Photo courtesy of Valerie Blaine.

August 1, 2022

Gateway Dogs: Bird Dogs Lead to a Life of Hunting and Happiness

Photos courtesy of the author.

It started with a Brittany. Or was the Vizsla is to blame? It might have been a German Shorthair Pointer or an English Springer. Perhaps a Gordon Setter, a Griffon, a Chessie or a Lab. The more you look, the more suspects you’ll find among the canids we call bird dogs.

Just what are these dogs guilty of? They’re gateway dogs, leading unsuspecting people into the wonderful world of hunting. Once they get us into the field, we’re hooked. They win us over with their incredible skills, their intense drive, and their prowess in the field. They stir our souls as they work a field. Soaking wet, covered in burs, and dusted with snow, a bird dog retrieves a bird to our hand and our hearts swell with pride and joy. At home after the hunt, the dog curls up at our feet, tired and content, dreaming bird dog dreams. We can only sigh and say, “It doesn’t get better than this!”

A reddish-brown hunting dog retrieves a pheasant from a brushy grassland in the fall.
Photo by Valerie Blaine.

Bird dogs have a knack for changing the trajectory of their humans’ lives. Non-hunters become hunters. Urban people head to the fields. Sedentary people become active. New friendships grow. Just what is it about bird dogs that is so captivating? What magic do they work to change a person’s life?

For starters, bird dog breeds are darned good-looking. It was a handsome male Vizsla that did it for me. My spirit would soar when I saw him work a field. Janet Lewis Wallace of Indiana was also smitten by the breed. Wallace grew up in “Bambiland” where hunting was frowned upon. “I bought a Vizsla because it’s pretty,” she said. “Now I own a shotgun and go pheasant hunting.”

For Gina Cadegiana Jones of Utica, Illinois, the Deutsche Kurzhaar stirred her heart. “There is nothing more beautiful than when a dog slams on point and holds his head high,” Jones told me. “It just gets your blood pumping.”

Intensity and focus are part of the allure of pointing dogs. A dog on point is truly magnificent. At that moment, only one thing exists in the bird dog’s universe: that bird. Right THERE. Time is frozen. The dog stands still as a statue, rock-solid, not budging an inch. His body is staunch, but his nose quivers. His intense eyes stare with laser focus, piercing the thick cover to reveal what we mere humans could never see. There’s a bird in there, hidden to us but known with absolute certainty to the dog.

Flushing dogs, too, exhibit astounding skill. They’re kinetic energy on four legs, quartering in the field tirelessly, and flushing with gusto. Springers and Cocker Spaniels don’t hesitate to work in formidable cover, from dense thickets to thick grass to deep snow drifts.

Two hunting dogs, one reddish brown and the other black and white, explore a snowy field with tan grassy vegetation poking up occasionally through the snow.
Photo by Valerie Blaine.

For Rod Campbell of Mendota, Illinois, hunting behind an English Springer is an incomparable experience. “It’s exciting, challenging and FUN!” Campbell remarked. When a flushing dog gets birdy, the hunter had better be ready. A sudden explosion of feathers will soon follow.

Campbell pointed out that the fun is not limited to hunting season. “With all bird dog breeds,” he explained, “the training is the foundation we work on all year. While we can only hunt for a few months, we can enjoy the journey with our dogs through training all year long.” Many bird dog owners become involved in field trials, hunt tests, agility and other activities to extend their enjoyment of working with their dogs outside the hunting season.

Labrador Retrievers are, paws down, the most popular gun dog breed in the United States today – and leave it to the labs to lure their people into the field. Part of their popularity is due to their reputation as family dogs. They are great at lounging in the living room and playing with the kids in the back yard – but they also excel in the field. Dave Elbert of Metamora, Illinois, notes that “labs are the cream of the crop when it comes to marking and retrieving.” They form a strong bond with their owner, and they aim to please. Whether there’s a pheasant to retrieve or a newspaper, Elbert noted, a lab knows its job and does it eagerly.

In a grassland during the fall, a hunter in blaze orange offers some water in a clear plastic water bottle to a brown hunting dog. In the background is a brushy woodland edge.
Photo by Valerie Blaine.

Sharon Potter, a professional dog trainer and owner of Red Branch Kennels in Wisconsin Rapids, works with dozens of breeds of bird dogs, but it’s the Chesapeake Bay Retriever that has stolen her heart. The powerful instinct and drive of Chessies won Potter over long ago. Their remarkable tenacity is their strong point. “With Chessies, there’s no quit.” In driving rain and blinding snow, in icy waters and over rocky terrain, a Chessie will get the job done – and win you over in the process.

At a time when new hunter-conservationists are badly needed, bird dogs excel in hunter recruitment. They bring people of all walks of life into the field. I’ve met people who never ever imagined that they would become hunters but—thanks to an awesome bird dog—now live for the next hunting season.

