Bird Dogs for the Individualist

c6bfc5b4-775b-4154-bcda-39e1f124b8b5 Burton Spiller, the legendary writer of grouse tales, once wrote, “With all due respect to the Creator, a dog is more of a man-made article than any other four-footed creature I know. Since primitive man first brought a wolf puppy into his hut, we have bred dogs for various purposes. In the case of the hound, we have bred several types, each of which is peculiarly adapted to hunting in certain sections of country and game. When a dyed-in-the-wool grouse hunter learns that old Pard is cracking under the strain and will have to be replaced, his only alternative in selecting a successor is in the matter of breed. The only thing he may do is to step up to the counter and say, ‘I’d like a bird dog, please.’”
 
Picking a breed can be a ton of fun but also a challenge. Bird dogs range from utilitarian kennel residents whose purpose in life is to produce game for the gun to home dwelling family members whose job description includes hunting, running errands, babysitting, entertaining, hiking, snuggling, and an array of good time companion duties. Thus, for many hunters, picking a breed to fit their hunting and lifestyle expectations is complicated.
 
Some hunters view bird dogs in a purely practical manner – what’s the best or most familiar “equipment” for the job. Others combine the hunting function with an opportunity for self expression. For those looking for a breed that’s a bit outside of commonplace (but still a bird-finding machine), there are all sorts of breeds to consider.
 
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So you’re interested in a spaniel. Springers usually come to mind, but have you thought about a Clumber spaniel? Clumbers are slow, loveable, easily trained flushers whose mellow field style contrasts the energetic agility of other flushing breeds like the springers and cockers. Their history is unclear, but the consensus is that the breed originated in France then was developed in England in the late 1700s. Some accounts throw basset hound, St. Bernard or alpine spaniel into the early Clumber mix.  
 
Chequamegon Clumber Spaniels
 
Today’s Clumber spaniel is a sad-eyed, solid bodied flushing and retrieving bird dog with a straight flat coat of long hair feathered on the ears, neck, underside and legs. Their coats are white with lemon or orange markings on their face and ears. Their heads are blocky with a distinct stop. Fairly low to the ground, male Clumbers range from 70-85 lbs.; females weigh 55-70 lbs. In the Encyclopedia of North American Sporting Dogs, Jason Smith writes, “...the Clumber spaniel was bred to go through thick cover in England – woodlands, hedgerows, thick ferns – and therefore hunts with its head low to the ground, fastidiously sniffing out any trace of scent at a much slower gait.”
 
So you’re interested in a setter. English setters usually come to mind, but have you thought about a Gordon setter? Elegant, noble Gordons are close working dogs with a moderate pace, known for their cooperation and stamina. They’re referred to as “Velcro dogs” because of their desire to stick with their owner or members of their household. The Gordon’s story starts in the early 1800s with Alexander, the Fourth Duke of Gordon. On this side of the ocean, George Blunt of Morristown, NJ, imported two Gordon setters from the Gordon Castle kennels, one for himself and one for his good friend Daniel Webster. Since their early arrival, the breed’s modulated hunting style, devotion to its owner and large frame have endured.
 
Gordons are known to mature slowly, often taking a year or so to develop a strong point and hunting intensity. Once a “setting” pointer, Gordons now point with their heads and tail up high. Their coats can be straight or slightly wavy, but not curly. They are medium shedders. The tail feathering – magnets for burdocks and seeds – should taper towards the end giving it a triangular look. Tan markings appear over the eyes, by the muzzle, and on the throat, chest, legs and rear. They are considered highly intelligent dogs with excellent noses.
 
So you’re interested in a versatile pointing dog. German shorthairs, German wirehairs or Brittanys usually come to mind, but have you considered one of the “Braque” breeds – a Braque du Bourbonnais, Braque D’Auvergne, Braque Francais, or Bracco Italiano? Or, even more unusual in North America, a Braque de L’Ariege or Braque Saint Germain?
 
