Guide to Sporting Dog Breeds and Characteristics

Kelly Roper
Group of sporting dogs

Sporting dogs are a collection of breeds that have been developed over the centuries to take part in hunting and other field activities as they 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 a skilled sporting companion, these are the breeds you need to investigate.

Common Characteristics of Sporting Dogs

Many dogs in the sporting group bear some resemblance to each other, while others look quite distinct. Never the less, 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 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.


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.

Built Sturdy

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 everyday 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.

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.

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 and pointers - These dogs were bred to work a field, find game by scent, and freeze in place or point to indicate to the hunter where the birds are located.
  • Retrievers - These dogs bring game back to the hunter.
  • Water retrievers - These dogs specifically go into the water to retrieve dead game.
  • Spaniels - These dogs primarily help flush out game from the brush.

American Kennel Club Sporting Group

The American Kennel Club (AKC) currently recognizes 28 different sporting breeds, although there are even more breeds beyond this list that have not yet received official recognition. The table below lists all 28 breeds.

AKC Sporting Group Breeds

American Water Spaniel

Boykin Spaniel Brittany

Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Clumber Spaniel Cocker Spaniel

Curly-Coated Retriever

English Cocker Spaniel

English Setter English Springer Spaniel Field Spaniel

Flat-Coated Retriever

German Shorthaired Pointer German Wirehaired Pointer Golden Retriever Gordon Setter
Irish Red and White Setter Irish Setter Irish Water Spaniel Labrador Retriever
Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Pointer Spinone Italiano Sussex Spaniel
Vizsla Weimaraner

Welsh Springer Spaniel

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Popular Sporting Breeds

Some sporting breeds have become incredibly popular pets over the years, and they're highly-valued for their fun-loving, companionable personalities even if they're never used for the purpose they were originally bred for. The following breeds are some of the most popular of all.

Cocker Spaniels

Cockers are described by the AKC standard as a sturdy and compact dog whose coat can be flat or wavy. These dogs can flush and retrieve game, and they typically have no fear of water. Their happy dispositions also make them wonderful pets, and they've been a family favorite for decades.

Cocker Spaniel
Cocker Spaniel
Golden Retriever
Golden Retriever

Golden Retrievers

The beloved Golden is an excellent hunter/retriever known for his beautiful coat, which is also water repellent. According to the breed standard, these dogs originated in the Scottish Highlands, and they count the Yellow Retriever, the Tweed Water Spaniel, the Irish Setter and the Bloodhound among their foundation breeds. Today's Goldens are equally at ease in the field or the living room, and they also make very fine assistance dogs.

Labrador Retrievers

Labs are easily one of the most recognizable sporting breeds of all, and they consistently make the AKC's top ten breeds list. According to their breed standard, they were originally bred to help Newfoundland fishermen pull in their nets. They were eventually crossed with a variety of other Retrievers, Spaniels and Setters to become one of the premier Retrievers of the entire group.

Labrador retrieving game
Labrador Retriever
Irish Setter hunting
Irish Setter

Irish Setters

This bird dog is well known for his beautiful mahogany red coat, his bountiful energy and his clownish personality. According to the breed standard, these dogs were originally used to "set" game so hunters could throw a net over the birds. Over time, the dogs were trained to flush game out of the brush so hunters could shoot the birds. Irish setters are a combination of a number of breeds, including the Irish Terrier and Irish Water Spaniel, as well as the English Setter, the Gordon Setter, and various Spaniels and Pointers.

Show vs. Field

In some sporting breeds, show dogs look rather different from working field dogs. 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. Both types can make excellent companions, as long as their exercise and training needs are met.

Take Time to Research Breeds

If you're thinking of adding a sporting dog to your household, make sure you take the time to really 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.

Was this page useful?
Guide to Sporting Dog Breeds and Characteristics