Dog Breeds. What are they good for? Part 2.

Félix wearing a camo neoprene vest in the Libau Marsh
If, as we've seen in part 1, dog breeds are nothing more than wobbly man-made creations, the question is: should we even have breeds?

For me, the answer is yes. But it is not because I think closed stud books and "pure" breeds are in and of themselves, good ideas, but because they are, for all their faults and frailties, all we have to work with.

We've learned to live with the quirky system that created our breeds in the past and maintains them now. For better or worse, breeds have become a part of our sporting heritage and represent personal, regional and national identities within the overall community of hunters and well beyond.

Breeds are not very practical entities, they are forever fighting against their very being and would disappear within a couple generations if we let them go. But they do provide a certain level of predictability (Labs produce litters of Lab puppies) and can be easy to understand (Pointers point, Springers spring etc.).

In fact, having breeds is actually a good idea...on paper. They are like having different brands of a consumer item, different flavors of ice cream as it were. But the way they are created, developed and maintained is inherently flawed. It is based on a bizarre mix of "blue blood" myth, magical thinking and misunderstood Darwinism. Instead of improving breeds, our systems actually sacrifices real progress on the alter of breed purity.

The sled dog concept on the other hand is a far less dogmatic and more pragmatic approach to breeding the better canine mousetrap (for whatever purpose). It removes the burden of the closed stub book and allows breeders to focus on one goal only: create a better dog. Period. I wonder what would happen in pointing dog field trials and tests if the organizers opened up a category for "mixed" breeds. If breeders were allowed to breed to whatever they want and run their dogs against all others. My guess is that give enough resources, really smart, driven, dedicated breeders would come up with some fantastic dogs.

We tend to view the creators of our current breeds as brilliant men from a bygone era...and they were. But they were not supermen and most of them had the equivalent of about a 6th grade education and were completely in the dark regarding the science of genetics. Give the brilliant men and women of today the same freedom and resources as Korthals had in his day (imagine a genius level breeder working for Bill Gates) and what do you think we would get?

I think we would end up with a situation similar to what we already have, minus all the hand wringing about keeping breeds pure and all the fuss about DNA testing etc. There would be a type of dog that looks remarkably like the Pointer kicking ass in all age field trials, a dog that looks remarkably like the Lab dominating retriever trials and a bunch of wiry beasts with beards and moustaches along with GSP looking dogs at the top of the NAVHDA heap.

Because at the end of the day, the top performing breeds in the world today are those that have allowed a certain amount of wiggle room when it comes to being a pure breed. Their creators from the past and the people who breed them now focus (mainly) on one goal: creating a better dog....meanwhile all the others are still running around in circles, chasing their Victorian age shadows.


  1. The thing one must remember about the Iditorod breeder is that they wind up with kennels filled with hundreds of dogs to get the dozen wondermutts who can hack 100 miles a day at -30. Also tons of hog hunters are furiously crossing currs to pitts and hounds and who knows what to make hog dogs with their desired blend of nose, bark and grit. On the other hand even open breeding with admixtures of various "bird dog" breeds can still result in train wrecks. For instance the Boykin Spaniel did not close its studbook till 1973 (or about that time) and yet it has significant genetic problems. I do think a step back would be helpful for many breeds that now have very limited gene pools but it is hard to know where to draw the line. If I were Bill Gates setting up my "back to the past" kennel I would have land spaniels(springer, cockers, boykins ect.), water spaniels (AWS, Boykins, DW,PAS, SM ect.) , water dogs(poodles, IWS, various water dogs if we could find birdy specimens), short hair pointers, wirehaired pointers,setters and short haired retrievers. That would give me a little room to roam genetically but would also bring up some conundrums about range ect. At the very least one would like to see color come out of the equation entirely which would then allow some studbooks to merge immediately (DL and LM as well as Goldens and Flat Coats and the three setters. Also it would be well to use testing for breeding decisions rather than trials as trials lend themselves to dominant sires becoming repetitive in pedigrees. Still it is good to be able to stick your hand blindly into a litter of field bred labs and know that whichever pup will likely get ducks pretty darn good even if the risk of dysplasia and cancer comes with it.

  2. Excellent points!

    Jean Castaing who wrote what is surely the greatest book ever written about pointing dogs (Les Chiens d'Arrêt, 1960) summed it up best:

    "Hunters could have been perfectly happy with three breeds of pointing dog for the three principal uses: forest and marsh; all-terrain- all-game; and open plains. But mistakes, fantasies and personal interest dug trenches—it is too late to fill them in now, so we must deal with them."

    On a purely practical level, Castaing was right. Three breeds probably would have been enough. And, until the mid-1800s, there were only three basic kinds in use. In France for example, any pointing dog with a long coat was an épagneul, if it had a short coat is was a braque and if it had a rough coat it was a griffon. When German hunters began to develop their own pointing dogs, they banded together to create national breeds along the same lines: a short-haired breed for open fields, a long-haired breed for forest and water, and a rough-haired breed for all-around duty.

    But, despite their best efforts, “mistakes, fantasies and personal interest dug trenches” and they ended up with almost three times as many breeds as they had set out to establish.

    In various regions of the continent, divisions began to occur within the three basic types themselves as separate sub-breeds of long-, short- and rough-haired dogs were recognized. Then many of the sub-breeds themselves were divided. They split over differences in color or size, they split over differences in working style, and most of all, they split due to increasing nationalism and regionalism. The very names they were given reveal the trend. The “G” in GSP, after all, does not stand for “generic”. It stands for Germany and, like the names of nearly 90% of the Continental pointing breeds, it was adopted to honor the country, region or even town in which the breed developed.

    Perhaps the deepest division in many breeds, and the one that should cause the most concern to hunters, is the huge split that can develop between lines developed for the field, and those bred for the show ring.

    First observed in Pointers and Setters shortly after dog shows were established in England in 1859, the show-field split is now so great in some breeds that the two types could be considered different breeds altogether.

  3. Hey Craig, glad you took the time to read my rambling post. I do not mean to post anonymously but rather I am a bit computer illiterate and could not readily figure out how to post otherwise. My name is Lance AKA lanco from the Versatile Dog forum. The show split is a fait accompli and it would be best if separate registries were kept for almost all the birds dog breeds. I was greatly saddened when the Boykin was admitted to the AKC as it will no doubt lead to more dogs being bred that would not be if hunting ability were the primary concern. The switch from 15 years ago where if I saw a Boykin I could break straight into a conversation about duck hunting to today when most boykins retrieve only plush toys was lightening fast. On a separate note I wonder too why spaniels were expected to point on the continent but were flushers in England. Your ponto and my old boykin certainly look a lot alike and the boykin had enough flash point that with consistent training he would have pointed if I had desired that and that sounds like the description you give of your ponto. Then you have the SM and the DW that clearly have closely linked origins and look interchangeable the only real differance I can detect being DW's give tounge and don't point while SM's point and are less certain to bay on a fur trail.The reality is that the absolutism of breed purity often dates only too the post WWII era as best I can figure as regulated outcrossings seem to occur pretty frequently before that (for instance it seems the yellow eyed AWS that were added into the boykin breed in the 50's stem from an IWS added to AWS lines in the 30's). The other reality is that in the days of yor if a dog proved to be a poor prospect it was often summarily removed from the gene pool and I think few of us would like to operate that way. It is a sticky wicket. Labs, Pointers, AKC GSP's, English Setters and Springers make up the vast majority of dogs in the field today. Each of these breeds probably contains the diversity to produce healthy hunting dogs for some time to come so that just leaves the minority of us who use "those other dogs" to worry about limited gene pool breeding. If I can ever hit the powerball maybe we will see that "throwback" kennel.

  4. Good points again Lance, and some good questions too. I can answer one of them:

    "...why spaniels were expected to point on the continent but were flushers in England..."

    The answer has more to do with language and the word "spaniel" than with the dogs themselves. You see, any long-haired pointing breed is called an "épagneul" in French. The Small Munsterlander for example is the Petit épagneul de Munster and the German Longhaired Pointer is an épagneul Allemand. Even the English setter can be called an épagneul anglais (and used to be listed as such in dog shows in the 1880s).

