Introduction to Sporting Dog Breeds
These dogs generally have their noses in the air. But not because they are showing off about their popularity. This is their real specialism: identifying the specific scent of game-birds amidst a cocktail of smells. They then point to, flush out and or retrieve this quarry. This differentiates them from breeds in the Hound and Terrier groups. These dogs very much keep their noses on the ground.
Sporting Group breeds need to be obedient and dependable. These qualities, fostered in their roles in field sports, transfer brilliantly into the home. They make excellent family pets and these breeds are very popular. This is particularly true of the retrievers.
The popularity of the Labrador Retriever has been a constant in documented history. Indeed it has been the most popular breed for the last 30 years according to AKC registration data. It continues to fend off an impressive challenge from the French Bulldog [internal link]. The Frenchie is a popular companion dog ideal for city living who is metaphorically snapping at the Lab’s heels . But let’s not forget that the Golden Retriever is also consistently in the top five. Most recently in 2020 occupying the number 4 slot in the AKC rankings.
It is no coincidence that these two retrievers also appear in the top 10 of Professor Coren’s rankings of intelligent breeds. The cognitive abilities or levels of ‘dognition’ required in gun dogs is very high . The advent of flintlock guns and then increasingly reliable rifles transformed hunting practices and in the 19th century field sports became popular. It was then that these breeds came into their own. The Hounds still chased larger game over distance but dogs in this group became adept as short-range hunter’s assistants.
Sporting Group dogs are generally divided into subgroupings of specialisms. These specialisms refer to stages of the hunt. The first group, Pointers and Setters, identify the prey. The Spaniel then flushes out the game. Finally, the retriever returns the quarry to the hunters.
In practice these roles do merge to some extent. But it is worth noting that some dogs are particularly good all-rounders. They are sometimes known as Hunt-Point-Retrieve (or HPR dogs for short).
The following offers an overview of the subcategories in the Sporting Dog Group. Each is fleshed out with an example breed. For more details please visit the breed guide.
Pointers and Setters
These dogs reign supreme at the earliest stage of the hunt in locating quarry. They have a very attuned sense of smell. Pointers and Setters distinguish the scent of quarry in the air amidst a bouquet of scents. In this they also display the qualities of alertness and focus.
To the uninitiated, ‘Set’ and ‘Point’ might be terms usually associated with tennis. But in the gun dog world these terms signify a crucial distinction in how gun dogs find quarry. The names ‘Pointers’ and ‘Setters’ refer to their stance when indicating the location of the game-birds. The former literally ‘point’ with bodies frozen rigidly and with a leg crooked forward. The latter’s body ‘sets’ their whole body into a crouch stooping in the direction of prey identified through scent. This stance is called ‘setting’.
Irish Setter (aka Red Setter) (aka “Modder Rhu” – Irish for red dog)
Background and History
These dogs were developed in Ireland largely to hunt grouse and partridge in the 18th century. This early version of the setter was a generic red and white breed. Later in the 19th century the distinctive red setter breed emerged. Aside from the striking chestnut color, this breed had a lighter-frame with a more elongated shape to the head.
In common with pointers and before rifles, setters identified where the nets should be cast. They also alerted falconers where to release birds of prey. But with the arrival of guns they really came into their own. These dogs identify the game-birds through sniffing the air and then ‘set’ in a crouch. The nimble Irish Setter would then also assist in flushing out the prey.
These dogs have enjoyed a steady rise in their popularity. They are currently nicely set at 75th in AKC rankings based on 2020 registration data.
Character and Temperament
Possibly out of all breeds the Irish Setter is the dog that just wants to have fun.
By the high standards of the Sporting Group dogs generally this breed do require a little more effort and patience in training. The Irish Setter can take a relatively longer time to mature and are prone to be distracted. This can be attributed both to their high spirits and high intelligence. This means they require patient and consistent training. This may present a challenge to the first-time owner. Recall training should be prioritized. The athletic Irish Setters needs exciting opportunities to exercise off-leash as much as possible.
