THE MENTALLY STRONG BIRD DOG
We all dream about the great, big running bird finders but how are they made? Is it by using the best merited
dogs? Focusing on lines? Focusing on a specific trait, using individuals where all else than bird finding ability is
disregarded? My late New Zealand friend Leon Mortensen would likely have chosen the latter alternative. With
great insight into genetics in general and bird dogs in particular, he was totally aware of having to accept his own
limitations. On average he would have one or two litters per year, which is a more normal standard than the three
gentlemen mentioned above. Leon summarised it simply that a top dog should almost always beat their competitors
to the find, over and over again. If a dog does that, then the pragmatic conclusion would also be that their ground
cover and ranging is good. The third concluding point would be how they appear mentally. Perhaps it is exactly the
last point which will let us recognise the dog we're striving to find. So how can we prioritise those three points?
"Never breed from a dog who gets mentally beaten by another dog." This viewpoint I would often hear from pointer
breeder Jørgen Andersen in Danmark. Is the mentally strong bird dogs something people are consciously aware of?
Jørgen drew parallels with horse- and dog racing. Two individuals can run a distance equally fast but the mentally
strongest will cross the line first. Translated to our bird dog world can two dogs run as fast, both have good noses,
but if they reach the same area holding a bird one of them can leave the initiative to his brace mate. Separate
occasions are written off as coincidences, good luck or bad luck, about who set the bird and who gets to play
second fiddle. When the pattern is obvious, it leads to questions about nose problems, nasal mites etc. The mental
aspect is ignored.
Certain dogs will see themselves beaten by all and everyone, others only by particularly mentally superior
competitors. Very obvious examples can be dogs tail gating their brace mate from start to finish. There won't be
much use of nose and wind and focused hunting. Some less obvious examples but especially observed over time
- A pointer who regularly, through his whole life, left birds to his brace mates, even though it appears to cover the
terrain superbly. It also bred offspring with similar tendencies.
- An Irish setter who always left birds to his brace mates and instead became a backing maniac. It dedicated its
whole life to backing, and something his owner was proud of instead of asking questions.
- A young English setter who braced with her mother often would leave birds to her. Braced with other dogs she was
usually the better bird finder.
Another mental aspect is flushing the birds on command. A trait highly appreciated in Norway but which probably
has a low heritability. As we know, the trainer's influence can be paramount on this point. Dogs react differently to
various training methods. Being violent or rough is certainly not necessary to get problems with the flushing. It is
easy to get misunderstandings with dogs particularly receptive to training. Even if this is an uncertain hereditary
trait, it is possible to predict some from the dog's general mental disposition. The trainer's knowledge of it will be of
great help when planning its training, depending on the trainer's nuances in his methods - trying to read each
individual dog, rather than work with the exact same methods regardless.
This leads me to American methods, often slavishly following a training regime, which may in fact suit some dogs
better than others. The Americans don't want the dogs to flush the birds and practise their WHOA training, where
the dog isn't allowed to move an eye lid, until the handler gives order to retrieve or follow up on a running bird.
The interesting thing is that even with such a conscious deselction of flushing, where flushing never has been
considered a trait to breed for, the American bird dogs have still turned good flushers in other countries with
opposite focus. The simple truth may be that dogs of American mentality don't break down as easily because of
training mistakes and misunderstandings. Amongst the things relatively less prioritised by Americans have been
ground cover and findig ability. This can be supported with statistics from American trials but also with stats and
indexes from countries like Norway. This is perhaps equalized by mental strength alone, dog vs dog, which is the
point I'm trying to conclude about the mentally strong bird dog.