The Versatile Hunting Dog
by Ed Bailey
Printed with permission
First printed Gundog magazine
Twenty-something years ago, when a handful of us were introducing NAVHDA (the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association) to North American hunters, I got a call one evening. The fellow belligerently told me his dog pointed pheasant, quail, grouse, woodcock and even pointed a crippled duck at the edge of a cattail patch. After his catalogue he said “And if that’s not an all-purpose, versatile dog I don’t know what is.”
“No argument from me,” said I.
He told me how glad he was that I agreed that he had a versatile hunting dog. He was a tad upset when I told him I was only agreeing to the last part of his statement. He owned a pointer and had his own ideas of what made a versatile hunting dog. Yet even now, after all these years and all the publicity, the Jagdegebrauchshund is still not understood and certainly not full utilized in North America.
The term “versatile hunting dog” is a very liberal translation of the German Jagdgebrauchshund. In those early days we agonized over many things while trying to develop a valid testing format that followed as closely as possible the well-established German tests for our non-specialist dogs. One thing we struggled with was what to call the dogs we were testing. Jagdgebrauchshund could be translated as “all around hunting dog” or as “useful hunting dog” or more precisely as “dog useful in all aspects of hunting” because one dog is expected to do all things necessary for hunting game in the field, forest or marsh.
The compound word Jagdgebrauchshund works well in German but is both pretentious and cumbersome if translated literally into English. But because our dogs, referred to until then as “the continental breeds,” were unspecialized compared to the specialist pointing, retrieving and tracking breeds, we came up with the term “versatile hunting dog.” It was more positive than “unspecialized dog,” less pretentious than “all purpose: and far less cumbersome than “do everything necessary for all types of hunting dog.” Versatile better (though not completely) described our dogs than did “continental breeds” or “useful hunting dog.” The name caught on and most other adjectives disappeared from use, replaced by the new concept- versatile hunting dog.
But what is a versatile hunting dog?
First, being a versatile dog is more a case of function than of form. It is what they do and why they can do it rather than how they look and what breed they are. However, there are breeds which are noted for their versatile abilities. Most of these non-specialist breeds were developed in Germany with some originating in other middle European countries. The German longhair (Deutsch Langhaar), German shorthair (Deutsch Kurzhaar), German wirehair (Duetsch Drahthaar), Griffon, large Munsterlander (grosser schwarzweisser Muensterlaender), pudel pointer, small Muensterlander (kleiner Muensterlaender), stichelhaar and Weimaraner were developed in Germany.
The Vizsla is the Hungarian contribution, the Csesky Fousek is from Czechoslovakia, the Spinone is from Italy, and the very popular Brittany is from France. These are the best known today, though there are also several more which are less well known.
Most of the breeds were developed from crossing pre-existing specialist breeds and combinations of breeds which today we would call crossbreeds or more unkindly, mongrels. But all the dogs used for creating the versatile dogs were proven hunting dogs which possessed certain desirable characteristics. By crossbreeding and with a planned purpose, periodically infusing genes from specialists, the various breeds were developed and improved to be more useful dogs for the type of hunting intended.
Most North American breed clubs would rather cut off their collective trigger fingers than mix breeds, no matter how badly the breed has deteriorated or how pathetically narrow the gene pool. But the truth is, all our so-called versatile breeds are basically mixtures, bred according to a specific goal - one dog that would do the combined jobs of three specialists.
Often we find a specialist dog that apparently does it all. It points, retrieves on land and from water, and it tracks. My good hunting friend has a chocolate Labrador retriever that points staunch as a statue, tracks and retrieves cripples whether in 10 year grass or in a swimming depth pond. Undoubtedly a specialist breed, but she does all the things that any respectable versatile dog would do. She fits function without regard to form. But is she a versatile hunting dog? Not really, nor are lots of pointers that retrieve and track and even enjoy retrieving from water.
If this were all there was to a versatile hunting dog, we could rename them “functional hunting dog” and leave it at that, saying any breed might have dogs that are versatile hunting dogs. However, a truly versatile hunting dog has additional functional characteristics. At this point I want to say, very loudly, it is counter-productive to thin a versatile dog is somehow better than a specialist. The only way to better a pointer is to breed a better pointer. Similarly, a retriever. And to get a better versatile hunting dog, you must breed a better one. One type of dog is not necessarily better than another; they are different. Only through careful, planned, selective breeding and rigid objective testing of progeny can any breed be improved. Improvement might mean infusing genes whenever the gene pool needs a shot to upgrade the qualities of a breed. But what are those qualities that separate the versatile dog from the specialist?
