefer them to the pointers and spaniels I have had. But I know there are those of you out there who are bristling at my words. You are faithful devotees to your spaniels, pointers, and setters.

For those of you who don’t hunt with dogs, basically it comes down to flushers or pointers. A pointer basically tracks down a bird, stands completely still pointing at the bird until the hunter gets there and moves in to flush the bird and take the shot. The others are people like me, who hunt with flushers. Once my lab picks up on the scent of the bird, he changes his speed, gait, and body posture. Instead of freezing and pointing, he charges in with reckless abandon and makes the birds fly no matter where the hunter is at the time. There are a lot of benefits to hunting a pointer, including likely getting more shots at birds, but labs (which are typically flushers) outnumber every other kind of dog. Last year, 37% of hunters reported hunting with a lab.

It’s an interesting question why people hunt with the breeds they do. for example, only 4 reported using an Irish setter. I was surprised that number was so low. Poodles were originally bred to hunt waterfowl, but they are not a common upland game dog—only 2 were reported. Wisconsin’s official state dog, the American Water Spaniel, was quite uncommon, only reported by 3 hunters. Of the least popular or least common breeds, the most interesting in my opinion was one who hunts with a German shepherd and one who hunts with a rottweiler.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

The photo above is from the WI Dept. of Natural Resources and can be found here.