The term 'gun dogs,' or 'bird dogs' refers to several types of dog which are bred and trained to seek out game birds for a hunter or shooting party, and retrieve downed birds for their handler.There are three main types of gun dog, each trained for specific tasks and duties. A high level of fairly intensive training is required to bring a dog up to the standard of a desirable hunting dog, and generally training begins when the dog is a puppy, often involving them being sent to a specialist gun dog trainer for a period of several weeks in order to learn the relevant skills and behaviour required for successful working. All of the main breeds of gun dog are considered to make great family pets as well as working dogs, and while some are kept solely for working, many others find homes with families purely as pets or both as pets and for hobbyist hunting.
As the name suggests, retrievers are the dogs used by hunters to seek out and retrieve downed birds and bring them to their 'gun' (the handler, or the person who is working the dog) after the birds have been shot.One of the main distinctive features of retrievers is their soft mouth, which means that they are able to carry the carcass carefully and without causing damage to it by biting into it on their way back to their gun. There are many types of retriever breed in existence today, including the Labrador retriever, flat and rough coated retrievers, golden retriever and numerous others.Retrievers are most commonly used for the hunting of waterfowl, and the well trained working retriever will be a confident, keen swimmer and not afraid of getting its feet wet or swimming for downed prey! Retrievers are adept at following the movements of their handler or gun, and will follow the aim of the hunter to observe the birds which the shooter downs and 'mark' their position, before being sent to retrieve them from land or water. Should the dog miss seeing where a bird falls, or be retrieving other prey while the hunter continues shooting, they then take direction from their gun in seeking out the remainder of the downed birds. When a dog searches and retrieves birds which it did not see fall and mark, this is known as a 'blind retrieve.' Retrievers are used to working alongside other dogs, and sitting quietly while another dog is working unless commanded to move in.
Pointers are used to find game in the rough, and alert the handler or gun to the presence of prey by standing 'on point,' aiming its muzzle towards the location of the bird or other quarry until the hunter comes within range and takes their shot. Setters of all varieties are bred as gun dogs, including the Irish setter, Gordon setter and English setter. The English pointer, as the name suggests, is another popular pointing dog breed.When the handler or gun is ready for their dog to start working, they will instruct them to 'cast about,' which means to work within a set area such as around the perimeter of a field to flush out game, and so that they can build up an olfactory memory of the scents in the area and better locate further birds. The handler will then recall the dog and direct them in a systematic search, working outwards from the handler in a methodical manner. Once they have located a bird, they assume the typical 'pointing' stance,' with the body still and alert and the muzzle pointing in the direction of the potential prey. As the handler approaches, they will either direct the dog to hold its position as they take aim, or alternatively direct the dog to flush the bird out into the air, where they will shoot them. Pointers are then directed to retrieve the downed bird and return it to the handler.Pointers often work in pairs, and in this instance when one dog sights a bird and points, the other dog will hold back and 'honour' the first dog's find until otherwise directed by the handler.
Flushing dogs are sent into wooded areas, long grass and other environments where game birds conceal themselves close to the ground, with the intention of scaring the bird into the air, 'flushing it out' into their gun's line of sight in order for it to be shot. It is of course important for flushing dogs to simply flush the bird out and not to pursue it and attempt to catch it themselves! Spaniels are the most commonly found flushing dogs, cockers and springers particularly.Flushing dogs generally work much more closely with their gun or handler than pointers or retrievers. They stay within a relatively close range of their handler, and work the ground ahead of them to scare birds onto the wing. They are particularly popular for use when hunting birds such as pheasants, which will often run away from the oncoming hunter rather than take flight.Once they have successfully flushed a bird out, a flushing dog will then sit and watch the bird in the air, and mark it's trajectory as it falls, awaiting the instruction to retrieve.It goes without saying that all of the gun dogs breeds used for pointing, retrieving or flushing need to be steady and not afraid of the sound of gunfire (a dog which is nervous or does not acclimatise to the often loud gunshot sounds is known as 'gun shy,' and will not continue to be worked) but this is even more true of flushing dogs, as they tend to work in closer proximity to the guns than either pointers or retrievers.
Country shows and agricultural societies often hold competitive classes and displays of gun dogs at work, either in simulated competition retrieving weighted fabric pouches, or with working hunters in a controlled environment. If you know that game hunting or organised shooting excursions take place in your local area, you may be able to join in as an observer upon speaking to an organiser. For your own safety and that of others and also to avoid spoiling a shot or interrupting a working dog, never approach a hunting party unless they are obviously aware of your presence and have called you forwards, and follow the directions of the lead gun at all times.