gundog breeds

Over many centuries dogs have been bred to create different gundog breeds with each having particular strengths, whether flushing game, picking-up, pointing or sitting on the peg.

You’ll see plenty of Labradors and spaniels out in the shooting field. You may also see the odd Jack Russell, although they have really been bred for pest control.

Wire haired Jack Russell terrier

A wire haired Jack Russell terrier

In fact non-traditional gundog breeds are sometimes seen in field – for example border collies and Alsatians can be useful for beating.

However the traditional gundog breeds really comprise Labradors, the various types of spaniels, and the HPRs.

How to choose a gundog puppy

If your heart is set on a particular breed and it can fulfil the requirements of your sport, go with your instinct. It is much easier to train a breed of dog that you have a liking for and affinity with, than one you have been persuaded by others to get.

cocker spaniel on peg

Cocker spaniels were originally bred for hunting woodcock

flat coat retriever

Flatcoats make excellent shooting dogs, but they also excel in the show ring

British gundog breeds are highly sought-after. There are 38 gundog breeds recognised by the Kennel Club. Dogs from working strains of many of these breeds are in demand worldwide.

Gundog breeds recognised by the Kennel Club

  • Barbet
  • Bracco Italiano
  • Braque D’Auvergne

Breeding British gundogs

The UK has long been known as the “stockyard of the world”, a tag which recognises our skills as breeders of pedigree livestock of all types. Going back centuries, the skills applied to breeding livestock in fields and stackyards inevitably spilled over into the way working dogs were bred.

The earliest keepers would bring their inherent and yet rudimentary understanding of breeding and selection and apply it to the dogs they cared for and whose job was to find game, flush it and hopefully return with it. It is safe to assume that even the earliest spaniels, imported from Spain more than 500 years ago, would have been selected and improved over generations.

cocker spaniel

The cocker spaniel is one of the world’s most oustanding flushing and retrieving breeds

Emerging supreme from this original bedrock of active flushing dogs was the English springer — and its cousin, the red-coated Welsh springer — and of course the cocker.

For the big sporting estates, there 
is no doubt that the way in which their gundogs were managed and bred was hugely significant. Dogs had to be functional, they had to work and there had to be plenty of them.

The remarkable video above was filmed on a large estate in Scotland in 1932. It clearly demonstrates just how important gundogs were becoming and why it was deemed necessary to run kennels of this size.

In the UK there was such 
a passion for gundogs and so much natural ability for clever breeding and selection that new breeds were inevitable. Breeds such as the short-legged, liver-coated Sussex spaniel developed at Rosehill Park near Hastings almost 200 years ago.

Will cross-breed gundogs ever rule in the field? 

There was even an initial cross between the Sussex and the cocker. The result produced the field spaniel, a lovely breed which may now only rarely be seen in the shooting field and has been ignored for too long.

Clumber spaniels

Out with a Clumber

At the end of the 18th century the first Clumber spaniels arrived 
from France. 
The dogs were presented to the Duke of Newcastle and took their name from his estate at Clumber Park.

The Labrador retriever, initially imported as a dog to retrieve birds from water, was recognised by the Kennel Club in 1903. This breed’s versatility and trainability was seized upon by UK gundog trainers from the earliest days of its arrival.

The Labrador is still the world’s most popular dog — 150,000 puppies are registered annually with the American Kennel Club — and it is to the UK that devotees worldwide return to secure the very best genetics in terms of working ability.

British gundogs

British-bred Labradors are the gold standard

There has been a continual stream of gundog breeds heading to Britain’s shores over the years, mainly from Europe.

The German short-haired pointer and its wire-haired and long-haired variants as well as the Hungarian vizsla, the Weimaraner, the Italian spinone, the Munsterlander and the Brittany have all gained passionate supporters whose efforts continue to strengthen the UK’s reputation as a leading nation 
of gundog breeders.

German wirehaired pointer

The German wirehaired pointer is one of the many European gundog breeds that have come to our shores.

