RETRIEVERS – Gun dogs definition as Hunting dogs

curly coat retriever

RETRIEVERS = Gun dogs. sporting dog class

Retrievers are one of the main Gun dog breeds:

  • Pointers
  • Retrievers
  • Setters

Many dog breed sites prefer the group name sporting dog GROUP rather than gun dog.

The most curious thing about this group is that there are only SIX (6) dogs in total that are classified as retrievers. These are obviously hunting dogs that have the main skill as retrieving AND have the word retriever in their name. In alphabetical order they are:

  • Chesapeake Bay Retriever
  • Curly-Coated Retriever
  • Flat-Coated Retriever
  • Golden Retriever
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

 It should be noted that only four of these dogs have a long time lineage and are well known to most people on earth. The Chesapeake Bay retriever was created near Chesapeake Bay ( an city located in Virginia, America. And Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever is also a very localized dog.

So just like hunting dogs comprise several main groups of dogs, which some people may argue specific breeds should or shouldn’t be included, you will find that the retriever (as part of the gun or sporting group of dogs) has dogs that could or should be included in the group.

The reason that only SIX breeds officially come under the retriever group of dogs, is that while almost any dog can be trained to retrieve, a true retriever has a much more specific skills set. And in fact it is just as much of what the real retriever does as what it doesn’t do that makes it an ideal retriever in the view of hunters.

 RETRIEVER dog MAIN purpose

Retrievers are usually used for hunting of waterfowl.

This means the dog will either sit patiently in boats (often in cold winter conditions) or on the bank of bogs, remaining quietly hidden along with the hunter.

While retrievers can retrieve many other types of game, it is often larger more aggressive, and faster dogs that actually chase, capture and hold prey.

The retriever dog often has a thick coat, that repels water and a very soft mouth for bringing back game in the condition it was downed in.

There are many more mysterious hunting terms used to define how the dog interacts with the hunter owner, the signals that it must learn, how it interacts with other dogs, but essentially these dogs need high intelligence to work cooperatively with the hunter, without disturbing the environment too much or getting in the way of other dogs retrieving.

The best retriever dogs are used as a precision instrument, as if they are attached to the hunter by a string. They observe voice and hand commands, must remember where downed birds are for a long time before retrieving or retrieve on a blind command (where they did not see where a bird is but the hunter guides them).

One of the main motivations of a retriever dog is that they have an amazing fixation with birds. Without this desire to find a bird, without a high level of CONTROLLABLE excitement, they will not overcome the obstacles they need to in the hunting environment to retrieve the birds. A great retriever does not give up, unless recalled by the hunter.

Memory and the ability to mark where a bird has fallen is also a very important skill for the true retriever dog. That is what these dogs were bred for hundreds of years to do, that is why they are so good at this skill. Whereas humans can take centuries of ‘selective breeding’ to obtain a specific physical or mental skill, dog breeds can become very specific in a very short period, only a few generations. When these breeds were formed over centuries of hunting, it makes them very formidable.


Poodles were once known to be one of the best retrievers (of birds) that a hunter could find. They are also classed as water dogs and can do flushing. It is perhaps their high intelligence that had them fall out of flavour with some hunters, as their problem solving skills are exceptional and they will sometimes choose novel unexpected solutions. They were also multi-skilled so they are no longer in the specific retriever group.

English Cocker spaniels are also known to be great retrievers. In fact their name comes from their UK training to hunt the Eurasian Woodcock bird. They were bred to find the bird using exceptional smell, flush the bird for the hunter, then to retriever the bird. It is strange that having three exceptional skills precludes this dog from the retriever category.

Then you have dogs like the working dog collies that can retrieve a ball or thrown object for hours on end if required. The point about this form of retrieving is that it is a substitutes for herding. Border collies are known to be very intelligent, but they weren’t bred to have exceptional noses, and they weren’t bred to retrieve fallen birds. They were bred to occasionally nip a heel of an errant sheep, and they don’t have a soft mouth, so there are many reasons that this breed and others are not classified in the retriever specific class.

The following is a NON exhaustive list of other dogs that are known to be good retrievers. Note I have removed pointers from the list as they definitely have their own Gun Dog category.

You will notice that there are quite a few spaniels on this list. All these dogs love water, have feet webbing, solid coats:

American Cocker Spaniel, American Water Spaniel, Barbet, Boykin Spaniel, Clumber Spaniel, English Cocker Spaniel, English Setter, English Springer Spaniel, Frisian Pointer, German Shorthaired Pointer, German Water Spaniel, Gordon Setter, Italian Spinone, Irish Setter, Irish Water Spaniel, Newfoundland, Poodle, Portuguese Water Dog, Spanish Water Dog, Sussex Spaniel, Welsh Springer Spaniel, Wire-haired Pointing Griffon