Gundogs: Everything You Need to Know

Gundog breeds are some of the most loving dogs you can wish for. They like to keep busy and are extremely friendly with all the family members, cats included. Here is what it’s like having them as companions.
gundog sitting in a field
gundog sitting in a field
gundog sitting in a field

Gundog breeds are often described as the perfect family dog. They love children, cats and will get excited about seeing other dogs too. Originally bred to help their owners hunt game, these days they are a reliable and loving companion that will easily look for trouble if they are bored or lack enough exercise. If you’re considering adding a gundog to the family, here are some of the things you need to know.

A gundog’s job description

Being largely the preserve of the aristocratic shooting set, gundog breeds mostly come from around the UK and Europe, with a few US additions. As their name suggests, these dogs were bred to help those hunting game with guns – and do so in a variety of different ways.

Retrievers

These are the breeds who retrieve fallen game (usually birds, and often at long distances) and bring them back to their owner

Spaniels

These are the expert hunters of the gundog world and they will find game and flush it out for the guns. Modern working spaniels will retrieve to hand too.

Pointers and Setters

These are the dogs who locate game, usually at a longer distance than spaniels, and so will alert their owner to their presence by freezing so as not to alert them until the guns can get closer.

Hunt, point, retrieve dogs

These are multi-skilled dogs who can hunt, point and also retrieve. 

These different jobs within the group means that there are a variety of different behaviours and personalities within gundogs, but they all have the same need for a lot of exercise in all weathers and plenty of stimulation.

The natural instincts of gundogs

Like all working breeds, they utilise their natural canine behaviours to do the jobs that humans developed them to do.

Gundog breeds are specialists in watching game and working with their owners to stalk or grab. A retriever shouldn’t damage fallen game however and so individuals who were weak in the harder ‘kill bite’ part of the predatory behaviour were used to create these soft-mouthed breeds.

Owners should be aware that this predatory behaviour is self-rewarding for dogs, as hunting for food was originally part of a dog’s survival instinct.

gundog outside

Therefore, gundogs need an outlet for their hard-wired instinct in order to stay healthy and happy. This doesn’t mean you need to take your dog hunting (and many owners would seriously object to that) but it does mean that these are hard-working dogs who relish having a job to do that involves owner interaction, controlled stalking, chasing/flushing and retrieving.

Gundogs’ behaviour and personality

In order to do their job successfully, a gundog has certain key skills and characteristics.

Very active

A gundog needs to be able to work all day, every day and will work happily in all weathers, in often cold wet muddy conditions.

Extremely friendly and social

If not appropriately socialised and trained, gundogs can be over-friendly to the point of rude with other dogs. They have the ability to work in very close proximity to a variety of unknown dogs and people without so much as a grumble.

The perfect family dog

Gundogs are often considered perfect family dogs as they love people, children, other dogs – and even the cat!

Can easily become unruly

Gundogs can become boisterous and unruly if not given enough exercise or kept mentally stimulated. Their hard-wired retrieving behaviour may lead them to carrying your personal items around the house – and, if not channelled appropriately, chewing furniture or other items they may find.

Will eat anything…

Thanks to their love of food they can be prone to obesity if under-exercised or over-fed.

Good at cooperation

Gundogs need to be able to work with their owner in a very controlled way at specific tasks with distractions. Retrievers are also expected to give up their prize readily and happily. However, unless taught early on to give up their treasures using reward-based training methods, they can resource guard.

Self-controlled

Since etiquette in the field can be strict, gundogs are expected to be very self-contained while waiting around but be ready to leap into action the moment they are needed.

Temperamentally robust

Gundogs are not the sensitive type. Given their jobs involved helping humans hunt game, they are hardy dogs, both physically and mentally.

Is a gundog breed right for you?

Before you decide whether a gundog is the right companion in the household, here are a few things to consider.

Exercise

Gundogs need a lot of physical exercise – ideally at least two hours every day, no matter the weather. Dog exercise should include a variety of free-running, sniffing and exploring in a variety of terrains to keep their interest.

Gundogs love variety, so exercise should include on-lead walking in towns and along footpaths, plus plenty of free-running and exploration in safe areas – this is why training is important. They’re country dogs at heart, so the more trees, bushes and brambles they can sniff out, the better. If they spot a body of water, you can be almost certain they’ll try to have a paddle, so remember to carry a dog towel on walks near lakes, ponds and even puddles!

If your dog particularly enjoys water, why not treat them to their own paddling pool in the garden? Just make sure it’s the hard plastic type, and not an easily-chewable inflatable one.

This will also help keep their waistline trim as some of these breeds are well known for their love of food

gundog in a field

Training

Most gundogs love working with their owner and enjoy dog training activities. They can truly excel at it if it falls within their skill set – and a good trainer can channel these skills appropriately. Some of the gundog breeds are easily distracted by interesting smells or other people’s treats and so they may need help learning to focus on their owner and calm their over-exuberance. But once they can do this, gundogs can easily become top of the class.

Gundog breeds are very driven to work and will always thrive with a job to do or an outlet for their natural behaviours. Depending on their breed, this might be retrieval games, scent work, or even fun games of hide and seek. Find a good reward-based training class to help and if you are lucky to have a reward-based pet gundog class nearby you can work with your dog’s natural abilities and have a lot of fun.

