I love Italy. I love the food, the wine, the culture and especially the language, which I speak with an English/French accent so thick you can cut it with a knife. When Lisa and I are in Italy, we live on a steady diet of the pizza, pasta, Chianti and cappuccino. And once in a while, when it is really hot, we’ll order a nice cold beer.
Our Italian brew of choice is “Birra Moretti” a perfectly drinkable beer with an interesting picture on the label. It is an image of a smiling man lifting a frothy mug to his lips. He’s wearing a green suit, green hat and has a prominent red moustache*. One day, in a small town near Padua, as Lisa and I enjoyed a Birra Moretti, I saw a dog and his owner walking across the central square. The dog was fairly large, white and orange and as it got nearer I realized that it had the same bushy moustache as the Moretti guy! When he and his owner walked by our table, I said “excuse me sir, but what kind of dog is that?” “e un Spinone” he replied “It is a Spinone”.
Just about any history you are likely to find on the Spinone will make the claim that the breed was created in the furthest mists of time. But a few vague references to hunting dogs in obscure Greek poems are not enough to prove an ancient origin. On the other hand, images found in Renaissance paintings do show that dogs resembling the Spinone were in Italy at least as far back as the 1400s.
Perhaps the most intriguing image is one found on the west wall of the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Painted by Andrea Mantegna circa 1474, the fresco is divided into three panels. The left panel shows a horse and four men with hunting dogs that appear to be greyhounds and mastiffs. The right panel, often referred to as “The Meeting”, is said to represent Ludovico Gonzaga, his son, Cardinal Francesco, and other members of his family. In the bottom left corner of the scene, behind Ludovico’s legs, is a small rough-haired dog that some believe may be an ancestor of the Spinone.
Despite other ancient images featuring dogs that resemble Spinoni it was not until 1834 that the first written reference to the breed was made by Bonaventura Crippa, who wrote: We should not forget to mention the hard-coated Bracco commonly called Spinoso.
Many breed histories point to those lines as the first time the Spinone is mentioned in the literature, albeit with a slightly different name. However, they all seem to skip over the very next line where Crippa makes the extraordinary claim that the Spinoso was English!
This species of dog originated in England and is used by us more to hunt in the marshes and the woods.
It is not clear how Crippa came to believe that the “hard-coated Bracco commonly called Spinoso” came from England, but he is surely mistaken. Rough-coated dogs had existed in Italy, and across all of Europe, for centuries, wherever short-coated dogs mixed with long or curly-coated breeds. In any case, no other work on the Spinone mentions an English connection. All of the major authorities agree that ancestors of the Spinone were probably native to Italy. In Les Chiens d’Arrêt, author Jean Castaing provides us with the most likely scenario for the development of the breed.
I believe that the Spinone developed in more or less the same way as other such breeds… like all other pointing griffons [it] was born from the cohabitation of braques and barbets. (Jean Castaing, Les Chiens d’Arrêt, 342)
By the mid-1800s, Spinoni (plural of Spinone) could be found throughout much of the Italy. And like their cousin, the Bracco Italiano, different types were seen in the various regions. In Piedmont and Lombardy, for example, Spinoni tended to have rough brown and white or orange and white coats. In the Veneto area they were said to have had longer and softer brown roan coats. Not only where there different coat types and colors in various regions, but it seems that just about every noble family was breeding their own versions as well.
…Many aristocratic families or of higher classes had their own “breed” of Bracchi or Spinoni, [which were] simply numerically small families from which you try to get subjects with a certain appearance and the hunting aptitudes that the hunting culture and environment required. (Giambattista Benasso, I Cani Da Ferma Italiani, 32)
Despite their many varieties, almost everyone agreed that the Spinone was better suited to the wetlands than the short-haired Bracco.
It seems that nature, having granted it a long and rough coat, has specifically destined it to deal with reeds and thorns. Its search is fairly active and persistent, and a hunter who hunts for birds only in the woods and swamp could benefit far more from it than from the one with short hair that is used in open and arid country. (Bonaventura Crippa, Trattato Della Caccia, 228-229)
When tracing the development of the Spinone, it is important to remember that throughout much of the 1800s the entire Italian peninsula underwent massive social, political and economic changes. Insurrections, revolts, and two wars of independence finally led to Italian unification in 1861. By the 1880s the country had made great progress in terms of education, health care and political stability; and, like elsewhere in Western Europe, hunting and dog breeding became increasingly popular with the growing middle class.
