This is the first of four segments breaking down the 20 best gun dog breeds to ever hit the field.
Ranking hunting dog breeds is really an impossible task, as each is so unique.
Every hunting breed has an area in which it excels, and typically some kind of weakness or drawback to go along with it. The key is finding a breed that best meets your specific needs, rather than trying to force a dog to be something it's not.
Humans have hunted over far more than 20 breeds, but the following dogs have seemingly been the most iconic throughout history.
Success typically translates to popularity, too, so a breed's reputation should certainly carry some weight.
These are your upland heroes. All gun dogs are exceptionally cognitive creatures, but the pointing breeds are easily the most methodical. While retrievers and hounds have a process by which they work, it's safe to say no other gun dogs actually do as much as pointers.
However, whether you're training a dog for hunting or field trials, you should know what kind of time commitment you're signing yourself up for.
To get the most out of a pointer, you'll need to train it to recognize a bird's scent, stay within range, point, hold and then retrieve it after your shot on the flush.
This much training requires a great deal of patience, but the reward is impossible to match. Whether you're chasing bobwhites in South Texas or ruffed grouse in Minnesota, watching a good pointing dog in action is one of the most gratifying experiences hunting has to offer.
German Shorthaired Pointer
I'm not sure you could start this list off with any other dog. Not only has the German shorthaired pointer gradually become the icon for all bird hunting, but it's also one of the only true multipurpose dogs out there. There are labs out there that can point and setters that've jumped in a marsh after a duck, but you don't see it often.
The German shorthaired pointer, however, will truly work for any bird hunter. Its webbed feet make it an exceptional swimmer, its relentless nose will pinpoint a bird from the next state over and its stamina will keep it going as long as your own legs will hold up.
That endurance isn't always useful, though. Of all the dogs on this list, the German shorthaired pointer easily has the most energy, making it a nightmare for those who don't have the adequate time or space to exercise a dog.
Style, elegance and legacy are the words people associate with the English setter. With quite possibly the richest history of any dog on this list, this dog tends to go best with a traditional shotgun and an especially strong name.
There's something inexplicably poetic about watching a breeze catch the feathered hair of a locked-up setter tail. And, it's that element of grace that seemingly keeps setter owners loyal to their breed.
This is also one of the most diverse sporting breeds out there, as two English setters can look so different from each other. They can range from 40-80 pounds as adults, some with bigger heads and some with broader shoulders.
The coloration varies quite a lot, too, as some dogs will be completely white, while others will have heavy orange or black ticking and sometimes both.
However, prepare to step up your cleaning efforts, as the English setter sheds a lot of hair and has a reputation for being hard to housebreak.
The Brittany spaniel is a special bird dog. It's not the flashiest dog I've ever hunted over and it's certainly not the biggest, but there's just something about it.
If all the pointing breeds made up a team, the Brittany spaniel would be Rudy Ruettiger. Although it doesn't have the physique of a German shorthaired pointer or the beauty of a setter, it has enough heart to outhunt any dog on this list.
I've accompanied the Brittany on a number of hunts, and repeatedly watched it outwork its peers.
Every bird hunter hopes he or she is lucky enough to find a dog with that X factor that makes it want to please its owner. And, in my experience, every Brittany is born with it.
German Wirehaired Pointer
You could sum up the German wirehaired pointer in one word: tough.
Most hunting dogs are eager to go the extra mile, but usually with some limitations. Most dogs except the wirehair, that is.
This is a dog with no regard for comfort. The majority of bird hunters are familiar with the feeling of shooting a bird and watching it fall in an unfortunate place like a thicket or a freezing-cold pond. In scenarios where many dogs will draw the line, the German wirehaired pointer excitedly accepts the challenge.
A German descendent of the griffon, the German shorthaired pointer, the Pudelpointer and the Deutscher Stichelhaar, this breed also meets the needs of both upland and waterfowl hunters.
Hailing from Hungary, the vizsla is another that can do it all. While it's made its name in pursuit of upland birds, a well-trained vizsla can outperform a great Labrador retriever in the swamps.
The key to getting the most out of a vizsla, though, is the proper communication. This is one dog that's notorious for being sensitive, which can create unmatchable communication or build an unbreakable wall.
The Hungarian hunter is known for taking harsh discipline very poorly, so gentle commands and positive reinforcement are imperative.
The vizsla isn't particularly big, which is often appealing to those looking for a family dog to have in the house. However, it has just as much energy as a German shorthair or wirehair. So needless to say, exercise is a must.
Hunting over an English pointer isn't for the faint of heart.
I shot my first bobwhite over an English pointer, or simply "pointer" as folks down here in Texas call them. It didn't come easy, though.
As an inexperienced bird hunter at the time, I wasn't sure how to hunt over a dog, so I tried to just follow her lead more or less. Little did I know, a group of experienced jockeys had just thrown me on a racehorse and hoped I could hold on.
While the pointer has an unbelievable drive that should really be reserved for the most experienced of riders, it's a natural phenomenon with the right man behind the reins.
Sometimes growing up to 90 pounds, the Weimaraner is one of the biggest sporting breeds with an instinct to point. What's so impressive about this particular breed, though, is its versatility.
It would be an injustice to the European-native to not include it with the pointers, as it's earned its stripes as an upland partner. However, almost any hunter can find a use for one, as it's proven to essentially be the Swiss Army knife of all gun dogs.
The Weimaraner can add an edge when hunting for upland game birds, waterfowl, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, deer, bears, hogs and various predators.
As far as personality goes, though, the Weimaraner is a high-energy breed that bonds very closely with its owner. So if you're one who has to leave your dog at home for long periods of time, expect to encounter some separation anxiety.
Unsurprisingly originating in France, this dog was the undisputed favorite of French royalty during the Middle Ages.
However, near the turn of the 20th century, French spaniels narrowly escaped extinction, thanks to French priest Father Fournier's committed efforts to preserve what was left of the breed. Somehow this unique setter-like spaniel is still around today, and has become increasingly more popular in Canada for hunting grouse and woodcock since its introduction in the 1970s.
Any upland hunter who owns one will swear by it, although you won't come across one all that often.
It's the French spaniel's resilience as a breed that earns it a spot on this list.
There's one thing no one can deny when it comes to the Irish setter, and that's its beauty. One of the most beautiful dogs any hunter could ever hunt over, the red dog is simply hard to look away from.
However, there are conflicting opinions surrounding the dog's ability to hunt, as well as the distinction between an Irish setter and a red setter.
While this setter has shown it can certainly hunt, its reputation is surely a reflection of some inconsistency. However, plenty have proven they can keep up with English setters and often even steal the show.
While some hunters will point to the separation between Irish and red breeds, there's really only one kind of dog. The only difference is The American Kennel Club recognizes the Irish setter as a breed, while the Field Dog Stud Book recognizes the red setter.
Stay tuned for the second part of this series, in which we'll discuss the retrievers and the dog owners they match with the best.
Enjoy the outdoors?
Don't miss a story! Sign up for daily stories delivered to your inbox.