    The English word "Spaniel" has the same origin as the French word "Epagneul"* but it is used only for flushing dogs...even in French. You see, the French do not call a Springer Spaniel an "epagneul" they say Spreeengair Spaneeyel. They actually use the English word for the flushing breeds, not "epagneul".

    So it is easy for the French. They have one word for longhaired pointing dogs "epagneul" and another for the flushing spaniels "Spaniels". But in English we only have one. And that is where the confusion comes from. I guess we should add "pointing" to the breed name and say "French Pointing Spaniel" or adopt the term epagneul and say French Epagneul or Epagneul Francais. After all, we say Wirehaired Pointing Griffon and Braque Francais!

    *(both probably mean "from Spain" but some argue they mean "to set", but in any case, they are from the same source).

  5. Hey Craig, Lance again. This has been a great thought project on my end. The linguistic explanation makes sense as far as the pointing spaniel/flushing spaniel issue. Other than the wachtelhund are there any other continental flushing breeds (realizing the germans don't consider those to be bird dogs but rather stoberhunds)? Thanks again for the information.

  6. The Wachtelhund is alone in the Stoberhund category (stober means "to rummage about" and refers to the dog's style of hunting which is to seek out game from every corner of the forest no matter how thick the cover.)

    As you pointed out, the Wachtelhund is not a pointing breed. And while it can work in the same was a flushing spaniel breed...close to the gun, flushing small game... it is also used to work much further from the gun, we are talking kilometers here, to drive bigger game back toward the hunter and to blood track.

    What's more, a Wachtelhund should be "loud" ie: give voice on trail and on sight...something that would give send Spinger or Cocker Spaniel purists into seizures!

  7. I should add that in many ways, the Wachtelhund is the last breed to retain this style of hunting. All of the northern spaniel breeds used to hunt that way, and some would not take much training to do so even today! Pointing was mainly a trained behaviour and was only really solidified in the pointing breeds in the 17th century.

  8. Hey Craig hope I'm not boring you yet but this stuff fascinates me. Oh yeah its Lance again. There is one other breed that at least in limited numbers is still used to hunt in stober style. And its an American native. My boykin was a duck snipe and quail dog with me but for the first 8 months of his life he was being groomed to be a turkey and pheasant dog. When Boykins are used for turkeys (not legal where I live unfortunately) they range well out form the hunters and locate turkey flocks. Once located they break them up by barking furiously and then sit quietly while the birds are called back. My boykin would bark on trail at time especially on cripples and would bark treed and hold treed squirrels quite well. Then again the boykins were founded by two brown spanielesque strays so who knows if there is a link there. What impresses me about both breeds is the intelligence that is developed to get dogs that can "shift gears" from one type of hunting to another.

  9. Lance with one more point. Turkey dogs are another source of ongoing musher like tinkering with various hybrids being slowly converted in organized breeds and others discarded trying to get the best turkey dog. There are some setter/hounds and more recently a Bokin/Wachtel hybrid out there. The creative drive of dog men lives on away from the trenches dug by the previous generations.

  10. The Boykin is a very interesting breed. The American Water Spaniel also has a cool history. Both, I believe, are related to the Irish Water Spaniel which used to be very popular retrieving breed among market hunters in North America.

    Interestingly the Épagneul de Pont-Audemer is also related to the Irish Water Spaniel, but is a pointing breed. It was probably created by crossing IWS with Epagneul Francais and Setters.