True, the versatile dog points, tracks and retrieves, wet or dry. That is what it does or should do, but it is not a definition of what it is. The truly versatile dog has unique characteristics which are not found in the specialist, even the specialist that purportedly does it all. The most unique of these characteristics is his ability to shift gears. He can shift up or down as the situation requires. And the versatile dog “knows” what the situation requires.
Each of the specialist breeds, be it pointer, retriever or tracker, is a one-gear dog. And that includes my friend’s brown Lab. The inherent locked-in temperament of the specialist breeds dictates their job and the speed and range with which they do it.
The versatile dog, on the other hand, should be in control of his own temperament. A truly versatile dog will adjust range according to the height and density of cover without commands or pressure from the handler. He will move rapidly on a fresh trail, but pick his way very slowly and carefully on a faint 12 to 18 hour old blood trail.
He can go head high on a fresh track or snuffle carefully on a cold one. If he can’t control his temperament - hence his speed, range, his general attitude towards working, and in short, his concentration on his duties - he doesn’t qualify as a versatile hunting dog no matter what breed he is. It is still a case of being a functional hunting dog.
A versatile hunting dog in total control of his temperament does not need a calm-down period after a week off from working and a two hour ride to the hunting area. He should be able to concentrate on any task, be it a search of a large stubble field with head high, making best use of wind and scenting conditions, or picking his way delicately along the track of a rooster that has sneaked out of the road ditch right beside your parked wagon. He should show even more concentration on a blood track laid down the evening before. He will be able to do either job equally well although just two minutes out of the car. He must search with controlled abandon if needed or be one-step-at-a-time calm when that is called for.
But there’s still more. The truly versatile hunter should be a pointer when the birds and conditions allow and should be a flusher when that is required. Sacrilege? Not at all. Of what use is a dog that points and holds steady forever when hunting a quarter section of a 10 year stand of chest-high switchgrass crawling with a hundred or more sneaky wild pheasants? Unless you accidentally stumble on him or his beeper is yelping loud enough for your imparied-by-30 years-of-unprotected-shotgunning auditory system to hear, your dog is lost. Then, as the tall tale goes, you find a skeleton pointing two years later, beeper faintly chirping because you were clever enough to use the same batteries that smart-ass pink rabbit with the bass drum uses.
Your dog is more functional if he becomes a close-in-to-30 yards flusher, and a super tracker/retriever of cripples.
A versatile dog is by definition schizophrenic, a multi-personality dog for all seasons. The versatile dog had its greatest development during the last half of the nineteenth century when the upper middle class emerged in Europe. Each tradesman and professional could then afford a fine gun or two and the time and space to hunt. But he could not afford to house large kennels of specialist dogs complete with trainers, handlers and all the trappings the aristocracy had for all those hundreds of years.
The middle class tradesman (women in those days performed duties of driving the game but did not carry weapons louder than a clapper noisemaker) needed one dog that was easily trained to hunt upland birds, waterfowl, track small game animals like hares and rabbits and to run them much as a hound would, and to follow the blood trail of a wounded deer or a wild boar, bring it to bay if necessary, or bark dead or return to his hunter to lead him to the dead game. Or, on an evening deer hunt, the dog would need to lie quietly at the foot of the ladder leading to the tree stand while the hares and roe deer emerged from the forest cover to feed in the fields all around him, waiting until the right trophy buck walked out and the shot was made, just in case he was needed to do some tracking if the shot was less than perfect. He was also required to live in or at his master’s house and perform guard duty, aggressive to strangers but lamb-gentle to the family members. All the various personalities had to be on call at the wish of the master, not at the dog’s whim. Even his schizophrenia is under control.
There is another major characteristic absolutely required in a versatile dog. This one is in many ways the most important. This super, all-pervasive characteristic is cooperation. Cooperation mediates and directs all the other characteristics. It is the way and how of being a versatile hunting dog. The dog and his master are as one in all things, in the field, the forest, in the marsh or at home. Few commands are needed; the dog anticipates what is required, does it and looks for the next thing to do. Cooperation is what allows the dog to shift gears and to call up the correct personality.
But herein also lies a versatile dog paradox. The retriever specialists are by nature generally cooperative or they could not do their job. Pointing specialists are by their calling quite independent, light on cooperation so they can do their job. The tracking breeds are independent in the extreme, with almost no cooperation needed to fulfill their job specs. Versatile dogs do all three jobs so they must balance cooperation and independence in varying combinations.
