“Use what you have” is an old idea, and when it comes to hunting with dogs, it’s not an imperfect baseline. In the long lens of evolution, every domestic dog evolved through cooperation between species to fulfill both human and canid needs.
Luckily for hunters, centuries of intentional pairings created a plethora of breeds that make hunting easy, fun, and focused on the hound-and-hunter team at play. But, it’s not necessary to own a bonafide hunting breed to get out and hunt with your dog. Nor do you have to shell out thousands of dollars for a dog from royal lines to have an excellent hunting dog.
Sometimes, the best dog is the dog you have at home, the dog that best matches the needs of your lifestyle or the dog that best fits into your budget. Really, the thing that makes a great hunting dog is your dedication to the effort.
So, whether this article helps you rethink your current dog situation or encourages you to look for something beyond the norm, here are five options for hunting dogs that are worth a second glance.
5 Unconventional Hunting Dogs That Can Get the Job Done
The Jack Russell Terrier
Meet Gator the Duck Dog, a Bonafide Waterfowling Jack
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of befriending a Jack, you’ll find yourself ensconced in a web of serious yet comical intensity. Historically, Jacks were bred to kill varmints at will. But within that intense prey drive is also one of the most trainable and loyal breeds you’ll meet. Many also have an insatiable fetch drive that rivals their retriever relatives.
Jacks are also extremely packable, with many lines topping out between 10-12 pounds. These aren’t big roaming dogs you might hunt behind in a field, but should you want to hunt birds with a Jack, you’re likely to have a helluva marker and retriever on your hands in the duck blind or the dove field.
Unlike many bigger dogs, Jacks often live into their late teens, have extremely healthy lives, and will keep your home varmint-free at a limited cost to you.
The Border Collie
Another breed known for its intense trainability, border collies are pegged as the smartest dog on the planet. Luckily for me, I have one, and I can vouch for their people-pleasing, no-holds-barred take on life.
Herding instincts mirror hunting instincts in many ways, and borders are big on figuring out the problem at hand with ease. Show your border what you expect, and they’re likely to compute quickly and with tenacity.
My own border collie is an excellent companion for both big game and bird hunting. He’s gotten into 40 yards on an elk with me, packed supplies and 10-15 pounds of deer meat in his dog pack, and patiently stayed on heel as we hunted with other bird dogs.
Watch “the Fluffy Poodle” Hunt Ducks
Some might gaff a bit here, as poodles are, at the base, hunting retrievers. But it’s difficult to find poodles from dedicated hunting lines that are in the realm of normal affordability. Centuries of breeding towards a life of royal leisure certainly changed the poodle, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a dog with a busy home life.
Regardless of size, poodles — like the two breeds mentioned before — rank highly when it comes to affable trainability. The breed is smart, and the hunting instincts to retrieve, swim, and cooperate still live within its regal bloodlines. Plus, the poodle’s hypoallergenic coat makes it a perfect option for dog lovers with allergies.
Standard poodles are the most obvious choice but don’t count out the smaller poodles as equal counterparts in ability. One of my favorite bird dog stories shines the spotlight on a dove-retrieving toy poodle named Tom. Read it here in Garden and Gun.
German Shepherds (and Similar Working Breeds)
Watch Sam the Bird Hunting German Shepherd here
The thing all the dogs in this column have in common is a propensity to work, a bend towards trainability, and the bloodlines to match the effort. I’d be remiss not to include the German Shepherd and her working shepherd counterparts here.
If you’re looking for a dog that is protective as well as huntable, Germans rank high on the list. Big, intense, loyal to a fault, and busy-minded, shepherds are always looking for something to do. Fill that void with a classic bird dog training routine, and you’re likely to have a hell of a gun dog on your hands.
Though Germans are excellent companions, it’s imperative to keep hip and joint health in mind. Where the other breeds on the list are hardier, this is a breed that requires a bit more upkeep and attention paid to its health.
A Good, Ol’ Hunting-Bred Mutt
Watch Two Labradoodles on a Duck Hunt in Texas
One of the best routes to a great hunting dog without the price tag is to find what many might call an “Oopsie Daisy.” A German shorthaired pointer meets a lab in heat, and voila, two great hunting breeds beget an accidental litter of versatile hunting pups that often go for a song.
A dog that boasts at least one parent of hunting origin is likely to show at least some of the characteristics and instincts. Look for crosses involving two hunting breeds or perhaps a hunting breed with a working breed.
Or, lean into the doodle craze sweeping the country. Many doodles are crossed between two hunting breeds, the most popular being the labradoodle (Labrador x Poodle) or the Goldendoodle (Golden retriever x poodle).
The downside to doodles is that the “designer dog” push means you’ll likely spend more upfront on a puppy, but you’re looking at a puppy with a lot of benefits from two breeds, be it hypoallergenic, affable, family-friendly, or birdy.
Final Thoughts on Unconventional Hunting Breeds
At the end of the day, a good dog is rarely born that way. A good dog is made through effort, routines, boundaries, and exposure to lots of different environments. A good hunting dog often doubles that training effort.
Perhaps this article gives you an opportunity to look at the dog you have differently, or it encourages you to look beyond the price tag of a fancy breed, or maybe you can meet in the middle with a partner with certain canine preferences, so both get a desirable outcome. And don’t overlook rescues. There are many dogs with appropriate temperaments for hunting crowding shelters if you can find one young enough to pick up some training.
It’s a testament to the dog that it can transcend its defined traits to work towards multiple training outcomes. Lean into that, and you might not only have an unconventional bird dog on your hands but an excellent companion as well. Bragging rights, anyone?