Gun Dogs vs. Hunting Dogs: What’s the Difference?

pack of hunting dogs
© Marjolein Hameleers/Shutterstock.com

Written by Em Casalena

Published: April 14, 2023

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Given how distinctively different each hunting dog breed is, ranking them is actually impossible. Every hunting breed has a strong suit and, more often than not, a flaw or disadvantage to go along with it. Instead of attempting to push a dog to be something it is not, the goal is to pick a breed that best suits your individual needs. Different abilities and traits that are required by an upland hunter may not be what is needed by a waterfowl or rabbit hunter.

When considering what breed of dog would suit your needs for hunting, it’s important to understand the difference between gun dogs vs. hunting dogs. In this guide, we’ll take a look at the history of gun and hunting dogs, what the actual differences are between gun dogs vs. hunting dogs, and some of the best breeds of both gun dogs and hunting dogs to consider.

The History of Hunting with Dogs

Before the development of guns, a hunter would use a bow and arrow, stone bow, crossbow, or spear to kill game rather than netting or snaring. But since shooting a running or flying target with a rock or arrow is quite challenging, one would prefer to choose stationary or slow-moving objects to shoot. 

Because early fowling guns required the shooter to rest the gun on something to keep it level, hunters continued to concentrate on stationary targets even after the invention of sports weapons in the 1400s. Even worse, the priming powder tended to fall out of the pan if the rifle was aimed even a small amount above horizontal. The most advantageous breeds of dogs for a hunter using a bow or any other early weapon were those that could assist him in finding game without making it flush or flee, or those that would recover anything he managed to hit, especially if it fell into water.

Due to this, Retrievers, Pointers, and water dogs are featured in the earliest depictions and accounts of hunters using dogs and firearms together. For a hunter who desired his prey to remain motionless, other canines like Sighthounds, running hounds, and flushing Spaniels were of little help. However, eventually, weapons grew light enough and shooters developed the skills necessary to consistently strike quickly-moving deer, rabbits, boars, and even birds in flight.

Types of Pointer Dogs

Pointers (pictured) and Retrievers were some of the earliest hunting and gun dogs.

©iStock.com/slowmotiongli

How Modern Gun Dogs and Hunting Dogs Were Made

When guns replaced crossbows, a significant change that occurred was that canines with better speed, longer range, and stronger pointing reflexes started to be bred. A dog was no longer necessary to circle the bird for a hunter using a rifle. Hunters wanted a strong point that was based only on scent; they could wait until the birds went into the air if they didn’t need to see them on the ground. And since a hunter could kill a bird on the fly at distances of 30 yards or more, hunters no longer required dogs to keep them company.

When English sportsmen brought short-haired pointing dogs and the practice of wing-shooting from France and Spain in the 1700s, the idea of choosing and training dogs expressly for gun-hunting started to catch on. Pointers were so well-liked by the late 1700s that the word “gun dog” was created. It initially seems to have been referred to Pointers, Setters, and water dogs employed for fowling, but over time it expanded to include any breed of dog used by gun-toting hunters.

What’s the Difference Between Gun Dogs vs. Hunting Dogs?

When it comes to gun dogs vs. hunting dogs, there actually isn’t that much of a difference. The two are not mutually exclusive. Hunting dogs and gun dogs are virtually identical. A gun dog is simply a subtype of a hunting dog. The primary distinction between the two is the kind of hunting each one excels in. Gun dogs are often employed for bird hunting, while general hunting dogs are adept at taking down a variety of wildlife.

There are many different methods of hunting that involve gun dogs vs. hunting dogs. Distinct breeds are best suited for a certain type of hunting since they possess distinct skills and talents. Let’s take a look at common types of gun dogs and hunting dogs before diving into specific breeds.

Types of Gun Dogs

Gun dogs typically include several different groups of dog breeds.

Pointers and Retrievers

To start, we have the Pointers. One of the most well-known types of pointers is the English Pointer. Their primary expertise is hunting down prey. Their name derives from the way they communicate to hunters when there is prey nearby by quite literally pointing their muzzle at it.