Enter Ferdinando Delor, writer, editor and founder of the influential magazine Caccia e Tiri. In 1881, he helped found the Kennel Club Italiano. Among the club’s first tasks was to bring order to the Spinone breed by accepting only dogs that met the newly established official standard. The club also had to decide whether or not to permit crosses to other rough-haired breeds. Delor suggested that crosses to the Stichelhaar—he called it a “German Spinone”—and the Korthals Griffon could lend the Spinone a helping hand.
…In the, lets us say, miserable state in which our rough-haired breeds are found, these crosses would be advisable…the German Spinone and the Griffon have a great affinity with ours and, if done with intelligence, would not bring overly radical modifications to the look and aptitudes of our Italian dogs. [We] must be careful about the introduction of blood from the Griffon a Poil Soyeux [Boulet Griffon]; once brought in, it is difficult to eradicate. (Giambattista Benasso, I Cani Da Ferma Italiani, 42)
In Germany and France, many breeders of rough-haired dogs, including Eduard Korthals, believed that all pointing griffons were of the same family and should be allowed to mix. So it is understandable, especially after the First World War, that breeders were encouraged to cross Spinoni with Korthals Griffons, Stichelhaars and even German Wirehaired Pointers.
So in 1922, the French and Belgian stud books were opened to the Spinone, which was registered alongside the other griffons. But the situation did not last long. Breeders soon realized that the Spinone brought with it certain characteristics, such as an orange and white coat and dewclaws on the rear legs, that were proscribed in other griffon standards. In addition, many believed that the Spinone had received too much “foreign” blood—mainly from English Pointers—in the recent past, and its standard was moving away from that of the other griffons. The Spinone was therefore removed from the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon stud books and declared a separate and independent breed.
And it was around this time, when the breed was struggling to form its own stud book and standard, that the Spinone began to feel the full effects of the massive importations of bird dogs from England, and to a lesser extent, from France and Germany. Spinoni numbers declined as Italian hunters turned their attention to these faster, wider ranging breeds. In an effort to reverse the trend, breeders tried to “modernize” their lines. It is said that crosses to Boulet and Korthals Griffons, German Wirehaired and Shorthaired Pointers, and English Pointers were done at the time—with mixed results. Speed and range increased in some lines, but the look and character of the breed was adversely affected.
If the effects of unregulated crosses hurt the Spinone and the increasing competition from other breeds reduced its numbers, then the Second World War nearly wiped it out. Of course, all the other Continental breeds faced difficult challenges in the post-war years, but for some, recovery was fairly rapid. Not only were breeders able to rebuild the population bases, but they managed to improve the overall hunting ability across the breeds in very short order.
Unfortunately for the Spinone, recovery took considerably longer. In fact, it was not until the 1980s that any real progress was made in terms of field ability. It seems that Spinone breeders were slow to adapt to the rapidly changing hunting scene in Italy. With severe reductions in wild game populations and fewer places to hunt, their breed earned the reputation as an outdated type of dog kept only by older hunters unwilling to change their ways.
To make matters even worse, many breeders based their selection almost completely on the breed’s conformation standard, and not on its natural hunting abilities. The few breeders who eventually tried to turn things around had an uphill battle. They had to...
…use the handsome to develop the good in terms of hunting, which of course is a very difficult undertaking. It required years and years of work, but following the path laid out by the late Emilio Pedrazzini, who can be considered the father of modern Spinone, the breed finally rose to a high level. (Marino Panizza quoted in I Cani Da Ferma Italiani, 99)
Today the Spinone continues to improve and gain ground among hunters in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. The number of field trial champions has risen dramatically over the last 20 years and some Spinoni have even won all-breed trials on the continent. In North America, the Spinone has found a home among a fair number of dedicated NAVHDA breeders who have made excellent progress in recent years.
Read more about the breed, and all the other pointing breeds from Continental Europe, in my book Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals