How to Help Hunting Dogs Enjoy a Life Without Hunting

Physical as well as mental exercise can satisfy dogs who are programmed to hunt.


Duck season or wabbit season? Neither, Elmer: It’s hunting-dog season.

Along with taxes and the 47 percent, another polarizing issue of this presidential campaign season is the hunt, with pet lovers on Facebook outraged at images of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan posing for photographs with dead animals. Of course, dogs evolved from wolves to assist Homo sapiens in performing various duties, chief among them the hunt for wild game. And many of the most charming and attractive canine breeds do, let’s face it, belong to the sporting group. These include hounds, spaniels, and other dogs hard-wired for hunting.

But many contemporary dog lovers want the companionship of a hunting dog without having to shoot the dog’s natural prey. Is it fair, or even possible, to expect a dog that’s genetically programmed for hunting to be happy and fulfilled living a hunt-free lifestyle?

Absolutely, experts say.

“Hunting dogs hunt, whether or not a human is nearby with a weapon,” explains master dog-trainer Sarah Wilson, author of Dogology: What Your Relationship With Your Dog Reveals About You. “Backyard or park, they run around nose down, chasing anything that moves.”

Here’s great news for fans of hunting breeds who don’t hunt: It’s easy and fun to provide these dogs with outlets for their instinctive drives by substituting fun recreational activities that spare other animals.

“Fetch is the classic for the retrievers,” Wilson says. “Any kind, anywhere, and often almost anything. Also, consider dock diving and disc catching, if the dogs are physically sound enough to do it safely. Water-loving dogs can enjoy swimming, and it is excellent exercise for most dogs.”

For any of the sporting breeds, tracking and nose work are a blast, she adds.

“Anything that engages the nose and mind will engage a sporting breed,” Wilson explains. “Less formally, you can put a treat somewhere in the house or yard and teach your dog to ‘find it.'”

In the winter, she says, use a tool or broom handle to make holes in snow banks, then drop treats into those.

“That can be hours of digging fun for restless, snow-bound dogs,” Wilson says.

Additionally, she says, “remember that many of these dogs are supreme athletes created to run miles a day, so dog parks, jogging, skijoring, dog carting, and scootering can all help burn off that genetic steam.”

If that level of physical activity is out, then tire them out mentally with self-control games such as space activities on My Smart Puppy.

“Mental focus and self-control can tire out high-octane dogs as fast as — or faster than — physical activity,” she says.

David Frei of Westminster Kennel Club fame is a big fan of the Brittany, a gun dog traditionally used to hunt fowl, and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a toy breed that’s also adept at chasing birds. Frei lives in New York City, which is not exactly a mecca for hunters, and yet, he says, “My Brittany and my Cavalier show off their ‘birdie instinct’ every day in the city, stopping and intensely pointing that omnipresent game bird, the pigeon, every time they see one. As people stop and look and smile at the event, I tell them, ‘Just staying in practice — it might be a pheasant next time!'”

One of the reasons that sporting dogs are good at assisting the hunter is their temperament, he adds. “Doing things with their people is what they live for. Chasing a ball, running in the park, other fairly simple activities that include just being with their people.”

As the founder of the famed nonprofit Angel on a Leash, Frei happens to be very active in the therapy-dog field, so he speaks from personal and professional experience when he explains that therapy work is an excellent outlet for a non-hunting hound’s innate talent. “Again, that wonderful, ‘I want to be with you’ happy attitude makes most of them good candidates for therapy dog work,” Frei says.

“We have a number of sporting dogs that are doing wonderful things as therapy dogs for people in need,” he says, including a textbook gun-dog, Ch. Felicity’s Diamond Jim, aka James, the English Springer Spaniel who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2007 (and, in Frei’s estimation, “the best working therapy dog I have ever been around”) as well as Frei’s own beloved Brittany, Grace.

