Gundog Breed Profile


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Gundog Breed Profile

The term gundog refers to any breed or type of dog that traditionally has ‘worked to the gun’. Typical gundogs are the retrievers, spaniels, setters, and pointers.


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What is a gundog?

The term gundog refers to any breed or type of dog that traditionally has ‘worked to the gun’. These dogs were, and still are in some cases, essential working companions who support humans hunting for food. While aspects of gundog work can be controversial, it is still important to understand how these breeds and types were originally developed, and what it means for our dogs that might be gundogs in name only.

The working gundog is an impressive animal and while a whole range of breeds and types are sometimes seen working (I have seen terriers, collies, Dachshunds, and Poodles all working in the field), typical gundogs are the retrievers, spaniels, setters, and pointers. Individual breeds tend to have particular specialities, but there are key skills that are almost universal.

The gundog group

The term gundog can also apply to the range of breeds found in the Gundog Group, a Kennel Club classification of specific breeds that were originally (and still are in many cases) worked as gundogs. This group includes the retriever, spaniel, pointer, setter and a range of other breeds, all with particular physical and behavioural characteristics that come from their original function. Even when these breeds are never exposed to formal gundog work, they tend to be friendly, active, and trainable dogs, often with a drive to hunt, retrieve, and use their noses.

As a result, many gundog breeds are popular as companions and pets, while lots of others end up working in similar roles that require nose power or retrieving skills. Many detection dogs are spaniels — active, scenting breeds who love working busily on a task for a reward, commonly a ball or similar retrieve item. Labradors and other retriever breeds are common as assistance dogs for their trainable and amenable natures. A whole host of other gundog breeds, some of which are increasingly viewed as rare or minority breeds, can be found undertaking similar roles, being active pets or, indeed, working in their specialised gundog roles.

The modern gundog

While the working gundog is still commonplace, their roles and lifestyles have changed. Kennelling would have been the traditional housing for gundogs, and while many dogs do still live in a kennel at least part of the time, lots of gundogs now live in the home. Different expectations are placed upon them in terms of lifestyle and activity.

Many gundogs are active family companions most of the time and will work as gundogs maybe only once or twice a week during the season — the time when their work is needed. Other gundogs will never hear, let alone see, a gun but will take part in a whole range of other activities such as obedience, agility, scent work, cani-cross, heelwork to music, and more. Indeed, because gundog breeds and types tend to enjoy training and are active and outgoing, having a job for them to do is really important. It can help keep them mentally and physically exercised and stimulated. This can be essential in ensuring you have a harmonious life together.

Gundog skills

Firstly, the gundog needs to have a superb sense of smell to hunt and locate the bird or animal (sometimes known as the quarry) being hunted. Some dogs (think spaniels) will then ‘flush’ the quarry by pushing it into the air if it is a bird, or out of cover if a rabbit or similar. Other dogs will ‘point’ or ‘set’ (think pointers and setters) to indicate to their handlers the presence of the quarry. The next important job is retrieving the shot quarry to the handler. This is often where the retriever breeds come into their own, being able to ‘mark’ where their retrieve has fallen and then going to retrieve it cleanly, sometimes over long distances, obstacles, and even from water.

It is essential that retrieving is done carefully and this is why many gundog breeds are described as being ‘soft-mouthed’. This means that they will not damage anything being carried. Indeed, if a gundog is described as ‘hard-mouthed’, this represents a significant fault and is not desirable for either working or competing gundogs. A soft mouth often means that gundogs can safely retrieve your pet rabbit, guinea pig, or chicken, unharmed and while this is not necessarily something you want to encourage, such gentle handling is typical of gundogs.

Working gundogs also need to be ‘steady’, which essentially means they will wait quietly and patiently, only hunting or retrieving when asked to. This also means they need to be steady around birds, other animals, or any moving objects, not being tempted to give chase. Instead, they should ‘stop to flush’ and not move on again until instructed.

For the non-working gundog, these are still important skills to train. Training steadiness around temptations such as birds or cats means you can manage your dog’s behaviour even in the most exciting situations. Start simply and far away from the temptation, rewarding calm, steady behaviour. Practise throwing balls and other exciting objects and rewarding a quiet, calm sit. One great trick is for you to go and retrieve the thrown items, not your dog — who quickly learns that not everything is thrown for him!

