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Upland Hunting Dogs 101- Learn about the different gun dog breeds

By: Greg Kuper

German Shorthair Pointer With A Pheasant In His MouthA hunter friend once said to me, “Why spend the whole day walking fence lines and corn rows when you can have a dog do all the work for you?” Words of wisdom Lloyd, words of wisdom.

When someone refers to an Upland Dog, they are referring to dogs used to hunt upland birds such as pheasants, quail, grouse, prairie chicken, chukar and grey partridge, snipe, woodcock, pigeons and doves to name a few. There are other types of game in uplands, such as geese and ducks, but upland birds are defined as birds that do not need to be near a body of water or a marsh to breed or raise chicks.

Uplands refer to terrain but are generally defined as areas elevated above meadows near the banks of rivers, the sea or between hills. Generally, they are dry in comparison to lowland, which is usually a marsh or swamp but anyone who has hunted in the “dry” uplands would chuckle at that description due to the rain, snow, mud, etc. that you are exposed to in these areas. The simplest way to describe upland is that it is an open field which provides cover for birds.

Over hundreds, if not thousands, of years, humans have breed dogs to do specific functions (usually for hunting purposes). Different breeds have different specialties which make them ideal for a certain type of hunting. For upland birds, there are several breeds that are ideal to assist a hunter. Some important characteristics are that they have to be able to cover a lot of ground, be able to locate and retrieve game and be gun trained (don’t get frightened when a gun goes off). The best dogs for these jobs are spaniels, pointers and in some cases, retrievers.

Different hunters like different breeds for different reasons. Like beauty, hunting dogs are in the eye of the beholder. There are many different kinds of each of these types of dogs but the quick and basic definitions are as follows:

-Spaniels are believed to have originated in Spain and were specifically bred to flush game out of thick bushes. They can be utilized on dry land and in, or near, water. They can locate and point out game and they were good at flushing birds from their nests. They are highly prized for their intelligence, obedience and their beauty.

-Pointers are also thought to have originated from Spain, but were specialized in England in the 1650’s. After just two months a pointer can point. They need to be developed beyond that but pointing is truly an instinctive function for them. Because of this instinct, they are utilized to locate game and “point” out the game’s location to the hunter.

-Retrievers were primarily bred to retrieve birds and bring them to the hunter without being damaged. As a result, they have soft mouths, seek to please their master, are smart, great learners and are very obedient.
I personally love retrievers. Every retriever I have ever had was a great dog…part of the family, smart and affectionate. But their affection should not be misunderstood. They were all great watchdogs, too. They would kill or die for me or anyone in the family, not to mention they were wonderful to hunt pheasant with. They would bring me my bird and drop it at my feet without a single bite mark on it. I always was amazed by that since that would be like me bringing someone a cheeseburger in my mouth. It would be awfully tempting to just take one little bite, but they don’t.


Brittany Spaniel Gun DogDescription: Commonly called Brittany’s or simply Brits, they are ideal for pheasant and quail hunting. These are medium-sized dogs with long legs and wavy, thick coats (Usually white with brownish orange spots-sheds lightly). They are very athletic, intelligent and alert. Because of their athleticism, it is important to allow them to lead active lives to keep them occupied. Generally a happy and sweet dog, they possess a willing attitude and an ability to learn. They are considered to be spaniels but are more akin to pointers and setters, though they are much better retrievers than pointers or setters.

History: All Spaniels are thought to have originally come from Spain in the 1650’s. Brits are thought to share ancestry with Welsh Springer Spaniels because of their many similarities. They showed up in Brittany, France in the 1800’s and the common belief is that their ancestors (Welsh Springer Spaniels) were bred with native Brittany pointers and were the result.

Health: Generally, Brits are healthy dogs. Because of their floppy ears, they need them cleaned often or risk infections. These dogs need monthly bathing and weekly brushing. Not a bad idea to brush their teeth with dog toothpaste either as dog periodontal disease can lead to health problems. They are prone to hip dysplasia, skin allergies, glaucoma, lens luxation, nervousness and epilepsy.

Characteristics/Training: Brits usually like to work very close with their trainers/handlers. Harsh corrections are unnecessary as they are usually easy to train, sound dogs. In fact, scolding these dogs makes them even harder to train or can even cause worse behavior. They have a, “mental trigger,” (The den instinct) that can make them obey your every command. The quick version is to establish leadership, socialize them, give them plenty of exercise and use positive reinforcement. They require “room to run” and need activity and exercise. They sometimes get a bad reputation, but most of the problems (crazy and uncontrollable) come when they are not given exercise or proper training.

