Hunting With Your Dog

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Dogs are our friends, guardians, and, at one time, providers. Dogs and their owners hunted together 20,000 years ago, and some continue to do so today. Man no longer depends on wild game for survival, but hunting still has a place in the modern world. While agricultural improvements and the domestication of livestock lessened our dependence on hunting for survival, in its place, hunting for sport evolved. Even though hunting can be a controversial subject, there are many man-dog partnerships that participate in the sport in a respectful, responsible fashion that strengthens their bond.

Types of Hunting and Hunting Dogs

Hunting dogs are divided into a couple of categories: hounds and gun dogs. Hunters search for various types of game: those that run, those that fly, and those that hide. Hounds are used to pursue running game (rabbits, deer) and gun dogs are used to locate camouflaged hiding game (grouse, pheasant) or retrieve flying game (ducks).

Hunting hounds bring the hunter to the prey. They have keen noses that detect the presence of game and track the scent. They also have loud voices to alert the hunter when they locate prey. A howl that travels well helps unite dog and hunter if they become separated in the field. A loyal hound will remain at the base of a tree patiently watching the squirrel or raccoon until the hunter catches up.

"Hunting hounds bring the hunter to the prey. Running hounds bring the prey to the hunter."

Running hounds bring the prey to the hunter. They flush out and pursue game in an effort to circle the prey around to the hunter. They strategically find and maneuver rabbit, deer, or wild boar, placing them within shooting distance of the hunter.

Retrievers or gun dogs do not track, flush out, or maneuver prey. They sit by their owner’s side until flying game is brought down by the hunter. Then they spring into action, swimming in water or running over dry land to fetch the bird and return it to the hunter.

Despite their differences, all hunting dogs must be well trained, physically fit, and have good endurance to perform well on a hunt. Sensitive noses are also helpful. Running hounds track the foot scent of running animals. Retrievers do not track like hounds, but they do use their noses to detect airborne scents that help them locate felled birds.


Basic obedience skills, coupled with specific hunting skills, are key characteristics of a good hunting dog. Obedience training begins early with fundamentals such as sit, stay, and come. Pups are naturally curious and eager to learn. Exposure to other animals, people, and places with their new sights, sounds, and scents is a key priority when preparing puppies for hunting.

Expansion of that education to tracking and retrieving requires even more time on the part of both the dog and the hunter. Training in the wild introduces young dogs to different terrains, water, trees, and weather conditions. They learn to run through bramble and briars, swim in warm and cold water, maneuver through tall grass, and tolerate sometimes stormy conditions. As their education progresses, they become ready for an actual hunt, where they do all these things while focused on their owners and the game.

Tips for Hunters

Hunting will be safer and more enjoyable if you keep a few things in mind.

Enjoy puppyhood. Puppyhood is a fascinating time of life, so take time to enjoy it and forge a strong bond with your pup. It is critical that your pup learn to trust you as his best friend. It is also important for you to learn your pup’s personality and abilities. You will marvel as you watch his physical abilities improve, his stamina increase, and his capacity to focus develop.

Expose your dog to the real world of animal life. Taking a walk around the block or in a neighborhood park will expose your dog to local wildlife. Birds, squirrels, rabbits and even other dogs will pique his interest in the world around him. If you do not have access to nearby outdoor arenas, join a hunting club to learn the best outdoor spots.

Start with basic obedience training. Begin with universal commands, such as sit, stay, and come. Remember that a pup’s attention span is short, like a toddler, so keep training sessions short. Review the lessons regularly until they become part of your daily routine.

Progress to specific training. Basic obedience lessons are followed by instruction in specific hunting skills. These lessons vary between gun dogs and scent hounds and will include tracking, retrieving, and pointing. Professional trainers are available if you need extra help.

Get into shape. Hunting in the wild can be physically challenging, so get your dog into shape. As with all exercise, start out slowly and gradually increase intensity to improve stamina. Make sure your dog’s coat is healthy and his limbs are sound. Condition his foot pads by running on solid surfaces before hunting on rough terrain to prevent torn or bruised foot pads.

Take care of basic healthcare. Make sure all of your dog's vaccinations are up to date. Ask your veterinarian if there are additional recommended vaccines your dog should receive based on you wanting to hunt with him; also let them know where you plan to go hunting, as some diseases are found in certain areas and not others. Since your dog will be exposed to parasites in the wild, keep him on year-round heartworm and intestinal parasite preventive. Also, administer medication for external parasites like fleas and ticks.

Take safety measures. Never let your dog drink from a stream or pond. Carry bottled water or bring water from home to avoid intestinal upset. Carry a collapsible water bowl for convenience. Be prepared for emergencies by packing a first aid kit that includes hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic ointment, bandaging material (gauze, tape), and hemostats or pliers to remove thorns or stickers. Keep emergency contact info for a veterinary emergency clinic on hand.

Although hunting is not for every person or every dog, those that choose this sport will accomplish more than providing game for a nice meal. Ideally, hunting dogs enjoy the outdoor activity and spending time with their owners.

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