Some unlikely dogs can prove themselves excellent shoot-day companions, says David Tomlinson

So what are alternative gundogs? One of the soundest pieces of advice you will get when looking for a gundog puppy is to buy one from working stock.  Conversely, if you want a gundog breed but don’t plan to work it, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t buy an animal from show or pet lines. Working-bred cockers, for example, can be manic in their enthusiasm to hunt every clump of grass they come across; show-bred cockers, in contrast, are usually much happier going for a walk without searching frantically for non-existent rabbits.

Red ink in the pedigree

I was asked recently about what ‘a lot of red ink in the pedigree’ means: was it something worth having? It’s a term used to indicate that a puppy’s parentage includes field trial champions (FTChs), the names of which will generally be printed on the pedigree in red rather than black. Whether it’s a good thing depends on what you want. Buying a puppy bred from field-trialling stock is essential if you want a competition dog but it’s hardly necessary for a once-a-week shooting companion that doubles as a family pet. True, trialling dogs are bred to be biddable but they are high-performance animals that take serious handling.

Of course, many puppies are acquired with little thought given to their breeding. Gundog puppies are all, without exception, irresistibly cute and if you view a litter with younger members of your family there’s an odds-on chance you will end up with one. Six months later you might find yourself appraising the puppy’s prospects as a working dog, despite the fact that you know that its parents, and probably its grandparents too, never went anywhere near a gun.

Best gundog

Some breeds seem to retain more instinct than others

Don’t be put off by a lack of workers in a pedigree, as there’s a fair chance that your puppy will retain some working instinct, even if its parents rarely moved off the sofa. It takes many generations of pet breeding to eradicate the desire to hunt and retrieve, and often it requires only a little encouragement to rekindle it. Some breeds seem to retain more instinct than others but if you want your dog to be a shooting companion it’s well worth a try.

I remember a five-year-old pet black labrador that lived next door to a shooting friend. The dog had never been shooting in its life but my friend was persuaded by its owners to take it out for a day, which he agreed to reluctantly. Much to his surprise (but not the dog’s owners) it proved to be a natural: steady to gunfire and falling game, and a capable and soft-mouthed retriever. Every Saturday thereafter it was duly delivered for its day’s shooting, which it clearly enjoyed enormously.

Cockerpoo gundogs

A mix of poodle and cocker spaniel, the cockerpoo is a tough but trainable companion for shoot days.

Alternative gundogs

  • Border collies
  • Lurchers
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniel
  • Rottweilers
  • Cockerpoos
  • Poodles

Judging The Field’s excellent Gundog Awards has also revealed to me how many dogs without a drop of gundog blood in their bodies also relish shooting. Some breeds stand out as alternative gundogs. Border collies are such intelligent dogs that it’s not surprising that, given the right training, they can make passable gundogs, and though they are seldom keen on retrieving they often make steady beating dogs. If you suppress a lurcher’s natural instinct to chase then they, too, can make impressive workers. I remember one that was a fine wildfowling and rough-shooting dog. His owner took him to the Game Fair, where he mopped up the scurries and scrambles but was disqualified from the prizes as he wasn’t of a recognised gundog breed, something I thought grossly unfair.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels

David has even seen Cavalier King Charles spaniels working well in the field

Game-bag spaniel

If there’s one unlikely breed that stands out as a potential gundog then it has to be the cavalier King Charles spaniel. (Read Cavalier King Charles – surprisingly sporty.) It may be just a toy spaniel but the breed includes some determined characters that do their best to live up to the name spaniel and completely forget the toy bit. Because of their size, cock pheasants are usually too much of a challenge but not so partridges, which they will retrieve with enthusiasm. One cavalier owner described his dog to me as a game-bag spaniel, as you could always pop it into the game bag between drives. I’ve seen rottweillers work like labradors, cockerpoos hunt with the best in the beating line (read more on the rise of the cockerpoo gundog ) and poodles perform as peg dogs, so anything is possible.

Abysmal failures

It is also worth mentioning that I have encountered dogs impeccably bred from top working lines that proved to be abysmal failures as shooting dogs, a reminder that nothing is guaranteed, at least in the world of dogs.

This article was originally published in 2020 and has been updated.