But this bit of extra effort is certainly worth it. These dogs are not only fun, but loyal dogs who adore their owners and are very eager to please. The use of positive reinforcement in the training regime will result in both a loving and biddable dog.
These dogs love both canine company at home, and are very gregarious outside with other dogs. Many breeders even recommend, if practical, a doggy friend at home for this breed. Irish Setters can also get on with smaller animals like cats. As with all dogs sensitive and calm, socialization must be put in place early. This will foster harmonious relationships with all animals in and outside of the home. This tolerant and energetic dog is also an ideal companion for children.
As is common with Sporting Group dogs, setters have a very high cognitive ability. The Irish Setter thrives on lots of mental stimulation and play as well as exercise. They will enjoy challenging games, toys and activities. But they are very reluctant to fetch or retrieve. But this was never, after all, in their job description.
A good level of exercise for this breed constitutes around 2 hours per day. If well-exercised the Irish Setter will be calm and relaxed at home.
This will help with the very acute separation anxiety that these human-oriented dogs suffer. Training to manage this anxiety is also essential (link). The Irish Setter is not recommended for owners who need to leave them for long periods of time.
These dogs are also good watch-dogs and will bark an alarm . The Irish Setter is a very affectionate dog but will be distrustful of strangers at the outset.
These medium-sized dogs are racy looking. They have a long and lean head-shape, elegant neck and a muscular body. Their muzzle is deep in keeping with their highly developed sense of smell.
The beautiful red coat is slightly wavy with a silky texture. There is also some feathering on the underbody and legs. The grooming required for this dog is only moderate. Daily brushing is recommended to remove tangles. It is important to ensure ears are kept clean as part of this routine. They do shed throughout the year but not excessively.
The average lifespan for an Irish Setter is around 12-15 years. This is a generally healthy breed but some can suffer gastric torsion and epilepsy. These dogs did traditionally suffer from progress retinal atrophy (also known as night blindness). But successful DNA testing has led to a large-scale reduction in this problem.
Links to other breeds: The English Setter and Irish Red and White Setter are close cousins. Both these breeds have a deeper muzzle and broader, more domed head. Another near relative is the Gordon Setter with a distinctive black and tan coat.
For a more detailed account of the Irish Setter, please visit our breed guide.
English Pointer (aka Pointer)
Background and History
The early history of the English Pointer is a little shrouded. But one theory is that the Pointer was originally from Spain. It was deemed too slow for English game so crossbreeding took place with similar breeds like the Italian Pointer.
The final result was undeniably impressive. It was crucial to have a dog entirely disciplined to stay still until after shots are fired. The English Pointer had the necessary obedience and focus. This is reflected in the fact that it was one of only two breeds at the first British dog show in 1859.
It has remained steady in its popularity in the last few years. According to the recent AKC 2020 registration data, this dog is now ranked as the 117th most popular breed in America.
Character of the English Pointer
The English Pointer is an affectionate and loyal breed. They are a very playful and enjoy lots of mental stimulation. This will develop their excellent cognition or ‘dognition’. This will help the clever Pointer to learn an even greater range of commands.
This medium-large dog combines speed and stamina. It is very hardy and agile. These qualities combined with its athleticism means that it excels at dog agility sports and obedience trials.
The English Pointer has a short coat which is relatively low maintenance. The shedding is only moderate and the coat only needs brushing around 3 times a week. The colors are commonly orange and white. But alternatives include liver and occasionally lemon . Some iridescent Pointers are even tricolor. They have long ears with a silky texture. These should be cleaned regularly to avoid any irritation or infection.
The Pointer is a very handsome dog. The muzzle is long and concave, perfectly shaped to funnel in scents from the air. The back gently slopes towards a long tapering tail. They also have distinctively arched toes.
These dogs don’t bark very often but they will bark an alarm when unknown visitors appear. This makes them good watch-dogs as well as relaxing company.