Size: Medium-sized dogs with long legs, they average 30-40 pounds and 17-20 inches at the shoulder. This small size makes them ideal for hunting as they can go where bigger dogs can’t go.

Personality: Generally sweet dogs, they make great family pets in addition to being great in the field. They need a lot of attention (love from their owner and socialization with other dogs) or they can become destructive and develop bad behaviors such as extreme shyness.

Likes: These dogs love/need exercise, companionship, love, attention and socialization with other dogs. Loves Children and other pets.

Dislikes: These dogs really don’t like being bored or not having a “job.” Hates apartment living.
Lifespan: 10-14 years (with proper nutrition and living conditions).

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English Pointer Upland Hunting DogDescription: At an average of 50 pounds, a Pointer, commonly called an English Pointer, is ideal for upland bird hunting. They are considered to be the “original” southern quail dog. It is a muscular and graceful dog with a thinner coat that can range in colors (standard colors are liver, lemon, orange or black. The nose should be darker). In any case, they often have some sort of spots, usually oval. The thin coat makes them an ideal dog for southern temperatures. They are courageous, have great stamina and are very intelligent. They are hard-driving and love to go-go-go. They usually start to acquire their hunting skills at about two years of age. Pointers are not natural retrievers but can be taught through force fetching.

History: They are thought to have first appeared in England in the 1650’s. This dog was bred to create a very unique, special and specific hunting dog. Initially, Pointers were used by net hunters (hunters who snared their prey with nets) and later by falconers and hunters who used them to point out hares and then have their Greyhounds chase them. Their lineage is thought to be from a mixture including Foxhounds, Greyhounds, Bloodhounds, Bull Terriers and some sort of setting spaniel.

Health: Overall, Pointers are genetically sound. They can develop hip dysplasia, cherry eye, epilepsy and allergies.

Characteristics/Training: Pointers got their name because of their instinct to find and point out the location of birds. They are also a dog that honors or stops within a few steps, usually in a pointing stance, upon observing a bird, where they are trained to hold steady until released by the hunter. Pointers are not expected to be retrievers but are often trained and expected to find dead or wounded game. Like most hunting dogs, they enjoy running around, so they should have room to run. Fenced in back yards are ideal.

Training steps for Pointers go as follows:

  1. Train the dog basic commands like sit and stay. Before you go hunting with a dog, you need to know he will listen to you. The earlier you start the training the better.
  2. The most important command is to come when you call him. Use a long leash and call him while gently tugging on the leash. Positive reinforcement is essential. Reward him when he does well.
  3. Teach the dog to walk next to you. This will keep him next to you when you are hunting.
  4. Take the dog out into the field to pick up the scent of different birds (probably ones you will be hunting would be best). This will bring out his instinct to point. Make sure that if he locates something that he points. Don’t let him chase after the bird. Remember he is a pointer.
  5. Playing fetch will teach him how to retrieve. You can try rubbing the scent of a bird you got onto a decoy or a ball and then throwing it. Then, you will want him to retrieve and drop it at your feet. Remember that positive reinforcement is the best way to train. Reward him with a treat.
  6. It is imperative to expose your dog to gunfire. Take them with you target shooting or shoot blanks in a field. Once they are used to the gunfire, have a friend throw decoys in the air while you shoot at them and then have your dog bring it to you.

Size: Males should be between 25 and 28 inches tall to shoulder and anywhere between 55 and 75 pounds. Females should be 23 to 26 inches tall to the shoulder and anywhere between 45 and 65 pounds.

Personality: Pointers are low aggression, very loyal and devoted dogs to their owners. They have an even temperament and a good alert sense. If allowed to do so, they will lay on a couch or chair in your home. This is because of their pack mentality. Also because of their pack mentality, they are usually okay with other dogs and cats and are great with children.

Likes: Pointers love to run. After all, they have Greyhound in them. They like, and thrive in, warmer climates.

Dislikes: Pointers are not the best with cold weather because of their short hair. They do not like to just sit around, they need activity.

Lifespan: Pointers typically live anywhere between 12-17 years.

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English Setter Gun DogDescription: Bred for a mixture of endurance and athleticism, the English Setter, with it’s longer coat, is used by hunters in colder climates to hunt grouse and woodcock. They are graceful and elegant and have unique coloring called belton markings, which refers to various speckled coats. They can be blue, orange, liver and lemon colored speckles. English Setters are extremely intelligent and with the exception of herding, they can be trained to perform any task. Initially, before guns were around, they would locate birds and then crouch down or “set” on their front legs so the hunter could throw their net over the dog and on to the bird. These dogs are fickle when it comes to retrieving. Some take to it naturally and some you have to train through force fetching.

