Identifying the Right Dog for You

a5cf1ba5-1baf-4d1e-8d0b-04493f7801fc To the best of my recollection, I’ve shot wild pheasants over 10 breeds of dogs. On the pointing dog side, I’ve killed roosters over English setters and pointers, German shorthaired pointers, Brittanies, German wirehaired pointers and Deutsch Drahthaars. On the flushing dog side, I’ve put long-tailed birds in the bag hunting behind springer spaniels, English cocker spaniels, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers.
A well-trained dog will give you more opportunities to shoot; plus, more of the birds you knock down will end up in your gamebag. In other words, you’ll lose fewer cripples. Over-and-above these “bottom line” metrics, having a dog in the field amps up the excitement, intensifies the drama and engages you more completely in the experience—intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically.
How you prioritize these various aspects of the experience heavily influences your choice of a breed. The question isn’t “Which breed is best for pheasants?” it’s “Which breed is right for me?
In order to answer this question, of course, you need to ask yourself several others. For example, is your priority not so much finding birds as it is optimizing the opportunities you know you’re going to have and maximizing the “recovery rate” of the birds you shoot? If so, your best bet is a flushing breed (springer, cocker, Lab, golden) or one of the close-working pointing breeds such as the pointing Lab, German shorthair, German wirehair, Deutsch Drahthaar or wirehaired pointing Griffon.
In this same vein, if the thought of a dog bumping birds out of range makes you want to put your fist through something, you definitely want a flushing dog or, again, a very close-working pointing dog. My personal opinion is that pointing dogs shouldn’t be required to stay within gun range (and aren’t intended to), but I’m hardly the last word on the subject. I don’t think you should put ketchup on hot dogs, either, and apparently most of the world disagrees with me about that.

Range and Cover

The thing about wider-ranging pointing dogs—pointers, setters, certain strains of Brittanies and German shorthairs—is that you have to be willing to accept the risk inherent in their hunting style. Even the very best of them will, from time-to-time, accidentally bump a bird—and every so often a bumped or wild-flushing bird will trigger that most dreaded of pheasant hunting scenarios, the cover-emptying “cluster flush.”
The reward for running a dog that hunts beyond gun range is the possibility of finding birds that you’d otherwise never know were there, much less enjoy the opportunity to throw lead at. The rooster I killed to finish my limit on a hunt in North Dakota last November offers a perfect case in point. My English setter, Tina, had made a cast to my left to check out a strip of heavier cover along a fence line.
It was a logical place to look, and when the GPS signaled that she was on point, the readout told me she was 85 yards away—not far in the grand scheme of things, but plenty far enough to save that rooster’s hide if it hadn’t been for Tina’s initiative and my willingness to let her take it.
Generally speaking, the bigger the country, the lighter the cover, and the more thinly the birds are distributed, the greater the advantage of having a wider-ranging dog. It’s the mathematics of ground coverage, pure and simple. When the cover’s tight and the birds are more concentrated, conversely, the advantage shifts to a dog that works close.
I’d even take this a step further and argue that in extremely heavy cover—cattails, brushy shelterbelts, anything that’s a real struggle for a person to walk through—a flushing dog’s the only way to go. Unless, that is, you’re blessed with a pointing dog so well-trained that he’ll break point on command and flush for you.

Must Retrieve

Whether a dog points or flushes, stays close or ranges wide, if it doesn’t make an honest, tenacious effort to hunt dead and retrieve, it’s not a pheasant dog. Period. Obviously this is where Labs and goldens really shine, and as a broad rule of thumb the continental/versatile pointing breeds (GSPs, Drahthaars, wirehaired pointing Griffons, etc.) are stronger in this respect than pointers and setters are. It’s just not weighted as heavily in the pointer-setter blueprint, although given the proper training and encouragement, most of them can become competent retrievers—and occasionally spectacular ones.
Something else to consider is what your dog will be hunting in addition to pheasants. If your dog’s going to be pulling double duty on waterfowl, you’ll need to look in a very different direction than if your “secondary” birds are, say, bobwhite quail and Hungarian partridge or ruffed grouse and woodcock.
It’s a lot to think about. But you know what? There aren’t any wrong choices, really. Some are just more right than others.
Tom Davis writes from his home in Green Bay, Wisconsin