When searching for upland game, the versatile dog must show enough independence to hunt with minimum direction but must be cooperative enough to maintain contact with his on-foot hunter, pointing when possible or flushing when that is the best way to go. After the shot, he must be independent enough to track a running wing-broke pheasant a quarter of a mile or more, yet be cooperative enough to pick up the bird and return it to his handler. He is in a constant dilemma of being both cooperative and in a controlled uncooperative state of independence. He must be looking for direction one instant and off on his own initiative the next. Like everything else about him, cooperation runs up and down the gears too.
It is naïve to think every versatile dog has the same balance of cooperation and independence. They don’t. Versatile dogs are not all the same. They were developed from different sources, from different specialist combinations, so some breeds do some things with more dash, some things with less. In some a fast, wide search and stylish, rock-hard points are the long suit; in others pointing doesn’t have equal luster but tracking and retrieving are the breathtaking performances. In each case they do passable or even good to excellent jobs in all the things required, but most breeds and even lines within breeds have greater strengths in one area than another.
This doesn’t matter if you use your versatile dog in all, or at least in a broad spectrum of, types of hunting. If you prefer only upland bird hunting, all will do the job, but some are faster and “classier” than others. The faster, farther, classier ones are invariably harder to handle. Usually these have several infusions of pointing specialists in the breed’s or line’s ontogeny.
In European countries where breed clubs control the breeding practices, some breeds maintain strains within the breed with different strengths in the various requirements for hunting. The various strains are then used to beef up the performances of other strains when the breeding director or committee sees the need. There also may be borrowing from other breeds if the desired characteristics are not available within a breed, or if the breed’s gene pool gets too small for its own genetic good. Of the versatile breeds in North America, I know of only two breed clubs with enough control over their breeding program to accomplish here what has been going on in Europe for the past 150 years. Some individual breeders do these infusions and breed-crossings surreptitiously followed by linebreeding for a few generations. These breeders are few and apparently dare not come out of the closet for fear of being accused of “ruining the breed.” Individual efforts such as this do little or nothing for breed improvement as the breeders usually have their own agenda.
So what is the in-a-nutshell versatile hunting dog? First, he is always the result of mixing breeds, but with the breeding done for a specific purpose. Those not measuring up to the proposed purpose should not be used in further breeding. He is a dog that is always in control of his temperament. No matter the level of excitement, he is self-controlled. He can shift his temperament up or down as needed. The versatile dog has multiple personalities which he can juggle effectively enough to do an efficient job of whatever task at hand. He is primarily a cooperative dog, slipping out of his cooperative mode only long enough to perform some function which, in the big picture is actually something very cooperative, like taking off for parts unknown in order to make a spectacular retrieve. And finally, he is easily trained because he has all these qualities.
With these characteristics all working in sync, the dog can search, point, track, retrieve, be equally effective on land, in water, in field or forest or marsh, in open cover or in dense. But more, he should point when the situation warrants and flush when that is called for. He should track quickly or carefully and slowly as required. He should be smart enough to retrieve the most efficient way - not necessarily swimming a straight line out and back if the land route is faster.
He is not just a pointer or a flusher that can track and retrieve, or a retriever that can point and track, or a tracker that retrieves and points. He is a dog that specialises in being a non-specialist. He is the dog European hunters developed to satisfy specific needs - to hunt in relatively small spaces, in fields, forests, marshes, within the restriction imposed by dense human populations, a condition much of North America now faces. He is a dog that can adapt to just about any condition and so can handle a wide range of hunting requirements - he has a multi-range set of gears and he can shift as required.
We imported various versatile dog breeds from Europe to fill the same needs the nineteenth century middle class European hunter faced. Hopefully we can keep the qualities intact and the dogs will continue to be able to perform as they were developed to do. There is a danger we will Americanize the versatile breeds with our penchant for competitions, even those held under the guise of field tests. That would be a travesty and a great disservice to the dogs. This danger is not that farfetched. The rules originally set out for testing North American versatile hunting dogs have already been quite eroded. Changes in rules have downplayed true versatility while increasing the misguided tendency to equate run with desire to do the job. The newer changes lean even more toward the field trials for the pointing specialists with a few retrieves thrown in. These scarcely test versatility.
On the up side, however, several versatile hunting dog breed clubs have affiliated with the German parent organisations and adhere closely to the original German Jugend Prufung (young dog test), Herbst Zucht Prufung (fall breeding test), and Verband Gebrauchshund prufung (governing clubs full versatile test for fully trained adult dogs). These breed clubs are trying hard to keep their breeds as they were intended to be. With this dedication there is still lots of hope for preserving the versatile dog’s special characteristics. There is hope for survival of the dogs that specialise in being non-specialists. With luck they will remain the dogs for all seasons, functional and just as they were bred to be.Image: Dr Ed. Bailey with Fousek "Ike" Nebraska, USA