Now there are 30 officially recognized sporting group breeds, according to the American Kennel Club, and many dogs—of any breed!—can be taught the essentials to be an excellent hunting companion.
But when did hunters begin using dogs?
An Ancient Friendship
Dogs may have been used for hunting as long as 20,000 years ago, when early humans were still hunter-gatherers and agriculture had not yet even been invented! In fact, dogs are thought to be the first animals humans domesticated, before cows and sheep.
Archeological evidence suggests that several species of wolves, coyotes, and jackals may have begun staying near human camps. Some theorize this nearness to humans led to the domestication of dogs: friendly, submissive wolves and wolf-hybrids were allowed to stay near the camp, eating scraps and breeding with other friendly dogs, while bold and aggressive wolves were driven away.
Either way, humans and dogs evolved in tandem. Dogs appear alongside hunters in ancient cave paintings all around the world. Evidence suggests that dogs were used as hunting partners, guard dogs, and even to haul heavy items, from about 12,000 years ago. Selective, intentional breeding likely came about 9,000 years ago, as herding dogs began to appear. Not every dog was ideal for every type of prey or job, and over time dogs diversified into the hundreds of breeds now available.
Types of Hunting Dogs
Today’s hunting dogs fall into three main categories, with several breeds belonging to each category based on appearance and abilities.
Terriers are small dogs used to hunt small game, such as birds or rabbits, as well as to track wounded large animals such as deer. These dogs are still commonly hunting companions in other parts of the world, but they have largely become house pets in the U.S. Examples include Airedales, Jack Russell terriers, and rat terriers.
A gun dog’s job is to pursue game animals that are hidden. They are able to find a prey animal’s scent in the air at close range, will flush birds and small game, and some retrieve downed animals. Gun dogs are particularly useful when hunting upland and wetland game, birds, and small mammals. Examples include Labrador retrievers, English pointers, and the English springer spaniel.
A hound needs to be built for stamina, as its task is chasing running game. They typically have loud barks and excellent noses; some specialize in treeing game such as squirrels, raccoons, and even bears until their hunter arrives. Hounds excel at hunting deer, coyote, wild boar, rabbits, and foxes. Examples include the mountain cur, the black-and-tan coonhound, and the American foxhound.
As with any “tool” in the hunter’s kit, it’s important to do your research before you bring home a hunting dog. Learn more at the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, United Kennel Club, the American Kennel Club, or pick up a copy of Gun Dog Magazine when picking out your new best friend.