The dog for the job: What to look for in a canine hunting partner

Bird dogs are essential to pheasant, duck, and goose hunting, and like most every other sport, a competition has been adapted from it, allowing dogs to rank within their breeds. Hunt tests were designed for all-around bird dogs like Labrador retrievers, German shorthaired pointers, and other common hunting and retrieving breeds. 


Hunt Tests 

Kent Shelton, South Dakota’s Third Circuit judge and the owner of Hunt’EmUp Kennels in Huron, uses hunt tests to keep his dogs in shape throughout the off-season, as well as adding credentials to his breeding program. Hunt tests allow his labs to rank among three levels, junior, senior, or master. 

“It’s not a competition, but we’re seeing if they meet a standard. If they can do the test, they will pass,” he said. 

The tests are judged by two judges. At the junior level the tasks include retrieving a dead duck thrown into heavy cover after a quack is called from a blind, then deliver it to hand, not drop it on the ground in front of the owner. The next task is to retrieve a live flying duck that is shot on the spot. From there, they may attempt a similar test requiring a dog to retrieve a duck from the water or pass through the water to retrieve on land. 

At the senior level, challenges are added, such waiting on a designated line without being held before retrieving, and they will retrieve two ducks at once, retrieving first one, then immediately going back for the other. Dogs will also be required to “honor,” which requires sitting while a different dog runs, and not take off when another dog goes to do its retrieves, Shelton said. 

The same goes for the master level of hunt tests, with the added challenge of more duck blinds and triple retrieves, making it harder for a dog to reach the master level. Dogs don’t compete against one another in hunt tests, rather they are judged on a pass/fail basis. 


Conformationally and genetically sound 

While each breed shines slightly in different areas of hunting, pointing, flushing, and retrieving, it really comes down to finding that perfect pup from the litter, no matter the hunting dog breed. 

Shelton chooses the finest labs he can, looking for dogs with solid conformation, sound hips, elbows, and eyes, and no history of energy-induced collapse (EIC). 

“With EIC, a dog acts overheated and the back end wobbles,” he said. “It’s a genetic issue that has to do with the glycogen in the muscles that depletes so quickly that it doesn’t have the strength to walk. Then 15 to 20 minutes later it will be fine.” 

He continually tests his dogs to be sure they are sound, healthy, and primed for pheasant, duck, or goose hunting. 

Gereth Stillman, of Stills Kennels in Rapid City, South Dakota, and the president of the Western South Dakota Bird Dog Club, performs tests required for his AKC registered German shorthaired pointers, including eye and hip tests, but also heart tests. He, too, is adamant that his dogs are structurally correct, and while Shelton desires a medium-energy dog with a high prey-drive, Stillman is after a high-energy dog with a high prey-drive. 

Since 1973, Stillman has raised German shorthairs, a dog that will go all day, all hunting season, without rest, a good fit for the large prairies in western South Dakota. 

“They are a breed that is made to hunt all day. If you’re hunting pheasants with other breeds, they need rest,” he said. “Some people will ask when I’m going to rest my dogs, and I tell them the end of the season. It is what they’re bred for, and if they’re properly conditioned, they will do that.” 


The best of the best 

Labs’ strength falls in their all-around ability to flush or retrieve, and they are hardy enough for cold conditions and rough, thick brush, and chilly ponds. 

“I found labs to be the best all-around and can take this kind of weather; it can be really hot or really super cold,” Shelton said. “They have a dense undercoat and thick outer coat that sheds water.” 

When choosing a pup for any type of hunting and retrieving dog, there are certain traits that catch the eyes of both Shelton and Stillman. In addition to impeccable conformation and the battery of tests, both typically seek the puppy that isn’t the most timid, nor the most bold. 

“I want one that will come out and investigate. The most bold can be a little hard to handle or strong-willed, though I don’t always mind that,” Shelton said. “I want one that doesn’t shy away and will follow you around; maybe not the most dominant, but holds their own.” 

