So You Want a Hunting Dog?

And why wouldn’t you? They're cute, smart, exciting and can help you harvest delicious game! But the realities of choosing, training, and working a hunting dog can seem overwhelming. We're here to make the process easier.

What game can I legally hunt with dogs in Alberta?

First, let’s get familiar with the basic legalities of hunting with a dog in Alberta. Dogs can be used to track, hunt and retrieve both upland birds and waterfowl, as well as rabbits and hares. The ONLY big game animal allowed to be hunted with dogs in Alberta is cougar. In certain zones, dogs are allowed to assist with packing gear, but NOT hunting.

Now that we know what to hunt, let’s talk about the who…

Retrievers (Waterfowl)

Many people might be surprised that North America’s most popular dog breeds were selectively bred for hunting. That’s right—this group of friendly goofballs, including the Labrador retriever and the golden retriever, are bird hunting machines! In fact, many of their desirable family traits (such as a high tolerance for children) were carefully selected to help the dogs tolerate uncomfortable hunting conditions. These traits are further amped up in notoriously tough (and stubborn) breeds like the Chesapeake Bay retriever.

Even colour has been curated for optimal bird hunting, with black Labs being used before industrial farming practices made field hunting more popular, subsequently making yellow Labs more desirable. Labs are commonly suggested as a first bird hunting dog. While they have their disadvantages, like a notoriously voracious appetite, Labs are forgiving for first time trainers. They’ll still put on miles in the harshest conditions for seasoned handlers.

While retrievers flush and fetch upland birds as well, most lack the instinct to “point” and hold for their handlers.

Pointers/Flushers (Upland Game Birds)

Pointers and flushers are spunky and energetic, excelling at upland game bird hunting. This group includes spaniels, setters and pointers. Methods vary depending on breed. Some, like German shorthaired pointers, are bred to locate and “point” out hiding birds so handlers can flush and shoot. Other breeds, like springer spaniels, are stout and hearty—perfect for searching through the grass and brush to flush out prey for the handler.

These breeds may also be willing to retrieve waterfowl, but some pointing dogs, such as vizslas, lack the thick fur to navigate the underbrush unharmed. Handlers must be knowledgeable on the capabilities of the breed.

Hounds (Hares and Cougars)

Hounds are diverse, with a purpose of locating and tracking prey via scent. Some breeds, like red and blue tick hounds, will then tree prey (such as cougars). They’ll hold them there, usually vocalizing loudly until the handler arrives. Other breeds, such as beagles, flush rabbits out of cover for their handlers and can handle upland birds as well.

Because of their incredible noses (some with close to 300 million scent receptors!) and inclination to track, hounds are also used for scent work including drug detection and search and rescue. Considering the extreme risk and physical demands of pursuit, certain hound breeds require disciplined training and maintenance. It’s also recommended to invest in GPS locator collars, as these dogs will track great distances over a long period of time.

The inevitable question: can one dog do it all?

Short answer? Yes, there are dogs that have done it all. Everyone has a story of a legendary hound with the intelligence and natural inclination to dominate every aspect of hunting—a one in a million underdog, usually a mutt, with mystical abilities. The bigger question is, are you a gambler? The bottom line is to take the time to research and choose a breed with a natural inclination for the type of work you're after.

Managing expectations

It’s crucial owners of hunting breeds understand their obligations to a working dog. The energy demands of these breeds can far exceed expectations. They may need to be walked or worked before they’re able to focus on training, as well exercised multiple times a day.

Hunting dogs may react to other dogs or animals adversely, and it’s important to understand and respect your dog’s prey drive. Sometimes, you may not be able to put a hunting dog in the same situation as a family pet. Learn your dog’s particular needs and boundaries.

A responsible dog handler must also carefully consider the amount demanded from a dog and the conditions it works under. Just because a dog is willing to go anywhere and do anything, doesn’t mean it SHOULD. The handler must protect dogs from potential hazards including bodily injury, heat stroke and exhaustion.

If you're keen to do more research on your potential hunting partner, keep it here for more upcoming articles!


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