There is a good reason why many of the assistance dog charities such as Guide Dogs and Dogs For Good use a lot of gundogs (especially retrievers) as their drive to work and trainability coupled with their gentle natures and soft mouths make them ideal for this work.

Sociability

Most gundog breeds are highly social and love everyone – whether human or dog. This trait makes them ever-popular as family dogs but busy owners have to remember that they need a lot of exercise if they are to be happy (and slim!) and not get into trouble through boredom or obesity.

Socialisation of these dog breeds needs to feature learning to listen to their owner around other dogs as they can sometimes be overly-friendly and charge up to other dogs who may not welcome the attention.

Grooming

While some of these breeds have slightly more specific dog grooming requirements (usually feathering and high-maintenance ears), most are easy to keep clean and tidy. The only exception is that many gundogs seem to have a passion for every lake or muddy puddle that can be found and so an outdoor hosepipe or shower will come in handy.

Noise

Most gundog breeds are fairly quiet (noise in the hunting field is very much frowned upon) although some can get quite talkative when excited.

Affection

Most of the gundog breeds are very affectionate and quite full-on when it comes to showing their love for their owner and family - and pretty much everyone!

Play time

Gundogs love playing games that channel their working abilities. This might be playing gentle retrieve games on walks (or even in the house!), scent-work games, hide and seek, or learning appropriate tricks that use their skills.

Gundogs are social creatures and they love playing with their human family and other friendly dogs, but they’re also quite content amusing themselves – especially if chew toys are involved – and will happily spend hours investigating smells in the garden.

Gundogs also love their food, so be mindful of their scavenging nature when it comes to leaving edible items out, or where you keep your bins. If your dog has a tendency to chow down on things that they shouldn’t, try giving them a few treat-dispensing toys that they have to nudge, roll and paw for their reward. The more challenging, the better, as they’re unlikely to give up easily if there’s food inside!

gundog playing

When they’re relaxing, gun dogs are happiest snoozing in the garden or on a comfy dog bed, casually gnawing on a safe chew toy. Carrying around a soft toy and cuddling up with it is also a favourite pastime, particularly among breeds with soft mouths bred for retrieving. Rope toys are also great fun for these dogs, both for playing with their owners and with other dogs.

Gundogs love playing with their human family, and providing they’re socialised properly, make brilliant family pets.

They love playing fetch-based games, especially after the age of 16 weeks when their in-built need to retrieve has fully emerged. In fact, these types of games are an essential part of good gun dog care and can also be included in gun dog training. Once they’re able to retrieve items reliably, vary the game by throwing toys for them when they’re not looking, as this encourages them to seek out items using their other senses – a very handy skill if you drop your keys on a walk or a child loses a beloved toy.

If access to the garden is limited, say during bad weather or if you’re in the middle of a renovation project, hide objects around the house for your gun dog to find – for example, hide toys and treats behind furniture when they’re not looking and ask them to find them. Gentle fetch games with soft items can also be played indoors, and as your dog’s skill set grows you can ask them to bring you named items, too, such as letters, your slippers, the TV remote or even a handbag!

Gun dogs love learning new tricks, and they’ll usually learn to do whatever it takes to win praise and a treat very quickly.

The gundog owner checklist

You could be the perfect owner for a gundog if you:

  • Love exercise and the great outdoors
  • Have plenty of time every day to exercise and train your dog
  • Enjoy getting out in all weathers
  • Like your dog to be very affectionate and demonstrative
  • Don’t mind muddy pawprints all over your house
  • Wants dog who will want to be part of everything you do
  • Live in a rural location with a large garden or plenty of space
gundog in a field

Bonding with your gundog

Gundogs love human companionship, so it’s no surprise that the majority of assistance dogs around the world are gun dogs or gun dog crosses.

Your gundog will enjoy lying by your feet, or better yet, on your lap if you will allow it. They’re very attentive and affectionate and don’t like to be separated from the owners for long. You may find that your pet follows you from room to room just to stay in your company, or greet you excitedly even if you’ve just been away for a few minutes. This does mean they have a tendency to jump up to get your attention, but consistent gun dog training from puppyhood can help to prevent this.

Touch is very important to gun dogs, and grooming, stroking and gentle massage will help them to relax and strengthen the bond between you. Getting them used to being touched from puppyhood also means they’ll view grooming as an enjoyable experience, and it’ll make it much easier to towel them off after a leap into a lake!

Gundogs will usually get along with other dogs and cats in the family, provided they have been socialised and introduced to them from a young age. Outside of the family, they are typically full of life and love, greeting guests with enthusiasm and showing how welcome they are by bringing them a gift of a soggy slipper or a toy!

Long walks in the countryside with the opportunity to sniff and explore is the perfect way to bond with your gundog. Giving them an outlet for their specialist behaviours via reward-based training classes with a trainer who understands gundogs is also a good idea for these breeds. These are dogs who love to be part of the family and are at their happiest when out and about with ‘their people’.

Gundogs are canines on a mission. Explore the rest of the working dog breeds characteristics and discover what makes them such beloved companions.