Hunting for a Good Dog

By Joel Vance | September 2, 1999
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 1999

Regard the bird dog. Like people, he comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. he is equipped with a tail or without. He is intelligent or stupid, handsome or the proverbial (40 miles of bad road."

He is spaniel, pointer or setter, and he has been making up for man's shortcomings (inability to smell, limited range, lack of endurance) for centuries. It is a bittersweet relationship, but one that endures.

Havilah Babcock, the best writer of all the upland communicators and the dean of quail writers, said, "Bird hunting gets into a man's blood worse than the seven-year-itch. I've never known a bird hunter to quit. They die sometimes, but never quit."

Some historians trace the beginning of the man/dog relationship to about 7,000 B.C., but wingshooting of game birds didn't develop until the middle of the 16th century.

In 1517, Dr. Johannes Caius, University of Cambridge, said, "Another sort of dog there be serviceable for fowling, making no noise with foot or tongue whilst they follow the game. These attend diligently upon their masters and frame their conditions to such becks and motions and gestures as it shall please him to exhibit and make, either going forward, drawing backward, inclining the right hand or yielding to the left. In making mention of fowl, my meaning here is of partridge and quail. When he hath found the bird, he keepeth a sure and fast silence and stayeth his steps and will proceed no further and with close covered, watching eye layeth his belly to the ground and so creepeth forward like a worm."

This is an accurate, if clumsy description of a bird dog in action, taking hand signals, staunch to point. However, his master wasn't interested in a covey flush. He used the dog to herd birds into a net. Bird netters had all kinds of tricks to keep their quarry on the ground, including flying a hawkshaped kite.

Sport aside, the major reason Joe Birdhunter of 1517 didn't shoot on the wing was because the gun he carried was virtually incapable of it. Fowlers used matchlocks, and it was too awkward to manipulate a burning match to slow-burning powder, at the same time tracking a flying bird.

Today's high-tech steel-barreled shotgun, whether double, pump or autoloader, is a far cry from the matchlock smoothbores first used to shotgun birds in the mid-1500s.

It may come as a grim shock to the owner of pointers and setters, but the first bird dogs were spaniels. In 1674, Nicholas Cox, writing in The Gentleman's Recreation, talked of taking partridge behind a "setting dog." "out are to understand then, that a Setting dog is a certain lusty Land spaniel, taught by nature to hunt the partridge..Nay, when he is even just upon his prey, that he may even take it up in this Mouth, yet his Obedience is so framed by Art, that presently he shall either stand still, or fall down flat on his Belly, without daring either to make nay Noise or Motion..."

In other words, a "setting" spaniel. Probably had a long tail because the first short-tailed Brittany (only pointing spaniel) allegedly didn't occur until 1950, when a tailless male was born in the Breton town of Pontou. Many Brits today are born tailless, but many also are created by a vet's sharp knife.

No one knows how far back spaniels go, but there was a reference to the spaniel in a Welsh manuscript from 300 A.D. They probably originated in Spain (Hispania of the Romans, Espania of the Spaniards both suggest "Spaniel")

Of course, like pointers and setters, there are different spaniels. The Brittany is the only pointing one, but cockers and springers are no less bird dogs, just ones that flush game rather than point it.

Brittanies are the result of crosses of English setters and French spaniels. English setters probably originated as spaniels. By about 1904, Brittanies were distinct as a breed and have continued as such since.

There are three major classes of bird dogs; pointers, setters and spaniels. If you count the retrieving dogs, there are four, but most retrievers are waterfowl dogs first, flushing and upland dogs second. Among the pointers are English, German wirehair and shorthair, and several other variations. Setters include English, Irish, Llewellen and Gordon, and spaniels, Brittany, springer and cocker.

But there are many other upland dogs as well, including Weimaraners, Clumber and Boykin spaniels, drathaars and griffons.

All sporting dogs are a brew of mixed blood over the centuries. Pointers have plenty of hound in them, and Brits have been crossbred with setters, which have been crossbred with spaniels, and so on.

Quail are the most widely-hunted bird by man and dog. An estimated 35 million bobwhite quail, plus a few million more of the other hunted quail species, fall to hunters' guns each year. Only doves, with a 50 million annual bag, are more widely taken, and doves in the bag are not the result of a man/dog partnership.

Havilah Babcock writes, "Seven ounces of avoirdupois could be wrapped up in no other shape or form that would posses such power to befog and confound the senses of disconcert and disorganize the human nervous system."

the quintessential quail dog is the pointer. Generalizations get you into trouble with the person who owns the exception to the rule, but generally pointers mature early, are suited to warn climates because of their short hair are better for quail than any other dog.

Charley Dickey, another quail writer, is obviously a pointer man, for he referred to Shakespeare's Richard III to describe the pointer: "His better doth not breathe upon the earth." dickey also resorted to Shakespeare at the head of his chapter on bird dogs: "He hath eaten me out of house and home."

Setters probably are the most widely-distributed bird dogs, used for more game birds than any other. And of the various setters, the English is far and away the most common.

German shorthairs probably now are the fourth most popular breed behind setters, pointers and Brittanies. They dated in this country only to the 1920s

They tend to be close-working, versatile dogs, big and strong and intelligent. My hunting pard, Dave Mackey, has a line of shortairs that hunt extremely close... but he kills more quail annually than anyone I know.

I also hunted chukar partridges behind a shorthair in Nevada and was amazed at the dog's nose and durability in tough rimrock hunting conditions. They don't wear out.

First major hurdle with a vizsla is learning to spell the name. Vizslas originated in Hungary nearly 1,000 years ago and became the favored dog of noblemen hunters during the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

While there may have been a few in this county earlier, the vizsla didn't arrive in numbers until after World War II. As a breed they are sensitive, good-nosed and intelligent - easy to train if you don't cow them with harshness.

The mystery of scent is one humans never will solve. Dogs themselves don't always. Writer/gunner Ray Holland said, "I have seen the best of dogs blunder into birds through no fault of theirs." Holland said he'd rather have a dog with brains and a mediocre nose than a "keen-nosed dog that was shy on think power."

Nash Buckingham, the elder statesman of outdoor writers, said "Too many dogs along are worse than none", and summed up what makes a good quail dog: "...It requires bobwhites, continual contacts with them, and patient work, to shape any pointer's or setter's true destiny."

"Sometimes a dog points because he's a jolly good fellow," Charles Dickey wrote. Another Charley, Waterman, dedicated his book on upland birds hunting to "Old Kelly. He wasn't the best bird dog in the world, but none ever tried harder."

Waterman talked of the dog/man partnership: "The attachment of hunters to their dogs is difficult to explain, but perhaps it is tied to the fact that however strong their mutual regard they can never really converse as two humans. So the loss of a longtime field companion is a special kind of sorrow, and no one knows what to say to a dying dog. I failed to find any words when I was a kid and I have failed since as an old man."

Maybe a whispered, "Thank you for all the good times" is appropriate.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer