The members of each group have certain characteristics in common. Often to do with their original purpose.
Gundogs are the most popular of these groups of pedigree dogs in the UK today, by a long way
There were over 87,000 gundog births registered with the Kennel Club in 2013, about 40% of all registrations in total. The second most popular group, Utility, had less than half that number.
The Gundog Group also contains what is arguably the world’s most popular dog – the Labrador Retriever.
Labradors accounted for nearly 40% of all gundog registrations in 2013. This breed dominates the statistics, and no other breed comes close in the popularity stakes
Embraced within the gundog group are several other breeds that regularly appear in the top ten pedigree dogs. So just what is it about gundogs that makes them so popular?
Historical role and purpose
There are a number of reasons that gun dogs are in such demand. One of the principle reasons is that they tend to have a very tractable, trainable temperament
Much of this goes back to their historical role and purpose as hunting companions.
A role that requires physical fitness, intelligence and most importantly, a willingness to co-operate with people
The hunter’s companion
Humans have of course used dogs as hunting companions for centuries. The development of our modern gundog breeds has evolved along with transition from hunting with bows and spear, to hunting with guns.
The gundog group is divided into several sub-groups. Allocation to each sub-group is dependent on the role played by the dog in the shooting field.
Here are the four sub-groups
- Setters and pointers
The Setters and Pointers
This group comprises the tall and elegant pointing dogs that grace our grouse moors and open heathland during the shooting season. Unlike in the USA, here in the UK, setters are not required to retrieve, though some are capable of doing so.
These are not pets for the faint hearted. They are some of our most independent gundog breeds, bred to range out and work at great distances and require good deal of exercise.
The spaniel breeds were bred for flushing game at close quarters, and many separate and distinctive breeds have evolved in the last hundred years. Some of these breeds, like the Sussex Spaniel and the Field Spaniel, are now quite rare.
Spaniels are second only in popularity to retrievers and there are two hugely popular spaniel breeds in the UK, the English Springer, and the Cocker (known in the USA as the English Cocker).
It is no coincidence that the retriever sub-group, the group working closest with their handlers, are the most popular pets in the UK.
Labradors lead the way, and together with Golden Retrievers accounted for over 42,000 gundog registrations in 2013. That is nearly half of all the gundogs born that year.
As their name suggests, retrievers are specifically intended to retrieve shot game for the handler.
This is a very important job and requires a high level of co-operation between dog and handler, as the dog may have to be given directions at considerable distances.
The fourth group is an interesting one. These are the Hunt Point Retrievers, also known as Versatile Gundogs. And they are indeed versatile.
Able to perform all the different roles carried out by the other sub-groups, the HPRs are mostly quite large dogs with short or wiry coats and good, equable temperaments.
They include the popular German Shorthaired Pointer, the silver Weimaraner, and the beautiful russet coloured Hungarian Viszla
Instincts and temperament
When you buy a gundog puppy, you are buying into the promise of a loyal and devoted companion. And one that won’t try your patience too much during the early stages of the training process.
All this has to be countered against some of the instincts that we have bred into these dogs. Especially working lines that have been developed with competitions in mind.
Most working bred gundogs come with powerful hunting instincts pre-installed, and can be troublesome for the unwary new owner, if not thoroughly trained and well supervised in the countryside.
With a little judicious management and a commitment to regular training this should not pose a problems for a responsible handler.
Divided in two
Many gundog breeds have become divided into two separate strains. Those bred for fieldwork and competition on the one hand. And those bred for the show ring on the other.
Surplus puppies from both show and field lines are usually sold as pets, and with some exceptions, many dogs from both these types do make excellent companions.
However, if you are looking for a gundog breed for a working/hunting companion, it is important that you choose your dog from working stock.
This is because some of our showbred dogs have lost much of their hunting/working instinct and may be more difficult to train to a high standard.
If your dog is intended purely as a fireside and walking companion, you still need to be a little careful.
Most of our working retrievers and HPRs do make great companions, but some of our working spaniel breeds have such powerful hunting instincts that they can be difficult to control if not given the right kind of supervision.
Differences between show and working strains
Gundogs in the UK and abroad are tested in the field using competitions called Field Trials. The dogs that succeed in these competitions form a solid breeding base for UK working gundog lines.
As Field Trials favour fast and stylish dogs those criteria influence the gene pool. And you may find working lines of your favourite breed much racier in appearance, and often a little smaller too.
Show dogs have in some cases become rather ponderous and heavy coated. And may be more ‘laid back’ in temperament than their working cousins.
Working line dogs are often quite sensitive, keen to please, and less interested in playing with other dogs than their show counterparts. This can make them easier to train.
One of the benefits of show lines is that in many cases show breeders have embraced health testing much more enthusiastically than their working counterparts. It can be quite difficult, for example, to find thoroughly health tested working strain spaniels.
Whatever type of gundog you choose, they are on the whole a fairly robust and healthy group of dogs. Not very much prone to conformational defects – with the exception of saggy lower eyelids in some show spaniels.
Some of our gundog breeds are however quite prone to developing cancer at an early age. Especially the Flat-coated Retriever and the Golden Retriever. So this is something to take into consideration.
There are a number of inherited diseases to which pedigree gundogs are susceptible. Diseases differ from breed to breed, so you need to do your homework before making your choice of puppy.
Care must be taken to purchase gundog puppies with the relevant health clearances, and we look at health testing more extensively in another article.
Training and activities
Gundogs make great companions and team mates in a number of different sports and activities. Their talents are not restricted to the shooting field.
If you enjoy running, or hiking, then a retriever or an HPR may be a great companion for you.
If you live on or close to moorland, or if you regularly exercise your dog from horseback, you may be able to offer a suitable home to a setter or pointer.
If agility or flyball appeals to you, then a working strain spaniel may be just the dog for you.
And all gundog breeds can be successfully trained for obedience and working trial competitions, or heel work to music.
The important factor to bear in mind is that gundogs need plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. And the working strains, especially of our spaniels breeds, need a good deal of supervision outdoors, and will benefit greatly from gundog style training, even if you don’t intend to participate in shooting sports.
Check out the links below for more articles on popular breeds and for more resources on gundog activities and training
- The Gundog Club (Graded Training Scheme and Field Tests)
- Totally Gundogs (Training articles)
- The Kennel Club (Field Trials and Working Tests)
- Positive Gundogs (Facebook group)