    I met one of the few IWS breeders in the world still breeding his dogs for the field and running them in field trials. Martyn Ford has terrific dogs. If I were in the market for a flushing/retrieving breed....hmmm

  11. Hey Craig, Lance again. I would tend to question the role of the IWS in the foundation of the two US water spaniels. Looking at the Boykin forst several facts stand out. First the whole history of thw Boykin lies after the heyday of the IWS in the US. Second surviving members of the Boykin family interviewd in the 70's said that the primary breeds used were some short statured spaniel type strays and the Chessie along with some springers. Third they were breeding for a compact short dog for use in small boats and the IWS does not fit the bill in that regard. Lastly, and this would apply to both the Boykin and the AWS, the IWS has an anagen or constantly growing coat while our home grown water spaniels have telogen coats that grow to a given length and then stop. Now of course the bokin people definitely added multiple AWS to the mix in the 50's and 60's so tangentially the IWS could be involved in that way.
    Now for the AWS. By the accounts of F.T. Pfifer who first formalized the AWS the breed was already an established "land race" in the Upper Midwest by the 1870's and most likely earlier. The IWS as we know it came from McCarty's kennel and breeding was started in the 1840's so that would mean for the IWS to be in the foundation of the AWS within 10-15 years of the "modern" IWS breeding program starting they wound up on the American Frontier to be bred by native american communities into a versatile flushing dog. Now in the case of the IWS it is known that IWS/AWS hybrids came into the mix in the 20th century after registration in the feild dog studbook had commenced and I don't doubt that if IWS's came into the area at the turn of the 20th century they would have beed used by breeders.

    Ok so that being said what is the basis of these two breeds. Well for the boykin who knows since they were founded off of random strays. However given that Dumpy was short and gave tounge when hunting turkeys while still be a trainable capable retriever he was likely either a serendipitous mongrel or an AWS,a Sussex or DW. By all accounts the breeding program was designed to make Dumpy clones more or less. No adequate pics of dumpy exist but the description matches those three breed when you consider that the DW was a slightly smaller dog at the time of Dumpy. DNA testing is ongoing and we should get better answers from the UC Davis genetics lab shortly. From the Dumpy stating point they used a random brown spaniel female forgotten at a train depot, Chessie's and depending on who was asked :cockers, springers, pointers(?) and setters. Then from the late 40's through the 60's they purchased yellow eyed AWS and docked thier tails (ouch) then added them into the mix to "fix" the type. The two breeds are so similar today that the tail is the only identifiable difference.

  12. (Lance continuing)
    As to what is in the AWS it is equally as unaswerable but I tend to put more credence in it being derrivitive of the English Water Spaniel than the IWS. Certainly the most frequently produced image of the Tweed Water Spaniel is quite consistent with the AWS but there are other reasons for my suspicion. First the timing fits better as stated earlier second the IWS was created as a primarily sight retriever breed while the more primal and less standardized English Water Spaniel was a multi use dog that both retrieved downed game but also was expected to herd/chase moulting ducks into pens and nets and at times kill otters and mink. Although I can find no direct reference to this primordial water spaniel barking to accomplish this herding it seems likely that some noise would be needed to convince whole flocks of ducks to abandon cover en masses as is described. When you view the paintings of these dogs the type seems quite amourphous some being liver some being roan some being liver and white. Most however show marcel to wavy coats not the ever growing poodle type coats that appear in classic paintings of "Water Dogges". Again as with the boykin Chessie crosses are a known entity in the make up of the AWS. People sometimes speculate that Curly Coats had a role but they have never been present in the US in any number. Sussex Spaniel were well established by the time the AWS was founded so they would be a possible contributor as well. Interestingly records show English Water Spaniel Crosses in the backround of the Sussex and the Norfolk Spaniel progenitor of the Springer.

  13. (Lance continuing furthther)
    Now as to your personal interest in the IWS. Since you are a man who clearly revels in gundogs I would offer the following position, if you really want to experience something unique consider a DW. I always have the feeling when looking at my dog in the field that she represents the alpa and omega of gundogs. Unlike any other dogs I have been around she is both an abject predator willing to attack or bay any creature she can locate but also so biddable that she is easy to train and so loving with people as to be useless as a gaurd dog. Somehow the combination of the Stober and whatever spaniel that were used to make the DW allow for a very dichotomous dog. It seems like you need a good rabbit running companion for your buddies Saluki any way and I am betting a stober sight hound tag team is a classic historical recipe for hare hunting. If you are curious there are some trained (in the US for primarily bird hunting) adults and puppies available this year. Just a thought. Hope this has not become too boring a diatribe.