Steady retrieving behaviour can also be useful in limiting potential injury risk and long-term health consequences. There is increasing evidence that lots of retrieving to moving targets can be linked with musculoskeletal injuries and conditions such as osteoarthritis. Retrieving a static object from a controlled starting point may well help to limit potential damage, as well as demonstrating brilliant levels of steadiness.

Scent work

As humans, we rely heavily on vision for learning and understanding the world around us. Our dogs, on the other hand, use scent. The dog has been blessed with olfactory capabilities that mean he can detect items with a level of accuracy that is truly astonishing — the fact that dogs are now even accurately identifying human diseases from biological samples is testament to this skill.

The working gundog uses his nose to find game and anything to be retrieved. Anyone who has watched dogs retrieving over long distances and on terrain that renders sight useless, cannot fail to be impressed by watching these dogs use their noses and work with the wind to locate their retrieve items, whether training dummies, tennis balls, or game. This means that scent work can be both a great task and game for our gundogs as well as being a brilliant way to reward them for other behaviours.

Training your gundog to retrieve

One important job that the working gundog has is ‘picking up’ which is hunting for, finding, and the retrieving of any shot game. You can train great retrieves by making bringing back and releasing the retrieve rewarding. Too often we try to grab an item from our dogs’ mouths when they are young. This can make them reluctant to either bring it back to us, or to release it. Instead, encourage your dog to you and gently fuss him first, before seeking to hold the item in his mouth and asking for a release. When he does this, immediately reward, either by giving the item straight back to him or providing him with something else to carry. Very quickly, he will learn that there is real value in both bringing you things AND giving you them.

Rewarding the retrieval

Knowing what is rewarding for our dogs is fundamental to effective and ethical training. Sometimes, we forget that some of the behaviours our dogs demonstrate are hugely fun, rewarding, and even relaxing for them — scent work is a fabulous example of this!

Being physically active, using their nose, finding, and retrieving items are all rewarding behaviours for many gundogs. It is quite possible to incorporate any or all of these as rewards, in addition to the typical rewards of food, verbal praise, and physical touch. Indeed, one of my own spaniels would rather work for a tennis ball or training dummy than for food, such is his retrieving instinct. This means, I can cleverly use access to his retrieve as a great reward for any ‘job well done’. One word of warning though — if you are using retrieve as a reward, make sure you have also trained your dog to return and release the retrieve to you — to hand is also correct rather than dropping it on the floor!

Games at home

You can easily create fun and rewarding hunting games for your dog at home. Hide toys or food and ask them to ‘Go find’. Start simply by perhaps hiding a favourite toy or a piece of food behind a piece of furniture or under a plant pot without your dog seeing. Bring your dog into the area and encourage him to find it — you can even use a traditional gundog cue such as ‘Hi lost!’. Once your dog has associated the cue with the ‘find it’ behaviour, you can start to challenge him even more, with more difficult hiding places and/or multiple items.

My spaniels love this game on cold, wet, winter evenings, when I hide various objects around the house, and they must go and find them and bring them back to me. Five minutes of this can easily end up with five incredibly happy and tired spaniels. Scatter feeding by throwing kibble or small treats in the garden can also be a great way of encouraging your dog to use his nose and search. However, remember to do this on surfaces that are clean and unlikely to harbour substances that could be dangerous or harmful to your dog.

Using a whistle to train

Whistles are a key tool for gundog handlers and are also a great addition to your dog training toolkit. Whistles are clear and consistent in delivering cues to our dogs. The sound of a whistle can travel further than our voices, and rarely does a whistle betray our emotional state, important if you are stressed, worried, or maybe even a little grumpy! Whistles are also useful when it might be less than ideal to be shouting (early morning walks in the park!) or when you have lost your voice — as happened to me a few years ago when I was so grateful my spaniels were whistle trained!

Other activities to keep busy

Finding activities that work both body and mind can be key to supporting these active gundog breeds. For this reason, lots of non-working gundogs excel in activities such as agility, working trials, heelwork to music, obedience, flyball, rally, scent work, and cani-cross, as well as more traditional gundog work and pursuits.

These activities all need a level of physical fitness, specialist training, and a happy partnership between you and your dog. If you fancy having a go at any of these and you are new to them, find a local club or trainer to help support you to ensure that you are doing it safely for you and your dog.