A trick that Shelton tries when choosing his next lab is to hold it just a few inches off the ground on its back. The ideal puppy will squirm and fight for just a little bit before finally conceding. 

“If they fight, fight, fight, then give in, they’re trainable,” he said. 

In choosing a German shorthair, Stillman is after the pup that never stops moving and exploring, indicative of dog that will later hunt with its nose. Puppies that interact well with their litter mates or other dogs while still being comfortable being independent also catches Stillman’s attention. He also likes a dog that will point. 

“The German shorthair is hardwired to hold a point,” he said. “When I go out and start training a dog, something in his brain tells him to stop and hold. We do not want them to flush; we want them to hold that point until we catch up, and we’ll flush and shoot it.” 

Both breeds typically make fine family dogs, integrating into the household seamlessly. 

“German shorthairs fit into the family just like it’s their pack,” Stillman said. “In today’s world, you need a dog with a nice temperament.” 


Creating the perfect hunting partner 

Quality versus quantity helps shape a hunting dog that doesn’t tire of constant retrieving required later in its life. 

“If you spend 10 quality minutes two times per day conditioning it, you can have one of the best hunting dogs,” Shelton said. 

An example of constant conditioning that Shelton supplied is when he puts his lab puppies in the kennel, he says the word “kennel,” or each time a puppy potties, he says “Be quick, be quick.” After enough time of his consistent conditioning, the pups perform the associated action without realizing it. 

“It doesn’t matter if my dogs just went to the bathroom, they’ll go again, which is really handy when you’re traveling or they’ll be in the kennel for a bit,” he said. “Puppies don’t know what that means, but you’re conditioning them to words.” 

Along the same lines, Stillman doesn’t expose a puppy to a gunshot unless he is already fully engrossed in a live bird. The dog then begins to associate the gun shot with the reward of a bird, and, the first time that dog hears the gun shot, it is more excited about the bird and less reactive to the sound. 

“When a dog is on birds, it gets adrenaline running. Because of that, the hearing shuts down partially, they get tunnel vision, and the sound of the gun doesn’t hurt their ears,” he said.  

He also starts with a blank shot then builds up to louder shots. Before introducing the puppy to gun shots, however, both start with small retrieves only a few times per day. 

“The first thing I start with when they’re a little bitty puppy is a paint roller,” Shelton said. “They’re fairly large for a puppy to get their mouth around, but it is nice and soft; it teaches them to open their jaws.” 

He calls the puppy back to him and loves on them, but doesn’t take away the roller until an opportunity presents itself to do so in a sneaky manner. If he were to take the roller when the puppy brings it back, they fail to return to him for fear Shelton will take their toy.  

From there, Shelton moves to retrieving a live pigeon that can’t fly away. 

“I’ll get some pigeons and tie their wings so they can’t fly away, and they sniff it and bring it, then we stop for the day,” he said. “I put blue painters tape on their wings, and it doesn’t hurt the pigeons. I do that while working on sit and heel.” 

Frozen birds are next up for the puppies, now about 12 weeks old. He throws the birds out for dogs to retrieve and uses a leash to pull them back if they get the urge to run off with the bird and chew on it, typical of the age. 

“I won’t do any serious training until a dog is about a year old. You’re putting a little more pressure on him, and he needs to be mature,” Stillman said. “If you push a puppy too hard, you can take away their enthusiasm or their drive. You want to develop it, not suppress it.” 

With proper training, puppies can develop into a fine retrieving dogs, making hunting far more enjoyable. After hunting for so long, one of Stillman’s German shorthairs is able to tell the difference between a rooster or hen pheasant. 

“When he was on a rooster, he was intense and locked up to the point of quivering. He knew we were going to shoot it and he would get to get it,” he said. “With a hen, he would wag his tail and do what we called a soft point, because we would say ‘No bird,’ and we wouldn’t shoot it, and he wouldn’t have a retrieval.”