Another category of exceptional gun dogs is the Retriever breeds. One well-known example of this group of gun dogs is the Golden Retriever. As their name indicates, they retrieve wildlife that has been shot so that it returns to the hunter without being damaged. Compared to Pointers and Spaniels, which are occasionally employed for retrieval, they are often more eager to carry game without injuring it.

Setters and Spaniels

Setters make great gun dogs as well. One of the most well-known breeds is the English Setter, although there are also Irish Setters. Hunting for game birds like quail, pheasants, and grouse frequently involves the use of these dogs. They are taught to detect the scent of prey and to immediately stop when they do. Their name derives from the unique crouch they adopt after finding the smell.

Spaniels are also often bred to be gun dogs. One well-known example is the English Cocker Spaniel. This breed is fantastic at aiding gun hunters in their work. They can return game without harm, just like Retrievers. They specialize in hunting game birds, although they are also adept at taking down rabbits and ducks.

Water Dogs

As gun dogs, a variety of different water dog breeds might be employed as well. This group includes, believe it or not, the standard Poodle. Poodles can be taught to retrieve game from the water and are quite good at doing so. They are commonly employed in waterfowl hunting as a result. But basically, any type or breed of dog that is adept at swimming makes for an excellent water dog. Water dogs can make excellent retrievers.

Types of Hunting Dogs

Outside of gun dog breeds, hunting dogs come in a variety of breeds that include hounds, terriers, and curs.

Sighthounds, Scenthounds, and Lurchers are the three subcategories under which hounds often fall into. Sighthounds are so skilled at seeing game clearly that they were given their moniker. They can swiftly chase their prey after spotting it from a distance. They are silent and swift, which together is a very lethal combination. An excellent example of a Sighthound is the Whippet. Scenthounds, alternatively, are focused on smell. They will often pursue prey in groups and direct hunters to their prey. Lurchers are simply a mix of a working dog breed and a Scenthound.

Terriers make great family pet dogs, but they are also utilized to hunt other animals. Through their surroundings, they can seek out prey and pounce on it. They will often prey on common pests and small animals. For instance, hunting badgers with Fell Terriers used to be quite common, though it is illegal in many places today.

Curs are quite similar to terriers. However, they often pursue larger prey. Generally speaking, curs are a mixture of different breeds that are skilled in hunting, retrieving, swimming, etc.

The Best Gun Dog Breeds

English Pointers

The English pointer is a dependable bird-hunting dog with an exceptional prey drive. The Pointer will be quick to hunt down prey like birds like pheasants. Additionally, the breed is suitable for hunting in hotter climates because of its moderate heat tolerance. They are good gun dogs because they stand straight to point at a target while extending their long tail and large snout. A Pointer is an obedient, devoted dog, whether they are out hunting or relaxing on the couch at home. This breed can grow up to 21 inches tall at the shoulders and weigh up to 75 pounds. They are known for having short, thick coats and lean, muscular builds. 

Golden Retrievers

The Golden Retriever breed makes great gun dogs. They work well for pursuing small game like birds or badgers. Golden Retrievers are eager, devoted, and easy to train. They are renowned for getting along nicely with kids and are ideal family companions. However, they do require a lot of activity to keep their bodies and minds in shape. You can’t go wrong with this outstanding Retriever breed if you engage in any kind of long-distance gun hunting that calls for the delicate retrieval of game. These dogs, which can weigh up to 75 pounds, have strong, muscular frames and beautiful gold coats.

Golden Retriever Dog

Golden Retrievers (pictured) are excellent at retrieving game without damaging it.

©iStock.com/Tatyana Consaul

English Cocker Spaniel

This particular breed of gun dog has a keen sense of smell and an unwavering drive. They make wonderful home pets as well as excellent bird hunters. The English Cocker Spaniel is a dedicated, hard-working gun dog that will keep working until the owner of the gun can no longer keep up, which can be excessive at times. These canines are excellent in both upland and waterfowl bird hunting, and they are very receptive to training.