The Pointer is a gregarious dog and they will fit in with any other dogs in the household. But, as with all dogs, good socialization strategies are essential. They very rarely show aggression towards other dogs or people. But smaller pets may be an issue due to the prey-drive of this breed.
These dogs need lots of exercise. At least a couple of hours of walking each day are recommended for this dog. Alongside the exercise it is important to moderate feeding as some of these dogs can be somewhat prone to obesity.
Pointers are not ideal for apartment-living. They are far happier when they have a good outside space in which to run around and investigate scents in the air
These dogs can suit a first-time owner if the training is consistent. But they are a large self-willed dog. This means there are easier options particularly for anyone frail.
The English Pointer is a healthy breed with an average life span of 14 years. Some of the breed can suffer hip and elbow dysplasia like other large breeds. Occasionally also heart defects or bloating. Owners should look out for tooth decay and gum disease ensuring dental health is regularly checked.
For a more detailed account of the English Pointer, please visit our breed guide.
Spaniels are real specialists at flushing out game. Ranging just in front of the hunter the swift Spaniel darts ahead to unsettle birds into the air.
This role requires a very hardy type of dog able to adapt to all kinds of terrain including water. Accordingly the undercoat of the Spaniel is designed to protect them in cold water. The long flapping ears ward off the rough undergrowth on land.
Spaniels are versatile dogs and some breeds double-up as retrievers.
English Springer Spaniel (aka Springer Spaniel)
Background and History
The English Springer Spaniel is one of the older breeds of Spaniel. It is also often seen as the classic example of this subcategory of breeds in the Sporting Group.
It was originally known as the Norfolk Spaniel and became recognized as a breed in the early 20th century. They have the longest legs of all the Spaniels and are a speedy breed able to pelt forward at speeds of up to 40mph.
The name comes from this Spaniel’s role in ‘springing’ birds into the air for the hunters to train their guns upon. Although the activities of the Spaniel type of dog pre-date the gun. Before this they helped startle beds into nets or into the paths of circling falcons.
But Spaniels really came into its own as game shooting became popular in the early 19th century. Around this time specialized breeding took place to produce the smaller Cocker Spaniel. This more diminutive springer gained its name for its role in flushing out and hunting woodcock. Apart from the size they are almost inseparable from the larger English Springer. But the Cocker Spaniel tends to have a longer muzzle and its ears are set slightly higher.
It is also worth noting that over the last 60 years two breed variations of the English Springer Spaniel have emerged. There is a show-line (called ‘bench’) and an original working-line (called ‘field’). The show-line tails are not docked and they have a slightly heavier build. They also tend to have longer coats with more feathering. But these variations are not distinguished in the AKC breed specification.
This Spaniel may not be springing up the rankings, but has remained in the top 30 most popular breeds in America. It is currently ranked as 26th according to the AKC registration data for 2020. It also boasts a star-studded array of owners including George W Bush and Oprah Winfrey.
Character and Temperament
The English Springer Spaniel is a hardy and adaptable medium-sized dog. Its physiology equips the breed to withstand varying weather conditions and terrains.
As the tallest of the Spaniels their long legs allows them to cover a variety of terrains at speed. These dogs can readily cope with long grass, rough moorland, rivers and a variety of difficult terrains. This hardiness combines with a fantastic nose. This breed are able to pick out airborne scents of pheasants and other quarry from a distance.
This popular breed has made a very successful transition to family pet. The Springer has a very gentle and sociable nature. They love to be amidst the center of all family activities and are good with children. They can get on with smaller animals such as cats. But this demands socialization training as there can be some residual prey-drive
These dogs also thrive on mental stimulation and play. Springer Spaniels are very trainable and always eager to please. This makes them a very good first time dog for owners able to offer lots of exercise.
