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An English setter named Winchester? That dog better hunt.

  • Author: Christine Cunningham
  • Updated: October 24, 2017
  • Published October 24, 2017

Christine Cunningham and Steve Meyer named a litter of five English setters after gunmakers. From left to right, the dogs are Colt, Hugo, Purdey, Cogswell and Boss. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

My first bird dog came with the name Jax. He was a rescue dog, and I readily accepted the shelter's advice to give him a new name. Jax was not even a valid Scrabble word, and a name without a meaning behind it seemed like a missed opportunity.

At the time, Jack Kerouac was my favorite novelist, and the name Jack was close to Jax in sound. My fondness for Kerouac would translate to my affection for the newly named Jack, a chocolate Lab. He did not appear to notice the difference at all, but it made a difference to me.

My knowledge of the art of naming a bird dog was equal to my experience as a bird hunter at the time. I knew I wasn't good at naming yet, but I didn't hesitate. I was like the person who gets a tattoo when she's 20 and may not like it at 30 but can at least acknowledge it was true at the time. Yes, I could have done better and been more creative or classic in my naming conventions. But names, like words, evoke images and concepts that may change over time.

When someone tells me the name of a dog, I can't help but wonder the reason behind the name. The name so often recalls more than the dog. And if you're going to call the name thousands of times over the life of the dog, it's worth giving a little bit of thought.

Christine Cunningham with Winchester and a ptarmigan they took in 2017. (Steve Meyer)

Steve knew he was going to name his first English setter Winchester before the two ever met. It was an iconic name — the gun that won the Wild West. It evoked a world he wished to return to. The two of them learned to hunt upland game together in the manner of pointing dogs, and I tagged along.

We later named a female English setter Parker (after the Parker Gun), and she, with the help of Winchester, had five pups, all named after gun manufacturers. We kept the litter to raise and named the puppies Boss, Cogswell, Colt, Hugo (Huglo) and Purdey — such was our attraction to gunmaker namesakes.

Gun names are tested and classic. If a particular gun evokes a positive reaction, naming the dog after the gun is a way to transfer the connotation to the dog — Atkin, Blaser, Beretta, Caesar, Dixon, Remington, Perazzi, Rigby, Ruger, Syren, Valtro or Westley.  The risk is that it is also a connection to the brand and its future publicity, good or bad.

Along the same line, many hunters name dogs after gun parts (Bolt or Trigger) or ammunition (Ammo or Bullet). It makes metaphorical sense that there are not many dogs named after nonmoving parts (Barrel or Stock).

Outdoor brands associated with knives, packs or other gear (Avery, Buck, Kershaw, Rothco) also work, especially when there is a connection between the brand and the reason for choosing the name. One example that makes me smile is a dog named Argo because he is "an all-terrain dog."

That made me think of other slogans that might provide a name for a dog that retrieves birds: Bounty — the quick picker upper. Hallmark — when you care enough to send the very best. Deere — nothing runs like a Deere. But I digress.

How we feel about a place can easily transfer to how we feel about a dog that carries its name. Or we can choose a name connected to the place the dog was born, bred or will one day hunt.

When a friend introduced me to his Lab, Taiga, it was also my introduction to the word for the familiar subarctic terrain of the high country. My friend is a sheep hunter, and the taiga is close to his heart — the way some might feel about names such as Aspen, Brook, Delta, Range, River or Timber. Alaska has an abundance of beautiful place names — think Brooks, Denali, Kenai and Willow.

One hunter named his pair of setters Briar and Burdock because they "stick" to you. Animal and bird names are common — Drake, Griz, Moose and Raven — although some experts warn about the mixed messages of yelling some names in the field (Duck, Rooster, Goose and Bear).

Thoughts are divided on selecting people names for an animal because it can be confusing in the field if a dog and a human share the same name. Yet plenty of people names have worked for bird dogs — Abby, Buck, Daisy, Hank, Nelly and Hoss.

Many dogs bear the name of a famous hunter or shooter — Annie, Bridger, Boone, Cassidy, Crockett and Cochise. Artemis doubles as the Goddess of Hunting and a new shotgun from Sauer.

Honoring a dog's lineage is as simple as choosing a German name or word for a German dog (Mauser, Gunnar, Panzer) — actual names, places or words from the language. As a setter owner, my favorite heritage names come from well-known pedigrees: Blacksmith, Blackjack, Bondhu, Bomber and Hemlock.

Perhaps most often, as is the case of a dog with a spot named Spot, a dog's looks inspire its name. I once named a Pomeranian Honey because her spots were honey-colored and she was sweet. The name made me smile, and that was enough to make it stick.

Often we give a dog a name meant to imbue in it the ability or attribute associated with the word (Tracker, Hunter, Birdie). The risk here is irony — the abundance of three-legged dogs named Lucky is just one example where attribute naming can go wrong. Names like Jet, Moxie, Radar and Strider evoke qualities the dog may not possess.

Many a dog is named for its role in the house or the field — if only it were a human. The cautionary aspect of names in this category — Chief, Duchess, Gunner, Hunter, Major, Princess, Queenie, Sarge and Titan — is that they put the dog in charge. My favorites are Lady, Ranger and Scout.

If a hunter is also a pilot or interested in microbrews, the dog may end up with a hobby name like Piper or Kassik. Alcohol-related bird dog names abound — Brandy, Guinness, Harb, Johnnie Walker, Murphy and Whiskey.

The grand master of bird dog liqueur names is Jagermeister because Jager means hunter and Meister means master, so the literal translation is Hunt Master. My favorite hobby names are related to bird hunting — Dawn, Fly, Faith, Feathers, Ruff, Thicket and Whisper.

All of these names evoke a sentiment. No matter what noun we choose to make proper or what people name we bestow on an animal, the dog who bears it will soon become your first and forever definition of the word. That's the way it's been for me.

Sorry, Jack Kerouac.

Christine Cunningham of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and avid hunter. On alternate weeks, she writes about Alaska hunting. Contact her at

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