Training gun dogs, writing about it and giving person to person advice, I am occasionally confronted by the individual who feels I have insulted his or her breed or personal gun dog, when I have simply listed that particular breeds strengths and weaknesses. Such people are usually blinded by either inexperience or misguided loyalty to their favorite breed or personal gun dog. Loyalty born from a lack of knowledge or experience can be understood, but when there are other reasons it can be difficult to deal with.
What is the best breed of gun dog? Answer, all of them! Gun dog breeds were created over generations, each for a reason. In fact, each gun dog type and breed is better equipped for a certain job than other types and breeds because of its innate skill set and its temperament. Being successful with your pup is largely a product of choosing the right type and breed for the kind of hunting you do and for your temperament.
As anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon, I once received a phone call from a new dog owner who lived near the Chesapeake Bay, and as it turned out was a waterfowl hunter, something I did not know at the beginning of our conversation. "Are you the guy that trains dogs" was the initial inquiry form the other end of the phone. "I have a German Shorthair I want you to train." I began by asking the usual fact finding questions about the dog, the owner and the type of hunting that he did. First, the dog's lineage came into question when the owner mentioned it had a tail and had been rescued from a shelter. I commented that it may not necessarily be a problem, but starting with good genes was always a plus. Then the caller answered my question about the kind of hunting he did and how he wanted the dog trained. He responded that he was mostly a waterfowl hunter on the big water of the bay. When I mentioned that he might have the wrong breed for the job, he responded that he also hunted preserve pheasants a few times a season. I explained why he still might have the wrong breed for the job, and I could tell he was becoming agitated. I tried to explain that while shorthairs were among the best retrievers of the versatile breeds, big water waterfowl hunting might be better done by a retrieving breed. Also, since he only hunted upland birds a couple of times a season the retriever could double as a flusher, and probably do an acceptable job. The reverse might not be true. While the shorthair, if that is what is was, would handle the preserve hunting for upland birds, the big water retrieving work on a consistent basis might be too much for it, especially in cold weather. I got out of the conversation and training the dog by explaining that I do not do non-slip, water training for any breed. Whether the caller was just ignorant of the facts or suffering from some form of canine delusion remains unanswered. However, his attempt to force the dog he owned to perform tasks it was not bred to do, and his insistence it could do them is not unusual.
Most examples are not this dramatic, but the failure to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a given breed is not unusual. Coming from individuals new to gun dogs, it can be understood and may not be breed blindness. Such individuals can sometimes be educated. However, it often comes from those who should know better. Amateur breeders with little or no experience with other breeds are often the worst offenders, insisting their breed is the best period. No breed is the best at everything! Yes, there are versatile breeds that do many things well. However, they often do not perform a specific task as well as a specialist at that task.
The best people to seek advice from on breed strengths and weaknesses are trainers who handle all types and breeds, and who have a vested interest in being honest and accurate. Assuming he or she has no other agenda, you should be able to get a factual explanation of the strengths and weaknesses of different breeds. Be open minded, listen and learn. I train all types and breeds, but as you may know, my personal grouse dogs are old fashioned dual-type English setters. They fit who I am and the kind of hunting I do. They are grouse specialists with a century of breeding for that purpose. They are not strong water retrievers, great trackers or assertive enough to take on four footed, furred prey. It is not part of their lineage, and that suits me fine. As a result, I have had a degree of success with them.
If you are new to gun dogs, seek advice as explained earlier. If you already have a dog or dogs from your favorite breed be willing to learn and understand their strengths and weaknesses based upon their genetics, and accept them for what they are. You will be more successful, and both you and your dogs will be happier. If you hunt a variety of game, and your dog is not adequate in some areas then consider a second dog or a more versatile breed next time.
Listing strengths and weaknesses of different breeds is not possible in this column, nor is it necessary. There are books that can help, and trainers willing to help. Like the little league parent whose son can do no wrong, the gun dog owner whose dog is the best at everything is a bore. Don't be one, and avoid those who are.