History: One of the oldest breeds, they are thought to have first appeared in England over 400 years ago. This dog was bred from a combination of great hunting dogs (Spanish Pointers, Springer Spaniels and large Walter Spaniels) to produce a bird dog with a high degree of proficiency in finding and pointing out birds in open country fields.

Health: English Setters seem to have a lot of health issues. They can develop hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, deafness, canine hypothyroidism, autoimmune thyroiditis, cancer and allergies to some foods.
Characteristics/Training: English Setters are known for their Gentleness. In fact, they have been nicknamed, “A gentleman by nature.” They are affectionate, friendly and fearless. They are not typically shy or vicious but can be mischievous and strong-willed. They are people-orientated, energetic dogs that need room to run and do best when they have a job/task to do. Though they can be trained to perform any task that any other dog can do (except herding), these are not always easy dogs to train as they tend to get distracted in outdoor environments because of their natural instinct to hunt for birds. They try very hard to please their trainer, but because of their soft temperament, they are very sensitive to criticism, therefore, training methods using positive reinforcement are recommended.

Size: Males should be about 25 inches tall to the shoulder and females should be slightly smaller at 24 inches to the shoulder.

Personality: English Setters are great family dogs and wonderful hunting dogs. They are super intelligent and really try hard to please their owner. They are high-energy dogs and need activity. If turned into an inside dog, they tend to be couch potatoes.

Likes: They really enjoy pleasing their owner and lots and lots of activity.

Dislikes: English Setters dislike harsh training and inactivity.

Lifespan: With proper medical care, English Setters can live up to 15 years, but 10-12 is the norm.

Browse Our Directory Of English Setter Gun Dog Breeders


German Shorthaired Pointer In The FieldDescription: German Shorthairs are medium sized dogs and have a short-haired coat which can be a brownish, liver color with white spots, or simply the brownish, liver color. This coloring is ideal for winter as they blend in nicely to fallen trees and broken snow areas. They have floppy ears and usually have their tails docked. Yellow eyes are usually considered a flaw and they will generally have brown, or dark, eyes. They also have webbed feet. They are very intelligent, have a great sense of smell, can move rapidly and turn quickly. These attributes allow them to be great trackers, retrievers and pointers. They are versatile hunters used to hunt a wide range of animals including pheasant, waterfowl, raccoons, possums and even deer. They have even been used as a sled dog.

History: German Shorthair origin is from 1600 Germany. They are descended from the old Spanish Pointer and a variety of German bird dogs including German scent hounds, trackers and trail dogs. Later, the Germans added English Pointers to the mix.

Health: Shorthairs are very healthy dogs but because of breeding, they can suffer from hip dysplasia, genetic eye diseases, epilepsy, skin disorders and cancer lesions in the mouth. Females have been known to get breast cancer. As with all hunting dogs, they can get cuts and scratches from branches and other plants. Contact with game can cause the spread of bacteria and fungi causing infections.

Characteristics/Training: German Shorthairs need to be active, very active. Training these dogs is absolutely necessary. Because of their independent character and superior intelligence, they will amuse themselves when bored. That won’t be good for the owner, I assure you. Inactivity for this dog will likely result in hyperactivity and destructive behavior and they are known to jump four to six foot cages to escape and get the exercise they need on their own. When by themselves, their instinct to hunt may take over and you may get a dead trophy on your doorstep. Because of this, they need to be trained on what animals are prey and which are off limits. When you take this dog hunting, the best way to get started is to let them smell the animal you are hunting. You can use either scent of the animal, or a dead carcass.
Size: Male shorthairs are usually 23 to 25 inches tall at the shoulder. Female shorthairs are usually 21 to 23 inches. Their average weight of a male should be 55 to 70 pounds and females are usually 45 to 60 pounds.

Personality: German Shorthairs are even-tempered dogs. They are affectionate, bold, loyal, intelligent and enthusiastic dogs that are cooperative, easy to train and good with kids. They were bred to be a family dog and a hunting dog, therefore, they make great watchdogs and are great for in the field. They love to interact with people and usually get along with other dogs but because they are strong hunters, they don’t do well with other pets like cats or rabbits.

Likes: These dogs absolutely love to hunt and they form strong bonds with their owners. They also love activity.

Dislikes: This dog can absolutely not be with Inactive owners. They need constant activity or they will escape from any cage to get exercise on their own. They have trouble distinguishing household pets from prey, so keep your small pets away or train them well.

Lifespan: These dogs have a much greater lifespan than many other dogs. They typically live 12 to 14 years but it is not unusual for them to live up to 18 years.

View our list of German Shorthair Gundog Breeders