The Field presents the most desirable international sporting companions, from spaniels and setters to water dogs and Weimaraners - which is your favourite?
While we will never tire of championing all things British in fieldsports, there is a wealth of gundog breeds around the world that give our home-bred stock a run for their money. Here are 25 of the best gundog breeds from overseas that possess an enticing combination of sporting prowess, a keen loyalty and a certain je ne sais quoi from their native land.
THE BEST GUNDOG BREEDS FROM OVERSEAS
AMERICAN COCKER SPANIEL
Having arrived in America aboard the Mayflower, this breed must have been keen to set foot back on dry land as it quickly established its reputation as a specialist in seeking and flushing woodcock. It boasts a more profuse coat than its English counterpart and is smaller, too; it is the shortest sporting dog on the American Kennel Club register, standing at 15in.
AMERICAN WATER SPANIEL
Native to Wisconsin, this breed is almost deliberately a well-kept secret to protect its carefully bred hunting abilities. Few are seen outside the USA. Though it is small in both numbers and stature, it still packs a punch. It is light and compact enough to fit into a boat without upturning it. This, along with its curly coat, webbed feet and powerful tail, makes it ideal for waterfowling. Don’t be fooled by the puzzled expression its furrowed brow gives – it is acutely sharp and keen.
With a moniker derived from the French word barbe, meaning ‘beard’, this loyal water dog sports distinctive facial hair and a coat with a perm Jon Bon Jovi would be proud of. It’s long-established; it features in 16th-century art and was bred as a waterfowl retriever with the required stamina for hunting and swimming in the French wetlands and marshes. Soggy and soppy sums it up.
This ancient breed looks as though whoever started creating it intended to produce a pointer and then realised halfway through they had enough left to make a basset. Its sleek white-and-chestnut coat may give it a polished look more suited to a house dog but it has the capacity (and desire) to bulldoze through brambles and undergrowth without flinching.
While there is consistency in the braque’s appearance – always a predominantly black head and ears – versions differ regarding its history. Some insist it was brought to France by the Knights of Malta. Others believe it to be a cross between the Pyrenean braque and the Gascony pointer. Regardless, it is surely one of the oldest pointing breeds and possibly an ancestor to many European setting breeds, too. Its versatility and eagerness to please make it a highly trainable and desirable gundog.
This breed’s all-chestnut coat provides excellent camouflage when employed for flushing doves in its native South Carolina. It is skilled with other game too, ranging from pheasant, woodcock and quail to grouse, turkey and duck. Since it is worked through swamps it is as comfortable in water as on land, making it a well-regarded all-rounder (until it returns home and jumps straight on the cream sofa).
One can’t help but feel the Brittany’s demeanour is rather snooty due to its propensity to raise its nose when alert. Perhaps it is also a consequence of its misplaced pride as the only ‘spaniel’ that points; it is, in fact, genetically closer to a setter, hence ‘spaniel’ being dropped from its name 40 years ago. Many are born with bobtails from their breeding lines.
CHESAPEAKE BAY RETRIEVER
Capable of breaking through ice and lasting hours in snow, the stocky Chessie will stop at little to complete its duty, even a difficult retrieve from freezing water. Although it is sometimes mistaken for a chocolate labrador, it is different in both character and appearance: it is reserved around strangers and has a more powerful frame, telltale yellow eyes and a double coat that is oily enough to repel water efficiently.
GERMAN POINTER (L/S/WH)
For many, this all-rounder is the gundog of all gundogs. It can track and mark different game over varying terrain using ground, track and air scent. It will last in harsh weather, whether long-, short- or wire-haired. It has stamina and speed yet the ability to stop and point like a statue in a way any Grandmother’s Footsteps player could only ever dream of.
HUNGARIAN VIZSLA (& WIRE-HAIRED)
Despite its distinctive rust-coloured coat, the vizsla isn’t a breed to leave out in the rain. It isn’t particularly suited to working in water. The absence of a protective undercoat led to a hardier version being bred in the form of the wire-haired vizsla. However, these gundogs are one of the highest rated in terms of working ability but also in suitability as pets.
IRISH RED-AND-WHITE SETTER
This graceful giant has had a history as patchy as its coat. Popular from as far back as the 17th century, it faced extinction in the 1900s when the pure-red version was much preferred. Thankfully, numbers rallied. Its method of pointing stands out in that it doesn’t – it ‘sets’, crouching or lying down on its belly. This originates from the days when it would have been working to birds that had nets thrown over them rather than being shot.
As hinted at above, the Irish setter became something of a usurper of the red-and-white’s crown. Its popularity was borne from a combination of its striking, luscious mahogany coat, an appealing, loyal temperament and its graceful gait, which was capable of covering Ireland’s range of terrain. Above all, its determination and enthusiasm for its job as gundog is what makes it such a favourite.