It is recommended that this breed gets at least 2 hours of exercise each day. The Springer will show a constantly busy curiosity on their walks. Characteristically they dart around investigating every new scent. This Spaniel will also relish any opportunity for a quick dip in water.
These dogs love to be outdoors. The English Springer Spaniel is a great dog to take on an active holiday. They are perfect companions for a long hike. But Springers are not recommended for apartment-living and are best to be in a home with a garden. This will allow the Spaniel to run around, play and explore to its heart’s content. Even better if your budget extends to a doggy paddling pool.
This is a very intelligent and trainable dog. But it does need an approach based on positive reinforcement as it can be sensitive. The English Springer Spaniel will also excel at bringing the morning paper to you intact. In common with retrievers it has ‘a soft mouth’. Dogs with soft mouth are, as the name implies, able to carry objects gently without causing damage. This is a useful residual ability left over from its role as a gun dog.
These very active balls of energy do not like being left alone. They suffer significant separation anxiety. This means you will need to employ distraction and other methods to ensure they do not become destructive (link to separation anxiety).
These are attractive dogs whose coloring is either black and white or liver and white. The English Springer Spaniel a has lovely feathering on its coat. This is heavy on the chest and lighter over the rest of the body. The grooming requirements are light requiring grooming only two or three times each week. Additionally they only shed moderately throughout the year. They also have distinctively shaped brown eyes. They are experts in using them for heart-melting appeals for attention and praise.
The English Springer Spaniel is a healthy breed with a lifespan of around 12-14 years. They can be prone to ear infections and dental issues such as gum disease and tooth decay. Some of the breed can also suffer from eye conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma as well as retinal atrophy. Occasionally they are also affected by hip and elbow dysplasia.
Link to other breeds: Cocker Spaniel (link) – a smaller version intended to hunt the woodcock
Welsh Springer Spaniel was not differentiated from the English version until the 19th century. Welsh Springers are slightly shorter and longer and intended for smaller game . Their ears are slightly less feathered. The English Kennel Club in 1902 officially recognized these different variations.
For a more detailed account of the English Springer Spaniel, please visit our breed guide.
These dogs are strong, resilient and adaptable. Their primary role is to seek out the location of game and return it to the hunter. This is often waterfowl, but also land-based game such as pheasants and grouse.
Like all other breeds in the Sporting Group, retrievers were cultivated to have a highly attuned sense of smell. This aptitude for picking out specific airborne scents makes them invaluable in efficiently retrieving quarry. The retriever breeds needed to be intelligent, alert and obedient. They could only move when given clear cues by the hunter.
Labrador Retriever (aka Lab)
Background and History
The Labrador Retriever was originally one of Canada’s finest exports. This incredibly well-loved and popular dog was historically the companion of fishermen. As early as the 18th century the forebears of the Labrador were helping to pull in heavy nets. They were also skilled in retrieving errant fish which had fallen out.
Along with the Newfoundland breed the Lab traces its ancestry back to the now extinct John’s Dogs. This earlier breed was named after the capital city of the Newfoundland province on the eastern Coast of Canada. The Labrador is named after a region within this province.
The visiting English fishermen were clearly impressed with this dog. Some of this breed made their way to England on boats via busy fishing routes to the area of Poole in Dorset, England. From here the Labrador was developed and due to this the modern breed of Labrador is officially designated as originating from England.
As game shooting became popular these dogs swapped fish for game. Their watery origins fully equipped them to make a huge success of this transition. Their ancestors in Canada had been required to dive into glacial water. The Labrador Retriever had inherited their waterproofed undercoating, and thick insulating outer coat. This double-coat proved more than adequate for repeatedly diving into the English rivers to retrieve fowl.
They also have a thick rudder-like tail to help them steer through the water. In fact the Lab’s deep chest is sometimes referred to as a ‘keel’ as it gives them more stability and ballast in the water. Finally this water dog also has webbed feet making the Lab perfect for speedy and efficient aquatic retrieval.
