One of the first things man did when he domesticated wolves many hundreds of years ago was to start breeding his best hunting dogs. Thus, he created even better hunting dogs. And before long recognizably different canines—primitive breeds—began to take shape. No doubt a hearty debate soon followed over which breed was superior to all others.
That is, if the owners of prehistoric hunting dogs were anything like us. Why is it that with all our specialized and very different gundog breeds, we feel the need to argue the merits of one over another? Well, my friends, I for one am tired of the debate. So I’m going to settle it once and for all. Here is the best gundog breed ever developed.
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
The Chessie is the greatest gundog of all time. It is a pure retrieving machine that runs on instinct. You don’t need to teach a Chessie how to fetch ducks any more than you need to teach a spider to spin a web. The breed faces criticism from misunderstanding Labrador aficionados as “stubborn,” when in reality it’s just too proud to endure all their silly yard work. It may not have what it takes to complete complicated, 1,000-yard blinds at some fancy field trial, but no pounding surf or ice floe will stop it from fetching every duck you shoot. Plus if you stop for lunch you can just leave it in your boat—trust me, nobody will touch your decoys.
English Springer Spaniel
On second thought, the springer spaniel is the greatest gundog of all time. I’ve never seen a dog that can better track a running pheasant and it’s an accomplished waterfowl dog in all but the coldest waters. They make pleasant family animals, too. Have you ever owned a dog that smiles? I’ve never owned a springer that didn’t. But whatever you do, don’t let the springer’s merry disposition fool you: These are tough dogs. I know a guide on the Eastern Shore who uses a broad-shouldered, 50-pound springer for one very specific task: retrieving angry, wounded geese.
Come to think of it, the pointer is the greatest gundog of all time. Pointers have a beautiful, flashy gait and almost spooky nose for quail, making them the dominant dog in pointing-breed field trials and in the kennels of southern upland hunters. Rest assured, if anyone a few miles south of the Mason Dixon says “bird dog,” he means “pointer.” Everything else is just a dog. And if I had the physical and financial ability to ride a horse, I can’t imagine galloping through the loose pines of an old plantation behind anything less than a long-striding pointer.
I don’t know what I was thinking—Labs are clearly the best gundogs of all time. While bred primarily for hunting waterfowl, they are a top choice of predominately upland hunters as well. They are intelligent, bidable animals with extreme desire to please—you can train them to do practically anything, from taking a hard-charging line toward a 1,000-yard blind retrieve to assisting law enforcement with bomb detection. Labs may have been bred in England, but they’re as American as apple pie; based on American Kennel Club registration, the Lab has been the most popular dog in the United States for 21 years straight. So, clearly they make great house pets as well and that’s an increasingly important priority among today’s suburban gundog owners.
However, if I’m being honest with myself, the Brittany is the greatest gundog of all time. It is arguably the most lovable, trainable and intelligent gundog ever bred. For this reason it is considered a perfect animal for the rookie trainer. Just the other day I suggested one to an old friend who called me up for advice on buying his first hunting dog. They are stylish, skilled and downright addictive enough to thrill even the most veteran Brittany owner. They find birds, point ’em, fetch ’em, and look darn graceful in the process. How could a gundog ever be better?
By being an English Setter, that’s how, because it’s the greatest breed of all time. Personally I find no dog so strikingly handsome and downright regal in appearance as a blue belton English setter. While ties, sporting jackets and tweed hats have given way to blaze orange attire, grouse and woodcock hunting remain gentlemanly pursuits, if only in our imagination. And the English setter is a breed for the gentleman. That’s why it’s almost always the breed of choice in artists’ renditions of grouse-hunting scenes. You know the old cliché: A finely dressed hunter approaches an English setter that’s proudly holding a perfect point on a grouse in a beautiful stand of aspens that’s far too thin to realistically hold any birds. What other dog would befit this idealized version of the sport—a pointing Lab? Please.
German Shorthaired Pointer
And that is where the argument would end, if not for the German shorthair, the greatest gundog breed of all time. Many argue that the best bird dog breed is the one with the most hunting ability across the widest variety of game, and the GSP is the consummate all-around hunter. It was developed in the 1800s, when a change to German hunting regulations opened the sport to the general populace rather than just privileged nobility. The new class of hunters, unable to afford a large fleet of specialized dogs, needed one animal that could hunt everything. Modern, suburban Americans can surely relate to the need for one, do-it-all dog. Among the dogs developed, now known as the German versatile breeds, the GSP is the most prolific. It sniffs out, points and fetches upland birds; it’ll retrieve ducks or track predators; and the Germans have even hunted boars with the GSP. Show me another dog with such a wide-ranging resumé.
Hmm, I suppose this essay didn’t turn out as originally planned. Maybe that’s because so many outstanding gundog breeds are out there, and frankly I love every one of them for a variety of reasons. What’s the best one? Well, that’s ultimately up to you to decide based on your needs and how well the dogs’ dispositions match your own. This is an argument that has no definitive answer and will never be settled. Perhaps that’s part of the fun.