Hunting Dogs for the West
It’s a characteristic you don’t often hear away from open meadows and broken farm country but it is the ultimate compliment applied to an upland game bird dog. To say a dog is “birdy” is a mouthful.
Birdy implies the dog is interested in fowl, has a good nose, great hunting instincts, and depending upon breed, can point or flush and retrieve as well. That’s an awful lot to expect from a single canine but depending on which species of bird you’re after, you can often find a dog with those characteristics as well as a lifelong friend.
Bird hunting is broken into two distinct groups; upland game and waterfowl. In Wyoming for example, upland game includes pheasants, Hungarian partridge, chukars and grouse (dusky, sharptail, sage and ruffed) while waterfowling covers a variety of ducks and geese.
Waterfowl hunting is the realm of the retriever and the Labrador is a favored breed. Steadiness, strength, love of water, resistance to cold and a keen nose for finding downed ducks and geese are important attributes in a retriever. The ability to fetch a large goose is an added bonus and nothing quite fits the bill for this type of work as well as the Labrador Retriever. There are other types of “water dogs” that perform admirably such as the Chesapeake Bay retriever but the Lab isn’t a one trick dog. They are as playful a breed as you’ll find around the house but when the shotgun barks and birds fall they are all business.
There are more choices in dogs when it comes to upland game but you’d be hard pressed to find an overall hunting dog better than the German Shorthaired pointer or its cousins the German Wirehair and Deutsch Drahtharr.
These dogs are fast, blazingly fast, energetic, intelligent and tireless in the field. Many owners report them pointing on grasshoppers and bees as very young puppies. They are perhaps the best all-around breeds for finding, pointing and retrieving the wide variety of upland birds available across the West and like the Labrador above, will hunt all day, then cuddle with the kids all night, making them uniquely family oriented animals.
A special note on the Shorthairs’ close coat; it is a welcome addition for any hunter who has ever had to remove cockleburs from a long-haired dog’s coat after a day’s hunt. It does come at a cost though; the dogs are sensitive to the extreme cold often associated with the upland bird seasons of the West while the Wirehair and Drahtharr’s coats aren’t a limitation in the cold.
While the German breeds are preferred based on size, strength, endurance and speed there are other hunting breeds with excellent potential as well. Spaniels, particularly the Brittany and Springer are excellent hunting dogs and in fact two of the best bird dogs I’ve ever hunted over were a pair of French Brittany’s. English Pointers and Setters rival the German breeds in size and endurance with the English Setter being an extremely stylish pointer. Golden Retrievers, Boykins and even full sized Standard Poodles can be solid choices in the field as well.
But… back to the Labrador, many people hunt upland birds with Labradors as well. Their speed isn’t as great as other breeds but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I’ve seen many a slow thorough Lab flush roosters from scant cover that the speedier breeds missed.
In the end, it's personal choice for the dog that chooses you. A good dog exponentially improves the quality of a good day in the field and is part of being an ethical conservation minded hunter.