The Labrador was recognized officially by the English Kennel Club in 1903. Its popularity later ballooned in the United Kingdom and then the States following World War II. In the last few decades it has become the most popular dog breed in history. Incredibly it has topped the AKC charts in the States for the last thirty years. It is also the most popular breed in the United Kingdom . Although both in the States and the UK the French Bulldog (link), more suited for city dwellers, has launched an impressive challenge .
This intelligent canine is a very versatile working dog. It has been successfully employed in Search and Rescue as well as Police work. Additionally its very mild temperament and intelligence has expanded its talents to other areas. The Labrador is adept both in the role as a guide-dog for the blind and a hearing-dog for the deaf. Also more generally as a therapy dog in a variety of contexts.
Character and Temperament
This medium-sized dog is above all an incredibly reliable canine. It is very affectionate and loving and ideal for families where this breed is brilliant with children of all ages. But be aware that they generally do not make the best guard-dogs because of their amiable nature. They will sometimes attempt to lick strangers to death.
The Labrador is gregarious and gets along with other dogs. But proactive early socialization training is still essential. These dogs are also good with other smaller pets such as cats. One aspect of their popularity is the fact that they make an excellent choice for first-time owners.
Lots of interactive play and mental and physical stimulation makes for a happy Lab. These dogs thrive on cognition or ‘dognition’ training based around toys such as treat-release-toys and kongs. The Labrador Retriever will also revel in any games that involve them finding and retrieving hidden items.
The Labrador is very active and requires a good level of exercise. Owners will need to set aside time for this dog to have a couple of good walks a day (around 2 to 3 hours exercise is recommended). If on a walk there is an opportunity for a dip in a river, this will be ideal for this water-dog. They are not the best dog to live in an apartment and do best where there is an outside space in which they can play and burn off energy.
This becomes even more important with the fact that this breed can be prone to being overweight. They are renowned for their enormous appetites, which is no mean feat in the canine world. If for any reason, such as through injury, a Lab finds itself under-exercised, then it is crucial to moderate portion sizes in feeding
This dog has a compact body with a straight back and broad head. The Labrador Retriever’s coat is a thick, well-insulated double coat designed to withstand all weathers. But it is not high-maintenance and only requires brushing 2 to 3 times a week . The coloring is commonly golden yellow but this can vary from light to ruddy tones. The other colors are black and chocolate. There is also a recent surge in interest in America and the United Kingdom in the Fox-Red Labrador .
Labradors should be bathed around every 2 months. The Lab’s ears must be cleaned and nails clipped as part of the grooming routine.
The Labrador is a generally healthy breed with a life span of 10-12 years. As mentioned above this breed can have a tendency to obesity. Some also suffer from hip and elbow dysplasia as well as progressive retinal atrophy (PRA).
For a more detailed account of the Labrador, please visit our breed guide.
Hunt – Point – Retrieve (HPR)
The dog breeds outlined above are all very impressive in their specialisms. But we also must offer a respectful nod to the multi-taskers amongst the Sporting Group dogs. In the frantic throes of the hunt these dogs prove invaluable reacting dynamically to the immediate needs of the hunter.
These all-rounders are known as (Hunt-Point-Retrieve) or HPR dogs.
Weimaraner (aka “Weimer Pointer” ) (aka “Grey Ghost”)
Background and History
This breed hails from the Weimer republic in Eastern Germany. Here in the 19th century it became celebrated as an impressive all-round sporting dog.
It is documented as taking on a Hound style role in stalking large game such as boar and deer. Indeed some commentators still refer to this dog as a Hound but with the advent of the gun and field sport these adaptable dogs soon proved themselves as versatile and intelligent gun dogs.
The Weimaraner quickly garnered huge enthusiasm in the USA and where it became established as early as 1929. It remains at the very respectable position of 37 in the AKC 2020 breed popularity rankings .
Unlike Spaniels and many other breeds, there is no distinction between work and show dogs for the Weimaraner.