“Grace loves being at the Ronald McDonald House [where Frei’s wife Cherilyn is the chaplain] and does not flinch from all the poking and prodding and body slams that come with that ‘kid duty,'” Frei says. “There are some breeds that just do their own thing. I describe it as, ‘It’s their world and we’re just living in it to serve their needs.’ But with most sporting dogs, they want to be in our world, with us, pleasing us. And their athleticism makes them good candidates for things like agility, while their intelligence makes them good candidates for obedience.”

Do you have a hunting dog? Do you consider the breed’s history when engaging the dog? Let us know in the comments!

18 thoughts on “How to Help Hunting Dogs Enjoy a Life Without Hunting”

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  4. I’m a city-dweller with a Brittany mix (adopted from a rescue last year) so I love this post 🙂

    Inside she’s an absolute angel who loves to curl up wherever we are, but outside she gets suuuuuper distracted by prey. I’ve tried engaging her in nosework games with some of her favorite treats, but none of them are as enticing as a squirrel or a rabbit in the park.

    Any folks with sporting breeds have luck with other alternatives to hunting?

  5. Now we are to believe that a Vizsla, Labrador, or German Shorthair is just as happy retrieving a tennis shoe than a rooster pheasant? I’ve had five or six sporting dogs in my life and I can tell you that these animals live for the chase. If I tried to slip out without taking my lab, the dog would invariably notice the shotgun and she would chase my car block after block until I changed my mind about taking her. I’ve had Wire-haired Vizslas sit next to me in a duck blind with snow and ice dangling of the both of us and with no visible quit. The only whinning occurred when a flock of ducks flew into range. Dogs in the field are happier than anywhere else (including home IMHO). My suggestion? If you buy a hunting dog, take it hunting. If you don’t know how, learn. If nothing else, do it for the dog!

  6. As a hunting dog enthusiast I appreciate those who rescue hunting dogs and give them a good home, and this article is great for that. But I highly discourage anyone from buying a puppy from a hunting breed/litter that has been specifically bred for hunting purposes. It’s a great disservice to the dog if you aren’t letting it do what it’s genetics and drive are wanting it to do. Not only that, if you ever breed that dog you are doing the breed a disservice as well.

    You could only understand what I mean if you have ever hunted over a dog, it’s wired SO deep into them that it’s not even comparable to “tracking a treat” or “playing fetch with a ball” and those are not things that can merely replace hunting to a dog that was bred to hunt. I always recommend that people do their research on a breed/litter before they buy ant puppy. Make sure that your lifestyle matches that breeds temperament, activity level, and what it was bred to do. If you discourage these dogs from tracking and hunting animals you are going against everything that it’s body is telling it to do and taking away the #1 thing it loves most. Hunting is genetic in these dogs, not something that you can simply train out of them.

    1. I agree with everything Drew said yet about 4 years ago we adopted a treeing walker coon hound from a shelter. She was trained as a hunter yet very sweet, loving & pleasing personality. Luckily we live In the country & we spend a great deal of time outside with her by our side along with our two labs. I would never give her up yet although she is very well trained we still have an issue with her constantly wanting to hunt other animals. She regularly brings us squirrels, rabbits, many possums yet the worst this week was that she brought down a coyote even though I was there and constantly screaming at her to let go of the coyote. She is a big, strong girl (88 lbs) yet I am afraid she is going to get hurt. Any suggestions on how I can get her to quit going after other critters?

      1. Hi there,

        Thanks for reaching out. We suggest working with a professional behaviorist on this issue. Best of luck!

      2. Oh boy, that sounds like a handful. I grew up with and currently have hunting dogs, and hounds are notorious for killing everything they can get a hold of, so don’t feel too bad.
        Yes, you need a trainer’s help ASAP. You’ll need to really work hard on managing her impulse control and make her recall skills solid. I’d also recommend reading The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson; its dense and can be difficult to slog through, but it does an excellent job at putting “how a dog brain works” in perspective for the handler. I refer to it often as I train my hunters.
        If she was even able to get in a tussle with a coyote, I’m afraid to say that it’s likely her environment is not under enough control and/or she has way too much roaming freedom. That may mean you need to invest in making her a safe enclosed dog run.
        I wish you the best!

