Stalks of corn stiff from early-winter cold swayed in the morning breeze. Frost clung to sorghum opposite the neighboring tree line, while half a foot of snow covered the field. On a mid-November day in Minnesota, the sun was just a blip in the pale-blue sky, though it would soon lacquer the white below in a sheen that would make any forgetful hunter regret leaving behind sunglasses. Bird hunter and falconer Geoffrey Douville stepped out of his SUV, hit the flint on his lighter for a quick cigarette and opened the rear hatch. His 3-year-old wirehaired Vizsla, “Skeefoo,” happily dropped his stuffed dinosaur and rolled over, ready to trade cartoon carnivore for a set of booties.
Within minutes Skeefoo was kicking up snow, circling the parking lot, occasionally stopping to put a nose to the wind, well aware of what waited ahead. Douville, his father and a friend donned orange vests and loaded their shotguns, pausing intermittedly to temper Skeefoo’s excitement with a low whistle. When everyone was ready they set out afield in a line, Douville in the center and Skeefoo trotting ahead at his 11-o’clock. Skeefoo quartered between the trio, crashing through brush caked with snow when necessary. His head dipped low, snout accounting for every inch before bounding off.
The geometry of his tail alluded to the immediacy of that first flush—horizontal twitch indicated scent trail, then a frantic helicopter pattern let his companions know he was zeroing in. Then, he stopped, canted paw and muzzle aimed like a laser beam at his target. Strained cackles and flapping wing erupted from a mound of snow. Shots rang out. The rooster dropped not far off. Skeefoo sprinted ahead and returned with his first retrieve of the day.
The remainder of the morning followed a similar routine. An hour into the hunt, Douville clipped one rooster and it continued to sail well after the shot. Skeefoo darted off, leaving in his wake nearly a hundred yards of now snow-less sorghum. “Skeefoo,” Douville yelled.
“Let him go,” his dad said. “He knows.” Before long, Skeefoo returned, squirming rooster dangling from his mouth. Douville’s dad knelt and took the nearly pristine rooster—aside from the one shot-riddled wing—away from Skeefoo, snapped its neck and placed it in his vest. “I’ve seen this dog track wounded birds well over 200 yards,” he reminded the group.
Throughout the morning, into early afternoon, Skeefoo’s enthusiasm for chasing feathers never waned. Despite the unseasonably cold pre-Thanksgiving weather—even for Minnesota standards—he never slowed down to shiver or huddle against his owner for warmth. He remained steadfast—a true bird manufacturer—staying, for the most part, within gun range, stopping only for the occasional pet, or to give kisses when a hunter knelt for a retrieve.
Fall and winter 2016 was Skeefoo’s second season afield. Douville, who grew up bird hunting over Vizslas, has worked with raptors for over 15 years, and has been a falconer for 13. When it came time to pick out a new bird dog, Douville wanted something different and geared toward falconry. “I heard they were breeding wirehaired Vizslas specifically for falconry,” he said. “I met [wirehaired Vizsla breeders] Deb and Doug Wall’s dog ‘Indy’ 5 years before I got Skefoo and fell in love.”
The name “Skeefoo” is a variation of the Cantonese word “Sifu” (pronounced “See-foo”), which means “skilled person” and “teacher.” It is a term both of endearment and respect in the Far East for those whom have mastered their craft. “I was torn between names,” Douville said, “but when I mentioned ‘Skeefoo’ to Deb Wall, she said, ‘That actually fits because this dog is going to be smarter than you, just never let him figure it out.’”
The wirehaired Vizsla is still considered a fairly new breed in the United States. Internationally, the wirehaired Vizsla is less than a century old, though it owes its roots to two historical breeds. During the 1930s, hunters and falconers in Hungary, where the Vizsla itself originated, sought to breed a sturdier dog, one that could withstand extreme cold weather and the tough upland terrain of northern Hungary. They also wished to maintain the meritorious hunting traits that set the Vizsla apart from other breeds. Vasas Jozsef, owner of Csaba Vzsla Kennel, is credited for initiating the breeding process. For a breeding mate, he of course picked the German wirehaired pointer, a dog well-known for its durability thanks to its thick wiry coat.
Jozsef partnered with prominent German wirehaired pointer breeder and owner of de Selle Kennel Gresznarik Lazslo. The pair crossed two Vizsla bitches with a solid-brown German wirehaired pointer, since the Hungarian Vizsla Club stipulated, in order for this development to proceed, the new breed must preserve all inherent qualities and characteristics of the Vizsla, including its golden brown-colored coat. The first dogs, comprised from three-generation pedigrees, met the desired requirements, but also inherited a heavier bone structure in addition a wiry multi-layer coat. “Dia,” an offspring produced by mating two of these original dogs, was the first wirehaired Vizsla to be shown on June 6, 1943. With a great sense of optimism and enthusiasm, other breeders began work on progressing this new, exciting breed.