Vulnerable native breeds

Some breeds, including Irish red and white setters and Sussex spaniels, are so low in numbers that there is a real risk of them disappearing in the UK.

training an HPR breed

Some questions about gundog breeds

Q: My 16-year-old son is proving 
to be something of a natural trainer and has done a great job with my Labrador. He wants 
a dog of his own for retrieving and is open to other breeds than a Labrador. Which would you recommend?

A:  Whilst there are plenty of retrieving gundog breeds to be thinking about, such as flatcoated retrievers and curly coated retrievers, some dogs will be easy to train and others tricker. Some retriever breeds have fallen out of favour because of this and so may not be the ideal first-time gundog for a less experienced trainer to take on.

Your son should do some in-depth research, talk to different breeders and see the various breeds in action. To get the correct raw material 
to work with, it is important to buy 
from proven working stock.

German shorthaired pointer

German shorthaired pointer

Q: I have recently taken up game shooting and am a member of a small syndicate, shooting every other Saturday in November, December and January.  I have never owned a gundog but would like to now. Which breed would be best as a first gundog?

A: If, on the syndicate shoot days, you stand and shoot then your best bet would be a Labrador, the traditional ideal peg dog. Make sure it is well-trained – you can either do the gundog training yourself or send the dog away, depending on the amount of time and cash you have.

If yours is a stand ‘one/walk one’ syndicate you will be needed to do some beating on the walking drives so a springer or a cocker spaniel could be useful as they cover the ground so well. However a trained Labrador can do this type of work too and on balance that is the dog I would recommend for you.

springer spaniel

A good springer is one of the most handsome of dogs

Q: I started beating last season and really enjoyed it and intend to do much more. I have noticed a real mixture of dogs in the beating line, from spaniels and Labradors to various different types of HPRs and even terriers. I would like to get a dog but don’t know what to go for.

A:  The springer spaniel is the dog for you. They have limitless energy which  is vital. While cocker spaniels are great dogs the larger springer is much better equipped to deal with all the challenges the long forays into the woods present.

Labradors are capable of taking their place in the beating line and doing a great job but it isn’t what they are best at.

Hungarian vizsla

The Hungarian wirehaired vizsla ia a tough, all-purpose hunting dog

Q: What I enjoy most of all is walked-up shooting, particularly in Scotland. Would a hunt, point and retrieve dog be best for me?

A: The very simple answer to this is yes.  The real joy of HPRs is not so much their ability to beat or retrieve but the moment when they actually go on point, which makes for exciting shooting.

Q: Which is the best gundog breed for trialling? I’ve been interested in participating in field trials for some time now, and while friends and family swear by either Labradors or English springer spaniels, I like the look of flat coat retrievers.

A: Flat coat retrievers are not at the forefront of competitions, so, if you are interested in field trials, spaniels and Labradors are a much sounder option.

I have trained a few flat coats over the years and have found them to be late developers in comparison to spaniels and Labradors who, at 15 months, would be almost fully trained to trialling standards. I’d therefore be tempted to say they are the best gundog breeds for trialling from the ones you’re looking at. A flat coat would not mature until around three years of age, and even then they tend not to be the same standard.

A: You can find a gundog club by visiting The Kennel Club. Not all gundog clubs run training classes but most will be able to put you in touch with a good gundog trainer.

Your sporting interests cover quite a wide range of gundog skills. A good cocker spaniel from working stock will make an excellent beating and roughshooting dog and it will have the ability, if correctly trained, to retrieve all types of quarry including geese.

However if your wildfowling is going to require a much stronger dog, a well-bred Labrador or a Chesapeake would be the obvious choice.