  7. We recently adopted a treeing walker coonhound who is about 3-4 yrs old. He needs so much exercise but if we just let him outside he jumps our fence in chase of anything that he smells. So in result, the only time he can get out and get exercise is when we have him on a leash whether it’s taking him out to go potty or a walk. But this isn’t always a good option for us as I work from home part time and at a job part time. The problem is that he is not interested in toys unless they move on their own. How else do we keep him entertained if he doesn’t even like toys?

    1. i’ve got a catahoula with the same challenge. not toy driven at all unless it moves on its own. i’ve developed an ankle problem and can no longer run with him daily, and i struggle to keep him occupied. I do my best with bones, treat puzzle toys, but i think he needs more instinct based work.

  8. Very helpful article.
    We have a 1 year old Beagle puppy. At 6 months old she started not-stop hunting. I know your thinking, “it’s a Beagle – duh”. We understand the Beagle “hunter” and are trying very hard to embrace it but she is making it very difficult for us. Our last Beagle (lived 17 years with us) never was a hunter so although I thought I knew what I was signing up for, this ones SO different.
    We live in the Las Vegas desert and she has a nice large yard. It however is full of birds, rabbits and lizards… everywhere. I don’t mind her sniffing but she will start barking and baying along her sniff route and it’s very disruptive. When she’s hunting, she is in a zone, she doesn’t even hear us. She has been through obedience training and is a very good girl – except when she’s got her nose to the ground.
    We have tried everything. She goes to the dog park every day! We hide treats and toys throughout our house, to encourage her to bring some of that hunting energy inside. She goes on at least 1 walk a day. She has training 3 times a week. She has all the toys and bones, games, etc a dog could want or need.
    We work from home so we’re with her all the time. When she is outside hunting, as long as she’s not sounding like we’re beating her, we allow her to hunt. We bring her in if she starts barking, or is out too long and we need her to come in to cool down and drink water. She will immediately cry at the door to get back outside.
    Our pool guy, landscaper, bug guy, etc. come every single week. You’d think she be used to the smells, yet every time they leave, she’s out howling, running with her nose down, following every step they walked.
    It’s beyond compulsive, and we’re at our wits end. I hate to punish her for doing something that she thinks she supposed to do, but we really don’t know what else to do – or is there anything one CAN do? Is there a way to take the hunter out of a hunter dog?
    Any suggestions or help anyone can provide would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Tracy,
      Sorry to hear you’re experiencing this. We suggest contacting a professional trainer for specific advice.

  9. We have been working with an 11 week old German Wire-haired Pointer, and she will spend only a little time hunting throughout her years with us–so the lion’s share of her time will be “other.”

    This has been a wonderful article. We are snowed in, hence the burrowing for treats idea is wonderful and we just got the frisbee out.

    I also purchased a little kid’s hoola-hoop yesterday and am training her go go through it.

    1. Hi Karen,
      If you’re snowed in, this article might be helpful, too:

  10. Elisabeth Palmer

    Today we adopted a 6 month old hound mix from the shelter. His nose has been working nonstop since we got home! I immediately started searching for ways to entertain his mind since we do not live where we can hunt. This article has some good info!

  11. Hello Megan, I highly recommend watching cesar Millan, or reading one of his books. He shows how you can teach your dog how to respect your rabbit or anything else. It’s all about projecting calm and assertive leadership.

  12. Hi I have a border collie, he has hunting instincts which I don’t mind but I wish he would settle down when he comes to see my rabbit. I looked online to see how to introduce a rabbit and a dog but unfortunately he’s going through his nipping stage. He’s still only young but we think his previous owners didn’t train him. So I’m wondering whether it’s his obedience I have to crack first before training him with the rabbit, but I am unsure what to do in the meantime?

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