Character and Temperament
The Weimaraner is an incredibly striking medium-large dog. With its unique silver-grey coat and mesmerizing amber eyes this dog will turn heads in any park. The impressive Weimaraner gained the nickname “Silver Ghost’. Although this is not only due to its physical appearance but also because of its impressive speed and stealth in the field.
The Weimaraner, characteristically of the Sporting Group dogs, is extremely athletic. This breed is generally very playful. They are not aggressive or dominant towards other dogs. They can also get on with small pets like cats although early socialization is crucial.
Weimaraners are very intelligent. They have accordingly gained the epithet of the “dogs with the human brain”. As a hunting dog in the style of the hound this breed was required to be an independent thinker. This independence and intelligence quickly translated into their being an incredibly adept gundog. Their persistence and tenacity of hunting over distances remains. Although these qualities are now apparent in dashing forward to flush out and retreive game birds
These dogs are an absolute delight for dog trainers as they can pick up a range of commands very quickly. But they can be a little sensitive. Thus a calm, gentle but firm approach is recommended based around positive reinforcement. The Weimaraner can be a good fit for first-time owners but they will pick up on any inconsistencies in training. An inexperienced dog-owner would do well to attend training classes.
Weimaraners are affectionate and tactile but they tend not to clamber all over their owners. They are very human-oriented and this ‘grey ghost’ will happily haunt their beloved owners around the house all day. This breed are happy to be the only dog in a household. But they are inveterate chewers and benefit from hard-wearing toys, chews and beds
Although loyal and loving, these dogs have ingrained independence. This means that with early training (link) they can cope relatively well with being left alone for a few hours.
Weimaraners also make good guard-dogs. They will bark an alarm but only for good reason. This makes them easy to live with as well as protectors of the household.
These dogs thrive on mental and physical stimulation. This includes toys and games based around finding and retrieving. As you might expect with a dog equipped for both the marathon and the sprint, Weimaraners benefit from high levels of exercise. This should include 2 or 3 hours of exercise a day including two good walks. Happily this bouncy breed has natural activity levels and energy means they rarely put on excessive weight.
This dog has elegantly squared proportions. The body being roughly as long as the height at the withers (or shoulders). The striking coat comes in varying shades of silver. The nose color is always the same as the coat color but can be long or short. The longer hair does have some slight feathering on the legs.
Weimaraners are very low-maintenance in terms of grooming. They do shed but not excessively and have an easy to maintain single coat. This means weekly brushing will suffice.
This is another healthy dog with a life span of between 11 – 13 years. They can be affected by gastric torsion. So it is recommended that they avoid intense exercise immediately after meals. Some of the breed can occasionally suffer from Entropan. Also Von Willebrand disease and hypertrophic osteodystrophy.
For a more detailed account of the Weimaraner, please visit our breed guide.
A popular and sporty group of dogs
I hope this overview has given an opportunity to appreciate the versatile and intelligent breeds in this group. It is little wonder that they have become such valued and popular companions in our homes.
These affectionate and healthy dogs love being at the heart of families. They are generally well-behaved and affectionate. But they will do best in settings where outside space is readily available.
If you don’t feel that Sporting Group dog are quite right for you then check out overviews of these other AKC groupings of breeds including: The Hound Group, The Herding Group, The Toy Group, The Non Sporting Group, The Terrier Group and The Working Group
List of all Sporting Group dogs:
- American Water Spaniel
- Boykin Spaniel
- Chesapeake Bay Retriever
- Curly-Coated Retriever
- English Setter
- English Springer Spaniel
- German Shorthaired Pointer
- German Wirehaired Pointer
- Gordon Setter
- Irish Setter
- Irish Red and White Setter
- Irish Water Spaniel
- Labrador Retreiver
- Nova Soctia Duck Tolling Retriever
- Welsh Springer Spaniel
- Wireharied Pointing Griffon
- Wirehaired Vizsla