English Setter

The English Setter is a gun dog breed recognized for its pointing, sprinting, and hunting abilities. These dogs are outstanding bird hunters since they can be taught to retrieve as well. Setters were divided into two groups as their ubiquity increased: Conformation dogs and field dogs. The finest canines for hunting are considered field dogs since they are smaller and more lightly feathered. Due to their bigger frames and lengthy feathers, conformation English Setters are suitable as both show dogs and companions. The field Setter, though, can also make a great home pet. This breed has a maximum height of 27 inches and a maximum weight of 80 pounds. They are distinguished by their huge heads and medium-length, flat, silky, and somewhat wavy fur. English Setters have feathering on their legs, underbelly, tail, and ears. 

Standard Poodles

Europeans have regarded the standard Poodle as a hunting dog since the Middle Ages. In spite of their reputation as little toy dogs and curly hair, Poodles make great gun dogs for hunting over water. They swim effortlessly and are superb retrievers. Typically, they are employed to retrieve birds, such as ducks. Larger poodles (as in, not the toy variety) that are at least 15 inches tall are the ideal type to use for gun hunting. These Poodles have a maximum weight of 60 pounds. Instead of being small and stocky, these canines are tall and slender. This breed is advantageous for hunting since they are slim and strong, have endless energy, and boast incredible stamina.

The Best Hunting Dog Breeds

Beagles

The Beagle is an excellent scent dog with a strong voice and a very dependable nose. It hunts small game, mainly rabbits, and large game are not usually the main target of this breed. Just as well, Beagles are usually quite fine with small children and can make wonderful pet dogs for many types of homes. They are known for being very devoted and willing to please their owners. This breed has a maximum height of 15 inches and a maximum weight of 25 pounds. This breed of dog has a domed head and a muscular physique. It is also distinguished by its large, floppy ears, squarish nose, and perky tail that is held high.

Oldest Dog: Butch, the Oldest Beagle

The Beagle (pictured) has been used as a hunting dog for hundreds of years.

©iStock.com/androsov58

American Foxhounds

The American Foxhound is a determined scent hound. This sprinting dog definitely enjoys the pursuit. Originally used mostly for fox hunting, the breed was developed from English Foxhounds. The breed eventually participated in deer hunting as well. This breed of dog may grow to be 28 inches tall and 70 pounds in weight. Foxhounds have long, curled tails and long, slim legs. Additionally, they have big heads and prominently drooping ears.

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers

The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is a hard-working, athletic gun dog and general hunting dog that excels in all aspects of hunting. This breed is usually highly dedicated to its owner and can be quite clever. The Chesapeake Bay Retriever, like the Labrador Retriever, is well-suited to cold water because of its oily coat, which naturally offers it resistance to the water. A Chessie might be apprehensive of strangers but is passionately devoted to their family. This breed has a maximum height of 26 inches and a maximum weight of 80 pounds. It has a robust frame and a typically dark or tan wavy coat.

Labrador Retrievers

The Labrador Retriever is a medium to large dog breed with a short coat and an athletic build. Their tremendous amount of energy also affects how they behave. They enjoy working or participating in activities and they are quite trainable. Despite being raised as hunting dogs, they make wonderful companions. These dogs may weigh up to 80 pounds and stand 24 inches tall.

Bluetick Coonhounds

The Bluetick Coonhound is a scent dog that can pursue and tree just about any critter it finds. Even mountain lions and cougars have been observed to be chased by this breed. These are energetic canines with keen senses of smell. Even when they are not hunting, they can be rather talkative. While not normally suited for apartment life, the Bluetick Coonhound is a wonderful pet for families with children who lead busy lives. This breed can grow to be 80 pounds and 27 inches tall. It has a body that is heavily speckled and a short, smooth, and lustrous dark blue coat.

When it comes time to make your decision about which gun dog or hunting dog is right for you, always take the time to look at their key strengths and weaknesses. Compare these to what you need and the type of hunting you do. It’s as simple as that!

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About the Author

Em Casalena is a writer at A-Z Animals where their primary focus is on plants, gardening, and sustainability. Em has been writing and researching about plants for nearly a decade and is a proud Southwest Institute of Healing Arts graduate and certified Urban Farming instructor. Em is a resident of Arizona and enjoys learning about eco-conscious living, thrifting at local shops, and caring for their Siamese cat Vladimir.

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