“I didn’t come from a hunting background,” Wight Greger of North Carolina told me. “Never held a gun. Never wanted to.” Then, Greger got a bird dog. A Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, to be exact. Watching her Griffon, she was blown away by the dog’s natural abilities and eagerness outdoors. “I was inspired by the dog’s intentness to find, point, and (hopefully) retrieve a shot bird.” She thought maybe, for the dog’s sake, she’d give hunting a try. Of her first hunt she said, “I [had] never shot a gun, never ever thought I would shoot at a bird, no less hit it, but I did. My girl happily retrieved it to hand, and it was the most amazing feeling!” She was hooked.

Jessie Marchakitus described growing up in a non-hunting family with “pacifist hippy” parents in Vermont. Today, Marchakitus has a handsome German Shorthair Pointer. “Now I find myself in the middle of bird-dog training, hunting and overall enjoying the outdoors in a whole new way,” she said.

A brown and white hunting dog in a blue collar and leash gazes lovingly into the face of its owner. The owner is wearing a warm knit hat, camouflage, and blue jeans. In the background is tan and green grasses.
Photo by Kaylynn Donahue.

A Brittany owner named Sam Choffel of North Carolina initially had a negative view of guns and hunting. “I can remember picturing lots of blood and Bambi-like animals,” Choffel reflected. “I never even realized that people hunted birds other than ducks.” When she got her first Brittany, she did some research to learn what hunting was about. “[In] the hunter safety course I learned a lot about how hunters protect habitats and manage populations.” It took one hunt to get her hooked on both the dogs and the conservation ethic among hunters. Now the owner of three Brittanys, she loves hunting, along with the dogs’ agility, rally, and obedience. “Better than any drugs!” she joked.

I’ve spoken with several “late onset” hunters who, like myself, didn’t hunt until later in life. Andrea Vickers of Ohio said, “A cocker … changed the trajectory of my life at 41.” Sheryle Tepp of Wisconsin also discovered bird dogs and hunting at age 41. Now 60, she reflects, “Dogs have led me to new friends, exciting experiences, have challenged me with learning new skills and helped me keep fit. They have given me so much love, devotion and joy that I cannot imagine my life without them. Hunting dogs have transformed my life.”

Tammy Bredy didn’t get into the field until she retired. “I grew up in a hunting family, but I was youngest and never got to go,” she told me. Now, in retirement, Bredy finally has her chance. She loves to hunt with her dog in Wyoming. “I went from ducks and geese to pheasant and chukar – now will be handling my British lab for driven bird hunts. Would have never thought I would be doing this!”

In a grassy field, a young adult kneels and loosely holds a brown and white mottled hunting dog. The individual is smiling and looking down at the dog. In the background are two pickup trucks.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Edwards.

A good bird dog draws you to a wonderful life in the field. But be forewarned! “Once it starts, it’s all over,” laughed Llewellin owner Martha Marty Balint of Ohio. “You will have a new wardrobe in camo, tan and blaze orange. You will have five pairs of boots. You’ll have a bigger car with a ton of [stuff]. You will also have memories of a lifetime!”

Bird dogs take us to places we never imagined, both in the figurative and literal sense. You may find yourself on a grassy hillside in the middle of nowhere, awestruck, as your dog covers the ground with beauty and grace. You will want more. You’ll tromp behind your bird dog through muddy fields on a cold, crummy day, inspired by your four-legged’s unbridled enthusiasm. You will still want more. You’ll shiver in a blind at dawn, watching your dog navigate ice-cold water to bring you your hard-earned bird. You will need more.

There will be incredible finds and amazing retrieves. There will be missed shots and lots of forgiveness. There will be days when you go home with an empty bird bag, and days when you limit out. It won’t matter because you would rather be hunting with your bird dog than anything else.

To hunt with a bird dog is to experience the symphony of life. You will be hooked, and you won’t regret it!

Valerie Blaine has worked as a naturalist for more than 40 years, from the prairies and woodlands of Illinois to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. She earned a master’s degree in forestry and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois. Blaine retired as the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.

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Question: Hi Valerie, great capture on bird dogs. At 60 I thought my days of owning or being owned by another bird dog were past me. My 2 adopted Granddaughters eventually convinced me to get a new puppy after our Min Pin passed. I told them I would but it would have to be a pointer, they didn’t much care as long as it was a puppy. I felt very selfish as I think they wanted a cuter type dog. Two years later they follow me to the fields and are at awe with upland bird hunting behind a dog. I’m looking forward to getting them into the hunter safety course this year. I have always owned (english) pointers as we live in Kansas and pointers match the terrain well. I plan to share your article with them as it speaks volumes about the magic of bird dogs. Thanks, John