The Braque du Bourbonnais is a very old breed – evidence puts it back as far as the 1500s – that nearly disappeared for centuries. It is recognized and celebrated for the unique ticking patterns on its coat and a freckled face, both with colors varying from reddish brown to peach to white with more distinctly dark ticking. The Braque du Bourbonnais has a naturally very short tail (or may be considered “tail-less”) although some breeders dock the tails to a short nub. Small to medium in size, the Braque du Bourbonnais works at a medium pace and range. They have a crisp point, natural retrieving ability and soft training temperament. Most Braque du Bourbonnais breeders are breeding for hunting, not show, so despite the small population in the U.S., the chances of getting strong hunting skills from a Braque du Bourbonnais are quite good.
 
The Braque D’Auvergne is a striking black and white pointer with a large houndy head and substantial jowls. Hailing from the Auvergne region of France, the breed is noted for their big-boned athletic conformation. They have a remarkable desire to track and retrieve with a strong point that develops early. Truly versatile, the Braque D’Auvergne handles water work well (other than very cold water since their coats are short) and trains effectively with experience as opposed to high pressure training methods. They work at a close to medium range and can be very stylish on point.
 
So you’re interested in a retriever. Labs, of course, take the main stage. But have you thought about a Chesapeake Bay retriever? Yes, Chessies are reputed to train best with the use of a two-by-four, but their stubbornness can easily be managed with a varied training program that responds to their amazing drive and intelligence. Superlative water dogs, Chesapeakes thrive on just about any type of work. Their outstanding nose and retrieving skills make them terrific hunting partners in the uplands where they can be taught to hunt close and often can signal the presence of birds through an excited tail or pre-flush pause.
 
Derived from the St. John’s dog, the Chesapeake Bay retriever has its roots in the eastern shores of Maryland where they were developed to work with market hunters who needed a retriever that could handle the frigid temperatures and strong seas. The Chesapeake has a dense wooly undercoat that provides warmth and water resistance (and sheds like crazy in the spring), and a curly, oily outer coat. Suited for cold temperatures, Chessies don’t do well in very hot weather. The fur on their heads is smooth; their legs are smooth in the front with some feathering behind. Chessies’ tails can be straight or slightly curved up. Chessies come in three colors – brown, reddish, or “dead grass.” Their eyes range from amber to a bright yellow.
 
Sayings about Chessies abound:  “Look in their eyes, and you know someone is home.” “Command a Lab; negotiate with a Chessie.” Extremely loyal, Chesapeake Bay retrievers are often thought of as one-person dogs, but that is not true. They can be wonderful family dogs and have a reputation for gentleness around babies.

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There are many fine bird dog breeds that have been under the upland radar for a long time but are now gaining in popularity. The Boykin spaniel, red setter, pudelpointer, spinone, French Brittany, French spaniel, large Munsterlander and small Munsterlander are just a few showing up in the field with vizslas, Weimaraners, golden retrievers, cockers, pointers, wirehaired pointing griffons, flat-coated retrievers.... Needless to say, the list is long.  
 
Pro trainer Bob West made an excellent point when he wrote, “You should never forget that when you buy a puppy you’re making a 10 to 12-year commitment, so you need to start out with a very clear idea of what you’re looking for.”
 
Once you figure that out, finding the right breeder is essential. Along with the enchantment of the more unusual breeds comes a risk factor. Their distinctiveness may have made them darlings of the show ring to the detriment of their hunting traits. Finding a reputable, proven breeder of hunting lines is imperative. Their uncommonness may also mean the gene pool from which the breeders draw their stud or dam choices may be smaller, so you need to be extra careful in making sure the lineage is free of health or temperament issues.
 
Having picked the breed that matches your mindset, a breeder with quality field litters and the puppy that tickles your hunters’ fancy, the story of you and your new hunting partner will start writing itself right away. And as Bob Wehle, founder of the celebrated Elhew pointer line, wrote, “This relationship we have with our dogs has many of the same components as a successful human relationship. There’s a mutual respect and admiration, devotion, care, and protection.”
 

Story by Nancy Anisfield

Photos: Main, second, third, and fourth images by Nancy Anisfield / first image by Mitch Rollins, Chequamegon Clumber Spaniels / fifth image by Will Thomas via Visualhunt.com / CC BY 2.0