Today’s gundogs are the products of selective breeding over centuries.

Ancient Egyptian frescoes depict hunting dogs – possibly the forbears of greyhounds, salukis or basenjis.

As different types of hunting developed – from duck hunting, game hunting and deer hunting – so the different breeds of dogs developed to match the different landscapes and quarry.

Dogs bred to hunt deer needed to be fast, strong, and obedient with plenty of stamina. Dogs needed for water work needed to be able to spend time in water, be strong swimmers and have a water resilient coat. Dogs for flushing game needed high energy and excellent smell.

English springer spaniels

English springers are arguably the most versatile breed of gundog

Over time, dogs were bred to fulfil these needs which came to define the four categories of gundog breeds; retrievers, spaniels, HPR breeds, setters and pointers.

Which are the most popular gundogs today?

2019 Kennel Club figures showed the Labrador coming out top in the gundog category with 35, 000 registrations. The cocker spaniel was next with 21,000 registrations, the springer spaniel 8683, golden retriever 8422 and the vizsla 2771.

Edwardian gundogs

Shooting rabbits in the early 1900s

How gundogs have changed in the past 200 years

An Edwardian shooting gent would recognise today’s gundogs but would be impressed at the diverse and extensive breeds now available.  Can you imagine an Edwardian shooting party turning up on the grouse moor and seeing a group of keepers with HPRs by their sides? And what would they make of a Lagotto Romagnola or a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever sitting at a peg?

The shooting companion for the gentleman Gun, most often seen in photographs from the end of the 19th century, resembles closely the flatcoated retriever of today, and in the early field trials of the 20th century it was the most popular choice.

Within a couple of decades, more changes were becoming obvious. This was probably due to the success of the then recently recognised Labrador retriever.

In days gone by, spaniels were almost one breed before being split into their different strains.

These strains gradually developed into the different breeds of today, the smallest being registered as a cocker spaniel and its larger cousin an English springer spaniel.

The field spaniel of the 1800s was long and low, reputedly developed from crosses between the Sussex and the old-fashioned cocker of Devon or Wales.  By the mid-1920s the spaniels we see today,  much shorter and taller on the leg, were becoming established.

So, if an Edwardian shooting gent was to be transported on to a 21st-century driven gameshoot he would be pleasantly surprised. He would be impressed by the quality of working and the standard to which our gundogs are now trained. If, however, you took that same gentleman to watch a Labrador or golden retriever he would probably ask what breed they were.

German shorthaired pointers

Selective breeding created the gundogs we know today

Gundogs in action

During the Iraq war gundogs were used as tracker and patrol dogs. Captain Ric Cole told Shooting Times that gundog breeds are ideal for this type of work: “Suitable dogs tend to be gundogs, in particular Labradors and springer spaniels because of their keen sense of smell and enthusiasm.”

The dogs are known as “force multipliers” as the work of one dog is equivalent to the workload of four soldiers.

Hungarian wire-haired vizsla

A Hungarian wirehaired vizsla on a grouse moor: the breed is showing its value as a dual-purpose dog

How gundogs are used in other countries

Various breeds of gundogs are used and trained very differently in different countries. One of our staff photographers was in Norway and commented: “A lady brought three very smart-looking Irish setters to be photographed and I was quite surprised that they not only hunted as hard as any spaniel, but they were also required to retrieve any shot game. I have not had much experience with pointers or setters in the UK, but I do know that generally their job is to hunt and point any game and then when it is shot a retriever will be sent to collect the bird.”

Another contributor reports that he has a friend who goes out to Sweden every year to shoot ptarmigan over a group of Weimaraners. He is constantly amazed at the dog’s stamina and ability to hunt all day in really hard terrain – quite often with little success in finding what is a very elusive bird.

For those of you that haven’t experienced the American style of spaniel hunting, this is the difference between their style and ours. In the UK we require our spaniels to stop to the flush and/or drop to shot. This will hopefully give us the chance to get a clean shot at the target without the dog getting in the way.  In the United States, even top-trialling spaniels will leap up for the birds as they are flushed, an undesirable trait over here.

That said, there is nothing better than to watch gundogs flush a bird, watch it fly away and mark it down if you are a good enough shot.

Why don’t gundogs wear collars?

You won’t see a working dog with a collar due to the risk that it will get caught up on a branch or in a hedge, with the risk of choking the dog.

Dog in camouflage

A well-trained gundog is a wonderful thing

How much does a gundog cost?

Any gundog that is well bred, hip and eye tested (or at least from health-tested parents) and can be demonstrated to prove it has achieved a good standard of basic training should be at least £1,500 or even more. This is assuming the gundog is not gun-shy.

Buying a gundog from proper working stock is essential for physical soundness, which is covered by the British Veterinary Association/Kennel Club (KC) health schemes, but also for temperament and trainability.

Seek advice from breeders, particularly those that have achieved the highest accolade of field trial champion (FTCh) in competition.

Make sure you ask all the right questions of the breeder and all the KC registration documents are available before buying.

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