Exploring the most popular bird dog breeds of the upland hunting community over the years
There’s no better way to incite a riot in the bird dog world than to talk about favorite dog breeds. That’s why we do our best to cover all breeds (and upland game birds) and keep our personal preferences and opinions to ourselves. This article, however, is based on some data such as crowdsourcing via our community survey as well as litter populations in the United States, in an attempt to identify which of the bird dog breeds are most popular within our upland world. There certainly remains a level of bias as Project Upland is rooted heavily in our origins in the north woods as grouse hunters–a factor that most certainly contributes to the number one most popular breed in our community.
1. The English Setter
The north woods has a fascination with Ripley paintings, George Bird Evans, and many iconic cultural norms when it comes to grouse hunting. That culture has contributed heavily to the popularity of the English Setter around our community. In fact, over 20% of the dog-owning community within Project Upland owns an English Setter.
But beyond our community trends, the English Setter has a long history in the story of bird dog development. Artwork dating back to the 15th century depicts long-haired dogs that many people believe to be the earliest days of the breed. According to the AKC, the Setter’s origins trace back to a mixing of types and breeds such as the Spanish Pointer, the Large Water Spaniel, and the Springer Spaniel.
The modern version of the breed is traced to the early 1800s when Edward Laverack of England developed what most believe is the modern show breed. In his book The Setter, published in 1872, Laverack describes the various types and lines of setters that were found in England by the second half of the nineteenth century.
More notable in the bird dog community is the name Richard Purcell Llewellin, also from England, who would use part of the bloodline developed by Laverack to produce the sporting version of the breed. In fact, Edward Laverack dedicated his book to Llewellin and wrote “who has endeavored, and is still endeavoring, by sparing neither expense nor trouble, to bring to perfection the ‘Setter.'” The “Llewellin setter” has carried a legacy that is still very much alive today, though whether or not it should be considered an English Setter is a topic up for lively debate.
In Craig Koshyk’s article, How English is the English Setter?, he points out how the breed went on to meteoric popularity in Italy with upwards of “ten- to twenty-thousand pups, Italian breeders sometimes register more English Setters than the rest of the world combined.” While not as popular in the United States, estimates show about 4,000 English Setters are born in the states each year.
Another popular bloodline in the English Setter lineage would pop up in the United States in connection with George Ryman, creator of the “Ryman Setter.” Hoping to avoid being stoned to death by enthusiasts, I will not try to spell out the key characteristics that make up the Ryman Setter, but merely point you in the right direction for credible information on the subject: The Real Ryman Setter: A History With Stories from the Appalachian Grouse Covers by Walt Lesser. This version of the breed was specifically developed for ruffed grouse hunting.
2. The German Shorthaired Pointer
The German Shorthaired Pointer holds a special distinction among bird dog breeds. It is the only pointing dog to place among the top ten most popular of all dog breeds in the United States, coming in at #9. Next to follow is all the way down at #26: the Brittany. (American Kennel Club 2020)
Buyer beware, as the high population in North America (over 10,000 puppies a year), combined with non-hunting breeding programs, means that the German Shorthaired Pointer can present problems to those who don’t exercise due diligence in researching a breeder. Although that is something that should be done in all breeder selection, this huge population of dogs creates more potential issues in finding quality bird dogs.
If I’d had to make a guess before conducting the Project Upland survey, I would have placed my money on the German Shorthaired Pointer as being the most popular bird dog breed in the community. At just under 20%, they were pretty close to beating out the English Setter. According to a recent post by the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA), “ . . . there are currently more German Shorthaired Pointers registered with NAVHDA than any other breed” — 5827 to be exact, since 2014.
The German Shorthaired Pointer is a newer breed in the United States when compared to the English Setter. Recognized by the AKC in 1930, many say the breed first developed in the 1800s, though the concept of German bird dogs dates back to the 1700s. These were the days when the idea of a versatile hunting dog became popular instead of keeping many specialty breeds. The German performance testing for these dogs is still very much in line with that theory, including portions of the test for rabbit and ducks in addition to upland game birds. Dogs held to this German standard are distinguished as Deutsch Kurzhaar.
3. The Labrador Retriever
The Labrador Retriever is the number one most popular dog in America. Not just in the hunting dog world–in the world of all dogs. In our bird dog community, they came in at number three at just under 15% of dog owners. Because of the mainstream popularity of this breed, there tends to be a lot of controversy surrounding the purity and standards inside the hunting community. Just say “Silver Lab” inside a room full of Labrador enthusiasts and you may not make it out of the room alive.
Developed from the St. John’s Water Dog, the Labrador’s key characteristics are based around pulling fishing nets and ropes and retrieving fish. Their popularity stretches not just throughout the upland hunting dog world but also across the world of waterfowl hunting because they are incredible retrievers by nature.
Their relative popularity within the Project Upland community would likely be higher had Project Upland originated around pheasant hunting. If we added in the waterfowl world, there is no doubt the dominance that the Labrador would have on any popularity ranking.
Even if they are outranked by setters and German Shorthaired Pointers in the uplands, the Labrador is still an incredible breed for a wide range of hunting, including ruffed grouse as seen in the film, “Flushing Grouse.” They own a special place in the sporting dog world, no matter what the game.
In more recent years there has been a surge in “British Labs” in America. A driving factor in this trend is a distinguishable difference in temperament versus classic, American-bred Labrador Retrievers developed for field trials. This iconic breed even found its way into the heart of Eddie Bauer who would write of the British Labrador Retriever, “The greatest of all the great dogs I have ever known; one I have loved above all others. I hope, when I go to the Happy Hunting Grounds, Blackie will come to my side, as I will try to go to his.”
Other popular bird dog breeds
Since the top three bird dog breeds represent not much more than half of our community, it stands to reason that we all wonder where the other popular bird dog breeds landed in our survey. The Brittany came in at fourth place at 11% in our community survey and has a worldwide population of about 20,000 pups per year (Koshyk 2011). The English Springer Spaniel placed fifth at 4%. The last five slots (of the top ten) are held in the order of the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, Drahthaar, Vizsla, Pointer and the Golden Retriever.
We will certainly revisit this concept in the future to witness the changing tides of bird dog breed popularity in an ever-evolving community.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 30 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He started collecting guns on his 18th birthday and eventually found his passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.