Best of the Sporting South
Looking for the perfect gun dog? It starts with the right bloodlines. These five breeders have it figured out
Serious sporting dog enthusiasts are prone to hyperbole, opinionated, and often quick-tempered. That makes trying to determine the best dog breeders a rather unenviable task. So let’s just stick to the numbers. Picking the most popular breeds—that’s easy. After that, it’s all about a breeder’s years in business, reputation, and a proven track record of providing discerning customers exactly what they want: not just a companion, a potential field-trial champion, or an all-around great hunting dog, but the rare combination of all three. By that measure, here are some of the best in the business.
Mike Stewart of Oxford, Mississippi, had a singular vision when he started Wildrose Kennels. “My objective was to develop the Rolls-Royce of hunting dogs, a top-end shooting dog and constant companion as suited for a morning’s hunt in the duck blind or the dove field as it is lying at your feet in front of the big screen,” Stewart says. By all accounts, he has succeeded.
Every Wildrose Labrador is descended from the original breeding stock Stewart began importing direct from Great Britain in 1999. Sought after for their intelligence, classic confirmation, and biddable nature, pure British Labradors are rare on this side of the pond. “They’re for people looking for the best,” Stewart says.
But the best will cost you. Wildrose puppies are sold on a contract basis (cost: $1,500), based on demand. Stewart, a trainer who has practiced positive reinforcement training (no e-collars) since the early seventies, also offers started and finished dogs.
“We go through an interview process with new clients, document what skill levels the clients are looking for in a dog, and then give them exactly what they want,” Stewart says.
Started Wildrose Labradors (eight to twelve months, $5,500 to $6,800) stop on the whistle, know hand signals, know how to do blind and double retrieves, have had numerous birds shot over them, and are ready to hunt. Finished dogs (two and a half to three years old, $9,000 to $12,000) have had over a thousand birds shot over them, and, when it comes to skills, do everything but massage your tired feet at the end of a long day in the field. (662-234-5788; uklabs.com)
The Llewellin is a unique breed of hunting dog whose ancestry can be traced back to nineteenth-century England, which makes it the oldest existing breed of setter in the world. Deane Harris, eighty-two, hasn’t been around that long, but he has been breeding pure Llewellin setters for fifty-eight years. He bought his first in 1947 after coming home from World War II and now runs Wingswept Llewellins in Jasper, Florida. Made for the walking hunter, Llewellin setters inherently work close to gun and are prized for their intelligence, strong natural hunting ability, and desire to please.
“The average person hunts five or six times a season, mostly for released birds at a hunt club or preserve, and the rest of the year the dog is expected to be a house dog and family pet,” Harris says.
Wingswept Llewellins produces only six litters per year but promises clients only a one- to four-month wait for puppies (starting at $1,100). Started pups that point and hold, have had birds shot over them, and are beginning to retrieve cost $1,800.
Harris also offers started dogs (ten to eighteen months, $2,800), which are steady to wing, are trained to back or honor another dog’s point, retrieve, and have had thirty or more birds shot over them. Finished dogs (eighteen months to two years, $3,800) are perfectly polished pointing dogs, trained to find birds and retrieve, and are steady to wing and shot. (386-938-1355; wingsweptllewellins.com)
One of the few uniquely American hunting breeds, the Boykin spaniel is also one of those rare do-it-all dogs capable of hunting everything from ducks to doves.
“They’re small enough to sit in your lap but big enough to retrieve a mallard,” says Millie Latimer, who along with her husband owns Rock’n Creek Kennel of St. Matthews, South Carolina.
Thirty-six years in the breeding business, Millie got her first Boykin in 1973 and became hooked on the breed. “Not only for its compact size,” she says, “but also for how adaptable, intelligent, and easy to train Boykins are.”
With an uncanny natural ability for quartering, flushing, and retrieving, the medium-size chocolate or liver-colored Boykin spaniel will hunt any game in the uplands. But the Boykin is not a dog built for breaking ice and fetching ducks in big, open water, according to Millie, who is as frank about the breed’s limitations as she is about its best attributes.
Millies’s reputation for honesty, combined with her passion for the breed, has created high demand for Rock’n Creek Boykin spaniels. But she produces only two or three litters of pups each year, only when the mating of a sire and a dam has the best chance of producing a promising litter of pups.
“I don’t want anyone counting on me to produce a puppy on a schedule,” Millie says. “I am very selective about where my pups are placed, and I don’t keep a waiting list.”
A Rock’n Creek Boykin puppy runs $800 to $1,000. The Latimers do not offer started or finished dogs. And, while they do advise on trainers and training options, they instead prefer that the people buying the puppies try their best to train the dogs themselves.
“It is very fun and rewarding,” Millie says. “And time well spent bonding with your new companion.” (803-655-5249; rockncreekkennel.com)
German Shorthaired Pointers
The atmosphere in a busy hunt club creates a need for a special type of gun dog. One that can handle confusion, long days, and a constant parade of new faces and clients, many of whom show up at the lodge with their own dogs in tow. You need an easygoing, even-tempered, dual-purpose dog that can not only hunt tirelessly in the field but also get along in any social situation. Enter the German shorthaired pointer.
“We breed for natural [hunting] ability and disposition,” says Trent Leichleiter, general manager and head trainer at the Nebraska-based Pheasant Bonanza Hunt Club & Kennel. “We not only breed for hunting dogs but also for family companions. Our breeding dogs are selected through a rigorous program that includes guiding hunters through a seven-month-long hunting season, hunt tests, and other dog competitions.”
Leichleiter grew up with bird-crazy, fetch-happy Labrador retrievers. Drawn to the life of an upland bird-hunting guide while in college, Leichleiter needed a dog with the temperament of a Lab but also a dog that could point.
With two to six GSP litters every year, Leichleiter promises a wait of no longer than six months on pups (cost: $800 to $1,000). Pheasant Bonanza also offers started dogs (from $1,800 to $2,500) and provides training for all breeds of flushing and pointing dogs ($600 per month, plus bird costs). (402-374-1765;
Elhew English Pointers
“We give the buyer a chance to own something really special,” says Randy Potter of Crazy Horse Kennels. “We’re not giving him a puppy that took sixty-three days to make. We’re giving him a dog from a line that has taken seventy years to create.”
Since 1992, Crazy Horse Kennels has diligently line-bred pure Elhew English pointers. “Continuing the line properly is a long and hard process. You have to be patient and ruthlessly honest,” says Potter. The result is a barrel-chested, field-devouring canine with muscular, gladiator-like confirmation and natural ability that seems celestially preprogrammed; an intelligent dog with a determination for finding birds; yet a dog that is also sensitive and responsive to its owner.
That means that even though there are a hundred dogs on the grounds of Crazy Horse Kennels in Boonville, Missouri, there are only six to ten litters produced every year. Wait time for clients is six months to one year. Male puppies cost $2,000 and females $2,500.
Crazy Horse Kennels offers started dogs (one year to two and a half years, $3,000 to $6,000) that, according to Potter, have been positively exposed to birds, know how to quarter to the front and use wind condition (by age one), and are steady on point.
Finished dogs (three to five years old, $6,000 to $12,000) embody the superlative—the closest thing to “ultimate gun dog.” Potter says “close” because he admits Crazy Horse Kennels is still working to achieve perfection. (660-882-2211; crazyhorsekennels.com)