The Mentally Strong Bird Dog

This text is translated from my article in the Norwegian magazine FUGLEHUNDEN some years ago (with different photos)

The breeding of better bird dogs is of course both an interesting and an important issue. Methods and ways to get there can differ a lot. I am taking the opportunity to stir the pots a bit without attempting to claim the best recipe.

Many modern bird dog owners say they’d rather buy a pup from small scale breeders. Puppy factories are avoided. This is not surprising. When a breeder of so-called Llewellin setters in USA during a period produced about a litter per week, with the primary goal of selling most of the pups, the alarm bells will ring for most people. Some show breeds (in Scandinavia included) have seen similar things, though in a somewhat smaller scale. However, geneticists will in fact claim that well functioning, bigger kennels have a considerable greater theoretical chance of succeeding in their breeding programmes. If you select well amongst a greater number of breeding stock, it is generation intervals of higher frequenses that will give faster and greater progress.

Let me mention some examples within the pointer breed. A few years ago I described the Australian Lucknow breeder Owen Dawson. He was a far cry from the highly commercial Llewellin breeder but one from the old school, with Waldemar Marr as his idol. Dawson bred a lot over the years (approx 250 litters). He was also an anatomy tutor (with special interest in goats and dogs). He bred, faithfully following his own ideals, which were good looking dogs, efficient in finding and handling birds, and easy to train. Some of these dogs were sold or gifted away, the best he kept, while many of them were culled. Most of today’s dog people regard these methods as reprehensible, and it’s not for everyone to work focused with those methods over several decades. This is however the way much of our dog lines have been created and refined up through the times.

Dawson succeeded with much of what he was striving towards but even with that scope of breeding they weren’t perfect. Like most breeders at that level he was deeply engaged by breeding principals, where he line-bred and in-bred as far as he regarded it possible.

As one-man-hunting-dogs my guess is that these pointers were quite close to the ideal. But many of them would not have gone all the way with tough competition in field trials. Even big scale breeders have to compromise with some traits. The type of dog Dawson refined was lacking somewhat in mental toughness and speed & style compared with the best trial dogs. (Even if he also bred some good trial dogs.)

Dawson’s work with the pointer happened at a bigger scale than most but I will try to compare with Robert Wehle, USA and Giorgio Guberti, of Italy. Both significantly more famous in international pointer circles. Wehle was the man behind the highly regarded Elhew pointers. He started his kennel in the mid 1930s, with the bitch Jem of Fern imported from Scotland. Wehle focused more than most Americans on efficient bird finders. He did also consider the looks when he picked pups in his own lines. Every time he out bred it was with mentally strong dogs with good bird finding abilities. When Wehle searched for his stud dogs he only focused on hunting traits, not looks.

Today there are hundreds of breeders in the USA, describing themselves as Elhew breeders, though not necessarily with Wehle’s primary focus on efficient bird finders. Sometimes it appears that it has become more important to count how many times former greats appear in the pedigrees. Wehle’s honest, dead serious focus is what made him a winner. Like Dawson he also had great insight into the breeding principles. Many of those who attempt to copy him will line breed in all eternity on what they have of Elhew off-spring. One thing is trying to consolidate exceptional lines but it’s worth remembering that the mental robustness weakens by inbreeding. Restrictions against this is still the wrong way about it (like seen in some kennel clubs and breed clubs). Our understanding of breeding constantly develops as we go, and there is no doubt that inbreeding has had a significant place in some of the progress achieved.

Moving on to the Italian legend Guberti, perhaps the greatest pointer breeder of them all. His del Vento pointers have probably had the greatest influence on pointer breeding around the globe, followed by some other Italian breeders like Franco Ravetta (Clastidium). Exactly how Giorgio Guberti prioritised in his breeding he hasn’t shared too much about. But he managed to breed class bird dogs for generations, born and raised in large herds. He studied natural selection between the dogs, in addition to having a rare intuition of which dogs had the right natural qualities. He had great numbers to select from and with an unequalled insight into the qualities of own blood lines. Other European breeders (and indeed around the world) would go to Guberti when they needed to improve specific traits in their lines.

Mentally the del Vento dogs have spanned from ice cold, utterly superior to shy, slightly nervous. Laredo del Vento who came to Sweden showed tendencies of barking when competing in the field. The litter brother Laser, who stayed in Denmark, showed signs of lack of human contact. Personally, I remember a small bitch called Russia del Vento, first owned by the late German pointer chairman and personality Karl Wolf. She was shy and quite antisocial but with a steely focus in her eyes and an uncontrollable hunting passion. In Germany, like many other places Guberti has been seen as ultimate pointer breeder. Dogs like Brando, Caco, Zambo and Ippocampo del Vento are amongst the best bird dogs the Germans have had. Ippocampo, litter brother Ippocrate, Fauno, Asso, Cariddi and Ardito del Vento have dominated breeding statistics over several decades. I was told that Fauno del Vento in his older days was slaughtered by other dogs in the kennel. I know it can be seen as a lack of respect for one of history’s greatest stud dogs but nature often ruled over man’s ideas in Guberti’s kennel. (Edit: Since this article was first published, Guberti was raided by animal activists and prosecuted for animal cruelty. This finished off the old man as a pointer breeder in a picture which has never given the full story of the man and his life work.)

The recipe for success can to a great extent be to realise your own limitations. Geneticists will likely tell you that one can’t prioritise more than three traits for stability and further progress. Large kennels with clear breeding strategies might manage a focused continued breeding for four traits. If the incidental hobby breeder then advertises his priorities with: health, hunting ability, disposition, looks, coat (all of them very general), one can claim he has swallowed far more than he can chew already. And by the way, what is is hunting ability? The point is that for a bird dog those three traits must necessarily be hunting traits. Looks can be considered to a certain extent but when focused on nuances, there’s got to be some traits that must be compromised. (We’re not considering some lucky strike amongst the offspring but uniform qualities in litters and lines.) The great thing about looks/appearance is that it has a high heritability. It’s possible to improve considerably already within a generation or two. This is another essential point. Some traits have considerable lower heritability than others. With this in mind it’s not surprising that the incidental hobby breeder who may line breed without managing to replicate any of the good traits he was hoping to maintain. Perhaps the breeders of today aren’t extreme enough in their choices.

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 become clear:

– 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.