Great Hunting Dogs

What makes a great hunting dog? Dogs, as with many things in life, can all too often be subject to fashion; and over a lifetime fashion can change a breed beyond recognition.

But this is not a new thing. I have just been reading my copy of ‘Dog Breaking’ by Hutchinson. In it he talks about an extremely bad scenting day in October 1838, with a cold dry wind blowing from the east. Three gentlemen, an Hon., a Baron and a Knight were shooting partridges over three ‘fashionable’ setters, which did not manage to set any partridges – in fact they flushed a great number ‘as though they were larks’. However with a trusty old fashioned pointer, despite the badness of the scent, they still managed thirty-five brace.

The old fashioned pointer was bred for working, with little attention paid to just how good she looked. In fact, she looks rather plump by today’s standards for dogs. And here we are more than 170 years later, still seeing the effects of fashion on a dog’s abilities. This can be seen in the spaniels, the labs, the retrievers and the HPRs where shows dictate the ‘standard’ that must be aimed for, and the less visible characteristics dictate the abilities that the animals have to perform in the field.
There is a conflicting set of requirements here. To get a top quality dog whether in the show ring or the field requires a large number of dogs to choose from. Generalising, if you want show quality then you breed from show quality; if you want brilliance in the field, then you breed from the best in the field. Show quality failures still make good pets; dogs with placid temperaments show better than those who are rearing to go and leave the handler running to catch up, and so the show dogs develop placid tendencies!
But, (and this is my personal opinion, argue if you wish!) a springer or cocker from a working strain may not make the best of pets for a family that are new to dogs. I say this because our first two dogs were a Jack Russell Terrier and an English Springer Spaniel. The spaniel had so much drive that I didn’t know how to control, that the entire eight years we spent together I could not relax if she was off her lead. If a swallow swooped low she would be off.
What is the answer to this conflict of interests? I suspect the truth of the matter is that those who value the dogs for their working abilities have to care less about standards and whether a dog has a pedigree, and more about how the dog and it’s parents worked. The dual-purpose breeds, which basically are the breeds that have not yet separated into distinct types, such as the HPRs, will undoubtedly change over the years, with scenting abilities and stamina being more important than shape.