Then World War II erupted. According to some sources, the war nearly brought about the extinction of both the Vizsla and the wirehaired Vizsla. Almost all official records were destroyed. As a result, breeding details during this period remain somewhat murky. Anecdotal reports suggest other breeds such as the wirehaired pointing Griffon, Pudelpointer, Irish Setter and potentially even a Bloodhound were introduced into the wirehaired Vizsla’s early bloodline. Despite setbacks, breeding persisted and in 1966, the wirehaired Vizsla was recognized by the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI). Ten years later, in 1976, the Hungarian Vizsla Club hosted its first hunting tests exclusively for wirehaired Vizlas. A year later, the wirehaired Vizsla was recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club.
In 1974, the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association tested its first wirehaired Vizsla, then formally recognized the breed in 1986. In 2003, the Wirehaired Vizsla Club of America (WVCA) was formed. In August 2012, their breed standard was approved by the AKC, and in the summer of 2014, the wirehaired Vizsla became eligible for AKC registration and Sporting Group competition.
Deb and Doug Wall of Konza Vadasz Wirehaired Vizslas in Assaria, Kansas, are a couple deeply dedicated to both preserving and promoting the breed. They had their first litter in 2003 after importing a dog from the Netherlands and working with a breeder in Pennsylvania. To establish their bloodline, they imported a few more dogs from the Netherlands and Canada, though, aside from two males, all of their current dogs are of their own breeding. With every batch of puppies, they aim to refine and maintain the purity of the wirehaired Vizsla breed.
“We don’t breed litters to just have puppies to sell,” Deb Wall said. “Every litter is something I look at and think, ‘I want something from this line or this line or these two are very complementary.’ Every litter we breed is looking forward in our breeding program.”
Deb Wall describes the wirehaired Vizsla, as a breed, with one word: methodical. “I love the stories of Doug going out, running into other hunters after lunch in the walk-in areas,” she said. “People will tell him, ‘We hunted this field all morning. There isn’t anything left,’ and he will go out and come home with birds.”
“These older birds seem to have learned if they hunker down, they just get walked over,” Doug Wall said. “So when you run these dogs out there—say an hour or two later—they got all those people’s scent, all those dogs’ scent, and the scent from all the birds that they’ve flushed and they still find birds in there. They don’t’ seem to have a lot of trouble finding stuff.”
A testament to their nose is their ability to also work as a tracking dog. In addition to hunting, a couple of the Wall’s dogs serve as therapy dogs. Deb takes them to schools, hospitals and nursing homes and plays tracking games with the dogs to entertain children, the sick and the elderly. “I have Quasar smell one slipper, then hand the other to the teacher, say ‘You hide it,’” she said, “then we cover Quasar’s eyes so he can’t peak, which all the kids think is funny, then I tell him to find the other slipper that the teacher hid.” Quasar will first go around to each child, say hello, then his tail will start helicoptering and he will make a beeline for the cupboard where the slipper sits hidden. “Without fail,” Deb said, though she prefers not to quantify from how far a wirehaired Vizsla can scent a bird. “I’ve seen him acknowledge scent when he hits a scent cone from way out,” she said, “but I don’t want to put a number to it, because the first thing the dog would do is make you a liar. Finding scents at 60 yards, 70 yards—that is no problem.”
In regard to training, Deb Wall speculates the biggest mistake an owner can make is overtraining. “We learned from our first, ‘Tulip,’” she said. “She had a beautiful, natural retrieve. All these puppies are born retrieving.” While Deb admired Tulip’s retrieve, she thought she could polish it. “I was correcting every time, saying, ‘No, here.’ The more I did that, the worse it got—she was dropping further and further out.” Deb conferred with a friend, a longtime falconer and fellow wirehaired Vizsla owner, who told her to quit training.
“What I have figured out with them,” Deb said, “they have great prey drive, but really their overwhelming drive is to please their people and all you have to do is get them to understand what it is you want. Keep it a game. These guys really teach themselves in the field. Training is teaching manners.”
They’re also great family dogs, according to Deb and Doug Wall. “We always say the biggest difference is the off switch,” Doug said. “The smooths take a long time to settle, whether in the house or even in a vehicle or kennel. These guys turn right off. When you take them in the house, the first thing they want to do is find the sofa.” Still, both Doug and Deb agree: they have to be properly brought up with kids. “You have to properly bring up the kids, as well,” Deb said. “They’re good with our granddaughters when they come over. They like to play fetch and watch movies and camp out on the sofa.”
“They are truly versatile,” Doug said. “They pretty much want to do whatever you’re doing. They’re a hunting breed but their basis started from the poor’s man working dog in Europe where the dog had to hunt game, protect the house—”
“Keep the kids entertained,” Deb interjected.
“They did a pretty good job of making a dog,” Doug said.
“As a former school teacher, I never thought about breeding until I met these dogs,” Deb said. “They need leadership to sustain the breed. I never expected I would come across a breed so amazing.”
Feature photo by Jack Hennessy; additional photos by Dara Hennessy
Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.