The Brittany: why it’s the most popular gundog in France

Why a Brittany? Although it’s not unusual to be asked for guidance, the majority of buyers have already decided on their breed of choice, be it spaniel, retriever or HPR. The majority of people remain with the same type of dog, if not the same breed, throughout their life. However,…

bengal tiger

Striped labradors – yes they really are a thing apparently

Some breeders are now selling ‘striped labradors’. Skilled labrador breeders invariably have a detailed knowledge of their dogs and know which of their animals carry yellow or chocolate genes, selecting their mates with a view to ensuring that different colours occur in their litters. Among pet labradors, chocolates, being rarer,…

Irish water spaniel

The Irish water spaniel

Hunt, point and retrieve (HPR) dogs are increasing in popularity but it’s unusual to see an Irish water spaniel in the field, although it could lay claim to being the only HPR native to these islands. These spaniels are not only keen hunters, point before flushing and are good retrievers…


What makes the perfect labrador?

Is the perfect labrador a product of breeding or training? There is huge variety in the breed and starting a discussion about what makes a perfect labrador will inevitably draw out some firmly-held opinions. (Ever heard of a silver labrador?) Around 35,000 labs are registered with the British Kennel Club…

Wire Haired German cross English Springer Spaniel

Crossbreed gundogs: the rise of the working mongrel

Pennine pointer. It’s not a breed recognised by the Kennel Club and it’s not really a breed at all (like all crossbreed gundogs), but it is a tough, all-round gundog that has been produced by gamekeepers working on the grouse moors of the Pennines. They wanted a dog that was…

terrier breeds

Terrier breeds: are they born anarchists?

Most, if not all of the terrier breeds bring a smile to our faces, whether the smug condescension of the handler of well-trained gundogs or the rictus of embarrassment that comes from having thought your dog’s behaviour could not get any worse before you discover that it just has. Quite a few owners of…

sprocker or cocker

Sprocker or cocker spaniel? How can you tell them apart?

Should you get a sprocker or cocker spaniel? I admit to being a fan of sprockers as I like their hybrid vigour. They are not a designer cross-breed like a Labradoodle but simply spaniel x spaniel, and it should not be forgotten that both breeds share the same ancestry. However, since a cocker crossed…

Italian spinone

Italian gundogs – what are their strengths in the field?

I’ve written recently about both French and German gundogs. On the same theme, this is a piece about Italian gundogs, but it wasn’t one I was planning to write. However, a friend with a passion for all things Italian — from formaggi to Ferrari and ciabatta to chianti — challenged…

English Springer

Is it time for super spaniels?

Breeds of spaniel There is a dangerously common misconception among many dog enthusiasts, assuming that a breed is similar to a species. It’s not. Species have evolved naturally over hundreds of thousands of years, but breeds are man-made creations produced by highly selective breeding and few are much more than…

German HPR breeds

Just why are German HPRs are so popular here?

History notes that the first of the German HPR breeds, the German shorthaired pointer, was shown in England in 1887, but it wasn’t until after World War II that these elegant, all-purpose dogs appeared in the shooting field in the UK, brought back by British Army officers who had served…

German gundog breeds

Which gundog breeds originated in Germany?

Weimaraner, German shorthaired pointer, German longhaired pointer, German wirehaired pointer, large Munsterlander. The list of German dog breeds that have become established in Britain is a long one, but it could be a lot longer. The small Munsterlander, for example, has been imported many times, but has never become established…

perfect Labrador

How can we breed the perfect Labrador?

The Labrador retriever was first recognised by the Kennel Club as a breed in 1903. It was originally known as the St John’s dog or lesser Newfoundland dog. The breed was in Newfoundland in the 1700s and imported to England in the 1800s. When I was researching its origins, I…


All about the German teckel – a working dachshund

The working dachshund or teckel At one time the term ‘prey drive’ was mainly reserved for terriers and hounds and only occasionally used by the gundog fraternity. However, in the past 30 or so years, with the rising popularity of hunt-point-retrievers we have seen it used more frequently to describe…

Black Labrador lying down

Do Labradors really originate from Canada?

Spend a day out in the field on a shoot and the chances are that somebody, somewhere will have a Labrador. But despite being such a popular gundog, some think that Labradors are from Canada originally, rather than being a European breed. It’s said that fishermen in this bleak peninsula…