IRISH WATER SPANIEL
This strain of water spaniel can boast resilience – or perhaps the luck of the Irish – while the Tweed and English succumbed to extinction. It already stands taller than other spaniels and, with its mop of unruly, liver hair exaggerating its size, it has a rather comedic look. However, it is a seriously capable dog, employed for working the Irish bogs and making tricky retrieves that other spaniels might baulk at.
Spinone derives from a word meaning ‘prickly’ that not only suitably describes the undergrowth this Italian HPR (hunt, point, retriever) is bred to work through but the appearance of its wiry coat. Fortunately, it doesn’t relate to its nature. It is loyal and gentle, although there is a certain single-mindedness to its character: when its nose is on a scent, little will make it deviate.
The ancestry of this shaggy, loveable hunter is somewhat convoluted. Eduard Korthals was a Dutchman who established a breed standard having used French griffon and German pointer lines, causing the two nationalities to lay claim to the breed. The dog itself is simply happy to show loyalty to anyone keen to work it, since that’s its raison d’etre (or should that be daseinsberechtigung?).
Originating from Newfoundland in the 1500s, the labrador retriever is popular the world over as a gundog that not only serves its purpose out in the field but ensconces itself within a family. Its excellent nose for game also comes in handy when supper scraps are dropped under the table. Its powerful body not only propels it through water but convincingly knocks tantruming toddlers off their feet. And it employs the same tenacity necessary for retrieving a bird from a brambly ditch to pinpoint the least dog-loving visitor and insist on sniffing where it isn’t wanted.
Despite having a name that sounds as though it belongs on a pizzeria menu, the lagotto Romagnolo is well respected for its scenting abilities. Until the Italian marshes were drained, the dogs were used for duck hunting and their retrieving skills are still valued. In recent years, they have been trained to sniff out truffles – presumably to make the oil to drizzle on those pizzas.
MUNSTERLANDER (LARGE AND SMALL)
While Germany’s Munsterlander could be mistaken for a brand of 4×4 – capable of tackling any terrain, enduring all weathers and offering a smaller version for those who want the brand but are unable to justify or cope with the meatier one – the large (black and white) and small (brown and white) are in fact from different breeding stocks. The similarity exists in that they are both highly regarded HPRs.
MURRAY RIVER RETRIEVER
There is something reminiscent of a threadbare teddy about Australia’s only ‘home grown’ gundog. Tending to be completely liver coloured (the few exceptions have what looks like a smattering of Tipex on the chest) it was bred to cope with the noises of Murray River life and work from a duck punt as well as point, flush, retrieve and track. Despite such attributes, it is now considered a concerningly rare breed.
Presumably a qualifying factor of owning such a breed is having the patience to repeat the pronunciation to those who ask what it is. Don’t be fooled by appearances; despite being rather diminutive in stature, with a glossy white-and-red coat, black-tipped ears and feathery tail, this is a seriously capable retriever bred for duck shooting. Not only did the breed catch Prince William of Orange’s eye but his pet one saved his life against assassins, so the tale goes.
NOVA SCOTIA DUCK TOLLING RETRIEVER
Known for its screaming bark, Canada’s toller is vastly intelligent and versatile. In knowledgeable hands it can be exceptional out at work, where it was bred to lure and retrieve waterfowl. Consider its high prey drive, though; while this means that game is unlikely to remain safe, the neighbour’s cat might not either.
PORTUGUESE WATER DOG
Like with many trends, it just took someone famous to own a ‘Portie’ to inflate its popularity. After Bo became ‘First Dog’ when the Obamas resided in the White House, there was a notable spike. Whether they ever employed Bo to dive for fish or retrieve nets is debatable but, although the breed’s original use has been watered down over time, it is still utilised as an efficient and effective retriever.
SLOVAKIAN ROUGH-HAIRED POINTER
With its dishevelled, pewter-coloured coat, whiskery muzzle and soft amber eyes, there is a grandfatherly air about this Slovakian gundog. However, it is a modern breed, only recognised by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), an international canine body, in 1983. With Weimaraner and German pointer blood in it, the breed has a mixture of their best traits, such as endurance, performance on land and in water, and a capability to retrieve a variety of game.
SPANISH WATER DOG
Known for being used for two rather separate but traditional purposes – retrieving from water and herding sheep and goats – the Spanish water dog is a truly versatile breed. Its dense, woolly coat can form cords when left to grow long, not too dissimilar in looks to when a little girl tries to crimp her hair unattended. It’s a look that suits its relaxed personality.
Hauntingly beautiful due to its sleek, steel-coloured body and startling eyes, this German breed enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent decades. However, for many its appeal as a stylish accessory was soon tempered by its stubborn, almost belligerent attitude towards being trained and its moment as top dog was short-lived. Anyone determined enough to persevere with training will be rewarded with witnessing it quarter like no other breed.