Guide to Sporting Dog Breeds and Characteristics

Mychelle Blake
Two pointer dogs in a meadow

The sporting group of dogs has been developed over centuries to take part in hunting and other field activities to find, flush and retrieve game. Although these dogs perform similar tasks, there's still a lot of diversity in this group. If you're looking for an intelligent, energetic companion, one of these dogs may be the breed for you.

The Sporting Dog Breeds

The American Kennel Club (AKC) currently recognizes 31 different sporting breeds, although there are even more breeds beyond this list that have not yet received official recognition. You will need Adobe Reader to download and view this printable.

Common Characteristics of Sporting Dog Breeds

Many dogs in the sporting group bear some resemblance to each other, while others look quite distinct. They all share some basic characteristics that help them do the job they were bred to do, and this is what defines them as a group.

Very Energetic

Sporting dog breeds naturally need enough energy and stamina to spend an entire day working in the field. While their high energy level is perfect for this purpose, these dogs need a great deal of exercise if they are kept strictly as pets. Otherwise, they tend to become hyperactive and somewhat destructive.

Black Dog

People-Oriented

These breeds have been developed to be very responsive to people, since they were intended to work so closely with them. As a result, they also make fantastic companions and family pets, as long as they have plenty of activity that provides exercise as well as mental stimulation.

Easy to Train

These are intelligent dogs, and their game skills have been bred into them for centuries. Training usually just involves building on their natural instincts.

dog with duck toy

Sturdy Build

Fragile dogs could easily become injured in the field. These dogs were developed for strength and stamina, no matter what size they are.

Great Athletic Ability

Running, jumping, diving and swimming are part of every day life for most sporting breeds. Through each generation, the most athletic dogs were selected for breeding in order to preserve and enhance this characteristic in future generations. Members of the sporting group excel at dog sports like dog agility and dock diving because of their athleticism.

Protective Coats

Sporting dogs work in all kinds of weather, and they work on land as well as in the water. Their coats are designed to insulate them from the temperature, as well as repel water to keep them dry. Their natural defenses against wet and cold also means these dogs tend to love swimming.

running Vizsla red dog in low water

Four Basic Types

Dogs in the sporting group can be divided into four basic types according to the job each breed was bred to perform. These types include the following:

Setters

These dogs were bred to work a field, find game by scent, and freeze in a down (called a "set") to indicate to the hunter where the birds are located. The AKC setters are the English Setter, Gordon Setter, Irish Red and White Setter, and the Irish Setter.

Pointers

Like setters, these dogs find game by scent but instead of laying down they freeze in a standing position and "point" to the game. The pointers in the AKC sporting group are the German Shorthaired Pointer, German Wirehaired Pointer, and the Pointer.

Retrievers

These dogs bring game back to the hunter which may include diving into water. The retrievers recognized by AKC are the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Curly-Coated Retriever, Flat-Coated Retriever, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, and the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.

Spaniels

These dogs primarily help flush out game from the brush. The spaniels recognized by AKC are the American Water Spaniel, Boykin Spaniel, Brittany Spaniel, Clumber Spaniel, Cocker Spaniel (American), English Cocker Spaniel, English Springer Spaniel, Field Spaniel, Irish Water Spaniel, Sussex Spaniel, and the Welsh Springer Spaniel.

Other Breeds

There a few other breeds that don't fit neatly within these types but excel at hunting activities. These AKC sporting dog breeds are the Lagotto Romagnolo, Nederlandse Kooikerhondje, Spinone Italiano, Vizsla, Wirehaired Vizsla, Weimaraner, and the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon.

Show vs. Field Dogs

In some sporting dog breeds, show dogs look different from working field dogs. Both types can make excellent companions, as long as their exercise and training needs are met although you may find the field bred dogs are a bit more energetic.

  • For example, the beautiful, flowing red coat of a show-bred Irish Setter would be ruined by a day out in a burr-filled bird field. An Irish Setter from field bloodlines is likely to have a less luxurious coat.
  • This field/show difference is also seen in Labrador Retrievers. Show Labs are often shorter and heavier built than their leggier, field-bred counterparts.
  • English Springer Spaniels bred for show are also much more glamorous looking than their field counter parts.
  • Show-bred Golden Retrievers are larger and stockier with beautiful blonde coats while the field bred dogs are smaller and tend to have coats with a reddish shade.

Take Time to Research Breeds

If you're thinking of adding a sporting dog to your household, make sure you take the time to research any breeds you're interested in. The AKC keeps a breeder referral list that can help put you in touch with reputable breeders who can provide you with a well-bred dog that will be a bonus in the field, at home, and any place else you care to go.

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Guide to Sporting Dog Breeds and Characteristics