Local experts weigh in on finding the perfect canine to accompany you in the field.
The hunt is on—for the perfect hunting dog. Not just any Rover or Spot will do, but a steady canine that is agile, obedient, and adventuresome. With hundreds of choice breeds, opportunities for a good field companion rise on the wind like the scent of a 14-point buck. Yet to pair brains and brawn with companionship for the kill? “There’s nothing like having a dog that you’ve bred and trained and taken game over,” shares Kim Parkman with Pocotaligo Kennels in Sumter. “It’s about as good as it gets in sport. It adds so much to the hunt and shows what it’s really about. It’s not about how many birds you harvest nor shells you shoot. It’s a much deeper connection than that.”
Cave paintings and archeology digs show that connection between hunter and hound dates back thousands of years. Hunting dogs save time in the field both locating and retrieving prey. They also expand terrain traversed, often tackling rugged land and water unpassable to humans. Centuries of selective breeding and training have hard-wired specific dogs for specific functions. There are pointers, flushers, setters, and retrievers, not to mention gundogs, sighthounds, and scent hounds.
So, where does a solo slayer start, knowing a four-footed assistant can improve success?
Do your Homework
First, narrow down the game you hunt the most.
Parkman explains, “If you hunt dove and ducks more than quail, then you need a retriever or spaniel. A spaniel or retriever can do most types of hunting today in South Carolina.” Once you’ve selected a breed, conduct research on individual breeders like a dog with a bone (excuse the pun). Then, meet the dam and sire. “Do the mom and dad hunt? Do they have field titles?” asks Caleb Phillips with Ruby Ridge Retrievers in Travelers Rest. “When you purchase a puppy, you’re going to get some combination of the qualities of the mom and dad. You’re stacking the cards in your favor by picking dogs with titles and hunting experience.”
Look for social dogs that are good with kids, and ask for a health screening and genetic testing. Parkman and Phillips both say a quality breeder will interview potential owners more than you interview them.
Invest in Hunting Dog Training
After the puppy is home, training begins . . . and never ends.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat it,” admits Phillips, who has trained more than 250 dogs. “It’s always work, and some dogs require more work than others. Dogs need mental and physical exercise.” Initially, plan on five to six months to train a retriever for the field. This should start when the pup is no younger than six months. The 31-year-old says plenty of credible online resources exist for those who want to train their own hunting dogs.
Sending them to a trainer in the Palmetto State tends to run between $800–$1,500 a month for boarding, training, and food. “It shouldn’t be a hands-off experience,” he instructs. “We encourage owners to come out and visit, and watch and work, and participate in the training, or take the dog home for a weekend.”
Scope out a companion
Most importantly, Phillips cautions, “When done, your dog will be a fully trained hunting dog, but they are still a pet 97% of the time. So, always get a dog that complements your lifestyle, not one that you have to change your lifestyle for. Dogs become part of your family. It’s a relationship that moves beyond sport.” Bullseye.
Top Hunting Dog Breeds
- Labrador retrievers: Friendly, enthusiastic. Good for small-game hunting.
- American foxhound: Athletic, fast, even-tempered, low-maintenance.
- Brittany spaniel: Energetic, athletic, fast. Tops out at 35 pounds. Good for waterfowl and small game.
- German short-haired pointer: Agile, alert. Points and retrieves.
- Boykin spaniel: Tough, energetic, versatile, and compact. South Carolina’s state dog fits well into smaller boats and canoes; capable of retrieving large geese and ducks.
Types of Hunting Dogs
Hunting dogs are distinguished by function and prey:
- Pointers: Stops and points to show hunters where to aim.
- Flushers: Flushes low-lying birds out of the field, into the sky.
- Setters: Sniffs out birds and lays flat to show prey to hunters.
- Retrievers: Bring back injured or dead prey without damaging it.
- Gundogs: Former setters who now hunt alongside guns.
- Sight hounds: Dogs with keen eyesight, who spot and chase down prey.
- Scent hounds: Sniff prey all day, without getting tired.
Go to pocotaligokennel.com and rubyridgeretrievers.com for more information about finding and training a field companion.
Photography by Joel Jones.